The events in Ukraine in the late winter and spring of 2014 provided a rare glimpse of a European revolution in real time. On the scene was Yale professor Marci Shore, an intellectual historian with deep connections to the Ukraine and its fighters for liberal democracy. From her personal encounter with the Maidan came a new book, The Ukrainian Night. We spoke to Shore about Ukraine’s struggle for autonomy and its internal battles, as well as the arrival of a “post-truth” era in Eastern Europe and in the U.S.
Octavian Report: What prompted you to write an intimate history of the Maidan?
Marci Shore: This is a book I never planned on writing. All the advantages historians have come from retrospect; it’s the looking-back that allows you play God, to know more than any individual actor could have known in real time. There is truth to Hegel’s idea that “the Owl of Minerva spreads its wings only with the falling of the dusk.” It’s only looking back that we can understand the implications of actions and their consequences.
Here is the short version of how I became drawn in to this story: I was on leave in Vienna during the 2013-2014 academic year, at the Institute for Human Sciences. And even at that distance from Kyiv, it was impossible not to notice that in all the twenty-some years I had been hanging out in Eastern Europe, the Maidan was the most extraordinary thing I had seen in real time. It was the first real revolution since I had been coming there. I’ve known many people in Eastern Europe — people older than I am, many of whom are no longer alive — who had been through what in German are called Grenzerfahrungen — literally “border experiences”, be they Nazi camps or Soviet camps or Stalinist prison. People who had been forced to make life-or-death decisions in extreme circumstances. But these experiences had always been before my time, before I knew them. This was the first Grenzerfahrung I had watched friends experience in real time. And it was impossible to turn away from that.
OR: How does what you saw in Ukraine reflect the broader ways in which intellectuals — major participants in the events on the Maidan — relate to or engage with politics?
Shore: This idea of the engagé intelligentsia, of course, has been controversial for a long time — i.e. should intellectuals get involved in politics or not? Tony Judt made that famous intervention in Past Imperfect where he attacked Sartre, de Beauvoir, Merleau-Ponty, and other French intellectuals for being “fellow travelers” and Stalinist apologists after the Second World War.
There is a long tradition in Eastern Europe (and not only in Eastern Europe) of intellectuals playing the role of the “conscience of the nation.” Perhaps they have often made the wrong decisions (my first book, Caviar and Ashes: A Warsaw Generation’s Life and Death in Marxism, 1918-1968, is about Polish avant-garde poets born around the fin de siècle who at a certain moment leap into the arms of communist revolution), but there was rarely an expectation that they would not get involved. The United States has professional academics with well-defined disciplines. Eastern Europe historically had, and still has, an idea of “intellectuals,” people who think and write and do not necessarily feel any obligation to remain within disciplinary boundaries. Traditionally, if you’re an intellectual in Warsaw or Lviv or Prague, you get to hang out in cafés and write poetry on napkins, but also delve into philosophy and write feuilletons for newspapers.
I have friends from the Balkans who experienced the Yugoslav Wars in the 1990's. But in the parts of Eastern Europe I had spent time in — Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Ukraine — I hadn’t seen the kind of violence that took place on the Maidan in all the years I had been coming here. There had been individual murders — of the Ukrainian journalist Georgiy Gongadze, for example — but not large-scale violence against the public. It was the first time I saw people I knew — friends and colleagues, people who I think of as being like myself, people I see at conferences, whose work I read, who read my work — making a decision to risk their lives. My Polish friend Ola Hnatiuk, for instance, is a professor of literature (she teaches at the university in both Warsaw and Kyiv) and a translator of Ukrainian literature into Polish. I think of Ola as someone who dresses in tailored clothing, who is petite and refined and speaks in an elegant literary language in all of the various languages she speaks. I wouldn’t have even imagined her raising her voice. The last time I’d seen her before the Maidan we were having breakfast together at a hotel in Washington. And suddenly Ola is out on the Maidan in the freezing cold crushing bricks to build barricades. And Ola is not the brick-crushing, barricade-building type. I had a sense of just how much she had to be pushed to decide to do that.
I was watching my friends and colleagues be transformed before my eyes. And I could not not be moved by that.
OR: What is it — beyond the taking up of arms — that changes a protest movement into an actual revolution?
Shore: That was one of the questions about what was happening in Ukraine that fascinated me: when does a protest cross an invisible border to become a revolution? In November 2013 no one expected this. No one was ready to die at the end of November. And by the end of January, people were ready to die.
By the time the sniper massacre began in February, you could feel — literally almost palpably — that a critical mass of people had made a decision, and they were willing to die there.
In the book I try to capture and understand that moment of decision-making. I try to understand revolution as experience, experience given to individuals. At a certain moment, for instance, people began talking about how they were losing track of time, they could no longer remember what had happened yesterday and what had happened two days ago or a week earlier. The distinction between night and day was effaced. People began to fear falling asleep — you’re afraid to fall asleep, because you can wake up an hour later and discover that everything, absolutely everything, has changed. I began to sense that this was part of the essence of revolution: at any given moment, the previously existing state of affairs could suddenly become meaningless. I began to explore questions like: does that change in the experience of temporality belong to the essence of revolution? What is particular and what is universal?
Marci Shore is associate professor of history at Yale University. She is the author of Caviar and Ashes: A Warsaw Generation’s Life and Death in Marxism, 1918-1968; The Taste of Ashes: The Afterlife of Totalitarianism in Eastern Europe, and most recently, The Ukrainian Night: An Intimate History of Revolution.