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A Regional Perspective
The Anti-Maidan Landscape: Kyiv and the Regions
As the world’s attention focused on the popular revolt of EuroMaidan in Ukraine, the counter-movement of Anti-Maidan remained in its shadow, largely dismissed as political show put on by a hired crowd. It was also under-analyzed. Meanwhile, the subsequent developments in the Crimea and Donbas regions demonstrated that the Anti-Maidan should be taken seriously, for it did not fade away after the old regime’s disintegration and the disappearance of the counter-protest’s financial backers. Instead, the counter-revolutionary movement evolved from government-sponsored rallies in the Ukrainian capital and other major cities into a regional separatism overtly supported by Russia. The temporal distance between the first, largely peaceful, pro-government rallies in Kyiv and the armed conflict in the Donbas was very short—several months at most—but the counterrevolutionary movement underwent a major transformation during this period.
One major component of this transformation was the escalation of violence connected to a changing participant profile: from employees of state organizations and those nostalgic for an idealized Soviet past to hired thugs to armed guerrillas and Russian “volunteers.” The ideology of the Anti-Maidan evolved as well. From the defense of Lenin monuments and Russian language rights early on, the counter-revolution came to identify more closely with the ideological idiom of Putin’s Russia, including the Orthodox Church and the leader cult. Another central component of modern Russian state identity, the Soviet narrative of World War II, helped the counter-revolution bridge the transition from post-Soviet nostalgia to modern Russian nationalism, as well as from national politics to regional insurgency.
As I argue in my forthcoming book on the Ukrainian crisis, the intertwined processes of prolonged imperial disintegration and construction of modern national identities going back to the nineteenth century constitute the proper historical context for understanding Russo-Ukrainian relations. Without discounting the social-protest component on both sides of the conflict, one can still analyze the hybrid war over national identity involving the barely-concealed participation of the former imperial master as, first and foremost, a conflict over modern Ukraine’s relationship with its own past and its historical relations with Russia in particular.
The origins and gradual transformation of the counter-revolution in Ukraine provide an excellent case study for such an analysis. The Anti-Maidan’s spatial, organizational, and ideological evolution suggests a transition from ambivalent post-Soviet identity struggles, occupying center stage in Ukrainian politics, to a clearer (and bloody) divide between the now-predominant identification with the Ukrainian state and pro-Russian regional separatism, which is dependent on support from across the border.
Anti-Maidan as Urban Space
Anti-Maidans emerged in major Ukrainian cities as a response to the Maidans and thus shared several important features with the latter. Because they were or claimed to be the foci of a mass political movement, the Anti-Maidans needed to occupy parts of a given city center where more supporters could gather (at least theoretically). Anti-Maidans also existed in a complex spatial symbiosis with Maidans. In the years following the Orange Revolution, which marked Kyiv’s Independence Square, the original Maidan, as the national platform for mass protest politics, one could see the Party of Regions using the same space for its rallies. One could perhaps interpret this strategy as a symbolic reclaiming of the Maidan as a Ukrainian Hyde Park, a “neutral” space of political expression. However, during periods when the city’s main plaza was held by anti-government protesters, the Anti-Maidan usually claimed another space nearby; ideally, another major square in the city center, such as Evropeiska or Mykhailivska Square in Kyiv. This made the city center itself an area of political contestation. Having an Anti-Maidan close to a Maidan changed the discursive optics: Instead of the city center occupied by the protestors, who thus reclaimed it from the government, there were two opposing camps contesting the city center, with the government observing from above—both figuratively and literally in the case of Kyiv, where the government buildings are located on a hill south of Khreshchatyk Avenue.
Yet, one also finds Anti-Maidans springing up near the centers of power, apparently as a last resort when the traditional protest space in the city center was lost to the anti-government protesters. The case of Kyiv’s Mariinsky Park merits closer attention. This area of the city became a base for Anti-Maidan forces because the park surrounds the parliament building; it was a way of protecting the seat of power on Pechersk hills. There is little symbolic significance vested in the park itself and little point in occupying it, unless the purpose is actually to prevent oppositional political forces from entrenching themselves in the park. Only the tiny square between the park and the parliament building can serve as a place of political protest (and occasional artistic-cum-protest performances), but it is partially fenced and simply not spacious enough for mass political action. The park, however, is reasonably well suited for camping while waiting for the next assignment. As well, activists camping there inevitably put some pressure on MPs and, again, offered a slew of helpful television images.
Anti-Maidan as Counterrevolution
Such spatial pragmatism may be characteristic of the Anti-Maidan in Kyiv, however, both because of Kyivites’ political sympathies and the lack of symbolic urban places for them to “defend” their views. Consider as a counter-example the situation in Kharkiv, where the square with the Shevchenko monument (and thus with pre-existing Ukrainian national connotations and the tradition of gatherings there) became a EuroMaidan and the one with the Lenin statue became the venue for the Anti-Maidan. Odesa’s Kulikovo Pole Square also became, logically, the site of an an Anti-Maidan, as it is the former October Revolution Square with the Lenin monument. In Kyiv, the Anti-Maidan focussed neither on the remaining, smaller, Lenin statue located at the southern end of Khreshchatyk nor on any other monument. (Neither did the EuroMaidan, for that matter. In Odesa, EuroMaidan supporters held rallies near the statue of the Duke of Richelieu, but this classical statue was widely seen as a symbol of the city rather than “Europe” as such.)
Yet if the Anti-Maidan was counter-revolution, it needed a political dimension. Its political symbolism presented a confusing mix of old Soviet and modern Russian that marked the peculiar historical origins of the Anti-Maidan. The defense of Lenin statues indicated anxiety about the preservation of traditional (Soviet) identity, but it was not a modern Russian one because there is little adulation of Lenin in today’s Russia. Rather, it suggested nostalgia for the Soviet past. St. George’s ribbons, in contrast, referred to a contemporary invented tradition that is associated specifically with Putin’s regime. Invoking the colors of a tsarist medal for bravery, it referenced Russia’s great-power status across the centuries; two Stalinist medals from the World War II period also featured the same colors. The Russian language and language rights discourse rights linked all these elements together, although these concerns receded into the background when Russian political identity in Ukraine found its expression in the concept of historical “Novorossiia” and the two modern-day separatist “republics” in the Donbas.
I have argued elsewhere that Lenin statues came under attack during the EuroMaidan revolution, not as symbols of communist ideology, but as symbols of the Soviet period—the immediate past incarnation of the unequal Russo-Ukrainian relations that the revolution finally destroyed. This would also explain the evolution of the Anti-Maidan’s ideology from the defense of Lenin to the (re-)construction of “Novorossiia.” What helped ease this ideological transition was the Anti-Maidan’s reliance on negative rhetoric, in particular by projecting itself as the site of resistance to “Ukrainian fascism.”
Unlike the Maidan radicals, who had an established repertory of patriotic images and slogans available to them (although these symbols soon took on a life of its own, as the masses of protestors started adopting some of them), the Anti-Maidanites had difficulty even defining their cause in clearly “readable” symbols. Red flags were prominent at first, but were soon supplemented with Russian flags, St. George’s ribbons, portraits of Stalin, and Orthodox icons. The only uniting element seemed to be the rejection of the Maidan.
The Anti-Maidan as “New Russia”
Ultimately, the Anti-Maidan was always about identity and, moreover, a historical identity. At first, the opposing sides contested the national identity of Ukraine as a state. The revolution’s designation as the EuroMaidan is telling in this respect. The protesters did not rise up in revolt because of the government’s last-minute refusal to pursue the Association Agreement with the European Union, but rather because this act appeared to return Ukraine into the Russian political and economic sphere and thus into the symbolic and none too distant Soviet past. Hence, the attacks on Lenin statues. The “Europe” that the revolutionaries wanted to join was, of course, a metaphor representing democracy, transparency, and economic well-being.
The Anti-Maidan did try to create an image of a “Europe” that was incompatible with Russian identity and the pro-Russian political orientation in Ukraine. Yet, it was language and historical memory that served as the axis of this cultural-political orientation. A one-time leader of the Donbas separatists, Denis Pushilin, expressed this very clearly in his interview with Komsomolskaia Pravda: “In recent years the country underwent ethnocide. It resulted in the majority of the young generation coming to see themselves as Ukrainians. Their grandparents identify as Russians, but they consider themselves Ukrainian.” The struggle was therefore not against Europe but for Ukraine’s identity in relation to Russia. An idealized imperial past is connected here to modern Russian ethnic identity, and only one step needs to be taken in order to bypass the common Soviet
experience as the source of a Russian culture-based Ukrainian civilization.
Tellingly, it was President Putin who took this step when he revived the tsarist concept of Novorossia. Lenin statues are no longer symbolic proxies for imperial experience; the empire has acquired its own voice. The Donbas’s special identity is no longer grounded in its traditional profile as a culturally Russian (although predominantly ethnic Ukrainian) region, nor as the proud industrial heartland of the Soviet Union. Russia’s claim to this region is based on the legacy of the Russian Empire reinterpreted as the Russian ethnic identity. The term “Novorossiia,” which hitherto appeared only rarely in the separatist discourse, now supplements and often overshadows the somewhat Soviet-sounding Donetsk and Luhansk “People’s Republics.” A flag of Novorossiia was promptly invented and introduced as a separatist symbol that is now used extensively as a shoulder stripe on fatigues.
The emergence of “New Russia,” however, is not accompanied in the Russian and pro-Russian political discourse by the rediscovery of “Little Russia,” and thus the contestation of Ukraine’s identity as a country has evolved into the claim of a regional irredenta. Once this happens, there will no longer be any point in maintaining the Anti-Maidans in Kyiv and other cities beyond the approximate borders of “Novorossiia.” In fact, the southeastern third of the Donbas under the “separatists’” control is becoming the territory of the Anti-Maidan as the space of counterrevolution. At the same time, Anti-Maidan is losing its defining spatial features as a mass rally or an occupied square in the middle of a contested city. It is evolving into an ersatz regional identity. It is unclear at the moment just how many people are left on this territory and what percentage among them actually supports this identity project. There is sufficient evidence that the “volunteers” from Russia as well as regular Russian troops are involved heavily in fighting on behalf of the locals, in the name of something greater than the regional identity that is under construction. In fact, one wonders if a regional identity is being constructed at all, since that would involve the acknowledgement of being part of either the present or some future Ukrainian state.
What if the Anti-Maidan had not evolved into Donbas regional separatism but, rather, finally revealed its long-developing identification with the Putin regime, an identification that is more political than cultural? From this perspective, counter-revolution defined through historical identity has led its supporters back to the empire.
Serhy Yekelchyk is Professor of Slavic Studies and History at the University of Victoria. He is the author of six books on Ukrainian history and culture, including most recently Stalin’s Citizens: Everyday Politics in the Wake of Total War (Oxford University Press, 2014). He is currently working on a chapter on the EuroMaidan Revolution and the Ukrainian crisis for the new edition of his Ukraine: Birth of a Modern Nation.