About Things Certain and Uncertain

September 5, 2014
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About Things Certain and Uncertain

On February 22nd of this year, my friend and I met a Catholic priest from Maidan in the subway.  That is, he was a “Catholic priest from Maidan” on February 22nd. I knew him before as a “priest from Facebook.”

We spoke with the “priest from Maidan” about Yanukovych’s ousting and exchanged smiles, looking at the armored vests: ours under the jackets and his over the soutane. The “priest from Maidan” had been standing on stage for a couple of days before, granting absolution to the wounded, when the fire line literally approached it. He really needed an armored vest.

The “priest from Facebook” used to be a harsh supporter of the ban on abortions. I don’t remember his position concerning same sex marriage, but I can imagine it. The “priest from Facebook” and I held dramatically opposing views on life and death. Yet I believe that the “priest from Maidan” and I might have eventually agreed on life and death, if we didn’t have to get off the train.

It seems that the dichotomy between being “from Facebook” and being “from Maidan” didn’t exist for him and existed only for me. This example is not unique; it’s rather characteristic of our epoch. The challenge we face today is not only a hybrid war, but also a hybrid peace. Under such a peace almost nothing is certain enough to rely upon, and only a few things are undoubtedly certain. Hybrid peace transforms our lives into a series of paradoxes.

Sometimes we are annoyed with updating the software we use. What we, users, see as a discomfort and the fault of the developers is, in fact, an inherent characteristic of the system, the scope and complexity of which we do not see and cannot comprehend in most cases. It’s impossible to avoid failures in complex systems, but they are constantly sought for, in particular, by “bad guys.” However, the majority of users are unaware of that. Periodical updates is a feature of any healthy system, and in case of our computers it is a component of our security.  

Similarly, we are unable to overview and assess the complexity of causes and consequences in large social transformations. We stand too close to see the whole picture. One cannot stand at the ground zero of an uprising and make valid generalizations about it. As with software, our conventions require constant update. Someone is angry at soccer fans and “street radicals”; nevertheless, if not for their actions on January 19 on the Hrushevsky Street, I might not be writing these lines now or I would write them in emigration (an optimistic scenario). Someone may be angry with “bystanders”; nonetheless, if thousands of “bystanders” had not come over from the Maidan and backed the “radicals,” from the Dynamo stadium to the European Square in Kyiv, I might not be writing these lines today, either.

Therefore, one of the most important lessons of Maidan is to learn not to judge others, as we almost never have sufficient and full information for that. For example, not to judge the well-dressed people in restaurants, when you see them on your way to the Maidan, wearing your ski suit that you have not taken off for a month or so – because you don’t know whom these people are rescuing from pretrial detention facilities, speaking on their mobile phones in that restaurant, how much fuel they have donated to Maidan today, or how much money they transferred to the activists. That is, how many people they have warmed, fed, treated and saved. Back then, in the winter, we saw how those who accumulated wealth using the corrupt system were giving their money away for the victory over the system. We saw how people who have never attended any rallies were rescuing their next one from “Berkut” police with nothing but their bare hands. How people who have never spoken Ukrainian in their life proudly call themselves “banderites.” How people who have so far been simple bystanders all their lives – panel games, karaoke at corporate party, more or less moderate payoffs – become heroes.

And then the war began and everything got even more complicated. At some point it seemed that experience is the only reliable point of reference, and this approach was very tempting. For example, in the winter, we were getting angry at kindhearted Western Europeans who were sincerely in awe at why we couldn’t just file a petition to ask Yanukovych to leave amicably, instead of throwing Molotov cocktails at the police who are also our fellow citizens! “You know, our police are so terribly brutal, too!” they said.

We had to realize that the most extreme experience of such well-wishers has been smoking a joint or a drinking party in their dorm. Realizing that made it easy to breathe and relax, and to calmly explain the experience of Vradiyivka and the role of police in the life of Ukrainians.1 Nothing personal, people have the right not to understand it: it’s a unique development, and a unique combination of circumstances. Assuming distance allows to react in a calm way to misunderstandings, indifference and sometimes even to doctrine preaching. Experience also separates us forever. Experience of Maidan, especially of its last days in February, has separated those who were there and those who weren’t. Experience of those who were in the area of the Anti-Terrorist Operation (ATO) has forever separated them from those without such an experience.

Sooner or later, it will all end. The most absurd thing right now would be to make forecasts and plans. However, some things are certain (unless there will be a nuclear winter).

Firstly and most importantly, sooner or later, people will return from the East, people with guns and knowledge how to use them, with losses and post-traumatic disorder. People with a unique experience.   

Yet no experience saves you from mistakes. No experience enables you to always make correct conclusions, or even to adequately interpret the surrounding reality. Heroes make mistakes. Widows and victims make mistakes. Everyone makes mistakes. However tempting the idea of delegating the notions of good and evil to the veterans might be, it’s still an infantile position. A courageous warrior may not understand macroeconomics, and the sense of justice trained under the extreme conditions can prove fatally erroneous when applied to utility bills. 

My profession allows me to claim with confidence that reading a vast number of books does not always make people wiser, however paradoxical it might sound. Lately I also came to believe that even the most extreme trials do not always allow for unfailing correct distinction between good and evil. Even those who looked the death in the face could be wrong in their judgments.

Today, I read moving texts full of compassion for the residents of the ATO zone regions which conclude that we only have to show them that we are neither beasts nor fascists: if everyone just saw that, everything would be fine. Ethically impeccable and absolutely unrealistic! Communication “eye-to-eye” in groups over 150 is generally problematic. I read about a negotiator who pulls people out of captivity, but the combination of other circumstances – from his past to his dubious climbing up the military ladder – is crying out, “FSB”.2 There will always be a counterargument to it – testimony of the witnesses, his result (saved captives). It seems there is nothing certain to rely on, yet again.

I see only one way out of these painful contradictions. If we think in categories of the current moment, here and now, the particular lives saved, then we should consistently stick to the extent of the compromise, without extending it to larger contexts. An FSB officer can be saving some people but, surely, he cannot be determining our everyday agenda. He doesn’t get to teach us what is right and what is wrong, and how we should manage our affairs in Ukraine. Otherwise all of us would be taken hostage, not only those held in the dungeons by the terrorists right now. I understand that I am exposing myself to criticism, but even those whom we can supposedly trust may – and have the right to – be deceived and mistaken, make incorrect conclusions and bring unfair accusations.

It is hard to argue against heroes, without having realized before and – most importantly – without having agreed with each other that to argue against them does not mean to dishonor them. It would require not only a separation of judgment from emotion – something even citizens of more replete and safe countries seldom achieve – but also the ability to resist reproaches that start with “you there, behind the front line…”

This brings me back to the second thing that is undoubtedly certain: This war is revenge for our chance for success, for the fact that the world – perhaps for the first time – looked at us in admiration.

This is not a war for territory. Clearly, while “Crimea-is-ours” warms the imperial soul, Putin does not need Sloviansk – he needs Kyiv. That does not necessarily mean Russian tanks in the Maidan. It rather means return to the previous arrangements, where Kyiv is a city of Kremlin puppets and of amusing gawky “khokhols”3 who even start celebrating the New Year one hour earlier, “at Moscow time.” The largest threat for Putin and his regime is a Kyiv with competent institutions, global ambitions, friendly environment, transparency and effectiveness. Even those in Russia who seem sympathetic towards us today like seeing us as a victim, an object: “there lay bloodstained unconscious Ukraine, and Crimea is sticking out of her handbag.”4 They did not forgive us our chance for success, nor will they forgive us our success in the future. There will be the dirtiest and most devious attacks on our consciousness, trust, and infrastructure; there will be intimidation, populism and intrigues. “Hawks” will do everything for us to fail; “doves” will anticipate our fall with a sweet foretaste.

To be successful as a country is not less important than to defuse an attack. In categories of revenge for the fallen, the war is taking place not only on the front line, but equally in air-conditioned offices. It is more important today to allow yourselves and your loved ones to be successful, to appreciate their contribution to the country’s success than to blame others for leading a peaceful life despite warfare elsewhere in the country. To be successful is a matter of honor. Let the perpetrators choke on their bile.

Translation edited by Oleh Kotsyuba.

  • 1.Editor’s Note: The village of Vradiyivka in Mykolaiv region in Southern Ukraine became notorious in the summer of 2013 when the local authorities and police tried to cover up the gang raping of Iryna Krashkova, a 29 year old resident of the village. When the corrupt court refused to arrest the policemen (one of them the nephew of a regional prosecutor, the other one a police captain) recognized by Krashkova as the perpetrators, mass actions of civil disobedience erupted in the village leading to a storming of the police station by local residents. The perpetrators were also accused of being involved in another case of rape and murder of the 15-year-old high school student Alina Porkul in 2011. Protest rallies in support of Vradiyivka residents took place in other regions of Ukraine in the summer of 2013, from Simferopol in the Crimea to Ivano-Frankivsk in the West of the country. Political observers believe that the Vradiyivka case had a significant impact on triggering the protest actions in the fall of 2013 that eventually led to the “Revolution of Dignity” in Ukraine.
  • 2.Editor’s Note: Abbreviation “FSB” refers to the Russian secret service (Federal Security Service), a successor to the Soviet KGB which inherited its personnel and methods.
  • 3.Editor’s Note: “Khokhol” (Russian: хохол) is a historic pejorative term for Ukrainians in Russian, especially in the imperial context of Ukrainian vs. “Great-Russian” identity and the alleged inferiority of Ukrainian language and culture to that of the "Great Russians." The term later evolved to denominate Ukrainians who obediently, although not always consciously, accept and internalize the imperial idea of Russian superiority and thus act against their own national and political interest.
  • 4.Editor’s Note: A quote from the concluding paragraph of a controversial interview (in Russian) by the Russian journalist Alexandr Nevzorov, known for his pro-Soviet stance (Nevzorov supported use of violence by the Soviet authorities during Vilnius Massacre of 1991) and as founder of the pro-Soviet “Nashi” movement (the name was later recycled by the pro-Putin youth movement “Nashi” that bears resemblance with the Soviet Komsomol and Hitlerjugend youth organizations). In his interview for Fontanka, Nevzorov suggests that the conflict in the East of Ukraine was created to distract both Ukraine and the West from the act of “marauding” the Crimea from “wounded” Ukraine which had “little use” for it. He implies that, while the tactics of such a hybrid war are questionable, it serves the purpose of preventing a full-scale war between Ukraine and Russia to regain control over the Crimea. Such a war would have desastrous consequences for Russia, Nevzorov believes, thus the conflict in Donbas is justified by the possible disintegration of Russia as a result of a potential full-scale war with Ukraine.
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