For sociologists, space is both a physical and a social construction. That is, space has both material and symbolic dimensions. For this reason, particular spaces can come to embody, express or carry within them shared meanings and identities. There is no better example of this phenomenon than the Maidan Nezalezhnosti (Independence Square) which has undergone massive transformation – both physical and symbolic – over the past 5 months.
The present research studies the changing space of the Maidan. The goal is to understand the way in which the Maidan has come to express a variety of collective identities and shared meanings. How has the Maidan transformed both physically and symbolically in recent months? How do individual people, both on the Maidan, and viewing the Maidan from a distance, describe and understand the significance of the space? How is Ukrainian identity expressed, constructed and imagined through the space of Maidan?
To begin, as a general and hypothetical claim, I suggest that, since November 2014, the Maidan has passed through four phases. This claim is based on preliminary review of media coverage, documentary film, and livefeed footage (via espresso.tv) of the unfolding events.
Phase 1: Maidan as Protest Space. In this phase, beginning around November 21st Maidan Nezalezhnosti is not yet the “Maidan” of recent memory. At this point the space is a place in which people gather to engage in political protest. Of course, the space has meaning because it monumentalizes Ukrainian Independence. Moreover, in the eyes of Maidan protestors it is significant because, since the 1990s, the space has played a prominent role in political organization and protest. Most notably it was occupied to great effect during the Orange Revolution of 2004. Indeed, repeating some of the strategies developed by members of the Orange Revolution, as well as the International Occupy Movement of 2011, in this phase, protestors set up tents and began sleeping in the square overnight.
Phase 2: Maidan as Encampment. This phase begins roughly around November 30th when, in the middle of the night, police forces removed protestors from the square.
In the days that followed, protestors gathered on the square in numbers rivalling the Orange Revolution. They also began to erect the barricades that were to become such an important feature of Maidan. For a tour of the barricades see, for example, Ilya Varlamov’s photo essay. Over the next several months the Maidan became what some reporters have described as a “tent city” and others a “city within city”. This is the phase in which tents, which will become longstanding features of Maidan are erected, buildings are claimed as movement headquarters, and the central stage, which has played such a central role in defining and maintaining the Maidan, was erected.
In this phase, Maidan acquires a unique identity. It is no longer simply a protest space. Rather as activist Halyna Chomiak says “Maidan is the voice of the Ukrainian soul, the Ukrainian folk, the Ukrainian spirit”.
Though Maidan acquires an identity, this identity is nevertheless complex, contested and dynamic. At some points it stands for European integration and a cosmopolitan conception of Ukraine. At other points it expresses Ukrainian nationalism, some of which is associated with right wing political ideology. There are also attempts to define Maidan as a multi-lingual and multi-ethnic space. One video produced by the filmmakers collective Babylon ‘13 show an exchange in which a Maidan entrance guard states to a young man: “I like all languages, everyone speaks whatever he wants” and “Ukrainian, Russian – they’re both mother tongues to us”.
In the analysis of this phase Maidan I want to ask: What are various expressions of identity on the Maidan? What is the mood and the spirit of this encampment? and finally, What techniques or social practices do people use to create these identities, moods and spirits?
Phase 3: Maidan as Battleground. While the fighters of Maidan engaged in various clashes with police through December and January, the Maidan preserved its structural integrity until the events of February 18th-21st. On February 18th a protest march to the Verkhovna Rada (Ukrainian Parliament) culminated in violent confrontations between police and protestors. At least 26 police and protestors were killed in these conflicts. In the process protestors were pushed back onto the Maidan and large portions of the encampment were destroyed. The space of Maidan was reduced in size and the protestors were cornered behind barricades of burning tires, timber and refuse.
In this phase, Maidan is fire and ash. More questions emerge: What kind of identity develops in response to this assault on Maidan? How is identity sustained – how are spirits kept up – in the midst of these battles?
Phase 4: Maidan as Sacred Space of Mourning. This brings us to the present. This phase is a response to the deaths of more than 80 protestors in defense of Maidan. In this phase Maidan is constituted as a sacred space of mourning. While religion has played an important role on the Maidan from the earliest moments of phase 2, in this phase religion plays an even more prominent role. In this phase, the political importance of the Maidan is overshadowed by rituals of mourning. Public funerals for the heroes of the Maidan feature in this phase, oftentimes involving thousands of people. In the weeks that follow flowers and other memorials are left around Maidan in memory of those who died.
Over the coming months I will use this space to examine in greater detail the phases of Maidan. Consistent with the goal of the Euromaidan research forum this project is research in progress. This means that as the research develops the above characterizations may change and evolve. I would also hope that fellow Euromaidan researchers and visitors to this space would comment on these distinctions. Is this a useful and worthwhile way of understanding – and perhaps coming to terms with – the very dynamic and deeply emotive events that occurred, and continue to occur, on and around the Maidan? Is space important to the definition of the Maidan and the Euromaidan movement? Do the articles and videos collected here adequately capture the meanings that have been given to Maidan?
Also see: Ukrainian Identity on the Maidan