skip to main content

Streets of Rage? Why asking Ukrainians to love their neighbours might show they are still streets apart

By Olena Yermakova and Michael Cole

Source: Youtube

21st April 2020 marked the first anniversary of Volodymyr Zelenskiy’s victory in the Ukrainian Presidential elections. And what an intense first year it’s been. Not only did he get caught up in the middle of Trump’s impeachment proceedings, hold peace talks with Russia, and have to respond to Iran shooting down a Ukrainian plane, but he somehow still managed to find time to organise a major government reshuffle. Then there’s the small matter of the Covid-19 crisis, which Ukraine, like everyone else, is fighting hard to contain. And if all that wasn’t enough to give Zelenskiy a few sleepless nights, someone decided that the middle of a global pandemic was the perfect time to start a forest fire, which got dangerously close to the Chernobyl nuclear reactor and caused clouds of toxic smoke to engulf Kyiv.

Being president on a TV show was a damn sight easier than this.

But while there’s certainly plenty to say about Ukraine’s current predicament, we thought it might be nice to go back in time a little and remember how 2020 kicked off.

Part I: New Year, Old Problems? – An Outsider Looking In (by Michael Cole)

“In Russia there are two problems: the government and the roads” said my friend Ihor, a huge grin appearing on his face. “But in Ukraine, we have three problems: the government, the roads… and Russia!”

Now, clearly Ihor is no comedian, but behind his attempt at irony, there may be more than a hint of truth. And though the quality of some Ukrainian highways does leave a lot to be desired, it is not so much the streets themselves that could drive Volodymyr Zelenskiy’s unifying project off course, but rather their names.

But this is where it gets a bit strange. People don’t generally seem that annoyed about naming a street after a controversial wartime Ukrainian nationalist Stepan Bandera. Nor does it really seem to be big deal that a court has ruled Bandera Prospekt should once again be called Moscow Avenue. But instead, an apparently uncontroversial statement as part of a fairly reasonable New Year speech, seemed to reignite familiar tensions in Ukraine.

So let’s reverse a little and set the scene. It’s New Year’s Eve, one of the most important events in the Ukrainian calendar. Across the country, people gather together with family and friends to celebrate. Many will feast on Olivie salad, cheerfully washing it down with sparkling wine while waiting for Soviet Santa ‘Father Frost’ to put presents under their ‘New Year Tree’. And, as the clock strikes midnight, all eyes are usually fixed on one programme: the President’s New Year Speech.

In this regard at least, Ukraine is not that different from Russia, where the President’s speech is considered by some to be one of the TV highlights of the year. In the age of Netflix and TV on-demand, this might seem a little strange, especially to Brits, even though millions of us gather round the box to endure Her Majesty the Queen’s Christmas Message whilst digesting copious amounts of Christmas turkey and brussels sprouts. I guess some traditions just seem to endure.

But, in contrast to Britain, in the former USSR, what happens in these speeches can actually be of great significance. Lest we forget, it was during the speech on New Year’s Eve 1999 that Boris Yeltsin shocked viewers by announcing he was standing down as Russian President. He then took the opportunity to hand over the reins to the, then relatively unknown, Vladimir Putin. Putin introduced himself to the nation by vowing to uphold a whole range of personal freedoms. So, what I’m saying is, it can be a little bit more important than listening to Her Majesty the Queen talk about challenges to come whilst half of Britain regrets going for a second helping of Christmas pudding.

And so as a new decade began, with the nation’s gaze fixed upon him, comedian-cum-leader Volodymyr Zelenskiy appeared on millions of screens. The Ukrainian President delivered the speech that he hoped would not only sum up the events of the previous twelve months, but also set the tone for the coming year. I have to admit, I didn’t see it live, but watching his speech the next day, I thought it hit the nail on the head. Zelenskiy used the occasion to repeat some of the key themes of his election campaign, and the successful comedy series ‘Servant of the People’ that projected him into the national consciousness as a viable candidate to run the country.

The gist of it was ‘We are all Ukrainians’ no matter where we are, what language we speak at home or how we go about our daily lives’. No one could possibly disagree with that, right? Well, welcome to Ukraine. 

Zelenskiy rode to power with a landslide victory against then-President Petro Poroshenko last spring. And, from the outside he seems to be saying all the right things. Pointing to Ukraine’s oft-mentioned, but rarely championed ethnic, religious, cultural and linguistic diversity, he called for people to embrace, rather than dwell on these differences. ‘We are all Ukrainians’ was the rallying cry. To me, at least, it reads like a brilliantly written speech, acknowledging the divisions in Ukrainian society, but saying “So what? That makes us Ukrainian and that’s a good thing.” But I’m not the target audience, or at least I shouldn’t be. And that’s why Zelenskiy’s speech matters, because it didn’t go down in Ukraine as well as I thought it would. So, what happened?

Part II: The Speech – Beginner’s Guide To Populist Style  – The View From Inside Ukraine (by Olena Yermakova)

Zelenskiy’s New Year’s speech seemed to demonstrate exactly what won him the elections: his left-populist messages and his creative way of delivering them. His team made a very elaborate video involving celebrities, footage of real-life events and staged clips. Zelenskiy made a point of speaking simple language without professional jargon, and always presenting himself as one of the people. He spoke Ukrainian as well as Russian, and appealed to minorities in their languages, Crimean Tatar and Hungarian. And as a true populist, he appealed to emotion throughout the entire speech, leaving many viewers in tears.

He asked people to answer for themselves one question “Who am I?”, and after naming a bunch of different occupations, social backgrounds, regions of origin, native languages, religions, appearances, even zodiac signs, he came up with a common denominator: “This is every one of us. This is Ukrainians. Just the way we are.” Recognising the differences but normalising them he adds: “In our passport, it doesn’t say “proper” or “improper” Ukrainian. There is no line saying “patriot”, “maloros”, “vatnik”, “banderivets” [pejoratives for unpatriotic Ukrainians and nationalists]. It just says “citizen of Ukraine”.

Here Zelenskiy alludes to political tensions within Ukrainian society that have escalated since 2014. Since the occupation of Crimea and the start of the war with Russia, in an attempt to save the country’s territory and statehood, a mass surge in patriotism has taken place. After the 2014 Ukrainian Revolution, all the problems, tensions and divisions that Ukraine ever had, that were previously swept under the carpet, have come up to the surface. This has created a strong need for Ukraine to somehow reinvent itself and consolidate. In such a big and diverse country, a patchwork of various cultural-historic regions inherited from various empires, with different languages and religions, the question of identity was hard to address and just easier to ignore. Until it became a matter of survival. In the political climate of 2014, battling against Russian aggression, the then newly-elected Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko’s administration had taken a decision to go big on identity politics, Ukrainianness, which was in vogue after the revolution. They focused their politics, as well as identity-(re)building efforts, on distancing from Russia — the classical antagonistic identity-making. The results, as usual, became a double-edged sword. The high patriotic spirits led the volunteering movement and civilian efforts of fundraising for the army thereby preventing further invasion. However, it has had many side effects. Just like in any right-wing populist message, “the people”, in this case the Ukrainians, were very narrowly defined by Poroshenko. The notion excluded a number of “improper” Ukrainians who became peer-pressured or occasionally even bullied to conform to the new norm — Ukrainian language, Ukrainian church, pro-Ukrainian political views. Just like Poroshenko’s 2019 election slogan — “Language, Faith, Army”. The problem was that in fact, the majority of Ukrainians are “improper”, which is probably among the reasons why he lost the 2019 elections 25% to 73%. 

Zelenskiy’s messages have always been the opposite — still populist, but inclusive left-populist. He decided to continue with matters of identity building, but take a completely opposite approach, rejecting the whole business of identity politics and Ukrainianisation, and promoting the notion of civic nationalism instead.       

“So how can we, so different, live on together?”

“Do we separate ourselves with high fences? Someone has convinced us that our differences matter. What if this is not so? Think about it, don’t we have a lot that unites us?” His message of inclusivity and celebrating diversity basically reiterates the slogan of the EU — “United in Diversity”. “In the new year we need to be one country every day. This needs to become our national idea.To learn to live together in respect. For the future of our country”. This is where his goal manifests itself vividly — to unite the divided and polarised country by forgetting past quarrels for the sake of a peaceful future. 

Part III: Patriotic Outrage 

The highway to hell is paved with good intentions. But it doesn’t matter, because it is paved and lit.

Because we imagine [the future] in the same way Ukraine as a successful and prosperous country, where there is no war. The country that has returned its people and its territories. Where it doesn’t matter how the street is named because it is paved and well lit. Where there is no difference next to which monument you are waiting for the girl you love.

And this is what caused the patriotic outrage on social media. The two sentences towards the end about streets and monuments. To briefly give context, after the Revolution of Dignity, the so-called decommunisation process began. In an attempt to get rid of Soviet heritage, associated with Russia, and reinvent itself, Ukraine started substituting Soviet-era street names and monuments. The entire issue with all its complexities and controversies was a huge topic in public discourse. 

Therefore, the President basically saying what’s the difference?, has triggered some hard feelings. In the first days of 2020 there was a storm of negative reactions under hashtags #какаяразница or #какаяразніца (meaning, what’s the difference). A lot of people thought that the President took his denial of identity politics one step too far. Many public intellectuals protested Zelenskiy’s intentions, saying that a nation is a community of values, and heritage and memory politics is the way to define and preach those values. To give a few examples. Svyatoslav Vakarchuk, a major Ukrainian rock star and leader of Holos (Voice) party released  a poem in response to the President’s speech, where he says that for him there is a difference, basically claiming Zelenskiy’s ideas to be naive. Valeriy Pekar, a businessman and activist, has published a blog, where he says that modern nations are based on common ethics and aesthetics, which in turn are based on symbols. He claims that the President’s idea to unite the country on the basis of having the same passports is not enough and will only further divide Ukraine, as it doesn’t answer the key question ‘why are we together’.

After the Revolution, Ukraine has had a very active civil society and it is nice to see that the public understands the importance of memory politics. In fact, unfortunately, they understand it better than the President does. It is also good to see that the people keep an eye on the authorities, not letting them slip even for a second. However, some critics of the President also took it a step too far. 

Amid the hateful reactions and comments about  the President, which is hardly unusual or surprising, I was disturbed to find very hateful reactions towards those, supporting the President or his views. This is where the true tension and danger lies — deeper and deeper polarisation of society, as well as the arrogance of the elites and no tolerance for pluralism of opinions. Demokratychna Sokyra (Democratic Axe), a new right wing party, sometimes described as a party of trolls, has posted a video response to the President’s speech. “We don’t want to live either on Hitlerstrasse, or on Lenin street. Even if they are as good as German autobahns”. They accuse Zelenskiy of not understanding the point of national identity. Apart from street names, they focus also on the part of the speech about Ukrainian passports, and say that in fact there is a big difference between “patriots” and “vatniks”, contesting Zelenskiy’s claim that all Ukrainians are equal and ‘proper’. “Yes, all Ukrainians are different. But this is not a reason to put an equals sign between them.” They tell a story of Volodymyr Rybak, who was murdered as a result of protesting Ukrainian flag being taken down in Horlivka, Donbas region. “You see, Volodymyr Rybak was a very intolerant person, he didn’t tolerate invaders and separatists. For him, symbols did matter. For him, national identity did matter.” They conclude that both Rybak and some of the people torturing him had Ukrainian passports, but the job of the President is to treat them differently. “A patriot is better than a vatnik”. 

While it is hard to argue with the concrete example of murderers and their victims being equal on moral grounds, I would like to draw attention to their general point, which can be put as the intolerance of tolerance. Ironically, this is a popular idea among Putin’s regime supporters in Russia, who see tolerance as weakness and equality as absurd. 

This patriotic rage, as I call it, is arguably a result of Poroshenko’s five years of identity politics, which some called Ukrainisation. 

What next? 

While it is admirable that Ukrainian civil society is so conscious, the fear of tolerance and ever growing polarisation are quite disturbing. Ukraine is indeed a very diverse country, and equally diverse are its political voices and successes. Which one will come next, a nationalist or an egalitarian, or something else entirely, remains to be seen.

[“This research is part of a project that has received funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under grant agreement No. 765224.”]