The Autumn of Nations 1989 and the Ukrainian Winter 2013-14

View of Dynamivska str. Euromaidan Protests. Events of Jan 21, 2

The “Autumn of Nations” as metaphor for the fall of communism in Europe plays on the reference to the revolutions of 1848 as the “Spring of Nations”. “Autumn” stands for the “end of history”, the political maturity of the Central and Eastern European nations and their eventual “return to Europe”. Yet seasonal metaphors can be ambiguous when applied to the Ukrainian political crisis that began at the end of 2013, and to Russia’s subsequent annexation of Crimea and subversion in eastern and southern Ukraine. In Moscow, pro-Russian separatist movements in Ukraine have been called a “Russian spring”[1] – the beginning of a new gathering of the “ethnic Russian lands”. The metaphor of “autumn”, meanwhile, fits the dominant Russian discourse on Europe as aging and decadent civilization that has lost its indigenous values and power instincts. This confusion of metaphors reveals nothing less than the crisis of the post-1989 European order. Prospects of a new Cold War[2] are becoming real and a fully-fledged military conflict at the centre of the European continent no longer seems impossible. From this perspective, we should look back and reassess the meaning of 1989 and its consequences on recent European history.

The triumphal narrative of 1989 presents the revolutions in Poland, Hungary, East Germany, Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia and Romania as a wave of civil resistance and broad popular opposition to the local communist regimes. This narrative, however, often obscures the fact that the fall of these regimes was only possible because Moscow’s grasp on its satellites had weakened. The liberal fraction of the Soviet ruling elite, led by Mikhail Gorbachev, believed that confrontation between the two political blocs should cede to a “common European house” reaching from the Atlantic to Vladivostok. Forcing loyalty from the Central and Eastern European Soviet “brother states” became too costly for Moscow both politically and economically.

This is even truer of the former Soviet republics, where the end of communist rule finally arrived in 1991 hand in hand with national independence. As part of the same chain reaction, political changes in the (post-)Soviet space were not a home-grown phenomenon but the result of the collapse of the imperial centre. With the exception of western Ukraine and the Baltic states, there was neither a mass opposition movement in these countries, nor did the end of communist rule bring significant change in the governing elites. Hopes for democracy, freedom and prosperity drowned in a wave of Soviet nostalgia. Even if the declarations of state independence in 1991 entered the official calendars, a myth of national revolution comparable to the ’89 revolutions in East Central Europe is largely absent in the post- Soviet space. The “Orange Revolution” in Ukraine in 2004 was proclaimed as the “birth of a nation”, but this myth faded after only a few years. Whil e the “Ukrainian winter” of 2013 -2014 marks a more profound shift in the country’s political culture, it remains to be seen whether the promise of the “Third Republic” as revival of the Ukrainian project will be fulfilled.

1991 as a political symbol and site of memory is even more problematic in post-Soviet Russia. The initial meaning of August 1991 as the birthdate of a new democratic Russia and liberation from Communist rule has been gradually transformed into a symbol of defeat and unconditional surrender to the West – or, in Putin’s words, the “greatest geopolitical disaster of the twentieth century”. Russia’s annexation of Crimea and its continuing aggression towards Ukraine sealed this negative interpretation of 1991 as the point in contemporary Russian history when “everything went wrong”. According to Fyodor Lukyanov, editor -in-chief of Russia in Global Politics , what Putin is doing today is attempting to return to 1989/91 and alter the post-Cold War European order, in which Russia has de facto been a defeated country.[3]

The topos of the ’89 Revolutions has meanwhile become a cornerstone of the narrative of a united, post- Cold War Europe. No wonder, then, that the “Ukrainian winter” of 2013 -2014 is often seen as a delayed revolution aimed at completing the post-communist transition. It started as a mass movement in support of the pro-western course and in opposition to the decision of the Ukrainian government to postpone the signing of the Association Agreement with the European Union. Although the agreement offered Ukraine no prospect of EU membership, for many in the country it was the Ukrainian equivalent of a “return to Europe”. The successful post – communist transitions in East Central Europe have inspired Ukrainian westernizers for more than twenty years, and the Euromaidan was perceived as a catalyst for similar revolutionary change. Lenin monuments toppled across the country – except in the west of the country, where they had already been removed in 1991, and in Donbas and Kharkiv , where they survived the Euromaidan. Demands to ban the Communist Party and communist symbolism, as well as calls for lustration, seem like déjà vu of the early 1990s.

However, even if the Ukrainian “Revolution of Dignity” in some sense resembles the revolutions of ’89, the authoritarian kleptocracy of Yanukovych and his clan can hardly be compared to the former communist regimes in Eastern Europe. The latter’s legitimacy was based on a universalist political ideology and the claim to represent the popular will; faced with mass protests and public denunciation of the official ideology, they immediately collapsed. At the end of 2013, protesters in Ukraine gathered in huge numbers on the streets of Kyiv and other cities week after week; they camped overnight in the winter cold singing the Ukrainian anthem; they built a whole city with its own self-governing structure, in the centre of Kyiv. And yet, these protests – the largest in Europe for twenty-five years – did not impress the Yanukovych regime. It turned out that peaceful protest could simply be ignored; that a regime without an ideology need not fear the truth and is thus more difficult to bring down. The Ukrainian revolution was not “velvet”: violence changed the mode of the protest and after the massacre in the centre of Kyiv, any compromise with the regime was impossible. This violent turn, together with the counter-revolution supported by Russia and the subsequent Russian violation of Ukrainian national sovereignty, make the events of 2013/2014 in Ukraine very different from the triumphant revolutions of ’89.

While for many observers the Lenin monuments appear as markers of a Soviet identity that has survived in the economically depressed industrial enclaves of the Ukrainian East, what the Kyiv government is currently confronted with in Donetsk, Luhansk and Kharkiv has, in my opinion, little to do with Soviet ideology and values. Rather, what we are dealing with is what the Russian sociologist Lev Gudkov ten years ago called “negative identity”.[4] This identity operates primarily with the category of the “enemy”. From the perspective of pro -Russian protesters, it is “banderists” and “nationalists” from Kyiv and western Ukraine that threaten to steal “our past” and destroy “our monuments”. The Lenin monuments have become a site and symbol of pro- Russian mobilization – “empty signifiers” that carry no ideological value but mark the local identity as “anti – Kyiv”.

As the fear of a new Cold War begins to haunt the West, the question of the nature of Putin’s regime and its aspirations becomes all the more pressing. Aleksandr Etkind argues[5] in a recent article that Putin’s actions in Ukraine should be understood as a preventive counter -revolution, an attempt to halt Maidan-type protests at the Russian border. Etkind nevertheless denies historical continuity between Putinism and Stalinism. Indeed, despite the abuse of human rights and political freedoms, the massive and manipulative propaganda effort and the incitement against a “fifth column”, Putin has hardly been able to build a totalitarian system, still less impose it on Russia’s neighbours. Putin’s Russia is integrated into the global economy; its political and business elites see the West as a place to stash away their money, educate their children and spend their holidays. Despite Putin’s ambition to become the world leader of anti – western conservatism, Russia is not going to be able to challenge the West ideologically and has no desire to lead the planet. In the contemporary multipolar world, a Cold War bipolar architecture can no longer work.

And yet, the phantom of the Cold War is present in current Russian politics as a collective geopolitical trauma that motivates the seemingly irrational, politically and economically costly decisions of Putin’s leadership. As the West prepares to celebrate the 25 th anniversary of the post-Cold War order, from the Russian perspective it seems that the Cold War never really ended, at least not with a fair deal. Instead, Russia was forced to capitulate and give up its geopolitical interest s in exchange for the vague promise of being treated as an equal. Russia’s ruling elite no longer wants to hide its dissatisfaction with the rules of game. However Putin’s Russia is returning not to the Cold War but to the realpolitik of the 19 th century and the language of power politics, strategic interests and spheres of influence. From the Russian perspective, the US never stopped conducting this type of realpolitik, while the post-Cold War European Union is a curious but unviable project that will inevitably be undermined by nationalist forces. No wonder that Moscow counts on radical rightwing (and leftwing) European opponents of the EU project, who enthusiastically support Putin’s actions.

The danger posed by Russian politics is not so much that of a fully-fledged Cold War, but the return of the ghosts of revanchism and nationalism that haunted Europe in the 1930s; of territorial annexations and border realignments under the pretext of the defence of linguistic minorities and “compatriots” in neighbour ing countries. Then as now, such a politics can easily lead to a real war. Over the last twenty years, concerns have often been raised that Moscow might use the Russian-speaking populations in post-Soviet countries in the same way that Hitler used the ethnic Germans in interwar Europe. In the 1990s, however, Russia was too weak and unstable to play the ethnic card across its borders, occupied as it was in fighting its own ethnic nationalisms and separatist movements, most notably in Chechnya. Moscow’s strat egy in the post-Soviet space was Eurasian integration, which seemed to follow a similar logic to the EU project. Post-Soviet integration was by no means free from power politics and evidently served Russian interests in the “near abroad”; but at least it d id not aim at the destruction of neighbouring states. The annexation of Crimea and the threat to use all means necessary, including military intervention, to protect the rights of Russians and Russian speakers in Ukraine, indicated that the Kremlin priorit izes the violent “gathering of ethnic lands” over inter – state integration. In other words, Europe is not regressing back to Cold War conditions (when nuclear parity guaranteed the inviolability of borders) but – at best – sliding into 19 th century power politics or – at worst – into the world of untamed nationalist ambitions and total mistrust that led to the Second World War.

Will Putin unwillingly unite the West, which in the past decade has drowned in contradictions and quarrels and forfeited global political leadership? Can his aggressive politics breathe new life into NATO and force the EU to overcome its energy dependency on Russia? How firm will the West’s stance be in protecting the foundations of European security subverted by Putin’s actions in Ukraine?

Putinism is not communism, yet it seems that many in the West are willing to understand and even accept Moscow’s actions. Putin speaks the language of realpolitik , and while European leaders might despise his political style, they all too often acquiesce to his arguments.


Tatiana Zhurzhenko is a Research Director of “Russia in Global Dialogue” project  at the Institute for Human Sciences (IWM) in Vienna. She was a Research Fellow in Political Science at the University of Vienna and at the Aleksanteri Institute, University of Helsinki. Her most recent book is Borderlands into Bordered Lands: Geopolitics of Identity in Post-Soviet Ukraine, Stuttgart 2010.

This text was originally published at http://1989.enrs.eu/#reading-room-analyses in a series of articles analysing the changes of 1989-1991 from today’s perspective. The website is a part of social and educational campaign “Freedom Express” organised by European Network Remembrance and Solidarity

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1. See, for example, http://rusvesna.su

2. Vladislav Inozemtsev, “How to win Cold War II?” in: Eurozine, www.eurozine.com/articles/2014-03-28- inosemtsev-en.html

3. Fedor Lukyanov, “Vozvrashchenie na razvilku 1989-go”, Gazeta.ru, http://iphone-rss.gazeta.ru/comments/column/lukyanov/5978717.shtml

4. Lev Gudkov, “Negativnaia identichnost”, Moscow: NLO 2004.

5. Aleksander Etkind, “Eine präventive Konterrevolution”, www.nzz.ch/meinung/debatte/eine-praeventive-konterrevolution-1.18275438

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    Michel Rocard, former First Secretary of the French Socialist Party and a member of the European Parliament for 15 years, was Prime Minister of France from 1988 to 1991.   Print

  • Akos Rona-Tas

    Akos Rona-Tas is professor at the Sociology Department of the University of California, San Diego and a research associate at Met@risk, INRA, Paris. He is the author of the books Plastic Money: Constructing Markets for Credit Cards in Eight Postcommunist Countries (with Alya Guseva, 2014) and Surprise of the Small Transformation: Demise of Communism and …
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  • Lew Rubinstein

    Lew Rubinstein lebt als Poet und Essayist in Moskau. Nach dem Studium der Philologie war er als Bibliothekar tätig. Seit Ende der 1960er-Jahre verfasst er poetische Arbeiten, seit 1974 serielle Textzyklen als so genannte Kartotheken. Zusammen mit Andrej Monastyrskij, Dimitrij A. Prigov und Vladimir Sorokin gilt er als wichtigster Vertreter des Moskauer Konzeptualismus. Print

  • Jacques Rupnik

    Geschichte und Politikwissenschaft, Paris
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  • Claudia Šabic

    Claudia Šabi? ist Politikwissenschaftlerin und Ethnologin. Seit 1998 ist sie Wissenschaftliche Mitarbeiterin an der Goethe-Universität, Frankfurt am Main. Print

  • Ranabir Samaddar

    Distinguished Chair in Migration and Forced Migration Studies, Calcutta Research Group

    Guest
    (January - March 2019)
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  • Paul Sanders

    Paul Sanders is a historian and management scholar. He is a full-time professor at Reims Management School in Reims, France. He has published across the disciplines of history, international relations and leadership.   Print

  • Karl Schlögel

    Karl Schlögel war Professor für Osteuropäische Geschichte zuerst an der Universität Konstanz, dann an der Europa-Universität Viadrina in Frankfurt/Oder. Nach seiner Emeritierung arbeitet er an einer Archäologie des Kommunismus und einer Geschichte des Wolgaraumes. Zurzeit ist er City of Vienna/IFK Fellow am IFK in Wien.     Print

  • Thomas Schmid

    Thomas Schmid is the publisher of the WELT Group, Berlin. He worked for various newspapers, among them as editor of the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung and the Frankfurter Allgemeine Sonntagszeitung. From 2006 to 2010 he was Editor-in-Chief of Die Welt.   Print

  • Margit Schratzenstaller

    Margit Schratzenstaller is senior researcher at the Austrian Institute of Economic Research (WIFO) and is currently coordinating (together with Karl Aiginger and Stefan Ederer) ‘WWW for Europe’, a 4-year research project within the 7th Framework Program funded by the European Commission.   Print

  • Dieter Segert

    Dieter Segert ist Professor für Transformationsprozesse in Mittel-, Südost- und Osteuropa am Institut für Politikwissenschaft der Universität Wien. Seit September 2007 ist er Mitglied des Vorstandes des IDM Wien, seit Juni 2008 Mitglied der Leibniz-Sozietät der Wissenschaften zu Berlin.   Print

  • Victoriya Sereda

    Sociologie, Ivan-Franko-Universität, Lviv
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  • Michel Serres

    Michel Serres ist Philosoph und Mitglied der Académie Française.   Print

  • Anton Shekhovtsov

    PhD in Political Science
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  • Marci Shore

    Associate Professor of History, Yale University

    Visiting Fellow
    (June 2018 – August 2019)
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  • Sławomir Sierakowski

    Director, Institute for Advanced Study, Warsaw; Founder, "Krytyka Polityczna" movement
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  • Sara Silverstein

    Ph.D. Candidate in Modern European and International History, Yale University
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  • Ondřej Slačálek

    Assistant Professor of Political Science, Charles University, Prague
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  • Aleksander Smolar

    Political Science, Paris
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  • Timothy Snyder

    IWM Permanent Fellow
    Richard C. Levin Professor of History, Yale University
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  • George Soros

    George Soros is a pioneer of the hedge-fund industry, investor and philanthropist, he is the author of many books, including Financial Turmoil in Europe and the United States: Essays (2012), The Soros Lectures: At the Central European University (2010), The Crash of 2008 and What it Means: The New Paradigm for Finance Markets (2009).   …
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  • Robert Spaemann

    Robert Spaemann ist Professor em. für Philosophie an der Universität München.   Print

  • Pawel Spiewak

    Associate Professor of Sociology, Department of Sociology and Philosophy, Warsaw University
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  • Wilfried Stadler

    Wilfried Stadler ist Unternehmensberater, Wirtschaftspublizist und Honorarprofessor an der Wirtschaftsuniversität Wien. Bis 2009 war er Vorstandsvorsitzender einer österreichischen Spezialbank für Unternehmensfinanzierung.   Print

  • Rudolf Stamm

    Rudolf Stamm war von 1975 bis 1988 Korrespondent der Neuen Zürcher Zeitung für Osteuropa und Österreich, anschließend bis 1999 für Italien, dann bis zu seiner Pensionierung 2002 für die USA mit Sitz in Washington D.C. Er starb 2010 in der Schweiz. 1985 erscheinen seine NZZ-Reportagen aus Osteuropa in dem Band Alltag und Tradition in Osteuropa. …
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  • Paul Starr

    Paul Starr ist Professor für Soziologie an der Princeton University und Mitherausgeber von The American Prospect. Er ist Pulitzer-Preisträger.   Print

  • Martina Steer

    ÖAW APART Fellow (History)
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  • Kristina Stoeckl

    Research Director
    APART Fellow, Austrian Academy of Sciences; Department of Political Sciences, University of Vienna
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  • Roman Szporluk

    Roman Szporluk is Professor em. of Ukrainian History at Harvard and Professor em. of History at the University of Michigan. He is a foreign member of the National Academy of Sciences in Kiev, Ukraine. His research focuses on modern Ukrainian, Russian, and Polish history, and on Marxism and nationalism in Eastern Europe.   Print

  • Charles Taylor

    IWM Permanent Fellow
    Professor em. of Philosophy, McGill University, Montréal
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  • Maria Teteriuk

    PhD candidate in Mass Communications and senior lecturer in Media Studies, National University of 'Kyiv-Mohyla Academy', Ukraine
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  • Philipp Ther

    Junior Professor of Polish and Ukrainian Studies, Europa-Universität Frankfurt / Oder
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  • Maria Todorova

    Professor of History, University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign
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  • Balázs Trencsényi

    Balázs Trencsényi, Ph.D., is Associate Professor at the Department of History, CEU. His research focuses on the comparative history of political thought in East Central Europe and the history of historiography. He is co-director of Pasts, Inc., Center for Historical Studies at CEU and Associate Editor of the periodical East Central Europe (Brill). He was …
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  • Stefan Troebst

    .
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  • Marius Turda

    Lecturer in the Education Abroad Program, Eötvös Lorand University, Faculty of Humanities, Budapest
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  • Andreas Umland

    Andreas Umland ist Wissenschaftlicher Mitarbeiter am Institut für Euro-Atlantische Kooperation Kiew sowie Herausgeber der Buchreihe Soviet and Post-Soviet Politics and Society, ibidem-Verlag Stuttgart. Print

  • Victoria Vasilenko

    Assistant Professor of Contemporary History and International Relations, Belgorod National Research University
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  • David G. Victor

    David G. Victor is a Professor at the School of International Relations and Pacific Studies at the University of California, San Diego, where he directs the Laboratory on International Law and Regulation.   Print

  • Harald Welzer

    Harald Welzer ist Forschungsprofessor für Sozialpsychologie an der Universität Witten/Herdecke und Direktor des Center for Interdisciplinary Memory Research am Kulturwissenschaftlichen Instituts Essen.   Print

  • Karolina Wigura

    Adjunct of the History of Ideas, University of Warsaw; Co-Editor of Kultura Liberalna
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  • Volodymyr Yermolenko

    Volodymyr Yermolenko is a Ukrainian philosopher and essayist. He has a degree in Political Science from the EHESS, Paris, and teaches at Kyiv Mohyla Academy in Kyiv. He is the author of the book Narrator and Philosopher: Walter Benjamin and his time (2011, in Ukrainian). Print

  • Oksana Zabuzhko

    Free-lance writer, Kiev
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  • Tatiana Zhurzhenko

    IWM Research Director, Russia in Global Dialogue and Ukraine in European Dialogue
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