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Historian Yaroslav Hrytsak: “Ukraine is in a state of permanent revolution”

Photo: Andriy Dubchak. Radio (RFE/RL)
Historian Yaroslav Hrytsak: “Ukraine is in a state of permanent revolution”
Article by: Sevgil Musayeva, Mykhailo Kryhel
Translated by: Christine Chraibi
Ukrainian historian Yaroslav Hrytsak speaks about Zelenskyy’s electoral revolution, the link between today’s corruption schemes in Ukraine and Soviet-era violence, why history cannot be portrayed in such simplistic terms as “victory” and “betrayal”, why Ukraine is dragging its feet in reforms, and what type of hero Ukrainians actually need today.

Revolution: a virus similar to COVID-19

─ A sudden surge of public activity ─ street protests ─ victory ─ stagnation ─ social apathy ─ revanchism ─ a new surge of public activity… Can we ever escape this vicious circle? Is there a path of evolutionary development for Ukraine?

─ Revolutions have always transformed society. Ukraine is in a state of permanent revolution. When did it start? Was it is 1985, 1991, 2004 or 2013? No matter, it’s an ongoing process in Ukraine.

Revolutions begin quickly, but do not end quickly.

The English Revolution of the 17th century lasted almost 50 years. The history of Poland in the 19th century is a period of turmoil and uprisings. The Russian Revolution lasted a little over 20 years, from the Bolshevik coup to the Stalinist revolution of 1929-1930. The German Revolution lasted “only” 100 years, from 1848 until Hitler’s demise, that is, until Germany was normalized. As for the French Revolution of 1789, the revolutionary spirit prevailed in France until 1989, after the fall of communism.

If Ukraine wants to become successful and sustainable, it must go through such a revolutionary transformation. I believe we’re somewhere in the middle of this process. However, Ukraine is different, because so far we’ve managed to move forward without civil war or authoritarianism. This is crucial because revolutions are more than often cruel and violent.

─ Street protests have a major influence on Ukrainian politics and government. But, we’re not interested in changing the political landscape through elections. Is a permanent revolutionary process good for a young state?

─ That’s not important. Revolution is a virus that can be compared to COVID-19. We didn’t want to experience the pandemic, and we won’t be able to end it. What’s important is to survive and come out of this crisis more or less healthy.

─ Some people say that a new Maidan could destroy Ukraine. What do you think?

─ I agree. But fear can be a positive factor and help us avoid dangerous scenarios.

Revolutions are synonymous with major political turbulence. But, today revolutions are different. The symbol of new revolutions is not a guillotine, but a round table ─ when there is an opportunity for the old and new elites to sit down and negotiate a more or less peaceful transition to a new state.

In that sense, the prototype of the new revolution is not the French Revolution of 1789 or the Russian Revolution of 1917, but the Velvet Revolutions of 1989 (uprisings in Central and Eastern Europe). The ruling elite decide whether the revolution will be bloody or not.

Historians predicted that revolutions would end after 1989. In fact, more revolutions erupted in the early 2000s than in the 20th century – the Arab Spring, Hong Kong, South Korea, Türkiye, Chile, Georgia, Armenia, Ukraine and Belarus.

Euromaidan, Kyiv, 2014. Photo: open source

However, Euromaidan was different. Most new revolutions ended in failure or are at a stalemate. It was like that in Türkiye, on Bolotnaya Square in Moscow, and today in Minsk, Belarus. The Ukrainian Maidan is one of the few revolutions that ended in victory. Of course, it was just a tactical victory, as it eliminated some negative scenarios of the corrupt Yanukovych government.

─ What about the Maidan’s strategic goals? How do you assess its success?

─ That’s a good question! How will Ukraine survive this revolutionary process? Where will it take us?

The success or defeat of a revolution is determined by whether the ruling elite have the will to radically change the country.

We’ve been through two or three revolutions, but we don’t see any radical changes. By radical I don’t mean bloody events, but changes that could set Ukraine on a fundamentally different path of development. There were no radical changes in 1991, 2004 or 2014… and we continue to pay for these mistakes.

The oligarchic system has become stronger, and the longer we postpone reforms, the more we become entwined in a vicious oligarchic circle. There’s no oligarchic system in Poland. Can you name one Polish oligarch? No, because Poland implemented radical reforms. We haven’t been able to achieve this yet. But, it’s not the end…

─ The Maidan united Ukrainians across the whole country. But, we see that after the Maidan Ukrainian society became polarized… and this division is increasing. What can unite Ukrainians?

─ Revolutions are always instigated and carried out by a minority, and never lead to national unity. Divisions are inevitable, as is the inevitable struggle between the old and new elites and their followers.

In addition, revolutions are often accompanied by wars – not only civil wars, but also external counter-revolutions. Today, Putin’s Russia is playing the role of such a global counter-revolutionary gendarme. Ukraine is in Russia’s line of fire, so in such circumstances, it’s very difficult to hope for unification. Nevertheless, we can hope for some kind of reconciliation, but it will take a lot of time and effort.

Major political transformations take up to 50 years. Ukraine is now in its 30th year.

─ What would the third Maidan be like? Can we call what happened in the 2019 presidential election a revolution?

─ Absolutely. I once wrote that Ukraine needed a third Maidan, but a third Maidan tied to the ballot box. I believe that there was an electoral revolution in 2019but, it was hacked!

Ukrainians demanded change, so the oligarchic groups in control of the mass media used this strong public demand and created a simulacrum of change. For me Zelenskyy’s electoral revolution is akin to an airplane (i.e. Ukraine) being seized by hackers, who intercepted the entire onboard system and gained absolute control of the aircraft.

─ Tell us more about the Ukrainian national and political elite…

─ The Ukrainian political elite handle things very skillfully. We sincerely believe that the elite owe us something and should do what we want. In fact, the elite has only one goal ─ to seize power and rule for their own benefit. That’s what they’ve been doing for the past 30 years… and this is bad news for Ukraine.

The good news is that it’s impossible for Ukraine to be ruled by a single elite. Ukrainians have learned to implement mechanisms enabling constant change of elites.

Nobody knows what will happen to Zelenskyy before the next election, but we certainly know what will happen to his party. It will cease to exist, just like the parties that used to be in power ─ the Party of Regions, Our Ukraine, For a United Ukraine, and the Communist Party.

Ukraine is a politically turbulent country. This is a sign that the revolutionary process is ongoing.

But, we have lots of talented people in our country, especially the younger generation that was born in Ukraine after 1991. They know how and why to protest, how to create civil society and organize solidarity actions. Unfortunately, they haven’t yet learnt to organize things vertically ─ that is, to generate a political project.

No matter how wonderful and innovative a civil society, it cannot change the country on its own. The levers of change are not in society, but in the power structure of the government. To change Ukraine, civil society would have to take over the reins of government. This has yet to be done. However, I give this generation the benefit of the doubt.

Revolutions need time and major political transformations take up to 50 years. Ukraine is now in its 30th year. I’m convinced that over the next 10-20 years, the new Ukrainian generation will take over. The main question is when will this generation finally be ready to create a viable political project?

Today, Zelenskyy has become their political project, but it’s a simulacrum of change.

─ Don’t you think that Ukraine’s future is being threatened due to the frustration expressed by Ukrainian society today? Will this frustration destroy our faith in the future and the possibility of change?

Ukrainians have always been mired in pessimism and collective depression. That’s not the biggest problem. But, are we able to shake off these negative feelings?

It’s like building up our immunity to a virus. Do we have the will to resist? And if we don’t, how do we build up a strong wall of resistance?

─ What are the greatest threats facing Ukraine today? Are they primarily internal or external?

─ The geopolitical context is crucial. Each country can be compared to a ship sailing on the oceans of the world. If a country is strong, it sets its own course. If it’s weak, it cannot stay afloat, but drifts aimlessly, depending on the winds and currents.

Ukraine is weak. Therefore, the geopolitical context is most important for us. What will happen in Belarus? What will happen in Poland in the next five years? How will America change when Biden becomes president? What will happen to Russia?

What I see now gives me no reason to be overly pessimistic or overly optimistic. The main scenario for Ukraine today is to stay afloat and build up its inner strength until a new window of opportunity opens.

I repeat, the key question is whether Ukraine can build a strong alternative project of political reform. Because among the political forces that are fighting for power today, I don’t see anyone who is really ready to change the country.

─ If we look at the values that the Maidan defended seven years ago, don’t you think that we’re moving backwards today, that the pendulum of history is swinging in the opposite direction?

─ It neither backwards nor forwards… rather sideways, a kind of revolutionary zigzag. Revolution and counter-revolution alternate.

Every revolutionary elite that comes to power promises change, but this only lasts for a couple of months. Poroshenko set the record in reforms. Radical reforms were implemented over almost two years. Then the counter-revolution began… we’ve forgotten how many civic activists were killed or injured in 2017-2018.

Today, who is our president? Zelenskyy isn’t pro-Russian, but he’s grossly incompetent. He’s not where he should be… and this is the greatest threat to Ukraine.

Volodymyr Zelenskyy. Photo:

Zelenskyy’s turbo-mode lasted less than a year. Today, anti-Maidan pro-Russian forces are crawling out of the woodwork. We can see them everywhere in the public sphere and the mass media.

Is this a counter-revolution? I don’t think so… not yet.

─ Today, Ukraine has no political ideology or parties that could give concrete answers to such questions as “where”, “why”. Such projects can be driven by a new elite. Where should we look for a new elite that could generate certain ideologies and provide a pool of talented individuals… and eventually come to power?

─ Modern revolutions don’t have to be ideological. Horizontal revolutions can occur without ideas and without leaders, as we saw during the Velvet Revolutions of 1989 in Central Europe. Values take the place of ideas; a horizontally structured protesting society takes the place of leaders.

But, the elite must take the levers of power and be ready to change the country. The elite must be formed in different institutions, ideally, universities. Unfortunately, Ukraine is several light years away, as the Kyiv-Mohyla Academy, which ranks first in Ukraine in terms of legal education, turns out only several dozen lawyers each year, whereas the low-ranking Kivalov Academy of Law in Odesa churns out several thousand. What are the chances of creating high-quality independent courts in Ukraine with such a proportion?!

We should create non-governmental “viral” institutions that would launch a new model of education.

Ukraine is a simple pawn trying to prove its importance on the world stage

─ In an interview, Zbigniew Brzezinski compared Ukraine to an elephant on a chessboard, moving only sideways. How do you see Ukraine on the geopolitical chessboard?

─ We’re a pawn trying to reach the opposite side of the chessboard and thus be promoted to a figure of higher value. Ukraine has potential, but no one knows whether we’ll be able to use it. That’s our greatest tragedy.

The changing nature of geopolitics, global conflicts can have especially severe consequences for Ukraine.

In the decades to come, when water and chornozem (Ukraine’s rich, black soil) become strategic resources, we will once again find ourselves where we were during the First and Second World Wars: in the heart of darkness, to use Joseph Conrad’s metaphor.

This danger is very real. The only way to avoid it is to become an object, not a subject on the global chessboard. This requires radical reforms.


─ The fact that we perceive ourselves as an object, that we don’t have enough ambition – is that part of our psychological portrait? How can we get rid of the victim complex?

─ All the different peoples who lived here were victims – Jews, Ukrainians, Crimean Tatars, and even Russians.

In the first half of the 20th century, Ukraine, like all of Eastern Europe was a region greatly affected by war, violence and oppression. There was not a single ethnic, religious, social group that wasn’t victimized.

We’ve become used to glorifying violence or, conversely, weeping over our losses. In both cases, we don’t realize how this past violence casts a shadow over the present.

The Russian art historian Nikolai Nikulin wrote that during the war and Stalinist repression, Darwinian selection took place in reverse. Who died first? The smart, the honest and the active. Who survived? The cunning and insidious opportunists.

This was how it worked till the collapse of the Soviet Union. And today we live in a post-genocide transition period where corruption is one of the consequences. Nations that have experienced extreme violence are particularly prone to corruption. Why? Because for them corruption is the only way of survival.

Moreover, violence creates an apathetic society… because passivity is the most certain way to survive.

What’s important is that Ukraine now has a whole generation that grew up during independence. These young people don’t have these characteristics nor do they remember, either genetically or personally.

History has cast a long shadow over Ukraine and we finally have the chance to step out from the shadows of the past. Ukraine’s revolutionary process is largely an attempt to leave all this behind and move forward.

We must overcome history and change its trajectory

─ In a recent survey on expatriation, more than 57% of the respondents answered that Ukraine is their Homeland, the country of their parents, and that they themselves must learn to deal with the past. Only 28% said that Ukraine is the country of their children and they themselves must work towards its future. This probably also reflects Ukraine’s post-genocide attitude. Sometimes, it seems that our wings are chained to the ground and we can’t take off. What do you think?

─ That’s a good metaphor. History is our gravitational force, as it doesn’t allow us to take off and soar upward. The only way to break away is to build an aircraft. Nations are airplanes, whereas empires cannot fly. They’re unable to withstand the stress of modernization and sooner or later they disintegrate.

First, is our aircraft ready? Second, can we constitute an elite that will train a pilot who will jump into the cockpit and take responsibility for the flight?

I believe we have such an aircraft, although it’s far from perfect. Otherwise, Ukraine wouldn’t have survived these past 30 years.

Modernization has two wings. One wing is political, the other is economic. Most authoritarian countries try to modernize the economy, but don’t touch the political system. This is what happened in the Russian Empire before World War I, and resulted in one of the bloodiest revolutions in world history.

Ukraine is trying to implement political reforms, but so far without much success. In my opinion, the current lack of credible judicial reform is the largest obstacle to Ukraine’s economic growth.

Politics and economics are two levers that are interconnected, but to keep the wheels spinning, we need some good lubricating oil. This means a clear humanitarian policy, i.e. how to cope with our history and reconcile Ukrainians.

─ So, how can this be carried out?

─ There are many models of reconciliation. We can’t use the Spanish model, where the monarch played the role of guarantor and arbitrator after the bloody Franco era. There’s no such figure in Ukraine.

Secondly, for Spain it was an internal matter. Neither France nor Portugal intervened or told the Spaniards that Spanish history was part of French or Portuguese history. In our case, it’s different, because no matter how much we forgive or forget, Russia will create a pretext for further quarrels and dissension.

Germany could be another model, where both communism and fascism were strongly condemned.

We’ve gone about halfway… We’ve managed to decommunize most of Ukraine, but so far we haven’t had the courage to talk about our own crimes.

Of course, it’s difficult to tell the truth, to look truth in the eye during a war situation, because sometimes the truth is perceived as betrayal. We’re afraid to talk about the 1919 Jewish pogroms or about the Volyn massacre. Unfortunately, the German model hasn’t worked in any post-communist country. Because in each country there are one or two group that might lose something from the truth, and these groups have great electoral support.

Ukrainians must learn to look at their history responsibly.

─ How to live with this recurring discourse in Ukrainian society – betrayal vs victory?

─ We must learn to look at events in a global context.

For example, how to assess the behaviour of the population in Ukraine during the German occupation – was it betrayal or victory? The global context shows that, first, there was a very thin line between collaboration and resistance. Secondly, this line was determined not by the occupied population, but by the occupying power. And third, in Eastern Europe in general, and in Ukraine in particular, this line was particularly thin given the brutality of the Germans: Ukraine was basically an open-air concentration camp.

Therefore, for Ukrainians, it was not a choice between “collaboration and resistance”, but a matter of survival. In order to survive, Ukrainians both collaborated and resisted, and generally avoided making that choice.

Read also: Who’s winning in the history battlefield?

A historian who studies only one side of the question is not a historian, but a propagandist who defends the interests of one side. Conversely, a historian who tries to show the complexity of the situation and the moral and political choices that our ancestors faced allows different parties to find their place in history.

Of course, this is a very personal approach. I’d like to write a history that unites Ukrainians. No, it won’t unite us; that’s an illusion. I want to write a history that reconciles Ukrainians with each other.

Ukraine is like a caterpillar that sees only what it eats

─ Where does Ukraine stand today?

─ Bishop Borys Hudziak once drew a historical parallel. What is Palestine, he asks? A small province of the Roman Empire. But, one day, a strange Jewish sect led by a carpenter’s son appears and conquers this land.

This “impostor” is crucified. The apostles disperse, and one of them, Peter, goes to Rome, where he’s also crucified. And yet, in a couple of hundred years, St. Peter’s Cathedral is consecrated in Rome, one of the most important churches in Christianity, which originated in the distant province of Palestine.

This illustrates that our world has no peripheries or centres.

Today, Ukraine is the Palestine of the modern world, one of the countries where the future of the world is being decided… much more than Sweden, Norway or Uzbekistan. Unfortunately, we don’t understand this, because we’re too immersed in our own problems. Ukraine is like a caterpillar that sees only what it eats!

─ On the other hand, many Ukrainians are convinced that the whole world revolves around Ukraine. Which, to put it mildly, is an exaggeration.

─ That’s also because we’re too immersed in our own problems. You always get exaggerated notions about things you know nothing about. Knowledge requires modesty in evaluating things and events.

Being the navel of the world is not an honour. It’s dangerous. Sometimes I’d really like to be a Finn or a Norwegian and lead a quiet, boring life.

Once a Swedish friend – a political scientist – and I were discussing historical memory, arguing about the main figures in Swedish history. He thought it over, then said, “Well, maybe it’s ABBA.” Not Charles XII, as a Ukrainian or a Russian would say, but the popular Swedish group ABBA!

I don’t remember who said it first, but the saying goes that happy nations don’t need heroes. Today, Ukraine needs heroes, and that’s proof enough that we’re not a happy nation.

─ Could you elaborate a little further on this idea?

─ Of course. No nation can exist without heroes; everyone needs heroes. But, happy and unhappy nations require different heroes. I believe heroes are individuals who sacrificed their lives to save others.

Read also: The Ukrainian who saved Krakow from from destruction and other little-known WWII heroes

French historian and philosopher Tsvetan Todorov, author of Facing the Extreme: Moral Life in the Concentration Camps, reconstructs a vivid portrait of the conduct of those who ran Stalin’s and Hitler’s camps and those who suffered their outrages. He describes a rich, moral universe, underlining that even in the depths of hell, goodness and heroism mattered.

These heroes didn’t proclaim grand ideas nor did they pretend to lead people towards a brighter future. They were ordinary, decent people, who remained human and generous in extreme situations… like the priest Omelian Kovch, who saved Jews and many others and perished in Majdanek concentration camp.

In Eastern Europe, being decent often constitutes an act of heroism. So, I dream that one day Ukrainians will realize that decency is something normal and non-heroic.

Photo: / Andriy Polikovskyi

Yaroslav Hrytsak is a Ukrainian historian, Doctor of Historical Sciences and professor at the Ukrainian Catholic University in Lviv, Director of the Institute for Historical Studies of Ivan Franko National University in Lviv, member of the supervisory board of Harvard Ukrainian Studies, and Honourary Professor of the Kyiv-Mohyla National Academy.

Translated by: Christine Chraibi
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