Kiev’s Theme Park Revolution

The images of genuine popular self-determination in the streets of Kiev are empty ones.

(Sam Kriss / Jacobin)

As you approach Kiev’s Independence Square from the foggy tree-fringed banks of the Dneiper, the first sign that everything isn’t quite alright is the barricade across Hrushevskoho Street. It’s built from paving-stones torn up from the streets, meticulously lined up in a series of walls around shoulder height — fortifications laid out as carefully and decoratively as a medieval castle.

There are parapets, crenellations, defensive areas between layers of the walls. A Ukrainian flag flies from one of the more prominent battlements; there are candles and posters and small icons showing the people that died on this street in January and February of this year; as they pass by, a few people stop to cross themselves.

The most arresting thing about the Hrushevskoho Street barricade, though, is the fact that it doesn’t form an unbroken line across the street: instead, it’s been taken down at two points to allow road traffic to pass through unimpeded. The constant stream of taxis and trucks and swish German cars barely even slows down. Mistakenly taking the barricade as a natural crossing-point, several pedestrians get stuck in the central section, staring out at the road as the cars swoosh past.

The unrest in Ukraine centers around questions of language and representation: it’s never possible to entirely distinguish politics from semiotics. The Hrushevskoho Street barricade does everything it can to project the image of being a barricade besides actually blocking off the street.

I went back to Kiev in mid-April. By that time, the British government was advising that the situation in Kiev had “calmed considerably.” Calm isn’t exactly the right word; the city seemed to be in something more like an opiate daze, with all the hazily disturbing hallucinations that go with it. Walk back down along Kreshchatyk Street towards the Maidan and you’re plunged into a sudden eerie silence. There are real barricades here, messy heaps of tires and sandbags; beyond them the main artery of central Kiev is closed to traffic, full of military-style tents  flying the blue and gold flag of Ukraine and the red and black flag of the ultra-nationalist movement.

The authorities have been forced to make other arrangements. In the distance, you can just hear the droning beeps of frustrated motorists over the all-swaddling silence. There are more shrines here to the fallen, especially around the torched stone and fire-blackened plastic of the Maidan itself, but there’s not the kind of reverential hush you can find in the Orthodox shrines overlooking the city. Instead, it’s the silence of a total and pervasive boredom.

The set of protests in Ukraine.
(Sam Kriss / Jacobin)

What Kiev resembles most is a kind of theme park of civil unrest. People find ways to entertain themselves. Under the shadow of the burned-out Trade Unions Building, a squat Soviet block torched by police after being occupied by demonstrators, young girls march up and down the street proffering white doves into the hands of passers-by. There are a few others dressed in brightly colored animal costumes giving out free hugs. One offer is enthusiastically accepted by a man in military fatigues and neofascist insignia.

These men are everywhere, but they’re not doing much. Some stand around in front of grand stucco buildings. Most of them just hang around the encampment, tapping at their iPads, selling spent shotgun shells as souvenirs, or chopping wood for the stoves and oil-drum fires that suffuse the whole square in a sticky acrid miasma. There are a few sounds: the thwacking of axes on logs, the hesitant chorus of a nationalist song, muttered conversation — but most of all, the clicks of cameraphone shutters.

When I visited on a Saturday afternoon, the square was mostly populated by attractive young couples, taking selfies in front of shrines to the dead, taking selfies in front of messy heaped barricades, taking selfies in front of buildings scorched by Molotov cocktails and scarred with bullet-holes. It’s entertainment. The total weirdness of all this only really hits home when you approach the north of the square.

Black bloc tactics and kneejerk anti-consumerism have come under much criticism, but there’s still something incredibly disquieting about a “revolution” where the McDonald’s is as bright and unblemished as ever, and doing a brisk trade. Not wanting to miss out on an important political metaphor, I bought a double cheeseburger. It was gristly and insubstantial, saturated in grease but still tasting as if it wasn’t entirely there.

Without anything having actually changed on the ground, the Euromaidan has turned into an image of itself. It’s easy to make the claim, as Baudrillard and others are fond of doing, that in the contemporary era it no longer makes sense to distinguish between image and object — that they’re both dissolved in a kind of watery postmodern borscht. Still, this doesn’t account for the strange ghostly hush that haunts the Maidan, the sense of something defined only by its absence.

Real events happened in Kiev: the self-signifying barricades were, not too long ago, being fought over by armed protesters and armed riot cops. People died. In small pockets, it’s still going on. When I arrived in the city, an arson attack had just gutted the headquarters of the Ukrainian Communist Party; not long beforehand, communist and fascist MPs were brawling in Parliament. Elsewhere in the country, separatists exchange gunfire with troops; the Russian army masses on the border, but all this activity seems to be swirling around an absent center, a black hole surrounded by spectral radiation.

In the 1850s, Marx wrote that history tends to repeat itself, “first as tragedy, then as farce.” Things have changed since then: history has now become unendurably self-referential. If we take the ideologues of imperialism at their word, it’s the kind of purely symbolic, spectacularized revolution in evidence in Kiev that constitutes real democracy.

(Sam Kriss / Jacobin)
(Sam Kriss / Jacobin)

A statement from President Obama described the Euromaidan revolution as a “reminder” from the Ukrainian people that “human beings have a universal right to determine their own future.” In an interview with MSNBC, Secretary of State John Kerry called it “a demonstration of the rapidity with which the people’s will will be heard or felt in today’s society.”

When it suits the interests of capital, the line is that political legitimacy emanates from the streets, not from the ballot box. Yanukovych was the elected leader of Ukraine, but real democracy means direct participatory action on the part of the governed rather than the passive custom of voting. The US State Department has taken on a line that’s strikingly Leninist in its implications: if you can assemble enough people in a broad coalition, put them in a suitably grand public square, and force the overthrow of the sitting government, you can then claim to constitute and represent the People.

Naturally, this only applies when it suits the interests of capital. Attempts by Russian speakers to do the same thing in Donetsk haven’t been able to achieve quite the same effect. Were something similar to happen in London or Washington or Berlin (rather than Kiev or Caracas), it’s not hard to imagine the response.

The image of genuine popular self-determination in Kiev is just that: a hollow image. Already the situation is ossifying into the familiar patterns of representative democracy: One gang of vicious oligarchs is being replaced by another, and elections are scheduled on Sunday to give the whole thing the stamp of legality.

That’s why the new ruling class in Kiev needs to keep the barricades that don’t really barricade anything, the street fascists that don’t really do anything, even the ignominious parliamentary fist-fights. All these things maintain a certain picture: at once a genuine and ongoing uprising and diversionary, knowingly artificial entertainment spectacle. That way, people might be more willing to endure the hurt that’s to come.

And there will be hurt. Before I went to Kiev, I was scared of the fascists: the Svoboda party, the violent protesters of the Right Sector. Now I’m more scared of the liberals. After all, liberalism had pioneered ethno-nationalism and mass genocide for hundreds of years before fascism came along to claim them as its own.

The presence of the far right is obvious everywhere in central Kiev — anarchist graffiti is scrubbed out and replaced by the neonazi Celtic cross symbol; the number 1488 (representing the fourteen words of white nationalism and the words “heil Hitler”) stands painted on an apartment block; an effigy wearing a Communist Party baseball hat hangs by his neck from a lamppost on the main street.

As someone Jewish by birth and communist by the grace of God, I found all this a little disturbing. Still, the really frightening rhetoric is coming out of the political center. Earlier this year, the interim Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk joked that he was leading a “government of suicide” and a “kamikaze mission.” Ukraine has been granted a $17 billion loan from the IMF; the price is a raft of austerity measures: cuts to social services, a 50% increase on the price of subsidized gas, a minimum wage freeze, and the introduction of a free-floating exchange rate that will provide a windfall for currency speculators but is also likely to lead to double-digit inflation and soaring prices for household goods.

Capital always needs new places to expand, and where it goes immiseration swiftly follows. Many of the pro-Russian separatists in Crimea and Donetsk have been vocal on this point: They don’t want to join with Russia just out a sense of ethnic loyalty. They’re hoping to escape the trillion-tentacled monster of austerity.

The Ukrainian nationalists, the ones that are so terrifying for the Left, will most likely fall by the wayside. I spoke to a few of them, in a haphazard combination of their faltering English and my dismal Ukrainian. For people who may well have wanted to kill everyone of my ethnic background and political beliefs, they were extremely polite. Most were slightly forlorn figures, with long stubble and soot under their fingernails from the oil-drum fires they spend most of their time tending.

Barricades in Kiev, Ukraine.
(Sam Kriss / Jacobin)

They explained that they weren’t racists and didn’t hate anyone; they just wanted a Ukraine for the Ukrainian people. The separatists in the East were traitors, they said, who wanted to repeat the Holomodor. One advanced the opinion that Putin was the Antichrist. They didn’t want Ukraine to join the European Union and they didn’t like the IMF, but they hated Russia. How long did they plan to stay in their tent on the Maidan? “Until it’s finished.”

I found it hard not to feel a strange twinge of sympathy. It’ll never be finished: images live for far longer than events. In time, the street will open to traffic again, and most of the square will be cleared, but a few tents and a few useless barricades will remain. The cyclopean paving-stone battlements on Hrushevskoho Street don’t defend anything or block anything; it’s still a castle, but a Disneyland castle.

The new global democratic model, beta-tested on the streets of Kiev, is of political engagement as a theme park ride. It’ll be a kind of hushed circus, where idealistic young Europhiles and glum nationalists can mingle, posing for photographs, signifying nothing.