Well it’s time for one of those posts, the kind that gets me shot in the back people on my own side. Yes, it’s time for another frank discussion about Ukrainian politics.
In order to stave off immediate accusations of ZRAAAADAAAAA!!! (treason), let me first state that I felt very positive throughout my most recent trip to Kyiv. I had many good interactions with the locals, and I am extremely grateful to Yevhen Fedchenko, dean of Kyiv Mohyla Academy’s school of journalism and co-founder of Stopfake, for inviting me to speak to a group of journalism students who have begun a master’s program. This was my first opportunity to directly address a group of young, civic-minded Ukrainians, and though it was entirely improvised I felt we had a good rapport. Their concerns and ideas were very interesting for me to hear.
As I suspected before the talk, there was some concern about entering the field of journalism given the political climate in Ukraine right now. Prior to my arrival the region was shocked by the apparent assassination of veteran journalist Pavel Sheremet. A couple days later, the office of the broadcaster Inter became the target of an arson attack that was clearly politically motivated. Whereas American parents might express concern about their sons or daughters enlisting in the military, I get the feeling that becoming a journalist in Ukraine may be considered as dangerous as joining the military. In some ways it is more dangerous; at least in the Ukrainian army you have a weapon with which to defend yourself and your assailants have uniforms.
Naturally when it comes to the topic of the Inter attack, people are going to inevitably call the station out as pro-Kremlin. There is certainly some truth to this claim, but the attack is still inexcusable. There are other, legal ways to counter any actual pro-Kremlin messages being broadcast by Inter. The continued attacks on journalism in Ukraine, often carried out with total impunity, closely resemble what we’ve long observed happening in Russia to independent media voices.
Of course the idea that Ukraine is controlled by some kind of fascist regime is nothing but laughable propaganda, but this does not mean the country does not have a problem with far right extremism. It might be easy for the much larger segment of Ukrainian society to ignore something like an attack on Inter, but they do so at their own peril. I have more than enough experience with far-right movements to know that their definition of “patriotism” shifts rapidly and radically. So much so, in fact, that such groups often end up fighting among themselves.Today you may think yourself safe because you don’t express “pro-Russian” opinions in public, but that is not really up to you to decide; as is the case in Russia, the self-proclaimed “patriots” make that call. You may give them a pass for fighting for Ukraine, but what will you do when they decide you’re responsible for their inability to achieve victory? If that time should come, you’ll regret giving such people the leeway to determine what is good for Ukraine.
Another key thing I must remind those who supported Maidan is that you claimed that your revolution was about dignity, freedom, rule of law, and bringing Ukraine into 21st century Europe. If you supposedly chose the West over Russia, why, concretely is Russia bad? Is it because freedom of speech, the press, and assembly are basically a joke in that country? Is it because self-proclaimed patriots, often with the blessing of people in government, are allowed to harass dissidents at will? Is it because there is no rule of law but instead a system where connections open all doors? Is it because the state promotes hateful xenophobia and a myth of Russian superiority? If you agree that these are indeed good reasons to want to escape the Russian orbit, please do explain how the very same behaviors and ideas which you find so repugnant in Russia are somehow tolerable if not desirable in Ukraine. Essentially this is what I’ve gathered from Ukraine’s self-proclaimed “patriots” over the past couple years. Russia is labeled as backward, yet the very same things that make her backward will somehow boost Ukraine into the future.
Naturally someone will say, “But Ukraine is at war! This is a hybrid war in which propaganda plays a great role!” This is true, but to those who use that argument I can say two things. First, propaganda does play a large role in this war, but the greatest propaganda is practice. You can tell people you want freedom, that your society is freer than that of your opponent, or you can actually build that society and let people experience it for themselves. Until people both inside and outside of Ukraine can honestly say it has freedom of speech, freedom of press, and rule of law, Russia’s propaganda machine will happily proclaim that Ukraine’s Maidan revolution has accomplished nothing, and that Ukraine is no better than Russia when it comes to individual freedoms. And it pains me to admit it, but so far they’re mostly right.
The other thing I would say in response to those who raise the war card or say that Ukraine “has the truth on its side” is simply- so what? As I told those students last week, simply being morally right does not mean you’ll succeed or that justice will be handed to you on a silver platter. This is a lesson I’ve had to learn the hard way several times in my own personal life, and it applies here as well. Yes, it is unfair that Ukraine should grant freedom of speech and freedom of press to outlets or individuals who occasionally voice support for the aggressor nation, particularly considering how such dissenting voices are suppressed and harassed by that nation’s government. It also might seem unfair that Ukraine should face criticism for the continued use of far-right wing paramilitary groups while Russia’s neo-Nazi volunteers are rarely mentioned. It is unfair, but then again, so is life. If Ukraine is to succeed it must hold itself to a higher standard. It is simply not enough to say that it is different from Russia, it must actually be different. So often people look only at the military side of the current conflict without giving any thought whatsoever to the political side.
For Ukraine to be a smaller version of Russia with a perpetual frozen conflict is the path of least resistance. Tribalism and crude “patriotism” can be uplifting and simplify a complicated world. By contrast, building not a Little Russia but rather a free Ukraine is complex, counter-intuitive, and humbling. But whereas nationalist posturing and ego-stroking is akin to sitting around and masturbating, working towards a truly free Ukraine is like training for the Olympics. It takes time and it’s tiring, even painful, but you emerge from it stronger.