Professor of historical past Serhy Yekelchyk spoke with poet, translator, author, and PEN Ukraine Honorary President Mykola Riabchuk on 16 June 2022 for PEN Ukraine’s collection #DialoguesOnWar. That is an edited transcription of key moments from their dialogue. You’ll be able to try the recorded dialog right here.
Serhy Yekelchyk: I’m presently in Canada, on an island on the Pacific coast, maybe in essentially the most distant location from the conflict in Ukraine. Nevertheless it doesn’t, after all, imply that I don’t comply with the latest developments. Quite the opposite, the Canadian perspective on the conflict could also be in some ways extra fascinating and supportive than that of some European international locations.
Mykola, you’re in Western Europe. It’s a pleasure speaking to you once more. What information in latest days can pressure us to rethink the developments in Ukraine and Russia? Any perspective that was not beforehand open to us?
Mykola Riabchuk: I’ve been staying in Paris since September, finishing my year-long analysis fellowship. The conflict caught me right here. I’m presently concerned in tons of very hectic journalistic actions. I’ve postponed all my educational analysis.
I’ve to clarify many difficult issues to Western audiences. In lots of instances, I encounter deep misunderstandings. However, on the identical time, I see very robust curiosity and empathy. The state of affairs is completely different from that of 2014, when, aside from the nice curiosity, there was additionally nice confusion. The image was much less clear. To start with, the information of Ukraine was rather more restricted. Secondly, the developments in Ukraine have been very complicated for the West as a result of the Revolution of Dignity in Ukraine was framed by Moscow propaganda as a coup d’état. Public opinion was not so unanimously pro-Ukrainian. Now it’s apparent: everybody understands that Ukraine is a sufferer, that it was attacked unprovoked.
How can we proceed any longer? Politicians have completely different opinions about this. On one hand, everybody understands that Russia is a large and really highly effective nation in possession of nuclear weapons. Due to this fact, it is vitally questionable to what diploma it may be defeated. On the identical time, an increasing number of persons are beginning to perceive that this can be a genocidal conflict and Ukrainians haven’t any different selection however to withstand. They perceive that Russia can’t be rewarded. If Ukraine makes any concessions and recognises any territorial or standing beneficial properties for Russia, it might encourage different rogue states to carry out comparable methods.
The important thing ingredient of this conflict is the issue of Russian imperial id, which has largely decided all of the developments. This was a set off, a really deep supply of this battle, but it surely was inevitable in a means. If we analyse how Russian imperial id was traditionally constructed within the eighteenth century, we see that from the very starting there was no place for Ukraine in it.
Ukraine needed to be both absorbed and assimilated or exterminated. That’s principally what we’re observing in the present day. For a really rational western viewers, this zero-sum sport is perhaps obscure. They imagine in dialogue, negotiation, and discovering options roughly acceptable for either side. They don’t perceive the will to ‘discover a ultimate answer to the Ukrainian query’.
Serhy Yekelchyk: I agree that Russia’s undeveloped id as a contemporary nation is behind so many historic issues in japanese Europe. It’s unhappy that it takes conflict crimes, crimes towards humanity, and genocide to get up some western observers and statespersons to the truth that Ukraine wants help and Russia must be condemned.
Mykola, what do you assume in your guide Nationalist lexicon and different essays was significantly vital for the understanding of the present stage of Russian aggression?
Mykola Riabchuk: Clearly, the title is ironic. This isn’t the Bible for nationalists. What I used to be making an attempt to say is that we’re all very completely different; our identities are situational and fluid; we could be each cosmopolitans and nationalists on the identical time. This guide isn’t a tutorial methodology, it isn’t a rational rationalization, it’s a reflection based mostly on the dialogue of various conditions.
I even have a query for you: what are you able to write now, as a historian? All our consideration is concentrated on up to date developments, on the long run. How do you venture in the present day’s state of affairs in your previous analysis?
Serhy Yekelchyk: For a historian of Ukraine’s twentieth century, up to date developments underneath Russian occupation are very a lot recognisable. They resonate with the deepest construction of Ukrainian historic reminiscence; with the persecution of Ukrainian intelligentsia throughout the Russian occupation of Galicia from 1914-1915; and with the Holodomor, Stalin’s state-engineered genocide of 1932-1933. The very notion of the grain being taken by the Russian military is so instantly recognisable that it sends chills up my backbone, it provokes a bodily response.
These are the highly effective alerts which, after all, come unnoticed by the Russian facet, as a result of their historic reminiscence pretends that nothing of the above ever actually occurred: there was no genocide of Ukrainians, and Stalin was an excellent historic determine who’s ranked very excessive in Russian opinion polls.
For a lot of many years, I might have answered the query in regards to the object of my analysis by saying that my early work was on the Ukrainophiles, Ukrainian patriots within the Russian Empire who tried to undermine it in a cautious means, restricted by the draconian laws. My subsequent books have been on Stalinism, the time when individuals may declare in a really cautious ethnographic means that they have been Ukrainian as a result of they wore an embroidered shirt, danced, or sang, however nothing past that: the second they grew to become political, they’d find yourself in a gulag.
However the cultural and political dimensions of id are completely different, and that is one thing that Putin is discovering proper now. Cities which might be overwhelmingly Russian-speaking nonetheless produce mass protests towards the Russian occupation. The Russian failure to take Kharkiv is one other indication of the truth that Ukrainian cities battle again as a result of the notion of Ukraine is that of a democratic political neighborhood that may be chosen and is more and more being chosen by people who find themselves not essentially ethnic Ukrainians.
Shifting ahead, my analysis goes to be on that exactly: on how Ukrainian id turns into the democratic selection, the pro-European selection, and why Europe must help it. We nonetheless see the obsession with Russia in some elements of Europe, however I believe the West is effectively on its strategy to studying the teachings of historical past – maybe a number of hundred years too late for Ukraine.
How are you reflecting on the problems related to Ukrainian id throughout Russia’s conflict towards Ukraine?
Mykola Riabchuk: You talked about this so-called Western obsession with Russia, which is an actual phenomenon, however I imagine it’s secondary to our dialogue. The essence is Russian imperial information: for the reason that 18th century it has been produced, disseminated, powerfully institutionalised, exported, and established within the West as educational, goal, scientific information, which remained unquestioned till lately. That is the place the western obsession with Russia comes from. In fact, there are additionally highly effective financial pursuits and enterprise lobbies, however with out this imperial information, with out the notion of Russia as the one agent within the area, they’d not have the free hand they’re having now.
I wish to deconstruct this imperial information. It’s excessive time to problem it. Till the collapse of the Soviet Union, it was very problematic. The very thought of the Soviet Union being an empire was unacceptable again then. After the collapse, this narrative began to permeate western academia. Nonetheless, we nonetheless have issues with mass media, frequent knowledge, and widespread tradition.
Imperial information is a large downside as a result of it marginalises different international locations. The Russian Empire, the Soviet Union, and any empire attempt to communicate on behalf of the subjugated peoples. They haven’t any voice, they’re invisible, marginalised, provincialised, they lose company, they’re no person. In fact, it’s troublesome to return out of this shadow. That is what we’re doing now. We paid a excessive value for Ukrainian reemergence, regrettably belated. No person can deny Ukrainian company, no person can query its nationhood anymore.
This deconstruction is an obligation of all lecturers, not solely historians or political students. We now have to decolonise the information about Russia, the Soviet Union, and Jap Europe, all these very difficult however basically colonial relations. This conflict is decolonial, it’s a nationwide liberation conflict. In 1991, we regained our independence comparatively simply. The empire, nonetheless, was weakened, however not defeated. It accepted the lack of colonies however has not reconciled with this loss. What is occurring now’s the second, and hopefully ultimate a part of our nationwide liberation battle.
I imagine this rationalization is essential for the so-called International South. The way in which Ukrainian developments are coated within the mass media of Latin American, African international locations, and India, for instance, is certainly very unhappy. Most often, the conflict is introduced as a proxy conflict between the US and Russia. Ukraine has no company in anyway. Ukrainians are pawns manipulated by People who wish to weaken Russia. There’s a refusal to grasp that Ukrainians are combating a decolonial conflict, precisely like these international locations did up to now. Combating the stereotypes that persist within the International South is a large problem.
Serhy Yekelchyk: Precisely. I’ve additionally been occupied with the brand new instruments obtainable to us now that the time period decolonisation obtained vast recognition within the West. Specifically, it makes it simpler to clarify the developments in Ukraine within the nineteenth and particularly the early twentieth century. I’m positive you’ve gotten observed that some figures from that transitional interval, like Lesia Ukrainka, have turn into significantly better understood within the Ukrainian canon than earlier than.
That transition from talking Russian to talking Ukrainian as a matter of precept was the second of full – not partial, like within the case of Drahomanov’s technology – rejection of the empire. Mykhailo Drahomanov was the primary one to introduce the West to the notion of ethnographic Ukraine, however his goodbye to the empire was not ultimate. It took Lesia Ukrainka’s technology to make that final break.
After which, after all, there’s a right away parallel together with your technology, Mykola. I believe again to my years as an undergraduate scholar on the Taras Shevchenko Nationwide College of Kyiv. Within the late Eighties, I used to be studying your articles and considering: ‘Wow, that is new.’ New in a harmful, difficult, and thrilling means. It was then that I switched to talking Ukrainian.
I can’t assist however consider the generations that went by means of the identical transformation: Russian audio system dwelling in Ukraine within the Nineteen Twenties who selected Ukrainian id. Ethnic Germans who grew to become distinguished Ukrainian poets. Jewish writers who made what Yohanan Petrovsky-Shtern referred to as an anti-imperial selection. It appears like we’re reliving a second which has already occurred in Ukrainian historical past.
It appears like historical past retains repeating itself, and we should always in all probability derive some classes from it, in order that we don’t find yourself having to repeat the identical cycle. This time, nonetheless, evidently the West is lastly waking up, and we have now vital instruments to assist it. For instance, by displaying that the elimination of colonial statues is basically the identical factor Ukrainians began doing a number of years earlier. And it’s simple to grasp why: Lenin in Ukraine doesn’t stand for communism, however for the Russian colonial previous, for closeness to Russia. Within the West, when you label a coloniser as such, there isn’t any going again. Do you are feeling the West is opening as much as our argumentation?
Mykola Riabchuk: Sure, I imagine that this overwhelming western help for Ukraine isn’t solely decided by the truth that that is an unprovoked conflict in Europe. It’s also the one conflict of such a scale carried out by a dictatorship towards democracy. Ukraine is a democracy, possibly not very mature however fairly practical, whereas Russia is an more and more totalitarian state with necessary ideology and persecutions.
Proper now, there’s a trade-off between pursuits and values within the West. This concern needs to be mentioned. We now have to seek out arguments to lastly persuade western societies that some sacrifices are essential for each strategic and ethical causes.
Serhy Yekelchyk: So as to add as much as that from the Canadian perspective, I’ve to say that Canada is a novel western nation due to the presence of the most important Ukrainian-Canadian neighborhood – not numerically, however proportionally. For this reason the federal government and all three main political events listed here are absolutely supportive of Ukraine.
Nonetheless, the Canadian army isn’t very strong. That could be a limitation that I discover myself explaining to Ukrainian colleagues very often. The second most vital authorities place is occupied by a Ukrainian lady, Chrystia Freeland, from the Chomiak household of Edmonton. Canada is a rich nation in comparison with Ukraine. However identical to different Western international locations, aside from the US, it doesn’t have a strong-standing military or many weapons to ship to Ukraine.
The West wants to grasp that we dwell in a brand new world, one wherein democracy is being challenged by dictatorial, authoritarian regimes. And this isn’t simply Russia. Others are ready within the wings to see how the state of affairs will unfold. This can be a priceless lesson for western governments. They should change their complete worldview. Latest alerts from Germany and France about constructing a extra highly effective European military and messages from the UK and the US about creating an alliance with Ukraine, Poland, and the Baltic states point out that there isn’t any settlement on how this case goes to unfold any longer.
Proper now, Ukraine performs an important historic function in forcing the West to get up, to unite towards a really actual menace. The Ukrainian tragedy is that we have now to undergo genocide, by means of Russian invasion to indicate the West that the Chilly Warfare isn’t over.
#DialoguesOnWar is a collection of conversations between main thinkers hosted by PEN Ukraine.