Christmas in Kyiv, by Alexandra Fedynsky

Tires in Kyiv summer 2014

EuromaidanThis article, about recent events in Ukraine, is one in a series by a young friend and student of French at Notre Dame, Alexa Fedynsky

I first visited Maidan in December 2012, just in time for New Year’s Eve. Snow covered everything. My brother and I struggled against the cold each time we ventured outside. Despite the bone-chilling weather, people were preparing for the upcoming holidays as they do year after year. We had to push our way through the throngs of people on the metro, bicker with shop owners for various goods, and wait in line with fellow tourists to visit monuments. On one of our excursions, we saw an advertisement for a Maidan concert to ring in the New Year, which was to feature many famous Ukrainian bands, most notably the singer Ruslana. We arrived just in time to hear her sing, and after her show she counted down from ten kicking off the New Year. At the stroke of midnight I was surprised to see, after a brief moment of hugging and cheering, everyone standing straight and singing the national anthem of Ukraine. Despite the social atmosphere of the evening, people displayed the pride they had for their country, forgetting the festivities for a moment. The concert then proceeded as normal: more rock songs, dancing, and champagne drinking. The next day I flew back to America feeling the pride of Ukraine. Staring out the window onto the green Ukrainian countryside, I knew I wanted to go back.
One year later, the Ukrainian government was getting ready for Christmas again. Government employees began to set up the giant Christmas tree in the middle of Maidan, along with tinsel and ornaments. However this year’s “celebration” was to differ greatly. By setting up this tree, the government strove to disperse the massive crowd which had gathered to protest against President Yanukovych and his failure to sign a trade agreement with the European Union. Instead of government workers setting up holiday decorations, protesters took charge, throwing flags and banners across the scaffolding. Around this time began the whispers of nightly attacks by the Berkut, the special police force of Ukraine. In response, people set up barricades around Maidan and Khreshchatyk, using tinsel and decorations as part of the foundation. These barricades withheld most attacks, even withstanding the bloody weekend of February 21, where the Berkut murdered over 100 protesters. After this bloodshed, the president fled, and Euromaidan seemed to be a success. In a symbolic, as well as fearful gesture, the tents and barricades stood until well past the inauguration of the new president–a remembrance not only of the lives lost but also the common struggle the Ukrainian people have shared for centuries.
I arrive this summer, with barricades all around. The smell of ash engulfs people walking up the stairs from the metro. Pedestrians watch where they step, the sidewalk missing large sections of cobblestone. During the revolution, protesters had picked up the stones to throw at the Berkut. The giant Christmas tree scaffolding, strewn with flags and banners of support, imposingly stands in the center of Maidan, surrounded by large green army tents. These tents maze through the entire Maidan, as well as a good portion of Khreshchatyk, the stakes hammered into the concrete of the street. Narrow pathways wind around the tents, mostly empty except for the occasional “protester.” The people there now represent various demographics, from the stranded Eastern Ukrainian unable to return home, to the overly-emphatic Western Ukrainian student, to those who leech off the self-sufficient city. Few cars drive down the once busy street, the tents taking up almost all of the road. Despite all of this, I still sit for a nice lunch right on Maidan–ironically a Crimean restaurant–where service is completely normal only a few months after the tragic events of both Maidan and the Crimean takeover. Tourist sites remain open, allowing me to see the inside of the grand St. Sophia for the first time. In the midst of important events, be this New Years celebrations or a life-changing revolution, daily life continues. In spite of this tragic event the hope of freedom and happiness remains, clear in the conversations and interactions among people. And one day soon, the crowds around Maidan will gather, singing the national anthem of Ukraine, both as a sign of unity and once again, celebration.
Christmas in Kyiv Summer 2014

Brotherly love in the classroom, or how to teach Les Misérables


This summer I wrote an article on how to keep the “unfamiliar light” aflame in the teaching of Les Misérables. What follows are my favorite parts:

VI. Problems and opportunities

This last point reveals the main problem of studying Hugo’s commitment to revolutionary ideals in Les Misérables: it is inconsistent. Despite the militant preface and the moments where people help each other, Les Misérables ends with a comforting vision of Christian death en famille. Parts of Valjean’s dying speech sound like the words of a wealthy industrialist, not a repentant ex-convict: he dies happy, knowing that his son-in-law now owns not only his fortune, but also the manufacturing secrets that made the Montreuil-sur-mer factory such a success. Through their tears, the Baron Pontmercy and wife Cosette embrace the bourgeois happiness this will bring. As Brombert notes, “not a word is said about social conditions, while private property is justified, indeed sanctified.”*

Faced with this disappointing ending, the teacher has some choices. One can explain it as a result of Hugo’s socio-spiritual milieu (Brombert), side-step it by labeling Hugo a “divided person” (Ewing), or turn it into a discussion of privilege. Although economic privilege is at stake here rather than race, the basic principles could easily be extended to the American case. Consider Kristof’s bleak article on the working class in the American west. It concludes on a decidedly Hugolien note: “the essential starting point is empathy.” For a more political discussion, consider the explosive revelations found in White Privilege: “The economic power system is not invisible—everyone knows that money brings privilege. But the myth persists that all have access to that power through individual resourcefulness. This myth of potential economic equality supports the invisibility of the other power systems that prevent fulfillment of that ideal” (Wildman and Davis). By narrowing his vision to one exceptional person, Hugo brushes the unfairness of capitalism and privilege under the rug.

The author seems to have lost his nerve by the end of the novel, and the recent adaptations have done even more to muffle the political potential of Les Misérables. Critiqued for its “push-button emotionalism” and “lurid melodrama” on opening night, Les Miz has nevertheless been packing theaters around the globe since 1985 (Nightingale and Palmer). Can one blame Tom Hooper, director of the 2012 film, for following such a lucrative lead?

Faced with this media onslaught, students might be invited to rewrite the end of Les Misérables. Maybe they could make it answer to the preface. Perhaps Marius might remember his father’s sacrifice, or see the ghosts of Enjolras or Éponine lighting a path forward? Using creativity may be the best way to restore urgency to Les Misérables. It might allow some students to feel brotherly love, if only in the classroom. What happens next will be up to them.


Thermidor Fun Fact Day Forty-One: A child of the Revolution becomes its Historian

What nineteenth-century historian had a special connection to the Revolution, due to the fact that he was born in a disused church (une église désaffectée) in Paris, and grew up in the building housing a printing press where his folks worked making assignats among other things. [A hint: He expresses sympathy for the ordinary working man in Le Peuple (1846).]
a. Alphonse de Lamartine (1790-1869)
b. Adolphe Thiers (1797-1877)
c. Jules Michelet (1798-1874)
d. Thomas Carlyle (1795-1881)

Thermidor Fun Fact Day Thirty: David’s painting and the myth of Marat

Today is the 221st anniversary of Charlotte Corday’s assassination of Jean-Paul Marat, left-wing journalist and politician, author of the newspaper L’Ami du peuple. Marat’s fame would doubtless have waned years ago, if not for the gorgeous portrait by Jacques-Louis David called La Mort de Marat (1793). Produced by order of the Convention in response to the groundswell of anger after Marat’s murder, in David’s masterful hands Marat looks younger, more handsome, and healthier than he really was. He symbolizes the people’s triumph over adversity. That is why David represented Charlotte Corday as ………. in the painting.

a. crucified behind the martyred Marat

b. lying at the feet of the martyred Marat

c. peering in the window at Marat in the bathtub

d. absent

Thermidor Fun Fact Day Twenty-Eight: The potent issue of state finances

On July 11, 1789 Louis XVI dismissed the Finance Minister Jacques Necker, who returned to his home near Geneva, Switzerland. The public reaction to this was ….?
a. indifference. Everybody knew he deserved to get fired.
b. great anxiety and concern. This was outrageous, and dangerous for the country!
c. ignorance. Ordinary people did not know what happened behind the closed doors of Versailles.
d. enthusiasm. Good riddance to foreign influences.

Thermidor Fun Facts Day Seven: June 20 is an important anniversary

June 20 is not only on the cusp of the summer solstice, it is also the anniversary of an event that marked an important step toward democratic rule in France, or toward the reign of Terror, depending on your perspective.
What happened on June 20, 1792?
a. A mob invaded the Tuileries palace and forced the king to wear a red wool bonnet in honor of the Revolution and to proclaim his loyalty to the Constitution.
b. A mob invaded the chateau de Versailles and forced the royal family to move back to Paris.
c. Deputies of the National Assembly took what’s known as the Tennis Court Oath, vowing not to disband until France had a new Constitution.
d. The National Assembly submitted its new Constitution to King Louis XVI.

On Abolishing privilege in 2014 and 1789

An interesting article in today’s Libération by Marcela Iacub brings to mind the night of 4 August 1789, during which deputies representing the clergy and aristocracy gave up their inherited, feudal privileges. The fundamental question facing the population in 1789 now faces us today, and an acute sense of injustice is mounting daily in France and the US, which are both struggling with ways to restore a sense of justice in countries which appear to embrace, enforce, and protect the privileges of the few. Should privilege be abolished from the top down, by governmental decree, welfare or taxation policies? Or should the state maintain its laissez-faire economics and allow the market to continue widening the gap between the 1% and the rest of us?
The history of the French Revolution provides one example of people voluntarily relinquishing their rights to privilege, but it is worth noting that the generous élan of August 4, 1789 followed a bloody summer known as the Great Fear, when peasants and other disenfranchised folks took justice in their own hands, pillaging, stealing, and otherwise leveling the playing field in rural France. The famously public generosity of August 4 was thus generated by fear more than solidarity. Our time is heading in the same direction, as Marcela Iacub notes, and it remains to be seen what solution may be found to curb the rightful anger of the disenfranchised. Iacub proposes a law that would limit the ability of the super-rich to inherit the wealth of their families (above a certain level), and thereby restore a sense of justice among those unlucky folks who inherit nothing but the will to work hard and hope for a better life. But can the dispossessed find satisfaction without violence against their oppressors? And is it reasonable to expect the privileged to relinquish their comforts voluntarily?


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