NEW YORK – Following a crescendo of terrifying violence, the Ukrainian uprising has had a surprisingly positive outcome. Contrary to all rational expectations, a group of citizens armed with not much more than sticks and shields made of cardboard boxes and metal garbage-can lids overwhelmed a police force firing live ammunition. There were many casualties, but the citizens prevailed. This was one of those historic moments that leave a lasting imprint on a society’s collective memory.
How could such a thing happen? Quantum mechanics offers a fitting metaphor. Physicists know that subatomic phenomena can manifest themselves as both particles and waves; similarly, human beings may behave both as individual particles and as components of a larger wave. In other words, the unpredictability of historical events like those in Ukraine has to do with an element of uncertainty in human identity.
People’s identity is made up of individual elements and elements of larger units to which they belong, and peoples’ impact on reality depends on which elements dominate their behavior. When civilians launched a suicidal attack on an armed force in Kyiv on February 20, their sense of representing “the nation” far outweighed their concern with their individual mortality. The result was to swing a deeply divided society from the verge of civil war to an unprecedented sense of unity.
Whether that unity endures will depend on how Europe responds. Ukrainians have demonstrated their allegiance to a European Union that is itself hopelessly divided, with the euro crisis pitting creditor and debtor countries against one another. That is why the EU was hopelessly outmaneuvered by Russia in the negotiations with Ukraine over an Association Agreement.