Indeed, not only are Ukrainians facing a repeat attempt to erase their identity, but they are also facing it from the same perpetrator. As such, the mass graves and torture chambers, the destruction of civilian infrastructure, and the theft of cultural artifacts are viewed by many in the country as a continuation of the same policies pursued by Russia through its various imperial incarnations. The toll of the double trauma – from today’s war and from re-remembering all previous sufferings – is enormous and will reverberate for generations to come.
Oksana Forostyna reflects on the issue of “inherited trauma” in her article for New Eastern Europe, republished by Eurozine, citing historian Yaroslav Hrytsak. According to Hrytsak, in his latest book Overcoming the Past: The Global History of Ukraine, “By 1991, when Ukraine became independent, it was hard to find a Ukrainian family where a property would be inherited through three generations – from a grandfather and a grandmother to a father and a mother, and from a father and a mother to a son or daughter. Few belongings were left: an old, yellowed photo, an embroidered shirt from a box, a musical instrument. There are almost no precedents of inheritance for three generations of major family assets: homes, jewelry, shares or savings. Every generation had to start from scratch”. Forostyna anticipates the repetition of the same fate for thousands of Ukrainians, whose property was destroyed by Russian rockets and who will have to start their lives from scratch.
The loss of material wealth of course cannot compare with the tragedy of lives lost through shelling, in torture chambers, under the rubble, or on the frontline. This too is the repetition of inherited trauma, reviving painful memories of family members who perished in the Holodomor, in Gulags, in the Second World War. The image of mass graves, so familiar in this part of the world, was deemed a remnant of the past until this year.
As Forostyna reminds us, while “the loss of stuff makes people poorer for some time”, “the loss of culture, including personal and collective memories, makes a society poor in the long term”. Here, she refers to both private collections targeted by the Russian rockets, and museums, libraries, and art galleries looted and destroyed. As we have already learned over the course of the war, the euphoria that comes from the de-occupation of Ukrainian territories usually coincides with the devastation from what it reveals. The invaders seek to make the territory “Russian” by killing those who disagree, erasing Ukrainian symbols, and destroying or stealing Ukrainian art and cultural artifacts. Most recently, we saw them robbing the Kherson art museum and archives.
Thinking about trauma, and especially intergenerational or inherited trauma that is being reinforced by a new trauma from a war that has no end in sight, what is the way out of it? Can we think of a cure that will disrupt the vicious cycle and allow society to recover from it in a long run? Is full recovery even possible?
One thing that will help Ukrainians to overcome the despair is victory. Paradoxically, while many outsiders constantly express their skepticism as to whether Ukraine can win the war (despite the numerous strategic and tactical victories), most Ukrainians have no doubt that victory is imminent. The cure for trauma is not the ability to survive but the ability to hope and imagine a better future.
All throughout the war, we witnessed proposals, projects, and conversations on what would it mean to rebuild and reconstruct Ukraine. What would the new Ukraine look like?
Acknowledging the demographic crisis and “de-modernization” of Ukrainian infrastructure, Forostyna remains positive that Ukraine will accelerate its reforms that began before the invasion and will continue on its path to the European Union. Others, like Dmytro Zaiets, envision a LGBTQ+ friendly Ukraine. His mission, articulated in Zeigarnik Effect (in Ukrainian), is to build “Gay Kharkiv”, which at the very least will change the city’s narrative, re-focusing attention from its less attractive history to a progressive and brave one. The experiences of Tel Aviv, Beirut, and Mexico City, according to Zaiets, will help Kharkiv develop its “pink economy” and fight the devastating consequences of climate change as well as all forms of discrimination across the country. The writer Andrei Kurkov too believes in Ukraine’s ability to rebuild not only physically but politically. It is in this optimism that he thinks Ukrainians are different from Russians, as he tells an interviewer: “One of the differences between Russians and Ukrainians is that Russians are fatalists: they believe they can change nothing. Ukrainians are optimists: they believe they can change everything. That’s a positive thing in the current situation, because if Ukrainians were fatalists they wouldn’t fight for their country.”
These various forms of imagination and optimism, it is worth noting, are not steeped in some utopian idealization. Rather, they are informed by an acute realism with regards to the Ukrainian everyday, the challenges of Ukrainian society and politics that did not disappear with the war. An example of such recognition is the response of civil society to an attack by kleptocratic corrupt elites on the Dovzhenko Center, one of the most significant cultural institutions in Ukraine. Daria Badior (for LB.ua, in Ukrainian) and Ivan Kozlenko (for Zaborona, in Ukrainian) have both written comprehensive analyses of the threats Ukrainian cultural institutions face not from the Russian Federation but from its own citizens, who are trying to destroy the Ukrainian film industry under the fog of war. The incompetence, lack of transparency, and resort to undemocratic forms of rule from certain political groups are the second front of the war that Ukrainians have to fight. As Kozlenko concludes, to stop the government from following its authoritarian tendencies is the “common goal of Ukrainian civil society and cultural institutions, for whom the Dovzhenko Center is a symbol of democracy”.
Ukrainians now have the best chance in their history to defeat the empire, and with it to finish this particular cycle of trauma and suffering once and for all.
Mariia Shynkarenko is a PhD Candidate at the New School. Beginning in Spring 2023, she will be joining the IWM as Ukraine in European Dialogue Research Associate.