on ukraine’s mass violence

Each viewer observes the photography of the ongoing street battles in Ukraine’s capital through a different violent analogue. “Shit, Kiev” may refer to a clustered unit of riot police; a rolling, ashen cumulus; a ramshackle barricade; or, an injured protester wandering amid the city’s flaming carcass. These scenes are Civilization V, Zack Snyder’s latest superheroic melee, an imagined siege of Stalingrad–at once, or each alone, depending on your vantage. The impression of the carnage, of that protester overwhelmed by his crumbling environs, dehumanizes as it empowers.

If Kiev is the current center-stage, Ukrainian politics, especially since the country’s national elections in 2012, is a tragedy of continuous errors. Triggered by the current government’s side-step towards the authoritarian patronage of Vladimir Putin’s Russia, the EuroMaidan movement trumpets its cosmopolitan virtue. As elsewhere, however, Ukraine’s European future is merely the movement’s vanguard. The EuroMaidan–literally, the “European square”–is a rendezvous between grievances local and global. While the movement’s core contests the pro-Russia stance of President Viktor Yanukovych, others raise the country’s oligarchic turn, or the repression of civil society, or of media, or of political opposition. Ukraine’s democratic promise, a voguish topic during the Cold War’s aftermath, is now a tattered work of historical fiction.

Kiev is the EuroMaidan’s icon, as Tahrir or Taksim were Egypt’s or Turkey’s, respectively. The gradual fracture of the Ukrainian polity also extends far beyond the rubbled borders of Independence Square. To Lviv, where, at time of writing, opposition protesters seize control of local municipal buildings. To Crimea, that historically autonomous thruway along the Eurasian Black Sea, where pro-Russian MPs now gains an ever-stronger foothold. Ukraine’s internal disorder, so momentous, betrays the false rhythm of its capital city’s repressive barrage.

Kiev’s violence, like any violence, is no bold romance. The Square’s apocalypse–the billowing smoke-monsters, and what they represent–absorbs the half-life of Ukraine’s civil society, which struggles against the subtle violence of the Yanukovych regime. The glacial decay of the Ukrainian public sphere, as a political thing, is a years-long, intentional affair. In the decade since the so-called Orange Revolution in 2004, Ukraine’s governing patrons have engaged an aggressive campaign of civic subterfuge. Hired hands extract, scalpel-like, the popular grist of Ukrainian social movements. By authoritarian design, the organizations that comprise the EuroMaidan have become the weak, vulnerable pillars of now-shrinking public.

This, too, is an image of mass violence, albeit one quite unlike its contemporary counterparts in Syria and the Central African Republic. An event’s massiveness refers to a measurement far greater than its basic body count, which, in Ukraine, is infinitesimal, however tragic. Kiev’s apocalyptic photographs display the imminent destruction of Ukraine’s public sphere, a human innovation: fallen buildings and scorched storefronts, darkened thresholds, uncobbled avenues. The terror-stricken bystander, a lone civilian, masked in her own blood.

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