Meet the Author | Mikhail Minakov

"Ukraine predicted the future for other post-Soviet countries"


In his latest book Development and Dystopia. Studies in Post-Soviet Ukraine and Eastern Europe (ibidem Press 2018), Mikhail Minakov analyses the developmental challenges, geopolitical contexts, and dystopic stalemates that post-Soviet societies face during their transition to new political and cultural orders. The book proposes a vision on how Western and post-communist Europe may be able to create a sustainable pan-European common space.

Mikhail Minakov. ZOiS

Your book is called „Development and Dystopia“. In the narrative of modernity, these notions seem contradictory. How do they come together?

Modernity itself has a long history as well as many faces in different contemporary societies and cultures. With the enriched concept of multiple modernities, the theory of Modernity provides scholars of post-Soviet societies with something very important an ability to see our progress and failures as part of the bigger picture of Europe’s development.

Therefore, in the title, I try to catch the major contradiction of post-Soviet times: many attempts to achieve socio-economic and political development, and their failure. With the fall of the industrial Soviet modernity, new societies in Ukraine, Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan aimed to become modern and ‚normal.‘ In the beginning of the 1990's, we thought ‚normal' meant democratic, capitalist, individualist. Then these radical modernising efforts provoked a reaction of the populations experiencing poverty, insecurity, and life in highly risky conditions. That reaction has changed – and reversed – the directions of  post-Soviet development so that, within ten or twenty years, the entire region turned into a space of dystopia, not development.

Ukraine is one of the most radical examples of the post-Soviet situation. Ukraine tried three times to achieve a fast modernisation, and failed to fulfil the revolutionary promises each time. There is a lot of energy and creativity vested into our progress, but whichever impulses there were from within or from outside, we keep ending up in this dystopian situation. This gap between the attempts and the results surprised me, and I tried to think through this conundrum.

So what went wrong in the post-Soviet context?

In the post-Soviet context, we have our own cycles of attempts to modernise and the reactions to it. We had an entire set of revolutions in the early '90s: revolutions in the public sector creating a national state, a pluralist democracy, a space for civil society and for religious freedoms; and there were private sphere revolutions in economic behaviour, sexual and family lives, cultural freedom, and a ‘criminal revolution’.. In my opinion, this rapid change has brought not only the joy of liberty, but also came as a shock. How to survive in times of far-reaching and fast modernisation? Then, we see how people living through these critical moments start inventing different forms of ‘non-freedom’ and investing into informal institutions that create stable infrastructures for de-modernization, for undermining any kind of attempt of moving forward and integrating with other more successful modern societies.

Your book focuses on Ukraine. In what way is Ukraine typical for the post-Soviet world?

There are four parts in the book and in each Ukraine plays a different role. In the first part, I review the cultural, long durée tendency of simultaneous modernisation and de-modernisation in the post-Soviet societies. Here, Ukraine is one of many countries dealing with a common fate. The second part is about the post-Soviet landscape, where Ukraine plays a central role as a country moving quickly through  revolutionary cycles. So far, we have gone through two full cycles, from a leap to modernity – the attempt to establish freedom, a free society and economy –to de-modernisation, a new revolution. In a way, Ukraine was the society and country that predicted the future for other post-Soviet countries, for examplefor Belarus and for Russia. At least, that’s my understanding. The third part of the bookfocuses on the Euromaidan as an event that shapes the Ukrainian and neighbouring societies. And the final part is dedicated to  the re-assessment of the idea of One Big Europe, as it is seen from Kyiv. Is One Europe – as a place for the West, the East, and the Balkans – still possible?

You are a political philosopher with a background in political studies. Which part of you has been dominant while writing the book?

For me, the fundamental starting-point is philosophy, not political science. Political philosophy is trying to reconcile ideals and reality. As a political philosopher, I combine the neutral analysis of processes and actors with the passion and will to keep some space for personal freedom regardless of any hostile conditions.

You say, you wrote this book from the perspective of a Kyivite. Why was this important?

Think of the theory of multiple modernities. It’s the theory of Shmuel Eisenstadt, a Jerusalemite. Coming from the Eternal City, he had the proper distance to see how many different modernities there are. I was sitting in Kyiv, the second Jerusalem of the Slavs. I had the privilege of being there, being a Kyivite. I was writing this book from this perspective, looking at what’s happening in the post-Soviet space and the wider Europe. This provided me with a specific position that differs from the Moscow- or Brussels-centred views of many other scholars.

The interview was conducted by Stefanie Orphal, communications director at ZOiS.

Mikhail Minakov is currently a Principal Investigator on Ukraine at the Kennan Institute, DAAD visiting professor at the Europa-Universität Viadrina and editor-in-chief of Focus Ukraine, an online blog published by the Kennan Institute.