Hating Russians, Trusting Ourselves: The Hard Questions For Post-War Ukraine
A year after Russia's invasion of her homeland, Ukrainian writer Anna Akage looks back at recent history, but, above all, forward to a future where her nation must not only win the war, but not lose the victory.
It sure is nice to be on the right side of history. But ask anyone who is this "lucky," and they would gladly trade it for peace and security, for boredom, for some simple certainties about tomorrow.
I can't remember life in Ukraine ever being dull, say my mother and the people of her generation. Same for my grandmother and her neighbors — and my great-grandmother and those in her village said it too. No one remembers the last time we were bored in Ukraine, the last time we were focused on where to go for dinner or on vacation – to live, not just survive.
This is our country, our fate. They say every nation has its misfortune. Ukraine is unlucky with its geography: we have sea, mountains and precious fertile soil. Important trade routes traverse our country.
Revolution, war, famine. The terror of communism, then the hungry 1990s. Relative calm under Leonid Danylovych Kuchma that, alas, was not bound to last.
The Orange Revolution, students beaten, the Heavenly Hundred – martyrs of the 2014 revolution. Broken concrete, ashes, burning tires. A shattered helmet, covered in blood. Coffins. The Revolution of Dignity. Donbas, Crimea, Minsk, Ilovaysk. Checkpoints. "We didn't come here; we stayed here." And here we are, today. One full year. Like in a kaleidoscope. War.
Of course, we need to talk about yesterday. To analyze and draw conclusions, to avoid repeating the mistakes of the past. But today, I want to look at tomorrow.
Tomorrow will be hard. Yes the war is as existential as it is brutal — but those first years or even decades after will also be critical for the existence of Ukraine. The fate of the world depends on our victory, which also includes how we Ukrainians overcome these post-war trials we will have to face.
Us and the Russians
First, we will have to come to terms with the Russians. Not with Putin, or with Prigozhin, or even with Navalny, but with the people. Any Russian politician is no friend of Ukraine now. Just the other day, Alexei Navalny – the theoretical leader of anti-Putin Russia – published his "15 Points of a Russian Citizen Who Wants the Best for His Country." He says that Crimea is Ukraine, and that reparations must be paid. But this is an election speech, and should be treated as such.
In Ukraine, they say that even the most liberal of Russian liberals stops at the question of Crimea. Navalny is no different; he has just re-trained himself, following the geopolitical winds and understanding that a future Russia will have to make concessions to Ukraine and its allies.
But even if individual Russian politicians can play the game of democracy, the hatred between ordinary citizens of Ukraine and Russia will not go away so easily.
Some nations have been able to normalize relations relatively quickly after a war. Germany and France began to cooperate on economic and political matters within a few years of World War II. The United States and Japan did the same, signing a peace treaty in 1951 and starting to rebuild their relationship through trade and cultural exchange.
Decentralization of power and civilian control will play a vital role in the reconstruction of Ukraine, as will the new military.
On the other hand, there are also nations who have never been able to reconcile, decades or centuries after a war. Relations between North and South Korea have been tense since fighting there ended in 1953, and the two sides have never signed a peace treaty. The conflict between Israel and Palestine has persisted for decades despite multiple attempts at international peace negotiations.
For all the hatred I feel towards Russia now, I realize that we will have to find a way to forgive.
For all the hatred I feel towards Russia now, I realize that we will have to find a way to forgive and let live, for the sake of peace and security. No one will talk about this in Ukraine today, but we will have to make concessions to Russia, too – not territorially, but morally. We will have to forgive them. Yes, we will judge, bring criminals to justice, weep for our nation and get angry all over again. But in the end, we will have to forgive them. I hope this forgiveness will not divide our society or poison our cohesion.
Another problem that awaits us after the war, already becoming visible, is the attitude among Ukrainians in the country toward those who fled abroad. Already, my friends tell me how some in Ukraine feel resentment and anger toward those who have lived out the war in Europe.
I assume that after the return, I, and others like me, will face the stigma of non-acceptance because we did not endure this war as those who stayed behind. These accusations are natural, even if they seem illogical.
History shows us many examples of this. In the 1990s, the country of Yugoslavia dissolved into several independent nations, leading to a series of wars and ethnic conflicts. In some cases, members of the same ethnic group became divided based on whether they chose to stay or flee.
During the Lebanese Civil War from 1975 to 1990, the country was divided by religion and politics, with factions fighting for control. Some chose to leave, while others stayed and fought. This created deep divisions within communities and families, with some feeling resentful of those who abandoned the country. Others felt betrayed by those who stayed.
In both cases, there were many initiatives that aimed to promote reconciliation and rebuild communities. These included programs to support the return of refugees and internally displaced people, efforts to promote inter-ethnic dialogue and cultural exchange as well as projects to rebuild infrastructure and create economic opportunities.
Unfortunately, we cannot say these processes have gone well in both countries. But for the sake of our homeland, we must unite, because the post-war reconstruction will require strength, skill and trust. Without these we cannot survive as a nation.
"Everywhere you look, war and peace are on the shoulders of ordinary people."
The temptation of corruption
Another process is already looming on the horizon: the struggle for power and resources. President Volodymyr Zelensky will likely not run for a second term. When presidential elections are held after the war is over, a fierce struggle will begin for his seat.
A lot of money will come into the country — it must not settle in the pockets of the oligarchs.
This fight will be not only for the power but also for control over the enormous resources Ukraine will receive from partners for reconstruction and armament. Military heroes among today's politicians will join the race, each trying to ride the wave of victory and popular emotion. The U.S. and Europe will choose to back a candidate, and there will be ultra-rightists and ultra-leftists. Whichever of them wins will face one of the toughest tests for a leader: how not to lose a victory.
After all, it is not enough to fix the borders; it is necessary to continue to work even harder for economic and political development, to curb the appetite for corruption. A lot of money will come into the country – it must not settle into the pockets of the oligarchs. Otherwise, victory on the battlefield, at such great human cost, will make no sense.
Post-war corruption is inevitable. The question is how Ukraine can overcome it. Fortunately, Ukrainian society and mass media have proven during 30 years of independence that they can think critically and will not allow individual politicians to steal or ruin the country.
Decentralization of power and civilian control will play a vital role in the reconstruction of Ukraine, as will the new military and economic international alliances that oblige Ukraine to be transparent about its reforms and use of funds.
And so, it turns out that everywhere you look, war and peace are on the shoulders of ordinary people. Those who left, and those who stayed, the fighters and the rest of us. "The bravest," wrote Ancient Greek historian and general Thucydides, "are surely those who have the clearest vision of what is before them, glory and danger alike, and yet notwithstanding, go out to meet it."
A strong and free Ukraine tomorrow, like today, needs strong hands, a fiery heart and a cool head.
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