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Skeleton Key: How to Understand the Changing World during Ukraine’s War for Independence

Serhiy Kvit, president of the National University of Kyiv-Mohyla Academy

Despite significant criticism, globalization creates new opportunities for mutual understanding: more and more problems are becoming common issues requiring not only joint solutions, but also a coherent conceptual apparatus. Ukrainians have their own key to comprehending and preserving their independence, and this key can also help to open other doors to understand the modern world more broadly.

 

Modernization

The theory of modernization (Westernization) has gone through many manifestations. At first, it collapsed in the post-colonial countries of Asia and Africa, having contributed to increased corruption in the newly independent states. Among positive examples one could mention the impact of the “Marshall Plan” on the modernization of Europe, primarily Germany, after World War II. Finally, the countries of the former “socialist camp” and the post-soviet countries are undergoing modernization which, in turn, can be divided into more and less successful cases.

The general formula for the post-soviet environment can be defined as the following: the very firstrequired step is to obtain genuine independence from Russia and after that fulfill real modernization(including democratization) of public life, create an efficient system of state governance and introduce market economy. Why does the general approach in this geographic area require independence first and only after that democracy? It is because the post-soviet space usually contains dramatically differing political cultures.

Formal presence of democratic institutions or a declaration of fundamental rights and freedoms (e.g.freedom of speech, freedom of choice, freedom of beliefs, etc.) does not mean at all that theseinstitutions influence important decision-making. Quite often, on the contrary, the informal structures of patriarchal society have much more real political influence: they rely on a public consensus as opposed to the legally enshrined organizations and ways of governance that we associate with modernity.

Therefore, it is important for the post-soviet countries to break away from Russia first, gaining the independent ability to make important decisions, and only after that to engage in building democratic institutions. It is this second stage where the understanding comes that without modernization, i.e. without implementing transparent and socially understandable rules of the game, it is impossible to improve standards of living and to strengthen the nation-state. It is necessary to protect one’s independence from Russia, which, on the opposite, is interested in disseminating corruption across the post-soviet space.

Today’s example of Ukrainian-style modernization is significant not only because Ukrainians are fightingfor it with weapon in their hands. Europeanness has become part of the Ukrainian identity. At the same time, Ukrainians often project an idealistic view of the European Union which has little common with reality. Nevertheless, after February 24, 2022, it was clear that Russian corruption had become one of the main allies of the Ukrainian army. That is, modernization (Europeanization, Westernization) has already transformed into a way of strength-building and growth for Ukraine. This process has been ongoing since the Revolution of Dignity (2014), but accelerated after Russia’s full-fledged invasion in 2022.

 

Clash of identities

Our times of deep civilizational crisis are characterized by clashes between new identities. These debates result from a very modernist question: “Who are we?” The postmodern flexibility that reveals itself in attempting to evade this direct question looks extremely destructive.

For Western Europeans, renewing identity means searching for something totally new. It means more than acquiescing to museums of former glory or turning a blind eye to the unprecedented scale of European political corruption fueled by “the world’s largest gas station.” Even atonement for colonial heritage has become part of the usual and convenient penitential rhetoric in Western Europe. At the same time, against the background of the war in Ukraine, well-known European values often look too flexible. 

Alla Lazareva, a Ukrainian journalist living in France, expressed it well when she said: “A long time ago, when Ukraine’s independence was just restored, my friends and I adapted Western journalism standards to the needs of the Ukrainian press to help it get rid of bad Soviet habits. Now, the “press tours” of the French media to Mariupol, which are made “with the help” of the Russian army, prompt us to the conclusion that the time has come to pay off debts. Colleagues, why are you cooperating with war criminals? By the simple fact of participating in such press tours you legalize, banalize, and humanize imperial aggression, and present it to your audience as negotiable. What for? A quarter of a century ago, we learned from you how to be impartial and operate with facts. Now it’s time for us to switch roles. Learn from Ukrainian journalists how to maintain dignity and sense the limit beyond which journalism ends and collaboration begins.”[1] It should be noted that the above example is generalized and it applies not only to France or to the French.

For Russians, their identity has narrowed, and is now defined by their ability to kill Ukrainians. Rhetoricsurrounding “great” Russian culture, which for some reason, might be seen to justify Russian crimes against humanity, needs still to be analyzed. It requires rational explanation why that “great culture” has influenced Russian society in the 21st century in such a strange way that the entire Russian society supports the causeless waging of war, permits mass murders of Ukrainians and takes pride in crimes against humanity committed by the Russian army.

One explanation is that the Russian system of education and research, as well as media, has completely lost any notion of critical thinking. Russia’s political culture is fear-based. Russian society is not able and has no need to use the instruments of democratic institutions to control its government, and the state propaganda machine can already compete with North Korea in the effectiveness of brainwashing its own citizens.

In this context we can also mention considerable gaps within Western education that sometimes lead toan outright imitation of critical thinking. To fill these gaps, or in other words, to really comprehend the Russian cultural context and related sources of contemporary Russian political culture, Western experts, university researchers, and independent intellectuals should begin by learning from Ukrainian and Polish intellectual traditions who have accumulated considerable experience in identifying the distinctive features and understanding the nature of Russian imperialism and chauvinism.

 

Ghosts of ideologies

Habitual ideological confrontations within the established triangle ‘the Left – the Right – the Liberals’, with all their possible differences and nuances, are losing any meaningfulness in the context of contemporary Ukraine. Within this understood triangle the Ukrainian state has no place to exist. The vast majority of Western intellectuals have traditionally not wanted to notice Ukraine against the background of “great” Russia, as they had previously always been satisfied with coexisting with a “mysterious” or “alternative” system that, nevertheless, highlighted their own significance. The Ukrainian factor seemed no more than an unnecessary complication for a perception of the established (no matter that it was false) political landscape of the world.

Historically, in the French tradition, a public intellectual is a person with leftist political views. The context always matters. The Western left, contrary to objective data, generally did not wish to see Russia as a contender for global domination (analogous to the European colonial tradition). Accordingly, within this paradigm, Ukraine was reluctantly seen as a suppressed and genocide-stricken colony (Lesia Ostrovska-Liuta). At least after 1991, Ukraine should have been given attention and support within the concept of fulfilling the right of nations to self-determination, but this was inconvenient because it would have meant recognizing Russia as a imperialist power.

Interestingly, the anti-globalization rhetoric of 1990s (in the sense of condemning any and all forms of domination) brought together Noam Chomsky, a left-wing U.S. university professor, and Yaroslav Dashkevych, a right-wing Ukrainian intellectual and longtime GULAG prisoner, who also worked in the academic sphere. However, the commonality of their views could only be noticed through close observation and was not related to deep trends.

After all, Ukraine’s anti-Soviet (anti-Russian) struggle for independence was usually perceived retrospectively as a manifestation of reactionary “ethnic nationalism”, and even fascism, aimed against the Soviet Union as an ally of the West in the anti-fascist coalition. Consequently, Putin’s Russia, as the successor of “the first state of workers and peasants”, is today seen by many as a kind of alternative to the “unjust” domination of the West.

The world is changing in front of our eyes. The fearlessness of the Ukrainians highlighted the irrelevance of Noam Chomsky, who, as it turned out, can only suffocate with hatred for “<…> this uncivilized, barbaric area of the world that is Europe and the United States.”[2] At the same time, he refuses to question the genocidal politics of Russia. In his response, Yuri Gorodnichenko tries to draw Professor Chomsky’s attention to rational arguments and common sense by emphasizing that “If you truly value Ukrainian lives as you claim to, we would like to kindly ask you to refrain from adding further fuel to the Russian war machine by spreading views very much akin to Russian propaganda.”[3]

The bankruptcy of ideological rhetoric was further revealed by the shift of Jürgen Habermas to the position of a German burgher in his article "War and Indignation.” His vague evocation that  Ukraine should not lose this war[4] cannot divert the reader’s attention from the sincere indignation expressed at the beginning of his publication, which can be read as follows: “Who are you, Ukrainians, to reproach us with moral arguments?” (Yevhen Bystrytskyi). In other words, since moral arguments have already been privatized by other slick people, Ukraine can no longer claim them.

 

Anatoliy Yermolenko, a promoter and translator of Habermas since the 1970s, published his answer under the title “Resistance instead of Negotiations”, in which he noted: “However, there are moments when the endless horizon of communication has its limits: you cannot talk to a killer and rapist, you must resist him. You cannot wait to see what action he will take – you must stop these actions and make them impossible in the future.” “Auschwitz must not happen again," was the new categorical imperative by Theodor Adorno. “Bucha must not happen again!” – this is how we, Ukrainians, formulate it.” [5]

In this case, we must get back to the experience of asking modernist questions and giving similarly direct answers to them. Volodymyr Yermolenko claims that the Maidan of 2013-2014 (the Revolution of Dignity) was an ideological cocktail.

“Emotionally, it was patriotic and nationalistic. Rationally, at the level of reason, it was liberal: the Maidan’s slogans – dignity, human rights, rule of law, etc. – were liberal. Yet, organizationally, it was left-wing: it was a space without money, a space of commune, a space of mutual assistance. It was right at the level of emotions, it was liberal and centrist at the level of reason, and it was left at the level of it organization. Its soul was rightist, its mind was centrist, and its body was leftist. This is something that neither the West, nor the East has comprehended, trying to pull this or that aspect to the surface." [6]

In other words, the time we are living in is crucial and not easily understood in traditional terms. It is a time when Ukrainians, possessing a strengthened belief in their righteousness and the need to protect socially important values, refuse to stand aside and simply observe the great changes and transformations ongoing in their country, region, and the world. If we are involved in these processes, we gain the opportunity to maintain our identity. The decision to be active goes beyond purely ideological sympathies and becomes an existential choice of an individual.

When it is about the implementation of truly socially important projects, the idea of “victory” is elevated to an almost a religious level, commensurate with the Christian concept of grace. Representatives of different ideological traditions, even with some openly opposite intentions, associate the fulfillment of important measures with the demands of their political movement. Everyone is satisfied and everyone feels like a winner. It is this very effect that Volodymyr Yermolenko describes.

 

Ukrainian skeleton key

Both my grandmothers, who survived two world wars, were convinced that war puts everything in its place. Ukraine must emerge renewed from this war for independence: a war that in its significance, stands close to World War III. If Ukrainians manage to defend their independence, their values whichthey identify as European (including freedom and justice), it will give an impulse to the creation of a new global security system and the further development of international law as the basis for inter-state relations.

Ukrainians have established new precedents in the defense of their independence. First of all, our skeleton key includes an armed civil society, which relies on the traditions of Ukrainian individualism. This concept actually needs some clarification.

Mychailo Wynnyckyi draws attention to the transformation of traditional Western (including Ukrainian) individualism into personalism, which takes place during the Revolution of Dignity, speaks of such distinctive features as vertical and horizontal transcendence, social rootedness in the community, the presence of conscience, ability and need to correlate their actions in the public interest. In the context of the philosophy of personalism, a special role is played by the community as a set of individuals united by a common goal and values. 

He writes: "This seems to reflect an important tenet of Personalist philosophy, namely that "community is ontologically prior to the establishment of any political institution", and that political authority is derived from the community— a social union that consists of more than simply an aggregate of individuals ".[7]

After 1991, Ukraine did not generate political leaders who lead the nation, but, on the contrary, it produced an active society that forces politicians to become representative leaders. The personal involvement of Ukrainians and their willingness to take responsibility for both their state and for the entire public sphere, will help us to avoid the threat of authoritarianism, often arising in times of martial law.

The faith of Ukrainians in their own strength, in truth and in the possibility of justice is gaining special importance. Mutual trust within Ukrainian society is growing and can become an important tool for post-war revitalization. Trust is the key to victory in the war with Russia, and is also a fundamental requirement for the successful implementation of reforms in various spheres of public life after victory has been achieved. Trust should also be seen as the criterion for the successful reforms of Ukrainianstate institutions. 

As with the 2005 Hollywood film “Skeleton Key”, Ukraine's universal solution that allows entry into all doorways includes personal involvement, belief in justice, and mutual trust.  If it is successful, Ukrainians will change this world for the better.

 

*Opinion articles express the views of the authors, but not necessarily of the team of the Kyiv Security Forum.

 

[2] Noam Chomsky on How to Prevent World War III // Current Affairs, April, 13, 2022: https://www.currentaffairs.org/2022/04/noam-chomsky-on-how-to-prevent-world-war-iii  

Noam Chomsky and Jeremy Scahill on the Russia-Ukraine War, the Media, Propaganda, and Accountability. Noam Chomsky Spoke with The Intercept’s Jeremy Scahill in the Wide-Ranging Discussion on Russia’s Invasion of Ukraine // The Intercept, April, 15, 2022: https://theintercept.com/2022/04/14/russia-ukraine-noam-chomsky-jeremy-scahill/   

[3] Yuri GorodnichenkoOpen Letter to Noam Chomsky (and other like-minded intellectuals) on the Russia-Ukraine war // Berkeley Blog, May, 19, 2022: https://blogs.berkeley.edu/2022/05/19/open-letter-to-noam-chomsky-and-other-like-minded-intellectuals-on-the-russia-ukraine-war/

[5] Anatoliy Yermolenko. Widerstand statt Verhandlung // Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, May, 23, 2022: https://www.faz.net/aktuell/feuilleton/debatten/der-ukrainische-philosoph-yermolenko-antwortet-habermas-18044530.html  

[6] Єрмоленко В. Рідинні ідеології Майдану // Флософська думка [Yermolenko V. The Fluid Ideologies of the Maidan], № 6, 2014, P.9.

[7] Mychailo Wynnyckyi. Unravelling the Ukrainian Revolution: “Dignity,” “Fairness,” “Heterarchy,” and the Challenge to Modernity // Kyiv-Mohyla Humanities Journal 7 (2020), p. 130: https://bit.ly/39Rn7dY  

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