We are fighting for the right to have a future

Historian Khromeychuk on Putin's invasion

English version of »Wir kämpfen für das Recht, eine Zukunft zu haben«, Der Spiegel, 23 March 2022.

Ignorance, prejudice, naivety: the West helped prepare the ground for Putin's war, says Ukrainian historian Olesya Khromeychuk. Before he died in action in the Donbas in 2017, her brother Volodya warned her that the war would escalate.

On 24 March 2017, my life was turned upside down. At around 6pm Kyiv time, a piece of shrapnel ended my brother’s life. It happened in Luhansk region, 2,000 miles away from London.

A couple of hours later, around 6pm London time, I was standing on Trafalgar Square waiting for a friend from Kyiv to take him for a drink. He was on a brief visit in the UK. It was a Friday night, the pubs were busy, but London felt uneasy: we had just experienced a terrorist attack two days prior which resulted in 6 deaths as a man drove his car into pedestrians on Westminster Bridge. When we met, I asked my friend if he was okay: a terrorist attack is not the best way to welcome a visitor. He said he was fine. He said he didn’t feel much these days. One of his jobs in Kyiv was translating Ukrainian news stories into English. ‘When you spend days translating texts about war casualties you get used to it’, he told me.

We had our drink, talked about Ukraine, mostly about cinema—his specialty—he gave me tips on which of the numerous new Ukrainian films not to miss and which not to waste my time on. I went home and thought I must phone my brother tomorrow. I had spent the whole of Friday with my phone in my hand planning to ring him and see how he was getting on at the front, but something kept getting in the way. Speaking to my friend from Kyiv really made me want to hear my brother’s voice. ‘I’ll call him tomorrow’, I said to myself before going to sleep.

But there was no tomorrow, at least not for my brother. Around 6pm Kyiv time on Friday 24 March, my brother Volodya was killed by shrapnel in Luhansk region, 2,000 miles away from London. I didn’t know it at the time. I learnt it the following day, the day on which I planned to call him and ask him how he was getting on at the front.

In the last phone call he made—I know this from talking to his friend—he was planning his leave, which was meant to start in a couple of days. The planning was interrupted by blasts and my brother’s cry ‘suka! bliad’!’ (meaning something like ‘shit, fuck’). And then the line went dead.

In one of my last phone conversations with Volodya, I asked him when his leave was coming up: ‘sometime in the spring’ he said. Adding ‘if I live’. ‘Don’t say that! Of course, you’ll live!’ I said the obvious thing one says in a situation like this even if one has no confidence in one’s words. ‘You don’t get it, mala, do you’, responded my brother. He like to remind me that I was his little – ‘mala’ – sister. He told me that the way he saw it, the war in Donbas, was just a start of a much larger war, a European war. ‘You’re smart, you’re a historian, but you don’t get it.’ I didn’t get it. I didn’t want to get it.

On 24 February 2022, five years less one month since my brother’s death, my life was turned upside down again. At 5am Kyiv time, Putin’s army began a full-scale invasion of Ukraine. It was 3am in London and I was still working on an article I promised to submit to a London paper but got delayed with the text because I had been at a protest outside of the Russian Embassy. I finished the draft and was about to go to bed but, in my anxious state—we had all been waiting for something to happen—I thought I’d check my Twitter feed one last time. The feed was filled with tweets starting with a lighting symbol. They were reporting explosions. ‘It started’, tweeted people who were based in Ukraine. In a video clip, a CNN correspondent, one of a small army of foreign reporters sent to Ukraine in anticipation of the invasion, looked visibly shaken: ‘I tell you what, I just heard a big bang right here behind me’, he said live on TV. Immediately behind him was the beautiful bell tower of Kyiv’s St Sophia; the explosion was still some distance away.

My hands shaking, I dialled the number of my closest friend, who had left London a couple of weeks earlier. She had said she couldn’t just sit and doomscroll in her London home, and went back to Ukraine. I woke her and told her that the war had begun. Again. This time the sort of war my brother had warned me about. The sort he could see from the trenches, but I refused to see from the comfort of my still-peaceful life.

I sat in front of my laptop watching the invasion unfold in front of my eyes. Quite literally. Videos depicting blasts appeared one after another: professional correspondents’ reports were mixed among ordinary Kyivans’ footage from their windows. ‘Suka! Bliad!’’ were among the most common words in these amateur reports of a brutal aggression.

Three weeks on, in the West, we continue to watch Russian troops shell hospitals, kindergartens, schools, universities on our TV and laptop screens. As we observe civilians, including some of our academic colleagues flee into safety and others take up arms or resist in other ways, as we get the news of students getting killed either in attacks on residential areas or at the frontline, I can’t help but wonder how we got here, how the ground was prepared for this attack, what we could have done to prevent it. Even more importantly, I keep thinking what we can do now and in the future.

Putin has one of the largest armies in the world, but he has other weapons too. Culture and history take a prominent place in his arsenal. And if the missiles are directed at the Ukrainian people, weaponised culture and history have been effectively targeting us in the West for some time.

For example: every trip to a gallery or museum in London with exhibits on art or cinema from the USSR reveals deliberate or just lazy misinterpretation of the region as one endless Russia; much like the current president of the Russian Federation would like to see it. The curators have no problem presenting Jewish, Belarusian or Ukrainian art and artists as Russian. On a rare occasion when a Ukrainian is not presented as Russian, he or she might be presented as ‘Ukrainian-born’, as was the case with the film director, Oleksandr Dovzhenko, in one of the major exhibitions on revolutionary art in London.

Another problem is the Second World War. Whether in popular television programmes or history books on university syllabi, journalists and authors continue to speak of ‘the Russians’ who defeated Hitler on the Eastern Front and ‘the Russians’ who suffered from Nazi occupation. One quick look at a map depicting war-time Europe is enough to see that no more than 5% of Soviet Russia was occupied by the Nazis. That is not to diminish the suffering of the Russians in WWII which was undoubtedly great. It is to remember that the entirety of Ukraine and Belarus were occupied. The very countries that Russia terrorises today and claims as part of its ‘sphere of influence’. The phrase ‘sphere of influence’ was bounced around in the media prior to Russia’s full-scale attack on Ukraine and there were plenty of commentators who made no connection to the ghost of the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact that had already split Europe into spheres of influence once before.

The list of similar examples could go on. Many Ukraine experts have spent their careers pointing out the ubiquitous basic errors about Ukraine in academic discourse and the popular imagination, risking being perceived much like an ‘angry woman’ who constantly criticises patriarchy in a room full of men who do not understand what her problem is.

Misreading Ukraine and misunderstanding Russia is a choice. Educating ourselves, checking our own knowledge of that part of the world and correcting our prejudices implies further action. It would mean we would have to speak up against the Russian-centric view of eastern Europe, a view that is uncritical of Russia’s neo-imperialism. It would mean not only writing critical reviews of inadequately curated exhibitions on ‘Russian Avant-Guard’, or the ‘Russian Revolution’, it would also mean changing reading lists, teaching curricula, expanding ‘Russian and Eurasian Centres’ to actually include the study of the region beyond Russia in a meaningful way, and to seek funding for this. It would mean establishing connections with Ukrainian universities, dealing with bureaucratic, humiliating and costly visa applications for scholars and students.

When Russia occupied Crimea, disapproval of Putin’s disregard for international law was softened by the question ‘but wasn’t Crimea sort of Russian anyway?’ This betrayed a profound misunderstanding not only of Ukrainian history, but of that of the Crimean Tatars. It meant choosing not to see that the Crimean Tatars, who had been deported by Stalin in 1944, had also been being persecuted by Putin since 2014. It meant choosing not the see the link between the two attacks on the indigenous population of the peninsula.

When Russia attacked Donbas, initial indignation was quickly lessened by the question ‘but they are all Russian speakers there, aren’t they’? It took the shelling of civilians for the world to realise that the ‘Russian World’ where Russian speakers are ‘protected’ by Putin actually looks like Kharkiv: destroyed by Russian missiles. It took the attack on Russophone Ukrainians to hear their voice: a voice in Russian, telling a military Russian ship, the Russian troops, and the Russian president where to go.

A failure to grasp Ukrainian bilingualism was particularly evident in monolingual cultures throughout the world, despite the fact that Putin’s equation of Russians and Russian speakers is as absurd as suggesting that the Irish and the Australians, or Canadians are basically English because they all speak English. Or that the Austrians and the Germans are basically German. But let’s not make that parallel, because it’s poor taste, isn’t it?

And when the Russians used the terminology of the Second World War to define their imperialist attack on Ukraine and labelled Ukrainians fascists, there were voices who said, ‘but don’t they have the far right in Ukraine’? A quick google search will tell you that in the 2019 election, the nationalist parties collectively received just over 2 percent of the vote—well below the 5 percent threshold required to take seats in parliament. It took days of brutal shelling, including of Babyn Iar—the site of the massacre of Kyiv’s Jews by the Nazis—and hundreds of mentions of Volodymyr Zelensky’s Jewish roots and the fact that some of his family perished in the Shoah for Putin’s ‘de-Nazification’ rhetoric to be widely discredited.

When back in July 2021 Putin wrote his 5,000-word declaration of war, denying Ukrainian statehood, the essay it inspired many ‘analysts’ to start asking whether indeed there was any difference between Ukrainians and Russians. Six months later, when Putin reinforced his words with missiles and tanks, the question is still being asked.

Since 24 February, my phone has barely stopped ringing: journalists from local radio stations and top international broadsheets alike ask for commentary. The question of how ‘exactly’ Ukrainians are different from Russians pops up at some point in the conversation. One reporter suggested that the war is complicated to grasp because ‘Slavs are killing Slavs’. Another began his interview by asking me: ‘are you Ukrainian or Russian, which are you?’ My responses evolved from patiently taking them through the history of Ukraine from Kyivan Rus’ to the present day, to telling them that they have little chance of understanding Ukraine, or Russia for that matter, if they are forever stuck in the framework laid out for them by Putin.

In 2014, the world quickly descended into ‘Ukraine fatigue’, failing to understand that that too prepared fertile ground for Russia’s continued aggression.

Are we becoming better educated about Ukraine now? Perhaps, but it’s certainly happening at a very high price. Is the knowledge of the region we are acquiring sufficient not only to deal with the crisis at hand but also its lasting consequences? Possibly not. The widespread celebration of Ukrainian defiance without understanding its origins reinforces ignorance. The roots of this defiance go far back into a history of living next to an aggressive imperialist state that has repeatedly denied subjectivity to the peoples living within or around it. It is also grounded in the experience of Russian occupation of Crimean and Donbas since 2014. A regime that turns art centres into concentration camps, kidnaps civilians and imprisons them on fabricated charges, and does all this in the name of some phantom Russian greatness will not be tolerated in Ukraine.

Watching the entire society putting up resistance fills me with pride but is also heart-breaking. Every civilian who is forced to take up arms, every teenager who learns to make ‘Molotov cocktails’, every grandmother who stands in front of a Russian tank with nothing but a Ukrainian flag is a citizen in despair. Ukrainians act this way because they know that no one will come to their rescue. They act this way because they have a lot to lose: not only their homes, not only their freedom, not only their lives. They fight for the right to have a future and to be able to choose that future for themselves.

The anniversary of my brother’s death is coming up. It will mark five years since he was killed in a war started by the Russians in 2014. That war took 14,000 lives. It will mark a month since the start of Russia’s full-scale invasion that is claiming hundreds of lives daily. When I light a candle in Volodya’s memory I will tell him that I’m smarter now. That I get it. I won’t speak for the world though. It’s too early for that.

This text was published in German: »Wir kämpfen für das Recht, eine Zukunft zu haben«, Der Spiegel, 23 March 2022.