What changed in Ukraine in 2022?
It is clear that Ukraine has undergone momentous change ever since Putin embarked on his full-scale invasion of the country last year. The realities of war appear to be encouraging the formation of a new society that is very much different from the one before February 24th 2022.
Unprovoked Russian aggression caused dramatic changes in Ukrainian society. Here, we try to summarise some major shifts, collecting insights from more than 70 Ukrainian researchers and supporting them with some figures.
Social relations and informal institutions, identity and culture
In Ukrainian society, which was stateless for centuries, the most important changes have often appeared from the bottom before entering the political institutions. So we start from the bottom level.
The most important shift here is the growth of personal subjectivity, self-responsibility and “adulthood”. Millions of previously paternalistic people for the first time were pushed to take responsibility not only for their life and their families, but for other people. For many this was often an unfamiliar idea. Another important change is further growing trust, solidarity and cooperation. For example, Ukrainian networks of volunteers provided the army with supplies, helped evacuate civilians, assisted displaced persons, and many other things that any state could not provide in such a dramatic scope. The scale of this charity, crowdfunding and crowdsourcing simply could not be imagined.
The Gradus Research survey conducted in June 2022 indicates a general increase in trust among Ukrainians. Twice as many Ukrainians now trust other residents of their settlement (the number has increased from 35 per cent in October 2021 to 62 per cent in June 2022). Two-thirds of citizens (67 per cent) trust their neighbours and people living nearby, and 80 per cent of respondents claim to trust acquaintances. The increasing level of trust allows Ukrainians to coordinate more easily, donate to the accounts of strangers, and seek help not only from people in their circle of friends. And most importantly, this helps people to solve problems of national significance at the “person-to-person” level.
This horizontal structure of society is one of the key factors in the Russian defeat. The growth of social responsibility was one of the indicators of “ownership of the country”. A nation which has often viewed its state with suspicion due to previous historical traumas of occupation and colonisation has finally begun to feel that the state is “national”.
Indeed, Ukrainians are experiencing a strengthening of their identity and the appearance of new markers of identity. In simple words, many people realised that they themselves are Ukrainians. This strengthened identity calls for solidarity, as being Ukrainian has become universally attractive. One of these markers of identity is the Ukrainian language. Since the beginning of the full-scale aggression, there has been a wave of transition to use the Ukrainian language. This is how Ukrainians emphasise their difference from the aggressor country and mark their belonging to “our” group. Before February 2022, Ukrainian was spoken in everyday life by nearly 40 per cent of the adult urban population in Ukraine. Now this number is approaching 60 per cent. Updating historical memory was another marker of change, as people changed their attitude towards historical figures who opposed Russian colonisation and were demonised in Soviet/Russian propaganda. The war raised historical memory archetypes that had not been understood before. Growing support for the Ukrainian churches also is one of the indicators of this growing identity.
Feelings of inferiority compared to Russian people, who were viewed as “an elder brother”, emphasising the lower value and provincial character of Ukrainian culture, finally disappeared at the national scale. The cancelling of Russian culture, and primarily its justifications for colonisation, was another marker of identity. It should be noted that Ukrainian identity is inclusive and engages Ukrainian Belarusians, Armenians, Jews, Hungarians, Greeks, Georgians, Crimean Tatars and other numerous ethnic groups as well as ethnic Russians which joined Ukrainian political nation. Ukrainian national pride and love for the Ukrainian armed forces are also new markers of civic identity. We observe increasing demands for gender equality, inclusivity, tolerance of minorities and care for animals, which is not usual in wartime.
The growth of territorial mobility was another dramatic change. Millions have moved to other regions of Ukraine and have now rejected their previous stereotypes about them. Millions have also moved to Europe for the first time. Many people discovered other regional cultures, social groups and ways of thinking. It is worth noting that the identity of the Ukrainian South (Odesa, Mykolaiv, Kherson) is now growing (previously just the West, the East and the capital were regions with clear cultural identities). The South revealed itself, and Ukraine has begun to acknowledge this.
On the one hand, the general demand for conceptual thinking has increased. On the other hand, Ukrainians turned out to be a nation of doers, proving eager to properly implement ideas.
The most important negative factor of wartime is the post-traumatic stress faced by the whole country. There is a feeling of total and unavoidable threat, there are no safe places, and nobody has guaranteed safety. Young Ukrainians have now begun to understand “the language of safety” communicated by the older generation which survived previous social traumas. In addition, if at the beginning of the war, the dominant emotion was anger (62 per cent), lately feelings of tension (42 per cent), hope (41 per cent), and fatigue (41 per cent) have been prevalent. Also, as of September 2022, 71 per cent of Ukrainians have experienced stress or strong nervousness recently.
Politics and state institutions
Changes in this sphere are slower overall. But the pace of change in formal institutions seems to be slower compared to society partially because they are very busy in wartime.
First of all, we have to mention that Ukrainians are now almost fully consolidated in their geopolitical vision. Support for European integration and joining NATO is at a historic high (and much higher than in other countries when they joined these unions). Ukrainians feel themselves real Europeans, and one of the key reasons for this is opposition to Russian culture and civilisation. Moreover, as of October 2022, 63 per cent of Ukrainians believed that Ukraine would become a member of the European Union by 2030. This indicator has been stable since the beginning of May. It shows that despite high stress, heavy emotional pressure, and actual losses, the population of Ukraine is not willing to change the established vector of development towards the EU. In this regard, it is worth looking at this article about the prospects of European integration for Ukraine.
The East-West interregional gap in Ukrainian politics (which has defined the political landscape in the country for the past almost 20 years) finally disappeared, and now all the regions are united in their support for the European and Euro-Atlantic vector. At the same time, pro-Russian political forces and intellectuals have been marginalised.
The discourse regarding Crimea has changed and now it is being discussed in the context of the agenda of de-occupation. Moreover, for the majority of surveyed Ukrainians in February 2023 (61 per cent), the true sign of victory for Ukraine will be the liberation of the entire territory of Ukraine as of 1991 (including Crimea).
Decentralisation has proven that it is the most successful and effective kind of reform in Ukraine. Many rapid response decisions were adopted and implemented at the local level, and the resilience of local leaders elected by the people was impressive, especially in the occupied communities and communities under permanent fire. It looks like trust in local authorities has grown dramatically.
While political leadership often still refuses to hear voices from civil society (especially regarding cases of judiciary reform, anti-corruption, tax transparency, urban development reform, and some inadequate and highly criticised appointments of high officials), some state institutions have dramatically improved their cooperation with civil society, especially on humanitarian initiatives.
The greatest fear of millions of Ukrainians is not a defeat (people believed in the armed forces from the first days of the invasion, and 87 per cent of Ukrainians are absolutely or rather confident that Ukraine is capable of repelling the attack of the Russian Federation. This figure has been stable since the beginning of the war), but a fear that the chance for change will be wasted and everything will be as before. The war with its pain, blood, suffering and ruin at the same time opens a window of opportunity for rapid changes.
That is why many Ukrainians are suspicious concerning limitations on democracy that are necessary in wartime (these include media monopolisation and censorship, limitations to some civic freedoms, a decrease in the role of the parliament, the centralisation of decision-making, and a reduction in transparency. All these trends, many believe, exceed the real needs of wartime). Ukrainians reasonably believe that democracy was the real source of their national resilience and strength, as 89 per cent believe that freedom and human rights are the highest value.
Another important change in Ukrainian politics is the emergence of Ukrainian international agency (it is now even viewed sometimes by Ukrainians as a kind of leadership) and pride for Ukrainian diplomacy.
Indeed, the most dramatic challenge for Ukrainian society can be seen in demographics. According to the Ukrainian ombudsman, 14.5 million Ukrainians left the country after the invasion. Despite this, it is a positive that Ukrainians have managed to experience Europe. It has been reported that 86 per cent of Ukrainians believe that local populations have been friendly towards them. But it will be extremely hard to attract people back home if their cities and towns are in ruins, and if there are no schools for their children and hospitals for their elders. However, the majority of Ukrainians still wish to return as soon as they have the opportunity (67 per cent). And the key factors that are going to shape these “return” intentions will be the duration of the war (the longer it lasts, the more emigrants will adapt to life abroad, find new jobs and friends, and their children will be more rooted in the foreign education system) and job prospects in Ukraine upon return.
A significant change in the demographic structure of the population raises many questions about the ability of people to return to Ukraine. The attractiveness of coming back is also a key issue. New immigration to the country (it is not likely that Ukrainian society will accept ethnic Ukrainians from Russia, as they may consider them partly responsible for the Putin regime’s crimes) and thus a new model of inclusive Ukrainian identity (“a melting pot”, multiculturalism, Leitkultur or something else) will also be important factors. The first outlines of the new model can now be seen among the Crimean Tatars, who possess a high level of political loyalty to Ukraine. This is further dependent on the Crimean Tatars’ ethnic renaissance and development, which are both tied to their return to Crimea after all the sufferings of the previous centuries.
Evgeniya Bliznyuk is a sociologist and analyst, as well as the CEO and founder of the research company Gradus Research, and the political consulting agency Corestone Group.
Valerii Pekar is the co-founder of the Nova Kraina Civic Platform, the author of four books, an adjunct professor at the Kyiv-Mohyla Business School, and a former member of the National Reform Council.
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