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Stop building the nation, start modernizing it – Ukrainian history Prof. Hrytsak

Prof. Yaroslav Hrytsak in the Ukrainian Catholic University in Lviv. Photo: Alya Shandra
Stop building the nation, start modernizing it – Ukrainian history Prof. Hrytsak
Prof. Yaroslav Hrytsak, a popular Ukrainian historian and writer, has been conjuring strategies for Ukraine’s future development long before Euromaidan. In his book “The 26th percent, or how to defeat history,” the current professor of the Ukrainian Catholic University discusses the necessary preconditions for Ukraine to “defeat history” and make a civilization leap which will place the country on another trajectory of historical development. In 2015, when the book was published, Prof. Hrytsak believed that those pre-conditions were created following the Euromaidan revolution and that Ukrainians received a new historical chance. Euromaidan Press caught up with the historian’s current views on Ukraine, Euromaidan, nationalism, populism, Ukrainian Jews, and what it will take to modernize the country during the summer school “The social thought of Metropolitan Andrei Sheptytskyi” which was held in the Ukrainian Catholic University of Lviv in June 2018.

Four years after the Euromaidan Revolution, many people are wondering what it changed, and what it brought Ukraine. What is your opinion?

It wasn’t Euromaidan that changed something – it was Euromaidan itself that was a result of certain changes.
I look at it from another point of view. It wasn’t Euromaidan that changed something – it was Euromaidan itself that was a result of certain changes. These changes started in the 2000s. At that time, Ukraine went from being an industrial country to a post-industrial one. This changed the rules of the game. New social groups and sectors which did not exist before emerged, particularly – the new middle class, with a strong horizontal civic ethos. Its core is made by people with higher education, mostly they are young, between 18 and 35, and live in large cities, like Kyiv, Lviv, Kharkiv, Odesa, there were many of them even in Donetsk. I’ll call them “Agents Of Change.” To a large extent, the Euromaidan was their revolution.

They are the ones that wanted changes the most, but so far they haven’t been able to realise themselves. “So far” is the key word here. So this group hasn’t changed the country as it wanted – although I don’t know if it’s possible to change it so much, it’s well known that revolutions raise expectations that can not be met. But this very important group continues to act and doesn’t give up.

Lots of hopes have been placed on the new political class – the new faces of Euromaidan which got into parliament. Why aren’t they forming a new political party?

Actually, there wasn’t an entrance of new faces. These new faces dissolved in the old parties.

In the early parliamentary elections of 2014 following the Euromaidan revolution, many prominent Euromaidan activists entered the Ukrainian political system as headliners of existing political parties. Critics of this approach assessed it as allowing the old political beaumonde to capitalize on the reputation of the Euromaidan and to preserve their place in Ukrainian politics. Nevertheless, it did allow a limited number of fresh faces into the parliament. In time, a number of them united into the “Eurooptimist” interfactional association, which set its goal as advancing Europan reforms. Below is a post by Mustafa Nayyem, the Afghan-born Ukrainian journalist whose FaceBook post sparked the Euromaidan revolution and who was elected to parliament in 2014 as part of the Petro Poroshenko Bloc, announcing the creation of “Eurooptimists.”

Were there not enough of them? Or were they doing the wrong things?

There were discussions among them going on [during the 2014 elections – Ed] whether to enter Parliament as part of the old political structures or to form a new party. The first approach won. What also played a role is that they couldn’t develop a common position – because they were young, had high ambitions etc. But I think the deeper reason is that this group we are talking about, namely the young people, have an aversion towards politics. Civic activity, i.e. horizontal activity, is their natural habitat.

And why doesn’t it develop into political activity?

This is not a question merely for Ukraine, it is a global question. This new generation has an aversion to politics everywhere. What can be done? In Ukraine, I think the solution might be technological. One option is e-voting. We all know that the younger generation votes less, and they hardly ever detach their royal behinds from the computer chair, so… Why are you laughing, did I say something funny?

I’m just thinking that if they never see the real life, how can they vote for a political candidate.

They see them, but think that no matter what they do, they can’t change anything. Their starting point is that politics is a dirty matter, and they don’t want to get dirty. But actually, you’ll need to wash only if you get dirty. But even more, it’s a question of institutions. What institutions need to be created for young people to come to power?

One way to do this is through creating new centers of education, Apart of my Ukrainian Catholic University, I can provide you with another example that I know of from a firsthand experience. This is the Ukrainian leadership academy, the alumni of which will get into power, or at least so I hope [Mr. Hrytsak is wearing a sweatshirt with the emblem of the Ukrainian leadership academy, an educational program for aspiring Ukrainian leaders – Ed]. I’ve seen how this is done one year of intensive studies and training.

President Poroshenko meets with students of the Ukrainian leadership academy. Photo: Wikimedia commons

So the goal of the Ukrainian Leadership Academy is to form a new political generation?

A new engaged generation, with “engaged” being the main word. Not all of them will enter politics, but at least some part, I hope.

You mentioned the post-Maidan leaders could not unite into a single party. Why is this so? It would seem that they had similar goals. As well, Ukrainians had trouble uniting in inter-war Galicia. Why is it so difficult for Ukrainians to cooperate?

I don’t think this is an only Ukrainian phenomenon.

Well, we see that there are ideological parties in other countries, people debate ideas. And in Ukraine, it’s all about personalities.

The rules of the game must be institutionalized. Untill they are not, it’s useless to expect larger changes.
For me, it’s all about institutions. For instance, primaries [which are absent in Ukraine – Ed] take place because they are a rule of politics; you can’t become a presidential candidate in the US if you didn’t pass the primaries of a political party. The rules of the game must be institutionalized. Untill they are not, it’s useless to expect larger changes. We have to have a program to develop institutions. And that means this has to be sustainable, persistent work over a long period of time.

Ukraine is not a sprinter country. We’re long-distance runners, we can’t cross the distance at a quick tempo. Still, spurts, periods of acceleration, or “take-off,” are important. The first [2004 – Ed] and second [2013-2014 – Ed] Maidan created windows of opportunities for these spurts. But I am afraid they were squandered. Why – it is another question. One possible reply is war: by sending his troops to Ukraine, Putin has stolen the chance for Ukraine.

Still, as a historian, I am more inclined to provide another explanation: history matters. Because of its past – Ukraine has been a killing field in the XX century, and then it had a Soviet experience. Ukraine is stuck in its survival values. Ukrainians are champions of survival. And it is very hard to change a country where the majority of population is surviving. Therefore everything takes longer here.

What is important is to not give up, to not get depressed. I am a bit older, and I remember very well my Ukraine-related depression.

This 2010-2014 cultural map based on World Values Survey data show that “survival” values prevail among Ukrainians. Photo:


My suggestion is this: stop building the nation – start modernizing it.
In 1994, when [Leonid] Kuchma was elected. I had the feeling Ukraine was over, and many others did, too. Then, in the 2000’s, during the unsuccessful “Ukraine without Kuchma” protests. And in 2010, when Yanukovych came in power. I understand now that depression isn’t the end of it. As Myroslav Marynovych keeps reminding me: “The night is darkest before dawn.” Therefore, it is important keep trying. And this is exactly what like about Ukraine: it has squandered many chances, still, it keeps trying.

The important thing is strategy. For years and years, Ukrainian leaders were building a nation. And it explains partially why there were slow with reforms. My suggestion is this: stop building the nation – start modernizing it.

How should this modernization look like?

There are various criteria, but for me, one stands out: life expectancy. Ukrainians have a scandalously short lifespan, they live 8-10 years less than their European counterparts. This is a verdict. For me, changing this should be the first result of modernization.

And how should that be done?

The lifespan is directly dependent on GDP per capita. Ukrainians need to get richer. And to do that, we need to change politics. We need to build social trust. Money can’t be stored in a jar or a sock. We know what an enormous proportion of Ukrainian capital lives in the shadows. As long as this persists, it’s also a verdict. Because it means that privately we can be rich, but the country is poor.

So why is it in the shadows? Ukrainians must be choosing this themselves.

No, it’s because the state doesn’t create the conditions. We need a political class which will make it unprofitable to keep capital in the shadows, which will bring it out into the sun and create investments. And for there to be investments, there have to be independent courts – any businessman will tell you that. Right now private property isn’t protected in Ukraine, and your business can be confiscated at any time. Until this changes, nobody will make serious investments into Ukraine and business won’t develop.

The economy doesn’t launch by itself, it is launched politically. The GDP per capita and lifespan will follow. Again, independent courts are of utmost importance here, and their creation is a question of political will. There has to be a political party which will make it part of their political program, and that in its turn is an institutional question.

We’re living in a time of geopolitical changes. The Euro-Atlantic alliance is fracturing before our eyes, the EU isn’t what it was 5 years ago, there is a global wave of populist-nationalist sentiments. How do you assess Ukraine’s place in these events? How can the global events influence Ukraine?

Ukraine first of all has to be a player in this big game, not a passive observer or object. And for that, we need our political class to be not on the side of populist nationalists, but on those who are preserving the European Union.

Why is this rise of nationalism happening now in the first place?

There are many reasons, I’ll tell you one which I think is reasonable. It’s related to the post-industrial society. This society means we’re getting richter and life is getting better. But here lies an important paradox: life is getting better, but we’re not getting happier. On the contrary, anxiety levels are rising. Because we’re also living amid an explosion of information, and we simply can’t handle it. The volumes of information are so enormous that processing them becomes senseless.

At the same time, life is becoming less and less stable almost everywhere as the usual institutions – family, work – evaporate. And thus fears emerge that the future is not bringing positive changes, that the future is a threat, that it was better in the past. So the feeling “bring us back into the past, where it was better” is born.

Nostalgia for the Soviet Union stems from here, as well as Trump’s slogan “Make America great again.” And Orbán and Kaczynskyj are doing the same. So there’s a strong feeling of “bring us back,” and it’s strongly related to nationalism. Nationalism offers a certain alternative, a return to the splendid past. Ukraine so far is among the few countries resisting the tide, but I’m afraid this won’t last for long. The chances of populists coming to power are very high, and we even know their names.

Prof. Hrytsak signing his books for the participants of the summer school. Photo: Alya Shandra

In Ukraine today, we see a rise of war-related nationalism, with worrying excesses such as neo-Nazism and even the murder of national minorities representatives. What should Ukraine do?

Ukraine can’t afford being a xenophobic country
First of all, react. I am personally ashamed that I didn’t react on time to the attack on the Roma camp [conducted by a gang of neo-Nazis in Lviv on 24 June, who killed one Roma man – Ed]. These incidents need to have an immediate reaction. Well, there is a reaction: the police found the culprits, arrested them etc. But there has to be a reaction from society, these things need to be talked about, and war can’t justify such actions. But having said that, I need to admit that research demonstrates that Ukraine has strong feelings in favor of a civic nation formed by a political basis. Another notable Ukrainian quality is our low level of anti-Islamic phobia.

Well, we don’t have that many Muslims.

And they are different, they are “our” Muslims. Another observation worth highlighting: we have nearly two million war-related IDPs in the country, and we managed with them, including the Muslims [from Crimea – Ed.]. We made them “our” refugees.

Read also: Crimean Tatars find new home in traditional Lviv

Muslims have been living in Germany and Britain for dozens of years, but something happened in those societies that made those Muslims not “theirs.” I don’t know how long we can keep the tendency we have in Ukraine, but I definitely know it’s worth fighting for. Because Ukraine can’t afford being a xenophobic country. Being a xenophobe is a luxury of a strong and egoistic country, which Ukraine isn’t.

Moreover, Ukraine needs human resources, not Ukrainian ethnic resources, but the groups which lived here. We just translated a book by Ruben Fan, a Jewish historian who took part in Western Ukrainian National Republic. He wrote a great phrase: “we understand that Ukrainians can’t get their act together, we Jews have to help them.”

That hurts, I must say.

You can’t imagine an illiterate Jewish male
Perhaps, but at the same time we need to understand how Ukrainians and Jews differ – by their mindsets which were shaped by their religions. If we talk about Jews, they are a unique nation in the sense that they have been working with books for hundreds and thousands of years. You can’t imagine an illiterate Jewish male because a Jew needed to read sacred books. It’s a refined mind which was honed over centuries. Christianity, especially Eastern Christianity, does not require literacy. You may be a Christian and illiterate. Why do we have so many Nobel laureates among Jews? Because there is an intellectual tradition, because it was their mode of existence. This resource cannot be neglected.

Coming back to Kaczynskyj and Orbán – Ukraine has many conflicts on the Polish and Hungarian fronts. How should Ukraine react to them?

The Polish and Hungarian authorities let out the genie of nationalism out of the bottle
Although these conflicts resemble each other, they have their serious differences. Regarding the Hungarian situation, I think it’s hopeless, at least for a while, probably for a long while. And Ukraine has to accept this – we can only listen and endure it. But the Polish situation is much different. Orban was able to nearly repeat what Putin did in Russia – the opposition has all but gone undercover, there is no real opposition in either country. But Poland has a very strong opposition, it’s politically a very divided country.

Therefore I keep saying: very much like Ukraine is not Russia, Poland is not Hungary either. There is an enormous number of Poles who want to preserve good relations with Ukraine, I know many of them myself. One of Poland’s major newspapers, Gazeta Wyborcza, is pro-Ukrainian. You won’t find this in Hungary.

We also need to understand that the Polish and Hungarian situation won’t improve anytime soon, even if the government will change. The authorities let out the genie of nationalism out of the bottle. And it’s a strong nationalism of the communities which were either previously marginalized, or were silent. Right now, things are being said in Poland which were earlier considered to be unacceptable. But Ukraine isn’t always on the right side, too. For instance, the laws on historical memory have also done their damage; still, Poland as the stronger side carries more responsibility.

So my thesis is the following: when the government isn’t creating good policies, civic society has to step in. Civic society can’t replace the government, but it has to finish up what the government wasn’t able to do. So civic initiatives from both sides are important.

In one of your recent interviews, you mentioned the Ukrainian national heroes which can unite Ukraine. Who are these heroes and how do you assess the results of decommunization conducted by the Institute of National Remembrance?

I think these results are definitely positive. Despite my criticism of the Institute, and I think that it deserves criticism, the decommunization campaign was a positive undertaking. However, the Communist symbols had fallen earlier. Lenin was an empty sound during the time of Euromaidan. If he wasn’t, his monuments would be guarded; but they fell quietly. The Lenin-fall was quiet, there were no protests. Ukraine has other symbols with a conflict potential – probably, they are Bandera and Stalin. They weren’t used in the campaign that much.

Read more: Whose names disappeared from the map of Ukraine? Interactive decommunization map

Regarding heroes, I need to repeat one of my old theses: Ukraine is divided by heroes, but united by victims. We have another ethos, one of sacrifice. Look at the effect of the famine, the Holodomor. Out of all the [historical – Ed] laws adopted lately, the one that designated Holodomor as genocide in 2006 was the most effective. It made a huge difference, and now only a few doubts that the Holodomor existed, and that it was genocide, all over Ukraine, even in the East.

I think that Ukraine is an extremely diverse country, we have different ethnic and religious groups. It’s unlikely that we’ll be able to have a large quantity of common heroes. We have some: the writers – Taras Shevchenko, Lesia Ukrayinka, Ivan Franko – the sportsmen…

And what about the Soviet dissidents of the 1960s?

Oksana Baiul, the Ukrainian figure skater who won the 1994 Olympics, became a hero uniting East and West Ukraine. Credit: Mike Powell/ALLSPORT

I don’t know whether they are considered as heroes, I haven’t seen any surveys. I think they are more relevant to the Ukrainophonic central and western Ukraine. We’ve seen that Vasyl Stus [a Ukrainian dissident poet who worked in the Donbas and was sentenced for his criticism of the Soviet system and died there on hunger strike – Ed] was not accepted in Donetsk. But recall when Ukraine won over Sweden during the UEFA European Championship in 2011 – how united the country was! Such things bring Ukraine together. I call such events like this football victory “banal nationalism.”

Oksana Baiul won the Olympics in 1994, they were the first Olympics with the participation of independent Ukraine. Before that, eastern Ukraine did not accept the anthem and the flag – they were considered nationalist symbols. After Baiul’s victory, when the Ukrainian flag was raised and the anthem sounded as the anthem of a sports victory, the East changed its attitude to Ukraine’s national symbols. Such things need to be nurtured and expanded, these consensual connections – sports events, the memory of hunger etc.

Lenin-fall was quiet, but does Communism still remain in the heads?

Not Communism, but Sovietism. This is something different. It’s unlikely to have Communism as its ideological base, its source is nostalgia for the good old times, a strong desire to be protected, and not by protection which you organize, but which is organized for you. In one word, paternalism. Also, the fear of the future which we mentioned is involved.

I don’t have the perfect solution for what to do with this, but I think we will have to wait for the generation that was brought up in the Soviet system and which mourns its loss to go away naturally.

One more thing – the Soviet Union gave a feeling of great strength, of a superstate. As they say: we sent rockets into space, we built tanks, and now this is all gone. Russia uses this narrative: this desire to be “great again” is really big.

Here, I have a simple recipe: Ukraine needs to modernize. Among other things it means a strong new army, with the latest technology. Not having it is also a luxury we can’t afford. Modernization has to be done through military technology, and Ukraine so far is losing. Even when the Americans pay attention to our army, they say: “OK, so you are fighting for four years now, and you fight well, but why haven’t you set up any gun and ammunition production?” These aren’t high technologies. Why buy old NATO machine guns when you create your own. So the lifespan is no less important than the existence of a strong, professional army.

So, summing up, I would like to reiterate that the reasons for Sovietism are different, but they can be defeated by building up institutions, including a strong army which will give the feeling of a strong state for a well organized society.

/Interview by Alya Shandra

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