What's going on in Ukraine?

What’s going on in Ukraine?

One thing I’m a bit embarrassed by is how paltry our coverage of the events in Ukraine have been over the past few weeks.  I’m sure I’m not alone in watching from afar and being fascinated with what is happening, but I have no special expertise in the region.  Does anyone from our readership?

One thing that’s fascinated me in particular is how quickly the state of policing shifted, and what this potentially means for how we think about such things as “police,” “state,” “violence,” and “democracy.”  You know, all those classic elements of Police Studies that draw on Weber.

From what I can tell, things moved very quickly.  While confrontations between police and protestors had been building for a while, the deadly violence seemed to ignite and spread quickly so that by Feb. 20th anthropologist Jennifer Carrol could write:

By the morn­ing, police had pushed pro­tes­tors back dra­mat­i­cally. The peo­ple had been cleared from the park, cleared from Hru­shevskoho Street, cleared from Insti­tutka Street, and dri­ven into the mid­dle of Inde­pen­dence Square. Police spent the day turn­ing water canons on pro­test­ers and beat­ing them with trun­cheons. Oth­ers took up perches on the roofs of build­ings and scat­tered rifle fire through­out the crowd. At this moment, as I am writ­ing, they are still actively shoot­ing peo­ple on the streets from the roof of the Kozatskiy Hotel. There is no debate to be had today about whether “snipers” existed among the police like there was the last time men were shot. This time, these mur­der­ous offi­cers are being recorded, at great length, by the local news. This time, it is all out in the open, busi­ness as usual. By Wednes­day morn­ing, the death toll had reached 25. This morn­ing, on Thurs­day, it is not even noon and we have already lost seven more. (A reg­u­larly updated list of those mur­dered by state forces in Ukraine is avail­able on the web­site http://www.justiceformaidan.org.)

via From the streets of Kyiv: “We Are Definitely Going Somewhere” | Ellison Center for Russian, East European and Central Asian Studies.

According to CNN, as many as 100 people may have been killed by the next day.  However by the 21st there were already reports of police defections, including at least one commander and his unit. By the 22nd, Ukraine’s Parliement had voted to remove President Viktor Yanukovich from office, and release his opponent Yulia Tymoshenko, while protesters siezed his compound (in which they promptly took selfies).

What’s even more interesting to me is that, soon after, many of the “functions” of police were taken up even in the abscence of a formal police institution.  Protesters in ski masks served as security guards to the palace and people like the 30-year-old electrician called Andreiy took it upon themselves to direct traffic.  What this all means and where it is all going is clear to no one, least of all me.  By the 25th the very same police that had been acting as snipers were publicly asking for forgiveness from on their knees, to which the crowd reportedly responded with a chant of “shame on you” but with no retaliatory violence.

In my course Policing & Society, one of our starting points is the work of Virginia Hunter on policing in Ancient Athens.  She distinguishes between three “senses” of the term “police”:

  • Police as social control, by which she means “police” as a form of political dominance by one individual or group over another
  • Police as social regulation, by which she means the role government played in the welfare, order and security of the city.  Things like picking up the garbage and making sure the streets were clear.
  • Police as an institution, that is as a bureaucratic organization

She makes this distinction in order to argue that (despite being a cosmopolitan, ethnically/economically/politically diverse urban democracy) Athens had the first two “senses” of police but not the third yet almost all of the functions we associate with the police as an institution (investigation, apprehension, prosecution) were performed.  This key difference, however, suggests important differences between what the practice of democracy, political participation and self meant for Attic citizens versus us today.

As I’m looking from afar at Ukraine, I can’t help but think of Hunter’s work and wonder if a similar refiguration of those terms is in play.


4 thoughts on “What’s going on in Ukraine?

  1. Very interesting comments, Kevin. I have been too busy to follow events in Ukraine closely, but these observations seems consistent with one of the general ideas I have been thinking about regarding the police function in our revolutionary times: i.e. the longer term trajectory of a regime change often rests on the capacity of unruly/insurgent social movements to cultivate their own policing capacity. This is practically expressed in the act of recomposing a sense of “policeable” consensus beneath interactions between strangers, even as the old political basis for policing is under assault. The speed and efficiency with which new security is established in the spaces left by the retreat of the former security forces is, perhaps, an element of crucial consequence to the viability of peaceful governance in the long term. It would be interesting to do a comparative study measuring the speed with which different revolutions establish policed order (evidenced by the kinds of things you discuss here – traffic direction, rituals of transitional justice, etc) and then measure any correlation between these indicators and the longer term positive prospects for post-transition state.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Michael Bobick says:

    Kevin, the police have such a low social standing because of corruption in Ukraine even vis-a-vis Russia. The delegation of various social/policing functions on Maidan can be seen as a response to this refusal to be subjects of the Ukrainian state under Yanukovich. The informal thugs – Titushki – were bussed in from Western regions to stir things up. In my father in law’s hometown, Cherkassy (200 km from Kiev), the titushki were not fed for two days before being unleashed. What you are seeing in Ukraine is the people (an odd coalition, I might add – but indeed a spectrum of difference that our liberal society celebrates) refusing to abide by the established legal and constitutional norms, revising as they see fit. A good way to understand Maidan is to look at similar actions in Russia, and the responses to them. Protest movements and their leaders are marginalized, imprisoned, and otherwise driven from the square. No critical mass could form. Ukraine is different – their national anthem is a good place to start (it’s first line can be translated as “Ukraine has not died yet”).

    More importantly, this whole East-Ukraine/European // West-Russia/Eurasian divide, while rooted in reality, is the product of a political system whose inputs and outputs have been largely dictated by a few select oligarchs who profit from this division.

    The Crimea is another story – that is where things might get nasty in the days to come.

    In any case, Varlamov has a few good posts translated into English that might be of interest.


    Liked by 1 person

  3. I realize that part of what I was writing “against” in the last part here is what Garriott, following Reiner, calls “police fetishism”, or “the ideological assumption that the police are the functional prerequisite of social order so that without a police force chaos would ensue”. I struggle with this in my students, especially at the beginning of the course. The recent touchstone for them is the movie The Purge, which is oddly taken more as documentary fact than masochistic fantasy. And I suppose part of what I was seeing here was a kind of counter-narrative to that fantasy. However things “turn” here the violence can not be directly attributed to the lack of a police force, quite the opposite. Feb 20th 100 people killed, Feb 22nd 0 reported. It was the institution of police that was deadly.

    Now, Jeff, you’re troubling that story I wished I could tell by pointing out that not only was there already an alternative police in place, but in large part the ability to overturn one “police” depended on the police power of its replacement. I think you’re largely correct here. The only problem with this telling is that it covers over exactly everything that’s important to the people fighting, on both sides. Sure, it’s one thing to point out that–Jim Scott & Dave Graeber be damned–this is not about an egalitarian anarchy overthrowing once and for all the State but about instilling a different regime of police (or, as Foucault pointed out about medieval peasant revolts up to and through the Reformation, this was not about not being governed but about being governed differently by different pastors, through different means, towards different ends). And therein lies everything. Sure the opposition is “policed” in the largest sense of the term, but by what pastors, with what means and towards what ends? It seems that those are still open to potentially being very different in important ways.

    Mike: you’re giving me some of the tools to answer this question (which masters, which means, which ends?). Not Yanukovich, not informal thugs, not for oligarchical profit. But this still seems at best a broad outline for me…


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