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Liberal nationalism is the cure Ukraine needs to treat its post-colonial scars – Mykola Riabchuk

Mykola Riabchuk, president of the Ukrainian PEN-center. Source: Ukrayinska pravda
Liberal nationalism is the cure Ukraine needs to treat its post-colonial scars – Mykola Riabchuk
Unlike the velvet revolutions that took down communist rule in Central Europe in the late 1980s, Ukraine’s Velvet Revolution is unfinished. However, liberal nationalism may be just the cure Ukraine needs to treat its post-colonial inferiority, says Mykola Riabchuk, one of Ukraine’s most-known and published intellectuals, in a deep-diving interview that touches upon the international solidarity behind the Iron Curtain — and the discursive walls bring erected in the Europe of today.

Mykola Riabchuk is one of Ukraine’s most published essayists. He is the president of the Ukrainian PEN-center and a senior research fellow with the Institute of Political and Nationalities’ Studies at the Academy of Sciences of Ukraine in Kyiv.

Published not only in Ukrainian, but English, Polish, German and even unfamiliar languages such as Catalonian (native to the northeastern regions of Spain), Riabchuk’s essays are among the most known Ukrainian humanitarian voices.

As he himself admits, he follows the rules of the genre established by one of the leading intellectuals of the French Renaissance, Michel de Montaigne. He maintains that each essay should have a central protagonist that acts from his personal experience. At the same time, the narrative should provide both a thesis and antithesis. The story should be intriguing but open-ended with no conclusive resolution.

In 2021, a collection of Riabchuk’s essays was published by Vydavnytstvo Staroho Leva under the provocative title Nationalist Lexicon and Other Essays (Лексикон націоналіста та інші есеї)). Soon thereafter, Ibidem Press published an English-language essay collection: The Fence of Metternich’s Garden: Ukrainian Essays on Europe, Ukraine, and Europeanization.

Here, we present some of Riabchuk’s most interesting thoughts from his February 2021 video interview with Ukrainian philosopher and journalist Volodymyr Yermolenko as well as from his essays.

“Unfortunately, the term nationalism has rather negative connotations. In the whole world, because there was the Second World War, the Holocaust … in Ukraine, because there was the great Soviet tradition of demonizing nationalism, namely Ukrainian nationalism, namely bourgeois nationalism. It was in fact a criminal accusation … This situation changed after Euromaidan [2014 Revolution of Dignity] and the Russian invasion [in Donbas and Crimea]. Today, not overwhelming but the majority [in Ukraine], declares a positive attitude to nationalism, understanding it in a positive sense, as an ideology that encourages hard work for their country.”

Riabchuk further explains this positive sense of nationalism:

Nationalism, in my opinion, must be liberal. If it is not liberal, it is no longer nationalism. This is a kind of chauvinism … I prefer the republican understanding of nationalism as a joint stock company, where people own the same number of shares in the State. The republic is a common cause. And we are nationalists, because we have loyalty to this common cause. I do not see any superiority to others here …”

Nationalist Lexicon Riabchuk
Mykola Riabchuk presenting “Lexicon of Nationalist…” via Zoom at the Vydavnytstvo Staroho Leva publishing house. Snapshot.

Riabchuk does not enter into a dispute with critics of nationalism. Instead, he draws attention to the contemporary crisis both in Ukraine and Europe — the crisis of solidarity. Solidarity is, in fact, the key theme in many of his essays.

In Ukraine, it is precisely that sense of liberal nationalism that may be a treatment for still-persistent post-colonial inferiority — even infantilism. The left-wing populist politics of the majority and radical right-wing movements as a reaction are the the symptom of this.

Every time we sacrifice values for the sake of interests, we run the risk of eventually losing both
In Europe, Riabchuk claims, the weakening of international solidarity is the issue. He recalls Europe’s weak response to the Russian aggression in Ukraine and, earlier, in Georgia. Political hypocrisy erodes common values.

The 14th Worst Place in the World

Explaining this hypocrisy in his essay, “The Fourteen Worst Place in the World,” Riabchuk offers the theme of Michael Winterbottom’s film Welcome to Sarajevo which premiered at the London Film Festival in 1997.

In one of the scenes, journalists in the surrendered city ask a UN official when the UN will put an end to the daily killings. And the official answers: “Believe me, in the world there are at least 13 much worse places that we should take care for.”

The real problem is that officials in all of these 13 places probably give the very same excuse.

Riabchuk writes that this story might remain just a fictional story from the film, if it had not been too real during the Russian invasion of Georgia. He recalls how — just at the time of the harshest battles in Georgia — Western media and politicians were praising Chinese dictators for the excellent organization of the 2008 Beijing Olympics, and they interacted with Putin in their usual friendly diplomatic fashion.

“The whole reaction of the Western governments was limited to expressions of deep concern and noble appeals to both sides to refrain from violence and to resolve all issues at the negotiating table. The rapist was given a chance to reconcile with the victim and get mutual satisfaction. This reaction, no matter how annoying and shameful, did not surprise me, because at that time I already knew that in politics interests prevail over values …

What really struck me then was not the impotent capitulation of the West to Putin’s lies, nor the greedy desire of EU leaders to continue the usual business with the mafia that privatized the entire country. I was really struck by the silence of the European East, especially the Hungarians, Czechs and Slovaks, who, better than anyone on the continent, should feel the similarity of the Georgian situation to their own in 1956 or 1968…

It was a signal to Moscow to move on. ‘Never too far.’ It was also a signal that Ukraine is next. Several mentions about this [possibility of further Russian aggression] flashed in the Western press, but no one considered them seriously. Just another ‘Russophobia,’ of course.”

European solidarity today, no concrete walls yet discursive walls

Czechs, Slovaks, Poles, and other Central European nations are often mentioned in Riabchuk’s essays. He recalls the solidarity of these nations in the 1980s and 1990s, and even earlier, as the best example of international solidarity cemented by common values — even when the institutional environment is absolutely alien.

One of the essays about this period is titled “How I became a Czech and a Slovak.” Riabchuk recalls how his family in western Ukraine kept a silent solidarity with Czechoslovaks during the 1968 Soviet invasion and even how happy they were when, a year later, Czechoslovaks defeated Soviets in football. Although a revolution against the Soviets could not be won at that time, the overwhelming sense of international solidarity was destined to win sooner or later.

That solidarity was explicitly manifested in the late 1980s, when victory against communism was on the horizon. Everybody felt the spirit of that victory, although nobody was confident that there might not still be a bloody reversal, like the Tiananmen Square calamity in China in 1989.

At that time, Riabchuk recalls, intellectuals in all countries under communist rule were subscribing to and buying literally all available alternative newspapers, magazines, and self-published manuscripts from all states — much more than they could ever read. The wave of velvet revolutions in each country was co-supported by the revolutions in neighboring countries and by strong cultural links established during glasnost. The totalitarian concrete walls could not stop the discursive unity.

The opposite happens today. With no concrete walls, discord has settled in, with one group of European states distancing themselves from another.

Telling were the 2004 articles in The New York Times, which Riabchuk mentions. Describing the new Polish-Ukrainian border after Poland entered the Schengen area, the articles describe the border as if it was a new iron curtain to safeguard Europe against barbaric eastern hordes.

The article focused exclusively on Ukrainian smugglers. As a result, seasonal workers will now have even more obstacles entering Poland. It did not mention other groups of people who were just traveling or studying in Europe, nor that 80% of Ukrainians at that time had no intention of moving to the EU at all. They simply carried on with everyday life, working and living in Ukraine as people would in any other European country. “So these discursive walls rise,” Riabchuk concludes. Unnoticed, they later made possible and even justified such actions as Russian aggression.

For that hypocrisy, Ukraine can and must criticize the West, writes Riabchuk, but only in combination with a healthy dose of self-criticism, both personal and national:

“Four years after the Revolution of Dignity, I notice in my compatriots the same sin of boast and indifference that so upset me in Western and Central Europe in 2008 and 2014. Europe is again under threat, which comes to a lesser extent from Russia, but far more from its own dementia, selfishness, provincialism and the excessive concentration of all these features in local politicians.”

Mykola Riabchuk on East European Revolutions from Warsaw and Prague to Kyiv and Minsk:

Two Ukraines

As for the sins of Ukrainians, Riabchuk criticizes Ukraine for its Velvet Revolution of the 1990s that, contrary to other Central European countries, is still unfinished. The Soviet legacy has persisted both mentally and institutionally. That is why the 2004 and 2014 revolutions happened in Ukraine — “To unleash further evolutionary change.”

Ukraine’s Velvet Revolution is still unfinished
The absence of republican solidarity and a weak self-association with Ukrainian statehood are reasons why Ukraine still needs time to finish its own Velvet Revolution. Such shortcomings are the consequence of the long colonial state of Ukraine, both under the Russian empire and subsequent Soviet empire, Riabchuk explains. Post-colonialism is the thinking he employs towards Ukraine. His most salient observation is the distinction between two Ukraines: colonial Little Russia and modern Independent Ukraine.

“We operate by certain ideal types. Just to remember, this is a certain approximation and a model. But now such models show us that in general there are two projects of Ukraine that are fighting with each other: Ukrainian and, relatively speaking, Little Russia. Ukrainian distances itself from Russia and emancipates itself from the closed East Slavic community; the Little Russia project focuses on the archaic East Slavic Orthodox community in the current articulation of the Russian world. The latter is incompatible with our aspirations of modernization.”

Riabchuk also notes that the two Ukraines have a certain geographical dimension, but not in terms of physical borders. Central and western Ukraine are more focused on the development of Independent Ukraine, while southeastern Ukraine pivots toward the notion of Little Russia.

The explanation lies in the fact that the latter regions, once known as Dyke Pole (Wild Fields), did not experience any political experience other than territory under the rule of Russian empire. These regions were massively colonized only in the 18th and 19th centuries.

A brilliant microanalysis of this essentially civillizational rift is Keith Darden’s article “Imperial Legacies, Party Machines and Contemporary Voting.” It analyzes the 2010 Ukrainian presidential elections in two neighboring districts of the Odesa region. There, 250 years ago, only the small river Kodyma separated the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth and the Ottoman Empire.

Although people have long forgotten the difference between regimes, those living today in the area of the former commonwealth voted at a rate of 12% more in favor of the pro-democratic Tymoshenko candidate. They also demonstrated a higher voter turnout.

Such a differentiation stands today, even though for 250 years both entities co-existed in the same region of the Russian empire and then the USSR.

However, importantly, the geographical factor is not strictly determinate, and this is the main reason why Putin’s aggression to a large extent failed — occupying only one-fifth of what Russia initially claimed.

The main border between two Ukraines is in human minds, says Riabchuk.

“Two Ukraines Reconsidered” — 2019 Mykola Riabchuk’s address at the Harvard Ukrainian Research Institute:

What kind of nationalism Ukraine needs

Liberal nationalism is the cure Ukraine needs to treat its post-colonial scars, Riabchuk claims. Currently, infantile, populist left politics dominate in Ukraine and exploit nostalgia about the USSR or, equally, people’s dissatisfaction with the current “unfair State.”

As a reaction to this, several more or less radical right organizations emerge.

Riabchuk refers to the 1980 Oleksandr Motyl’s book The Turn to the Right. The key thesis is that Ukrainian nationalists have always been Western and democratic in their outlook, and only in the interwar period did they radicalize. This development was directly in response to mounting Soviet and Polish repressions, as well as disenchantment after the 1917-1919 failure to establish a Ukrainian state.

Currently, thinking about the interwar nationalist movement, epitomized in the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN) and the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA), Ukrainians never acknowledge any repression that they could have conducted. Rather they praise the moral and ethical aspect of self-sacrifice for Ukrainian statehood. This aspect makes Stepan Bandera (OUN leader) and OUN itself still relevant in Ukraine today. This is at the heart of the misunderstanding between Ukrainians and the West, regarding Bandera and nationalism in general, Riabchuk notes.

According to him, Ukraine needs a new liberal nationalist political force that could implement the moral and ethical aspect of self-sacrifice and service in favor of its own nation of contemporary Ukraine.

Thus, rendering historical repercussions no longer relevant. The need for such a political force — one that could play an emancipatory role for Ukrainians — Riabchuk explains by the example of the state of Ukrainian language in the country today.

“The Ukrainian state seems to exist, but the position of Ukrainians is quite ambivalent, we are still proving the need for this law to serve in the Ukrainian language. In the 30th year of Independence, we have finally come to the point where a Ukrainian citizen has to prove his right to be served in his or her own language. And it turns out that this causes great battles, disputes, and accusations of the very nationalism …

And here I appeal not so much to the status of the Ukrainian language as the State language as to my human rights. As a person and a citizen of this country, I have certain rights. I pay taxes, and I see it as a humiliation when the person who receives my money considers me a second-class person and thinks he can communicate with me in some other language.”

This situation is not surprising. Riabchuk recalls his personal Soviet colonial experience. When his parents would speak Ukrainian with him in public during the 1960s, often somebody in passing would comment: “Why are you creating additional problems for the child.” Ukrainian at that time was considered “an additional problem,” since Russian was popularized as the language of the city … the language of elites … while Ukrainian was the language of the countryside, the colonized, and not needed for a successful career.

“The transformation of peasants into French citizens lasted more than a century. The transformation of peasants into Ukrainians is not over yet. A third in Ukraine still identify themselves with their city or village, not [first] with the nation,” notes Riabchuk, explaining the important role of nationalism in Ukraine that those in the West often overlook.

Importantly, this liberal nationalism has nothing in common with any supremacy or national egotism. Instead, it easily matches with international values, notably international European values, as Riabchuk points out. He says about himself:

“My self-determination as a liberal nationalist is often combined with another rather contradictory at first glance self-determination — as a Ukrainian cosmopolitan. Yes, I am a cosmopolitan, because I live in the world, I am interested in the world, I care about the world, I have a certain global consciousness. But I am a cosmopolitan of Ukrainian origin and of course I am not indifferent to this area from which I come. So these “matryoshka dolls” are contained within each other.”

Many of Mykola Riabchuk’s essays were published in English in various online magazines, including the following essays:

The collection in Ukrainian The Nationalist Lexicon and other essays is available at the webpage of Vydavnytstvo Staroho Leva.

On 16 March 2021, another collection of essays was published in English under the title The Fence of Metternich’s Garden: Ukrainian Essays on Europe, Ukraine, and Europeanization.

The title refers, ironically, to the notorious Chancellor Metternich’s quip that Asia presumably begins at the eastern fence of his garden (or, as another apocryphal version maintains, at the eastern end of the Viennese Landstrasse). The book illuminated different ways of being a “European” ― at both the collective and individual level.

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