As Stalin-era public spaces go, Euromaidan is actually not too bad, not truly ugly like the gray town centers of countless Soviet provincial cities, or the intentionally menacing plazas of the imperial capital. Compared to the golden-domed Byzantine splendor of so much of central Kiev, though, the Maidan always seemed charmless and uninteresting, especially with its glass domed Hlobus shopping center and massive McDonald’s. But the Euromaiden is much more than just a physical space, it has also become a sacred place for Ukraine and Ukrainians. The Maidan isn’t only a square anymore; it is also an idea. For Ukrainians, the Maidan isn’t just a noun; it has become a verb, the act of grassroots democracy.Timothy Snyder, the Yale historian whose book Bloodlands (2013) is one of the most eye-opening accounts of twentieth-century Ukrainian history, pointed out that because of the protests the Maidan housed, “the word maidan has come to mean the act of public politics itself.”
The Maidan is at the northeast end of the Khreshchatyk, the wide chestnut-lined avenue that is the city’s main thoroughfare, named Europe’s seventeenth most expensive shopping street in 2010. To the northwest, steep alleys lead up to the cathedral of Saint Sophia, the mother church of the eastern Slavs; and at the southeast end, to the Pechersky quarter, home to Ukraine’s government buildings and the grand apartments of its political establishment. In 1989, when Ukrainians began what has turned out to be an unfinished quarter-century-long struggle against Soviet authoritarianism, this central space was the ideal place for civil society to rally. The Maidan’s modern role as the beachhead for Ukrainian democracy began when student demonstrators gathered in what became known as the Revolution on Granite, named after the stones that pave the square. In tactics that foreshadowed and inspired future insurrections on the Maidan, students pitched tents on what was then known as Lenin Square. That protest and the strong support it earned from much of the city, including the workers of Kiev’s largest armament factory, played a big and underreported part in the collapse of the Soviet Union.
But the end of the Soviet Union turned out to be just the beginning of the struggle for democracy, not its conclusion. The USSR dissolved, but many of its successor states, including Ukraine, remained poised between Western-style democracy, the preference of civil society, and Putin-style authoritarianism, which better suited the post-Soviet Ukrainian elite. In Ukraine, the battleground between these two models was the Maidan. The next standoff was in 2001, when leaked telephone conversations of the Ukrainian president, Leonid Kuchma, linked him to the grotesque kidnapping, torture, and beheading of a leading journalist. Known as the Cassette Scandal, this murderous Ukrainian version of Watergate sparked mass protests centered, of course, at the Maidan. The Kuchma government survived the demonstrations. But the fight left a physical scar on the Maidan. After suppression of the “Ukraine without Kuchma” movement, as the 2001 protests were known, the mayor of Kiev abruptly started major construction work on the Maidan. The square had become so powerful that it needed to be fenced off. Three years after the demonstrations, the Kuchma government manipulated presidential election results to install Viktor Yanukovych, an even more strong-armed successor, which provoked another uprising. This became the Orange Revolution. Thousands camped out on the snow and ice of the midwinter Maidan, and millions across the country supported them. This time the Maidan won. New elections were called, and Viktor Yushchenko, whose support had been suppressed in the first, fixed vote, became president and returned to the Maidan to take his oath of office. He chose the Maidan because he wanted a concrete symbol of the political reform his election represented. He wanted to show that political legitimacy in Ukraine no longerderived from the Communist Party, or the imperial family, or even the barrel of a gun. It came from the people, and the place that stood for people power was the Maidan. The Maidan had become the incarnation of Ukrainian democracy, the physical spot that represented the people’s determination to demand accountability from their rulers.
But that moment, tragically, turned out to be the high point of Yushchenko’s presidency. Yushchenko and his allies had been the leaders and figureheads of the triumph of Ukrainian democracy, but in government, they were disastrously incompetent. Indeed, they did such an epically poor job that by the time the next ballot rolled around, Yanukovych, who had failed to become president by fraud, was elected fair and square. The democratic dreams of the Maidan seemed to be just that—and no match for the brutal, corrupt reality of post-Soviet politics. Ironically, it was during the Yanukovych era that the Maidan, both the place and the ideals it represents, fully came into its own. Yanukovych assumed power democratically, but he quickly set about creating a regime that was authoritarian and corrupt. Many Ukrainians seethed, but after the whimpering failure of the Orange Revolution, it was hard to believe that Ukrainian society might still see democracy as something worth fighting for. Then, on November 21, 2013, exactly nine years after the start of the Orange Revolution, Yanukovych reneged on his long-standing promise to sign an Association Agreement, a trade deal, with the European Union. It became a rallying point because it was never just about trade with Europe, or even the distant promise of a path to eventual EU membership. In Ukraine, as in all of the lands of the former Warsaw Pact, Europe has come to stand for the entire political-economic package of Western democratic capitalism: the rule of law, human rights, democracy, and a market economy.
Yanukovych had been grimly tolerated because he seemed to be temporary: someone that Ukraine, which had successfully transferred presidential power three times in its twenty-three years of independence, could reject in the 2015 presidential elections. By abandoning the European deal at the last minute, and under pressure from the Kremlin, Yanukovych showed that he and his Russian backers had something else entirely in mind—turning Ukraine into a Putin-style “managed democracy,” newspeak for not a democracy at all. What happened next transformed Ukraine and transformed Russia, and it is still reshaping geopolitics. It started with one person: a thirty-two-year-old, bearded, Kabul-born Muslim journalist named Mustafa Nayyem, who was outspoken and daring enough to question Yanukovych on live television about his personal corruption during the 2010 campaign.
On November 21, 2013, Nayyem was covering parliament day-to-day. He told me a few months later that, like many Ukrainians, he thought the reversal on the Association Agreement with Europe was just a bargaining ploy. When he realized the deal was really dead, he was enraged, as were all of his friends on Facebook.Nayyem decided they needed to do more than write angry screeds for each other. So early that evening, he posted a call to action on his Facebook page: “Come on guys, let’s be serious. If you really want to do something, don’t just ‘like’ this post. Write that you are ready, and we can try to start something.”Within an hour Nayyem received more than six hundred comments. So he posted a follow-up: “Let’s meet at 10:30 P.M. near the monument to independence in the middle of the Maidan.” When Nayyem got to the Maidan, about fifty people were already there. By midnight, there were more than a thousand. By the end of the year, hundreds of thousands of people were gathering there. Nayyem, who was elected to the Rada—the Ukrainian parliament—in post-revolutionary elections eleven months later, didn’t realize what he had started in the news story he wrote that day. He didn’t even mention the Maidan.
Over the next three months, the maidan most important square in the world. Social media was essential to this revolution’s self-organization; it was the instrument that protestors on the Maidan used to summon help at key moments from the rest of the city and the country. But it was also an elemental physical fight. The protesters built medieval-style barricades using ice blocks. They burned firewood, in addition to old furniture brought in by sympathizers, to keep warm, and tires to muddy the aim of government sharpshooters. They made Molotov cocktails, using the Internet to figure out how: The most popular search term in Ukraine that year was “Molotov cocktail.” They even broke up the cobblestones of the streets around the Maidan and used them as weapons.
The physical Maidan was always the epicenter of the struggle, but the Maidan became more than a single Kiev square. There was, of course, a #DigitalMaidan that provided logistical and political support online. There was an automaidan: drivers who blocked government troops from coming to the plaza and smuggled in the empty beer bottles (for the Molotov cocktails), tires, and wood the protesters needed. Mostly, though, the Maidan became a euphoric, almost sacred place. What transformed it from a place into a movement was that moment, common in all liberation struggles, when individuals personally choose freedom over safety, and when millions of individuals find solidarity and courage and altruism in that collective choice.
PUBLIS SCALE: A-
Euromaidan exists for a reason – it exists as the physical manifestation of the Ukrainian people’s conscience. And it serves this purpose extraordinarily well, especially since 2014. Where the maidan doesn’t fit the traditional mold of a public square is that it is largely one-dimensional. It is a demonstration ground above all else; yes, it has a shopping mall and a McDonald’s but other than that, infrastructure and investment has not been spurred by the presence of the square or the political participation of locals.