Lessons from the Maidan
The West can’t stand idly by while Putin has his way with Ukraine — and with his own people.

(Getty Images)


George Weigel

While the inauguration of President Petro Poroshenko on June 7 drew the curtain on the first act of Ukraine’s national self-renewal, the end of the drama of the Maidan is nowhere in sight, and Ukraine’s future is by no means secure. Some speculate about a “Chechnya scenario” for Ukraine: low-grade civil war, occasionally erupting into mass violence. Others imagine that what Vladimir Putin has in mind for parts of Ukraine is slow-motion absorption preceded by de facto Russian control, as has been Moscow’s strategy of choice in the Transnistria region of Moldova. President Poroshenko is faced with building a government, jump-starting a crippled economy, pacifying areas where the rule of law has ceased (thanks to Russian-armed “separatists”), and negotiating with a Russian government that continues to mount a brazen campaign of lies and propaganda (the latest being Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov’s June 6 attempt to wrap Russian aggression in Ukraine in the mantle of a defense of Russian Orthodoxy) – and doing these things all at once.

So Ukraine remains, today, a country in deep distress, politically and economically. But that was true in October 2013. What is different, today, is that Ukraine has undergone something like a revolution of conscience: what Greek Catholic archbishop Sviatoslav Shevchuk recently described as “an extended, inspired pilgrimage from fear and fraud to dignity and integrity.” What began as a movement of resistance to a corrupt government that was, in effect, selling Ukraine’s national future to Putin’s Russia quickly evolved into a broad-based movement in defense of the elementary decencies of public life — a movement determined to rebuild civil society in Ukraine as the essential foundation for 21st-century Ukrainian democracy. As one Ukrainian activist described the feeling on the Maidan in Kyiv the day then-president Viktor Yanukovych fled to Russia, “We came to the Maidan looking for Europe, and instead found Ukraine.”

That discovery remains to be secured. But even as the drama continues, there are important lessons that the West can, indeed must, learn from the Maidan: lessons that touch the lives and destinies of all the peoples of the North Atlantic alliance.

The first lesson: History continues.

It may be true, as Francis Fukuyama provocatively argued toward the end of the Cold War, that democracy and the free economy have proven themselves the victors in the debate over the future of politics and economics under the conditions of modernity. No sane person today argues that state ownership of the means of production is the path to justice, abundance, solidarity, or freedom. And even the enemies of democracy-rightly-understood use the language of democracy to describe what are essentially authoritarian systems: “managed democracy,” “guided democracy,” and so forth — names that summon up memories of those bogus “People’s Democratic Republics” of the Cold War era, or the equally bogus “People’s Republics” of the Arab Middle East.

Yet notwithstanding the kernel of truth in Fukuyama’s argument, “history” manifestly continues. It continues because democracy and the free economy are not machines that can run by themselves. History continues because the essential complement to democratic politics and free economics is a vibrant public moral culture, capable of forming the citizens who can make free politics and the free economy work, so that the net result of these remarkable systems is liberty, justice, abundance, solidarity, and the other public elements of human flourishing. History continues because the great challenge within history is not the creation of the machinery of democracy and the free economy; difficult as that task may be in some circumstances, the even greater challenge is to nurture the public moral culture, embodied in the institutions of civil society, that ennobles political and economic freedom and prevents the machinery of democracy and the free economy from freezing up — or worse, from corrupting the very men and women, the citizenry, on whom the future of freedom ultimately depends.

The second lesson: “Europe” is — indeed “Europe” must be — more than a cornucopia.

The Maidan movement erupted in Kyiv and elsewhere in a spontaneous societal rejection of the Yanukovych regime’s refusal to take the steps necessary to accelerate Ukraine’s accession to the European Union, as the regime turned instead toward Putin’s Russia. But as the Maidan evolved, it quickly became something different, something deeper and nobler, something more morally serious. As tensions mounted in Ukraine in the aftermath of Yanukovych’s scuttle, my friend Bishop Borys Gudziak of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church called me late one night to reflect on what had happened on the streets of Kyiv in recent days. “Blood is serious,” he said. “Blood makes people think. [And] there are very few people in Ukraine tonight who are thinking of Lady Gaga.”