(K)not Politics: Thoughts on Ukraine and Protest

by | 1 Mar 2014

Freedom and Kiev central square, Maidan Nezalezhnosti.

Freedom and Maidan Nezalezhnosti, Kiev’s central square.

The events in Ukraine have caused many to wonder what sparked the protests in November and why things unfolded into such violence this February. How do we understand European and Russian interest in this country, and what media, what sources of information can be trusted? Ukraine has once again raised the question of the political; the question of Europe; the spectre of Cold War Empires.

Perhaps unlike the many other horrid, violent dictatorships that are continuing to oppress people (DRC) or uprisings that imminently threaten more bloodshed (Venezuela), Ukraine encapsulates twentieth century political mythology. Onto Ukraine, the fantasies of the Cold War continue to be projected. It is the country bordering Russia, the European Union and the Black Sea. It is economically rich in resources: natural gas, agriculture and access to the Black Sea. The flow of the Dnipro River, immortalised in folklore and legends pre-dating medieval European history, symbolises Ukraine’s vibrant existence. From centuries of trade, and the turmoil of raids and occupying forces, Ukraine has established a rich cultural diversity.

The recent demonstrations and upheaval in Ukraine compel us to take note of Europe, of its politics. What does it mean to think and organise differently?  Because, in the words of people in Maidan (the place, Independence Square, that became the event), what Ukraine needs is a paradigm shift, not a replacement government.

As I write this, the European Parliament prepares to enter meetings in Strasbourg to discuss the future of Ukraine (27 Feb 2014). Listening to European politicians it seems that the movement for the past three months in Kyiv, which culminated in a bloody attack of government forces on its own people, was always about Europe. The European Parliament seems to have little time for populations as anything other than economic consumers and producers. In the games of geo-politics, there is little space afforded to the people. For Russia, Ukraine has been and continues to be a strategic necessity. It is in Russia’s interest to discredit any attempts to shift power in Ukraine. Russian officials have continuously denied Ukraine’s independence and refer to Ukraine as a Russian state.

There is considerable attention given to Ukraine’s position between Russia and the EU. Less analysis goes to the social revolt happening in Ukraine, the protest of the people that does not follow one political leader or one orientation for the future. What to make of this?

In order to understand what the Maidan came to signify, we would do well to think of Jean-Luc Nancy’s discussions (drawing on Derrida among others) of the political and of politics. Nancy writes of a politics that needs to be detaching from itself.1Nancy 2012, ‘The Political and/or Politics’ unpublished lecture for Derrida Konferenz, Goethe-Universitat Frankfurt am Main, 14 March 2012 Frankfurt. In the movement of people, the masses of bodies coming together to demonstrate their disaffection, one can see a different register of politics.

This different register is detached from the confines and recognisable categories of political frames, political action, and political involvement. This is a politics that is ‘beyond’, but it is not external to the time and place of the dominant frame of the political. Neither is this detaching a transcendent movement. Rather, this politics is the sense of what is happening beyond the politics framed according to known parameters, hence, in Ukraine this means beyond the European Union, Russian East versus European West. In order to understand the social revolt that has brought the ‘crisis in Ukraine’ to international attention, it is important to recognise the movement of the social, the coming together of people.

The people, in all their diversity and dissonance, have come together and discovered their disruptive political power on the Maidan. These same people are the social element necessary for the reproduction of the labour market and economic progress. Yet these people—persons, bodies, physical masses—remain external to the language of post-uprising: they remain without a clearly articulated political goal or resolution.

The physical presence in Maidan continues as an interruption of ‘business as usual’. Although some members of the newly appointed government are those that emerged as leaders in the Maidan, the movement itself is simply a movement for change. Gone are the days of shiny new leaders promising a better future. No clear leadership emerged within the Maidan because what the people have been calling for is not a new leader to replace the old, but a paradigm change. Even when she was released from prison and arrived in Maidan, Yulia Tymoshenko was not able to capture the crowds. The people are not for the ‘capturing’.

They have awoken to their power as a movement. But a movement that is just that: movement. The mourning, the shock, the trauma of the past few days shows that this is not a civil war where east fights west, or Russia fights Europe. Ukraine is a country whose leadership kept its citizens silent for years, then shot them down in the streets when they would not go quietly home. But there are no more flaming words and rhetoric. Now, this is a country in pain, but a new pain that brings a collective consciousness against deceitful, corrupt leadership. This, at least for now, is a social revolution that no shiny leader will be able to capitalise upon and define as her/his own.

There is surprisingly little talk of promises for what the government will bring beyond change and a commitment to work. In the words of newly appointed acting Prime Minister, Arseniy Yatsenyuk — ‘this is the government of political suiciders’ because the time ahead will be one of making very difficult and unpopular decisions. Mainly, because decisions undoubtedly need to be made and constituted, which will by the very nature of decision-making enact a new violence that will disrupt and silence movement.

The hope continues that people will remain, physically and collectively standing for nothing less than a redefinition of politics, of government and of leadership. In doing so, people are demonstrating that within the social, coming together of persons, there is a freedom that is the experience of freedom itself, as an interruptive, albeit finite, burst.2Nancy 1993, The Experience of Freedom (Stanford University Press) 57.

Nancy has suggested thinking of the social as “a banal phenomenology of unorganised gatherings of people.”3Ignaas Devisch 2013, Jean-Luc Nancy and the Question of Community (Bloomsbury) 116. The social is what is already happening and departing from the categories that seek to capture and render it operative. And thus, the social will always continue.

But the question remains of what language, what form do we have that will recognise but not limit and stifle the experience of the social. Nancy suggests thinking of a ‘politics of the tie’, politics as a gesture that is the (k)not ‘as always still to be tied’.4Nancy 1997, 103. This is a thinking of politics as always passing inside and outside of what is inscribed and what is exscribed away from the text of the inscription.5the sense of what is experienced, in the ‘banal phenomenology of the social’, is “neither word nor concept, neither signifer nor signified, but sending and divergence, and nonetheless (or even for that very reason) to be a gesture of writing, the breaking (frayage) and forcing of an a the entire signification and destination of which … the ‘a’ is to exscribe itself: to go up and touch the concretion of the world where existence makes sense.” (Nancy 1997, 14) This gesture is an interruption of the foundational myths that form the building blocks of our frames of reference. In other writing, Nancy has pursued the imperative to re-engage with the question of community, in order that we may “expose ourselves to what has gone unheard in community”.6Nancy 1991, The Inoperative Community (University of Minnesota Press) 26.  What is unheard comes from the exscription, from what is outside definition but not outside of experience.7For a discussion of exscription in Nancy’s work see Derrida 2004, On Touching—Jean-Luc Nancy (Stanford University Press) 298-299.

The people in Maidan, without a clearly articulated leader, without a clear aim and vision of the future, are the exscription of politics. They are the excess of economic discussions of Ukraine’s political future, and the excess of Europe. Exscription and the bodies of those demonstrating, in life as well as in death, their opposition to pre-determined political language and action. It is an instance of community’s resistance, a “moment—when the in of the ‘in-common’ erupts, resists, and disrupts the relations of need and force—annuls collective and communal hypostases.”8Nancy 1991, xl.

The participants of economic and social re/production are ‘in’ the common. And yet when they are disruptive, by the very inoperativity of their togetherness, they are exscribed from the presupposed in-common. To think away from a presupposed in-common, the dominant forms of community or society, community needs to be thought of, according to Marie-Eve Morin, as a theoretical excess that would entail an alternate praxis of discourse and community. But, in truth, we are left with the necessity of speaking—the alternate praxis can therefore only go so far.9Marie-Eve Morin 2012 Jean-Luc Nancy (Polity Press) 85.

The necessity of speaking can refer to the inevitability of communication that silences (or favours) certain relations or modes of being. But it can also be the necessity, or inevitability, of law and politics that make the inoperative, operative. In other words, the tying the (k)not.10“Not politics as a desire and quest for sense, but as an infinite tying up of sense from the one to the one, or as a tying up of this infinity that sense is—abandoning consequently all self-sufficiency of subject or city, allowing neither subject nor city to appropriate a sovereignty and a community that can only be those of this infinite tying.” (Nancy 1997, 111).

People and society depend on a limit and a formed identity to inform their own being in the world. However, the simultaneity at work in this inscription of identity is being unravelled by what is in excess of it, what is exscribed. The task is then to grapple with the need for a frame and the knowledge that the frame will always be questioned, transgressed and must respond to practices ‘on the ground’. How do we think of tying the (k)not in a way that is different, where

in being tied, ceaselessly makes the inside pass outside, each into (or by way of) the other, the outside inside, turning endlessly back on itself without returning to itself – the link of the melee and intrigue, confrontation and arrangement, need and desire, constraint and obligation, subjection and love, glory and pity, interest and disinterest.11Nancy 1993, 111.

Ukrainians are living in the “irreversible gap between all the various “possibilities of being” and the political sphere proper, which must arrange the access”.12Nancy, 2012. It is happening, being experienced in Parliament and amongst the people who are mourning the shock and trauma of the 20th of Feb, who are looking to each other with uncertainty as to what will come next.

Can we resist the framing and the capturing of a movement? People did not die in order to transition from one government to another. The important issue in Ukraine now is not the question of a coalition government, it is about transforming how politics is organised. How to rebuild morality? What does it mean to have trust in politics? Can trust and politics coexist?

Can a fractured nation be rebuilt differently? Or in the words of Jean-Luc Nancy, is it “too late to found a State of any kind and too early to have an intimation of something else, to draw up another form”?

And what of Europe, an “Empire (which is neither a State nor a form just a flux)”?13Nancy, 2012. The fate of Ukraine is not determined, in spite of the forces that condition and frame into palatable and known economic terms. What future might be possible for Ukraine if we continue the battle begun in Maidan? What of other movements throughout the world continuing to demand that we shift our view of what is politics and what is the social away from dominant categories towards the messiness and incoherence that is remaining open to the exscription?

Timeline leading up to February 2014

Ukraine. Independence from USSR in 1991.

January 2005: Orange Revolution. Aborted attempt at democratic reform with election of Viktor Yushchenko as President and the appointment of Yulia Tymoshenko as Prime Minister. Victor Yanukovych lost the election and leads the opposition.

February 2010: most recent Presidential election won by Victor Yanukovych, Party of Regions. Elected with approx. 900,000 votes more than rival Yulia Tymoshenko.

When Yanukovych came into power he changed the constitution from a mix of a parliamentary/presidential power, to a presidential system. He made this constitutional change through the constitutional court, which is dominated by his political appointees. Within the presidential system, parliament has limited input and Yanukovych is able to make appointments as he pleases.

Main opposition during previous election was imprisoned: Yulia Tymoshenko (Prime Minister before 2010 elections), Batkivshchyna party.

Opposition in Parliament:  Arseniy Yatsenyuk (Batkivshchyna), Oleksandr Turchynov (interm president, Batkivshchyna), Vitalyi Klitschko (Udar), Petro Poroshenko (non-aligned), Oleh Tyahnybok (Svoboda)

In Maidan: there are few leaders identified with parties, although one has ties to the Batkivshchyna party, most are without party affiliation; AutoMaidan is the group that has organised food distribution and medical clinics – one of the leaders, Dmytro Bulatov, was abducted and tortured. There is also a faction of right-wing Russian and Ukrainian speakers who do not support any leader, do not trust the EU, or Russia.

24 November 2013: over 100,000 people gathered in Kyiv to protest President Yanukovych’s rejection of an agreement that would strengthen trade with the European Union. Instead, Yanukovych and his cabinet (his army of corruption) comfortably continued to party it up with Putin and Medved.

30 November: Protests were peetering out and then at 4 a.m. the morning of Nov. 30th special units of the internal police (the Berkuty) were instructed to violently clear the maidan of the remaining (and mainly sleeping) student protesters. Many fled to the historic St. Michael’s monastery where a makeshift infirmary was established. The bells of the monastery tolled which historically signalled an attack on the city. Among the injured are students, bystanders, and members of the media. Tens of thousands of citizens came to the Maidan. The overwhelming sentiment: “how could they attack our children?”

1 December: the Maidan in Kyiv was completely occupied by protestors. An immense tent city sprang up, and grew in numbers throughout December, in spite of the cold, the snow, and the ongoing police raids of the tent city and also of people’s homes. University professors, Doctors, Church leaders were followed home on a regular basis by undercover Berkut or police. Some were awakened in the middle of the night by loud knocking on their door, followed by verbal threats that if they continued their support (by which ‘support’ meant non-condemnation) of anti-government protests, there would be trouble.

17 December: Putin agreed to buy 15 billion dollars of Ukrainian debt, and to reduce the price of Russian gas supplies to Ukraine (skip ahead to Feb 2014, and there is no doubt as to how Ukraine accumulated such national debt, based on Yanukovych and friends’ life-style expenditures).

The occupation in Maidan continued into January. A Rada or Council of the Maidan is elected and significantly avoids being dominated by the political opposition. Maidan is taking its place as an independent social and political force.

Between 16-28January 2014: Parliament passes anti-protest laws that made it illegal to wear helmets and block public buildings. Kyiv citizens donned helmets and pots and anything that looked like a helmet in defiance of the law. The occupation of Maidan withstood this law, and on the 28th, Parliament voted 361 to 2 to repeal the law. Ukrainian Prime Minister (Mykola Azarov) resigned. Yanukovych offered the post to one of the opposition leaders, Arseniy Yatsenyuk, who refused. The opposition leaders only agreed to meet Yanukovych after the approval was given by those assembled on the Maidan.

This was not the time for conceding to Yanukovych and the Party of Regions. In a similar spirit, an amnesty bill to drop the charges on those arrested if protestors left the square/occupation of government buildings, was proposed. The opposition rejected the law.

Meanwhile, 2 protestors are shot dead. The body of Yuriy Verbytsky is found in a forest after having been tortured, and multiple stories of abductions, torture and physical intimidation by police targeting people coming to and from Maidan square are reported.

Between 16-18 February: 234 arrested protestors are released. The charges against them remain for a few days, and then on the 17th the charges are dropped.

18 February: while Yanukovych speaks publicly to the media of amnesty, 18 people die in clashes between people in Maidan and Berkut (the special forces riot police squad).

18/19 Feb: the Opposition put forth a bill to change back to a mixed Parliamentary/Presidential system. The Speaker of the House (a friend of Yanukovych’s/appointed by Yanukovych) did not register the amendment, thus preventing it from being debated in Parliament.

The Opposition question the Speaker’s manoeuvre. People organise outside the Parliament buildings.

Yanukovych calls for a truce. He says the protestors must look for a peaceful resolution, and that he stands for peace and justice. And yet at the same time, he calls for anti-terrorism measures (ie. free reign on violence) to be taken against disruptive forces. There is a rising fear of the army being called in (documents have since been found that show a signed authorisation of military action in Maidan).

19 Feb: Berkut presence in Maidan is justified based on saying that there are thieves and bandits present. Meanwhile, police fire grenades into the building where Maidan organisers were based. That set the building on fire, and people died in the flames because they could not get out in time.

20 Feb: early in the morning, buses move into Maidan and it looks as if Berkuty are leaving … people are unsure as to what is happening, and the people who are giving information on the stage in Maidan ask everyone to remain calm and stay within the barricades of Maidan. Berkuty and the government publicly announce that they are armed only with rubber bullets.

As uncertainty rises, word spreads that armed police, snipers, are on the rooftops of the buildings surrounding Maidan (Hotel Ukraina among others). The shots they fire are with real bullets, some police are seen firing AK-47s. Snipers are shooting people who cross the perimeter of the Maidan; people are being shot directly in the head, chest, and neck. This includes shots aimed directly at medics as they rescue and carry out the wounded.

The body count of those dead from Feb. 20 stands at 82 people. Over 500 people were wounded and cared for in makeshift hospitals around the core of the city.

12 regional leaders publicly declared their support for the people. In various parts of the country, Berkuty groups have surrendered to the people. Restaurants, cafes, shops have opened to become shelters, medical centres and sites of respite. Police from Lviv travel to Kyiv to offer support to the people.

This is a revolution demonstrating a paradigm shift in Ukrainian society. There is no trust in law, no trust is government, no trust in procedure — those with control over law, government, procedure are those who have murdered, silenced, ‘disappeared’, people who have opposed them. So what are the alternatives? Upheaval. Then hope.

20 Feb: after significant defections from Yanukovych’s party a majority in the Parliament of Ukraine adopted a resolution that demanded all military and police troops leave Kyiv, return to their ordinary place of service and stop using weapons against citizens. However, the speaker of the house (Parliament) is required to sign the resolution into law. And he, apparently, has fled to Budapest and is nowhere to be found.

21 Feb: after hours of negotiations brokered by EU foreign ministers Yanukovych and the Opposition leaders agree upon a way forward: early presidential elections and a return to the mixed Presidential/Parliamentary constitution, among other steps. Maidan is sceptical and leary that the politicians are betraying them once more. They demand Yanukovich’s immediate resignation and the arrest of all those implicated in the deaths on Maidan. Yanukovych refuses to resign.

22 Feb: Yanukovych flees, only to appear on TV claiming he was ousted by a coup d’etat. Russia supports this line, and regional leadership in Kharkiv and Crimea support the Russian narrative and argue that events in Kyiv have overturned a democratically elected government.

Parliament, now effectively controlled by the opposition forces, claims the right to rule in the “current extraordinary circumstances”. Olexander Turchynov is elected speaker and subsequently interim President.

Parliament commences to pass laws rolling back most of the repressive measures implemented under Yanukovych. It orders the release from jail of Yulia Tymoshenko.

Protests between pro-Yanukovych/Russia supporters and pro-Maidan supporters erupt in Kharkiv and Crimea. The Kharkiv regional governor, an appointee of Yanukovych, Mikhaylo Dobkin, at one point even stated that Yanukovych was too soft on the demonstrations and should have shot them all. Dobkin, and the mayor of Kharkiv, Gennady Kernes, have both apparently fled. Dobkin is still missing, whereas Kernes returned stating he had private business in Geneva.

Eastern Ukraine is dominated by a pro-Russian sentiment in many ways as a function of years of Russian influence and a lack of access to independent media. The (more open) television station Kanal-5 is not allowed to be broadcast in the East, whereas the official television channels from Russia are given free reign.

The Crimean peninsula is a potential area of strife with a majority Russian population, many of whom continue to keep their Russian citizenship (retired military personnel). It is also home to the Russian Black Sea fleet which has a base leased from Ukraine until 2042 (an agreement made by Yanukovych). However, the minority Crimean Tatars (resident there since the 13th century) are adamant in their support of ties with Ukraine. The peninsula has the status of an Autonomous Region with much greater independence from the central government than any province in Ukraine.

24 Feb: one of the senior officers of the elite police unit “OMEGA” held a press conference and verified protestors claims of the sniper activity by someone dressed in a Berkut uniform. However, he stated that the sniper(s) was shooting at both protestors and the police. He spoke of the illegal use of AK-47s by Berkut members and alluded to clear evidence of the involvement of a “third force”.

26 Feb: Opposition forces negotiated a new unity government to be headed by Arseniy Yatsenyuk as Prime Minister and including many leaders from the Maidan. Members of the cabinet are presented for approval to the Maidan, prior to the formal presentation in the Parliament on the 27th.

In spite of the establishment of a unity government the Maidan remains: “words are not enough” they will not disband until the new government demonstrates in action that it understands the meaning of transparency, anti-corruption, and respect for the rights of citizens.

The people want peace and they want change. In the words of one woman interviewed in Maidan on 24-Feb, the people want politicians who take their work seriously and professionally.

Anastasia Tataryn is a PhD Candidate at the School of Law, Birkbeck in London.

  • 1
    Nancy 2012, ‘The Political and/or Politics’ unpublished lecture for Derrida Konferenz, Goethe-Universitat Frankfurt am Main, 14 March 2012 Frankfurt.
  • 2
    Nancy 1993, The Experience of Freedom (Stanford University Press) 57.
  • 3
    Ignaas Devisch 2013, Jean-Luc Nancy and the Question of Community (Bloomsbury) 116.
  • 4
    Nancy 1997, 103.
  • 5
    the sense of what is experienced, in the ‘banal phenomenology of the social’, is “neither word nor concept, neither signifer nor signified, but sending and divergence, and nonetheless (or even for that very reason) to be a gesture of writing, the breaking (frayage) and forcing of an a the entire signification and destination of which … the ‘a’ is to exscribe itself: to go up and touch the concretion of the world where existence makes sense.” (Nancy 1997, 14)
  • 6
    Nancy 1991, The Inoperative Community (University of Minnesota Press) 26.
  • 7
    For a discussion of exscription in Nancy’s work see Derrida 2004, On Touching—Jean-Luc Nancy (Stanford University Press) 298-299.
  • 8
    Nancy 1991, xl.
  • 9
    Marie-Eve Morin 2012 Jean-Luc Nancy (Polity Press) 85.
  • 10
    “Not politics as a desire and quest for sense, but as an infinite tying up of sense from the one to the one, or as a tying up of this infinity that sense is—abandoning consequently all self-sufficiency of subject or city, allowing neither subject nor city to appropriate a sovereignty and a community that can only be those of this infinite tying.” (Nancy 1997, 111).
  • 11
    Nancy 1993, 111.
  • 12
    Nancy, 2012.
  • 13
    Nancy, 2012.


  1. Insightful reflection that gets at the core of the transformation. Now unfortunately being aggressively challenged by the geopolitical demands of Putin’s neo-Imperial vision of Russia.

  2. The politicians on both sides “within” are unappealing (and it seems to me equally dangerous). The groups of interests on the east and the west, “outside”, equally so. The interests I fear are, as usual, far greater and forcefully so, and that’s politics without a relation to the so-called political (whatever that may be – an aspiration, a hope for something of a change). You may be right to bemoan the loss or potential loss of the political discussion in its more ideal sense, but I fear, today (always?), that politics takes place in a much different way to the one envisioned by Nancy (whom I sympathize with).

    In this sense, I do not see, for instance, a revolution having taken place or taking place personally (but that observation I’d share and extend as to Greece and other places, contrary to some temporarily understandably enthusiastic views). I see plays, mostly, staged and at stake. And the plays will win. Politics is about plays and I think that this will not be changed or resisted. To think of a new political organization and distribution remains equally a good idea naturally but it is a matter on a different register to the system of politics as a matter of plays.

    The crucial practical question is, it seems, for a decision as to which side to go for, the EU (+IMF) or Russia? It is in my view a very hard decision and it should be made geopolitically and pragmatically not ideologically (as much as one would have liked the latter sense). I find relative benefits on both options to my surprise. PS- You can also “ask” the people and find out a majority for this or that option but that would not necessarily satisfy the ideological questions you raise I suspect, no? Nor would it necessarily give an answer to the practical question? and if it did does it not seem to be so currently that the majority would say let’s go with the Russians?
    And needless to say I say all this without knowing much about the matter other than what I hear on the radio and suspect historically. And above all I am sad to have followed the news on the many dead and injured protesters.
    Thanks for sharing your thoughts.


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