Mark Kingwell is professor of philosophy at the University of Toronto and author, most recently, of the essay collection Unruly Voices.
Last weekend, I joined a number of North American and European writers and academics who travelled to Kiev to spend four days in deep discussion with Ukrainian colleagues. We talked about democracy, liberty, self-determination and the force of law.
To philosophize about democracy in such a setting is at once exhilarating and daunting. Ukraine in 2014 vividly illustrates the high price of liberty: Here, notions of democratic freedom have been literally embodied in a popular uprising that is having real political effect. The conference was a pause for reflection during the transition, a conversation that linked this struggle with the historical sweep of liberal-democratic protest. It had absolutely nothing of the ivory tower about it.
The topics are certainly anything but theoretical to the people of Ukraine, who head to the polls on Sunday to elect a new president and parliament. The election is the first step in replacing the current, provisional government. The winner will face the steep task of undoing years of open corruption under the rule of Viktor Yanukovych, who was ousted from power and forced from his palatial estate in February. Then there is the ongoing crisis in the country’s east, where Russian President Vladimir Putin has capitalized on pro-Russian separatist feeling by mobilizing troops and threatening to invade.
The street protests that brought Mr. Yanukovych’s reign to an end are everywhere in evidence in Kiev. The Maidan, the city square that saw the biggest protest and the worst of the government’s attempts at violent suppression, including riot assaults and deadly sniper attacks, offers a surreal mixture of militia camp and memorial. Cafés are open right next to tents pegged into the asphalt of the street. Couples canoodle or eat ice cream while families stroll and take pictures, mingling with a ragtag citizen army dressed in a motley of uniforms, surplus camo gear and cheap leather jackets. Cobblestones have been lifted in neat rows and used, together with thousands of tires and pieces of broken shipping palette, to construct walls and boundaries. Along one of these is a series of pictures mourning the dozens of known dead; scores more were wounded, as many as 175 are still missing.
How long this democratic militia will stay in the square depends on who you ask. I was told, variously: (1) until the elections are over, (2) until Ukraine joins the European Union, (3) until Mr. Putin is dead, and (4) my favourite answer – “until it is time.” Violence in the east continued while I was in Kiev, and there was worry among many Ukrainian intellectuals I spoke to that a prolonged, multiballot election would give Mr. Putin a sense of leverage in the divided nation. On the other hand, if the winner is billionaire businessman Petro Poroshenko, a confectionary magnate known as the Chocolate King, the Russian President may decide he has the negotiating partner he’s been looking for.
Mr. Poroshenko is one of the super-rich elite whom Ukrainians routinely refer to as oligarchs, but he’s also a pro-Western booster and a populist folk hero. Last December, he stepped between protesters and soldiers who were preparing a serious counterattack. He has significant business interests in Russia, and if he, rather than Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, emerges as president, Mr. Putin might scale back the aggression that has made Ukrainians fear another Crimea-style land grab.
On the streets of Kiev, warm spring weather brought more and more people out to the squares of one of Europe’s most beautiful cities. Inside the conference sessions, each held in a different language, frequent denunciations of Mr. Putin’s strongman depredations were mixed with expressions of sincere happiness that the event was happening at all, mostly through the vision of one man, Yale University historian Timothy Snyder.
My most significant encounter was the half-hour I spent with Myroslav Marynovych, senior vice-rector of the Ukrainian Catholic University in the western city of Lviv and co-founder, in 1976, of the human-rights organization Ukrainian Helsinki Group. The latter role was decisive: In 1977, he was arrested for his rights work and spent the next decade in a Soviet gulag.
You would not know it, to see the affable, warm-mannered man he is now, a mustached tweed-sporting figure superficially indistinguishable from any other university administrator. “In the gulag,” he told me, “you are confronted every day by good and evil. Every day. And you must make a choice between them. There is no option. It was, in this way, the most spiritual decade of my life.”
One of the panelists at the conference suggested that it was only with the ouster of Mr. Yanukovych that the spectre of Soviet-style corruption and mendacity were driven from the nation, the promise of 1989 finally fulfilled. But that is premature. There is much work still to be done before democracy will really have taken hold in Ukraine. Its people are at a crossroads, and they know it. We in the West have been shamefully slow to offer attention and support, both material and intellectual.
On the conference’s final day, I had a brief conversation with a Holocaust historian who travelled to Kiev between commitments in Moscow and Krakow. “When I first saw the conference listed, I thought: I have to be there,” he said. “It’s the least we can do. The least.”
The least, but one hopes not the last.