Maidan is a Reminder of our Forgotten Values

In toppling Yanukovych, Ukrainians risked their lives to tell the West that true freedom means more than just individualism

Eastern Europe Features
Revolution of faith: A tent-chapel was built in Maidan at the beginning of the movement. It was used by many denominations (credit: Getty Images)

Late on the evening of March 2, Bishop Borys Gudziak of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church called with the latest news from Kiev. March 3 would mark the beginning of Lent in the Eastern Christian churches and Bishop Gudziak, the president of the Ukrainian Catholic University (UCU) in Lviv and leader of the diaspora Ukrainian Greek Catholics in Western Europe, was in a reflective mood.

Western commentary on the drama of Ukraine continued to focus on Ukrainians’ desire for integration with the West, which was true but often misunderstood, Gudziak said. The people of Maidan (Kiev’s Independence Square) had not stood fast in the freezing cold, dodging bullets from former President Viktor Yanukovych’s security forces, simply because of a craving for the lifestyles they saw portrayed on Western television programmes. “Blood is serious,” Bishop Gudziak mused. “Blood makes people think.” The blood shed in Yanukovych’s February attack on Maidan — including the blood of a promising young faculty member at Bishop Gudziak’s university, shot through the head — had led to a “palpable strengthening of resolve”. The Maidan movement was not so much a question of accessing a cornucopia, he suggested, but of men and women reclaiming their dignity as human beings and as citizens. “Lady Gaga is very far from the minds of Ukrainians today,” he concluded.

When I arrived in Kiev last July, things had clearly changed in Ukraine in the 11 years since my last visit. In 2002, my flight from Poland had been met at Lviv International Airport by a Soviet-era bus without an engine. Towed by a tractor, that relic of real existing socialism lumbered across the tarmac to a “VIP lounge”, where two colleagues and I were kept waiting for an hour while the visas it had taken us the better part of a day to acquire were laboriously checked. In July 2013, the Kiev airport was spanking new, immaculately clean, and strikingly efficient. I was whisked through immigration and customs in five minutes — but then the totalitarian hangover reasserted itself. On the way into the capital, my driver was stopped by a motorcycle policeman for no apparent reason, and when the driver declined to proffer the expected bribe, the policeman proceeded to write a citation that seemed similar in length to Nikita Khrushchev’s 1956 address to the Twentieth Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, denouncing Stalin.

It was a harbinger of things to come, for in the days that followed, friends and colleagues spoke constantly of the minor and major corruptions that, under the Yanukovych regime, were eroding Ukraine’s democracy and enervating its economy. One European Union official told me that it was considered a positive development that judges no longer set the price of the payoff they expected for a desired verdict; these negotiations were now handled by middlemen. Elections were rigged, blatantly; so were student admissions to universities. The internal security forces had critics of the Yanukovych regime under surveillance, their phones tapped and their emails compromised; trumped-up indictments of family members were used to silence dissidents. With a stagnant economy under the control of half a dozen or so oligarchs linked to Yanukovych, at least 10 per cent of the country’s population had emigrated since Ukraine declared its independence in 1991; most of those émigrés did not expect to return.

It was hoped, last summer, that Brussels’ insistence on legal and bureaucratic reform prior to Ukraine’s signing of an EU accession agreement in November 2013 would compel Yanukovych to initiate changes in the justice system and in national and local administration, reforms on which a law-governed future could be built. And perhaps, if those reforms were institutionalised, the next round of presidential elections scheduled for 2015 would, under intense EU scrutiny, see off the Yanukovych regime and restore some of the hope, and the civic energy, that followed the 2004-05 Orange Revolution, which was squandered in the intervening years.

As it happened, of course, it was Yanukovych’s decision to accept a bribe from Russia’s Vladimir Putin and break off negotiations on Ukraine’s EU accession that led to the beginning of the Maidan movement in November 2013.

From the outset, Maidan was a complex phenomenon. But if there was a common theme that united men and women of a variety of political persuasions in their months-long occupation of Independence Square, it was the determination to be rid of the petty indignities and corruptions that were a chronic irritant and embarrassment, and to restore a minimum of decency to Ukraine’s public life. In that respect, the Maidan movement was the heir to the revolutions of 1989 in Eastern Europe. As the people of Solidarity and Charter 77 and other resistance movements had decided that “living in the truth” was both an obligation of conscience and an effective weapon against totalitarianism, so the people of the Maidan determined that they would live as they wished to be governed: with respect for others, reclaiming such basic civic virtues and habits as truth-telling, honest dealing, and open argument.

Conscience and a sense of solidarity and mutual responsibility across traditionally divisive ethnic, religious and linguistic lines, became a powerful elixir in building resistance to the culture of lies and intimidation that sustained the Yanukovych regime. Thus from the beginning, when Maidan activists said that they wanted to be “part of Europe”, they meant by Europe the rule of law in a society characterised by civility, tolerance and pluralism. The riches the peoples of the EU take for granted were, undoubtedly, attractive. But when the people of Ukraine rose up against Yanukovych’s turn from Europe and towards Russia, their first concern was for a revival of civic culture and a restoration of fairness in government.

One might even say that their primary demand was a restoration of civic pietas: a respect for the elementary decencies that make a common life among diverse peoples not only possible, but exhilarating. And that concern for civic pietas was embodied in a striking dimension of the Maidan movement that got virtually no attention in the Western media: its religious piety. A tent-chapel was built on Independence Square at the beginning of the movement, and as November and December stretched into the new year, the chapel’s decoration bespoke the remarkable diversity of the Maidan demonstrators: an image of Our Lady of Fatima was displayed amid Byzantine icons. Clergy of various denominations — including the three Ukrainian Orthodox jurisdictions, the Greek Catholic (also known as Uniate) Church (Byzantine in liturgy and church polity but in full communion with Rome), and Protestant groups — shared the stage to offer prayers at the beginning and end of each day’s Maidan activities, and religious services were celebrated in the tent-chapel during the day. In a country not previously noted for its ecumenical spirit, it was an impressive display of Christian solidarity; and the commitment of the various religious groups to maintain nonviolence amid Yanukovych’s provocations played no small role in denying the regime the excuse it long sought to start playing rough.

The determination to live a form of civic pietas as a counter to the pervasive cynicism of the Yanukovych regime was also evident in the self-governing character of the Maidan in Kiev and elsewhere. That the Ukrainian reform movement lacked the kind of single leader who could, like Lech Wałęsa in Poland or Václav Havel in what was then Czechoslovakia, rally diversity into political unity, was frequently commented on in the West. What was less noted was that, without such a single focal point, the people of Maidan did a very impressive job of organising themselves. By the time Yanukovych attacked Maidan in mid-February, self-defence forces had been organised by veterans of the Ukrainian military, the old Red Army, and at least one counterterrorism veteran of the Israel Defence Forces; meals were being provided for tens of thousands of demonstrators; infirmaries were set up and staffed to handle casualties, after some of the wounded had been kidnapped by regime thugs when they went to local hospitals (having previously been shot or beaten by regime thugs); churches near the Maidan became hostels and dormitories, offering food, medical care and a place to sleep.

And through all of this, the character of the Maidan movement evolved. What had begun in protest at Yanukovych’s rejection of the EU became something more, something different, something nobler: a movement of national civic renewal, concerned about politics to be sure, but concerned in the first instance about a defence of human dignity in a morally-grounded renewal of public life. Established democracies often use the term “the public square” glibly, as if that essential civic space for democratic politics were, somehow, self-constituting. The people of the Maidan movement knew better. Having experienced the deep corruption of public life under the Yanukovych regime, they knew that any “public square” capable of sustaining the civil society institutions essential to democracy and free politics had to be self-consciously built on the foundation of civic virtues. Those virtues could not be taken for granted. They had to be constantly nurtured — even with personal sacrifice. Freedom, the Maidan movement reminded the world, is never free.

Over the past decade, those with eyes to see could glimpse a hint of the national movement of moral and civil renewal that Maidan became, in one of Ukraine’s most striking new institutions: the Ukrainian Catholic University in Lviv.

Prior to World War II, the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church (UGCC), led by Metropolitan Andrey Sheptytsky, was one of the principal factors in the development of contemporary Ukrainian national consciousness. That was why, in 1946, the NKVD (predecessor to the KGB and successor to the Cheka) liquidated the UGCC through the mechanism of a contrived church council, the “Lviv Sobor”. This abrogated at gunpoint the 1596 Union of Brest (which had brought certain Orthodox jurisdictions into communion with Rome), “reunited” Ukrainian Greek Catholics with Russian Orthodoxy, and declared the UGCC illegal. Many of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic bishops, priests, nuns and laity who refused to bow to this coercion were martyred, and the UGCC became, until 1990, the largest underground religious body in the world: its liturgies, schools, and seminaries conducted in forests, its people tenaciously holding onto their faith in whatever privacy they were permitted under Soviet Communism.

Metropolitan Sheptytsky’s successor, Metropolitan Josyf Slipyj (the model for the “pope from the steppes” in Morris West’s novel, The Shoes of the Fisherman), was released from the Gulag in 1963 and sent in a sealed train to Rome, where he spent the rest of his life. There, he reconstituted the Lviv Theological Academy, where he had once taught, as the seed from which Sheptytsky’s dream of a Ukrainian Catholic University might be realised in a free Ukraine. Slipyj and his successors found the perfect instrument for this purpose in Borys Gudziak, an American of Ukrainian stock with a Harvard doctorate in history and a deeply Catholic passion for higher education that forms the whole person, not just the intellect. Thus, after the Soviet crack-up of 1991, the Ukrainian Catholic University, the only Catholic institution of higher learning in the former Soviet space, was born, and is now one of the two most respected universities in Ukraine.

From the beginning, UCU has been dedicated to training leaders who can help rebuild the shattered public culture of Ukraine: a “culture without trust” as university president Gudziak (he became bishop in 2012) often puts it. UCU is being built on a tract of land that opens out to Lviv in a kind of architectural embrace, inviting people of all faiths and no faith to enter and explore the truths essential to genuine civil society and authentic democracy. Its residence halls include small communities built on the model of the L’Arche Communities of Jean Vanier, in which students and faculty interact every day with developmentally-handicapped adults, usually men and women with Down’s Syndrome — innocents who, as Gudziak puts it, trust you and whom you cannot not trust. The university’s commitment to classic liberal arts education in the humanities is complemented by courses for entrepreneurs and managers that stress business ethics — a revolutionary discipline in a country that is far more oligarchy than true free market. And its chapel, when completed, will include elements of both Western and Eastern Christian art and design, underscoring the university’s ecumenical commitment and Ukraine’s position as connecting tissue between what John Paul II used to call Europe’s “two lungs”.

The UCU faculty includes internationally recognised scholars, some of whom did hard time in the Gulag during the Soviet period. And thus it was no surprise to find the university’s founding rector and current president, Bishop Gudziak, and many of the faculty colleagues he had recruited in the intellectual and spiritual leadership of the Maidan movement. That movement, in turn, may represent the beginning of a new moment in the history of Eastern Christianity’s relationship with state power — a moment that could be crucial for the future of free societies in Eastern Europe.

Orthodoxy, and especially Russian Orthodoxy, has typically imagined the relationship of spiritual and political power in terms of a church-state dyad, which often led to situations in which the Russian Orthodox Church became a department of the Russian state. That pattern reached a nadir of corruption in the Cold War. After the German invasion of June 1941, Stalin recruited Russian Orthodoxy, which he had previously persecuted, into his campaign to rebrand the death-struggle with Hitler, his former partner, as the “Great Patriotic War”. After the Second World War, the Russian Orthodox Church leadership became a wholly-owned subsidiary of the Soviet state security services, its leaders often being senior KGB officers. These were obviously not the circumstances in which Orthodoxy in the Soviet Union could evolve a more pluralistic theory of religious and political power that would encompass civil society as well as the Church and the state, and that would imagine the Church as one of the intellectual and moral tutors of civil society.

As heir to both Latin-rite Catholic thought as well as Byzantine liturgy, spirituality, and Church polity, however, the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church has always taken civil society seriously. Thus at UCU, Catholic social thought is explored with an emphasis on the relationship of the Church to civil society, and only secondarily to state power. Now, as the three competing Orthodox jurisdictions in Ukraine try to navigate through a post-authoritarian situation created by a civil society revolution that proved itself stronger than state power, a serious conversation about an evolved Orthodox theory of Orthodoxy and public life can be imagined. That turn towards a different future is already being embodied by the support given to the Maidan movement by the Ukrainian Orthodox Church-Kievan Patriarchate, and by the modest beginnings of ecumenical cooperation visible on Independence Square in Kiev and elsewhere in Ukraine.

Ancient grievances and deeply-set patterns of thought are not, of course, easy to supplant. But if Russian Orthodoxy is ever to move beyond the supine position that an exasperated Vatican official once described for me in striking terms —”They only know how to be chaplain to the Tsar, whoever he is” — the impetus may just come from Kiev. And there would be a certain sense of the historically apposite in any such development, for Christianity among the eastern Slavs was born in what is now Ukraine. Over the past few months, the first glimmers of an ecumenical dialogue on Church and civil society could be seen amid the tempest of Maidan. If that conversation develops, and eventually yields a form of Orthodoxy that is disentangled from its historic subordination to state power, then the Maidan movement could have a world-historical importance far beyond the borders of the borderlands.

The meaning of the Ukrainian revolution extends beyond Eastern Europe, however. Americans drifting back into isolationist habits of mind, and Europeans who view the EU as a corruption-riddled gravy train, have been confronted with a sight not easy to imagine in the comfortable capitals of the West. As Kiev-Mohyla Academy scholar Mychailo Wynnyckyj put it in a blog-post in late March:

Over multiple weeks in sub-zero temperatures, hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians in Kyiv [Kiev] and other cities demonstrated amazing levels of civic activism, restraint, self-organisation, and spontaneous cooperation while demonstrating their individual and collective displeasure with their ruler . . . The changes that have occurred . . . have come at enormous cost. Over one hundred civilians have been killed and many more seriously injured as a result of violence (including sniper fire) in the centre of Kyiv. One month after the worst violence . . . fresh flowers are still brought to the barricades and to the spots where the Heaven’s Hundred lost their lives. No one has forgotten the dead . . .

Nor, Professor Wynnyckyj continued, has it been forgotten what those dead died for. And here, too, there is an uncomfortable challenge for comfortably complacent citizens of the established democracies:

The concept of dignity as expressed in Maidan is distinctly different from Anglo-American individualism: dignity is a concept that can only be actualised in a relational sense. In order to have dignity, an individual must be recognised as having it by another. Thus dignity requires more than an individualistic concept of the subject — dignity is only possible within a [community] of persons: a concept close to the still underdeveloped strand of philosophy called “personalism”.

. . . The person-of-Maidan . . . declares his or her individual rights, but simultaneously recognises collective responsibility (i.e. the duty to help, defend, feed, and sacrifice for others). Indeed, this unique values complex is a strange mix of western individualism with respect to rights and Slavic collectivism with respect to the need for recognition of those rights, and with respect to responsibility. This notion seems to be extraordinarily threatening to Putin. Its essence has been captured in the phrase “Revolution of Dignity” . . . and in the underlying value of Maidan — that of a demand for natural justice.

Perhaps Professor Wynnyckyj is right that the operative concept of freedom in the West today is starkly individualistic. But that was not always the case. In 19th-century America, Alexis de Tocqueville recognised that striking hybrid that Michael Novak would later dub the “communitarian individual”. The founding fathers of postwar European integration —Robert Schuman, Konrad Adenauer, Alcide de Gasperi — were all tutored by the modern Catholic social doctrine of Popes Leo XIII and Pius XI, which stressed both the inalienable rights of persons and the individual’s duties to the common good; Pius XI also taught what he called the “principle of subsidiarity”, a theological warrant for the institutions of civil society, and a barrier against the totalitarian temptation that seems built into political modernity. True, today’s EU began as a set of common economic arrangements, in the European Coal and Steel Community and the Common Market. But the vision of the free society that motivated Schuman, de Gasperi and Adenauer extended beyond mutually-beneficial economic life to a reconstitution of European civilisation socially, culturally and politically. 

Thus there is a sense in which the people of Maidan have been calling both Europe and the United States to recover a richer understanding of freedom than the individual licence-to-consume or licence-to-be-entertained with which freedom is too often confused today. The lethargy with which Brussels, London, Paris, Berlin and Washington responded to the Ukrainian revolution suggests just how far that notion of freedom-as-licence has eaten away at the will of the established democracies. If we cannot imagine hundreds of thousands demonstrating in sub-zero temperatures over multiple weeks in the centres of the major cities of the West, perhaps it is because no one is going to endure such deprivations for Lady Gaga. Or MTV. Or a new BMW. Or the latest organic groceries. Or six weeks of paid holiday.

The West was given an opportunity to rebuild its crumbling intellectual and moral foundations by the example of the revolutions of 1989, when the Wall came tumbling down, not (as so many academics continue to insist) because Communism could not compete in a world of microchips, fibre-optic cables and instant communication, but because a critical mass of people demanded that their inalienable human dignity be recognised and decided to defend that dignity for themselves and for others. That was a reminder to the West of what it was about. So, too, is the Maidan revolution. That revolution’s future is, obviously, unclear. But the lesson Maidan has already taught is a crucial one, which the West ignores at its peril.

It takes a certain critical mass of citizens, men and women who know their own dignity and respect the dignity of others, to sustain the political and economic institutions of the free society. Or, to put it another way, democracy and decadence cannot coexist indefinitely. The cardinal virtues — prudence, justice, courage, moderation — were on public display on Kiev’s Independence Square and throughout Ukraine for months. Those are the same virtues the West must reclaim if the North Atlantic democracies are to regather themselves culturally and politically, thus finding the wherewithal to resist Vladimir Putin’s attempts to reverse the verdict of 1989.