Self-Reflection Through the Visual: Notes on Some Maidan Documentaries

Loznitsa_Maidan_600x400

A scene from Sergei Loznitsa’s MAIDAN. Courtesy of Cinema Guild.

8.04.2016

Maidan happened in multiple spaces. Just as it unfolded in historically real urban space, it also took place in the media space, including on multiple screens. Today, the events of 2013-14 in Kyiv are already history, yet Maidan, to some degree, continues its on-screen existence in numerous documentaries. An enormous amount of visual material recorded on Maidan has led to the documentary film form becoming one of the most, if not the most, appropriate ways to approach and understand these events. Andrei Ujica, the Romanian filmmaker who co-created with Harun Farocki the famous Videograms of a Revolution, put it nicely: “in 1989, a hundred cameras followed what was happening in Romania; history is no longer divided into theatrical scenes, nor into literary chapters — it is perceived as a sequence; and the sequence demands a film.”[1]

A closer look at some of the Maidan documentaries can, on the one hand, familiarize us with the major visual narratives of the 2013/14 revolution. On the other hand, it reveals some broader ethical issues that were a matter of concern for Ukrainians during Maidan and their aftermath, as well as providing answers to a range of theoretical questions about the nature of the documentary film image. How does documentary film space relate to the historically real revolutionary space? What is the function of a documentary image? What makes the documentary image such a suitable medium for the articulation of revolutionary subjectivity? Is documentary film supposed to inform us by giving a detailed commentary on the social and political context of the events it represents? If so, then what distinguishes it from an analytical text or news report? Surprisingly, some public responses to several Maidan documentaries show that these questions, seemingly so outdated from the perspective of documentary film theory, still need answering.

***

Premiering in March 2014, Euromaidan: Rough Cut became one of the first full-length documentaries highlighting the revolutionary events of Maidan. The film is a collective work by a number of independent filmmakers, some of them film school students who chose filming as their mode of involvement in the protests. Thus the film raises the important issue of the filmmakers’ engagement and responsibilities in the context of political unrest. Indeed, as with many political uprisings that took place in the second half of the twentieth century, Maidan generated a great deal of grassroots video production. The need to film developments as they happened, which also arose during the revolutionary events of 1968 in France, resulted in the creation of filmmakers’ collectives, among which BABYLON’13 is the most widely known in the context of Maidan.

Euromaidan: Rough Cut consists of short films by various filmmakers put together in chronological order so as to highlight the most important episodes during three revolutionary months. While the film is formally structured as a chronicle, every episode takes place in a different location. The narrative commences before the Monument of Independence, where peaceful protesters were first brutally beaten by police. It then travels through the occupied Kyiv City Administration building to Besarabska Square, where the Lenin monument was toppled, and moves on towards Hrushevskoho and Instytutska Street, which were marked by the most violent clashes with security forces. Thus there is always a street, monument or building that, within the physical space of the protest, works as a sign referring to a particular event during the course of the uprising.

In Maidan, the Ukrainian filmmaker Sergei Loznitsa represents events from a more detached perspective. Consisting of long wide static shots, Maidan stresses the non-intervention of the filmmaker. This and some other formal means used by Loznitsa, such as the complete rejection of any voiceover commentary, make Maidan comparable to what some documentary film theorists call observational cinema, and others direct cinema or cinéma vérité.[2]

If Euromaidan: Rough Cut represents Maidan as a rather heterogeneous phenomenon composed of a multitude of individual stories, Loznitsa’s aim is rather to preserve the spatial and temporal continuity of developments as they unfolded in the square. It might seem that there are no actual developments and nothing is really happening, because for almost two hours, the filmmaker shows us mostly the mundane everyday life of the protesters. By doing so, he makes the very basic structure of Maidan visible to the viewer. This structure includes all kinds of self-organized social institutions, which existed for months within the square, such as kitchens, a system of housing, a university, a church, a health care system, a defense system, etc. Thus, with a set of predefined editing strategies, Loznitsa plunges the viewer into Maidan as a social whole, which is a complex of social relations, power relations and their continuous transformation in the face of the gradual escalation of violence. We observe a long process by which the revolutionary masses gain their political subjectivity, resulting in the overthrow of the regime.

But the everyday practices of protesters are certainly not the only thing that interests Loznitsa. He pays equal attention to exploring the rhetoric people use on the Maidan to express their desires. He consciously omits all speeches by politicians, focusing mainly on what he calls the vox populi.[3] Yet, what defines the “voice of the people” in this instance is the complete absence of political language. People on the Maidan do not articulate their demands in political terms, but rather through a set of symbolic rituals. They speak the language of improvised folklore, music and poetry. The absence of political vocabulary in this language is very symptomatic of the Ukrainian context in general, where political discussion in the public sphere has simply not existed for decades — neither during the Soviet era, nor during the ensuing social shock of the 1990s.

This political muteness in the case of Maidan led to an outbreak of violence on Hrushevskoho Street in January 2014. The documentary All Things Ablaze by Oleksandr Techynskyi, Oleksiy Solodunov and Dmytriy Stoikov explores exactly the moment when the rituals of the protesters erupt into violence. The footage is from precisely those locations where the most violent clashes with the police took place and, in contrast to Loznitsa’s Maidan, it’s characterized by dynamism rather than stasis, with its short scenes and fast-moving sequences.

In All Things Ablaze, the transient moment when peaceful protest gives way to violence is peculiarly represented in a scene featuring the aftermath of the destruction of the Lenin monument. The scene is filmed from the middle of the crowd of mostly far-right activists breaking the statue into pieces and, seeing their ecstatic faces, it’s hard not to interpret this as a sort of ceremonial act. It’s as if we are observing some primitive scene of sacrifice — a rather desperate act that happened to fail the first time.[4] What happens next is that this symbolic violence against a historical figure develops into real force against the oppressive regime. Scenes from Hrushevskoho Street, the administrative district, Instytutska Street, as represented in All Things Ablaze, are so overwhelming and saturated with violence that at some point the images loose their spectacular nature and the violence takes on the appearance of really hard work, an unavoidable and necessary act that is able to resolve the dead-end situation.

Today, two years since Maidan’s finale, new documentary representations of the phenomenon continue to flourish. In many of them, violence is even more of an issue. On 18 February 2016, the short documentary The Breaking Point[5] premiered on Hromadske.tv. Focusing on the bloodiest chapter in the history of Maidan — the mass killings of 20 February 2014, the film raises the question of how to represent collective trauma. How to depict events of the recent past associated with mass killings that still distress millions of people? For this purpose, the creators of The Breaking Point Angelina Karyakina and Anastasiya Stanko chose a genre of journalistic investigation that approaches the topic with minimum emotion and only focuses on facts. The film features an interview with one of the protesters — Ivan Bubenchik,[6] who confesses to shooting two police commanders. His testimony is accompanied by the statements of witnesses, lawyers, investigators, prosecutors, and a great mass of video-material that is given the status of evidence in the investigative process.

The Breaking Point, on the one hand, revealed some uncomfortable truths about Maidan that stand in a certain opposition to the mainstream Ukrainian narrative that heroizes protesters as victims. Thus it generated a debate on whether Bubenchik’s deed can be justified. On the other hand, besides raising the ethical dilemma, the film confounds all conspiracies about preplanned bloodshed, so eagerly told on both sides of the conflict. By telling this important truth, though disturbing to some, The Breaking Point considers Maidan activists as the main and only decisive force in what happened on 20 February in the streets of Kyiv. The people who expressed their collective will, and subverted from below all possible plans and scenarios stage-managed by the political elites, thus acquire political subjectivity.

***

The films analyzed above constistute only a small portion of a huge array of documentary film materials that have emerged two years since the end of the Revolution of Dignity and continue to emerge today. My intention here is not to consider as many of them as possible, but rather to make a selection for more detailed analysis, in the full knowledge that my selection could itself be considered a statement. The selection is made according to two main principles: firstly, all of the films were produced independently, without any involvement of mainstream television broadcasters or big production companies. This would imply that they tend not to be embedded in dominant ideologies. Secondly, they were mostly shot by Ukrainian filmmakers present on the Maidan as the revolutionary events unfolded. Thus they may well serve as some of the most vivid examples of attempts to understand how Maidan came to be.

Certainly, these films give neither a clear nor a comprehensive understanding of what happened during the Maidan revolution of 2013-14 — even if this was something that western and Ukrainian critics alike often expected from them. As a result, the critics came away from the films disappointed, especially in the case of Loznitsa’s Maidan.[7] Documentary film cannot, in principle, lay claim to universal truthfulness, something to which Loznitsa himself attests when commenting on his work: there can be no objective stance towards history, only facts are objective, and the documentary filmmaker can either suggest his own interpretations of facts, or leave the viewer to draw their own conclusions.[8]

It is precisely this room for interpretation and thought that each of the films discussed above grants to the viewer, especially through minimal editing and the lack of narrative voiceover — which in more conventional documentary film is meant to give extensive answers to the questions posed by the events or processes that are represented. Rather, the creators I have mentioned let the images speak for themselves. At the same time, through a visuality almost unmediated by text, the documentary film submerges the viewer in a brute reality that directly confronts the experience of death.

On a formal level, the images win a subjectivity of their own, in a similar way to the people — the main protagonist of all the abovementioned films — who gain their political subjectivity during the course of revolutionary struggle. If there is any universal truth about Maidan, then it can be articulated like this: people with their own hands, their own efforts and will ousted the oppressive political regime from power. Loznitsa, as well as the creators of The Breaking Point, All Things Ablaze and Euromaidan: Rough Cut, try to deliver this truth in their own particular way. By contrast, most of the discourses that try to undermine this truth by constructing all sorts of conspiracy theories about the involvement of external forces in the violent settlement of the conflict on the Maidan can be considered reactionary and propagandist.

The recognition of oneself as an active subject has to be followed by self-reflection in thought. The discourse of documentary film is much more appropriate for reflection than media discourse. The news reporter works with facts and actuality, therefore, he reflects the reality. The documentary filmmaker’s material is always already a history which means that he works with subjective truths, therefore, he reflects on reality. Every Maidan documentary I’ve chosen can be considered a specific reflection, in a philosophical sense, on a political experience that thousands of Maidan protesters went through. Besides, every responsible documentary filmmaker always has to reflect on his/her own visual strategy when searching for the most appropriate way to represent such a complicated and multidimensional phenomenon as Maidan.

Like the documentary filmmaker who reflects on his visual language, post-Maidan society in Ukraine has to question the vocabulary it uses in the realm of politics. Does it still speak the language of songs and rituals as in Loznitsa’s Maidan? Or is it a desperate language of violence like in All Things Ablaze? Has a more relevant lexicon for the articulation of collective political desires already been invented, or is it still subject to an ongoing process?

Yustyna Kravchuk is PhD candidate in Film and Media Studies, National Academy of Sciences of Ukraine, Kyiv and a former Paul Celan Visting Fellow at the IWM.

© Author / Transit Online Eurozine

[1] See Ujică’s interview on Film Quarterly: http://www.filmquarterly.org/2011/03/interview-with-andrei-ujica/.

[2] See Bill Nichols, Representing Reality: Issues and Concepts in Documentary, Indiana University Press, 1991, 38-44

[3] See “Inside ‘Maidan’: Sergei Loznitsa on his Ukrainian uprising doc and Putin’s ‘fascist’ regime”, http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2014/05/24/inside-maidan-sergei-loznitsa-on-his-ukrainian-uprising-doc-and-putin-s-fascist-regime.html

[4] There were two attempts to demolish the Lenin monument, with the first on 1 December 2014 being unsuccessful. It took place after protesters failed to take the Administration of the President of Ukraine. History then repeated itself on 8 December, only this time the mission was successfully accomplished.

[5] A YouTube link to the film itself: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ooFvNeBeOlw

[6] See Katya Gorchinskaya’s contribution to Foreign Policy: http://foreignpolicy.com/2016/02/26/he-killed-for-the-maidan/.

[7] See, for example, a short review by Jakub Majmurek:  http://www.krytykapolityczna.pl/artykuly/film/20140709/majmurek-golgota-i-majdan, or/and by Uilleam Blacker and Olesya Khromeychuk: https://www.opendemocracy.net/od-russia/uilleam-blacker-olesya-khromeychuk/film-review-‘all-things-ablaze’-dir-by-oleksandr-techyn.

[8] See Loznitsa’s interview on taz.de: http://www.taz.de/!5009323/.

 

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    Alexander von Plato ist ein deutscher Philosoph und Historiker. Er gründete das Instituts für Geschichte und Biographie an der Fernuniversität Hagen, das er bis 2007 leitete. Von 1996 bis 2000 war er Sekretär der International Oral History Association, von 2006 bis 2008 deren Vizepräsident. Er ist Mitherausgeber und Redakteur von BIOS – Zeitschrift für Biographieforschung, Oral …
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  • Andrei Pleșu

    Andrei Pleșu ist Rektor des New Europe College, Bukarest. 1989- 1991 war er rumänischer Kulturminister und 1997- 1999 rumänischer Außenminister.   Print

  • Martin Pollack

    Martin Pollack, geb. 1944 in OÖ, studierte Slawistik und osteuropäische Geschichte. Er war von 1987 bis 1998 Redakteur des “Spiegel” in Warschau und Wien und lebt heute als Schriftsteller und literarischer Übersetzer in Wien und Bocksdorf im Südburgenland. 2011 erhielt er den Leipziger Buchpreis zur Europäischen Verständigung und 2012 den Stanislaw-Vincenz-Preis. Zuletzt erschien von ihm …
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  • Krzysztof Pomian

    Krzysztof Pomian is Professor of History at the Nicolaus Copernicus University (Toruń) and Academic Director of the Museum of Europe in Brussels.   Print

  • Romano Prodi

    Romano Prodi war von September 1999 bis November 2004 Präsident der Europäischen Kommission.   Print

  • Lipin Ram

    PhD candidate and teaching assistant in Anthropology and Sociology of Development, Graduate Institute, Geneva
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  • Mykola Riabchuk

    Senior Research Fellow, Institute of Political and Nationalities’ Studies, Academy of Sciences, Kyiv
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  • Edelbert Richter

    Edelbert Richter ist deutscher Theologe, Politiker und war Mitglied des Deutschen Bundestages.   Print

  • Paul Ricoeur

    Paul Ricoeur ist Philosoph und war Professor Emeritus an der University of Chicago und an der Sorbonne. Er war Mitglied der Académie Francaise und Mitglied des Wissenschaftlichen Beirats des IWM. Er starb 2005.   Print

  • Michel Rocard

    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
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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

    Visiting Fellow, Ukraine in European Dialogue
    (January 2016 – July 2018)
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  • Marci Shore

    Associate Professor of History, Yale University
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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

    Research Director, Russia in Global Dialogue / Ukraine in European Dialogue
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