The Russian full-scale invasion gave Ukraine a unique opportunity to sever all ties with Russia on the level of culture and values.
Why should today’s war be considered a war of a metropole against the freedom of yesterday's colony? Will we use the historic opportunity to break away from Moscow? interviewed the founder of the pro.mova analytical center, a member of the Nestor Group, Yevhen Hlibovytskyi.
The 2022 historic opportunity. Why Ukraine and Russia failed to part in 1991
The Ukrainians are now doing what hadn't been done more than 30 years ago: the complete separation of a colony from the metropole. Will we succeed in doing this after the war?
Thirty years ago, we managed to use the historic opportunity and break away from Russia’s orbit. However, we didn’t achieve complete freedom. We didn’t have the necessary social configuration or new institutions for the state to function.
I’d say that the 1991 independence was a miracle because Ukraine wasn’t prepared for it. It was rather a response to an existential threat that arose from the attempted reversion of the Soviet Union to the totalitarian course, the August coup. By the way, it was reflected in the Act of Declaration of Independence of Ukraine, which literally cites the "mortal danger surrounding Ukraine."
Back then, 31 years ago, a specific public demand was formed to maintain the paternalistic social contract. Society itself wanted a contract where the citizens would mostly remain passive, taking no responsibility for their well-being.
From the very beginning, there was an inherent conflict in this demand, as people gave political elites a mandate for any changes aimed at maintaining the paternalistic social contract. In fact, it meant that they could enact any external changes to preserve the changelessness.
This explains that 90% of votes were given for independence, but at the same time, 61% voted for yesterday’s secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Ukraine as President. It was a change, but not intrinsic. Later, these changes became necessitated as society discovered that the old system was no longer functional.
Meanwhile, as new actors arose inside society, as people were growing up in a civic sense, deeper transformations slowly developed.
The process of growing up reached a critical mass during the Euromaidan Revolution. I believe this was the actual point of the declaration of independence.
Therefore, I would say that on August 24, 1991, Ukrainian statehood was conceived, whereas its birth occurred no earlier than in 2014. As a punishment for our ambition to be truly independent, we got a war brought upon us, which started with the annexation of Crimea and the takeover of parts of the Donetsk and Luhansk Regions, lasting to this day as the full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine. This is, in essence, our war for independence and a war of a former metropole against the freedom of an erstwhile colony.
I believe we have every chance to break away. And what’s very important, we have not only the intrinsic ability but a strong international coalition supporting us, which we didn’t have when we declared independence 100 years ago. This gives us a historical opportunity to succeed.
What do we need to finally cut off this painful connection to Moscow?
We must question ourselves as to how we can leverage this opportunity in the right way. The main thing is to ensure that the energy accumulated in Ukrainian society is transformed into a new system of institutions and rules in Ukraine.
It’s crucial that we remain a democracy. After all, we won’t be able to integrate into the EU if we cease to be a democracy.
It’s crucial that the country has a working checks and balances system as part of the democratic process. It’s crucial that civil liberties are protected.
It’s crucial that we have a choice of political propositions with responsibly formulated options on the list. That political competition is a competition between not populists but politicians who understand the harshness of the reforms awaiting us.
I believe this is all achievable. We are a poor country, and this compels us to make reforms. The lack of resources to live off while postponing necessary changes will shove our progress.
As evidenced by recent polls, we are now as far gone from the Russian imperial legacy as we’ve never been in our history. We now have a pool of proactive citizens who have a sense of agency that is unprecedented in terms of both their number and configuration.
This agency was previously very unevenly distributed, both geographically and socially. Some groups had more access to education than others. Some groups had more opportunities to preserve their historical memory, while others had fewer. As a result, we were a very disparate nation, speaking about the humanitarian or cultural aspects of Ukraine.
However, as we passed several milestones, each being in fact a Maidan revolution, namely the 1990 Revolution on Granite, the declaration of independence, the Orange Revolution, and the Euromaidan Revolution, we saw more and more new parts of society engage in this process. The full-scale invasion has awakened the last dormant groups in our nation.
Today, pro-Russian and pro-imperialist attitudes are less popular than ever. The independence of Ukraine has never been as meaningful and valued by the people as it is today. Ukrainian culture and language have never seen such popular support and allegiance. It’s important to preserve and comprehend this shift.
What do you consider an indication of changes or a lack of those? Still, the odds are that the changes could fail.
The grassroots support for the Ukrainian army, the omnipresence of the Ukrainian language, and hundreds of thousands of people coming back home as soon as it’s at least somewhat safe are all indications of changes.
The continuing readiness to accept a hype-dominated agenda, the preference for sparkle over substance, and the lack of understanding of the importance of institutional transformations are all signs of the immaturity of those changes, although even much more mature societies are now yielding to populism.
The current tide of change has affected both substantial and symbolic things. The renaming of streets is no less important than, for example, the maintenance or development of study programs or the creation of new cultural programs. This change is substantial and symbolic at the same time. Never has it been this deep.
In the last 100 years, we’ve had no examples of success close to what we have now. The legacy of previous failures is, of course, also taking its toll. But I’d rather consider this a try that can finally succeed. When a toddler is learning to walk and falls for the tenth time, we don’t say that there’s no hope to see the child walk. Since 2014, our steps are growing more and more confident.
The Ukrainians against the "Russian world": our response to violence
Do we need anything as an opposition to the "Russian world", whose propaganda is still working as a steamroller?
On the level of values, it has already happened. We have opposed them with our vision of the world: Ukrainian empathy is an antithesis to Russia’s indiscriminate violence.
Values aren’t formed by political decisions. Our values have been evolving along the same course under both Yushchenko’s and Yanukovich’s presidencies.
We also have important changes in political orientation. Today, the number of students studying Russian is at its historical minimum. At the same time, the number of students studying English is probably at its maximum. Another 15 or 20 years will bring this change to the national level.
Over time, Ukrainians will see Russian culture as a culture of another neighboring country and not an empire that imposes its values on us while belittling our own.
On the other hand, the experience of dissenting values will help create wonderful pieces of Ukrainian culture, which can attract global attention.
What will be the quality of our cultural product? What will we do with a whole category of low-grade cultural products we use to call "sharovarshchyna" (a primitive representation of Ukrainian culture as a rural and provincial one based on a kitschy stylization of a traditional costume)?
Despite all its achievements, Ukraine now has one of the worst sets of cultural policies since the declaration of independence. The whole humanitarian section of Zelenskyy’s administration is extremely weak. Therefore, cultural progress is largely occurring despite the government's efforts and not because of them.
So while we have a complete alliance between civil society and the government as regards security issues, there’s a complete misalliance with humanitarian issues.
It's a threat, albeit not a disaster like it was before. In any case, the government’s approach to culture and education needs to be changed.
Being a frontier country, we must consider humanitarian policy to be part of our security policy. Should we lose the Ukrainian Cultural Foundation, the Dovzhenko Center, or, God forbid, the Public Broadcasting Company, the dynamics of our social transformation would be strikingly different, resembling the one in Hungary, to which regimes like Putin’s Russia know to find a backdoor approach.
It’s in the nature of institutions that their importance becomes obvious only after they’re lost, which can bring us to the start of another onerous circle of struggle and restoration.
Independence Day 2022: paternalism no longer works
The process of separation from Russian culture has already started. Where do we move from now on? Is it a Western course of studying the cultures of other neighbors?
I wouldn’t say it’s a process of trading a metropole for another one. On the contrary, it’s liberation.
Interaction with the outer world is another issue, since this outer world has its own rules. For example, we don’t become Englishmen or Americans when we study English. However, we become globalized, with all the risks and benefits it entails.
There’s no reason to believe we need to realign with someone else to remain stable. To a large extent, we are rediscovering and getting to know the impact of the West on our culture, and European integration is the process that helps us do it.
However, we also have a self-sufficient Ukrainian component. I believe that further development of our culture will be centered on its authentic Ukrainian component.
We also have learned to influence the world. Ukraine is arguably the country with the most soft power in the world. I don’t think any other country’s social capital is as concentrated as Ukraine’s. Of course, we don’t use this instrument universally, as our efforts are now focused primarily on the West and, to a lesser extent, Asia and the global South. However, learning to use this soft power is also an extended process.
I would never have thought, for example, that I would ever hear Pink Floyd play a Ukrainian rebel song, which they released under the name Hey Hey Rise Up!
Paternalism doesn’t work anymore. Considering our new values, what will be the new social contract after the war?
Speaking of the social contract, I think that empathy will be even more manifested for a while, serving as a glue to keep different groups together. Meanwhile, new rules have to be set out because the role of empathy will dwindle as we’ll be getting over our historical trauma.
I guess there will be a request for simple and predictable institutions that will allow those who want to be active to realize their potential.
It’s an important stage of development, especially since we’re joining the European club of countries with mature and sophisticated systems of rules.
I am worried that the process of European integration might turn into an inorganic replacement of institutions. This would hit society painfully and disorientate a significant part of the Ukrainian people. I hope the EU will also learn something from Ukraine and be aware of the cost of a mistake.
How does Independence Day in 2022 differ from the one in 2021?
It’s a whole different feeling. Today is the epitome of what we’re fighting for, that’s why this holiday is of absolute importance for everyone. In the same way as we once grew to understand the lyrics of our national anthem, we are now becoming aware of the true importance of independence.
I’m optimistic about what comes next, even though more trials are sure to come, and some of them will be gruesome.