In the 1990s the Ukrainian band Hamerman Destroys Viruses (Khamerman Znyshchuye Virusy), with a cult following in Ukraine, recorded a song-manifesto called Ukraina – tse my (Ukraine – it’s us). A list of cultural activists who committed suicide appear in the song, “Doctor Freud poisoned himself, Mayakovsky shot himself,” while band members Vladimir Paholyuk and Oleg Tsukrenko yell out in the chorus, “Ukraine it’s us! Ukraine it’s us! They don’t bury those who commit suicide with ordinary people!”
When people ask me about the first two decades of Ukrainian independence I refer to these lines as they most accurately describe the path my country has taken. Twenty years after regaining independence we have embarked on a programme of voluntary self-destruction. And in the twentieth year of Ukrainian independence it suddenly seems as if the self-destruction of Ukraine is not only symbolic but quite real. I would even say that it is a sign of our existence. It has become our second skin. We let it engulf us and get used to it like someone suffering from syphilis gets used to his body falling apart.
The biggest problem is that after the collapse of the USSR we were freely given the chance to do what we wanted, but did everything wrong. However, the worst thing is that the Ukrainian authorities have done nothing over the years simply because they weren't able to, and, more importantly, had no will to do anything.
The attempt to self-define Ukraine in the geopolitical context is a kind of black comedy. Ukraine sits in the post-Soviet “ummah”, somewhere in the Russian sphere and on the peripheries of Europe, between East and West. God supposedly created Ukraine to show other nations how not to live. History and geopolitics have given Ukraine the role of a “buffer zone”, a transit country, a nation between post-Soviet life and western civilizations.
For Ukrainians, everything clearly depends on the circumstances abroad and the willpower at home. Metaphorically speaking, after having lived together in the Soviet flat, our present day life in the Ukrainian hallway is a poor alternative. One can live in the hallway but the constant draughts between East and West make life temporary and ephemeral. Yet in the mid-1990s, many Ukrainian intellectuals held the view that independence granted by history was not deserved as it was gained without making any effort.
But this is just stating the general and obvious. It is more interesting to me that this country, made up of its society and state, has lived its life over the last 20 years as a schizophrenic. Post-Soviet society, in spite of its innate faults, fears and phobias began to evolve. Civil society and the middle class began to emerge, and entrepreneurs set up small businesses. In a word, people wanted to live, not just vegetate. Meanwhile the state started the remarkable process of completely cutting itself off from reality and especially from the needs of Ukrainian citizens. The desires of the Ukrainian elite boiled down to the control of gas transit and dividing up payments from the state budget. Everything else, including a change in the regressive Soviet state model interested nobody. Ukrainian officials did their best to keep society unchanged, resorting to the old rule of divide and conquer, manipulation, taking advantage of social stratification and old historical grudges.
Over the last 20 years, no one has been serious about reforming the country if reform meant changing the old order or undermining the Soviet principles of existence. No one has given real thought to integration with European institutions or modernizing the country. Doing so would require revolutionary ideas and a change in language: firstly, the language of economics, then of business and politics. The secret of Ukrainian dependence on Russia is not just in gas transit, but much more in the inability to give up the post-Soviet discourse. Even a slight modernization of the state, associated membership in the European Union or NATO would mean one thing to the Ukrainian elite: total destruction. The endless talk of European integration is simply false. It has just been something for politicians to talk about over the last 20 years.
Ukrainian politics is inherently linked with a criminal pack of tricksters and conjurers, and can be compared to the magic cup game. Politicians put a ball with promises under one cup, but do nothing. Promises remain promises, the ball having been cleverly moved to another cup, remains in the conjurer’s fingers. Not one politician in Ukraine has kept a serious promise, but this hasn't prevented them from holding power or being elected to parliament.
And during this time, society has behaved in quite a peculiar way. It has been unable to decide between the will to change and the fear of reforms, and eventually reached an unwritten agreement with the politicians – vote for them and they leave you alone. However, new babies are born, a new generation of people with new questions and needs appear. It is these people, with new values, knowledge and access to the Internet who do not connect well with this medieval political system.
The degradation of Ukraine has reached a level where the parallel existence of state and society is no longer possible. It can be best described using Lenin’s definition of a situation where those in power are no longer able to rule in the old way and those ruled are unable to live in a new way. Moreover, those who have power do not know how to rule and those ruled do not know how to live a new life. An ideological vacuum has appeared and there is virtually no political competition. Everything has always focused on people: “the good Yushchenko and bad Yanukovych” or “a great Yanukovych and a malevolent Yushchenko”. Even today it is not clear who holds the power in Ukraine, the right or the left, and no one is able to break the stalemate.
The situation, which resembles a patient in a coma, cannot be changed. The system can only be kept alive by means of respirators, in the forms of loans from the International Monetary Fund, putting an even greater burden on future generations. Only a change in the post-Soviet political elite and a radical reform of the system will help. But this is hard to imagine, as events of the Orange revolution of 2004 have demonstrated: a social revolution will achieve nothing because of the agreement to keep the status quo. It is the business clans and those who control gas and other industry who decide whether the political elite stay in power. The voters are the last to make any decisions and they have neither the choice nor the willpower. Only surgery or taking the patient off the respirator will make recovery possible. Both these options may become the last stage of a planned and voluntary destruction, yet there is no other way out for Ukraine.
Twenty years after Ukraine emerged as an independent country, we must realize one thing: we are simply an artificial country which appeared as if to spite history and has existed carelessly and ineffectually since then. From the perspective of global history, it is a country that no one feels sorry for. Like all things, there is hope for change. Ukraine, a challenge to the East, West, God and first and foremost itself, is able to change. That is why I think the solution for this incorrigible suicidal tendency is not to be found in some faraway land. When we die, let them bury us properly, with ordinary people, as part of one family of European nations.
But I'm a naïve optimist and want to believe it is best for us not to die off. Ukraine can find a way to survive, just as others have throughout history. So what’s in our way?
Andriy Bondar is a Ukrainian writer, poet, literary scholar and translator. A collection of his short stories Important and Unimportant Stories has recently been published in Poland.
Translated by Bogdan Potok