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Archive for January, 2014

The Innocence and Violence of EuroMaidan: Notes from Kyiv

Slovo31 January 2014

SLOVO Journal’s editor Ed Johnson visits Kyiv to see beyond the media bias and discover EuroMaidan for himself

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The Maidan was packed with people, tents, and flags. The national anthem rang in my ears. The mood was electric and tense. It was Euro 2012—the last time I was in Kyiv—when, for a month and a half, the city was consumed with football, summer, and celebration. I found myself reflecting on the times I spend on Maidan that summer, whiling away the hours watching football on the giant screens erected on Khreschatyk. As I entered the barricades of EuroMaidan the expanse of the protest village became evident. Nestled below a thick layer of wood smoke belched into the air by hundreds of tents and braziers, humming with the sound of bustling demonstrators, it appeared mythical.

Having only read about the protests from afar, I had developed an image of Maidan, but nothing prepared me for the reality of it. My first trip to the EuroMaidan was a blur: my mind lost in the hive of activity, acrid pine smoke, clanking metal, and the drone of the loudspeakers. Entering the square, we passed through security, organised and run by the protestors. Each guard had “official” Maidan Security accreditation, complete with an individual I.D. number. The guards check mainly for drunks or provocateurs, but give the impression of entering an autonomous zone with anti-government and Yanukovych graffiti adorning the entrance. The place was alive with people at nine o’clock on a Thursday evening. Everywhere I looked someone was doing something: serving tea, chopping wood, clearing snow or filling bags for the barricades. The streets of the Maidan, devoid of snow and cleaner than many of those in the rest of the city, led us into the maze of tents. Piping hot ‘euro-borsch’ was being dished out of steaming pots to frigid protestors while volunteers presented trays of donated sandwiches. The sense of self-sufficiency was striking, exuding an air of an unshakeable community set on achieving its goals. Clearly such a romanticised view ignores the very real political machine behind the demonstrations.

From the calm of the Maidan we walked east, down to the bottom of Hrushevskoho Street, the flashpoint for violence between police and protestors. My friend who had witnessed the violence earlier in the week was reticent about returning. However, the situation was calmer than the previous days. The air was still clogged with the smell of burnt rubber, but the wall of flames of Wednesday had subsided, and, in its place, a new barricade was constructed, complete with ramparts. Protestors stood atop this wall of snow, metal, and second hand tires, surveying a scene of burnt out buses frozen into place by water cannons and further onto the stationary, homogenous mass of the police lines. Certainly the atmosphere here was different to that within the confines of the Maidan itself. Men wrapped in foam cladding practised fighting with wooden sticks. A man with a microphone and an enormous flag led the crowd in chants of ‘glory to Ukraine’, eliciting the deep roar of ‘glory to the heroes’. On this street, two demonstrators were shot dead only days before. The man screamed on, ‘glory to the nation,’ ‘death to the enemies’, ‘Ukraine above all’. These controversial chants, strongly associated with Ukraine’s fascist wartime movement give light to the fact that right wing groups, anathema to the European values they are fighting for, are represented amongst the crowd. The extent to which the protests have been co-opted by these extremist groups is a challenging topic. Certainly these protests are national in nature, in the face of domestic and international challenges to a Ukrainian nation. The difficulty I found was to reconcile the presence of violent nationalists alongside the majority of peaceful, pro-European, anti-Yanukovych protestors.  Reports in the media paint juxtaposing pictures: on the one hand, peaceful civil protests, where young and old alike come together against oppression and unite behind a European ideal. On the other, the new narrative of the violent conflict driven by roving gangs of extremist right wing thugs and provocateurs.

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As I wandered the Maidan I struggled to process it as a whole. It became clear to me as I walked through the protests and then out of the centre of Kyiv, into the frozen side streets and eerie calm of the rest of the city that the Maidan is not one thing. The movement is fluid and frustratingly difficult to characterize in the context of such a volatile political situation. Civic leaders from the leader of the Crimean tartars to the Orthodox church choir appear on stage only meters away from a prominent portrait of Stepan Bandera, the symbolic leader of Ukraine’s  violent wartime nationalist movement.  The contradictions are evident within EuroMaidan, it is not exclusively peaceful; it is not totally violent. Maidan is not innocent nor is it an unacceptable expression of 20th century fascism.

The ‘front-lines’ of Hrushevskoho Street exudes the juvenile machismo of young men dressed up in the uniform of war, wielding sticks. Yet many protestors are deeply professional, effective and sincere in their conflict with the police. I witnessed the absurd side of this when late on Friday night in -18 C weather, amidst exploding fireworks and the furnace of burning tires, a protestor on the frontlines stood astride on a burnt out bus, took off his coat and shirt, turned to the crowd, and held a revving chain saw aloft, knowing full well that the billowing smoke behind him illuminated his stance to the lenses of the photographers below. This seems absurd, overly violent and representative of the juvenile element. As I turned to leave the barricades, my perceptions were again challenged. In a bid to disperse the water from the police cannons protestors were carving channels through the ice, forcing the torrent down the street. Further down countless protestors where arranging bags of ice to direct the flow into a drain and prevent the barricades turning into an ice rink.

Nationalists, pro-Europeans, violent thugs, frustrated revolutionaries, and numerous other sub-categories and groups mean that these protests are too diverse to be simply described as one or the other. They have emerged together as part of a large social movement, which, whilst empowering and impressive in many aspects, has darker aspects. I saw symbols of the far-right and, as my stay went on, increasing numbers of paramilitary training exercises.  This worrying trend threatens to overshadow the side of the protests which has some people, who previously were indifferent about politics in Ukraine motivated to camp out on a freezing square and participate in a grass-roots protest against their government.

I went to Ukraine to learn more about EuroMaidan as much as to experience this moment in Ukraine’s history. I returned with a better understanding of the make-up of the coalition of protestors but also a strong sense of the anger and disillusionment of the demonstrators. I wanted to see what EuroMaidan had become two months on from the original occupation of the square. In contrast to the euphoria of Euro 2012 I witnessed a deep disillusionment and anger amongst people who had hoped that tournament to become the beginning of Ukraine’s European journey. The EuroMaidan is an impressive feat, yet poses as many questions as it does solutions. Certainly Ukraine’s European journey hinges on its success.

Images courtesy of Ilya Varlamov http://zyalt.livejournal.com/982589.html

Embrace the Abyss: Favourites of the Moon (1984)

Slovo27 January 2014

This review of Otar Iosseliani’s Favourites of the Moon by our Executive Editor Eugenia Ellanskaya recently appeared in the Soviet cinema journal Obskura:

It is 1984 and it’s almost the dusk of the USSR. In other words: high time to submerge into the full cacophony of life’s true diversity and casual perverseness. Favourites of the Moon  (Les favoris de la lune) is possibly one of the greatest delicatessens in the alternative Soviet cinema scene. The film’s pretension to an aristocratic and elegant flow is as intricate and disguising as the superficial lifestyles of its characters. Its illusion of beauty and aesthetics seems to hide nothing other than a careless abyss. And guess what? There seems absolutely nothing wrong with that! Embrace the abyss! The movie’s walking-pace speed literally pulls you into a stroll across what seems as random and parallel lives of people, unburdened by thoughts of their long-term ‘destination’ – a suggested happiness recipe in a close-to-apocalypse Soviet society?

Iosseliani is a master architect who builds and tosses around social stratums, giving us surprising combinations of their interaction, which even they aren’t always aware of. An all-penetrating image of a painting and a set of luxury china dinner plates recur throughout the film, taking us from the black and white world of stability to a colourful film of relationship chaos. The black and white images of courting and stern ascetics keep on appearing from time to time alongside the modern timeline, where everything is rushed, stressful and, in the end, truly purposeless. Each social strata has its own philosophy and convincing morals, which are never dwelt on too deeply, but are shown as if at a glimpse of a walker-by.

The picturesque black and white world of The Favourites of the Moon

The picturesque black and white world of The Favourites of the Moon

Iosseliani gives each character a chance to take over the objects (the painting and the china dishes) and reveal themselves through it. The ‘upper class’ is gripped in a superficial status-seeking consumption of aesthetics. The illusion the audience too appears involved in… The rich enter an involuntary nostalgia over the aristocratic and genuine 18th century, when the objects were made. They borrow these status props as shamelessly as they rehearse dinner quotes in order to impress their host, and remove socially inconvenient elements, like a disabled family member, from a dinner party. The stressful pace of the diverse colourful world shows people, who are too busy to catch up with the full moral package of the black and white world. But the world has long since been reversed and interrupted by the brief wallpaper still, which is actually full of information:

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This wallpaper’s soundtrack of shooting and explosions might not necessarily imply a war per se, but a symbolic collapse of the old social order. It is followed by a random appearance of a white horse indoors, which somewhat awkwardly and clumsily stamps on the already familiar broken china plates:

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From now on the objects are passed on, modified, broken or stolen…What the rich had broken or lost, forsaking faith in the objects’ repairability, regains its meaning back in the hand of the ‘mob’, the local prostitutes and bin men who try to mend it. This seems symbolic of the hypocrisy and social role play which is never what it seems. In the end, it is the thieves and the prostitutes who are truly loyal to their friends, all sharing a kin relation: the prostitute and thief argue over the “up-bringing” of their “child”, a young thief accomplice.

Although things said remain the same between past and the modern worlds, they surely mean very different things. As the film suggests, the silence the actors are so afraid of breaking in both worlds is at the expense of truth in one case and stupidity in the other. Be it a change of ideology or social paradigms that gives different meaning to silence, we will never know what was unsaid, as both worlds are muted and polluted by worldly chats, as if the director is avoiding direct confrontation… just yet. It is interesting that Iosseliani, a Soviet Georgian, moved to France at the time of the film’s making precisely to avoid Soviet censorship, but is he ready to speak the unspoken? Either way, for now we are expected to continue to admire the aesthetic illusion, which the film is so rich in.

Favourites of the Moon is a provocation. A convincing provocation which asks us to rethink our class conceptions and biases. It upturns our comfortable ideology. It forces us to accept the unexpected niche of nobility amongst the mob and sympathise with the unsympathisable. Like the quote from Shakespeare at the beginning of the film, Iosseliani wants to elevate the prostitutes, tramps and thieves into the new and possibly only domain of hope and nobility, which the rich are only superficially rehearsing. Long live the knights of the night, the favourites of the moon, the whores and the tramps!

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As much as everything about this movie promotes excess, class and nonchalance, glorifying form over content, it seems that Iosseliani is also aware of the futility of everything he has glorified in the lifestyles of the characters. It is therefore a caricature, with comic casual explosions, but also seriously perverse social implications of cheating, stealing and so on. And yet Favourites of the Moon is not revolutionary. Neither is it a strong statement. Surprisingly, it is unlike some aggressive Soviet taboo breaking movies. Instead it comes across as a calm and even helpless meditation over the not so great Western reality of the superficial nouveau riche and the romanticised life of the mob. Confronted by the Western reality Iosseliani must have too learnt (or chose?) not to judge, but meditate over this liberal social reality and accept – an attempt to let go of the strong ideological claims and arguments at least for the time being.

Originally published on http://www.obskura.co.uk/favourites-of-the-moon/

From a Rollin’ Stone to Moving Mountains or the Process of Democratic Change in Bulgaria

Slovo15 January 2014

The wall around Parliament branded with caricatures of PM Oresharski          Photo: Vassil Garnizov

The wall around Parliament branded with caricatures of PM Oresharski Photo: Vassil Garnizov

Democracy has solidified into a brittle façade of the actual political system in Bulgaria; the future has become a laughing matter; access to truth is contested and politics has become the dirtiest word of all. Freedom of the press is the second lowest in Eastern Europe according to the 2013 annual report by Reporters Without Borders. The National Assembly is entirely barricaded by a metal wall, while police officers, in their thousands, have spent most of the Christmas holiday guarding the empty building. A few feet down the road, the St. Kliment Ohrdiski University of Sofia remained under occupation for over three months by ‘the Early Rising Students’, who demand their voice and their future back. Daily protests gather in the centre of Sofia and pass through Parliament and the University and block traffic around the evening rush hour.

This is how Bulgarians welcomed the New Year. At midnight on the 31st December in the city square, where thousands of people had gathered to welcome the New Year, the mood was far from festive. Chants of ‘resign’ were outweighing the fireworks as well as the organized concert. This was no time for celebration within a country utterly divided. On 1st January, after more than 200 days of protests, the government approval rate had fallen below 10%, while more than 80% supported the protesters, according to a poll by Alpha Research Agency.

From the RectoratePhoto: Yanne Golev

From the Rectorate Photo: Yanne Golev

On the eve of 2014, I moved from the square, passed the barricaded Parliament (a barricade that was built a day after the twenty-fourth anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall) and joined the students, who had decided to stay in the occupied lecture hall. If there is a message that I can pass along after spending almost a month in Bulgaria, it is a message of unity. Despite the predictable ripples and difficulties noticeable in the structure of the students and the protest movement, unofficially represented by the Protest Network group, things are changing. From the ground up, reshaping one discourse at a time: rethinking the past, the 1989 revolution, the advent of democracy, the meaning of freedom.

A short retrospect: twenty-four years ago, Bulgaria did not experience that revolutionary change visible in Central Europe. It did not participate in the ground-breaking and seemingly universal process of a ‘rectifying revolution’, of a ‘return to history’, which Jürgen Habermas foresaw in 1990. It was said that countries like Poland and Czechoslovakia revolted against a foreign regime and civilization that hundreds of thousands of people went out in the streets demanding a return to the path of modernity, to progress, to their destiny as part of Europe. It was a process of unfreezing of history, a liberation par excellence.

In Bulgaria, the end of the totalitarian regime resembled a palace coup, in which the old regimes liquidated a highly dysfunctional Soviet-style repressive regime and laid the groundwork for a gradual transition towards a democracy. It laid the groundwork for a very specific kind of façade democracy, where a silent continuity of the past was achieved. Democracy and freedom were granted to the people, who one day were simply told that they had certain new rights and responsibilities. But the meaning of the universal principles of democracy and freedom were significantly altered by the elites in charge of facilitating the transition period.

The biggest and most lasting success of the protest movement, which began as a spontaneous mass public outrage at government unaccountability and corruption, was unearthing exactly how deeply those notions have been altered and who, in fact, is in control of the dominant discourses about the truth regarding the past, present, and the future. It showed how a significant portion of the Bulgarian population, citizens assuming the existence of basic rights and freedoms, have become completely excluded from the political processes and have had their public voice all but silenced. It turned out that their demands for a functioning democracy were not only met by the government but that they were seen as a threat leading to the mobilization of thousands of police officers and the permanent barricading of Parliament. It turned out that Politics was in fact directly dislocated from the people. An effective façade democracy.

“From all parts of the world, we ask for your resignation”

Bulgaria, a country known for its troubled path towards democratization, its uneasy energy and geopolitical relationship with Russia, and its highly atomized and isolated society, is changing. On December 26th, in the largest protests of recent months, more than 4000 people gathered in Sofia, from all parts of the world, to join in the struggle for democracy and for a return to Europe. The unofficial organization representing Bulgarians abroad #ДАНСwithmeGlobal co-organized the protest with the Early Rising Students and the Protest Network. It was the first time that a united protest front was solidified and the first time that they all walked, side by side, down the streets of Sofia. And their message is clear: reorienting the country towards democratic consolidation and European integration.

The most vivid symbol of this highly anticipated democratic revival in Bulgaria are the students. They are the ‘children of the transition’, the personification of the political, social, existencial crisis that has marked their nation and their individual biographies. They occupied the University because they saw no options of professional and personal realization in their futures. They refused to remain passive, while an increasingly isolated political elite continued to shape their reality. They wanted to have a say about who they are and who they ought to be.

The students have made one very important step forward – fascilitating public debate. They are organizing round tables, where professors, experts, and politicians will be invited to sit down in the University and discuss the functioning of all the democratic institutions in Bulgaria and how to reorient politics in the right path. It is an important step forward in a highly stifled public sphere, where people often feel their voice, vote, or vision is irrelevant to the actual goings on out there in the State. It is the vital process of (re)consolidating the foundations of a polis. And it is affecting the right of passage to the truth because they represent an increasingly powerful alternative to the official discourse funelled through the mass print and broadcast media in support of those in power.

And those in power represent the highly structured and well financed Bulgarian Socialist Party – the brain-child and beneficiary of the pre-1989 Bulgarian Communist Party. A party infiltrated by ex-Secret Service members with large dossiers, powerful businessmen and politicians; all those who benefited directly both before and after the fall of totalitarianism. The Socialist Party is also the most successful political party and has been in power longer than any other contendor. It has also remained the only party since the very first elections that has avoided dissentigration – until today.

Party members, among which the influenced member of the European Parliament and former Foreign Minister Ivaylo Kalfin, have one by one defected from the party amidst the growing pressure caused on it by the protests. They have joined former President Georgi Parvanov (still a member of the Socialists) in his new political party called the New Bulgarian Revival. This is the first time in recent history that we see a challenge to the left forming in Bulgaria. And it’s big news because, among all else, it is showing a changing political topography.

The protests started off calling for the resignation of the Socialist-led Cabinet amidst emense corruption and unaccountability charges. Over the months and due to continual silence by Prime Minister Plamen Oresharski in connection to those charges, the protests evolved into a powerful discursive alternative regarding both the past and the future – i.e. deconstructing the facades behind the political regime and its geopolitical orientation. Today, the protests have all but fully delegitimized the official discourse presented by the Socialist Party and present a hugely popular alternative about politics, democracy and even the totalitarian past. So successful I might add that it slowly silencing the powerful voice of the Socialist party and all its media backing.

Several weeks ago, broadcast journalists were asking their guests if they were not tired of protesting and the newspapers wrote of the ‘death of the protests’; today those questions seem to resonate of a very different world. Today, the narrative is about when the government will resign – in February or May, when the election for EU representatives will be held. It is a process that emulates the events of 1997, when once again the Socialist Party succumbed to mass outrage at hyperinflation and Bulgarians elected a government set on promoting economic reform and European integration. This time, because the protests have been solidifying for seven months, extending their network, polishing their message, this time change is looking for permanency: a permanent discontinuity of the past – of both its elites, structures and discourses – a vital step forward in the decentered, gradual and positive move towards post-communism (as a way of life) and democracy.

By Nikolay Nikolov

A General Assembly inside the occupied Lecture Hall

A General Assembly inside the occupied Lecture Hall

Pussy Riot Amnesty: Event of the Year?

Slovo2 January 2014

The icon caricature of Pussy Riot

The icon caricature of Pussy Riot

The chances are you have already heard/had enough of Pussy Riot and their ground-breaking punk prayer. Indeed, the scandalous art performance has pretty much dominated the ever so popular international media theme of human rights and ideological totalitarianism in Russia. With popularity of such recurrent themes, it was a great media catch when the punk prayer happened in 2012. Although aimed at the central religious locale – Christ the Saviour Cathedral – it seems the feminist girl band had little ambition or care to get where they are today. Their acceleration to celebrities and role models of democracy and anti-government oppression movement has been swift; the following two year prison sentence – a great achievement in validating the oppressiveness of the regime.

What was little expected is the event of the year: the Pussy Riot amnesty. Their early release in December 2013 as part of the Russian Constitution anniversary occurred just in time to gain positive media momentum before the Olympic Games.  Although approved martyrs of a postmodern epoch, PR performance itself has been disliked even by the most liberal supporters of their cause. Not to say, that popularity was ever on their agenda. As the members of the group said in their awkward first out-of-prison interview, they do not act to be liked, they act to make people think. And so it is. It is hard to think of someone left indifferent or without a say on the matter, as the irony shows. From being seen as hooligans, blasphemers and psychotic feminists, to becoming venerated as  ‘prisoners of consciousness’, human rights defenders and secular martyrs….they have even been compared to Jesus Christ himself, as their equally eccentric colleague Pyotr Pavlensky (yes, the one who nailed his private parts to the Red Square) suggests.

I too share ambiguous feelings towards the group. At the same time I cannot help realising that it has done a lot more than it has anticipated: it really did make people think and discuss. Not just about the nauseating cliché subjects in Russia-related news (human rights, Putin, totalitarianism), but the social experiment itself. That of the merging of the three foundations of human social life: politics, religion and art, and the bizarre outcomes it can lead to.