Through the eyes of an outsider
A year or more ago, Ukraine was often associated with „corruption“ in the world’s collective consciousness, if it was even mentioned at all. However, things have changed drastically since then, and today the words „courage“, „stability“, and „freedom“ are commonly linked to Ukraine. While this is certainly good news, the question of what kind of phenomenon Ukraine represents, and what unique value it offers to the world, still remains unanswered. For far too long, Ukraine has been viewed as the „sick man of Europe“.
On occasion, I have had the opportunity to address foreign audiences. Fifteen years ago, while speaking at the French Parliament, I realized that the honorable members had invited us without fully understanding who we were. They were curious about the exotic „Ukraine“. I had to explain that Ukraine was a valuable safeguard for Europe. Even if they didn’t want to think about Ukraine, I urged them to consider how they could protect themselves from Russia. It has taken a great deal of time and sacrifice, including the loss of countless lives, to make the world understand that Ukraine’s situation is far from simple. While corruption does exist in Ukraine, it is not unique to the country. Respectable countries throughout Europe, as well as in South-East Asia and Latin America, have also experienced corruption scandals. The real issue is the perception of corruption as a norm. Fortunately, positive changes are occurring in Ukraine, thanks in part to the help and pressure from our Western partners.
What’s more, five years ago, after the House of Trade Unions was burned down during the Euromaidan protests, a massive banner bearing the words „Freedom is our religion“ was displayed on the building in both Ukrainian and English. Despite a long history of being subjugated by empires, Ukrainians have managed to maintain their dignity and resolve to resist the pressures of both their own government and foreign powers. Since gaining independence, the idea of totalitarianism is not even a question for us.
Another crucial component became evident during the Maidan protests and the subsequent Russian aggression: despite our tendency to bicker over minor issues, we have a remarkable ability to come together and build strong horizontal connections around a common goal. For a people whose past has been marred by totalitarianism and corruption, the presence of social capital is nothing short of a miracle.
Another highly positive characteristic of Ukraine is its tolerance towards others. This may come as a surprise for a country where the term „pogrom“ originated (although it must be said that Moldova, Belarus, and Poland – all places where Jews were allowed to settle in the Russian Empire – are also contenders for this dubious distinction). However, according to the „Bogardus social distance scale“, a widely recognized sociological method, Ukraine is currently one of the least xenophobic countries in Europe. This is an impressive feat for a nation that is constantly accused of Nazism by its neighbor. In fact, the fact that Ukraine has a Jewish president is a compelling argument in support of this claim.
I would be remiss if I didn’t mention another significant aspect: the pursuit of justice. Not equality in income and opportunities, but justice as an ethical principle. Unlike its neighbors who were subjected to imperial and later communist rule, the rule of law has long prevailed in Ukraine. Of course, one and a half centuries of serfdom, followed by seventy years of collective farm slavery for a significant portion of the population (80 to 33% of peasants during the 20th century), did little to improve the national character. However, there were periods of relative legal supremacy, particularly in the Grand Duchy of Lithuania – the successor to Kyivan Rus – which later became part of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. Here, a peasant could sue their landlord and even win the case.
The situation with cities is even more intriguing. According to historical documents, 235 cities and towns within modern-day Ukraine were granted the privilege of the Magdeburg Law at some point in time. This requires a more detailed lecture, but in essence, the Magdeburg Law was characterized by a) local self-government and, notably, b) the right to appeal court decisions to the city court of Magdeburg. This effectively resulted in a complete separation of the judicial branch of government – a remarkable achievement for the 14th-18th centuries.
Ukrainians often take pride in the fact that they had the first constitution in Europe – a fact that may come as a surprise to French deputies. In reality, our Magna Carta, „The Treaties and Resolutions of the Rights and Freedoms of the Zaporozhian Army“ from 1710, which was signed between the Cossacks and the rebellious hetman Pylyp Orlyk, never really came into effect. Nonetheless, it provides us with insight into the general level of legal consciousness among Ukrainians before they were ultimately absorbed by the Russian Empire.
Lastly, I would like to touch on a quality that I refer to as „plasticity“ – the ability to learn quickly, adopt new experiences, and sometimes even surprise teachers. NATO instructors have been astonished at how adeptly our soldiers can master foreign and complex equipment. This speaks not only to the level of education, but also to our openness to new ideas. Just thirty years ago, everyday life in Ukraine was vastly different from that of the civilized world. I have personally collected a few documented cases of Soviet tourists who suffered from mental breakdowns upon entering an American supermarket for the first time. Today, however, a Ukrainian – particularly a young one – is no different from an average European in terms of political behavior, work ethic, and lifestyle.
While it is still too early to say that Ukraine has fully recovered from its totalitarian past, the ongoing conflict has certainly helped us to mature and grow. While there is nothing positive about collective trauma, it does serve as an impetus for further development. I am confident that after achieving victory, Ukraine will have plenty to offer Europe and the world, and will continue to surprise and inspire others.
Translated by Yulia Lyubka and Kate Tsurkan