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26 December, 2014

Ukraine’s Historical-Political Time Zone

What happened in EuroMaidan a year ago will force West European and North American sociologists to revise their writings

The Ukrainian-American political scientist Alexander J. Motyl and the Russian writer Vladimir Sorokin noted that a new Ukraine was born and that we have had a unique opportunity to witness the emergence of a new political nation.This statement, however accurate, is incomplete, though.

It was assumed by social scientists that the 19th century was an epoch of the emergence of the new collective actorson the political map of the world. True, after the First World War new nation-states came into existence, but the second half of the 19th century paved the way for this new civilization-shaping movement. The epoch was called the nation-building century, and also the era of the springtime of the peoples. What happened after the Second World War was perceived as a turning point in world history in terms of the closing page in the political saga of modern Europe. The nations were born, the state borders drawn, and nobody believed that we can step into the same river twice. Nay, nobody even suspected that we can change our historical-political time zone.

We were taking for granted for a long time that we were living in an increasingly post-national world. The fall of the Berlin Wall indicated the end of modern bloody history of opposing ideologies reiterated by Francis Fukuyama. The blow dealt by a horrible war in the Former Yugoslavia to Europe was twofold: first and foremost, it exposed the impotence, self-inflicted moral and political blindness, and self-deception of all Europe’s politics and soft power which culminated in Srebrenica with eight thousand civilians killed in two days before the eyes of Dutch peacekeeping forces – far and away the most horrible crime against humanity in Europe after WWII; second, the ease with which people jumped fifty years back in time arriving in a radically different historical-political time zone.

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A most horrifying thing in Bosnia-Herzegovina was that people were slaughtering each other with the names and labels on their lips that had absolutely nothing to do with reality which one should have described as present. Such labels as Chetniks (that is, Serbian nationalists and monarchists) came back to reality as soon as there was a need to justify a new slaughter in a fratricidal war.Were there any real Chetniks or Ustashi in the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s? Of course, there were none.

What happened there was that some disturbed or politically troubled individuals withdrew from present reality choosing to live temporarily in a radically different historical-political time zone and to accommodate it again. They chose to live elsewhere withdrawing from social reality and abandoning it for the sake of a phantom, a short-term logocratic project, a specter of selective memory and willful forgetting. And how about a déjà vu feeling on our hearing and reading the label of Banderovites exploited by Russian state-sponsored propaganda? Are there any flesh-and-blood Banderovites in Kyiv today? Were they there a year ago during the Euromaidan Revolution?

In fact, there is a long way to go from plain brainwashand propaganda to a more complex phenomenon of the withdrawal from present time zone and the return to it. What lies behind this mechanism is historical trauma, suppressed pattern of identity, or conflict of identities and loyalties. We may cease explaining reality as it is and, instead, may switch to the past trying to reenact or recover it. Hence, countless memory wars in Europe. The withdrawal-and-return form of existence can therefore be seen not only in the case of adiaphorization of consciousness (abandoning the zone of our human sensitivity temporarily and then returning to it), but in the troubled historical-political time zone as well.

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Deep discontent with present time and the resulting temptation to repeat or reenact history appears as one of the most explosive and dangerous feelings and conditions in our world. What results from it is the loss of the sense of social and political time. Dictators or even perfectly sound individuals with, one would think, unquestionable democratic credentials, may think that they can return justice or derive it from the past projecting it onto the present or the future.Yet not every form of withdrawal-and-return poses a grave danger to the world.

In his novel The Winter of Our Discontent, John Steinbeck exposed this mechanism as deeply embedded in modern pattern of human behavior: we may vacate the realm of norms and part with our views and attitudes of today for the sake of well-being, self-esteem, safety, and security of tomorrow. He describes this mechanism of living elsewhere for a while for the sake of regaining or reenacting control over circumstances with the stroke of genius. This is more than true with regard to the world of nations. Nationalism has long been regarded by sociologists as a specific phenomenon of the 19th century, and rightly so. However, this fact itself does not mean that nations cannot be reshaped or that they cannot intensify their daily plebiscite, as Joseph Ernest Renan would have had it. Nations may come into existence repeatedly, one more time, withdrawing from our postmodern reality and celebrating a set of sentiments and attitudes that sociologists would ascribe to the second half of the 19th century or the first half of the twentieth.

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In fact, during the war in the former Yugoslavia, individuals, groups, and societies actively reenacted and relived the periods of prewar and postwar Europe’s history. It may well be suggested that Ukraine lives now in its historical-political time zone made up by critical junctures of modern history and politics enabling and repeating similar or even identical moral choices that were made in the twentieth century. All in all, a new nation comes into existence.


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