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25 June 2015

Russia-Ukraine. A dialogue amidst the war?

Ukrainians and Russians have lived with illusions regarding the ease of understanding one’s neighbor. It is time to replace this with the necessity to undertake intellectual efforts in order to understand ‘the close other’

The following observations do not constitute an appeal or a comprehensive study, but rather a tentative reflection on a given topic. In the context of the war, continuously referred to euphemistically as ‘the Ukrainian crisis’, one can recall a banal fact: reconciliation and working through the past are post-war phenomena, resulting from persistent political efforts following the end of hostilities and the redrawing of borders. Is reconciliation possible amidst a war entailing conscription, persistent attempts at economic blackmail and, most importantly, perpetual propagandized rhetoric aimed at denigrating the image of the enemy?

Dialogue is always important, but what kind of dialogue are we talking about? And who is to participate in the said ‘dialogue’, and what shall be the purpose of it? Is it, indeed, about seating persons with Ukrainian and Russian passports at the same table (beside a conference podium) and inviting them to speak? Or maybe it is also about showing ‘the enlightenment’ of organizers of such panel discussions? Finally, does the demarcation line follow the passport principle? It is patently obvious that, both in Russia and Ukraine, there are people, including in intellectual circles, with diametrically opposing views on the developments. Perhaps it is worthwhile starting with an ‘internal’ dialogue amongst those people? Yet, could this be easily achieved, since international law is a priority for some and – ‘historical rights’ – for others? How is it possible to make the language of the conversation a common one – at least at the level of notions and imagery used? After all, the mere recognition of the fact of the war does not imply the condemnation of it. Not to mention the way the reasons for the war and the objectives which underlie it are perceived.

There is also a trap lurking behind the logic: ‘we will listen to both sides’ – notably very popular in Germany. This approach is often based on the assumption that there are two perspectives to the ‘Ukrainian conflict’: ‘the Russian one’ (usually identified with Putin’s perspective) and the ‘Western one’ (in which the Ukrainian perspective is dispelled, still often disregarded as a conversation subject in its own right). With such an approach, there very often emerges a primitive image of ‘two truths’ which have to be ‘reconciled’ in line with sanguine formulas which allude to such notions as ‘the friendship between the peoples’ or ‘we are for all that is good’. And, to this end, it is advisable not to disregard some elements that are worth factoring out for the sake of convenience when it comes to reconciliation; Crimea being the first of these. Incidentally, let me remind you that, in many respects, the Minsk Agreements are held in place thanks to the omission of the Crimean issue.

For any dialogue to be meaningful there has to be common ground, a common language and conceptual apparatus. In other words, the calls for ‘world peace’ will not serve to eliminate the fact of Russia’s intervention (including military intervention) in the internal affairs of Ukraine. I do not see any point in engaging in a ‘dialogue’ on the topic of ‘who has the historical right to Crimea?’ I can see the point, however, in responsible attempts to understand what has happened (including pro-Crimean sentiments of Russian culture and difficulties with the recognition of subjectness of Ukraine) and to consider the implications for Russia, Ukraine and Europe.

In order to initiate such a conversation (which, by definition, cannot be easy or enjoyable), it is important to realize that criticism of Putin is by no means tantamount to Russophobia, although one cannot rule out the possibility of the presence of the latter in this context. It is equally important to understand that a critic of Putin’s is, by no means, automatically, an adherent of Ukraine or the rule of law (Limonovites and the like serving as a case in point). Actually, the question of Putin and Russia can constitute an important topic for conversation, as their complete identification or decoupling (say, let’s set apart Putin and Russia) are equally utopian, although for different ideological reasons. I would go as far as to suggest that both the understanding of this, and an increased understanding of the complexity of the distinction between ‘Russian’, ‘Russ’ and ‘Soviet’ could be cited as important prerequisites for the conversation.

The ‘Ukrainian question’ in the eyes of Russia; the ‘Russian question’ in the eyes of Ukraine; new and old borders and the demarcation line on the world map; the economics, politics and infrastructure of the east of Europe; the nature of mass political movements; the policy of informational disorientation; ‘patriotic’ mobilization and its dynamics – this is the range of issues in need of serious discussion on different levels.

The catastrophic state of Russian-Ukrainian cultural and scientific cooperation post 1991 is apparent. Unlike Poland, Russia has not offered Ukrainian students or researchers exchange programs, scholarships or joint projects. Popular culture, with its TV series and pop stars, has failed to compensate for the total failure of cultural diplomacy (not in the least due to the lack of understanding of its importance). At the same time, the deficiency of Ukrainian studies in Russia was paralleled by an almost complete absence of Russian studies in Ukraine. Due to linguistic proximity, a common - to a large extent (although not entirely) - Soviet experience, illusions regarding the ease of understanding one’s neighbor have been harbored reciprocally by many Ukrainians and many Russians. It is high time to replace this with serious recognition of the necessity to undertake intellectual efforts in order to understand ‘the close other’ and all the more so, in the context of suffocating and noxious TV propaganda.

As it happens, the author of these words has been an active participant of both Russian-Ukrainian and Polish-Ukrainian intellectual collaborations over the last decade. My work has been published in ‘Otechestvennye Zapiski’ (Annals of the Fatherland) and ‘Neprikosnovennyi Zapas’ (The Reserve Stock), I have co-organized conferences and summer school programs and even lectured at ‘Polit.ua’ in Kyiv. I have repeatedly spoken about the need for major Ukrainian-Russian projects with the remarkable Dmitri Furman and Boris Dubin. I was happy to see an impressive array of Ukrainian authors and topics taking up column inches in the pages of the Kazan journal ‘Ab Imperio’ and the publication of collections of articles by Ivan Lysiak-Rudnytsky and Symon Petliura in Moscow. Is there a place today for their work on the bookshelves which are literally buckling under the weight of ‘anti-Maidan literature’?

Maidan and subsequent events became a test of decency, friendship and critical thinking. I want to say that none of my close Russian friends or colleagues (and there are dozens of them) have disappointed me or let me down. Not one of them has suddenly turned into an apologist for the ‘return’ of Crimea; not one of them has come to believe in ‘stray’ or ‘former’ paratroopers; not one of them has joined the group of ‘equidistant analysts’ championing ‘equal responsibility of all’ and ‘civil war’. I derive happiness from my friendship with these people and from the fact that I do not have to corroborate my fondness for the Russian language and for Russian culture during my discussions with them. Ukrainian society appreciates every friendly voice from Russia, islets of mutual interest and mutual respect. This is evidenced by the Russian-language TV channel Hromadske telebachennya (i.e. public television), the popular weekly ‘Novoye Vremya’ (The New Times) and the popular cultural journal ‘SHO’ (What).

At the same time, the state of war has led to the fact that Ukraine faces an intensely acute question: Does Russia’s aggression give Ukrainians the right to express xenophobic statements? I feel that the majority of journalists and politicians understand the inadmissibility of such an assertion, although, exceptions and dangerous tendencies have been observed. Therefore, one must speak about manifestations of Russophobia in Ukraine just as one should about manifestations of anti-Semitism, homophobia, Islamophobia and racism. Even amidst the war. 

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