The protests in Ukraine and Georgia are very different from the protests in Paris, France, and Ottawa, Canada: the latter actually work. Here’s why.
Earlier this month, people in Tbilisi, Georgia, stood in the streets waving the American, Ukrainian, and Georgian flags. They sang the Ukrainian national anthem. They were protesting a law, deemed to be pro-Russian, that would restrict free speech and association. After a few days, these public demonstrations worked: As a Georgian friend wrote to me, “We’ve returned, for now, to the European way” and then they went home, still vigilant, always ready to show up, but orderly, not looking to cut off heads.
This mechanism, taking to the maidan, an ancient word for public square is the chief reason why Russia is seeking to destroy Ukraine right now. The Ukrainians perfected a method of civil activism that does not permit tyrants, even if the tyrant tries to send missiles on their heads. In 2013-14, the young Ukrainians stood in Kyiv’s Maidan standing against the corrupt, pro-Putin regime. When the secret police began to attack, older generations showed up and for months they stayed in solidarity in the square, not flinching.
The success of that moment gave Ukrainians a new confidence, hence the name “Revolution of Dignity.” While Russia continued to claw back control, the Ukrainian people, emboldened by their successful revolution, enjoyed eight years of cultural renewal and innovative creativity: They had proven to themselves that they, the people, have agency — and they used their freedom well until Russia came back violently to strip it away.
I’ve studied political theory including under freedom-fighting legends such as Guillermo O’Donnell, who resisted the Pinochet regime, and friends of Václav Havel the Czech revolutionary who stood up to the Soviets. I’ve studied John Locke, Montesquieu, the American founding fathers, Aristotle, Cicero, Dostoevsky — the great minds about how we govern ourselves, how we can live in freedom. After my time in Ukraine, in pandemic and war, I am convinced we need to update our basic political theory.
We’ve had an idea that there are three branches of government, and for a long time, the media called itself the fourth estate, keeping an eye on those branches. But in a real republican democracy, power is not in the hands of the elites, which includes the media, but the people. The Maidan is the fourth branch.
Its presence must be ghostly because as soon as “civil society” becomes an institution, it loses its authentic ties to the regular people. It is also ghostly because the specter that the people might take to the streets should haunt those in power.
The Maidan Mentality is not about violence or seeking the trappings of power. This self-control is essential to its endurability — and it’s why the Maidan is so powerful, unlike the violent protests we tend to see in France. The Ottawa truckers made an attempt at a revolution but when the Trudeau government cracked down on their bank records, the people backed away. In France, the people resort quickly to violence, to burning things in the street. This is not a sustainable mentality.
In 2014, Ukrainians kept their discipline, not flinching when the pro-Putin secret police fired their bullets and not fighting among each other, men and women, of all ages, together in peace. In the Maidan, in Kyiv, people organized themselves, they created their own security, food, and living systems—the same as I’ve seen in the war. It became clear to the pro-Putin president, Yanukovych, that he could not stop this machine of the people, and so he fled.
In Kyiv after the revolution for the most part the usual power-seekers sought political office. Most of the heroes of Maidan did not enter into politics: They were artists, poets, entrepreneurs, activists, who turned their focus to using their freedom well. The selfless Maidan Mentality enables society to function well, but what it does not permit is a tyrant.
Moscow, Beijing, and probably some regimes in the West are threatened by this spirit. And so now Putin wants to destroy a soul and a mentality of freedom and that’s actually the thing that’s most difficult and I think as we see here impossible to destroy.
As many here have noted, and as I observed, in the early days of the war, it was the people self-mobilizing, not the government, that kept Ukraine free. The government by all accounts was caught unawares by Russia’s onslaught. But from Kharkiv to Kyiv, the citizens took to the streets, made barricades, and held their cities while the government scrambled to create a wartime organization.
Week by week so many heroes of Maidan, from the artist called Da Vinci to the corruption fighter Roman Ratushnyi to the athlete Dmutro Pashchuk, are dying in battle. Ukraine is on the verge of losing a generation of corruption fighters and creative presences.
But as a friend in Kharkiv said to me, “Today everyone here, man, woman, child, is a superhero.” Now all Ukrainians, engaged in an existential fight for freedom, are action heroes, the entire country is a Maidan: standing, collaborating, fighting for freedom and culture, dignity, and tolerance.
This is the new fourth branch of democratic government: the truest and most authentic, the Maidan.
Joe Lindsley is editor of UkrainianFreedomNews.com. You can listen to his daily reports from Ukraine on Chicago’s WGN Radio here.