The Russo-Ukrainian war is frequently referred to as one of the most documented wars in history. The political context of the war is unambiguous, with a clearly defined perpetrator and victim; social media and modern technologies allow for real-time and instant updates from battlefield. War crimes and atrocities are being documented and processed as soon as they are committed. Yet this transparency and visibility does not make this war more comprehensible. In earlier Ukraine in Focus entries, we wrote about the new language of war that many Ukrainians are developing to grasp their new reality. With pre-war language seemingly redundant and obsolete, writers, lawyers, and activists are searching for new ways to put their experiences into words.
Even this task, however daunting, is not comprehensive. It is one thing to talk about one’s own experience, and it is another thing to make this experience legible to people who are not part of it. Despite the apparent straightforwardness of this war, the task of translation, communication, and articulation has consistently been a challenge. Ukraine’s authors, writers, journalist, activists have turned to global concepts, literary references, historical parallels, metaphoric and symbolic constructs to make their experience intelligible to a global audience.
For example, the metaphor of light and darkness has been seen as particularly apt as it both symbolizes the existential struggle itself and a literal everyday existence as Russians plunge the country into darkness with their attacks on critical infrastructure. The philosopher and journalist Volodymyr Yermolenko goes even farther and offers his own cultural analysis in The Ukrainians (in Ukrainian): “Ukrainian culture has never been strong in times of “light”; it was at its strongest in times of “darkness”…Darkness is our beginning, the beginning of our experience and our sensibility, the beginning of our thinking and our actions. The darkness of Maidan in the evening and at night. The darkness of night duties at the checkpoints. The darkness at 4 in the morning on February 24th – the physical and moral darkness of the Russian invasion…Yet this is the darkness in which the light is born. And this light is perceived as God’s revelation. As in that photo taken by Dmytro Kozatsky, “The light will win” from Azovstal, where the Ukrainian soldier stands in the beam of light, his arms open as if letting the God’s grace in”.
Decoloniality is another intellectual framework that is frequently employed to explain this war of aggression. This globally shared conceptual and theoretic tool is used by Ukrainians to demystify the trope of the “brotherly nations” and show the deeply colonial character of Russia’s historical and contemporary relation to Ukraine. Public intellectual Vasyl Cherepanyn has argued in Project Syndicate that Ukraine has historically been seen as a colonial project both for Russia and Western Europe: “In the 1930s and 1940s, Ukraine became a target of both the Soviet Union, which implemented a policy of industrial colonialism there, and the Nazis, who hoped to exploit Ukrainian agriculture for their own imperial project.” The filmmaker and scholar Oleksiy Radynskyi in E-flux also employs decolonial lenses to lay bare Russia’s imperial history: “The Russian Federation is an extractivist empire that colonizes and exploits fossil-fuel-rich lands just as it colonizes and exploits its people. In fact, these lands ended up in Russian possession as a result of the brutal extermination of local populations, which was carried out with such ruthlessness that even the basic facts about these massacres have been erased from public knowledge.”
The decolonial framework is fundamental to understand the war, but it is also important to understand the historical marginalization of Ukraine and its culture. As prominent writer Oksana Zabuzhko writes in The Ukrainians (in Ukrainian), “we were perceived as such: a country with no past, no history, no culture, and no traditions…Ukraine existed in Western media only as a periphery of the Western world. Up until 24 February 2024, the state was perceived as a Russian borderland”. She is hopeful that there will be a demand to understand Ukraine and rethink Russo-Ukrainian relationship. For her, culture is the only conduit that allows the outsider to really understand the country: “Culture works on a personal level. When one relates to the main character in a novel or movie, when music is part of one’s own experience, only then can one really understand the country. And not as a problems-ridden postcolonial territory as it is portrayed in the news. It is about an authentic dialogue, exchange of thoughts and messages”. The writer Oleksandr Mykhed is also optimistic in The Ukrainians (in Ukrainian): “The achievement of Ukrainians today is in our ability to lead the narrative, and now the world is learning to talk and see in Ukrainian”.
Apart from metaphors and theoretical frameworks, Ukrainians articulate their experiences by contextualizing the war within the global narrative of the world. The challenges this war brought about – gender discrimination, exacerbation of climate degradation, and even burnout – are not only Ukraine’s problems and thus require a global attention and solution.
In Eurac Research, researcher and migration activist Yuliia Lashchuk argues that the case of Ukraine has exposed old problems that migrant and refugee women have long faced: “Since there is ample evidence that international migration policies are not adapted to the needs of migrant women, today we have the opportunity to change this by demanding a gender-sensitive approach in the formulation of these policies. Such policies must also be inclusive, covering all migrant women regardless of their origin, legal status, skin color, religion, social class, or sexual orientation.”
Darya Tsymbalyuk, a scholar and climate activist, highlights the global character of Kakhovka dam’s destruction by Russia. For her, capitalism, climate change, and Russian invasion are deeply interlinked even if many prefer not to notice this linkage. In Open Democracy, she calls for the environmental organizations to act forcefully in support of Ukraine: “It is not enough to just lobby against fossil fuel extraction; we must recognize that the end of Russian imperialism is key to the struggle for climate justice. Ukrainian environmental activists have spoken about the increase in CO2 emissions caused by the Russian invasion.”
In Dwutygodnik (in Ukrainian/Polish), cultural journalist Daria Badior turns our attention to the issue of “burnout” that seems to be a global response of the generation of millennials to frustration and helplessness they feel in relation to the state of the world. In the Ukrainian context, the burnout stems not only from the genocidal daily attacks that exhaust people but also from the intellectual dead-end many find themselves in. She refers to the historical parallels with the Second World War and the post-war period as reference point to many Ukrainians as they try to envision future justice and reconstruction. The limitations of these comparisons, the realization of how fragile and imperfect the post-WWII world is feeds into general pessimism and tirelessness.
What lies beyond burnout, asks carefully Badior? “In the fourth month of 2023, exhaustion and burnout seem to subside; the horizons of planning narrowed down to the width of our steps. Yet, new abilities opened up: adaptability, flexibility, care and attention to a million of injustices, which took place long before we were born; empathy and mourning, pain and attempts to overcome it”.
This ethnics of care and empathy, in contrast to Russia’s violence and destruction, is another crucial symbolic image that speaks to the global community. Historian Marci Shore emphasized its power in her interview to Suspilne: Kultura (in Ukrainian): “This war is full of symbolic images: Ukrainian soldiers feed the orphaned baby wild pig from a baby bottle; Patron dog lets injured children pet him in the hospital; Serhii Zhadan and his team of volunteers in Kharkiv bring carpets and markers to children, who shelter in the cold subway…This is a powerful paradigm shift: the association of power with kindness and care as opposed to cruelty and violence”. This ethics of care, kindess, and emphathy — shared around the globe — encourages Shore to envision the victory and the pathway for all of us as we encounter global challenges.