A Place in the Making

By Thorsten Botz-BornsteinOctober 30, 2014

A Place in the Making

OVER THE LAST few years the world has discovered the maidan, mainly in the form of the Maidan Nezalezhnosti (Independence Square), the spot in Kiev where demonstrators have protested against governmental authoritarianism, corruption, and lack of opportunity. Soon after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the square became the center of street demonstrations called “Revolution on Granite” (1989–1991). Large-scale protest campaigns also took place there in the 2000s: in 2001, against President Kuchma, and in 2004, against the fraudulent presidential election of Viktor Yanukovych. As a result, the election was cancelled and new elections were held in December 2004; this became famous as the Orange Revolution. Finally, since November 2013 the “Euro-maidan” demonstrations, taking place in the same location, have pushed for Ukraine’s integration into Europe.

For most of the international public who has been following those events, the word maidan probably remains linked to the Ukrainian protests; many might even assume that this is a Ukrainian word. The Google auto-fill option suggests the search term “Kiev Maidan Square,” which reflects a popular perception that “Maidan” is the name of the square. Few are aware that Cairo’s Maidan Al-Tahrir (Liberation Square) is just another maidan. The Maidan Al-Tahrir has a similar record of popular demonstrations: it was the setting for the Egyptian Bread Riots in 1977, the 2003 protests against the War in Iraq, the demonstrations against President Mubarak in 2011, as well as those against President Morsi in 2013.

From Ploshcha to Euro-Maidan

The 32,000-square-meter-Maidan Nezalezhnosti has fountains and grass-covered areas, and is dominated by a statue of the Archangel Mikhail. The place has played a prominent role in Kiev’s history. In the 19th century it was called the Khreshchatyk Square (Khreshchatyk Ploshcha), then in the Soviet era underwent several name changes, from the Soviet Square to the Kalinin Square (after the Russian revolutionary Mikhail Kalinin). In 1991 it ended up as the Maidan Nezalezhnosti. However, before 1991, the square was referred to as ploshcha, not as maidan. Ploshcha, which is similar to the Russian ploshad’, is the more commonly used word for large squares in Ukraine. Other “Independence Squares” have ploshcha in their names: there is a Ploshcha Nezalezhnosti in Kirovohrad, another in Kremenchuk, and yet another in Odessa. Only the central squares in Khmelnytskyi and Sumy are called Maidan Nezalezhnosti. Maidan is an unusual choice because, unlike ploshcha (a formal and, most of the time, urban space), maidan can also refer to other forms of empty space. The choice seems to matter. Today Kiev locals often refer to the Maidan Nezalezhnosti simply as “the Maidan.”

The Arabic-Persian maidan is linked to the Indo-European root medyos (middle), which is the reason why maidan resembles words from European languages such as middle, Mitte, and moyen. Maidan has entered languages such as Hindi, Urdu, Afghan, Kazakh, Turkmen, Vietnamese, and, through Turco-Persian transmission, also several Eastern and European languages: Polish, Romanian, and Serbian. Maidan as a form of urban space can be found in Istanbul, Calcutta, and Tbilisi. It represents a distinctly Eastern spatial category, quite different from the West-European “place,” “plaza,” or “Platz,” but also from the Russian ploshad’. These are all derived from the Latin platea (open space, courtyard), as well as from the Greek word for broad (plateia) — as in “broad way.” Yet, it would be wrong to deem maidan a purely non-Western word. Given its wide circulation in Europe and Asia, it is tied to both the East and West.

The events in Ukraine have expanded the meaning of maidan from that of geographical location (just an empty piece of land) to a term with symbolical status: now maidan stands for independence, liberty, and autonomy. This change has made possible the creation of compound words that would have made no sense before: anti-maidan, auto-maidan, and Euro-maidan. The anti-maidan demonstrations supported Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych, who sought to keep close ties with Russia. The auto-maidan was a car procession moving towards the president’s residence, blocking all the streets in the process. This was a protest against Viktor Yanukovych’s refusal to sign the Ukraine-European Union Association Agreement in December 2013. The Euro-maidan served the same purpose, but didn’t involve cars. The word was created in the form of a Twitter hashtag and is still used as such today.

The symbolical meaning of maidan is quite pervasive. The Euro-maidan Journalist Collective (Project Maidan) describes the maidan as a non-Western version of the ancient Roman fora, by definition places of communal gathering and discussion. While Ukrainian linguist Stepan Nalyvajko confirms that one of the word’s original meanings was that of “gathering place,” connecting it to the Roman forum, historically speaking, is a stretch. Fora existed in the Slavic world as well, but they were called veche and not maidan (it appears that Ukrainian journalists first meant to use veche but then switched to maidan). Two Ukrainian theologians, Bishop Borys Gudziak and Fr. Mychajlo Dymyd of the Ukrainian Catholic University, expand the symbolical meaning even further, calling for a “spiritual maidan.”

A Philosophy of Space

The maidan is a place of social struggle where individual opinions merge or clash with each other. In Serbo-Croatian maidan means literally “place of fight.” While in Kiev’s Maidan Nezalezhnosti the demands for European-style democracy clashed with those of former members of the Ukrainian volunteer military group SS Galicia, on Cairo’s Maidan Al-Tahrir one could see confrontations between Islamic, liberal, anti-capitalist, nationalist, and feminist forces.

Maidan has lately gained international attention precisely against this background. This shows the importance of “central” places for the coagulation of democracy movements. Yet, if maidan is to be used as a concept, it must be carefully examined and defined. I propose an analysis of its multiple meanings through the lens of Kitaro Nishida’s philosophy of space. Nishida (1870–1945) founded the so-called Kyoto School of philosophy, and is generally considered the most important modern Japanese philosopher.

How can Nishida help us better understand the maidan as a social, cultural, and political phenomenon? He believes that we need to see the “place” (basho) as a social spatial experience, something that is opposed to a strictly mathematical definition of space. Nishida regards the place as a quality that cannot be confined to any quantitative (geometrical) frames of reference. This is obviously very different from how place is considered in the West. Characteristically, in English a place that occupies a central position in a city is named using a geometrical figure: square. What the Italians name today piazza the Romans called quadratum.

Nishida sees the place as a complex unity of divergent forces: as a series of demands, desires, and opinions that are held together by an overarching principle. However, all these divergent demands and desires, according to Nishida, should not be “squared,” but should coexist within a space that is not defined by geometrical rules. The place is not created by drawing lines on the floor, it emerges whenever people come together and engage in some social game. Imagine a group of kids gathering and playing soccer on a field: what happens there is the creation of a place. In Nishida’s view, then, places do not arise as given phenomena but they “come into play” and exist only as long as the game unfolds.

Importantly, Nishida does not think that within such a place people should be fighting against each other until the victory of the strongest. Mere tolerance or statistically engineered compromises are not real solutions either. The place, in the sense of basho, comes into being precisely through the social and cultural activities that different groups perform within it. It is not something from which conflicts are absent; conflicts are necessary in order to make that space a place. If we stretch the game metaphor a little further, into the realm of practical philosophy, we may say that the place as a “played” phenomenon creates consciousness — for example, the kind of collective consciousness we usually refer to as “culture.” While culture is indeed a typical example for such a place, individual selves can also be formed within it. It’s important that places are not controlled by rules set up by outside entities, but that the game controls itself, it self-regulates, as it were.

The game metaphor is also suitable because it brings about the game’s smoothness without any resort to imperatives. In a game you don’t kill the players of the opposing team because that would be the end of it. Contrary to geometrical space, the place is an action that generates its own meaning. Like many existential philosophers, Nishida liked paradoxical formulations: he called the basho a “form without form.”

Back to the Maidan

Maidan remains an intriguing concept because, in the cultural contexts in which it is used, it is compatible with Nishida’s idea of a “formless form.” In Romanian, maidan still signifies the sort of empty place (and almost never an official square), which has no particular purpose other than providing some setting for informal activities. Children can play there, just as adults can hang around. Ukrainian linguist Alexander Ponomariv openly defines maidan as “a place to play.” The Ramila Maidan in New Delhi is indeed a playground for children. By playing their game, children create their own place; others might join later and participate in this process of creation. The metaphor can be extended to the “social games” taking place on the Maidan Nezalezhnosti or the Maidan Al-Tahrir. In the end, those social games create the place of the civil society.

There is no doubt that the sudden emergence of the maidan and its subsequent conceptualization can be traced to a certain collective unconscious that is both local and international. That’s why this place needs to be rethought along the lines established by Nishida. When the Ukrainian Catholic intellectuals call for a spiritual maidan, they almost literally restate Nishida’s claim that places should always be spiritual.

However, “geometrical thinking” prevails even as people gather on the maidan. The place continues to be thought of in terms of hierarchies instead of organic wholeness. None of the groups in question seem to have acquired something like a political consciousness that would be in keeping with the philosophical connotations of the maidan. Different groups seek to occupy a piece of a geometrically delineated space and try to defend it to a bloody end. Over 100 Euro-maidan activists (called Nebesna Sotnya, the “Heavenly Hundred”), as well as many police officers have been killed in maidan-related incidents in 2013 and 2014 alone. On Maidan Al-Tahrir clashes between security forces and protesters resulted in at least 846 people killed and over 6,000 injured. Hundreds of “sexual mob crimes” against women have also been recorded during the anti-Mubarak, and even more so during the anti-Morsi demonstrations. As such, the constant evocation of the term maidan sounds almost ironic.

And yet terms such as anti-maidan suggest that the maidan is more than just a square. It symbolizes the dynamic power that can generate the kind of political culture Nishida articulates through his philosophy of place. For that to happen people should become fully aware of, and express, what they now only feel instinctively: places do not need to be grounded in political ideologies or religions, what matters in the end is that the game is played the right way. The success or failure of the maidan depends on this and nothing else.


Thorsten Botz-Bornstein is an Associate Professor of Philosophy at the Gulf University for Science and Technology in Kuwait.

LARB Contributor

Thorsten Botz-Bornstein is an Associate Professor of Philosophy at the Gulf University for Science and Technology in Kuwait. He is the author of Films and Dreams: Tarkovsky, Bergman, Sokurov, Kubrick, Wong Kar-wai (2007) and has written a number of books on topics ranging from intercultural aesthetics to the philosophy of architecture.


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