James Meek from Kyiv

21 08 2023

Western journalists writing from Kyiv today can at best only provide impressionistic glimpses of a country caught in the passionate everydayness of wartime life. Sometimes these glimpses cohere into a detailed and evocative mosaic. That’s the case with James Meek’s “Every Field, Every Yard,” a piece that takes up six whole pages of the most recent issue of the London Review of Books. The glimpses touch on a lot of things — art exhibitions, reconstruction rave/work parties, language politics, trauma, bombings, corruption, LGBTQ+ issues, interviews with philosophers and activists, et al.

A few snippets:

“One​ of the most striking things about Kyiv this summer is the freedom with which people are imagining, and in some cases already making, their own future. There is a recurring motif in recent Ukrainian history in which entities set up as imitations actually become the thing they were only supposed to pretend to be, beginning with Ukraine’s parliament, a fake Soviet legislature that became a democratic body with real powers and destroyed the country that created it. Volodymyr Zelensky, the actor playing the president, who became the actual president. The Ukrainian army, a crumbling façade in 2013, which ten years later fought the Russian military leviathan to a standstill. St Michael’s church is a replica, built from the ground up in the 1990s to replace the original, blown up by Stalin, but it has in a way become the real thing just by being there. There was a plan in Soviet times to build a Lenin Museum on the site, but they ended up building it on Kreshchatik instead; it’s the building that is now the Ukrainian House. The externally imposed cult of Lenin became a centre of actual culture.

“Ukraine, as a country, and Ukrainian as a language, were never fake, but it was awkward for the patriotic tendency that the Russian language was so dominant in the Ukrainian capital. The Putinists’ inability to distinguish between Ukrainians who habitually use Russian in everyday affairs, who were many, and Ukrainians who wanted to be controlled from Moscow, who were vanishingly few, doomed the invasion. Since then, the use of Ukrainian has surged.”

[. . .]

“What are the ‘European values’ Ukraine aspires to, when its staunchest West European ally [the U.K.] has flounced out of the European Union that Ukraine is desperate to join? One obvious aspect of European values is essentially leftist, a welfare-rooted social contract between capital and labour, but socialism, even social democracy, is all but dead in Ukraine. Mention of the executed renaissance [generation of artists and intellectuals decimated in the Stalinist purges of the 1930s] seldom leads to discussion of the nature of the communism under which it flourished. [. . . N]either the Zelensky nor the Poroshenko camp have ideologies in the usual political sense, just a list of tasks: beat Russia, join Nato and the EU, fight corruption. […]

“Tymofii Brik, a sociologist, rector at the [Kyiv School of Economics…] has carried out research showing that while terms like ‘left’ and ‘right’ don’t have much meaning for ordinary Ukrainians, the country sits overwhelmingly on the traditional left in terms of what it expects of the state, and by a similarly large margin on the more conservative side of the libertarian-authoritarian axis. ‘Ukrainians tend to be very pro-social, caring about the elderly, caring about children, caring about community, believing the state is important, the state should provide us with health, education,’ he told me. ‘It’s just a big part of who we are, of our history and culture over generations. We should accept this as our reality. If you propose some crazy liberal reform, it will not happen, because Ukrainian society will not accept it.’ The seemingly contradictory message given by the country’s high score on the Cynicism Index, a unique feature of Ukrainian sociology, may be resolved by a reality where Ukrainians are communitarian in respect of people they know, but extremely mistrustful of people they don’t. Brik’s positive spin was that this would at least make the country recoil from a homegrown authoritarian leader.”

[. . .]

“In Kyiv I met Alisa Shampanska, a gender-fluid queer anarchist and member of the Ukrainian feminist group FemSolution, which until the invasion took a pacifist, anti-militarist line; Russia’s limited intervention in eastern Ukraine, starting in 2014, didn’t seem to them worth fighting over. Shampanska was in Odesa in the early days of the Russian assault. Overnight they went from being a pacifist to filling sandbags and trying to enrol in the territorial defence force. Their girlfriend lied that she knew how to weld so she could get a job building tank traps. Gradually Shampanska came to the difficult conclusion that one of the country’s most unpleasant social minorities, the queer-bashing ultra-nationalist racists, had been right about one thing all along. ‘All those years, they told us Russia is the main enemy,’ they said. ‘That Russia will attack us, that the Russians don’t give a shit about us and they will come and kill us and we should prepare … at the time I thought yeah, this is populism. And this is bad populism and they are bad for human rights. But about this, they were correct.’”

Read the whole article here.

The ethnopolitics of the Russian invasion

26 03 2022

When people ask “How can this be happening that two such close nations” — “brotherly” or “fraternal peoples,” as it’s often said — “are killing each other?” they are missing a crucial political piece, for which we need new terminology as well as a more complex set of lenses.

It’s helpful to compare this to the break-up of Yugoslavia, where similar questions were asked. To bewildered fellow Europeans, that break-up appeared to release an upsurge of primal, atavistic inter-ethnic violence that was incomprehensible except through the discourse of “Balkanism,” according to which the Balkans have long historically represented everything about Europe that was least European. The reality was more complex, and not all took up the effort to understand it.

The Russian invasion of Ukraine — with its inhuman fanaticism, as witnessed in the horrific assault on Mariupol (see below) and to lesser degrees in Kharkiv and other largely Russian-speaking, eastern Ukrainian cities — risks a resort to something similar, though it’s not exactly the Russophobia some have warned against.

Understanding the invasion requires examining not only the geopolitical and economic factors, which have been well covered in the western (especially left-wing) press, but also the histories and psychologies of imperialism (notably Russian), colonialism (ditto), ethnic chauvinism (especially Russian toward Ukrainians), Sovietization (of the entire Soviet population, but less so in western Ukraine, which experienced it for a shorter period), authoritarianism (Putinism) and its refusal (among Ukrainians), the draw of “Europe” for Ukrainians, and the basic connection to land that many Ukrainians feel “in their bones” even if that connection has been historically denied, if never fully severed, by those imperial/colonial histories.

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We are all tuteishi (or, on not being posthuman)

17 06 2020

Published simultaneously at Immanence

A social media conversation prompted me to dig up something I had written in my notebook years ago after reading Serhii Plokhy’s masterful book on “premodern identities” in Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus. Which in turn prompted me to realize that coronavirus provides an answer to the question I had just finished writing an article about — what it means to be “posthuman” (and why I find that term inadequate).

The question is “who are we?” The answers that have been provided over the centuries fall into three general categories:

  • “We are X” (name your ethnic/national/cultural identity),
  • “We are human” (the modern/modernist answer), or
  • “We are something else (but not X and not exactly just human)” (e.g., animals, Devo, spirits in a material world, cyborgs, posthuman, becoming this or that, blah blah blah).

Here’s my contribution to answering that question.

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Yermolenko: Ukraine as ‘Tabula Rasa’

5 06 2020

New Eastern Europe has published a very interesting interview with philosopher Volodymyr Yermolenko.

A few snippets:

Some countries are ruled by military juntas, Russia is ruled by the KGB and Ukraine, I believe, is in fact ruled by a corrupt conglomerate made up of the judiciary, prosecution and the police. The army in Ukraine has been very weak for a long time and we did not really have intelligence services, so the police and judiciary took advantage of this power void and took over the country. These institutions are successfully reproducing through family ties and thanks to universities such as Odesa Law Academy run by Serhiy Kivalov (former chief of the State Election Commission under President Kuchma and head of the High Council of Justice under President Yanukovych). Unfortunately, reforms aimed at increasing the independence of judiciary encouraged by European institutions have only lead to strengthening of this judiciary and prosecution mafia. These changes were designed in accordance with models supported by the Council of Europe and based on Montesquieu’s idea that a judiciary can only be just if it is independent. However, in Ukraine the independence of the judiciary has simply meant that this corrupt system continues without challenge. As a result we are now in a deep crisis and it is hard to say what we can do about it.

[. . .]

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Ukraine update

1 11 2016

It’s been a while since I posted anything new on this blog. Since I’ve just returned (to western Europe, at least) from a trip to Ukraine, and since I’ve had a few requests to share my impressions, here they are. This is not a scholarly analysis, and it avoids the vigorous debates going on among political and sociological observers — which, from the outside, may appear as “glass half full, glass half empty” polemics. It is just a general overview rooted in my years of visiting this country. 

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Language and ethnicity in Ukraine

18 04 2014

Claims about language and ethnicity in Ukraine, including confusions between the two — for instance, that parts or all of eastern Ukraine are “majority Russian” — still appear in western media reports. Now that Vladimir Putin has proclaimed all of eastern and southern Ukraine “Novorossiya” (New Russia) — that is, “really” part of Russia and not part of Ukraine — these facts become all the more important to understand.

Here are a few maps to help with that.

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Bilaniuk: On Ukrainian civic nationalism

28 03 2014

Linguistic anthropologist Laada Bilaniuk, author of Contested Tongues: Language Politics and Cultural Correction in Ukraine, writes perceptively about the rise of Ukrainian civic nationalism (as opposed to ethnic nationalism) in the wake of the Russian military threat to Ukraine’s borders, here.

This video is an example of many that I myself have come across in Ukrainian social media in recent weeks:

The line — “I never thought of nationality until the present moment. We have no such line in our passports, thank God” — strikes me as a poignant one, since it is this that the Svoboda (Freedom) party would like to introduce. Despite their representation in the current coalition government, however, Svoboda’s support is not very high: their leader Oleh Tiahnybok is polling at 1.7%.



Feygin: Ukraine’s post-Soviet condition

13 03 2014

In “Ukraine is Stuck in a Post-Soviet Condition,” Yakov Feygin provides a very perceptive and interesting analysis of the country’s situation based on the relationship between economic realities and political affiliations.

Some excerpts:

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Kurkov: I’m Russian and I demand removal of Russian troops from Ukraine

2 03 2014

Andrei Kurkov is the leading Russian-language writer and novelist in Ukraine. He writes:

“I’m a Russian. My ancestors settled in Crimea in 1785. Growing up in Crimea, I was nurtured on Russian culture. I think, I talk, and I write in Russian…

“And I want to say this with every fibre of my being: I don’t need any protection. I demand the immediate removal of Russian troops from Ukraine.”

Onuch & Sasse: Lessons in protest

27 02 2014

Oxford University political scientists political scientists Olga Onuch and Gwendolyn Sasse have been analyzing the dynamics of the development of the Ukrainian protest movement, from its first stages through to February 22.

Some of their analysis is reported in this blog in this Washington Post blog article.

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