On Ukraine’s ‘Incorrect’ Past

The video of a young Georgian “reformer”, Ilo Glonti, appearing before the deputies of the Uzhgorod city council in Zakarpattia in Western Ukraine remains engraved in my memory since I saw it in April 2015. It is a striking example of how foreign advisors try to educate Ukrainian politicians in the art of neo-liberal transformation.

In the video, the 23-year old revolutionary explains to the deputies, who I presume are at least several years older than him, the reason why the heroes of the Euromaidan protests and “tens of thousands” of Ukrainians, Georgians and even Russians died in the civil war on the Eastern front in Ukraine.

They died for freedom, he says in the video, in particular, for freedom from the Soviet past, from ‘Sovok’, the slang term for those Ukrainians who have a nostalgic appreciation of the past of Soviet Ukraine.

At the beginning of the lecture, there are 28 deputies present, out of 60. One can hear talking and noise in the background. The lecturer does not seem to have the undivided attention of his audience. The number of deputies present continues to fall as the speaker arrives to ask a rhetorical question: “How is this session different from a session of 1970? You have smart phones in your pockets, you are driving around in Jeeps. But have you become more open to the people?

“Personally, I do not see it. You are discussing questions important for you–how to distribute the budget. But what to do with the bureaucracy in which you live? What to do with the corruption in which you live? You are here not to distribute a budget. The country is facing a different challenge. Your task today is to kill corruption, to kill bureaucracy, to kill the past, to kill Sovok. Not to continue it.

“I do not know you personally, neither your personal corruption scandals nor what you are busy with, but I am asking you to do the following: to attract investments, to fight corruption, to fight bureaucracy. You can discuss the distribution of money from the budget when the budget is normal. Do you understand this? Only when it is normal can you redistribute this.

“There have been several proposals on privatization. How many buildings have you privatized so far?” And someone replies from the audience: “The people will not allow us.”

The lecturer on neo-liberal reforms continues unabashed: “You will ask me: what is this Soviet Union? The Soviet Union is the redistribution of state property by bureaucrats. This state property does not exist, even in theory, in countries that Ukrainians on Euromaidan fought to emulate –those of the European Union, and the United States. What state property, what investments can you attract? When have you privatized something recently?”

“What have we built recently?” asks somebody from the audience, which begins to rumble. The speaker has to raise his voice, he almost shouts: “Who will build anything here, with all the corruption and bureaucracy?”

The ambiance heats up. The chair intervenes to call to order, with no effect. People are discontent. The lecturer has no choice but to finish his enlightening speech with a wish for Euromaidan to achieve its goals: against corruption, against bureaucracy, and against stealing of other people’s property. By the end of the young Georgian’s talk, only 12 deputies remain in the hall.

What do I see in this short episode? A clear reluctance of Uzhgorod elected officials to listen to the speaker of Euromaidan ideology, the bearer of the mantra of Westernizers: ‘You are bad, you are corrupt, you have too much bureaucracy, you are stuck in your Soviet past. Get rid of it! Privatize! Attract investments! Stop stealing somebody else’s property!’

It is not clear from Ivo Glonti’s speech exactly whose property the people’s deputies are stealing, but it does not matter. In his opinion, the deputies are not doing their job properly, and he came to explain to them what Euromaidan was all about. How would these deputies know otherwise? All they do all day is redistribute money from the budget, exactly as their Soviet predecessors did 50 years ago.

The young Georgian revolutionary seems to be a great expert on the Soviet past. He learned how to assess it from his mentor – the Georgian Kakha Bendukidze, a libertarian, the author of liberal reforms in Georgia. Bendukidze advised Glonti to read Friedrich von Hayek’s ‘Road to Serfdom’, an influential and popular exposition of principles of classical liberalism.

According to Hayek, the central planning of economies by governments will inevitably result in totalitarianism because economic freedom is the basis of all other freedoms of an individual, including the political one. The national socialism of the German Nazis and the socialism of the Soviet Union were a logical end result of the domination of collectivism over individualism, which leads nowhere else but to serfdom.

Where else could a young Georgian libertarian revolutionary end up today if not in Ukraine, where the Euromaidan brought to power neoliberal “reformers” who are surely and efficiently destroying Ukrainian industry and its economy and are impoverishing the population? Georgians who have succeeded in the implementation of the neoliberal Western recipes of free markets and transparent governance are in demand in Ukraine. Former Georgian President Mikhail (Misha) Saakashvili is now the appointed governor of Odessa. Apparently, Ukraine’s new leaders decided there are no qualified, non-corrupted politicians in Ukraine capable of carrying out reforms in Odessa. Ukraine needs homing pigeons to complete the tasks of Herculean proportion, which Ukrainian reformers have failed to accomplish.

Ukraine has been living in reforms for the whole period of its independence. After Euromaidan, its rulers decided they need help. Let us bring on board foreign experts, they said, let them take direct charge of Ukrainian reforms.

The young Glonti used to be a personal assistant of Misha Saakashvili who, in spite of his “impressive” record of transforming Georgia into a showcase of reforms, is wanted in Georgia for embezzlement, abuse of power and politically motivated attacks. Glonti has been in demand in Ukraine, working with several groups on reforms in various ministries. He leads the Club of Young Reformers. He is giving presentations in various cities explaining to seasoned Ukrainian elected officials and bureaucrats how to get rid of the Soviet past which keeps Ukraine stuck in corruption. Except, they seem not that interested in his advice, judging by the video which I described earlier.

I would probably react in the same manner if a person half my age and who does not know me would launch into a conversation with me by saying that whatever I have done so far is not good and that from now on, I have to follow his/her advice.

How does he/she know what I have done and how I have done it? Who is this person to give me haughty advice? A young revolutionary speaking in the name of Euromaidan who is calling on me to shed my ‘Sovok’ past and to carry out the cause of the “revolution” which I did not necessarily support? What if I do not want to condemn my ‘Sovok’ past because I see good in it, not just evil? What if I want to preserve from that past a social state and a social security network? What if I believe that I actually have been doing my work as a people’s deputy and I have served my constituency? I did not just “redistribute” the budget as this young revolutionary expert is telling me.

This is what I see in this video. I see the resistance of non-Euromaidan Ukraine to the passionate call of Euromaidan to destroy the past and to build a whole new neoliberal world. I see the frustration of Euromaidan revolutionaries with this slow, inert post-Soviet Ukraine and its bureaucracy.

Here is another example: a 25-year old Yulia Marushevska, a deputy of Governor Saakashvili, after working for a few months in Odessa’s regional administration, says to a Western journalist: “I feel like sitting down and rewriting this country from scratch”.

Yulia was an active participant of Euromaidan. She is one of the faces of Euromaidan – she recorded a video “address” in English from the demonstrations in Kyiv and posted it on YouTube. The video drew eight million views. Now Yulia is frustrated. This country is so bad that it needs to be rewritten, redone completely. A total remake. Nothing good, nothing. Everything should go to the scrap yard of history, as an old communist adagio goes.

It is so difficult to reform this country, the neo-liberals bemoan. They view the Ukrainian citizen as someone stuck in his/her corrupted old ways. Bribes, kickbacks, black markets, shadow economy. Nothing, nothing good. The whole country needs to be reeducated.

And it is not only the legacy of the Soviet past that the neo-liberals castigate. It is also the legacy of the Byzantine-Orthodox past, which is much more difficult to overcome, as Igor Shevchenko, a Harvard historian and philologist of Ukrainian origin, once said, as reported by the Ukrainian historian Yaroslav Hrytsak. Hrytsak believes that these two pasts are related: “Communism is only flowers, sickening and murderous, but still flowers on a tree, rooted in a more distant past. And this tree can be uprooted solely through deep reforms”.

Hrytsak notes that it is much more important in this regard to institute independent judges than to ban Soviet symbols. In Ukraine, they are doing exactly the opposite: they started with banning the Soviet past and they are not advancing in reforms, while in the countries which have overcome the Communist past, such as Poland, Estonia, and Lithuania, the order of actions was correct: first – the overcoming of the past itself, and then – of its surface manifestations (ibid).

Rewriting, uprooting, reforming… in order to free Ukraine from its Soviet past. The Soviet past is bad. It is totalitarian, it is repressive, it is bureaucratic, it is mendacious. This is how it looks in the Western perspective. But it was also egalitarian, collectivistic, social, idealistic. This is how it looks from the perspective of many who lived in that past or who look to it today for inspiration.

The Donetsk and Lugansk uprisings are to a large extent rooted in that past, as I have written in previous articles. If you tell these people that all that they did so far is bad, that they and their parents lived a lie, they will not understand nor accept what you are saying. You cannot live a normal life if you believe that your past is worth nothing and consists only of pain and suffering.

Russia and Ukraine have gone through dealing with the Soviet past during the glasnost of the 1980s. Truth about the dark side of the Soviet period was revealed, the assessment done. Lenin monuments were toppled in many Russian cities. Many people became saturated with horrifying stories of gulags, famines, and NKVD murders. In Russia, the catastrophic failure of neoliberal reforms under Yeltsin during the 1990s left the vast majority of people impoverished and deeply unsatisfied. And then Vladimir Putin emerged as the answer to this dissatisfaction. The Soviet past, as reflected under Putin, is incorporated into Russia’s present-day, collective identity.

In Ukraine, dealing with the Soviet past was and is more complicated. Ukraine is not Lithuania or Poland. But it is not Russia either. In Ukraine, the duality passes not only through the Europe-Russia cultural and political orientation. It also passes through the attitude towards this Soviet past. For Western Ukraine, integrated into an Eastern European cultural space, the Soviets were invaders and anti-Ukrainian. For Eastern Ukraine, the Soviets were…well, Eastern Ukrainians are Soviets. Of course, this is a simplification. No clear cut demarcation among masses of people exists in reality. Not all of Western Ukrainians condemn the Soviet past, in the same way as not all Eastern Ukrainians want to be part of Russia. But it is legitimate to speak about the majority in both cases. And I am referring not only to the geographical division but also to the symbolical division among Ukrainians.

For Russia, neoliberal reforms were an economic and social disaster. For Poland, they were a success for many. Ukraine is stuck somewhere in the middle. Even with a powerful impulse from the young generation of Ukrainians who have nothing to do with the Soviet past, reforms are stalling. The majority (72%) of Ukrainians after the Euromaidan revolution think that things are going in the wrong direction in the country, according to the national survey conducted in August of 2015 by the Ukrainian Sociological Group “Rating”. The survey was commissioned by the International Republican Institute and funded by USAID. Over 60% of Ukrainians think that the economic situation in Ukraine has worsened significantly and 28% think that it has worsened somewhat (slide 19).

40% of Ukrainians believe that nothing is changing in Ukraine and 32% believe that changes are too slow. An absolute majority of Ukrainians are dissatisfied with the Verkhovna Rada: 49% percent of Ukrainians do not approve at all of its activities. This dissatisfaction is one percent short of the dissatisfaction with the Verkhovna Rada of February 2014, when it was considered to be anti-Maidan, while 35% are “rather dissatisfied” (slide 42).

Prime-Minister Yatseniuk and his Cabinet of Ministers score even worse: 52% of Ukrainians do not approve of them at all while 32% rather do not approve (slide 41). As for President Petro Poroshenko, 33% do not approve his actions at all while 34% “rather do not approve” (slide 40). Overall, Ukrainians are deeply dissatisfied with the state of current affairs and with the country’s governance.

Another interesting set of data pertains to a hypothetical preference of democracy over a prosperous economy. For 13% of Ukrainians, democracy is more important without doubt, and a further 20 % say it is rather important. For 34%, a prosperous economy is rather more important than democracy and for 18% it is definitely more important than democracy (slide 21). Only in Western Ukraine is democracy more important for over half of the respondents, while in the rest of the regions it does not reach even 30% (slide 22). The majority of Ukrainians are not willing to suffer some short term difficulties (such as increase of prices and power rates) so that their life improves only in the long term: 34% are categorically against it and 24% are rather against it, while 26% are rather ready and only 5% are definitely ready (slide 5).

The most recent survey of Ukrainians, conducted by the Kyiv International Institute of Sociology in September of this year, confirms the clear trend of the discontent of ordinary Ukrainians with their political elite: 58.6% assess negatively the work of President Poroshenko against 27.2% who give a positive assessment. Prime Minister Yatseniuk scores even worse: 71.3% of Ukrainians assess him negatively and only 17.3% positively.

The picture that emerges from this data is clear: Ukrainians are dissatisfied with the government, with the president, with the economy, with the reforms, with their own economic situation. The euphoria of Euromaidan is over for many.

The “Revolution of Dignity” of February 2014, as with any revolution, did not involve the majority of the population. A sociological survey, conducted jointly in October of 2014 by the Kyiv International Institute of Sociology and Ilko Kucheriv Democratic Initiatives Fund, shows that only 20% of the population of Ukraine took part in the protest actions of November 2013-February 2014 in Kyiv (Euromaidan). The biggest participation occurred in Western Ukraine, where roughly half of the population was involved in different ways: 7% of its population participated directly in the events on Independence (Maidan) Square in Kyiv, 26% took part in protests in other cities and villages, while 29.5 % helped the protesters.

In the central regions, the participation was much lower: 9.5% took part in protests in Kyiv and 2% in other cities and villages. The participation of Ukrainians from other regions was significantly lower: 2% in the southern regions; 3% in the eastern regions, and 3% in Donbas. The data of non-participation is as follows: western regions – 46.9%; central regions – 80.9%; southern regions – 96.6%; eastern regions – 95.1%; Donbas region – 97.1%. The national level non-participation of Ukrainians in Euromaidan was 81.9%.

After their Euromaidan revolution won (as the officials and media in Ukraine claim), one fifth of ‘revolutionary’ Ukraine started to reform the remaining four fifths. Who are this one fifth? Earlier, I gave an example of the young Yulia. The Euromaidan revolution started from protests of young people against President Yanukovych’s decision to postpone signing of an economic agreement with the European Union. Let us reflect that a new generation of Ukrainians grew up in independent Ukraine. They were educated in Western values and in Ukrainian, not Soviet, history and ideology. They interpret the Soviet past from the point of view, dominant in the West, of it being a totalitarian, repressive regime.

Another example, which I quoted at the beginning of the article, is that of Yaroslav Hrytsak, a prominent Ukrainian historian, who also wants to implement deep reforms in Ukraine in order to get rid of its Soviet past. Most of the leaders of the Ukrainian intelligentsia (at least those who are the most vocal) supported the Euromaidan as a people’s uprising against the usurpation of power and the encroachment on their human rights, for democratization, and for a European choice. In Kyiv, the middle class (many of them businessmen and office workers) supported the Euromaidan by participating directly in the protests on weekends by bringing food, donating money, etc. But it was the political opposition parties of Svoboda, Batkivschyna, and Udar, as well as right-wing paramilitary groups such as Pravyi Sektor, who were the driving force behind the protests and who succeeded in transforming them from spontaneous demonstrations into sustainable, two-month long actions. The flame of people’s dissatisfaction would have been extinguished by itself if these political forces did not maintain the infrastructure on Independence Square in Kyiv.

Now the winners of this revolution are trying hard to strip Ukraine of its Soviet past. Communist ideology has been declared illegal, the streets are being renamed and monuments to Lenin have been falling since the spectacular destruction in December 2013 of the main monument in Kyiv to V.I. Lenin, in front of the Bessarabka market. In the meantime, Ukraine’s economy is in freefall. More and more Ukrainians live under the poverty line while their president feeds them promises of visa-free entry to the European Union and their Prime Minister explains that their lives will not be harmed by a default of the government’s debt, which has effectively already taken place.

Amidst the anti-Soviet hysteria, Ukraine is destroying itself, because the Soviet period is part and parcel of what Ukraine is. Yes, there were peasants’ revolts against the Red Army, there were famines, there were executions of Ukrainian intelligentsia. But there was also victory in the Great Patriotic War, there was the Dnipro Hydro Electric Power Plant, there were lead Soviet rocket engineer and spacecraft designers Koroliov and Antonov, world-renowned film director and writer Mykola Dovzhenko and Ukrainian and Soviet writer and public figure Oles Honchar. By denying the complexity of the past, Ukraine denies a great part of itself. And it hurts to watch this self-destructing Ukraine.

It is a very difficult task to find a way to reconcile Ukraine in one national project—a Ukraine that values the Soviet past, a collectivistic Ukraine, close to Russia; and a Ukraine that hates this past, a Ukraine that wants to be part of European neoliberal democracy. Throughout the years of independence since 1991, Ukraine has been split on the issue of political orientation. Only after Euromaidan, after a continuous barrage of official propaganda on Russian aggression, did the balance shift towards joining the European Union and NATO.

Western-oriented Ukraine would gladly shed the eastern, Russia-oriented Ukraine which shackles European-aspiring Ukraine to its Soviet past. And the frustration of Ukrainian intellectuals over the undesirable Byzantine and Soviet history of Ukraine reminds me of the disappointment of the Russian liberal intelligentsia over Russians’ supposedly servile love of Vladimir Putin.

Ukraine and Russia are similar in many regards. Not because Russia had “occupied” Ukraine since 1654, when hetman Bohdan Khmelnytsky signed the Pereiaslav Treaty with the emissaries of the Russian Tsar Alexi. It is because they share a common origin and history, and because a large part of the modern Ukrainian nation is very close to Russia in mentality and religion. Russians have tried Western recipes of constructing an economy and society. It turned into disaster. Russians also learned that the West has no interest in helping them. The West will trade with them and invest in their economy. But the West does not want or need Russia as an equal. This is the main lesson of neoliberal reforms, learned by Russia.

Ukraine is trying now to follow the same Western neoliberal recipes, and we see the painful results.

Ukraine is not Poland, neither is it Russia. Precisely because of this civilizational duality it is now torn apart. Neo-liberal individualism goes against the collectivistic values of Byzantine and Soviet Ukraine. But the majorities in each of Western-oriented and Eastern-oriented Ukraine aspire to have a strong and just state which would ensure social protection, clear rules of conducting business, a democratic governance and a culture which would preserve both the positive achievements of the Soviet period and of the national liberation movement.

Neo-liberal reforms will never be implemented fully and successfully in Ukraine because this country still remembers the principles and achievements of Soviet socialism. The Ukrainian political elite should listen to its own people and find a way to reconcile these contradictions. Without the solution of this fundamental problem, no national unity will be achieved, no matter how many times politicians sing the national anthem in the Verkhovna Rada and no matter how many hundreds or thousands of Ukrainians march in embroidered shirts and shout “Glory to Ukraine”.

Halyna Mokrushyna, Ph.D., is an independent researcher and journalist. Her research interests include the challenges of the post-Soviet transition in Ukraine; social and economic inequality in the post-Soviet context; historical and cultural divisions within Ukraine; social memory and politics of memory; relations between Russia and Canada and the broader context of the post-cold war world and relations between the East and the West. Her articles on these subjects were published on Counterpunch, Truthdig, and Truthout websites.