Ukraine’s ‘Maidan Mentality’ Shows the World How to Resist Tyrants: Joe Lidsley Op-Ed
The protests in Ukraine and Georgia are very different from the protests in Paris, France and Ottawa, Canada: the latter are actually working. Here’s why.
Earlier this month, people in Tbilisi, Georgia, took to the streets and waved the American, Ukrainian and Georgian flags. They sang the Ukrainian national anthem. They were protesting a law deemed pro-Russian that would restrict freedom of expression and association. After a few days these public demonstrations worked: as a Georgian friend wrote to me: “We have returned to the European way for the time being” and then they went home, still alert, always ready to show themselves, but orderly, not out for it to cut off heads.
This mechanism, which refers to the Maidan, an old word for public square, is the main reason why Russia is trying to destroy Ukraine right now. Ukrainians have perfected a method of civil activism that doesn’t allow tyrants, even if the tyrant tries to send missiles at them. In 2013/14, young Ukrainians took a stand on the Maidan in Kiev against the corrupt, pro-Putin regime. When the secret police began to attack, older generations showed up and stood in solidarity for months without batting an eyelid.
The success of this moment gave Ukrainians a new self-confidence, hence the name “Revolution of Dignity”. As Russia continued to retake control, the Ukrainian people, emboldened by their successful revolution, enjoyed eight years of cultural renewal and innovative creativity: They had proved to themselves that they, the people, have agency – and they used their freedom well to Russia came back violently to brush it off.
I’ve studied political theory, including with freedom-fighting legends like Guillermo O’Donnell, who opposed the Pinochet regime, and friends of Václav Havel, the Czech revolutionary who opposed the Soviets. I’ve studied John Locke, Montesquieu, the American Founding Fathers, Aristotle, Cicero, Dostoyevsky – the great minds about how we govern ourselves, how we can live in freedom. After my time in Ukraine, pandemic and war, I am convinced that we need to update our basic political theory.
We had the idea that there were three branches of government, and for a long time the media called themselves the fourth estate and kept tabs on those branches. But in a true republican democracy, power rests not with the elites, including the media, but with the people. The Maidan is the fourth branch.
Its presence must be ghostly, because once “civil society” becomes an institution, it loses its authentic attachment to ordinary people. It is also spooky because the specter that people might carry onto the street is supposed to haunt those in power.
The Maidan mentality is not about violence or the quest for power. This self-restraint is essential to its durability – and that is why the Maidan is so powerful, in contrast to the violent protests we tend to see in France. Ottawa truckers attempted a revolution, but when the Trudeau administration cracked down on their bank records, people backed down. In France, people quickly resort to violence, burning things in the streets. That’s not a sustainable mentality.
In 2014, Ukrainians kept their discipline, didn’t flinch when the pro-Putin secret police fired their bullets, and didn’t fight among themselves, men and women of all ages, peacefully coexisting. On the Maidan, in Kiev, people organized themselves, creating their own security, food and living systems – the same ones I saw in the war. The pro-Putin President Yanukovych realized he could not stop this people’s machine, so he fled.
In Kiev, after the revolution, mostly the usual power-seekers sought political office. Most of the Maidan heroes did not go into politics: they were artists, poets, entrepreneurs, activists focused on making good use of their freedom. The selfless Maidan mentality allows society to function well, but what it doesn’t allow is a tyrant.
Moscow, Beijing and probably some regimes in the West are threatened by this spirit. And now Putin wants to destroy a soul and a mentality of freedom, and that’s actually the hardest thing and I think, as we see it here, impossible to destroy.
As many here and I have noted, in the early days of the war it was people’s self-mobilization, not government, that kept Ukraine free. The government was apparently taken by surprise by Russia’s attack. But from Kharkiv to Kiev, citizens took to the streets, erected barricades, and held their cities while the government struggled to create a war organization.
So many heroes of the Maidan die in battle every week, from the artist named Da Vinci to the corruption fighter Roman Ratushnyi to the athlete Dmutro Pashchuk. Ukraine is about to lose a generation of corruption fighters and creative minds.
But as a friend in Kharkiv said to me: “Today everyone here, man, woman, child, is a superhero.” Now all Ukrainians fighting an existential freedom struggle are action heroes, the whole country is a Maidan: standing, collaborative, fighting for freedom and culture, dignity and tolerance.
This is the new fourth branch of democratic government: the most real and authentic, the Maidan.