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e-flux conversations

Maidan and Beyond, Part I

On November 21, 2013, Ukrainian journalist Mustafa Nayem posted a call on Facebook to gather at Maidan square in Kyiv, a common site for civic dissent: “If you really want to do something, don’t just ‘like’ this post. Let’s meet at 10:30 p.m. near the monument of independence in the middle of the Maidan.” Nayem called for the protest after the Ukrainian government announced earlier that day that it would not sign a trade agreement with the European Union, and would halt further integration with Europe. This may seem like an unusual reason to rise up. But what started as an apparently minor attempt by the tiny Ukrainian creative class to carry out another “social media revolution” rapidly developed into a gigantic people’s uprising centered on Maidan square in Kyiv. It lasted for several months and resulted in hundreds of casualties, the violent overthrow of the regime, and the subsequent reshaping of the world map.

Scholars of social media may interpret the Maidan uprising as a brilliant example of how Facebook helped people start a revolution without resorting to a military coup or self-immolation. Yet it is all too easy to claim that everyone is Adbusters now. There is another, less enthusiastic view of the role of social media in world politics. For adherents of this view—such as Vladimir Putin and his ultra-nationalist supporters—the launching of the Maidan uprising was part of a covert Western plot to overthrow the reigning political regimes in the post-Soviet world. According to this view, just as the suicide of Mohamed Bouazizi was aimed directly at toppling not only Ben Ali of Tunisia but also Hosni Mubarak of Egypt and Bashar al-Assad of Syria, Mustafa Nayem’s Facebook post aimed ultimately to overthrow not just Victor Yanukovych of Ukraine, but also Aleksandr Lukashenko of Belarus, Nursultan Nazarbayev of Kazakhstan, and of course Vladimir Putin himself.

Disturbingly, the proponents of this theory are the same ones hosting Edward Snowden in exile and publishing Slavoj Žižek in Russian. They also possess one of the world’s largest nuclear arsenals. The theory is just one of the many components of Putin’s propaganda machine, which has allowed him to plunge Russian society into an anti-Western, militaristic hysteria, while he simultaneously tries to persuade the Western public that the real fascist threat now comes from the decaying post-Maidan interim government in Kyiv—and not from Russia itself. Meanwhile, the Russian government has expropriated sovereign territory, endorsed pro-Russian irredentist terrorists in Ukraine, staged spoof referendums, racially segregated Crimean Tatars in occupied Crimea, and pursued an ethnicization of international politics based on Russia’s alleged need to protect its apparently endangered Volksgenosse across the former USSR.

The scale of conspiratorial thinking in Russia is now comparable to that of the US after 9/11. But the problem with conspiracy theories is not the fact that they are false products of a paranoiac imagination, but rather that some conspiracies do exist. To reject this means to turn a blind eye to one of the many important tools of world politics. It thus seems crucial to avoid a simplistic opposition between middlebrow paranoiac thinking, and apparently enlightened reason unaware of its own blind spots. Thus, the first step toward a proper understanding of the Maidan movement in Ukraine is to replace the dominant question What is behind this? with the question What is beyond this?

Read the full article here.