Tales about the Maidan

It was two years ago now, on 16 January 2014, that the parliament of Kiev, under pressure from President Yanukovich, outlawed the hundreds of thousands-strong protests in the Maidagn, by then in its second month. Soon the first deadly clashes began between the protesters and the corps of the Berkut, the riot police.

The Western internet portals now mainly remember the anniversary with the photos of Maxim Dondyuk, who achieved his greatest international success with his coverage of the bloody month of the Maidan. In 2015 he was among the Prix Pictet Prize finalists, and won several other awards. The commemorations emphasize the the kinship of his photos with paintings and tales:

“The figures of the Ukrainian civil war appear in iconic settings in his photograph, as if the light and darkness, good and evil clashed with each other.” (Index)

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In an interview given to Photography last year, the photographer also points out that his most important sources of inspiration had been not other photos, but paintings, and even battle scenes. The tale-like character of his pictures, however, is not unique. Similar images were taken at the height of the clashes by Mustafa Nayyem, whom we quoted that night, and many other Ukrainian photographers as well. It was apparently a general tendency to take pictures of the Maidan as signs of a supernatural vision, a legend, an apocalyptic struggle between light and darkness.

That this attitude was indeed general, is well illustrated by a fairy tale book published a few months later in Lviv/Lemberg, by the Old Lion publishing house, where the story book on the Ukrainian war was also published later. This book, illustrated in a dreamlike manner by Hristina Lukashchuk – a young writer-architect-designer, author of the highly acclaimed psycho-erotic novel Kurva (Whore, 2013) – also presents the Maidan as a clash between good and evil. It fits the events into the framework of a naively static and mystical, half-Christian and half-pantheistic Ukrainian nationalist worldview, as solemn and devout as cheap prints in folk fairs, through which they take on a universal dimension, and become a heroic example to be followed by the little readers. Its mythology, though in different ways, helps both them and us to understand Ukrainian reality.

Tale about the Maidan

“Once upon a time, very, very long time ago, there was still no heaven, no earth, only the deep blue sea, in the middle of which rose a beautiful green maple tree. The doves of God sat on the branches of the maple tree, and there they cooed, holding council on how to create a wonderful world, and a wonderful man worthy of this wonderful world. They decided to go down to the depths of the sea. When they went down for the first time, they brought a yellow pebble to the surface. This became the Sun. They went down for the second time, and brought up a green net. It became the vault of heaven. They went down for the third time, and brought up a blue stone. It became the Moon. They went down for golden sand: this became the tiny stars. They went down for dark mud: from this they created the black Earth. And this earth produced wheat and rye, and all other crops. And they named this blessed fertile land Ukraine. And in this land a hard-working people settled: the Ukrainians.”

The male representative of the hard-working Ukrainians settling in this land has a striking similarity to the young Stepan Bandera, the father of Ukrainian nationalism, and founder of the Ukrainian Insurgent Army, which collaborated with the Nazis and made did their dirty work in the form of Polish and Jewish genocide. Which is understandable, since he is considered the original coordinates of Ukrainian history by the official Ukrainian historiography and state ideology.

“This land was very, very rich. In one day you could not go around it, you could not run around it by horse. One end of it was washed by the deep sea, where wonderful monsters lived, in the other end high mountains rose. On the peaks of the highest mountains, hundred-year-old Hutsul women sat, and let white clouds fly from the smoke of their pipes. And the white clouds descended into the valleys, and became those stone idols, which watch over the peace of the Ukrainian steppe.”

A 110-year-old Hutsul woman. Verkhovina, 1926. Photo by Mikola Senkovsky.
(The explanatory pictures and commentaries are additions by río Wang)

“At the foot of the mountains, lakes slept. Through the clear water of the lakes you could see a colorful underwater kingdom, the water dwarves, fairies and mermaids. Between the lakes, the Ukrainians built tiny white houses, baked bread, erected high churches. They loved above all God and their land, and raised their children in love.”

The usual portrayal of mermaids in Russian luboks, 1866

“In winter, St. Nicholas arrived to the Ukrainian kids. To the good ones he brought gifts, to the bad ones, a birch-rod. And in the spring, the swallows flew up and down, carrying with them news of the rich crops, full granaries and a happy homeland.”

“The winter songs and spring round dances, however, did not last forever. Like wild animals, the envious neighbors watched the beautiful land with yearning. Like the black dragon, they rushed at once to Ukraine, to tear off a piece or two of it.”

The drawing leaves no doubt as to which neighbors are concerned. Whose symbol is the white eagle, the Wulf and Brezhnev-faced bear Misha?

“Ukraine has experienced many kinds of domination. Some came from afar, while others were elected by themselves. The centuries passed, one after the other, and the birds of Evil were gathering over Ukraine, like a black cloud. The leaders of Ukraine rarely managed to keep the sky cloudless. Indeed, very often they only had a black hole in the place of their hearts. It always happens so to those who turn away from God and from the people, and worship golden idols instead. The last leader was particularly greedy. He more and more exploited his country and his people. The poorer the people became, the brighter palaces he erected in his large greed.”

The vozhd’, as corpulent as Yanukovich, with a crowned ushanka on his head, is engrossed in contemplating the extorted treasures. The preciouss, the expropriated wildlife, the ships and factories, and the gold coins are easy-to-understand symbols of wealth. But what about the books? The bookshelf is not the usual epitheton ornans of this kind of tyrant. Except for Yanukovich! He was, as we have seen, a lover of books. It is very likely that his hallmark is this unusual status symbol.

“And the sky over Ukraine increasingly darkened with the black birds. People tolerated it for a long time. But finally they ran out of patience. One day, the Ukrainians went out to the Maidan. They demanded a righteous leader for themselves. They wanted to put an end to injustice and wickedness. Shoulder to shoulder they stood there day and night, the prayer, the song and the word were their only weapon. Thanks to them, the Maidan became a church under the open sky. They were so many, that when it got dark, it was revealed that the sky and its stars moved down to earth. And in the morning, the white wings of the doves brought the new day.”

“But suddenly the black birds of the Evil, the killing eagles [berkut] also appeared above the Maidan. They circled menacingly around the doves, and their circle became increasingly tighter. They shed fear and cold on the people, the chill of death. However, the Maidan did not empty, on the contrary, it was filled to the brim.”

“And then the day came when the eagles attacked. And that fight was not that of life, but that of death. However, the fearless ones, even though they were unarmed, did not retreat a step. They were held steady by their unwavering faith in Love. And the predators could not bear this. They finally fled, with falling black feathers. This was also seen by the leader, the blood-sucking tick, and he was frightened of the wrath of God and people. The people won. But the victory was bitter. Many heroes remained forever in the Maidan – beautiful young boys and their unbreakable brethren…”

“After the battle, the doves descended to the Maidan, and carried the souls of the heroes on their wings far, far away, up into heaven. Up to the Sun. Up to God.”

“And from the blood of the heroes, a new tree grew in the middle of the Maidan. Its crown reaches half of the world, and a new life is sprouting in its shadow. And above, in the deep blue sky, the doves of God are hovering.”