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The Kiev simulacrum

Ukraininans are taking event in Kiev in stride, as the Blue camp tries in vain to copy the Orange Revolution. By Oksana Zabuzhko

We've seen it before: The more interesting life becomes, the more closely it resembles literature. Last week political life in Ukraine took a turn for the interesting. The stagnation had lasted nine months, during which time the public grew increasingly disappointed with their political elites and the stream of news from parliament that smacked of stock market reports. (Which MP crossed the floor from the "Orange" to the "Blue" camp today? And how many dollars or euros did it cost?)

Now President Yushchenko has ordered the dissolution of parliament, concerned that the antagonistic, anti-reform "Blue" camp has pulled ever more MPs onto its side. That has at least one consequence of inestimable value: it has restored to Ukrainians a feeling for the logic of historic action unfolding in the country. This action may have had its moments of dynamism and falsification, it may be cumbersome and slow, but it is historic. That means, it is authentic and lively, and not constructed like a corporate blueprint. The late French theorist Jean Baudrillard called it a "fundamental reality."

Anyone who was in Kiev during the "Orange Revolution" (news story) in November 2004 was exposed to a strong dose of fundamental reality, one that penetrated bone and marrow permanently immunised against every poor copy of this reality (Baudrillard's word was simulacrum). That's why Kiev's population is reacting so calmly to what's now happening on the Maidan, or Independence Square, once the stage of the Revolution.

Today the Blues are sending their demonstrators to the square. "It's enough to make you feel sorry for them," say passers-by at the sight of the silent, poorly-dressed throngs of mostly younger men shuffling along Hrushevsky Street under blue flags, and escorted by militia. "They look like a chain gang."

"What do you want coming here?" a journalist asks a young girl who stares up at the neon advertisements. "To see Kiev," she answers bluntly. "They brought our entire class here, and gave us all 40 hryvnja (around 6 euros) for meals."

They're certainly a sorry set of stragglers, despite the organisers' attempts to get them fired up with alcohol and dance. A flag hangs over Independence Square, beer bottles skid over the street, while the cosy cafes stay empty in the evening. The city's inhabitants are tacitly staying away, as if they'd accepted that the city centre is now under quarantine. But in fact there's anything but a real crowd assembled here. Anyone who's come to "see Kiev" disappears at once for a walk around the city. "They were paid to come here, but not to stand around," joke the locals. But the saddest sight of all is when the 'Blue' politicians on the stage try to talk to the people below: and all they get is a bewildered silence. This silent Maidan – above the stage with the loud speakers, below the silent masses – is such a lurid metaphor for the relationship between the Soviet power and the Soviet people that you want to believe it's some grotesque happening or an experimental film called something like "Goodbye Lenin 2."

The politicians of the Blue camp seem to believe they could in fact stage the counterpart to the 2004 Revolution with extras carted in from the provinces. The conviction that those in power (i.e with money) can do anything they want lies at the root of their world view, and is practically an ersatz religion. Apparently they're convinced that's how the first Revolution came about. Now they're trying to copy it, and can't understand why the result is such a miserable parody. Meanwhile foreign correspondents scurry around them in search of "striking" photos that then create a third-order simulacrum, which following Baudrillard no longer has anything to do with reality at all.

How to distinguish the true from the surrogate will undoubtedly be one of the most decisive questions of the 21st century. What distinguishes true talent in literature from clandestine manipulation, the living face from Photoshop, love from sex, belief from illusion, history from bargains struck by oligarchs at round tables? Civilisation is continually trying to deaden the nerve for truth we have inside us, the instinct for fundamental reality, by bombarding us with imitations from all sides.

All you have to do is compare images from the Maidan in 2004 with those of the fake Maidan in 2007 and you'll see: living human emotions have the power to make history. But what to make of the manipulative attempts to turn back the wheel of time? "The devil isn't as bad as he's made out to be," says a Ukrainian proverb. Kiev has understood that. Parliament has been dissolved, even if the Blue camp hasn't stopped sitting. "Now we're supposed to go the polls again?" laughs my neighbour. "So what?" says her son, a student. "How many parliaments have the Italians voted in since the war! And what was their fascism compared with 70 years of Soviet rule?" I get the feeling this young man has a firm sense of the logic of historical action.


The article originally appeared in German in Die Welt on April 9, 2007.

Oksana Zabuzhko is regarded as one of the most important Ukrainian authors. Born in 1960, she was educated in philosophy and was Fulbright scholar at Harvard and Pittsburgh. She is now vice-president of the Ukrainian Pen Center, and teaches creative writing at Kiev University. Her novel "Feldstudien über ukrainischen Sex" (field studies on Ukrainian sex) was published in German by Droschl Verlag in 2006.

Translation: jab, lp. - let's talk european