Yesterday were published Q&A of our highly regarded specialist Ukrainian essayist Mykola Riabchuk who answered the questions of one of the most widely read Spanish magazines Vozpopuli. Courtesy of magazine, we are publishing the English translation from the Spanish by Javier Moreno. We will soon publish the Polish translation.
Rubén Arránz (VozPopuli): 1. Moscow’s big propaganda argument for starting the Ukrainian war was the need to 'denazify’ Ukraine. But, is ultra-nationalism really a movement of significant strength in your country?
Mykola Riabchuk: The very fact that the international media still raise this contrived question is a perfect (though sad) illustration of the power of Russian propaganda and of Western susceptibility to various fakes emanating from Moscow. Not a single person who ever been to Ukraine and acquired the first-hand knowledge from the ground would buy this myth. But most foreigners have no idea about Ukraine, so can buy anything. Especially if the lie is multiplied powerfully in the media, then the basic human instinct suggests us to take care: “There must be some truth, there is no smoke without fire”. But what a “fire” of the kind you can find in Ukraine? Maybe a Jewish president elected overwhelmingly (with 72% support) in 2019? Or far-right parties in the parliament – like in most Western countries? Nope. In Ukraine, they failed to pass the 5% threshold in 2014, and even united into a block they made up miserable 2% in 2019. Or maybe freedom of speech is misused in Ukraine for propaganda of fascist ideology? No, it is outlawed in Ukraine and can be punished by fines or imprisonment.
Ironically, the only period in the independent Ukraine when the far-right party gained some popularity (10% in the 2012 parliamentary elections), was the presidency of Viktor Yanukovych (2010-2014) and the rule of his pro-Russian “Party of Regions”. Their heavy-handed attempts at re-Sovietization and attacks on Ukrainian language, culture and identity provoked some nationalistic mobilization in the society and allowed the far-right party Svoboda to monopolize the role of the most principled opponent of the pro-Moscow regime. But even then, their success was very modest, no match to the mainstream opposition parties. In fact, they were very comfortable rivals for the regime because, on the hand, they had no chances to gain support from the majority of population but, on the other, hand they effectively compromised the more moderate opposition both domestically and internationally. Moscow also was very happy with this kind of opponents as they could be easily demonized, overblown and manipulated by innumerable agent-provocateurs in their ranks. There are plenty of information about this on the site of Kharkiv Human Rights Group (also in English), and multiple analytical publications by Anton Shekhovtsov, a major specialist on the European far-right movements, especially in Russian and Ukraine. (See, e.g., his elucidating talk on the difference between the regular regiment of the Ukrainian army “Azov” who defend Mariupol and a split group that capitalizes, since 2015, on the same name in their dubious political activity: https://pod.co/kremlin-file/russia-the-far-right ).
2. The great propaganda argument of Pro-Russian parties across Europe have trumpeted since the beginning of this war that Russia has felt threatened by NATO movements in the former Iron Curtain countries. However, would the recent movement by countries such as Finland allow this argument to be turned around to say that these states have actually looked to the West for protection from the Russian threat?
It was not “NATO movement” but the opposite – the movement of sovereign East European countries toward NATO, toward the EU, toward the Western world of prosperity and security. Crucially, it was movement away from Russia, – quite natural if we take into account their very negative historical experience of that country that had been highly aggressive and expansionist long before any NATO emerged. It was not Western but Russian fault – to get rid of the imperial ambitions and stop scaring the neighbors. Finnish and Swedish intention to join NATO is just another proof that all Russia’s neighbors want to distance themselves from Russia as far as possible. It is Eastern Europe that moves to NATO, not vice versa.
And I don’t think NATO is any serious threat to Russia. Nobody actually is as long as Russia has the second largest nuclear arsenal in the world. Kremlin perfectly know this but they claim that NATO threatens Russian security for the simple reason: NATO threatens Russian imperial ambitions by preventing Moscow from invading some other countries as it invaded Georgia and Ukraine. But Russian expansionism is not tantamount to “Russian security”, let’s state it clearly.
3. Despite the war, do you think the process of 'westernisation’ of Ukrainian society is unstoppable?
Not “despite” but, rather, “because of”. Modern Ukrainian nationalism, since its very inception in the early 19th century has been Western-oriented for the simple reason: Russian empire was profoundly hostile and repressive towards any forms of a distinct Ukrainian identity besides a sheer regionalism and folkloristic sentiments. The Russian imperial identity was constructed in the 18th century in such a way that there were no room for Ukrainians and Belarusians. There were no “Russia” until Muscovy, under Peter the Great, adopted the new name that alluded to “Rus” – the medieval entity centered in Kyiv (more or less like modern “Romania” alluded to ancient Rome) and effectively appropriated thereby a few centuries of the Rus history and the core of Rus lands (that belonged at the time to the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth). Worst of all, it delegitimized the very existence of Ukrainians and Belarusians who were downgraded to the mere regional subgroups of Russians (Muscovites). Ukrainian nation builders had little choice but seek for support, either real or at least symbolical, in the West, emphasizing their own “European belonging” and their profoundly different political culture informed in a liberal Polish-Lithuanian state, the antipode to the despotic Muscovy. Russian spared no efforts to eradicate Ukrainian identity and its pro-Western tenets within over two centuries but never fully succeeded. The Russo-Ukrainian war that started in 2014 and turned overtly genocidal in the past few months, merely accelerated the process of Ukraine’s westward drift that began long ago and gained full legitimacy in Ukrainian independent state since 1991.
4. Zelensky has sometimes criticised the European Union’s indecisiveness vis-à-vis Russia since the beginning of the conflict. How should the EU have acted at this crossroads?
Zelensky is right but we have to understand that the EU consists of 27 states and operates on the consensual basis. Some EU institutions had been infiltrated by Russian agents, some politicians had been corrupted by profitable business deals, and some focused on short-time electoral gains, being eager to sacrifice the values upon which the EU was based. Ukraine shattered this comfortable “business as usual” and forced the EU politicians and citizens to make a difficult choice – not just political, economic, or military, but also moral. The question in the nutshell is simple but not all the Europeans are ready to recognize it: should we sacrifice Ukraine, its freedom and dignity, for our traditional comfort or we should accept some personal inconveniences because of the oil embargo and some other sanctions imposed on the rogue state? Can we lose 100 euro per year from the personal budget to spare the lives of thousands of Ukrainians? Do those people deserve our sacrifices like raising by one degree the summer temperature in our air-conditioners, or lowering it by one degree in the winter?
My personal view is that the West is obliged to help not only because of security reasons (Russia would not stop in Ukraine, be sure), and not only because of the normative principles that the West claims to adhere to, but also because of the sheer guilt. The West is largely responsible for the rise Putinism as a peculiar form of the Russian fascism. For too long, the Western government tried to appease the dictator, offering him “resets” and assistance, and international recognition he never deserved. They bred the monster in Moscow and left him now for Ukraine to deal with. It’s not very fair to put it mildly.
5. Should NATO, despite Putin’s veiled threats of nuclear conflict, admit the states that have applied for membership?
In other words, are we ready to yield to the blatant blackmail or to respond to the blackmailer as decent people should do? Putin is well-aware of the Western pacifism and obsession with “dialogue” and “compromise” – even with cheaters and serial killers. And he skillfully plays this game – “who blinks first”. But Ukraine did not blink in February and is not going to blink any time soon. And I suggest you the same. If you yield to the blackmailer once, you would encourage him to repeat the same trick again and again. Putin would have not gone so far if he was stopped earlier. If we dared to call a spade a spade, and a cheater a cheater. Nuclear weapon might be the last resort for the Kremlin dictator if he happens to be under the deadly – real and immediate – threat. But it is very unlikely to happen in a foreseeable future – unless Ukrainian troops take siege of Moscow or something (fantastic) like that. The only thing that Putin should know is that the West would retaliate, and this would definitely discourage him and his lieutenants from the pretended craziness.
6. Have linguistic and racial motives played a role in the conflict in Ukraine since the end of the Soviet Union, or is this another historical manipulation by Russia?
Ukraine as a colony inherited very complex regional and ethno-cultural structure from the former empire. For centuries, it had been colonized in multiple ways – by resettlement of population (deportation or even extermination of Ukrainians and bringing Russians – from zero in the 18th century to 22% in 1990), Russification by both repressions and cooptation, and skillful rendering all things Russian as urban and modern while downgrading all things Ukrainian to rural and backward. There was no radical elite change in the post-Soviet Ukraine. It means that Ukraine inherited the old Soviet elite which had been 100% Russian-speaking (Ukrainian-speakers could barely make any career because the very use of Ukrainian as the primary language was broadly considered as a sign of “bourgeois nationalism”). Even today, not a single Ukrainian oligarch uses Ukrainian as his primary language, and of all six Ukrainian presidents (since 1991) only Viktor Yushchenko spoke Ukrainian at home (because his wife, as a joke goes, a Ukrainian from diaspora, had no command of Russian).
Many foreigners fail to grasp this paradoxical situation in the post-Soviet (and essentially postcolonial) Ukraine: the existence of the vast but socially disadvantaged Ukrainian-speaking majority, on the one hand, and the smaller but dominant (in business, administration, military, law-enforcement agencies, etc.) minority, on the other hand. The situation can be roughly compared to the co-existence of black and white groups in South Africa, with an important caveat, however: the Ukrainian “black skin” – Ukrainian language – could have been (and was) easily changed for “white” – for the more prestigious Russian. This facilitated assimilation of Ukrainians in the Soviet times but also facilitated their re-assimilation after independence, when the coercive mechanisms were removed and the discursive pressure of social “normality” was softened. The regional, cultural and ethno-linguistic tensions were inevitable in this situation, inasmuch as Ukrainian-speakers demanded some protectionist measures for their historically oppressed and marginalized language and culture, while Russian-speakers considered any advance of Ukrainian language in public life as a threat to their traditionally privileged, dominant position. The political actors predictably tried to exploit these problems, especially after accession of Vladimir Putin to Russian presidency, but the tensions had never evolved into confrontation – despite all their efforts.
What was hidden from the eyes of many observers who wrote habitually about “Ukraine divides” was a strong underlying Ukrainian patriotism within all the ethnolinguistic groups and, secondly, lack of a clear delineation between them: Ukrainian society had been fragmented but not compartmentalized, the identity borders were quite fluid, flexible and permeable. This enabled civic consolidation of Ukrainian nation, facilitated by the official emphasis on its political rather than ethnic character enshrined in the constitution. As a result, Ukrainians – despite their different political views and cultural preferences – appeared united in the time of crisis by civic patriotism and commitment to common values of freedom, dignity and democracy. It is like an extended family: members may disagree on various issues, or even quarrel among themselves, but it is not the aliens’ business to interfere. This is a perfect example of what the political nation is about – something completely misunderstood by Russians, with their antiquated idea of nation as people of the same “soil and blood”.
7. What were the most notable differences between the East and West of the country after the fall of the Soviet Union? Have they diminished over the years?
Largely answered in the Q6.
8. To clarify for the Spanish press reader (and they are aware of the vagueness of the question): in what ways has Russian nationalism manipulated the narrative about the 'inseparable’ historical relationship between Russia and Ukraine?
Largely answered in the Q3
9. The war has generated a situation that could be dangerous, and that is an isolated Russia, with restricted international media and a population that is constantly being told by propaganda that the West has attacked them with unjust sanctions. Do you think this could generate a certain resentment in the average Russian citizen and radicalise them?
All the Russian culture is full of resentments vis-à-vis the West since the late 18th century. Putinism is not a personal deviation, not a psychotic pathology of a middle-rank KGB operative who imagined himself a Napoleon or perhaps another Stalin. It grew up of a specific imperial culture, from a peculiar national mentality. Ninety per cent of Russians who praise Putin and support ardently Russian military invasion of Ukraine are not merely brainwashed by the Kremlin propaganda. They want to be brainwashed, to feel sudden greatness and power and imperial hubris but not bear any responsibility at the same time. I don’t think any sanctions and isolation would make them more crazy and obsessed with anti-Westernism, with Ukrainophobia, than they actually are. In fact, ostracism is the only way to cure them, to heal the entire society from that fundamental perversion, both mental and moral. They have to pass through de-Putinization exactly like Germans who passed through de-Nazification to become a normal nation, a respectable member of the international community. Sooner or later, this must happen. And until then, they should be isolated and ostracized – as a source of contagion de-facto accomplices of Putin’s crimes.
10. Do you detect a certain Russophobia in the West as a result of the actions of its rulers?
The term is profoundly compromised by Moscow who used to dismiss any criticism of its international and domestic policies as alleged “Russophobia”. We shouldn’t buy it. We have a good reason to hate Russian imperialism and aggressive behavior of the Kremlin regime but it has nothing to do with “Russophobia” as something intrinsic, primordial and irrational. Our feelings to Russians today are as rational and well-motivated as they were to Germans during WWII. We discerned some exceptions then and discern them now, but the truth is 90% of Germans supported Hitler, and 90% of Russians support Putin, and deserve therefore the same attitude.
11. Do you think this conflict will disrupt the process of globalisation that has taken place over the past decades and lead to a move towards a world divided into more watertight political and economic blocs?
Frankly speaking, I don’t care much about “globalization” as long as my nation is at verge of extinction by a rogue regime who openly declares that we are not a nation, we are “anti-Russia” and should be wiped out from earth. We have no choice but to fight – or perish. It may last for months or for years – until the evil empire collapses. This is a millenarian struggle that might bring as important results for the whole world as the victory over the Nazis in WWII or defeat of the Soviet Empire in 1989-1991. With the Western support, we can win. And for the Westerners, I believe, it would be much better to defeat the evil empire with Ukraine’s active help, then to encounter the same enemy later, after Ukraine is destroyed by Putin’s fascists.
12. There is talk these days that the war could go on for a long time. It is said that it could even last for several years. Forgive me if this question is too simple, but I would like to know your opinion on this. Does the passage of time works in Ukraine’s favour or against it? In other words, will it have a positive or negative impact on the morale of the people?
Answered in Q11.
Translated by Javier Moreno