How naive were those who believed that it was enough to stop shooting for the war to end! We did not start this war, but we are the ones who have to end it. We, the civil society of Ukraine,’ writes Ola Hnatiuk, professor at the universities in Warsaw and Kyiv, vice-president of the Ukrainian PEN-Club.
Publikujemy tłumaczenie tekstu Oli Hnatiuk z 24 lutego 2023 r. "Ta wojna trwa już 300 lat. A teraz w twarz Putinowi wybuchło społeczeństwo obywatelskie Ukrainy”.
Late February and March last year was probably the busiest time of my life; the phone didn’t stop ringing, the tasks kept coming and time was becoming mercilessly shorter. This is the experience of most of my acquaintances.
Those who found themselves under Russian occupation at that time and who, in the best case, were deprived of all the achievements of civilization, in a worse case, were deprived of their life’s work and in the worst case, were deprived of their lives, were the exceptions. Time dragged on mercilessly, the prospect of a single day of survival seemed infinite. With a lack of communication, suspended in an information vacuum, they could at best rely on the fragments of news that reached them. Perhaps it was a good thing that little news from the world reached them, because they would almost certainly have lost hope; such was the bleak outlook for Ukraine in this war.
Meanwhile, for those who dived into their work, it never even crossed their minds that it might not be worth the effort, because all was lost anyway. On the contrary, they felt they had to do their best.
The news of the start of the war did not come as a surprise to me, but, even so, it was still a shock.
One of the first pieces of information I received at dawn on 24 February came from the historian Vladislav Verstiuk, who lives in Hostomel. The attempted ‘blitzkrieg’ started from the landing at the former military airfield. After hastily leaving his family home, he found himself in a village near Bucha. Out of the frying pan into the fire. He and his whole four-generation family managed to survive, which in itself can be considered a miracle.
It starts with the words:
4/03/22 The ninth day of the war. Life is split into two parts: before and after. It is amazing how the sense of the passage of time has changed. In that life, time flew like mad; now, it drags on, or perhaps stands still, like slidified magma. Almost certainly because thoughts revolve solely around two problems: how to get out of this predicament in one piece and how to defeat this barbaric scum. Only the fact that night comes after another day and the calendar remind us that time is passing. Life has completely changed, as has the attitude to it. All the more or less ambitious plans, even work plans, have been set aside.
A week of despair, on the verge of a nervous breakdown, direct contact with the enemy, being in a zone of direct military action, constant shelling, glows, clouds of smoke have turned a lifetime’s experience into a ashes.
Why did we see it as something far away, why did it not hurt us like it hurts us now? Perhaps this is one of the reasons for the current misfortune.
How naive were those who believed that it was enough to stop shooting for the war to end! We did not start this war, but we are the ones who have to end it. To win, even if the price of this victory were to be very high.
In those days, we Ukrainians did not yet fully realize what – other than the loss of lives and independence –the threat to us was. It was only after the Russian troops were pushed back from just outside Kyiv that we saw the face of this war and the aggressor’s barbarity.
The finis Ukrainaepredicted by many analysts and experts has not happened. The Kremlin’s plans lay in ruins. Although I would have preferred this to be together with the Kremlin. On the side-line, can this be considered ‘Godly thinking’? The English ‘wishful thinking’ is neutral and does not include God in earthly affairs. To me, however, the words of a song written in the first months of the war speak much better: ’it will be unto you, enemies, as the witch will say’ (bude tobi, vrazhe, tak, yak vid’ma skazhe). Traditional culture, a superstitious belief in an impure force? No! It is hatred of the enemy and violence. But this is only the back. The front is the love of freedom.
Yes, the Ukrainians have amazed the whole world, not just the Poles – with their courage, their readiness to face the aggressor, their unity, the rapidity with which they organized themselves and their devotion to their values. I will not comment on the military aspect, as I am not a specialist. Political scientists can say more about the political aspect, but here it is more difficult to resist the temptation to go outside my own expertise.
What made the Ukrainians turn out to be more prepared for war than was thought? Where did this enormous fortitude and such resolute resistance come from? Why were we unable to see this earlier? These are just a few questions; but, after all, they can be multiplied.
I shall start by recalling the experience of the Orange Revolution and the Revolution of Dignity – those best-known forms of protest by Ukrainian society against falsification and violence. And, after all, there were many more. But every successive social outburst overshadowed the previous experience. So we knew about the readiness of the Ukrainians to become socially mobilized, quite a number of studies were written on this subject. And yet we feel surprised. Why?
In my opinion, firstly, the extent of mobilization of the Ukrainians and the fact that the critical threshold of the creation of the civil society had been crossed was underestimated.
We knew from sociological studies that one third of the population was involved in these or other forms of volunteering, but we shook our heads in disbelief.
But not only experience that appeared in the form of protests, but primarily self-organization. We knew Maydan was one big logistical project and one of the reasons why the special forces could not deal with the popular resistance for several months was precisely because of the horizontal network of associations.
In contrast with what they refer to as a ‘vertical’, namely a highly centralized mode of governance and decision-making, a horizontal network is much more difficult to control or neutralize.
Nor did the Maydan self-defence arise ex nihilo. Without it, even the best-organized protest would sooner or later be suppressed, as we could see from the Belarusian example, which the participants of the protests against Lukashenko’s rigged elections did not accept.
After all, it broke out in February 2014, not 2022. This was partly due to the media losing interest in what was described as the ‘conflict in the Donbas’ and partly due to the internal political conflict in Poland. Furthermore, we have given permission to Polish politicians for pursuing anti-Ukrainian rhetoric, not only with regard to historical issues. This has undermined mutual trust in interstate relations.
It is truly a miracle that we managed to rebuild trust and accomplish what has been done in just a few key days.
But let us return to the war that had been going on for eight years. There are those who say that the Russian–Ukrainian war has been going on for a hundred years, since the Bolsheviks attacked Ukraine, I will go to the extreme and say that it has been going on for at least three hundred, namely since the seizure of the Left Bank of Ukraine by Russia and therefore the emergence of the empire.
If we realize that, in the spring and summer of 2014, it was thanks to Ukrainian volunteers that independence was maintained, we will be less surprised that anyone with combat experience, or anyone who even brushed against it, volunteered for territorial defence or went to the Ukrainian Armed Forces.
I will cite just one example here:
seeing what was going on in Irpin, a man neutralized a whole column of enemy vehicles with an accurate strike on a tanker.
The man’s special features: well into his sixties, having suffered a stroke, military experience from the military service in his youth, and since 2014 a volunteer, assisting Ukrainian soldiers in the Donbas.
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As for the reaction of the Ukrainian public to the Russian invasion, for eight years the Ukrainian news started with information about the situation in Donbas – shelling, casualties and injuries. It angered me to listen to this, as if the war had become an everyday matter.
The daily news reminded the population of this and the news of the casualties, the sight of fresh graves when the graves were visited once a year. Uniforms on city streets, new acquaintances forced to flee from the occupied territory, such as writers Olena Stiażkina and Ija Kiwa, were reminders. Writers and journalists freed from Russian torture chambers – Stanislav Aseyev, Oleh Sentsov, Mykola Semena, who our Ukrainian PEN Club looked after – reminded the population.
As for the cumulative effect of experience, I am referring not only to the thirty years of Ukrainian independence, but in particular to the three revolutions (in addition to the Revolution of Dignity and the Orange Revolution, also the protest in Maydan in 1990 – the Revolution on Granite).
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Here, I mean especially the tradition of self-governance, which differentiates Ukrainian society from Russian society so much.
However, I find it difficult to agree with those who claim that the Ukrainians owe this to the legacy of the Republic of Poland.
The Ukrainian tradition is much richer and is not limited to models inherited from the former Republic of Poland – let me use a Ukrainism in the name to emphasize that it was a state of many nations.
Despite being born in the Republic of Poland, Cossackiasm differed substantially from the Crown models in terms of self-organization.
It seems to me that a greater knowledge of the traditions of self-government and self-organization in Ukrainian lands, which Mykhailo Drahomanov analysed at the end of the 19th century but, unfortunately, was not followed by any continuators, would allow us to better understand the phenomenon of contemporary Ukrainian society.
Many commentators and ‘experts’, amazed by this phenomenon, spoke of the ‘birth of a nation’.
A community of citizens, rather than a nation understood either in ethnic or cultural terms, has proved stronger than many a nation-state.
However, the accumulation of experience not only has a historical dimension. It is also about everyday practices, networks of people of goodwill and, finally, know-how.
When I had the opportunity to meet several such organizations in Uzhhorod in August 2022, the women made a huge impression on me. They shouldered the burden of helping millions crossing the border and tens of thousands of new inhabitants of the city.
The hospitals, which suddenly had to admit many times more patients, owed it to the women volunteers that they were not left without supplies of medicines, medical supplies, equipment, not to mention normal food or clothing. Most of them had been involved in volunteering for years, so they had the necessary knowledge and skills. All they needed to do was ‘just’ scale up. It was the female volunteers who filled in where the options of medical care ran out – offering psychological help and dealing with major and minor problems.
The scale of social mobilization is influenced not only by experience, the effect of accumulation or tradition, not only by the awareness of a deadly threat, but primarily by the values that are held.
The belief that truth will prevail and that lawlessness and crimes must be punished are not beautiful spirits. They are living values, values for which Ukrainians shed blood in front of the whole world.
The fact that the Western world has unequivocally condemned aggression is a huge step forward in comparison with the way in which it responded to events in Ukraine over the past century. However, it is difficult to forget that it was Western agreement to the preservation of the ‘Russian sphere of influence’ that emboldened the aggressor. I would like to believe that the experience of the last year has fundamentally changed this attitude.
Ola Hnatiuk professor of the University of Warsaw and the Kyiv-Mohyla Academy in Kyiv, vice-president of the Ukrainian PEN-Club. Author of, among others, ‘Courage and Fear’ (2015), ‘Farewell to the Empire. Ukrainian Discussions on Identity’ (2003). 2006–2010 First Counsellor of the Polish Embassy in Kyiv. Translator and popularizer of Ukrainian literature.
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