Musings on Contemporary Waffle
There is unnerving power in these photographs.
These photographs by Anastasia Taylor-Lind were published in June in the New York Times. They are simple portraits of some of the protesters from February who participated in the Kiev (Kyiv) rallies against the government of Viktor Yanukovich on the square known as the Maidan. The images were taken at the time of the worst of the fighting only a short distance from where people were shot at and killed. The women hold flowers in mourning for those who died. The men hold makeshift weapons. I’ve linked to these photos because they are so startling, so moving in their way.
I originally wrote this piece saying that the pictures show a revolutionary spirit to equal that of any modern-day insurgent’s efforts, minus the fanaticism. Maybe that sentiment is in the hearts of the men and women photographed here, I don’t know; but to say that their expressions of decency, compassion, sadness, and honour were a call for revolutionary action would be a projection of my own feelings. What is unmistakeable, however, is the expression of resolve.
I will identify it — resolve — as the wish for a disconnection from the pain of struggle with the worlds both west and east of Ukraine. These are the two extremes that threaten Ukraine (and that have always threatened her). If this show of resolve is anything, it is the wish to settle a problem without another descent into another abyss, this time with a closer tie to the less-threatening neighbour — Europe.
In the decades since World War II, Europe coalesced and Russia’s empire disintegrated. But today’s sentiment in Russia is to continue to express its greatest triumphs through its pain, whether it has been Stalingrad or the gulags or Mussorgsky or Magnitsky. Now Putin – out of ideas – soldiers on like Stalin’s little finger, disdainful of the judgement of the centuries, prepared to inflict more pain to recapture his own version of honour. The result is another smirking survivalist building upon the old and familiar strategy of political and cultural hegemony of “his” region, producing another retrograde cultural revolution that tramples culture.
The resolve that I think I see in these photographs from February, 2014, is that, if Ukraine fails this time, or this year or the next, to distance itself on its own terms from today’s Russia, the essence of the thing the demonstrators were trying to accomplish will remain underground as it had been after the Orange years in the form of quiet hope and perhaps deceptive frailty of those who may again need to decide that they have to act.
Those people will stand in the line of fire again in a decade as they did 4 months ago, as they stand, in fact, in these photographs.
To those who denigrate the acts of courage we saw in February in Kyiv, and continue to see as Spring turns to Summer – the insolent commenters who continue to invoke comic-book conspiracies from America and Europe, as if Ukraine’s relatively free access to information from around the world was somehow a conspiracy against Russia – there is nothing more convincing and in need of smashing than a steady gaze of more than a few seconds from someone with pure resolve.
These pictures, then, are of the gazes that send shivers through official Russia, who now fights a dirty little battle cloaked in conciliatory language after co-opting the world views of young men looking for meaning in their lives, the so-called “pro-separatist rebels” doing battle against a country that had largely accepted them on their own terms, or that would have accepted them if Ukraine had been allowed to progress beyond the toppling of Yanukovich without interference from Russia.
I can’t help but be reminded again of Solzhenitsyn’s casual insight about the struggle of innocents against unyielding torment:
What do you need to make you stronger than the interrogator and the whole trap?
… At the very threshold, you must say to yourself: “… Only my spirit and my conscience remain precious and important to me.”
Confronted by such a prisoner, the interrogation will tremble.
Only the man who has renounced everything can win that victory.
– Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, The Gulag Archipelago
The sentiment is that there is nothing more frightening to an oppressor than the determination of the oppressed to give up everything to defeat him. We’ve seen it ourselves in tiny, ordinary snippets when we’ve confronted our bosses or out-of-line family relations, and now in the responses of Putin and of official Russia; the surprised stuttering reactions to acts of domestic free will, a shock of reality experienced by the deluded that slices like a shard of glass through their presumption of superiority.
To my eyes it is this resolve against a disproved Russian hallucination of offering an alternative to Western formulations of rights and freedoms that has been captured in these startling, subversive, and humane photographs from February in Kyiv.