Misunderstanding Ukraine

, 05.04.2022
Ukraine in Focus

Jurko Prochasko argues in an interview for Wiener Zeitung (in German) that both the West and Russia have gotten Ukraine wrong. The Russian regime’s stubborn conviction that Ukraine has no right to exist has fueled this war, with all its monstrous savagery towards civilians. The possible consequences of this view have been clear to many Ukrainians for years, but they were all too frequently dismissed by those in the West when they gave voice to them: “What saddens me: you didn’t want to believe us where Russia was concerned. You believed that we were little, self-important nationalists with little narcissistic interests.” Whether in Mariupol or Bucha, or the many other places we will learn more of in the coming days and weeks, there is now mounting evidence that Russian intentions are indeed as dire as our Ukrainian colleagues have warned us. 

In light of this, Kyrylo Tkachenko calls in FAZ (in German) for an end to Germans’ empty rhetoric of peace that overlooks the reality of the war: “What should Germany do? It would suffice to be a dependable partner of the western alliance and to halt initiatives to promote ‘dialogue’ or ‘bridge building,’ to let a recidivistic war criminal ‘save face.’ Sympathy, prayers, and peace bells won’t help us in Ukraine.”  

Tatiana Zhurzhenko writes for Blätter für deutsche und internationale Politik (in German)  that while the Western – and especially the German – response to the war leaves ample room for criticism, we should still not lose sight of the potential of the expression of solidarity manifesting itself along the Ukrainian-Polish border, far more important than the platitudes of peace and dialogue: “What we see these days on the border between Ukraine and the EU testifies in my eyes to the resilience of liberal democracy and the vitality of European civil society. This border has become the site of overwhelming, Europe-wide solidarity, a strong and clear answer to the challenge that Putin’s Russia confronts us with.” 

How might we sustain that outpouring of solidarity and work to ensure a better understanding of Ukraine in the future? A closer look at the past and present power imbalance between the Ukrainian and Russian cultural spheres is one important avenue. Daria Badior argues for Hyperallergic that “The ‘Great Russian Culture’ everyone is referring to today is great precisely because of its diverse representatives from Ukraine and other communities, captured throughout Russia’s imperial history. So today the conversation about Western stances on Russian culture simply demands post-colonial optics.”  

Kateryna Iakovlenko writes in Blok of what imagery of the Ukrainian landscape can reveal about the drastic difference in the Russian and Ukrainian political imaginations: "Today's Russian political imagination suggests seeing the Ukrainian landscape as desolate," primed for destruction; the Ukrainian imagination of that same landscape, historically and today, sees it as full of potential for the "emancipation of nature and the environment." 

Also for Blok, Lia Dostlieva and Andrii Dostliev lay out the long history of Russian colonial repression of Ukrainian culture and the present consequences of the West overlooking this pattern: “The historical lack of understanding of Russian culture as imperial and colonial by nature, and of its bearers as people who belong to a privileged group, along with the firmly engraved perception of Russian culture being more important in comparison with the cultures of neighbouring countries, has resulted in the current Western belief that the suffering of Ukrainians, killed by Russian artillery and bombing, are largely equal to the inconveniences of Russian civilians.”  

In the end, Ukrainians themselves would prefer to be able to think about things other than the war, but simply don’t have that luxury. In The Guardian, as Natalya Vorozhbyt describes the frantic weariness of leaving Kyiv – the decisions of what to bring and what to leave, the exhaustion of flight, the existential burden of displacement – she writes, “We’re sick and tired of this experience, we dream of writing, making films, talking of things that are not war. But after 24 February, these other things were closed to us, and will remain so for the rest of our creative lives. We’ve been condemned to focus on the regions of pain, despair, injustice, death. But also on the mightiness of the human spirit, on patriotism and love. We are ready. But first we want to win, and return home, and water our plants. And we need your help.”  

Read: Iakovlenko’s reflections from the first days of the war appeared in Der Standard, along with those from Olena Styazhkina and Lidiia Akryshora.  

Listen: Bucha is the subject of a recent episode of the podcast Explaining Ukraine, co-hosted by Volodymyr Yermolenko

Watch: Vorozhbyt’s 2020 film Bad Roads, adapted from her 2017 play of the same name, presents four short stories set in Donbas during the war and explores the impact of that war on the human psyche.