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The decolonization of Ukraine is irreversible — Viatrovych

The decolonization of Ukraine is irreversible — Viatrovych
Article by: Stanislav Kozliuk, Tyzhden, May 21, 2015
Translated by: Anna Mostovych interviewed historian Volodymyr Viatrovych, director of the Ukrainian Institute of National Memory, about the decolonization of Ukraine, the post-colonial elite and the image of “passive citizens” that has emerged among Ukrainians since independence.

The Soviet Union raised “passive Ukrainians.” During the years of independence both the   government and employers viewed Ukrainians the same  way. Are citizens ready to reject this image?

The Soviet system has collapsed in Ukraine. This happened despite the fact that until recently many people continued to harbor Soviet values or rather anti-values. Through its civic activism Ukraine is offering a clear contrast to other post-Soviet republics. We have witnessed revolutionary events: the Orange Revolution, the Revolution of Dignity. What is taking place now is evidence of the disintegration of the post-Soviet culture. I mean the development of volunteering, of people who have signed up for the army, people who support the army. These sacrifices prove that Ukrainians are overcoming the Soviet past and assuming responsibility for the further development of the country.

How long will it take to form a socially active Ukrainian?

The revolution of dignity was the final stage of the collapse of the “Soviet man.” It is hard to say how long it will take for the creation of a new citizen. Everything depends on exterior and interior factors. Of course, Russian aggression is one factor that is accelerating the formation of both a new civil society and a political nation.

The reforms that have begun in Ukraine are not being accepted by the population. However, Ukrainians who travel to Europe notice that prices are higher there and that there is a different level of social responsibility. To what extent are Ukrainians willing to accept that?

I think society is more ready than in previous years. The process of getting used to responsibility, especially the refusal of additional social benefits that were the legacy of the Soviet Union, has been very delayed. If it had happened earlier, society would be reacting to change more positively. But now we all find ourselves in a difficult economic situation. However, I’m convinced that unpopular reforms teach us a certain responsibility. People need to become used to the idea that social benefits from the state should go to the most vulnerable people and that the majority need to rely primarily on their own resources. This is also one of the elements of overcoming the Soviet past.

To what degree are the Ukrainian elites post-colonial?

Our country is post-colonial, post-genocidal, post-totalitarian. Obviously this is true of the elites as well. Even though certain changes have taken place over the past several years. People who enter government now are already closer to the image of leaders who would be called upon to implement changes. Time goes by and the communist establishment is becoming a thing of the past. There is less and less of it in government; there are more young people who have experience of study and work in the West, who know how the state apparatus should work. The replacement of the elites will continue. New elections will contribute to it. We have to admit that the current parliament is pretty interesting. Perhaps it is not sufficiently professional, but it is better than the previous one. And subsequent elections need to give us better deputies, a better government and generally better state leaders. This is why it is so important to preserve the institution of elections. Actually it is for this reason that there were two revolutions — the Orange one and the Revolution of Dignity. This is the tool that will help shape the new political elite that will build the country.

What segments of society are most subject to the colonial influence?

These are the poorest segments of society, the older generation — people who have been subjected to propaganda the longest. These are people who because of their age are unable to begin a different life because most of them are retired and they need state support.

What are the specifics of Soviet post-colonialism?

It takes different forms. The Soviet Union created a passive citizen who was ready to give up his own freedom and opportunities for self-realization in exchange for a feeling of security. A citizen who did not want to be responsible for his own life and that of his family. A citizen who was afraid of government and especially of any contact with it. It was believed that the less contact the better since the government is foreign a priori.

How will the proximity to Moscow influence the colonial effect?

The claim that has been repeated by Russian propaganda for decades if not centuries that “we are one  people” is crashing completely. First of all, as a result of Russian aggression. All of Moscow’s assurances of “brotherhood” of “blood ties” are worthless in light of the war that Russia has launched against Ukraine. Right now the imperial cord is being cut and Ukrainians are asserting themselves as an independent nation.

What is the role of the middle class in societal change?

In any society the middle class is the main promoter of democratic change. These are independent people who seek freedom, who are ready to take the initiative, who are ready for responsibility. The more numerous these people are, the more opportunities there will be for the development of Ukraine as a normal democratic country. We were slow in that development since we had poor representation of the middle class: after the economic turmoil there were very many impoverished people. At the same time, the oligarchs emerged who were interested in preserving the Soviet mentality that guaranteed them a cheap and submissive labor force. And we can see that in the areas most exploited by Ukrainian oligarchs — mining, heavy industry — the “Soviet man” as such was preserved the most. First of all, in the Donbas. That kind of culture allowed the oligarchs to exploit a large number of people at low cost.

Can the war in the Donbas become a kind of societal  elevator? Or, on the contrary, a factor that polarizes society?

I think that the war and the earlier events on Euromaidan have launched the societal elevators. We have renewed the composition of the Verkhovna Rada and many volunteers have begun to work in government. The serious social upheavals taking place in Ukraine in one way or another provide opportunities for proactive, responsible people. Ukraine is so weak now that it cannot offer her citizens anything other than to be part of structures that will change it for the better.

Ukrainians are helping the military but are also negatively predisposed to the government. How can we attract people to work in the public sector?

There should be a dual process. We must train society in constructive behavior. Ruthless criticism and opposition to any government is part of Ukrainian culture. Most of the time in Ukraine the government has been foreign. For this reason anyone who becomes part of the government is perceived the same way. It is important to understand that the government is part of us and that we have to control it and that we can create it. If there are constructive proposals we can change the government. On the other hand, the government itself must be open to such factors in order to assume new powers and to rotate officials.

Right now both sides have flaws. On the part of society there is criticism that is not always constructive, and on the part of government officials there is incomplete understanding of how to work with the public and how to renew their own ranks. Although the situation is certainly better than a few years ago.

Until recently business and patriotism existed as parallel realities. Today we are witnessing “patriorization.” How will this influence the transformation of society?

This was  an inevitable process. When we talk about the average business, the middle class — these people need a state that will protect them and their right to have a business. The oligarchs do not need the state. On the contrary, it interferes. The average business that displays a patriotic position undoubtedly is not doing so strictly for ideological reasons. It also realizes  that it will be able to develop only in a democratic state. And if Ukraine turns into a colony, then there will be no opportunities for the business. For this reason the average businesses become more activist and openly position themselves as patriotic.

Speaking of the point of no return, has Ukraine passed it already? Are the economic and social upheavals that Ukraine is experiencing now capable of creating the basis for colonial revenge?

I don’t see that possibility. Colonial revenge was possible during the final months of the Yanukovych regime. The fact that Yanukovych lost — despite huge support from Russia and despite Russia’s control over the security forces and the vertical power — was the point of no return. The decolonization of Ukraine is irreversible.

Society is placing many expectations on the volunteers and activists today. However, as experience shows, their cooperation with the government has not been too successful. The old system either swallows them or throws them out. Perhaps Ukrainians need a new social contract?

This is just loud complaining. We have no other state. If we want to change something we need to become part of government and to change it from within. The fact that people come to government with new approaches and then leave government, slamming the doors behind them, is the fault of both sides — of the system itself that is unable to change and also of the new officials. They need to understand where they are going. Nobody in the state apparatus is going to welcome them, nobody is going to create conditions where they can develop. On the contrary, there will be barriers. But if these people have a desire to change the country then they need to grit their teeth and work, and change the system from within. I’m not aware of any  reformer in history who was given ready-made favorable conditions for his reforms. On the contrary, the successful reformer is the one who creates these conditions despite his enemies and sometimes even despite his allies.

Translated by: Anna Mostovych
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