by Vladimir Tismaneanu
In 2014 we will celebrate a quarter of a century since the revolutions of 1989. It was a formidable succession of events that made Pope John II speak about an annus mirabilis. Something unexpected, truly miraculous happened then: presumably eternal dictatorships fell apart as a castle built of sand. The Bolshevik fortresses disintegrated, leaving behind them both exhilaration and confusion. The moral landscape had been plagued by decades of state-sponsored lies. Those revolutions were anti-utopian, anti-ideological, anti-teleological. Because they refused any form of cynical arrangements (or they appeared to repudiate such intrigues), some called them anti-political endeavors.
We are experiencing these days a resurrection of the civic spirit in the Ukraine. As noticed by Adrian Karatnicky, one of the most knowledgeable commentators on Ukrainian politics, we deal with a Euro-revolution. Revolutions take place when the old regime is irrevocably compromised and the citizens cannot bear anymore its mendacities and methods. In the case of the Ukraine, this is a pro-European revolution and a radical rejection of Vladimir Putin’s diktat. The protesters have resumed the interrupted project of the 2004 Orange Revolution, an uprising that Vaclav Havel justifiably called the first post-communist revolution within the former Soviet Bloc. The open society confronts directly its rivals and enemies.
Modern revolutions involve idealistic passions, sudden discontinuities, abrupt fractures. The logic of subservience is challenged from below by spontaneous forms of civic empowerment. The public space, long frozen, is suddenly invaded by innovative modes of participation. Read Hannah Arendt’s “On Revolution,” especially the chapter about the revolutionary tradition and its lost treasure. Egor Sobolev, one of the protesters’ leaders in Kiev, states unequivocally that the general opinion is favorable to the American and European ideals: “Real power should belong to the citizens, not to ministers, presidents, and politicians.”
Historical time contract change their conventional meanings. The same thing happened in Prague during the Velvet Revolution, in November 1989. All taboos and prohibitions collapse. Revolutions celebrate a proud defiance of the established order, suddenly appearing as totally obsolete. They advocate a rebirth, a new order of centuries, a novus ordo seclorum. New structures emerge on the ruins of the old ones. People are yearning for something totally different, what German philosophy calls “das ganz Andere.” Revolutions are instances of historical transcendence.
What seemed to last forever disintegrates under our astonished eyes. American sociologist Aristide Zolberg described revolutions as moments of madness. Political meteorology fails to forecast such events. In Kiev, Lviv, even in Viktor Yanukovich’s fiefdom Donetsk, in eastern Ukraine, people take to the streets. Hundreds of thousands discover that they are the real source of power. Like in Hungary in 1956, citizens reclaim political sovereignty and national dignity. These were the main goals of the anti-totalitarian revolutions in 1989.
The call for European integration is directly related to the 1989 political imagination. Ukrainians refuse to be annexed by the Russian empire. When they say Europe, they mean rule of law, struggle for transparency and guaranteed accountability. The government responded with violence. Many protesters were beaten. This was a stupid move on the part of Yanukovich and his camarilla. Instead of deterring the revolutionaries, such actions angered them. The Ukrainian revolutionaries choose Europe because they know who Putin is and what Putinism means. They don’t want to accept the Kremlin’s decrees as God’s orders. They want norms and procedures, not repression, blackmail, and threats.
Vladimir Tismaneanu is professor of politics at the University of Maryland (College Park) and author most recently of "The Devil in History: Communism, Fascism, and Some Lessons of the Twentieth Century" (University of California Press, 2012).
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