Yuriy Andrukhovych delivered this address at the opening of the Vienna International Book Exhibition Buch Wien on November 12, 2013. It was published in Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung on Wednesday, November 19. This is the complete original version of his speech.
Very soon, in a mere nine days, it will be exactly a year since we entered a new reality. Here I’m using the word “we” in its broadest sense — we, the residents of Ukraine, its citizens. I’m not talking about political orientation or cultural-linguistic preferences. For now I’m still generalizing — all the citizens of all of Ukraine.
What is uniting us is something that in the West, especially here, in the zone of comfort and safety, in the midst of the so-called Old Europe, people understand less and less — suffering. Immediately I want to apologize for using this pathetic word. But it is indispensable.
As recently as a year ago we were elsewhere. Today we are talking about a large-scale conflict that has no end in sight, about a hybrid war with thousands of dead, wounded, missing without a trace. The list can go on, adding increasingly violent details, with mentions of those executed, tortured, dismembered.
The “parliaments” of the so-called “people’s republics” of the Donbas have introduced the death penalty — firing squads, hangings. This archaic savagery, which still a year ago would have appeared to be the extreme musings of a very morbid imagination — death sentences on the territory of my country?!
But this is only one detail, one segment of a stubborn reality.
Unfortunately, over the past year we have realized repeatedly that no matter how we resist it, how much we reject it, this reality is now here among us. Sometimes it seems an endless film — of horror, of course. Sometimes a wakeless dream — a nightmare.
Surprisingly, if you were to ask me now if I would want to go back (despite the physical impossibility), as in a reverse-motion film, to November 12, 2013, I would answer “no.”
No, because then tomorrow would be November 13 again, and the president of Ukraine, Viktor Yanukovych, would have a multi-hour semi-secret meeting in Sochi with the Russian President Vladimir Putin, where, as predicted, he would submit to the well-presented professional pressure of the latter and inevitably would refuse even to simulate any movement towards Europe. And again this would lead to everything else — becoming the beginning of the end of Yanukovych himself and his regime. It is a good thing that now we no longer have either Yanukovych or his regime. It is also a good thing that now no one can bring any of this back.
It follows that I still place the freedom gained above the losses incurred, and I believe the changes that began that evening on November 21, 2013, when the first hundreds of protesters gathered on the main square in Kyiv to demonstrate their disagreement with the wrecking of Euro-integration, are irreversible. Yes, there were only several hundred protesters that evening. Only ten days later there were almost a million. On December 1, I was there as well, among them.
What was the core issue for us, what was it that we wanted?
This is a very important question because, as in a cocoon, other questions are wrapped inside.
The European choice for Ukrainians — what is it? What good is it? How do we imagine Europe, the EU, and ourselves in this project? What did we want to escape, what ties did we want to break?
Well, here it is. We should begin with the following : we are escaping from, we are breaking ties with the past. Legally, we did this 23 years ago when we stopped being a component of the Soviet Union. In fact, up to now we have been struggling with the right to this separation, in other words, with our own escape. This is our own, Ukrainian, long-playing version of “Let my people go.”
For these past 23 years no conflict has been resolved in the post-Soviet space. Not only that, but the largest, most influential country in this space, which supposedly should care about peace and reconciliation, is doing all it can to foment and organize wars. In this space from time certain bizarre multi-state entities emerge, which supposedly are designed to promote economic growth and, as always, to catch up and overtake the West.
The names of these entities keep changing: Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), the Common Economic Space (CES), the Eurasian Economic Community (EAEC), the Customs Union (CU) — and these are only a few among many. Despite the frequent name changes of these phantom projects, they bring no economic growth, and each one in reality is just another barely hidden attempt to revive the Soviet neo-empire.
Despite all the talk about the priority of the economy and “improvement in the life of the common man,” these are always strictly political projects whose main purpose is to retain power.
As the well-known political commentator Vitaliy Portnikov writes:
“No serious economic reform has been carried out: even the integration agreements are signed in such a way that power is retained with the all-powerful lords and the oligarchs close to them — all crazed with limitless self-indulgence and money. In fact, justice has been destroyed by corruption and open favoritism.
The political process has been completely eliminated — any opposition to the government is brutally suppressed with cruelty and hatred toward their own citizens. In this sense, the “European” Moscow or Minsk do not differ much from the Central Asian Tashkent or Astana. The political and administrative apparatus has been degraded, because the all-powerful have learned only how to divide up the money, benefitting themselves and their entourage and hurtling pathetic pennies to the crowd.
They have actually destroyed competition and have created all the conditions for the triumph of incompetence, stupidity, and subservience. CIS (and with it, I might add, all the other subsequent versions of the Moscow-centric international entities — Yu. A) have become not even a new Soviet Union but a pitiful caricature of the Soviet Union.”
And it is from this caricature — pitiful but cruel and always criminal — and this path to nowhere that Ukraine is attempting to escape. During these 23 years Ukrainians have formed a firm conviction that we have no better alternative to the European one.
Ukrainians have reached this realization gradually, which is completely understandable. We were maturing, we are maturing still. Yes, we have been searching for ourselves and we have often been mistaken. However, already in 2004, during the first — the Orange — Maidan we made a very convincing attempt. Its success was subsequently largely wasted; the bottom line is we were left with only two (but what two!) factors:
– Maidan became defined as a “magical place” for the triumphant expression of public protest.
-10-12-year old children who came with their parents to the first Maidan, having become 20-year-olds, turned out to be the driving force of the second one, which was immediately called EuroMaidan.
Are any other explanations needed as to why we came out? For what kind of Europe? Well, of course, for the sake of the future, as pathetic as that sounds. But I have already apologized for pathos.
Not that long ago I saw TV footage from Spain, where local farmers angered by EU trade sanctions against Russia that caused problems with the sales of something or other — for example, oranges –burn EU flags as a sign of protest. Exactly the same flags that our people on Maidan used to wrap the bodies of the slain before placing them in coffins.
If there is an ongoing lack of understanding in this world, then this is it. Someone does not want to give up a single penny of prosperity and angrily burns the symbol of the system that decided to limit this prosperity of his. Another dies under this symbol with a real — not symbolic — death because the price of this flag for him is not measured in pennies or in euros. This flag has no price at all because here, now, on this Maidan, it means no less than human dignity itself. Even more — it means life.
In Ukrainian, the words price and value have the same root: “tsina” and “tsinnist.” Some Ukrainian writer, writing that there is an essential dissonance between us and modern Europeans, expresses it through the play of two phonetically close but very different meanings of words. According to this writer, the misunderstanding arises from the fact that “Europeans think about price, and we think about what is priceless.” It is difficult for us to understand each other.
When the Spanish farmers burn the EU flag, they are concerned about trade sanctions and the falling price of oranges. When a 19-year-old student dies under sniper bullets in the government quarter of Kyiv, clutching in his hand the same EU flag, for him the question is about justice and freedom.
When the president of France says that he cannot avoid selling at least one Mistral helicopter carrier to Russia since the contract represents almost 2 billion euros, there is only one thing that concerns him — the high price of the contract. When Ukrainians of modest means are able to collect 20,000 and sometimes 40,000 euros in a few days in order to pay for emergency surgery for a severely wounded soldier, they are concerned about saving a human life.
When the head of the Austrian Chamber of Commerce complains that entry bans for the Russians in Putin’s entourage will cause a sharp drop in the profits of jewelry boutiques in Vienna’s first district, then that is exactly what he is talking about — the drop in profits. When two Ukrainian officers, completely surrounded by terrorists and terribly wounded, blow themselves up with one grenade in order to avoid torture and leave this life, taking with them as many enemies as possible, they are concerned with human dignity. These situations are not comparable, you will say. Why set them up in such a way when one does not relate at all to the other? These are two different realities — and that is all.
And I will say, you are right.
We really no longer belong together. We have almost nothing in common, Europe and Ukraine. Europe in its successful development has achieved its ultimate goal, having become primarily an area of prosperity, comfort and safety — “oversecured, overprotected, overregulated”– a politically correct and sterile territory, where conflicts and problems are simply blown away or settled one way or another.
In Ukraine blood is flowing, and that is an understatement, because if I begin to give examples and description of how, in what fashion, this blood is made to flow, you will be horrified. I am not here to horrify. And a year ago these horrors would not have entered my head either.
I will only add that Ukraine has found herself in the zone of death and violence, of terrible and bitter trials. This happened not according to her will, she did not want to end up there, she was striving to reach you, Europe — in a completely opposite, warm and comfortable zone, but it looks like she could simply not avoid ending up where she is now.
She was forcibly driven there — and not by some mystical force but by a regular military one. Her opponents turned out to be too malicious — ” the most powerful politician in the world” after all. (Forbes magazine has ranked Putin as the most powerful person in the world for the second year running — Ed.)
Europe is sheltering herself against these shocks — understandably. This is when I say “we’re at war,” my German friends patiently correct me as they would a child: “you have a crisis,” they say. Even though in reality the crisis is not in our country, it is in Russia — a crisis of its half-insane imperial ambitions which, fortunately in our world, it is impossible to implement fully and completely .
But when I say that the president of Russia is our enemy, they patiently say: “He’s a partner.”
As you can see, it is dissonance upon dissonance.
After countless conversations with friends in the West and above all in Europe, it has become clear to me that not only do they not understand us, but worse, they have no particular desire to understand us. On the other hand, I have encountered much too often those who understand Putin. It appears that Europeans find it easier to understand Putin than us.
Why peaceful, politically correct Europe finds it easier to understand and therefore to feel closer to Putin than to victims of his aggression poses a very painful question for me.
Frankly, I have an ongoing suspicion. In the EU they are afraid of Ukraine. Conditions even without Ukraine are difficult now, and here is this “failed state” with its terrible karma. Once people were aware of it only as the homeland of the Chornobyl disaster and prostitutes. Now they need to add death, war, refugees, suffering, torture, the downed Malaysian Boeing (even though it was downed not exactly by Ukrainians) and other, to say the least, unpleasant signals, including nationalism, fascism and right-wing extremism.
That kind of country is best kept at a safe distance, the Europeans think. Yes, not all — I’m generalizing again when I attribute these reflexes to all Europeans without exception. Not all but, unfortunately, the great majority of those who are directly involved in decision-making in European politics. I have my own “conspiracy theory” that perhaps should not be taken with complete seriousness, but I must share it with you nonetheless.
I first thought about it after the Orange Revolution in 2004. With time I have received certain proof that has only strengthened my suspicions. The intensity of the Ukrainian-European contacts turned out to be quite different during the presidencies of Viktor Yushchenko and Viktor Yanukovych, but not at all in the direction I could have imagined.
Yushchenko (perhaps partly with reason) evoked decidedly cold feelings in the EU, even though it was said seemingly everywhere that Ukraine finally had this enlightened Euro-politician. When the brutal, uneducated, election falsifier (and all knew about it) Yanukovych came to power, Europe openly warmed up and in various ways began to invite him into its orbit.
From the official statements of the European commissioners and other bosses it emerged that Ukraine was coping perfectly with her “internal assignment” and was taking powerful steps in the direction of European standards. I began to have the impression that what I was witnessing was an eternal backward and forward policy that had been defined for us — if a pro-Western politician comes to power then Ukraine must be kept at a distance; if a pro-Russian one, then he is encouraged to come nearer.
What is important in both cases is to avoid giving us the chance for full membership. There is a desire to maintain for Ukraine the status-quo of a “country between Russia and the West.” Even though officially there is no apparent discussion about “buffer zones” because the era of cynical geopolitics has supposedly gone away.
Unfortunately it has not gone away. Just tell our joint partner, the Russian president, that it has gone away and he will laugh for a long time.
In truth, the geopolitical schemes and combinations are not valid in Ukraine — Ukrainians themselves break them. This is one more misunderstanding that the West has of us — the view that Ukraine is some kind of testing ground that can be pulled either in the western or eastern direction. It’s the Americans, Americans are to blame, my European friends keep repeating time and time again. Americans are the ones who are fogging up your brains and paying for your Maidans. And all this is only to weaken Russia.
First of all, I argue, it is really difficult to weaken Russia — it is experiencing euphoria and it is dangerous. The Russian president, either jokingly or seriously, hints at a blitzkrieg in Eastern Europe. When he smirks maliciously and states “Riga, Vilnius, Warsaw, Bucharest,” I have the impression that the only reason his army is not there yet is the existence of the United States in the world. There is no one else capable of stopping him. Secondly, I say, people came out on Maidan not because Americans are paying us to do so but because this is the will of the Ukrainian people. “Volia” in Ukrainian means will and freedom — freedom that is the basic value for Europe as well as for America. It has the same meaning as that attractive French word “égaliberté” coined by Etienne Balibar — freedom in equality. It is for this reason that Ukrainians rose up. It is for this value that we were ready to pay infinitely more — much more than any American could have funded. In January and February of this year it became apparent that we were ready to pay for it even with our lives.
Ukrainians came out on Maidan and they changed the agenda, they formed it themselves, differently, breaking all the ultra-clever geopolitical concepts. America did not respond in time. The European Union in confusion repeated its “deep concern” for the hundredth time, and Russia brutally attacked us. Here is the entire geopolitics.
What we are left with is to defend ourselves — desperately and, admittedly, alone, abandoned. May God grant us that this abandonment does not last a hundred years, as in the famous novel. We will not survive for that long.
Although in general there is nothing wrong in solitude (or self-sufficiency). It is wonderful to be neutral and not to join anyone, especially NATO. It is wonderful if your neighbors are Switzerland, Slovenia or Slovakia. If, for example, Ukraine had Norway as a neighbor, then the Boeing 777 of Malaysia Airlines would have safely reached Kuala Lumpur. Does anyone even have the slightest doubt? But our biggest neighbor, unfortunately, differs significantly from Norway.
From childhood I remember a magazine section for the curious “Did you know that?” Sometimes I would like to pose this question to you. Do you know that the number of Ukrainians supporting membership in NATO has tripled during the last six months according to one survey; according to another survey, it has quadrupled. That is, if a year ago the percentage of support for NATO in all of Ukraine, still including Crimea, stood at 10-14%, today it is close to 52%.
And this is not because Ukrainians have suddenly become insane or have developed a desire for war and aggression. On the contrary, they want peace — urgent, immediate peace. The want the aggression by their large neighbor in their country to end as soon as possible. And the specific characteristic of this neighbor is that soft power somehow does not work. This neighbor respects only hard power. Yes, this neighbor is archaic on this issue and this is why eventually he will lose, but this will happen sometime later while today, at his direction, and according to his plan, the citizens and the defenders of my country are being killed every day. Every day and every night, can you imagine? This endless balancing between life and death.
I remember when at one of the symposiums a certain German writer said that there are only two major themes in European literature today — Alzheimer’s and cancer. Everything else has been overcome — in fact, comfort and security are limitless, and there is and will be no more tragedy and suffering.
This view can and should be challenged, but I find it significant that it has been formulated in Europe — it’s an internal perspective. That is, it records at least some portion of a reality that we in Ukraine find quite unconvincing.
As I write these lines I cannot think of the name for the opponents of the Eurosceptics. Does anyone remember the names of those who were “for Europe”? There is the impression that in Europe itself, or rather in the EU, only the Eurosceptics have remained. And the only real Euro-optimists (finally I remembered the word “Euro-optimists!) about a year ago, having left their daily reality, came out in the streets of Ukrainian cities and began their hopeless protest.
By and large there was no chance for this protest. Why and how it won after all is a question for the authors of future novels. Here I’d like to make one comment — these novels will have to be brilliant. But I am not concerned about the novels, nor about their authors. I am concerned about the heroes, the ones still largely unknown to the world.
Many, too many of them, are no longer alive. I would like for my statement to be an exaggeration, but unfortunately it is not. There is no way to bring these people back. Others have remained forever without eyes, hands, feet, or they have lost forever their health, their strength, their youth. They can and must be supported — not only with prostheses, understanding, and love. But they will never again be as agile or as young as they were when they climbed the barricades under — for some reason — the European flag. Remember them; remember all of us. We singlehandedly defended not only our “égaliberté” but yours as well. Forgive us — we did not intend to become reproaches on your conscience.