Free­dom, not free-for-all

How the myth that Ukraini­ans are in­clined to­wards law­less­ness is used against them and why a sense of re­spon­si­bil­ity to your own peo­ple is so im­por­tant

The Ukrainian Week - - CONTENTS - Oleksa Olek­siyenko

The myth that Ukraini­ans are in­clined to­wards law­less­ness is of­ten used against them. How is it mis­lead­ing?

A se­ri­ous stereotype used against Ukraini­ans, not only by en­e­mies, but also of­ten by them­selves, is a pe­cu­liar con­cept of their love of free­dom. In­deed, a pen­chant for free­dom is iden­ti­fied by our cit­i­zens as one of the key fea­tures of their na­tional char­ac­ter, which, for ex­am­ple, dis­tin­guishes Ukraini­ans from Rus­sians.

How­ever, for sev­eral cen­turies, the idea that Ukraini­ans love lib­erty or free­dom has been pri­mar­ily re­duced to the myth that they do not ac­cept any author­ity and or­der, be­ing in­clined to­wards con­stant re­bel­lion and even law­less­ness. More­over, dur­ing the Soviet oc­cu­pa­tion, this myth on the ex­cesses of our na­tional char­ac­ter was ac­com­pa­nied by vivid so­cial and class un­der­tones.

The de­struc­tive and chaotic be­hav­iours that were in­deed in­her­ent to some of the Cos­sacks or other in­sur­gents when Ukraine was ruled by for­eign­ers were pre­sented as an ab­so­lute form, glo­ri­fied as a clas­sic ex­am­ple of a "free­domlov­ing Ukrainian" and ac­tively spread among our na­tion.

The im­age of a hot-headed, free­dom-lov­ing but short­sighted Cos­sack, who is ca­pa­ble of de­ci­sive re­sis­tance against usurpers and en­slavers, but does not know what to do next or how to or­gan­ise him­self or the coun­try af­ter over­throw­ing/ex­il­ing this in­ter­nal or ex­ter­nal op­pres­sor, has be­come a per­sis­tent na­tional myth that is pressed on Ukraini­ans from child­hood. It was both sup­ported from with­out and passed from gen­er­a­tion to gen­er­a­tion in Ukraine it­self. Here, the em­pha­sis was on hero­ism, self­ad­mi­ra­tion and self-sac­ri­fice. How­ever, in this way, neg­a­tive so­cial and po­lit­i­cal sen­ti­ments that push peo­ple in the wrong di­rec­tion were con­stantly stirred up and re­heated. This played its part both dur­ing the Ukrainian Rev­o­lu­tion of 1917-1921 and dur­ing the rev­o­lu­tion­ary events of 20042005 and 2013-2014.

Gen­er­ated by the op­pres­sors who Ukraini­ans fought against – ini­tially the Poles, who pre­sented their en­e­mies in ex­actly this way af­ter the nu­mer­ous Pol­ish-Ukrainian wars of the 16-18th cen­turies, and then the Rus­sians, who elim­i­nated the rem­nants of au­ton­omy and iden­tity in Ukrainian lands as part of their em­pire – this myth was in­tended to over­shadow a con­struc­tive, truly his­toric and dom­i­nant com­po­nent of our love of free­dom. This man­i­fested it­self in the de­sire of Ukraini­ans – like that of most Euro­peans and peo­ple of the Western world in gen­eral – for eco­nomic free­dom, above all. So­cio-po­lit­i­cal free­dom

was a de­riv­a­tive of this and a nec­es­sary con­di­tion to main­tain it.

The ten­dency to ne­glect author­ity, re­bel­lions and forced bravado were nev­er­the­less a re­sult of this ba­sic de­sire for eco­nomic free­dom. The rest­less Ukrainian lands on the edge of the Wild Fields were from the out­set in­hab­ited by peo­ple who ap­pre­ci­ated eco­nomic free­dom above ev­ery­thing else and were pre­pared to live with con­stant risks and dan­gers, and there­fore to pro­tect them­selves and their own free­dom. At the same time, only a small per­cent­age of them re­fused to re­alise them­selves eco­nom­i­cally if they had the nec­es­sary free­dom and op­por­tu­ni­ties for this.

Though they, of course, were not glo­ri­fied as he­roes, un­like the mi­nor­ity that con­tin­ued mil­i­tary ac­tiv­ity and lived for armed cam­paigns. Nev­er­the­less, the ma­jor­ity were those who, as soon as they had the op­por­tu­nity, wanted to get in­volved in a busi­ness of the time. When they had a choice, they de­cided in favour of re­al­is­ing them­selves eco­nom­i­cally, rapidly turn­ing into free farm­ers.

This pri­or­ity for eco­nomic free­dom and the pur­suit of pros­per­ity, which was in no way praised in epic poems about Cos­sacks, al­ways played a far more im­por­tant role in the his­tory of Ukraini­ans and the for­ma­tion of a na­tional char­ac­ter than the de­sire for a kind of un­re­stricted free will or re­bel­lion. The de­sire for eco­nomic free­dom and riches did not ex­clude, and even overtly prompted the search for sta­bil­ity and cer­tainty, in no way dis­avow­ing law and or­der. Just clear and Ukrainian law and or­der.

It was for this rea­son – hav­ing the pos­si­bil­ity to re­alise eco­nomic ac­tiv­ity – that Ukraini­ans stopped demon­strat­ing their self-will and re­bel­lious streak, fo­cus­ing on pro­duc­tive work to de­velop their own busi­ness, whether in farm­ing or any other in­dus­try. Those who could not or did not man­age to take ad­van­tage of the ben­e­fits of the eco­nomic free­dom that ap­peared af­ter the Cos­sack rev­o­lu­tion of the 17th cen­tury con­tin­ued to rebel and act out.

This en­tirely, though in a some­what spe­cific man­ner, fits into the gen­eral con­text for the Western world in the New Age of a strug­gle for eco­nomic free­dom against feu­dal and class bar­ri­ers that ham­pered the de­vel­op­ment of bour­geois cap­i­tal­ist so­ci­ety. It may have been some­what more rad­i­cal in Ukraine than in Western Europe or North Amer­ica. Al­though this is rather an open ques­tion, since pri­mar­ily, as al­ready noted, the meth­ods cho­sen by Ukraini­ans to fight for eco­nomic free­dom and the op­por­tu­nity to en­gage in free en­ter­prise were dis­cred­ited by those against whom they were used. So it would be strange to ex­pect a dif­fer­ent eval­u­a­tion of such as­pi­ra­tions from them.

In the fol­low­ing cen­turies too, Ukraini­ans above all wanted eco­nomic free­dom. As soon as they had min­i­mal op­por­tu­ni­ties for eco­nomic self-re­al­i­sa­tion, they aban­doned all other ac­tiv­i­ties to work on their own busi­ness. Only stress­ful, emer­gency sit­u­a­tions forced them to leave ev­ery­thing and take up arms again to de­fend their right to eco­nomic free­dom. More­over, this was usu­ally done with­out much en­thu­si­asm, out of ex­treme ne­ces­sity. The main de­sire was al­ways to keep one's own pro­fes­sion and farm. This be­came very clear in the con­text of the New Eco­nomic Pol­icy, which opened up op­por­tu­ni­ties for Ukraini­ans to ex­er­cise even lim­ited eco­nomic free­dom and for years damp­ened the de­sire to fight against the oc­cu­pa­tion au­thor­i­ties, which was not the case in 1917-1921 or later in 1929-1933.

To­day, it is also very im­por­tant for Ukraini­ans to re­think the no­tion of the pri­or­i­ties of their love for free­dom in or­der to move away from the im­posed stereotype of ex­ter­nal ori­gin that pre­vents them from di­rect­ing en­ergy to­wards eco­nomic de­vel­op­ment, fo­cus­ing on the re­al­i­sa­tion of their po­ten­tial for their own wealth and that of the rest of the coun­try. Ukraini­ans' love for free­dom must ap­pear in its orig­i­nal form – the de­sire for free­dom in the cre­ation of wealth, as well as the nec­es­sary author­ity and or­der for this, in­stead of merely deny­ing or re­ject­ing any­thing from the out­side.

Along with the pri­or­ity of eco­nomic free­dom, an­other im­por­tant char­ac­ter­is­tic of Ukraini­ans has al­ways been their re­jec­tion of be­trayal, de­fec­tion to for­eign en­e­mies or serv­ing their in­ter­ests. This was ex­tremely well de­vel­oped dur­ing both the Cos­sack hey­day and the na­tional lib­er­a­tion strug­gle of the 1930s-1950s in Western Ukraine. There was zero tol­er­ance for be­trayal of one's own peo­ple and cause or de­fect­ing to the en­emy. Traitors of the Cos­sacks or na­tional un­der­ground move­ment were pun­ished no less and of­ten even more cru­elly than the tra­di­tional en­emy was.

De­spite dif­fer­ences in views and tough po­lit­i­cal clashes among Ukraini­ans, it is al­ways im­por­tant to have a limit – a red line when some­one starts to work for the en­emy in fight­ing against their op­po­nents. In these cases, an in­stinct for pun­ish­ing traitors is one of the most im­por­tant for the sur­vival of the na­tion, as well as the preser­va­tion, de­vel­op­ment and strength­en­ing of the state.

Since Cos­sack times, reprisals against au­thor­i­ta­tive Cos­sacks or ata­mans were such a com­mon and nat­u­ral phe­nom­e­non that they even en­tered folk art: "No mat­ter where they hide, they will an­swer to us". Un­der­ground mem­bers of the Or­gan­i­sa­tion of Ukrainian Na­tion­al­ists or Ukrainian In­sur­gent Army acted sim­i­larly with those who de­fected to the oc­cu­pants, be­trayed the na­tional cause and be­gan to work against their own peo­ple.

This in­stinct of pro­tec­tion was pre­served by Ukraini­ans for cen­turies, but it was greatly un­der­mined in the last few cen­turies by Rus­sian colo­nial­ism and es­pe­cially in the to­tal­i­tar­ian Soviet era. Less be­cause of puni­tive and re­pres­sive mea­sures than due to the ide­o­log­i­cal and in­for­ma­tional war that was con­tin­u­ously waged against Ukraini­ans us­ing all pos­si­ble chan­nels and that blurred the bound­aries be­tween "friend" and "foe". More­over, this war is still on­go­ing, as it has not been prop­erly iden­ti­fied and a num­ber of its man­i­fes­ta­tions in so­ci­ety and the coun­try in gen­eral have not been di­ag­nosed as ex­tremely dan­ger­ous prob­lems.

Mean­while, with­out over­com­ing the post­colo­nial in­er­tia in con­scious­ness and self-iden­ti­fi­ca­tion, con­struct­ing rea­son­able lim­its for "friend" and "foe", and de­vel­op­ing ef­fec­tive im­mu­nity against an ex­ter­nal de­struc­tive in­flu­ence and its agents in the coun­try and na­tion, it is wrong to ex­pect that a suc­cess­ful and sta­ble state will be built. There­fore, restor­ing the zero-tol­er­ance at­ti­tude of Ukraini­ans to­wards col­lab­o­ra­tion and be­tray­ing the state and na­tional in­ter­ests, no mat­ter what rea­sons are put for­ward to jus­tify this, is a key task.


No peace­ful paint­ings. The life of the Cos­sacks in many as­pects looked like the ev­ery­day rou­tine of the New World, but it is tra­di­tional for us to only re­mem­ber the mil­i­tary com­po­nent with­out the eco­nomic suc­cesses

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