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19 December, 2013  ▪  Bohdan Butkevych

Oleh Pokalchuk: The entire Ukrainian people is now turning into a political nation

Social psychologist Oleh Pokalchuk speaks about the nature of relationships between Ukrainians and the Ukrainian authorities during protests

Hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians took to the streets to join a public defiance campaign. What forces and patterns are driving them? What do these people want? What does their protest, which came after a nine-year-long hiatus, signify? The Ukrainian Week talks about this with social psychologist Oleh Pokalchuk.

U.W.: How would a social psychologist describe the sentiments prevalent among Ukrainians today?

This is revolutionary behaviour but not in the least a revolution as a complex phenomenon. So far it is not a situation of the leadership being unable and the grassroots not wanting, because the top officials are still quite capable of action, even though some have faltered. However, in the past years, the semantics of the word revolution has, in a way, evolved from bloody coups with executions to a kind of postmodernist happening, a tradition launched by the 1968 student revolution in France. Thus, when we talk about the revolutionary sentiments of Ukrainians today, we need to understand that this is a kind of manipulation strategy which is being used to mobilize young romantics, conservatives, artists and everyone else. This word is also a valve through which extra steam is being released, to the advantage of, again, all participants in the process – both those who, ignorant of the true essence of the protests, are finding self-fulfilment in them and those who are running the campaign, because it permits them to keep people under control. On the whole, Ukrainians are ready to react abruptly to metaphysical values like the European ones but no longer know how to act in the genre of an open uprising. This way, they create a certain protest space of their own. However, when things come to a head and they need to act like Bohdan Khmelnytsky did in his time, they flounder, because it takes personal responsibility. This is the reason why the majority of our people prefer to limit themselves to words, i.e., declarations of intentions, and why we have few down-to-earth radicals.

READ ALSO: A Revolution of Experienced Youth

U.W.: But the 1 December events on Bankova Str. showed that Ukrainians are becoming increasingly similar to Europeans, who are ready to take the most radical action if their rights are violated. Through radicalism to Europe?

The latest protests show that a new image of Ukrainians is taking shape before our eyes. The peaceful, dumb, hollow and shallow patriotism, which has for centuries been held up as the immanent Ukrainian character, is alien to this generation. These are people of a new world – they are true Europeans in terms of both their communicative prowess and ability to easily travel to the West. To them, Europe is not some out-of-reach dream as it is to those who view a trip to Poland as a great accomplishment. The question is not whether these young people are better or worse – they are indeed different, not burdened with Soviet legacy, and they are the ones who will form a new image of the Ukrainian man. He will lose a large part of his ethnographic traits. Of course, there will be ritual wailings over the status of a motley reservation of savages, but Ukraine – if it wants to turn into a European country in terms of the relationships between politicians and society and the attitude towards the former– must go this way. It is already taking steps in this direction, as the latest events suggest. Otherwise, we will continue to move ahead with our backs turned to Europe, i.e., trying to keep our archaic, traditional worldview which is no longer capable of effecting any changes. The current events are unique in that they are absolutely logical from the viewpoint of historical and legal development but are, at the same time, absolutely spontaneous, i.e., not orchestrated in a top-down fashion.

U.W.: People in EuroMaidans, who are they – a crowd or a mass of various personalities?

Crowd and mass are different concepts, both semantically and psychologically. A crowd is a large number of people gathered in a space that is limited either physically or metaphysically. A crowd is always very springy; it has the energy of a spring that can be released at any moment. In contrast, large masses of people behave absolutely differently in different places: for example, there may be one logic in the centre and a totally different one on the periphery. It would a gross mistake to believe that the human masses like those that came to downtown Kyiv on 1 December are homogeneous in their sentiments. You can control 100,000 people one way or another, but not 300,000, to say nothing of a million. And it’s great that no one in Ukraine has mastered the art of ruling 100,000-strong crowds, because then we would be living in a totalitarian state. In general, the protagonist now is the new generation, which makes sense, because youth and rebellion are synonyms. However, now these young people are fundamentally different from their predecessors in terms of their strivings, psychology and attitude to politicians.

U.W.: They are smarter, don’t take other people’s word for it and are ready for the most radical actions to protect their interests? How would you compare the present situation with the 2004 events?

The entire Ukrainian people is now turning into a political nation and very rapidly at that. Likewise, politicians are starting to accept the new rules of the game, because politics as a process is a certain protocol for adopting compromise decisions, and everything rests on this compromise. All participants in the present processes have made great progress as compared to 2004. I can see great changes in terms of their psychology. While people wanted a carnival back then, they are more educated now, because we have had discussions throughout these nine years dissecting what happened in Maidan back then and who took advantage of the situation. The Orange Revolution itself did not raise the political awareness of the people. It was the post-Orange period of depression and lost faith that enabled them to make a psychological connection to a very similar situation which we had in 1990 when a student revolution succeeded in forcing Prime Minister Vitaliy Masol to resign but his powers were then usurped by Leonid Kravchuk. Now we see a kind of backward domino effect – people have stopped yielding to euphoria and become much more calculated, competent and aware, even though they are saying almost the same thing as nine years ago. Moreover, there is huge information exchange taking place in society among all its segments, even those that are not in EuroMaidans now.

The authorities have nothing to offer to the people of the new millennium. The leaders of this new generation with their ability to troll can become much more influential than the current leaders. In other words, new society with a qualitatively different attitude to politicians is being born in Maidan now.

U.W.: To what extent are people defending precisely the European choice? The “against the authorities” negativist trend seems to be dominating.

People want not so much to join the EU as to be in Europe as an ideological construct. And this is a great step forward in comparison, again, with 2004 when the majority came out with just one slogan “Away with the gang!” and pinned their hopes on a messiah (“Yushchenko – yes!”), which is something that does not require a great deal of intellect. Now the majority of people can formulate, at least in a couple simple words, what they want from Europe personally for themselves. The types of thinking and perception have changed from purely negativist, geared exclusive against something, to constructivist, wanting to achieve something. In essence, the fact that people have come out into the streets is an act of reflection, an attempt to analyse events, i.e., this is emerging European consciousness in terms of reacting to events. People are willing to fight not for some leader but for themselves as they filter ideas using their understanding and personalities.

READ ALSO: Homo Europaeus

U.W.: Does it mean that bribery of voters and perception of politicians in terms of how much they have given to voters, which are standard for Ukrainians, are gradually losing relevance? Isn’t this forecast too optimistic?

Ukrainians are finally starting to depart from the clientelistic  perception of politicians – instead of passively waiting to receive crumbs of merciful donations from the most noble rulers in exchange for their complete loyalty, people want to be able to influence politicians.

However, the authorities and the majority of opposition political figures are ignorant men of yesterday. It could not be otherwise in quasi-Soviet society. The current political parties are as much as afraid of true civil society and are not welcoming its formation, because if it emerges, individuals who have their own opinions will get together, solve their problems and go back to their lives. In stark contrast to this, politicians see people exclusively as entities at the foot of their throne who obediently go in the direction shown by the leaders. This does not mean that the present opposition is bad: it simply does not know any other mechanisms. These politicians cannot find a common language with the young people who start coming onto the stage, because they have fundamentally different systems of communication.

U.W.: Does that mean that thanks to EuroMaidans, Ukrainians are starting to understand politics through their own interests rather than emotions?

There are no simple processes in group behaviour. To Russians, the state is a large collective farm, while to Ukrainians, who still have the mindset of individual farmers and see economic benefit only in their nearest neighbours, the most important factor is the phenomenon of so-called local identity. It is countryside neighbourhood mentality if you wish. After the latest presidential and parliamentary elections, the residents of Ukraine’s east and south experienced pretty much the same kind of euphoria: “We’ve shown them! Our guys have won!” It was the type of joy central and western Ukraine experienced after 2004. Moreover, these people expected to find themselves at the receiving end of a generous flow of money and benefits as “victors”. It never materialized and disappointment began to set in. Strategically, it is much worse than protests, because the latter single out a clear, even if initially negative, emotion, which is then much easier to channel into something positive. I remember well how much people hated Yulia Tymoshenko: they called her a “gas thief” and the condemnation level was up to 60%. Over time, the attitude was reversed, and those same people began to ardently love her. Let me repeat myself, emotion is above all. Now when there are no feelings whatsoever, there is nothing you can do about it. Viktor Yanukovych is no longer a hero in eastern Ukraine, even though he is still not considered a traitor or a patently negative figure there, either. The current events have simply given shape to all these processes. The people who are now protesting in squares will always be interested in what a politician thinks instead of accepting or rejecting him based on pure emotion.


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