COMMENT: Meet the "new Ukraine"

By bne IntelliNews February 20, 2015

Mark Adomanis in Philadelphia -


From the very beginning of the Maidan revolution, Western analysts have consistently focused on the degree of change that it could bring to Ukrainian society. Over-reaction to temporary political changes is now basically de rigeur in the West. Even political movements that are quite obviously full of reaction and religious conservatism (like the “Arab spring”) bring out barely concealed glee among most academics and “thought leaders” who, for a number of reasons that lie outside of this column’s focus, tend to divide the world into crude Manichean categories of good (democracy) and bad (autocracy).

Yale historian Timothy Snyder has been one of the highest profile examples of this trend, speaking about Maidan in such elevated and dramatic language ("awakening", "rebirth" etc) that it bordered on the religious. Snyder has gone out of his way to present the fates of Ukraine and Europe, which at first glance have almost nothing to do with one another, as inextricably interwoven. At one point he even went so far as to argue that Ukraine could help lure Western Europe away from the siren song of fascism: "Europe has a problem, and Ukraine might be the solution."

The Western over-reaction to Maidan probably reached its apex in May of 2014, when The New Republic sponsored a conference "Thinking Together", in which a lot of capital-s Serious people like Leon Weiseltier and Bernard-Henry Levi got together to debate Ukraine's past, present and future. The absurd tone of this meeting is easily conveyed simply by looking at some of the "questions of ethics and politics" that the attendees debated: "How did the Maidan change culture?” "Is the Maidan an eruption of youth or an expression of history?"

Note the way in which the discussion was being framed. The question was not “did the Maidan change culture”, but how it did so. Less than six months after the appearance of Maidan it was already taken as a truism by everyone in attendance at that The New Republic gabfest that an inchoate political movement (the long-term success of which was obviously still in doubt) whose signal achievement was to empower one of the most connected and wily members of the oligarch class, had successfully exerted a transformative effect on Ukraine’s political culture.

Reality check

People are slowly starting to come to the realization, though, that a great deal of the Maidan’s “transformative” impact has been imaginary. The New Yorker recently ran an excellent dispatch by Sophie Pinkham, a Columbia University doctoral student who is currently writing a book about Ukraine, which detailed just how slow change has been in coming.

It is almost impossible to exaggerate the difference between Pinkham’s account, in which the Ukrainian government is still overwhelmingly corrupt, irresponsive and "dangerously incompetent", with the thrilling narrative of civilizational transformation peddled by Snyder, Levy and others.

Pinkham is hardly the first person to note the sad fact that very little in Ukraine has actually changed apart from the identities of the people taking the bribes; her article actually gels quite nicely with recent reporting from both the New York Times and Financial Times, but it’s one of the clearest and most cogent pieces of writing that’s emerged out of the conflict.

Could Ukraine change in the years and decades to come? Absolutely. It would be as foolish to assume the failure of Ukraine’s reforms as it would be to assume their success. But Pinkham’s account is invaluable in that it relentlessly draws attention not to the abstract (“invigorated civil society”, “European values”) but the ugly, messy, and not terribly satisfying state of the real world. In her account you meet Ukrainians who have gone without electricity, water or modern medical care, Ukrainians who have lost their jobs, Ukrainians who have seen the purchasing power of their meager salaries and pensions almost entirely destroyed by rampant inflation.

These people are not terribly satisfied with the “new world” that has been ushered in by Maidan, and they would surely meet with incomprehension anyone suggesting that their country is now an example unto others.

Pinkham takes no pleasure in pointing out the parlous state of today’s Ukraine, just as I take no pleasure in doing so. But living in a fantasy world in which Ukraine has changed its broken political culture and is rapidly converging towards European norms doesn’t help anyone – least of all the Ukrainians who now need to live among the ruins.

Mark Adomanis is an MBA/MA student at the Wharton School of Business and the Lauder Institute. Follow him on Twitter @MarkAdomanis

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