E. Channell-Justice: Without the State

Without the State. Self-Organization and Political Activism in Ukraine

Channell-Justice, Emily
Anthropological Horizons
Anzahl Seiten
275 S.
€ 59,95
Rezensiert für H-Soz-Kult von
Dr Yuliia Mieriemova, Center for Gender Studies, University of Basel

Emily Channell-Justice’s important and engagingly written new book based on ethnographic research discusses self-organization as a notion and as a practice in the making; a practice both personal and political, gendered and fluid. It is therefore indispensable to understanding political activism in Ukraine not only during and after the 2013–2014 Maidan protests but also at the time of the full-scale Russian invasion. Channell-Justice emphatically argues that self-organization during Maidan shaped people’s political participation in Ukraine after the protests had concluded, thus changing the very complex relationships between civil society and the state on a larger scale. Throughout the book she identifies “self-organization” as something that needs to be achieved through people’s competence, resources and (most importantly) readiness to engage. Her principal argument is that the roots of the Maidan protests lay in self-organization and that the protests enabled the further development of political pluralism and fluidity.

This book makes an innovative contribution to the understanding of the Maidan protests as a non-homogenous entity and, more broadly, to the notion of self-organization and formation of civil society. Channell-Justice makes use of nuanced interviews with leftist and feminist activists in Kyiv as well as her experience of personal participation in the Maidan protests and observation of the participants. Her analysis engages with structural and individual accounts of the protests, emphasizing the fluidity of people’s thoughts and opinions over time and the changes to the political landscape. While many researchers have studied the Maidan protests, Channell-Justice presents her own comprehensive attempt to explore the ideas of the people who participated in them, the self-identified leftist activists, feminists and students, to understand how they shaped Ukrainian political activism and society at large. She aims to represent some of the views of the leftist activists with whom she spent the majority of her time in the field.

What fascinates the reader is the positioning of the researcher towards the participants’ potential changes throughout the months of the Maidan protests, and how eager she is to explore and analyze those changes. She questions and challenges the initial assumptions about the nature of political affiliations, resistance and revolution, as well as the acceptable means of participation. Perhaps gender scholars specifically will find her discussion of volunteerism in Ukraine to be a rich source of scholarly engagement, considering how gendered expectations contributed to the dichotomy between women’s and men’s accepted and acceptable roles during the protests and beyond. Channell-Justice suggests that self-organization as a form of activism and political engagement could potentially be more effective than political structures for addressing pressing societal issues. The book draws particular attention to the critiques within the leftist community in Ukraine about the so-called “European values” that Ukrainians presumably share and the perceived benefits (both economic and social) of joining the European Union, even in the remote perspective.

The book is organized into six chapters. The first reviews the concept of self-organization and the ways it plays out in the historical context of Ukraine. The author argues that self-organization was conceived in opposition to the state and the regime by actors from different parts of the Ukrainian political spectrum. Drawing on insights from interviews, Channell-Justice acknowledges the political struggle undertaken by initially marginalized leftist activists to be included to the protests.

Chapter two helps the reader comprehend the complexities of the research participants’ political interests and their own understanding of leftism and being leftists through case studies and profile analyses. Channell-Justice critically points out that the division between a pro-Ukrainian stance and anything that could potentially be regarded as favorable to the Soviet era might have impacted the marginalization of the leftist activists during the Maidan protests, even though the leftists were not affiliated with the Ukrainian communist party. The author aims to contextualize the so-called “Ukrainian left”; however, she occasionally falls prey to overgeneralizing.

Chapter three examines the decommunization processes and the rise of the nationalist ideology that contributed to alienating leftist activists from mainstream politics in Ukraine. However, the leftist voices that were initially diminished managed to find new ways of interacting with the mainstream protests and renegotiated their presence and means of participation in the post-Maidan politics. The debates in this section are not new, but they once again reaffirm the assertion that the Maidan protests were not a homogenous process, nor did they represent homogenous groups of activists. What united the participants was that they all protested against the state; at the same time, they marginalized voices that might have been seen as diverting attention from this critique of the state.

Chapters four and five succinctly discuss the concrete leftist initiatives that turned out to be most successful for Maidan, such as the Hospital Guard and activism for higher education reform. These initiatives, when purposefully disassociated from their left-wing roots, were welcomed by Maidan and thus, as the author suggests, made leftist activists reconsider their readiness to fight back.. In these chapters, the author also establishes her own typology of the Maidan protests by tracing leftists’ shifting attitudes and participation patterns (p. 105), which she artfully divides into three parts: a reactionary stage, a space of uncertainty and a space of possibility. I find this division especially interesting as it reflects the experiences of a particular group, the leftists, who were not very numerous and yet indispensable to understanding the dynamics of the protests.

The last chapter was of particular interest for me as a gender scholar because it offers a much-needed analysis of the gendering of spaces during the Maidan protests. The author skillfully uncovers how feminists’ claims about gender and sexual equality threatened the so-called European values that the majority of the protesters were so eager to share by joining the European Union. This was due to the complex relationship between feminism (which was considered to be linked with socialism) and national ideology (where not challenging gender norms was considered crucial to the national idea). However, feminists found themselves capable of organizing and producing a more consolidated agenda that could potentially appeal to wider audiences. In this chapter, Channell-Justice explores how women chose the militarized form of participation, promoted equality discourses, and mobilized through self-organization. She argues convincingly that traditional gender roles were seen as an important part of decommunization, and that arguing against them was consequently perceived as a throwback to the communist regime. I find Channell-Justice’s engagement with Bohachevsky-Chomiak1 and Khromeychuk2 particularly exciting in showing how the perceived contradiction between feminism and the Ukrainian national agenda has often limited spaces and choices for Ukrainian women. Summarizing Zhurzhenko3, she explains that Ukrainian feminists often found themselves in opposition to mainstream politics and activism because they rejected the primacy of the nation, for which they were therefore criticized and stigmatized. Drawing on her interviews with feminist activists, Channell-Justice suggests that feminists had to adopt a certain military, masculine rhetoric so that their claims about gender equality would be perceived as less threatening. Both feminist activists and leftists had to adjust to the changing dynamics of the protests that initially rejected their claims and values.

This is a book that looks into a particular historic moment with precision and personal engagement to explain the broader phenomenon of mass mobilization in Ukrainian society. Although Channell-Justice addresses the leftist origins of self-organization, this claim could have been further extended based specifically on the Ukrainian context, but perhaps that goes beyond the scope of the book. I also felt that the application of a gender perspective to the analysis of Maidan could have been more thorough. These comments notwithstanding, Emily Channell-Justice has produced a brilliant contribution to understanding the nature of self-organization as both the politics and practice of people’s engagement with the state. The book is also filled with incredible photographs, taken by the author herself, which differ deeply from those offered by journalists. These photos feel like snapshots of life, fragments of the reality that some of the participants experienced; they feel intimate and familiar. They almost give the impression that the author was moving the camera as though guided by what she saw happening, trying to capture those elusive changes; sometimes the photographs feel stifling, but they are certainly the reflection of events that launched institutional and structural change in Ukrainian society. Looking at those photos made me realize once more how incredibly diverse the story of Maidan is, and how important it is to synthesize the contributions of various actors.

1 Martha Bohachevsky-Chomiak, Feminists despite Themselves. Women in Ukrainian Community Life, 1884–1939, Edmonton 1988.
2 Olesya Khromeychuk, From the Maidan to the Donbas. The Limitations on Choice for Women in Ukraine, in: Lynne Attwood / Elisabeth Schimpfössl / Marina Yusupova (eds.), Gender and Choice after Socialism, London 2018, pp. 47–78.
3 Tatiana Zhurzhenko, Ukrainian Feminism(s). Between Nationalist Myth and Anti-Nationalist Critique, IWM Working Papers 2001.

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