“Ukrainians know very well where our borders end and we want to recover them”

The Ukrainian philosopher Volodymyr Yermolenko feels that the war unleashed by Russia on his country confirmed an old lesson: freedom is truly appreciated when it has to be fought for.

In his opinion, the Russian invasion in February has led Ukraine to fight a real war for its independence, more than 30 years after the country declared that independence and divorced itself from a collapsing Soviet Union.

During an interview with BBC Mundo from kyiv, Yermolenko compares the situation in Ukraine with the doubts that arise in the West about democratic values.

“The mood of the Ukrainians is different: they know that freedom can be taken away,” he reflects. “Civilization is very fragile. It can break in a day or two: the people of Bucha know that very well. Because of that, we value it much more likely.”

The following is a summary of the phone conversation with Yermolenko, who is also the editor-in-chief of the digital news and analysis platform UkraineWorld:

What does it mean to be Ukrainian today?

It means being a citizen of a very brave country that fights for its freedom, for its independence and also for attention. Because its history, its memory, its identity were erased during the last centuries, unfortunately.

So, in many respects, we’re filling in a lot of gaps.

It also means being a citizen of a country that is fighting for democracy, human rights, against the new totalitarianism in the east.

He says that Ukraine is fighting for its freedom. When the country became independent in 1991, she did so without violent conflict or war. Would you say that Ukraine is now fighting its war of independence, even if it is not one that the country has sought?

We can say that, because in many respects in 1991 the Soviet Union did not completely collapse, it continued its existence in a different way.

Russia controlled much of the post-Soviet space except for the three Baltic states (Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania) in the 1990s and the first decade of the 21st century.

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The Ukrainians gradually rejected that: the number of people who wanted to finally get away from that empire increased.

But, unfortunately, at a given moment Russia decided to reconquer the territories that it considered part of its empire, so little by little it was trying to take over some parts of different countries. And now he turned to this horrible war.

So yes, this is a war for independence. But it is also a war against authoritarianism and tyranny.

This anti-tyrannical tradition in Ukraine is very old: it can be traced back to the 17th century.

He has written that “freedom is the key feature of Ukraine’s identity as a political nation”. Can you explain this and how is that trait perhaps different from other countries?

It is not that it is different from other countries. I do not claim any kind of Ukrainian exceptionality. Ukrainians don’t think that way.

But the Ukrainian political culture is different from the Russian one, because for centuries – even though we gradually lost our statehood in the 18th century – our political tradition has always been centered on the idea of ​​rights and freedoms, which is medieval concept.

For example, for the Cossacks, the Ukrainian warrior class that became the core of the Ukrainian political nation in the 17th century, the key idea was to defend their rights and freedoms against any tyrannical power.

People evacuate the Ukrainian city of Irpin after a shelling on March 5, 2022.

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This has been passed down from generation to generation and, despite the attempts of the Russian Empire and the Soviet Union to erase it, it is still present in the way Ukrainians behave, how they think, how they organize themselves.

I think that the Russian political culture depends a lot on the verticality of power; in Ukraine it is much more horizontal, society is a kind of product of interaction between free people.

So is its long history of wars, invasions, occupations and independence the unifying force in Ukraine today? Or is it rather the future that unites the Ukrainians?

I think it is much more the future. I always say that in Ukraine it would be a mistake to find any formula that implies the past.

You can’t win elections with the slogan “Let’s make Ukraine great again”, or “Let’s take back control of something”.

The past is very traumatic, it is a past in many ways of suffering, extermination, wars, especially in the 20th century.

You can see the two world wars as wars that in many respects took place on the Ukrainian-Belarussian-Polish territory, not in today’s Russia, which was only partially covered in World War II. Ukraine and Belarus were fully covered and therefore the number of losses was much higher.

So I think what unifies is more the idea of ​​a free and happy future than the idea of ​​the past. Although of course this freedom-loving identity, this bottom-up, decentralized political culture is always present.

At the same time, the country’s population, economy and infrastructure have suffered great losses from this Russian invasion. To what extent can one be optimistic about the future in such a situation?

It is difficult to say, because there is faith in the Ukrainian victory, of course, but there is a realistic estimate that very hard times await us. And the fighting is very difficult right now in the east.

Ukrainian soldiers prepare to repel an attack in the Luhansk region.

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The Russians are very cruel. They have shown it in previous wars.

Look at Mariupol: what they call the liberation of cities is actually their destruction. They are destroying the infrastructure in Ukraine with missile strikes, with everything.

So of course it will be difficult. But Europe also suffered a lot in the Second World War and then rebuilt itself, in a way it built a much better society.

The Ukrainians are also ready to do so.

You just mentioned “faith in Ukrainian victory.” How do you imagine that victory?

The Ukrainian victory is the liberation of all the territories that were occupied by Russia since 2014, in addition to the liberation of any Russian military presence on Ukrainian territory.

This means, for example, not only taking back Crimea, but also getting rid of the Russian fleet in the Black Sea, which was stationed in Crimea.

Our history shows us that we would not have had, for example, the occupation of Crimea in 2014 if the Russian Black Sea fleet had not been there before.

We would not have the Mariupol tragedy today, the war crimes and genocide if Crimea was not occupied, because the main troops came from there. And so on. So this is the formula for the Ukrainian victory.

The Ukrainians have no idea to attack Russia, to go beyond our borders.

Contrary to the Russian political imagination, which has always been expansionist, going further and further – as Putin said, the Russian border “ends nowhere” – we Ukrainians know very well where our borders end and we want them back.

Has the Ukrainian identity been affected in any way by this war?

I think it has become more inclusive.

During the previous revolutions, like the Orange Revolution (2004) or the Revolution of Dignity (2013), this consolidation of the Ukrainian identity still had opponents, so they were partially inclusive and partially exclusive. There was a kind of silent opposition in some parts of the population. But now I think it’s very inclusive. Very few people in Ukraine support Russia.

A residential building affected by shelling in Mariupol


So, in a sense, Russia is getting the opposite of what it wants, because it wanted Ukraine back, and now it has alienated a lot of Ukrainians, even more so.

How do you describe the feelings of the Ukrainians towards Russia after this invasion?

Before this invasion, according to our surveys, Russia was considered the most hostile state, the most enemy. Of course, there was already the trauma of the 2014 invasion.

I think that now the Ukrainians consider Russia not only an enemy, but also a kind of inhuman culture, a really uncivilized world with immense cruelty and barbarism.

Many Ukrainians watch how ordinary Russian soldiers behave in Ukraine, robbing houses, torturing people, killing civilians in unimaginable ways, and raping women and teenagers.

They experience it first hand. I think this is a real turning point, even for those who had some sympathy for the Russians.

The strength of the Ukrainian resistance surprised many around the world. Also you?

No, we were convinced that the Ukrainians would resist.

Perhaps what was surprising is how well organized the army is and how determined the Ukrainian leadership is. There were some doubts about how (President Volodymyr) Zelensky would behave.

Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelensky speaks to the BBC's Clive Myrie

The leadership of Ukrainian President Volodimir Zelensky surprised many inside and outside the country.

But the resistance itself was not a surprise to us. We knew that the nation is very determined to resist the invasion.

Did President Zelensky’s reaction to this war cause surprise inside Ukraine?

To some, yes, because Zelensky did not seem like a military man who was going to lead the resistance. We had some doubts about whether he would be a trustworthy person for the military.

In a way, he follows his previous life in a very paradoxical way because he is a good actor and acting is a great art of personal transformation, even in real life. So that’s what happens to him. He was fine accepting this role very naturally.

Second, he is guided by his country: he is that brave because his country is that brave. Let’s not forget that.

There is a certain cult of Zelensky throughout the world, but his strength comes not only from him but from the people, from the Ukrainian nation.

How much has daily life changed in kyiv, where you are now, after this invasion and now that Russian troops have withdrawn from your surroundings?

Depends on the place. For example, in Irpin or Hostómel there is a real disaster: many buildings are destroyed, people still haven’t come back.

In Bucha you feel like in a collective cemetery. More than 400 people were tortured to death. And of course, in several respects it will never be the same again.

In the cities that were occupied after liberation, many people who were under occupation have left because they couldn’t stay there psychologically.

And the people who left before the occupation in the first days of the war are still not coming back, for different reasons.

A woman among the rubble of her house near kyiv

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The center of kyiv gradually comes to life. If you look at the suburbs that were not affected by the war, they are coming back to life even faster.

But this is a war that affects everyone. Some of your friends are on the front lines, some are volunteers, everyone is doing something, there are fewer people.

There is a big question about children’s education, because schools are still on-linenurseries are still not open, universities are also in regime on-line… It is very difficult to continue education under these circumstances. Some of my students are in the Army…

Life has totally changed. And surely it will not return to normal in the near future. So people are living a different life.

Many think that the West somehow provoked this war by expanding NATO’s borders too close to Russia, or accuse the West of hypocrisy and double standards by proclaiming its support for Ukraine’s independence despite the fact that it invaded Iraq in 2003. Do you see this criticism of the US and its allies from within Ukraine?

First, I understand this anti-imperialist criticism of the US It is an important trend of the 20th and 21st century.

But those in this anti-imperialist stance somehow miss the fact that Russia is also an empire and much more cruel than the US, at least to Eastern Europeans.

So there is a kind of hypocrisy in that anti-imperialist thinking.

We say that the problem of Russian imperialism is that it has never accepted that it did something wrong. In the US there is open criticism or people tend to think more and more that the invasion of Iraq was a mistake. In Russia there is no mention of any previous imperialist incursion, such as the Soviet war in Afghanistan, which was not criticized in the post-Soviet Union.

Secondly, we Ukrainians see mostly positive things in the Americans and Europeans because they are helping Ukraine to reform itself and basically most of the reforms they promote are for the good of society: judicial reform, anti-corruption reform, business climate reform, and so on.

As for the Western provocation, we must understand that Russia enjoyed full control of the post-Soviet countries after the end of the Soviet Union and in Ukraine to a certain extent until Yanukovych came to power in 2010.

So I would say that for almost 25 years Russia was more or less in control of Ukraine, and the West did not challenge it.

Vladimir Putin

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Since Russia’s presidency, Vladimir Putin has ordered several military operations abroad.

Our view of the West is rather that it continued to regard Ukraine, Belarus and Georgia as Russian colonies and therefore did not react to the Russian invasion of Georgia in 2008.

I believe that the West was not determined enough to enlarge the democratic world when it could have done so in the 1990s or at the beginning of the 21st century.

And of course it is naive to think that Russia does what it does only because NATO has expanded. Russia does what she does because her conception of the state presupposes an idea of ​​expansion.

Russia seriously considers that there is something called the “Russian world” or “Russian civilization” that goes far beyond even the Ukrainian borders, to the Slavic countries, at least to Poland, the Czech Republic, Serbia or Bulgaria.

We should be aware of this and not be naive that Russia barely reacts to NATO expansionism.

Have your feelings about freedom or death changed during this war?

Of course we think about death.

And when a society or a person meets death, it is a borderline experience where many things arise. It’s kind of horrifying, of course, but at the same time a very authentic experience. It has always been this way in history.

Ukraine becomes a kind of “Hamletian” country, like Hamlet’s “to be or not to be”. It is a question that we know from school books, but suddenly it appears as a very vital question because it is a question of life and death: whether you will have tomorrow or not, whether you will be alive tomorrow or not.

Death is very close. I have several friends who have died, some relatives. It is a very deep experience. And it can do two things: rethink everything and be reborn, or take you into silence.

Ukrainian culture for many decades, really facing the horrible in the 20th century, was brought to silence.

That’s the problem. The world knows so little about Ukraine because basically the depth of that horrific experience was such that Ukrainians became silent: in culture, in literature they couldn’t express it.

So there is a danger that this will happen again, but I think we have to fight it.

A Ukrainian soldier patrols in front of the Independence Monument in kyiv.

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As for freedom, I am a philosopher and I know the previous stories very well. The classics of philosophy or political history knew very well in ancient times that you only value freedom when you fight for it. I think this is what Ukrainians feel in these eight years, or even more.

And when I see in the Western democratic world that kind of depression about their values, I think the key problem is that that democratic world took those values ​​for granted: they thought that they would always be there and in the end they started to erode, to corrupt and turn against themselves. themselves.

Democracy turned against itself.

The mood of the Ukrainians is different: they know that freedom can be taken away, you can lose it at any moment, lose your life at any moment.

Civilization is very fragile. It can break in a day or two: the people of Bucha know that very well. Therefore, we value it much more probably.

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