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.

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