Blood on the Streets

An Interview with Marci Shore

OR:  What did the actual participants want from Europe and the U.S.? What gestures or acts would have been meaningful or helpful to them?

Shore: Many people I talked to felt hurt and disappointed by the response, or rather the lack of response. But often I sensed that the disappointed expectations were less expectations of material support and more expectations of moral support, of attention, understanding, empathy. There was an article in Der Falter, which is a hip Austrian weekly a bit like the Village Voice. The title of the article used the phrase “the kids from Kiev.” It was a sympathetic article — sympathetic but somehow condescending.

My friend Martin Pollack, an Austrian writer and Slavicist who is significantly older than I am, remembers Solidarity in Poland well. He was very angry about the title of the Der Falter article. He wrote a letter to editor essentially saying: these people are being kidnapped and tortured, they’re risking their lives, you can’t call them “kids.”

I don't think anyone on the Maidan expected foreign military intervention. But there was a widespread desire for more acknowledgment of what they were doing, what Hegel would call “recognition.” Putin and Yanukovych were disseminating the story that the Maidan is a CIA-sponsored Ukrainian fascist conspiracy. And the sad irony here is that those on the Maidan knew that not only was there no CIA-sponsored conspiracy, but on the contrary: they were hoping for some kind of expression of solidarity from us that was not forthcoming. American attention was elsewhere. More or less everyone’s attention was elsewhere.

At the same time, the Maidan was a moment of taking responsibility and a feat of self-organization. Nataliya Stelmakh, the manager of a shopping center, tells the story, “Already on 30 November, the very first day of the large and active protests, reporters from four Russian channels approached us, all of them asking who organized us and whether we got help from the United States. They simply could not grasp that we ourselves organized ourselves.”

When I began working on this project, I never thought of myself as someone who was going to mobilize Western support for the Maidan (which by then was essentially over, in any case). Rather I thought of myself as a potential cultural mediator who could perhaps convey the experience of the Maidan in a way that would help people to understand it.

People have asked my why didn't I write more about Yanukovych, or why didn't I write more about Putin, or why didn't I write more about the people on the other side. And the answer is that I wasn’t confident that I understood them enough.  What goes on inside the mind of someone like Yanukovych (or Trump, for that matter), what story he tells himself to justify his behavior, what it means to be someone for whom other people’s lives have no meaning — I just don’t know. Of course we can never completely understand what is happening in someone else’s mind or soul. Nonetheless, there are degrees of understanding. I try not to be epistemologically presumptuous; the main protagonists of this book are people I feel I understand well enough to write about.

OR: One of the most interesting things that crops up on the Maidan is the surprising union of former political enemies. How do you see that experience playing out? What room can there be in a liberal, democratic order for anti-liberal, anti-democratic elements?

Shore: I went back to Kyiv after my friend Vasyl, a left-wing activist, was beaten up by a gang of young men connected to the nationalist group Svoboda. This was several months after the Maidan. And even having had that experience, having nearly been killed, having gone through surgeries to repair his face, Vasyl told me that he was a happy person for having once had that experience of authentic democracy. That when he had been there on the Maidan together with those guys from Svoboda, he could count on them not to turn against him.

That suspension of hostilities, that transcendence of previously existing political division, is one of the reasons I was so captivated. For the 25 years I’ve been coming to Eastern Europe, I’ve been listening to stories about Solidarity in Poland. In a sense I came of age intellectually under the mentorship of these Polish intellectuals who had gone through that experience in Solidarity: the miraculous coming together of the Left and the Right, the Marxists and the Catholics, the workers and the intellectuals, the Poles and the Jews.

Of course, this transcendence of previously-existing divisions lasts approximately 30 seconds after communism falls. But it was nonetheless a transformative experience for those who took part in it. And I saw how people like Adam Michnik and Konstanty Gebert, veterans of Solidarity, experienced some ecstatic moments watching the Maidan. They’re not at all naïve. They knew — and know — all too well that this coming together of people of all different sides is precarious and fragile and can never be sustained. But it nevertheless is an extraordinary moment that most people never experience in their lifetimes. It’s a moment that reveals a human capacity we might not otherwise ever know we possess.

OR: You quote in your book’s foreword a historian who says that with "the revolution of 2014, the post-modern ended in Ukraine, and we still do not know how to conceptualize this new reality." What does that mean in the experiential terms in which the book is cast?

Shore: In some sense, the Maidan was also a kind of revolt against postmodern skepticism towards the existence of “truth” as such. Here in the United States we're now experiencing (somewhat belatedly in comparison to Russia and Ukraine) “post-truth.” The “post-truth” cultivated by Putin came to play a more visible role in the aftermath of the Maidan, in the annexation of Crimea and the war in the Donbas.