Tom Cassauwers is European Features Editor for The Critique, and conducted this interview with Vasyl Cherepanyn
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Vasyl Cherepanyn is Head of the Visual Culture Research Centre in Kyiv, and he actively participated in the Ukrainian Euromaidan events of 2013-2014. In this interview he treats the subject of revolution and the implications of Maidan. It ranges from the rise of fascism to communist utopias, from transformative peripheries to Hegelian centres, from violence to education: from counter-revolution to revolution.
Title picture by: Diana Iwanowa
Tom Cassauwers: You personally participated in the Euromaidan events, can you tell us something about your role there and reflect on its meaning?
Vasyl Cherepanyn: “The first role I played during the Maidan events of 2013-2014 was the role of a citizen of Ukraine, who felt responsibility and solidarity with what had been happening. And that’s why I stayed there from the first days till the very end. I participated and helped the protesters in different ways, with everyday things such as cleaning up the spaces in the occupied buildings to conduct events, building barricades and helping people on the front line.
I’m a very happy person that this type of really revolutionary and emancipatory event happened in my life. You see masses in front of your eyes changing history, throwing out a bloody authoritarian regime and taking political power. It was one of the most impressive existential experiences of mine.
Of course Maidan has its local Ukrainian specificity, but at the same time events of this kind had been happening and have been happening in different countries throughout the world. Maidan as an Ukrainian political phenomenon is inscribed in the global political agenda. It has lots of similarities with the Arab Spring, with the Indignados movement in Europe, and with the Occupy movement in the US and other countries.
This similarity extends to a lot of instruments, methodologies, practices on the everyday level, framing of the movement and spreading the ideas that it had produced. All these events have much in common, which means that we are in the middle of some process. We have been observing really crucial shifts throughout the world during recent years. Maidan, both for the EU construction and for the European idea, was just the starting point, a sort of a political a priori. Starting from Maidan, we opened the door to the unknown and to a new political space.
This international defines some utopian dimensions. Each revolution has a global political horizon. Of course, it’s always about local issues, and the Maidan revolution was an answer, a revolutionary answer, to the antagonisms and contradictions that we had on the Ukrainian level. But at the same time it can be inscribed and took more meanings when compared to other global movements.”
TC: Was Maidan truly a revolution? And if yes, in what sense did it constitute one?
VC: “It’s legitimate to call Maidan a revolution, first of all in a political sense. When we refer to Marxist classics, however, and talk about revolution in an economic sense, unfortunately it didn’t work out that way. Maidan didn’t change the social and economic order, although Maidan as such was in general against oligarchy. It had a lot of potential to develop this dimension, but it’s probably the hardest dimension to overcome.
It became apparent that even if you want to change political authority, the revolution in a strictly political sense, it’s already quite hardcore. If you take it seriously, if you really want to take power, then the ones you are conquering will do anything to stop you. It’s already a very hard task to conduct a political revolution, so I cannot even imagine what human costs and how many lives we would have lost if it took an economic turn.
If you look at Maidan, at some of its images and flags, it seemed to be a nationalist revolution. This is why the Kremlin propaganda or rather its media war has had some success throughout Europe. These nationalist images, however, were just a rhetorical wrapping, it demonstrates that people don’t have another, proper, political language to express their real views.This lack of a proper vocabulary caused people to refer back to established political symbols, like the national flag or the national anthem. The symbols which are officially guaranteed. They can rely on them to inspire them and stop them from running away in the face of mass violence.
But the everyday basis of Maidan was unbelievably important in regards to this matter. What I saw was an unimaginable level of solidarity, of people helping each other. This self-conscious machinery of the everyday functioning was like a communist utopia or an anarchist community based on a totally voluntary approach. It was a perfect cross-section of Ukrainian society, upper-class Kyiv women in furry coats digging out bricks from the pavement together with peasants and workers from different regions throughout Ukraine.
Taken all together I think it’s correct to call Maidan a revolution because it showed a new political subjectivity on an international scale. The alternative political subjectivity to the capitalist neo-feudal status quo. It’s of course just an attempt, there are no blueprints to create this new political alternative.
This kind of occupying of space signifies the rise of a new political body. If you look at other revolutions, be it Tahrir or Syntagma, it’s always about occupying the central square, the agora, the forum: the centre of society and politics. This indicates the basic political intention to start again from agora, re-launching the democratic procedures from the very beginning, and it makes sense in a lot of contexts today.
Maidan was a very European event, demonstrating some a prioris, some basics of European history. Maidan was fundamentally structured as ‘demos’ against ‘oligarchos’, a sort of an ancient Greek model of justice and democracy. There was an urgent need to start the political and social processes from the very beginning. What we had before, what was called a parliament wasn’t a parliament, what was called politics wasn’t politics, what was called a court wasn’t a court.
Our democracy had failed at a certain point, and the revolution could serve as an instrument to re-launch the country on a more emancipatory and democratic basis. But the counter-revolution in the form of the Russian-waged war and the occupation of Ukrainian territories together with the reconstruction of a corrupted state model by the new Ukrainian authorities prevented the implementation of lots of revolutionary outcomes. ”
TC: What about the role of the European Union flag as a symbol? In many European countries it isn’t at all associated with revolution.
VC: “The symbols that appeared on Maidan, were like pop-signs, floating signifiers without some prescribed meaning. The EU flag is the best example for that. In EU countries, usually at demonstrations the EU flag is being burned by the protesters. But in Kyiv the protesters didn’t do that, it was just senseless. They took the symbol, the flag, and transformed it into a revolutionary flag. What had been associated with Brussels bureaucracy, the object of hatred for many Western European protesters, was in Ukraine perceived differently.
That’s why it should be taken seriously, if we’re talking about the European future. Ukrainians took this flag as their flag, as the one which somehow accumulates their expectations for the future, and they were fighting for freedom and equality till death – today in the 21st century. These aren’t just some pleasant ideas to discuss but very basic needs. I don’t think there are many countries in Europe where you can see a similar level of political hope in spite of everything, in spite of the occupation, the warfare and the increase of violence in the streets.”
TC: What does Maidan mean for the idea of Europe? How did the perceived peripheries in a sense start defining the centre?
VC: “Maidan opened up new types of challenges, it was a total surprise for Europe, that was challenged by Maidan. And in the aftermath, with the occupation of the Crimea, the EU wasn’t able to deal with that feedback from Ukraine. Maidan showed that Kyiv is another centre of Europe, that the future of Europe also lies in Ukraine. Which demonstrates a political dialectic compared to where the centre of Europe is usually placed: in Western Europe. But the European Union, challenged by the revolutionary events, couldn’t find a proper answer. So it faced the military challenge afterwards, in the counter-revolutionary form.
Maidan showed a strategy of salvation for the ideological trap that we are in today. Maidan proved that Europe can be an answer to the current political, military and institutional crisis on an international scale, and the EU wasn’t ready for this kind of proposal from its periphery. The periphery in some sense appeared to be more European than the European centre itself. It means that today the international emphasis has shifted and is put on the peripheries, and the war in Syria is another example for that.
The Russian war is waged against Ukraine in order to kill and eliminate all the lessons and results of Maidan. Because Maidan is the biggest nightmare of the Kremlin, for the current Russian authorities. The aggression was just the beginning and aimed at Europe, just as the terrorist attacks in Paris and Brussels were. It was aimed at endangering Europe and build new walls, new barbed wires, new mobility control. To bring us back to the Dogville-like nation-state away from the idea of an international democratic union. It’s a backlash, a step back.”
TC: What role did the European Union play? What role should it have played?
VC: “Usually the EU regarding the crucial questions behaves like a Hegelian soul, writing manifestos while being very slow. After Maidan it was a very precise moment of ‘who blinks first’. Russia did the international crime and Europe just blinked. The EU was only ready to introduce sanctions after the crash of the Malaysian Airlines plane, which means the EU is ready to influence the situation in a Realpolitik way only when its citizens are killed.
If Europe and the West in general hadn’t accepted the Crimean annexation we wouldn’t have the warfare in the Donbas region, and probably we wouldn’t have the Syrian war of the kind we are observing nowadays. That’s the international logic of violence, and the target here is Europe itself, the idea of being able to live together irrespective of religion, ethnicity, nation-states, whatever. This political potential of international democracy, which is possible in Europe.
In recent times we are getting a backlash against the European Union, with the Paris attacks, with Brexit, we are getting less and less Europe. And the main lesson of Maidan was the intention of spreading of Europe, of expanding the democratic skeleton. In this sense Maidan was pushing Europe further and further outwards. Ukrainians have shown that the European idea is broader and not locked inside EU borders.
Maidan was a politically progressive step, and the reactionary counter-revolution we are experiencing now means less freedom, more control, less Europe, more violence. And that’s the logic of political Thanatos (Greek personification of death), we need more political Eros not political Thanatos.
Right after Maidan we had the biggest chance to implement what it stood for, the longer after the revolution the less contact, channels, ways out we have. It’s a big mistake to characterise the time after revolution as chaos, – no, the time after revolution is the biggest chance. And I would say that we lost the chance, we lost this time after Maidan, in the first months when the citizens and general public could shape their environments.
Unrealised revolutionary chance turns to its ideological opposite. Now the space of freedom is shrinking, with less possibilities, and more counter-revolutionary violence in the form of warfare and on the streets.. Violence is like a virus. The more violence the bigger it blows up. It’s like cancer’s metastases, it corrupts and occupies more and more dimensions and fields in society.
Repression and regression – these are the coordinates of the current political status quo. The repression of emancipative political potential and the regression to barbaric subpolitical practices of discrimination and isolation. The terrorist killing of a famous Ukrainian journalist Pavel Sheremet, whose car exploded in the centre of Kyiv in summer 2016, indicated this trend in a radically painful way. Maidan as well as other revolutionary movements from Tunisia to Greece were aimed in general at some utopia in the future being governed by the politics of hope. Today the logic of revolutionary utopia is changed into reactionary post-apocalyptic dystopia: wars in Ukraine and Syria, ISIS, extreme Right populism, Brexit, and Trump show the politics of resentment, with no vision of the future – on the contrary, we are obsessed with the past, with memory fights, acting out our frustration through rewriting history like the recent policies of decommunisation in Ukraine.”
TC: What role did the far-Right play in all of this?
VC: “After the Maidan revolution Ukraine was stuck between two counter-revolutions. The first one came from the outside, in the form of the military occupation and the media war. The other one came from the inside.
This second counter-revolution is also the sign or the symptom of war, the warfare isn’t just conducted somewhere in the East, it’s also conducted in Kyiv, in the whole country. Villages and towns in Ukraine have been experiencing silent war, where the relatives are just getting dead bodies of their sons and husbands.
Before Maidan the far-Right in Ukraine had been concentrated around the Svoboda (Freedom) party. On the political level this neo-Nazi party had been playing the role of official opposition. During Yanukovych’s time, when his party, the Party of Regions, ruled the country, being totally criminal, corrupted and all that, in order to fulfil the expectations of looking like a normal party, a centrist, ‘non-ideological’ one, they had the Svoboda party as their puppet opposition. It’s a sort of a negative legitimation, by having the Nazi’s besides you, you yourself look normal.
Maidan appeared to be the best antidote for the rise of the far-Right. Because the far-Right is fundamentally based on violence, it’s the aim and the main method for them.That’s why before Maidan they had been seducing some youngsters, people from the urban peripheries, with a sort of rough and directly violent ‘alternativity’.
After Maidan, when the whole society experienced such huge levels of violence, of really revolutionary violence, the far-Right was unable to propose anything. After the revolution Ukrainian citizens weren’t interested in violence. Compared to the Maidan violence the violence practised by the far-Right was naive and childish. When you have masses ready to go to the very end it doesn’t compare anymore.
That’s why after Maidan they lost almost all of their political public support. In the first presidential election after Maidan in Ukraine in May 2014 both far-Right candidates for the presidency took approximately 3% of the vote. What brought them back was the war.
The occupation of Ukrainian territories and the military conflict, the war in Donbas, worked out as the best legitimator for the far-Right. They had been dreaming about war especially with the Russians from their childhoods. They are really fond of the warfare, fascists love wars. They are very much parasites on their fellow citizens, promoting themselves as being ‘super-warriors’ in the East of Ukraine. They also began to act in more intensive way in the streets, including in Kyiv.”
TC: You were also personally attacked by the far-Right.
VC: “In the institutional biography of Visual Culture Research Centre, we pretty often had problems with far-Right groups in Kyiv. They attacked our premises several times, they attacked our public events, so in general I was prepared for some violence. But when I was attacked by neo-Nazis in September 2014, half a year after Maidan, it was of course totally unexpected on the personal level, but it is inscribed in the counter-revolutionary logic of war.
The men who beat me up were a pretty big group, around ten of them. They recognised me on the square in front of my university, Kyiv-Mohyla Academy, and when they were chasing me they began to shout ‘he’s a communist, he’s a separatist, catch him, he’s a thief!’. Several years before they had been accusing us in ‘promoting transgender’ (for them it’s an obscene word together with other notions of LGBTQ).Now their discourse changed because of the new political agenda, currently in Ukraine it’s better to accuse your enemy of being a ‘communist’ or ‘separatist’. I spent more than a week in the hospital, having facial surgery, the right side of my face was almost totally smashed.
Because of the attack I also understood this logic of violence in a very painful and practical way, and the urgent need to oppose that, to create an alternative to this Thermidor. That’s why last year, while organising the Kyiv biennial 2015 called The School of Kyiv, we somehow also aimed at these violent circumstances.
Education is the best continuation of revolution. It’s a prescribed anti-reactionary medicine very much needed after revolution. The field of education is the best form for transmitting a revolutionary event. In the Ukrainian political context education is necessary for post-reflexion and inclusion of the lessons, structures and initiatives that emerged during the Maidan events afterwards. That’s why we came up with the idea of school.
This also countered the counter-revolutionary logic of violence after the revolution itself. The School of Kyiv also means the school of Maidan, of the revolution, emphasising that Europe could probably learn something very important for itself from the Maidan experience, from the Ukrainian context. What is very much lacking in EU countries, is the belief in Europe as a vehicle for social change.”
TC: The European Left has often been quite sceptical about the Maidan revolution. How do you view this scepticism?
VC: “‘What is to be done?’ That’s a question the European Left should ask itself instead of cynically pointing at their neighbours’ fascism. First it’s worth to look at your front door, and clear the space in front it. What is the Left today? If you look at the way the far-Right in the EU has been referring to issues in Ukraine, they do it in the same way as leftists in different European countries, like Die Linke in Germany, some representatives of which were even coming to the occupied territories of Ukraine on the Russian side. What does it mean when the Left reacts in the same way as the far-Right does? It’s a big question about the future of the current political spectrum as we know it.
It’s a regression of political responsibility and an indicator of the weakness of the so-called Left. The Maidan event itself provides much more hope for the future of the leftist idea than those leftist groups in the EU who failed to notice the revolution in the heart of Europe. I’m of course not grouping all of them together, just pointing at some important political symptoms.”
TC: Any final notes?
VC: “Historically Ukraine has been always absent from the mental map of Europe. It was perceived as a territory where Russia was in charge. What is urgently needed in our case is getting some visible and understandable political subjectivity. Ukraine has been changed, Maidan brought Ukraine to a new international level. But if Kyiv is to be a key place for today’s Europe it also needs some discourse to speak with, to tell its messages to the international public.
The elaboration of language, shaping a new discourse is a long-run but an urgent task of a European scale. The political unconscious is also structured like a language. Gaining political subjectivity means also the ability to name our ghosts by their proper names.”