Reflections on the Maidan Protests and the Pro-Autonomy Political Movement in Eastern Ukraine

The following interview was conducted by Roger Annis for Truthout with Daniel Grigor’ev, a social researcher at the Moscow-based Institute for the Study of Globalization and Social Movements and a graduate of Moscow State University. Among his academic duties, Grigor’ev teaches courses in social and political engagement to activists from eastern Ukraine who attend the Institute’s school of political administration.

Roger Annis (RA): Can you describe the origin of the “Maidan” protest movement that arose last year in central and western Ukraine? What was its social base and program?

Maidan Square, May 2014. Photo: Flikr Commons.

Daniel Grigor’ev (DG): To begin with, the so-called Maidan movement isn’t something untypical for Ukrainian politics. You see, unlike some other post-Soviet countries (including Russia), the Ukrainian bourgeoisie found itself unable to promote any kind of stable, governing agreements. Instead, we see a number of business clans who are constantly fighting with each other in an effort to get the biggest share of national wealth. That’s why protests, demonstrations, intense debates and more or less democratic procedures are common there, though it may be very misleading for someone who hasn’t yet analyzed the nature of the newborn, post-USSR countries.

When it comes to the social base, I think it would be accurate to distinguish two main categories. The first would be mainly Kiev’s “middle class” (which isn’t a middle class in a European understanding, but a relatively small and extremely privileged group). Apart from considering all the Maidan events as some kind of adventure (or a perfect place to take some selfies), those people provided a number of demands, which say a lot about their viewpoint. For example, we heard about “European choice,” “joining the Western world,” “becoming a part of civilization” and so on. Those claims seem rather peculiar, given the fact that no one invited Ukraine to become a part of the European Union.

In addition to fantasies about a European Dream, we noticed demands for democracy, fighting corruption, increasing various freedoms and so on.

The second category would be extremely violent, trained and armed groups that came mainly from the western regions of the country. Contrary to Kiev’s residents, those people are usually uneducated, poor and quite aggressive (since they come from very deprived regions). If it wasn’t for their participation, we wouldn’t see so many hostile actions and successful attempts to capture political power. Their slogans were usually related to national independence and breaking with the Soviet heritage, though you could also notice some Nazis advocating the idea of white supremacy along with open anti-Semitism.

RA: In an interview last month in New Left Review, Volodymyr Ishchenko of the Kiev journal The Commons offered some analysis of how it was that Maidan came to be dominated by right-wing nationalist ideology. What is your view of how that came about?

DG: I guess it’s obvious that any broad civil movement requires some kind of ideology for a number of different reasons. So what ideology could be chosen by Maidan? Certainly not a leftist one. You see, the idea of a left movement on the whole was greatly compromised by those political parties which emerged from the former Communist Party of the Soviet Union. In Russia, it became the Communist Party of the Russian Federation, in Ukraine, the Communist Party of Ukraine, and so on. Speaking endlessly about justice and social struggle, the “communist” leaders proved to be astonishingly opportunistic and prone to avoiding any kind of real political conflict that might threaten their wealth and power. It’s been difficult to convince people that different left strategies and programs are possible. Bear in mind also the very difficult economic situation that has contributed to a left movement in decline.

That’s why any left or even social activist on Maidan was likely to be attacked. Instead, the crowds accepted strange mixtures of ideas that did not fit together. And yes, more than 20 years after acquiring independence, many still argue and believe it is still Russia that keeps Ukraine from becoming an advanced and prosperous society. It’s a strange way to explain what is taking place in a country of 45 million-plus people, but it turned out to be just enough to offer a certain type of explanation and a certain kind of way out of an everlasting social crisis.

RA: The change in government in Kiev on February 21, 2014, has been called everything from a coup against an elected president (Victor Yanukovych) to a triumph of popular will. What is your view?

DG: It’s a rather tricky question. You certainly remember the famous passage by Engels telling how the revolution itself is a completely undemocratic process, since different groups don’t debate, but rather enforce their will using cannons and rifles. And that applies perfectly to any real revolutionary situation. It’s always a mixture of democracy and forcing of will.

Those who start the changes are always the minority, so, formally speaking, their actions are illegal and to some point illegitimate. It’s true that Yanukovych was a formally elected president, but his regime was considered corrupted and ineffective – and he was viewed as not so bright intellectually.

So the problem isn’t a coup itself (Yanukovych isn’t the kind of a leader who anyone would die for), but its result. Maidan managed to overthrow a criminal government in order to establish something way more hostile and obnoxious (and way more neoliberal as well).

The Maidan movement is a great example and a colorful warning for all those civil activists who think it’s enough to show how unhappy they are with the state of affairs and everything will magically handle itself. The only way for a political protest movement to avoid being used as a background in a oligarchic coup is to have well-defined goals as well as a developed theory explaining what’s wrong in society and how to fix it.

RA: How was the coming to power of the new, neo-conservative government in February viewed in eastern Ukraine?

DG: Contrary to many beliefs, most eastern Ukrainians are fine with the idea of cultural pluralism. They may despise the ideas and versions of history shared by many people in western Ukraine, but they have no intention to force everyone to follow their views. They want to have the right to practice their own culture and traditions, including the ability to use whatever religion, language and mentality they like.

But the issue became that people who participated in Maidan and who passionately advocated for the “people’s will” turned out to deprive the people of southeast Ukraine of the right to speak for themselves. That’s hardly democratic consensus.

RA: The “anti-Maidan” movement in eastern Ukraine began by demanding local democracy, including the election of regional (oblast) governors and a decentralized Ukraine government (“federalization”). Was there ever any interest or sensitivity in Kiev to these demands?

As I stated before, people in Kiev (not only the politicians, but also those who took part in the “civil protest”) are used to perceiving themselves as the cultural, intellectual and overall social vanguard of the country they live in (or may I say, lived in?). Self-expression, democracy, political action – all that is considered not a right, but rather a privilege. You could hear lots of “middle class” activists in Kiev saying that those “dumb scum” among the east should be punished severely for any disobedience and learn how to submit to their new masters. Actually, there are journalists who promote the idea of having an “excess” of people in the east: They ought to be killed off. They have no problem declaring those views on national TV.

RA: What about the social and economic demands of the movements in the east? And have these evolved over time?

DG: They certainly did. As time goes by, people feel the need to express their views on economic and social policy, labour laws – more and more. To make a long story short, the overwhelming majority is either rooting for a welfare state with a strong government sector, or a planned economy based on social, not market principles. And of course, no one likes the idea of the most important parts of the national economy being owned by a few extremely rich oligarchs.

Ironically, Maidan claimed to be the “anti-oligarch” revolution, but in reality, it resulted in new oligarchs coming into power while old ones managed to greatly enhance their influence and even form private armies.

RA: The movements in the east are widely presented in mainstream, capitalist media in the West as “pro-Russia separatist,” and the Russian government is said to be intervening through these movements to destabilize Ukraine. What is your view?

DG: It’s true that many activists have a strong sympathy for Russia. Many of them even consider themselves Russians. But their “separatism” doesn’t spring from those sympathies; it springs from the fact that Kiev is sending more and more troops and destroying houses, infrastructure, hospitals and schools.

All those statements about Russia come from the old habit of considering it to be an “evil empire” striving to expand its power all over the globe. But for the last 20 years, Russia has been in the periphery of the world economy, with an increasingly resource-based economy. It’s completely dependent on foreign markets and has no need or interest in annexing additional industrial regions or supporting the anti-oligarch movements in bordering countries

To the extent there is support for the rebellion in eastern Ukraine, it comes from the fact that if the Russian government refuses entirely to assist the rebels, it will face serious, domestic political consequences. The “anti-Maidan” movement [in eastern Ukraine] has serious support among Russian citizens.

RA: Even in conditions of economic chaos and war, it seems that political life is still active. Are there defined political parties or currents in the east? What is their program for how to govern, how to get the economy running again, democratic rights, etc.?

DG: Political life isn’t at its peak right now. People, both soldiers and civilians, are discussing political demands. But it is yet to be defined and reflected in any sort of political program. The same can be said about building efficient and up-to-date government structures.

Remember, ignorance, apathy and individualism were built up in society for decades. Six months is just not enough time for ordinary people to completely re-establish their views and participation in social life.

Having a full-blown war nearby doesn’t help, either, in promoting any kind of a progressive social agenda. You can build widespread, popular movements rather quickly, but it takes something way more elaborate to fight modern neoliberalism and provide a proof that another world is possible.

RA: The Ukrainian delegates to the antiwar conference in Yalta, Crimea on July 6 and 7 produced a wide-ranging, social and political blueprint for a future Ukraine, including proposals for joint struggle of people on both sides of the east-west struggle against the austerity agenda of Kiev and of financiers in Europe and the United States. How does that fit with what seems like simultaneous demands for the independence of southeast Ukraine (Novorossiya)?

DG: That fits quite well in my opinion. For the last 20 or even 30 years, various intellectuals were speaking about the inevitable and ultimate defeat of neoliberalism in the world, predicting that broad masses will eventually rise up. Well, that’s what is happening right now.

Novorussiya has all the chances to provide a viable example that another world is possible if people find enough confidence to strive for it. It’s hard to overestimate the possible consequences, but they certainly will affect not only the post-Soviet countries and Eastern Europe, but also the whole globe.

RA: What are the social forces in central and western Ukraine that can join with the east? Do we see any signs today of their emergence?

DG: All protest political activity there is mainly antiwar now. Some enlightened activists are calling for resisting Kiev’s militarism, but most protesters seem to be fine with the whole war. Their issue is they don’t want their children to be killed there, so at some meetings, we could hear mothers advocating for the heavy use of aviation and artillery against the east, as long as her son is alive and healthy.

Most recently, there were antiwar actions in Kiev. These were attacked by pro-Ukraine crowds (which sheds light on the accusations of relentless dictatorship against Yanukovych). On the whole, the antiwar or anti-conscription kind of movements are growing, so there is hope that, in the end, we will see pressure grow for political solutions to the ongoing crisis in eastern Ukraine instead of continuous war crimes.

RA: You have recently spent a lot of time talking to political activists in southeastern Ukraine. How is their morale holding up during this war imposed by Kiev? What are the prospects for their political struggle?

DG: Their morale is very high and they’re almost certain they will soon be winning. Unlike Kiev’s army, rebels are fighting for their lives, their land, their families and their future. They’ve been invaded by violent military forces that are guilty of committing all kinds of atrocities and war crimes. Most people have no intention (and also no possibility) of escaping the conflict.

It’s their country, their fate and their last stand. People have begun to realize you can’t avoid participating in common politics and hope that everything will handle itself. They are eager to learn anything about organizing a successful political resistance. The idea is taking root that the civil equality, career opportunities and acceptable standards of living can’t be achieved with weapons or calls for Russian military assistance. They can only be won through political means. •

Copyright, Reprinted with permission.

Roger Annis is a socialist and union activist who writes regularly on topics of social justice and peace. He blogs at