Yale University history professor Marci Shore’s new book, The Ukrainian Night: An Intimate History of Revolution (Yale University Press, 2018), captures the historic period surrounding the Maidan revolution that took place in Kyiv, Ukraine, from November 2013 to February 2014, when ordinary Ukrainians took to the streets and demanded justice and dignity.
Shore’s book couldn’t have come at a better time. Four years after the Maidan, civil society in Ukraine is exhausted, most of the reformers who served in government are long gone, and the powers that be are distracted by next year’s elections already.
“We are very tired,” leading anticorruption activist Daria Kaleniuk admitted in Washington last year. One can count the number of reformers within the Cabinet of Ministers on one hand, and there are real concerns that President Petro Poroshenko, despite putting a number of positive reforms in place, doesn’t want to go any further. He never managed to deliver the central demand of the revolution—justice—to this post-Soviet country of forty-five million. Some predict that there will be no more structural reforms this year, and any remaining momentum will be focused on relatively easy policies like education, health, and pensions, avoiding real legal reform altogether.
In this blah year, when little appears to be going in the right direction, The Ukrainian Night is a must-read for reformers, the diplomatic corps, journalists, and friends of Ukraine—if for no other reason than to remember what they sacrificed, what bound strangers together, and how far the country has come. It can also be read as a call for renewal. Those who have followed the country closely over the last four years will learn little, but Shore is a skillful and beautiful writer, and it’s impossible to come away from the book without a renewed sense of optimism and hope for Ukraine’s future.
But that’s also where the book falls short. Shore made the mistake of falling in love with the Maidan. Ivan Krastev, one of the leading thinkers on democracy, wrote, “The best way to make sense of a revolution unfolding in front of your eyes is to fall in love with it.” That may be the case, but the best way to write history is to maintain a certain distance and some neutrality.
Shore wrote the book out of the conviction that little was understood about the revolution. Journalists and commentators had covered the geopolitical aspects but neglected “the transformation of human souls,” she writes. Shore claims that she makes “no arguments or predictions about political outcomes,” but the central theme of the book is how the revolution forever altered people’s essences, “the kind of human experience through which one could not pass unaltered.” She ends the book on the same, optimistic note, quoting rock star Slava Vakarchuk: “It changed my soul.”
If the revolution forever altered people’s souls, then the country cannot be the same, yet it remains mired in the same post-Soviet muck, and the gains that have been made since the revolution are anything but certain. Maybe it didn’t change enough souls. In the end, I’m not sure I buy her argument.
Shore clearly wants the revolution and its ideals to succeed, but her account comes across as unbalanced at times. For example, Ihor Kolomoisky, one of the country’s wealthiest oligarchs, smells like a rose in Shore’s account, and let me tell you, he’s not even a flower. While it’s true that Kolomoisky served as the governor of Dnipro and self-financed militias that kept the Russians at bay, Kolomoisky plays a destabilizing role in Ukrainian politics and economics. In 2015, Kolomoisky sent armed men to Kyiv to occupy the building of the state-owned oil monopoly where he was a minority shareholder, and in 2017, he reportedly met with opposition leader Mikheil Saakashvili before he returned to Ukraine and attempted to oust Poroshenko. Some context would have been helpful.
Shore follows a number of intellectuals, activists, students, and ordinary people as they move from their daily lives to the Maidans in Lviv, Kyiv, and Dnipropetrovsk (renamed Dnipro in May 2016). She never reveals why she chronicles the people that she does, and she’s very focused on intellectuals in Lviv. The book would have benefitted from including portraits of more ordinary Ukrainians in Odesa and eastern Ukraine.
But there’s also much to like. Shore’s description of Donbas culture is spot on. She highlights the central role that the smotriashchii, the director of a factory or the head of a mine, plays and why taking to the streets to demand a better life would be unusual there.
Time and time again, Shore’s subjects return to the subject of prodazhnost’, which she translates as salability or corruption, as the central problem in the country. It’s near impossible to write about corruption in an illuminating way, but here is where Shore succeeds. “The problem of prodazhnost’ was also that in a world where everyone could be bought, there was no trust among people. Trust was something rare and precious, given and received only among close family and friends…The Maidan was all the more a miracle in such a society.”
Shore’s portrait of rock star Slava Vakarchuk makes her book relevant today: for the last year, Ukrainians have been speculating (and even praying) that Vakarchuk might run for president in 2019. In the book, Vakarchuk gives free concerts, walks through the frozen crowd, worries about the future of his country—it’s important to remember that the outcome was never certain—and comes across as decent, thoughtful, and patriotic.
In the end, Shore’s book is worth reading to capture the spirit of the Maidan, but as a work of history, I fear it won’t stand the test of time.
Melinda Haring is the editor of the UkraineAlert blog at the Atlantic Council. She tweets @melindaharing.