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Thoughts from Kyiv – 1 September 2014

Thoughts from Kyiv – 1 September 2014

Last Saturday Putin issued a veiled threat to those in the West who might “threaten Russia’s interests” – he reminded Russia’s “partners” that the Kremlin controlled one of the world’s largest nuclear arsenals. Is he serious? I don’t know! Did he occupy the border town of Novoazovsk last week just to open a second front in support of the rag-tag DNR and LNR terrorist groups, or is this his first step towards occupying a land corridor to Crimea? I don’t know! Will Putin stop at creating “Novorosiya” with a border running just north of the southern leg of Ukraine’s natural gas pipeline, or will he eventually bomb Kyiv? I don’t know!!! Sadly, my friends in the Ukrainian government don’t seem to know the answer to these questions either. Obviously, uncertainty breeds frustration, and this aggravates and upsets everyone…

Notwithstanding Ben Judah’s eloquent description of the foreign policy dilemmas currently faced by western leaders with respect to Russia’s now obvious invasion of Ukraine, lately I’m getting the impression that military strategy and prognostication has been added to the list of “things everyone believes themselves to be expert in”.  I am not a military expert. I can provide no advice on how to win a war, or how to negotiate a just peace. So, I’ll try something mundane: rather than adding to the plethora of published commentary on geopolitics and military/diplomatic achievements/failures, I’ll try to describe the social mood in Ukraine’s capital one week after Independence Day (a time of peak patriotism), and a few days after the first setbacks in the war with Russia (which had previously been going well) became public.

Over the past 2 weeks (like many others whom I have spoken with this weekend) I have caught myself seriously considering signing up for one of the volunteer battalions fighting in Ukraine’s east. My wife has correctly (and strenuously) reminded me that volunteering for military service in my case would be the equivalent of suicide (and not just mine). I’m too unfit, too old, and too poorly trained (Plast was a long time ago!). It’s doubtful that I would do much good there. So, like practically everyone I know in Kyiv, I donate money to those more brave, and I fly the flag – I’m told that raises morale… Also, I read social media, I observe people, I speak to them, and I write about my impressions. All of that may not be very practical, but it’s what social scientists are supposed to do, and maybe some good will come of it…

Today (Sept 1), kids throughout Ukraine went back to school. This weekend, the malls of Kyiv were filled with people taking care of their last-minute shopping needs. On Saturday, I counted 3-4 of every 10 shoppers in the three malls we visited (two on the right bank and one on the left) dressed in patriotic symbolism: T-shirts with tridents were the most popular.  On Sunday and today (the first day of school is a traditional festival in Ukraine) embroidered shirts are everywhere in Kyiv. Counting the number of cars with blue and yellow flags or ribbons is useless – they are simply everywhere. Ukrainians never cease to amaze me with their creativity – apparently even a Smartphone case can be a political statement.

Notwithstanding the extreme devaluation of the Ukrainian currency (UAH:USD exchange rates have skyrocketed from 8:1 to 14:1 since March), purchasing power for locally manufactured goods has not decreased dramatically, and so people continue to shop (the market for imported goods – including cars, appliances, and electronics – has basically disappeared). When shopping for food, consumers are actively choosing goods with barcodes beginning in 48 (made in Ukraine), and boycotting 46 (made in Russia). On Sunday we visited an open-air festival at “Mystetskiy Arsenal” where crafts were sold with proceeds being donated to the Ukrainian war effort in the Donbas: the place was packed, and by noon much was already sold out.

However, even though patriotic consumption has become the norm, I cannot say that the mood “on the street” in Kyiv is 100% positive or optimistic. Prior to last week, Ukrainians had become accustomed to winning the war in the east. Lately, things have not been going so well. Ukrainian soldiers are no longer fighting drunken separatists and Russian mercenaries with AK-47’s, mortars, and the occasional Stinger-style anti-aircraft missile. It is now clear that Ukrainian volunteers are fighting thousands of Russian special forces on the ground, supported by tanks, heavy artillery (firing from both within Ukraine and across the border from Russia), and as of Sunday, helicopters and attack aircraft that regularly cross the Ukrainian-Russian border on bombing sorties. According to the latest news reports, Russian military officers have been spotted in Donetsk, and Russian soldiers have now replaced the mercenaries who once patrolled that city’s streets.

Since Wednesday, the attention of Ukrainians has been focused on the town of Ilovaisk (Donetsk region). Just as the name Sloviansk will forever be remembered in Ukrainian history as a symbol of military victory, so the name Ilovaisk will be known as a place of defeat. It is still unclear how many men we have lost there, but it is certainly clear that casualties are in the hundreds, and not everyone has gotten out yet. It would seem that in addition to engaging the Russian military for the first time, the Ukrainian forces trapped in Ilovaisk may have also been victim of incompetent (or perhaps treasonous) commanders. Thus, whereas last week, the prevalent patriotic sentiment in Kyiv was positive, optimistic, and even euphoric, this week, things seem to have come down to earth a little. Personally, I doubt very much that we are in for another Maidan anytime soon (as some have suggested), but certainly, the romance of war that inspired the Independence Day parade on Khreshchatyk and Maidan, has worn off.

Negative attitudes towards the war in the east are not aided by social tensions between local Kyiv residents and refugees (for an example of this see: in Russian). Kyivans are rightfully proud of their achievements during the Revolution of Dignity. Although many have volunteered to help in the war effort, the arrival of tens of thousands of displaced Donbas residents into the capital – many of whom express overtly skeptical opinions about the Maidan, and in fact blame Kyiv’s revolutionaries for having somehow provoked Putin’s aggression – has been the cause of significant animosity and tension.  During a faculty meeting at Kyiv-Mohyla Academy on Friday, I witnessed a psychology lecturer explaining the procedure for obtaining treatment for Post-Traumatic-Stress-Disorder (PTSD). She made it quite clear that her practice welcomed Maidan veterans (including members of the families of the Heaven’s Hundred), and Donbas war veterans, but she preferred to refer refugees from the east to other service providers. In her words: “those who have had contact with these people understand my preference.”

According to official statistics currently there are over 200 thousand displaced persons in Ukraine – mostly from the Donbas, but some from Crimea. Refugees arriving in Kyiv are provided housing; school places for children are generally arranged (my son’s class will have 2 war refugee children joining it). However, it is very common to hear residents of the capital expressing annoyance at Donbas refugees’ refusals to accept offers of housing in rural areas, demanding instead to be housed (at no cost) in Kyiv. Apparently, those residents of Donbas who chose to seek refuge from the war in Russian-controlled Crimea have now been evicted by the local Russian authorities, and have been summarily shipped by train to Siberia (Magadan region) for settlement. This fact provides additional ammunition for those in Kyiv who would prefer to see more gratitude for their hospitality from Donbas refugees.

In conversations with friends I have repeatedly heard disapproval of the “culture of entitlement” and “Sovok” that apparently prevails among the Donbas refugees. Clearly, Samuel Huntington was referring to other aspects of cultural/civilizational cleavage when he identified a rift between Asia and Europe that apparently transgresses Ukraine, but for many in Kyiv, Huntington’s general thesis which identifies Russians (and their Donbas sympathizers) as being civilizationally different from Ukrainians is not only attractive, it is self-evident. Apparently, Russians are less self-reliant, less cultured, more brutish and dependent on authority than Ukrainians. Although many in Kyiv hope that a Maidan may erupt in Moscow, few are holding their breaths because Russian political culture is simply not disposed to rebellion against authority. In sociology this culture is referred to as “vertical collectivist”, and according to Harry Triandis (1995) is most prevalent among inhabitants of the Asian continent.

Of course, when referring to such civilizational/cultural cleavages, as an academic, I leave myself open to being accused of stereotyping – a very politically incorrect activity. Indeed, this is precisely what happened last Friday when I shared a quote by George S. Patton on his opinion of Russians on my Facebook page – I was lambasted by several American friends for apparently being racist. The quote in question was from a statement made by the US General in 1945, and published in “General Patton: A Soldier’s Life” (2002) by Stanley P. Hirshson:

“The difficulty in understanding the Russian is that we do not take cognizance of the fact that he is not a European, but an Asiatic, and therefore thinks deviously. We can no more understand a Russian than a Chinaman or a Japanese, and from what I have seen of them, I have no particular desire to understand them, except to ascertain how much lead or iron it takes to kill them. In addition to his other Asiatic characteristics, the Russian has no regard for human life and is an all out son of bitch, barbarian, and chronic drunk.”

In 1945 the United States was still at war with Japan, and simultaneously engaged in conflict with the communist Chinese. Not surprisingly therefore, in order to underscore his animosity for Russia, Patton chose the Chinese and Japanese as comparative markers. But the point of the quote is not to debase the Asians. Clearly, Patton’s animosity was focused on Russians – and not just their leadership or the Soviet system. Patton meant to accuse the Russian (Soviet) people of 1945 – their culture of authoritarianism, brutishness, and vindication of amoral behavior – in much the same way as many in Kyiv in 2014 condemn the citizens of Russia for supporting the evident barbarism of their leader’s actions in Ukraine (apparently Putin’s approval ratings have not dropped below 80% since March).

I only hope that my extreme pessimism (as defined in Alexander Motyl’s prophetic article is unwarranted. Perhaps the problem is only Putin, and not the Russians as a people. But I doubt it… Huntington identified the border between Asia and Europe as the border between Orthodoxy and Catholicism (i.e. running west of Kyiv). In post-Maidan Ukraine, it would seem that religion is less of a marker of civilizational cleavage than acceptance of a values complex rooted in secular modernity. For residents of Kyiv, the border between what they see as “European” values (e.g. respect for dignity, individual rights, collective social responsibility) and what they call “Sovok” or “HomoSovieticus” runs through Donetsk. The Donbas is therefore seen as the civilizational battleground between Russian-Asians and Ukrainian-Europeans.

As I read the thoughts of others on the current war in Ukraine, I find there to be an increasing distance between my thinking (admittedly, influenced heavily by my immediate surroundings in Kyiv) and that of academics outside Ukraine (as reflected in what they write and say – both formally and informally). For example, Dominique Arel – Chair of Ukrainian Studies at the University of Ottawa, and a friend whom I deeply respect – has repeatedly expressed his humanitarian concern for the plight of the citizens of Luhansk who have survived for over a month without electricity and running water “as a result of bombardment by the Ukrainian army”.  Here’s the view from Kyiv: 1) there is no evidence of bombardment of Luhansk by Ukrainian forces, but plenty of evidence of urban destruction by the pro-Russian side; 2) in a time of war, civilians (tragically) suffer, but many of the civilians who are suffering today are the same people who supported the “Luhansk People’s Republic” during the “referendum” several months ago – that makes them quasi-combatants in the eyes of many in Kyiv. As noted, the latter fact is one of the reasons why many Kyiv residents are reluctant to help refugees currently arriving en masse in the capital from the east.

There is no novelty in describing western social scientists as predominantly left-leaning: their personal political preferences tend to be egalitarian (i.e. suspicious of bourgeois-liberal economic policies), anti-establishment (i.e. suspicious of international financial institutions), and cosmopolitan (i.e. suspicious of the nation-state). In times of peace, and as long as the “establishment” (which until early 2014 included Russia) follows the rules of the game, criticism from the left is often well founded. But as Lilia Shevtsova correctly points out in her recent article: “Having cast aside imitations of partnership and democratization in Russia, Putin seriously damaged the reputation of Western intellectual and political communities. Just think how many analytical publications, speeches, and dissertations have now been rendered superfluous, if not just plain wrong!”

As I have suggested before, Ukraine’s Maidan Revolution was about three simultaneous processes: 1) National awakening (the culmination of a century-long process of nation-building in Ukraine); 2) Bourgeois revolt against corruption and oligarchy (a process spearheaded and funded by managers and entrepreneurs from the middle class with little regard for traditional working class demands); 3) Cultural innovation – specifically a declaration of “dignity” as the defining right of both the individual and society (this aspect of the revolution in fact represented the birth of a new European values set which I have called “horizontal collectivism” using sociological terminology, or “personalism” in philosophical terms). None of these three processes fits the traditional (left-leaning) paradigm according to which western social scientists analyze political events. Hence, few have felt comfortable suggesting analyses. For specialist readers I’ll be more specific: to understand Maidan, one needs to read less Skocpol and more Arendt.

I’ll conclude with another quote from Lilia Shevtsova’s excellent article: “Putin’s Kremlin challenged the West at the same time that the liberal community was losing its mission and normative dimension. This is essentially a civilizational rather than a geopolitical challenge: Apart from testing the liberal democracies’ ability to defend the global order, it is testing their ability to reintroduce the normative dimension to their foreign policies. That is exactly what the Ukrainian crisis is about: Here Putin is trying to explore how strong the West’s positions are. The Kremlin isn’t fighting for the rights of Russian-speakers in Ukraine, or for greater autonomy for the east. These issues are ultimately of little significance to the Kremlin. Instead, what we have in Ukraine is a battle waged by a declining but ever more desperately aggressive authoritarianism against a hostile civilization. And today’s Russian elite will not leave the battlefield voluntarily, as the impotent Soviet leaders once did. After the Kremlin turned Ukraine into an internal political factor, and turned containment of the West in Ukraine into a tool for mobilizing Russians around their leader, it cut off its avenues for retreat.”

Clearly, criteria of political correctness in a war zone differ from those applied to countries at peace. Clearly also, the language used in war (even by academics) is not the same as the language used when not under military threat. But, I don’t think differing interpretations of the ongoing Ukrainian-Russian war reflect just differing “perspectives”. “Academic distance” is something that I clearly lack: I live in the heart of an extremely patriotic city – the capital of a country under attack by the 2nd largest military power in the world. From my vantage point in Kyiv it seems that the very real threat to world peace that Russia (not just Putin!) represents has not yet been grasped in the West. This is frustrating because the threat has been realized fully here, and in several other east European capitals (specifically in Vilnius and Warsaw – see Ann Applebaum’s recent rhetorical question: “is it hysterical to prepare for war with Russia?.

God help us!

Mychailo Wynnyckyj PhD
Kyiv-Mohyla Academy

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