The terms of debate

Ukraine in Focus

This vital question is at the heart of Tatiana Zhurzhenko’s overview of recent Ukrainian public discourse (in English for Eurozine, in German for Blätter):

In Ukraine, the initial shock, anger and sorrow has slowly given way to the sober realization that the war is not going to end soon. The first month passed like one day, but meanwhile the feeling of time has returned. People and institutions are adjusting and even trying to make plans. In Ukrainian public discourse, strong emotional statements are giving way to attempts to make sense of things. What is the war about? Did it start on 24 February or much earlier? Whose war is this – Putin’s or Russia’s? What is it doing to us as a society, as a nation? What are we fighting for? And how do we imagine victory? Knowing how these vital questions are being answered in the Ukrainian public debate helps the West to understand Ukraine’s strong motivation to resist the Russian invasion.

Outside Ukraine, a different set of preoccupations dominates: understanding Ukraine and Ukrainians often takes a back seat to internal politics on the one hand and a fixation on Russia on the other. In a sharp critique of Jürgen Habermas’s recent commentary defending Olaf Scholz’s wavering stance towards Ukraine and calling for “Besonnenheit”, published by FAZ (in English and in German), Timothy Snyder argues that “[w]hat Habermas has done is to direct German discourse away from the realities of past and the possibilities of the present and towards national self-regard. In so doing, he has delayed German reckonings with the past, wasted time when important decisions need to be taken, and helped bring Germany to the threshold of another moral collapse.”

Kateryna Mishchenko argues for Der Tagesspiegel that the European discourse about Ukrainians is Janus-faced: “I keep hearing about the price that Ukrainians are paying for their heroism: for belonging to Europe, for western security, for European values, for a liberal democracy, for their own freedom and future. Enough suitable options for tombstone epitaphs (if you’re lucky enough not to end up in a mass grave).” And yet, when it comes to concrete action to support Ukraine, whether embargoes on Russian energy or weapons deliveries to Ukraine, “Somehow everything is more valuable than Ukrainian life.”

In an essay for Project Syndicate, Vasyl Cherepanyn identifies Western Europe’s consolidated historical narrative as a stumbling block in trying to understand the nature of Putin’s regime and its assault on Ukraine: “The West’s embarrassment about calling Putin’s Russia fascist is rooted in its psycho-historical background. To use this term is to encroach on the untouchable place reserved for the ultimate evil in the collective memory of post-World War II Europe, whose political unification is based on common responsibility for the legacy of the Holocaust.”

Culture also plays a role in how the West understands Russia; thus a clear-eyed view of Russian culture is essential. Volodymyr Yermolenko examines the imperialism at the core of many Russian cultural products, arguing that writers like Lermontov, Pushkin, and Dostoevsky “helped shape, transport, and ingrain Russia’s imperial ideology and nationalist worldview” in an essay for Foreign Policy. “Once you begin to look for it, you’ll find Russian literature chock full of imperialist discourse, romanticized conquest and cruelty, and silence about the consequences.”

If Yermolenko characterizes Russian culture as pervaded by imperialism and nationalism, there are other currents that run through Ukrainian culture. For e-flux, Lia Dostlieva writes about hunger: the "deep and traumatic impression on the collective memory of Ukrainian society" left by the Holodomor in 1932-3, the ways artists (including Dostlieva and Andrii Dostliev) have dealt with this trauma, and the new looming hunger across the world as a result of Russia's theft of grain from Ukraine and blockade of grain exports via Ukrainian ports.  

The theme of trauma and loss is taken up by Kateryna Iakovlenko, who describes her return to her apartment in Irpin, destroyed by a Russian missile, for Apofenie: “Now I know what emptiness smells like: It smells like fire, and that smell hits you right from the front doorstep. I know what it feels when you touch an empty void–its gray-haired crumbs fall apart in my hands. It is gentle and soft, but she is no less violent. I know the volume of this void: It is a little less than 43 square meters, and it all fits in my body, somewhere between the ribs.”

For The Washington Post, Nataliya Gumenyuk remembers Roman Ratushnyi, a young activist killed in battle, and reflects on the toll the war is taking on Ukrainian society: “Ukrainians have experienced death and destruction on a vast scale over the past three months. But the news of Ratushny’s death, which emerged days after his killing when troops recovered his body, has struck a chord. His loss confirms something that everyone had suspected: that this war is consuming the best of our people.”

Ratushnyi’s death was another stark reminder of the price Ukrainians are paying, bringing the essential questions Zhurzhenko sketches out into even sharper focus: “What are we fighting for? And how do we imagine victory?”

Listen: Three recent podcasts with members of the IWM community: