"We finally see how wonderful our country is:" an interview with Yaroslav Hrytsak


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December 24, 2022

“We finally see how wonderful our country is:” an interview with Yaroslav Hrytsak

  • Dispatches from Ukraine
  • Russia
  • Ukraine
  • war

YAROSLAV HRYTSAK, Ukrainian historian: With his rockets, Putin is also destroying the pro-Russian orientation in Ukraine. Today it is associated with the war and its consequences.

PAWEŁ PIENIĄŻEK: How did February 24 find you?

JAROSŁAW HRYCAK: At six thirty in the morning, I was awakened by a phone call from Myroslav Marynovych [vice-rector of the Ukrainian Catholic University in Lviv, social activist – ed.]. He said that it had begun. My wife was undergoing treatment at a health resort near Lviv, so I contacted her and asked her to return home immediately. I was afraid that there would be a panic and my wife would get stuck in a traffic jam for who knows how long. I didn’t know when we would see each-other again. Fortunately, everything worked out and we saw each-other a few hours later.

I kept a diary for the first days of the invasion but I gave up, and the last few months have merged into one.

Did you immediately believe that the war had flared up again?

Last year, I warned in the Ukrainian media that we were heading from 1933 to 1939 and that we were now in 1938. The threat of a full-blown conflict was very likely. So what happened on February 24 was not a big surprise for me. Although I did not expect such a massive attack.

Why did you think this was coming?

In July of last year there was published this, excuse me, stupid article by Vladimir Putin, in which he explained why Russians and Ukrainians are one nation. I then quoted the words of the Russian economist Andrei Illarionov, that verbal aggression precedes military aggression. It meant the plan was ready. Of course it was impossible to say for sure, but there was a feeling that the threat was real. The level of conflict was rising significantly, not only between Russia and Ukraine but all over the world. I believed that what was happening in the two world wars was happening again, namely: Ukraine will be the center of this conflict.

This means that 1939 did not unfold on February 24?

It did not unfold in the sense that the Russo-Ukrainian war did not turn into a world war. But if, God forbid, it degenerates, those historians who survive will say it was the beginning.

What is causing this buildup of conflict?

Certainly one of the important elements is that there have already been two generations that have not seen a war like this. It is then much easier to consider it as something simple, lighthearted and even attractive. This was an element very strongly present in Russian propaganda—war was everywhere. And when its heroization begins, we can expect that we will end up with war.

Not only in Russia, but in the entire Euro-Atlantic world, a generation has grown up that knows such war only from Hollywood movies and computer games. It seems unreal to them. Human memory is very short, so the further from a major war, the more it threatens.

And because of this, leaders suddenly plan the next conflict?

It is commonly believed that starting a war is a conscious decision that is usually based on erroneous assumptions. Above all, overestimating your own strength and underestimating your opponent. This is why those who attack often lose.

As in the case of the Russian offensive on February 24?

Yes, this is a war decided on by one man, based on erroneous assumptions—both about Ukraine and the entire West.

Do you not treat the conflict in Donbas, under way since 2014, and the offensive launched on February 24 as one event?

There is continuity, of course, because Russia now attacked also because—as it claimed—it wanted to defend the self-proclaimed Donetsk and Luhansk people’s republics from an alleged Ukrainian attack. However, the war that started in 2014 was a low-intensity conflict. Most Ukrainians and Russians have not experienced it personally. That’s why I wouldn’t connect them like this. However, it can be viewed as a single process if we take one more step back.


To 2008. Then, immediately after the Georgian-Russian war, the Kremlin adopted a new strategy toward Ukraine. It leaked to the media, and a year later, among others, former secretary of the National Security and Defense Council of Ukraine Volodymyr Horbulin together with his associate Oleksandr Lytvynenko wrote about it in the Ukrainian weekly Dzerkalo Tyzhnia. It seemed like pure fantasy then and no one believed them.

What was so shocking there?

The premise of the article was very simple: Putin believed that he was losing Ukraine once and for all. That is why he decided to use armed aggression against Ukraine before 2015. We forget that Putin started his political career in the circle of President Boris Yeltsin. Just before the collapse of the Soviet Union, it was they who decided to allow Ukraine to become an independent state because—they thought—it would be a country unsuitable for living in, and its elites would themselves ask to join Russia again, but on their knees. It didn’t work. Ukraine not only did not come back, but it strengthened its Western vector.

In line with this Russian strategy from 2008 it was assumed that whoever came to power in Kyiv, even from the Russian-speaking part, would still distance Ukraine from Russia. This is what happened with President Leonid Kuchma, and then even President Viktor Yanukovych turned out to not be as controllable as the Kremlin wished.

And why precisely the year 2015?

In Putin’s entourage it was feared that a generational change among the Ukrainian elite would begin at that time. Gradually, a generation which did not come of age in the Soviet period, not emotionally connected with Russia and even more oriented toward the West, would come to the fore. So the Kremlin had to act to not lose Ukraine forever.

Putin’s entourage assumed that another presidential election would be held in 2015 and that pro-Russian parties would manipulate the result, which would lead to another Maidan [after the breakthrough of 2004-05, which was called the Orange Revolution – ed.]. This would give Russia a clever argument for a military attack to allegedly protect Ukraine from civil war and restore order to it.

What was Russia supposed to achieve with a violent solution?

The division of Ukraine into three parts. Novorossiya was to be created in the south and east, eventually becoming part of Russia. This was to be achievable with minimal losses, because the Kremlin assumed that the Russian-speaking population would be happy to welcome the entering Russian troops. Western Ukraine, on the other hand, could do whatever it wanted because for Russia it was already a lost territory. That is why politicians from the Kremlin constantly lob provocative statements to the effect that Poland or Hungary should take over Western Ukraine. A smaller Ukraine with a center in Kyiv was to be created in the remaining territory. It was to be loyal to Russia, with a puppet government.

The second Maidan, however, began not in 2015 but in the fall of 2013—after Yanukovych rejected the European Union association agreement on behalf of Ukraine.

This probably saved us because Russia was not yet ready for action and was also busy with the Winter Olympics in Sochi. Illarionov, however, warned the Ukrainians that military aggression would begin when the Olympics ended. It all happened.

At least 13,000 people died as a result of the war in Donbas. Two unrecognized puppet republics were established in parts of the Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts, but the Kremlin achieved much less than it had assumed. Novorossiya was not created.

And we naively thought that because it had failed, Putin had given up on his plans. It turns out that they remained on his desk after all.

Why did he decide to launch a full-scale attack only eight years later?

I can only share my assumptions. After 2014, there were protests in Belarus and Kazakhstan. Both regimes defended themselves with the support of Russia. In addition, there was Putin’s victory in Syria and the United States’ defeat in Afghanistan. As a result of all this, at the Kremlin it seemed that the West was weak and incapable of acting. In addition, Putin and his entourage were convinced that in the event of an attack, Ukraine would quickly surrender.

What changed in Ukrainian society for Russia to misjudge the situation so badly?

We focused so much on thinking about Ukraine divided into East-West that we did not notice the changes taking place. A young generation emerged, usually with higher education and working in the service sector. Maidan was their revolution to a large extent.

At the same time, these events are part of broader global trends. These types of occurrences took place during the Arab Spring, protests from Occupy Wall Street, in Moscow, Belarus and at Taksim Square in Istanbul. They were driven mainly by young and educated people who usually wanted a better functioning state and greater political freedom. The difference between them and Ukraine was that we had another important factor: we were not just fighting a corrupt regime, but a corrupt regime supported by Russia. So it was not only a fight for a better tomorrow, but for Ukraine in general. I doubt whether the revolution could have been won without nationalism, but that does not mean that the nationalists won the revolution.

When I talk about global trends, it is also a question of what the future will look like. That is, whether regimes in the style of Russia or China, or young democracies, will impose their visions on it. The former threaten the latter—and vice versa. That is why people like Putin act as “gendarmes” and want to stop revolutions.

What changed after February 24? Of course, I am not talking about casualties and destruction here, but about social change.

Ukraine is a land of miracles. For the first time since independence, Ukrainians claim today that things in the country are going in the right direction, even though there is a war going on. Second, Ukrainians began to trust the state—when at such moments the opposite usually happens. Third, society is mobilized and united on a scale hitherto unseen. Of course this may weaken after a few months of the war, but right now you can feel incredible mutual empathy and solidarity. It was similar during both Maidans, but now this spirit has spread throughout Ukraine. We’ve finally started to see what a great country we have and what a pity it would be to lose it. We needed a war to understand this. Fourth, Ukrainians are switching over to Ukrainian very rapidly today, because Russian is associated with Putin’s language.

Adam Michnik once said that the fate of Ukraine’s European integration will not be decided in Kyiv or Lviv, but in Kharkiv and Odessa. This is what we see today. An example is the mayor of Kharkiv, Ihor Terekhov. Before that, for a long time he opposed the renaming of the avenue named in honor of the Soviet marshal Georgy Zhukov. Now he himself said that the name would be changed, as would other toponyms related to Russia. It can be said that Putin is destroying the pro-Russian orientation in Ukraine with his rockets and artillery, because it is associated today with the war and its consequences.

In this context there are many voices in Ukraine calling for the removal of Russian culture—not to read or watch it. Do you think so too?

Russian culture is a part of global culture, but it has many toxic elements that need to be loudly discussed. Fyodor Dostoyevsky is such a toxic writer, although it is difficult to imagine contemporary Russian culture without him. Another example is Joseph Brodsky: a great poet who wrote an extremely vulgar anti-Ukrainian poem towards the end of his life. It’s no coincidence. You have to be Ukrainian or Polish to feel these toxic elements. Often times, the great Russian army follows great Russian culture.

This does not mean that we should burn books or forbid them. Culture cannot be forbidden. Russian writers have earned a deserving place. That is: on the shelves next to Shakespeare, Cervantes or Camus, so that in Ukraine they are to be placed alongside writers from other countries. I see no reason why a monument to Pushkin should stand here, since there is no monument to Shakespeare. Russian culture must be reduced from the status of great to the rank of normal—one of the many present in Ukraine.

Has the idea of ​​a Russkiy mir, a Russian world, been discarded?

I think so. After all, its main idea is to stand behind Russia. It is not even known how far this world is supposed to reach. To Belarus and Ukraine, or perhaps to Greece, which is also Orthodox? I believe that our task, that is, the task of Ukrainians, Poles and the rest, is to make Russia not great, but normal. Just like what happened with Germany. Russia finally has to accept the borders of 1991. If that happens, the russkiy mir will disappear just as the idea of ​​a Third Reich disappeared after Hitler.

Were there any other changes after the Russian invasion?

This will certainly not appeal to Polish readers, but the cult of Stepan Bandera has appeared in Ukraine. Research shows that more than half of the population views it positively.

Why has this happened now?

He is a symbol of opposition to Russia. Poles find it hard to believe, but today no one in Ukraine connects him with anti-Polishness or antisemitism. Nobody says “Poles stay behind the San [river]” or “Jews on hooks”. He is associated only with anti-Russian resistance.

The issue of Bandera and the events directly or indirectly related to him, including Volhynia, were the main bone of contention in the Polish-Ukrainian dialogue. Now this topic has disappeared. Does this mean that it has been resolved?

Poland and Ukraine are linked by a common enemy and a sense of threat from his actions. Moreover, Ukraine is now perceived not as a weak state, but as a country that fights effectively. This stimulates a lot of empathy. I don’t know what will happen after the war, but I think that the issues of Bandera and Volhynia will come back eventually. However, I hope that they will be secondary, not at the forefront as they were during PiS rule until February 24. I think that after the war we will be able to talk about it much more calmly than before.

We are very grateful to the Poles for their help. Many of my friends who ended up in Warsaw emphasize how their attitude towards Ukrainians has changed enormously. From a kind of superiority and contempt to great respect and even love.

We are talking at a time when fierce battles are taking place in Donbas and the fate of the last scraps of the Luhansk Oblast hang in the balance. How do you imagine that this war will end?

I believe that it will take a long time and the result will depend on which side can stay on its feet longer. We will have great battles, but the fronts themselves will shift to one side or the other very slowly. This is the logic of a war of attrition. Much depends on what resources Russia has and how long it can conduct military operations. Assessments vary widely—from two months to two years.

Of course, it is also not known how many resources Ukraine has. I am afraid, but at the same time I doubt that it will happen, that in some time our society will be so tired of the war that there will be voices to stop it at any cost, no matter how many of our territories will be on the other side of the front line.

I believe that neither Russia nor Ukraine can win this war on the battlefield. This is a stalemate because neither side has the opportunity to make a decisive attack. Ukraine is smaller and Russia has low combat readiness.

And how is it possible to emerge from this situation?

I hope that the Russian regime will collapse, as it did in 1991. Only then will it be possible to talk about borders. For now, we have to stand up, hold out and get as close as possible to the February 24 borders. But will we succeed? I do not know. For Ukraine, a key condition—and here again a huge thank you also to Poles—is access to Western resources. Without them, Ukraine wouldn’t have had a chance.

Do you consider dialogue at all?

It doesn’t make sense at the moment. The French were not ready for reconciliation with Germany as long as Hitler was in power. The first condition was his departure. The Ukrainians think about Russia in the same way. As long as Putin is in the Kremlin, there is nothing to talk about. When a new government comes, we can try. Of course, after Bucha and Mariupol, Ukrainians will require the Russians to confess and admit responsibility.

Jerzy Giedroyc said that for the sake of Poles, Lviv must become a Ukrainian city and Vilnius a Lithuanian one. I do not know if anyone will be found in Russia who will say that for the sake of their country they must recognize Donbas and Crimea as Ukrainian.

In the near future, much of the south and east of Ukraine will remain under Russian occupation, and access to the Black Sea will be blocked. This is a huge blow to the country.

War makes the impossible possible. In the early 2000s, the then-president of the European Commission, Romano Prodi, said that Ukraine would never become part of the European Union. We can now see that while the membership issue has not yet been settled, at least there is a green light regarding accession.

During the Maidan, Ukrainian and Western intellectuals appealed to Western governments to include Ukraine in the new “Marshall Plan”. Then we were laughed at, yet today it is on the table. I hope it will not only deal with economic recovery, but also include points that will force the completion of reforms in the country.

Ukraine has received opportunities that it did not have before. My optimistic scenario is that after the political reforms and the “Marshall Plan” it will be able to become an Eastern European tiger. Though it probably won’t happen soon. Then there will be two strong countries in our region: Poland and Ukraine. Thanks to this, the balance of power in Eastern Europe and in Europe in general will completely change. All of this can happen if we stick it out during this war. I think that it will turn out well, because the Ukrainians are paying a high price.

Will it be possible to seize this opportunity?

I do not know because we have already failed twice. During the first and second Maidan, many Ukrainians were not ready for changes. It is different this time. Moreover, Ukraine does not have much of a choice, because if it does not change, it will remain a weak country that will be exposed to constant threats. It is no longer a question of will, but of necessity.

There are more and more challenges that can lead to conflicts ahead for the world. Climate change, demographic crisis and resource depletion. Therefore, even if Russia is no longer a threat, others will emerge. Unfortunately history tells us that war is the norm and peace is the exception. This does not mean, however, that we are to surrender to war. We just have to fight for peace. ©

YAROSLAV HRYTSAK (born 1960) is a Ukrainian historian and intellectual. He is a Professor at the Ukrainian Catholic University in Lviv, and doctor honoris causa of the National University of Kyiv-Mohyla Academy. He has also lectured at Harvard and at Columbia University, and is the authoruthor of books devoted to the history of Ukraine such as “Essays in Ukrainian History: Making of Modern Ukrainian Nation” and “Ivan Franko and his Community”. He has been on the list of “one hundred most influential Ukrainians” published by “Novoye Vremya” several times.

This text was originally published in Polish in Tygodnik Powszechny.

Translated from Polish by Lukasz ChelminskiThis piece is part of the DS collection: Dispatches from Ukraine.


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