Why the Maidan? How the Square Became a Place of Civic Action

March 17, 2016
Stolypin statue in Kyiv, by Granbergs Konstindustri Aktiebolags Förlag [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

‘Maidan’ is a word that is now synonymous with Ukraine’s latest self-organized movement and the values that inspired it. The name comes from the location where the protesters gathered – the Maidan Nezalezhnosti (Independence Square) – which is a central space in Kyiv and a place with a long history of civic and political action. 

Euromaidan 2013 By Mstyslav Chernov (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia CommonsHowever, it wasn’t always the logical gathering place for protests and political movements. Over the course of time, the square’s physical and symbolic identities have shifted and taken on new layers of meaning. What caused the Maidan to become the go-to place where activists instinctively flock? How does a geographical location acquire a momentum of its own, and what do its successive interpretations and manifestations signify?

In HURI’s latest Vasyl and Maria Petryshyn Memorial Lecture, Serhy Yekelchyk, Professor of History and Germanic & Slavic Studies at the University of Victoria, addressed these questions. In the March 7 presentation, he outlined the Maidan’s recurring role as host for Ukraine’s pivotal civic and political activities. Tracing the development and evolution of the square from its inception as a political space in 1876 through to the recent plans to memorialize the Euromaidan events, Yekelchyk argued that the physical shape of a public space and its relation to history and action have a certain ‘symbiosis’ that both evolves over time and continues to reflect back on itself.

The seat of power and the people

Initially, the Maidan (known as Khrseshchatytska ploshcha at the time) was an area of popular culture, host to a fashionable boulevard, entertainment and lowbrow activities.The construction of the City Duma on the square’s borders in 1876 gave it a political identity, one that would endure beyond the lifespan of the government building. Throughout the years, Kyivans would gather in the space for parades, protests and revolutions. Despite the government’s attempt to redefine the square as commercial space in 2001, protesters continued to assemble in the Maidan, solidifying its association with democratic activity and national action.

title="Duma building in Kyiv, by S.V.Kulgenko [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons"“The protest space is created in relation to the seats of power, but it actually acquires its own logic, its own momentum, and after it exists the symbolic space stays there -- even if the seats of power are no longer around,” Yekelchyk said.

He identified a number of key moments when the Maidan played a key role in Ukraine’s trajectory, including the student revolutions of 1905 and 1917, the Revolution on Granite in 1990, the 2000 protests, the Orange Revolution in 2004, and the Euromaidan in 2013-2014.

Concurrent with these repeated civic and political activities, which forged the square’s symbolic identity, the physical appearance of the space evolved and assumed layers of meaning. Yekelchyk pointed to the statues and monuments that have graced the Maidan to illustrate the way each iteration both reflects the past and conveys a new message.

Monuments through time

Stolypin statue in Kyiv, by Granbergs Konstindustri Aktiebolags Förlag [Public domain], via Wikimedia CommonsWhen the City Duma building was in place, the square had a statue of the Russian imperial Prime Minister Petr Stolypin, later replaced by a statue to Karl Marx, which faced outward toward the square with its back to the Duma balcony. This, Yekelchyk argued, seemed to speak on behalf of power, implying that what was behind the monument - the seat of power - was safe.

Later, a giant statue of Lenin was constructed at the other end of the square. By now, both the Duma building and the Marx statue were physically gone, but their past continued to maintain a presence. In fact, Lenin’s gaze rested precisely on the spot the now-absent Duma balcony used to stand, giving Lenin control over the space of (former) political action.

Following the 2000 protest, at which point the Lenin statue had already been gone 10 years, the city’s reconstruction of the square included adding the massive Column of Independence. This tall monument has the same orientation as the Lenin statue, both recalling the past and superseding it.

A global meeting point

Starting with the Orange Revolution and even more so during the Euromaidan, the square became not just a central point for Ukrainians to gather, but a virtual, global space, Yekelchyk argued. With television and internet allowing the protesters to stay connected with the broader community, people could be involved in the activities even if they weren’t able to join the crowds.

What’s more, this media mobilization of the movement further contributed to the identity formation of Maidan as a place and as a term. Euromaidan, for instance, was mobilized as a hashtag on Twitter. Now it’s reached a point where the word Maidan may very well first bring to mind the movement, values and recent events, rather than a specific geographical place.

Tree alley in Maidan, by Skoropadsky (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], via Wikimedia CommonsGiven Maidan’s long-standing history as a place where the people of Ukraine take the destiny of their country into their own hands, it’s no wonder that the Euromaidan protesters intuitively assembled at the location. Despite changes in the space’s building and monuments, its association with both power and civic action remain. And despite intentional efforts to deny the public the political space, the people continue to gather there, refusing to relinquish the layers of meaning the square has earned throughout the years.

Yekelchyk ended his overview with a reminder of the ever-present fluidity of geographical spaces. Although its rich history and digital mobilization has given the square identity power globally - which translates into civic power - the efficacy of this power for the current movement remains theoretical at this point. We are yet to learn the results of the sacrifices and are still observing how the square will be reimagined through memorials and reconstruction. As such, the next layer of meaning and the rest of the narrative remain to be written, to say nothing of additional events which are sure to emerge in the time to come.

Watch the entire talk on YouTube

The Vasyl and Maria Petryshyn Memorial Lecture is made possible through the generous endowed gift of Dr. Wolodymyr Petryshyn in honor of his parents. The fund supports a lecture each year by nationally or internationally distinguished scholars in the field of Ukrainian studies.

Dr. Serhy Yekelchyk is a Professor of History and Germanic & Slavic Studies at the University of Victoria in British Columbia. He received his BA from Kyiv University, an MA from the Ukrainian Academy of Sciences and a PhD in Russian and Eastern European History at the University of Alberta. His research interests include the social and political history of the Stalin period and the formation of a modern Ukrainian nation. Dr. Yekelchyk recently published The Conflict in Ukraine: What Everyone Needs to Know.