Postwar, continued

Winslow Homer, The Veteran in a New Field, 1865. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, USA

By Oksana Forostyna 

Originally appeared @Krytyka

In March 2022, I wrote a piece for Krytyka called “Postwar.” Parts of Kyiv and Kharkiv oblasts, as well as the Chornobyl Nuclear Power Plant, were still occupied then, Western weapons had not yet begun arriving, and the survival of Ukraine was still in question. Now in summer 2023, there seems to be a consensus within Ukraine and among its allies, that Ukrainian victory will look like the complete liberation of all its territory per its 1991 borders. Still, today I can repeat the opening of that previous essay: after we survive this war, we have to survive the peace.

Today is completely different from March 2022—not only do we now have our hopes, but the way we talk about them has changed. How we talk in general has changed. This essay will first be published in Ukrainian and then translated into English. This is another challenge of our new reality: over the last year, how I speak English is substantially different from how I speak Ukrainian, including what I say. While coming up with this piece, I tossed out half a dozen theses that I was ready to defend in Ukrainian, but which I didn’t want translated into English.

I’m not just talking about self-censorship in either case, but for different reasons. Readership in Ukraine and outside of it exist in different contexts with different perceptions and different problems that must be voiced. I suspect many of my colleagues would agree, since we criticize our Ukrainian government in Ukrainian and defend it in English (and other languages), criticize Ukrainian corruption at home, and explain abroad that too much is made of Ukrainian corruption and its used as an instrument. How to explain this? As an expression of solidarity? war propaganda? that same self-censorship?

Speaking only for myself, I’d explain this by, first of all, expanding the principle I subscribed to before the war: to speak ill of people to their faces, and shower them with compliments behind their backs. (Incidentally, the theses I considered but abandoned for translation would not have made me any new friends in Ukraine.) Yes, Ukraine has proven more resilient, industrious, and subjective than expected. And, yes, the West, especially the European Union, has shown more unity and decisiveness than we could have hoped for. Still, every new story about corruption comes as a relief to those in the West who’d like to strike Ukraine from the agenda and return to business as usual. And every news item about a delay in delivering promised arms comes as a relief to those in Ukraine who’d like to wallow in their usual anti-Western ressentiment, only now from the position of innocent victim, rather than incompetent, corrupt loser. Neither the former nor the latter have gone anywhere, as many people assumed a year ago.

But even without these caveats, there are objective reasons why we cannot synchronize our internal discussions with those happening outside Ukraine: a difference in contexts.

And if the “end of the war” contains too many variables or unknowns to be the subject of a detailed conversation, then conversations—as well as more or less detailed plans—about postwar reconstruction are a safer field for experts, practitioners, and, most importantly, a more certain place of hopes for practically every person in Ukraine.

These hopes are partially motivated by the fact that both Ukrainians and Western donors are projecting their ideas about post-WWII reconstruction onto the current situation. Ideas that not only cannot be projected onto our era, but also not onto our part of the world. In the optimistic version, these projections include the postwar prosperity and resulting baby boom in the US and the welfare state in Europe. The pessimistic version sees mobilizing the economy for military purposes and a militarized country according to the model of Israel restored in 1948.

This brings us to a broader and more serious conversation about the consequences of World War II and the postwar world order, which also had a different scope in our part of the world and in the Western countries that are helping us today. In a recent book-length interview, Anne Applebaum admitted that this difference struck her when she first visited the Soviet Union and Poland in the 1980s: WWII came up in every conversation as if it had ended just yesterday, whereas in the American perception, the war had happened long, long ago. The reason for this was partly ideological. Soviet ideology, especially under Brezhnev, used the myth of World War II as a means of consolidating Soviet society. This myth got further from the facts and living memory with each year, ultimately degenerating into what we today call pobedobesie, or the “cult of victory.”

The good news is that these Ukrainian projections are actually a view of World War II through Western eyes. Having tossed out pobedobesie, in this particular case we appropriate the “Western memory,” in which everything ultimately ended well: the US entered its age of global economic and political dominance, and the Allied forces and the Marshall Plan saved Western Europe from fascism and communism. And so it will be this time too.

The bad news is that the postwar prosperity and baby boom were possible because the US had neither been occupied nor bombed (Pearl Harbor is the exception that proves the rule). The welfare state in Europe was made possible thanks to American help, security guarantees, military bases in particular, and the previous political experience and cultural prerequisites that enabled it. The bad news is that the twenty-first-century economy cannot be a wartime economy; in a country that is constantly under fire, it is impossible to reproduce the picture from WWII-era American propaganda posters. For a long time Israel was a poor agrarian country, bled dry by constant war. It owes its (relatively recent) success as a country of innovations to a unique combination of factors, all irrelevant to us. It won’t be like that here.

The bad news is that postwar order was fundamentally unfair. Central and Eastern Europe were handed over to Stalin. The crimes of the Soviet Union went unpunished and silenced for a long time. Europe’s postwar reconstruction has its own dark side: the reign of ugly urban development and hideous lies.

But it seems to me that even knowing all this, we underestimate how fundamentally, how deeply abnormal the postwar order was on our side of the Iron Curtain. This occurred to me a few years ago at a reading of work by Polish writer Marek Hłasko. Hłasko was touching and witty in writing about his experience knowing Władysław Broniewski, poet, alcoholic, former officer in the Polish Legions, enthralled with Stalin and the communist revolution. “A communist who despised the party; a Bolshevik who was given a medal for his action in battle against other Bolsheviks; a prisoner of Stalin who wanted to lock up another man for offending his tormentor;” is how Hłasko describes him. All these contradictions might seem exotic to Westerners, but they are rather the norm for me and, if I may assume, my generation. We grew up with people who lost their loved ones—forever or even for some years—to Stalin’s camps and still loved Stalin, who hated the Soviets, yet gladly exploited its social mobility, who remembered the barbarism of the Soviet army, yet celebrated May 9. We grew up in a world where men’s alcoholism was more a part of everyday life and even an element of culture than a deviation, and emotional blow-ups and passive (or less so) aggression were ordinary forms of communication. We took this as normal, not understanding how abnormal this world was. We assumed most people around us were psychologically healthy, not realizing how deeply traumatized they all were. And despite the fact that the annexation of Crimea and the eastern regions of our country and later the full-scale war happened during the childhood and youth of today’s teenagers and young adults, they are the first generations to have virtually escaped the inherited traumas of their parents. In other words, I suspect their parents were the first generation that was able to overcome the patterns laid down by their predecessors.

The full-scale war of 2022, which divided time into “before” and “after,” cemented this opinion in me. The loss of the usual routine and environment had unexpected advantages. The forced slowing down of life, the closure of day cares, and working from co-working spaces let me observe children playing on the playgrounds and young people at work. It was with pleasure and sadness that I discovered that these generations were radically different from what I remember from my own childhood. Nine- to fourteen-year-old boys were not aggressive, but considerate and attentive toward younger children. Young people resolved work conflicts though rational arguments without ever raising their voices. Their conversations with older relatives confirmed my hypothesis: this generation makes decisions and communicates completely differently from earlier ones, possibly thanks to either corporate trainings or Western television and traveling. In any case, it can be stated that it was good for Ukraine to open itself up to global—if we’re being completely honest, then primarily Western—influence. Its new generations have demonstrated that they can overcome the traumas of the violent twentieth century inherited from previous generations.

In postwar Ukraine, this positive change could be in jeopardy since the younger generations are again being traumatized by war. Does this mean that we’re starting up the same cycle? Fortunately, no. Despite the horrific parallels that can be drawn with World War II, in particular with the genocidal practices of the Russians, this war is nevertheless different in a crucial way. First of all, the Ukrainian military leadership doesn’t share the Soviet and Russian approach of “throwing corpses at the enemy.” There is no repressive Ukrainian machine like Stalin’s behind the Ukrainian army. No matter where they find themselves along the front, Ukrainians have no experience of long-term institutionalized violence, as was the case with Soviet soldiers. Thanks to twenty-first-century technology, Ukrainian soldiers maintain their connection with the civilian part of society, and the majority of them can regularly communicate with family and friends, even if this “window onto civilian life” is traumatic for them.

But this doesn’t mean that as a society—both military and civilian—we’ll come out of this war “normal” or even, as some optimists suggest, better. The social consolidation that provided the grounds for such optimism at the beginning is already weakening. The longer the war lasts and the more human losses we incur, the greater the challenges will be for us as a country. The longer this war, the greater the risk that we will win the war and lose the peace.

Knowing that this won’t win me any friends, I’ll risk sharing an observation: the people who are talking about a future fully militarized Ukraine as inevitable tend to idealize this scenario and even secretly wish for it. Indeed, if Ukraine has no channel for rapid accession to NATO (for example, after the restoration of its 1991 borders and the cessation of hostilities) and ends up one-on-one with Russia, this scenario is possible. But this path will be a more or less slow slide toward catastrophe.

My colleagues in Ukrainian book publishing know well what it’s like to be a large country with a small market. This misalignment between expectations and real possibilities can extend to other areas. Since the invasion, the demographic challenge, inevitable even before 2022, has grown into a threat not only of another level, but different nature: if the earlier population decline threatened our welfare, it now poses a threat to national safety. Whereas before it was about the increasing tax burden on the working population, shrinking markets, and reduced opportunities to scale up business, today the issue is radically different. Will we even be able to maintain this enormous country’s infrastructure—energy and transport, to say nothing of education or medicine? Even before the invasion, it was understood that Ukrainians would have to accept either the prospect of impoverishment or migrants. And not simply accept, but fight for anyone who was ready to become an economically active and politically loyal part of Ukrainian society. Today the question is no longer “how will we adapt?” but “will we have time to do so?”

Ukraine’s depopulated territory means a drastic increase in risks for our closest neighbours as well, especially Poland, the Baltics, and countries on the Black Sea. And I’m not just talking about Russia, though I am talking about Russia too. Global climate change is making Ukraine’s territory attractive even to people who can’t count on social support. For people who will tolerate our security challenges, because they’ll be fleeing territories even less suitable to life. Will care for Ukrainian retirees, veterans, support for our infrastructure, and therefore our standards of living be among their priorities? For climate refugees to become Ukrainian citizens and not colonizers on scorched earth, we must ensure Ukrainian society is in a strong enough position to negotiate this.

A glance at the near future, after the war, shows that if we truly want there to be water in the tap and ATMs to work, we will be forced to accept everyone who is ready to live in the country on our terms. People who look different, have different faiths, and cultures. Ukrainians who have sat out the war abroad, and perhaps not just the women—we will also need those who deliberately “split,” no matter how we feel about it. There just aren’t enough of us.

When we talk about demographic losses, we’re not only talking about casualties of war, military and civilian, kidnapped children and adults, not only about women with children who went abroad and aren’t likely to return. Unfortunately, we’re also talking about population losses that we can stop. For example, in the first six months of 2023, 56 people died in car accidents in Kyiv, and 50 from shelling (of course, this ratio would be different if not for Kyiv’s effective air defense systems). All over Ukraine, thousands of people were wounded on the roads and a couple thousand died, numbers that haven’t changed since the invasion. The main cause of death and injury is speeding. In the peaceful year of 2007, 9,574 Ukrainians died on the roads. Although Ukrainian road safety isn’t the worst in the world, it is one of the worst in Europe. While you could argue that anyone, regardless of restraint and discipline, could fall victim to a road accident, statistics on water fatalities—every year hundreds of deaths, mostly of children—unfortunately confirm that Ukrainians are prone to ignore safety rules. Since the beginning of 2023 alone, 600 lives have been lost, including 55 children. All of these losses could have been avoided.

The problem is that the scale of the threat today is mainly seen by people who can “read numbers,” and it is not immediately possible to convert this ability into behavioural changes. (The fact that in the second year of war, in wounded Kyiv we have to convince people that racing around the city without a muffler isn’t cool offers little optimism.) But it is always within our power to control, or at least try to control, the framework of our public debates, especially those about the “general militarization of the whole country,” by relying on facts.

For example, the fact that general conscription, which some opinion leaders (either truly focused exclusively on the fighting or just pretending to be involved) are calling for, means that we will perhaps win the war, but definitely lose the peace. In other words, there’d be nowhere to return from war to. This isn’t only about economic collapse. Who will want to live in a country where you can’t call your pediatrician because they’re on the frontlines? Where no one can repair a broken sewer line or put out a fire? Where there’s no one to pull people out from under ruins? Pensioners aren’t going to do this. This must all be done by healthy, mostly young, people who today run the risk of hatred and reproach just because they’re not in uniform. Fortunately, Ukraine’s military leadership acts and speaks about this much more soberly than our “opinion leaders.”

For example, the fact that conversations about the prospect of an “eternal war,” do nothing good for our birth rates, to put it mildly. Not even their growth, just the mere presence of small children. Somebody’s fantasies about archaic society in which women were willing to give birth to warriors for eternal battle will never come to pass: fortunately, Ukrainians are already too Westernized for our rollback of survival values not to have its limits. In practice, we’d not have a nationalist Sparta of someone’s dreams, but a depressed and dangerous country.

Yes, women are having children even today when war wages in Ukraine. But let’s not forget that we all still live in hope of victory and “faith in the Armed Forces,” no matter how some people mock this or even accuse civilians of paternalism and the passiveness of this faith, it has a material dimension: children and adults on the streets, willingness to spend money even not on basic necessities, new businesses opening. Maybe from the outside this could be seen as apathy and escapism, but take away these people’s hope and faith in victory, and the country will depopulate and turn into ruins.

Ukrainians’ high level of trust in the army isn’t a new phenomenon: it has substantially grown since 2014, to say nothing of 2022. But even in the early 2000s, the Armed Forces had more of the population’s trust than governmental institutions (there were many reasons for this, not all of them rational, but if we’re honest, a career in the military wasn’t prestigious and most Ukrainians tried to avoid their mandatory service by hook or by crook, mainly by going to university). This capital of trust materialized not only in donations, but in the stability of Ukrainian institutions in the first days of the invasion. Just imagine what would have happened to all of us if Ukrainians trusted their military like they trust the members of Ukrainian Parliament (Verkhovna Rada). Trust in the army might be passive, but it makes both the army’s success and the stability of the rear possible.

On January 19, 2014 the Maidan in Kyiv finally turned into a violent confrontation between Berkut and the protestors. At the beginning of the clashes, still during the day, on that relatively narrow line of front across Hrushevskoho Street, the balance of the protest was clearly visible. Berkut occupied the whole hill, attacking, spraying the protestors with stun grenades and gas. They were in a more vulnerable position at the bottom of the street. But the main thing is that the people who were physically fighting, who ran toward Berkut, threw paving stones and later Molotov cocktails, were rather few, many times fewer than the police, and they had neither proper protection nor means of battle. If it had been a one-on-one confrontation, Berkut would have easily crushed them. But standing behind them were a few thousand people who didn’t participate in the fighting. There were thousands more who were ready to flee the Maidan at a moment’s notice. Some of them were digging up the cobblestones and making the cocktails; their numbers increased at night. But the majority of them just stood there. Later on, some of the more active protesters called them gawkers in irritation. English has a more accurate word for this—“bystanders.” But it seems like few people already remember that those people would say about themselves, “I’m going to work as a pixel.” That is, I’m headed to the Maidan to be a tiny dot in a photo or video of a densely crowded square. I’m going so there will be more people. This is why the Ukrainian revolution succeeded and the Russian and Belarusian protests ended with the strengthening of their authoritarian regimes. Both Belarus and Russia had their lionhearts who were ready for direct clashes, but there weren’t enough bystanders left on the streets behind them. Every protest needs its heroes, but only a critical mass of people on the streets will lead to success.

We often say, “thanks to the Armed Forces.” It’s unlikely there are sane people in Ukraine who don’t realize that it is precisely thanks to the army that our almost-normal is possible. Yet our almost-normal, as well as the fact that in the first days of the invasion the trains were running, that the hryvnia didn’t get anywhere near the inflation Ukraine experienced in the peaceful early 1990s, that no part of our infrastructure crumbled, is also a testament to the people who simply went to work on those days. All those old supers, conductors on the railroad, all those people with boring office jobs. We have to thank the Armed Forces, but also the energy infrastructure engineers who worked miracles last winter, and the experts at the National Bank, the couriers and mail carriers, the unknown often despised cogs in the state machine. Without them the country would have plunged into chaos. So yes, victory is achieved by the people in pixelated camo. But victory also requires those who “work as pixels.”

Of course, attempts to call work in the rear the “economic front” should be stopped as a crime not only against justice, but at least against good taste. But greater harm is caused by attempts to drum up feelings of guilt among people whose daily risk is significantly less than on the frontline. No good end awaits a society in which one half talks to the other in reproach mode, no matter what the reason.

The appetite for justice will grow with every meter of liberated territory and every day that is “more normal” than the one before it. But it will be hardest to find answers to the most painful questions. Let’s just say we understand how fine the line between collaboration with the enemy and the elementary desire to live is, and we assume this should be decided by the courts. Do we trust Ukrainian courts as much as the Armed Forces? We can already assume that the desire for justice will go unfulfilled. For one, even if Ukrainian courts magically turned into the best in the world overnight, they wouldn’t be able to cope with the volume of cases. But also no social benefits that we’ll be able to afford as a society will compensate the losses. And because the hope that the trauma we have experienced as a country will eliminate corruption and the Soviet vestiges in the foundations of the state system won’t bear out. The radicalization of society is inevitable. But its scale can still be reduced to non-critical. Unfortunately, this task almost entirely depends on the extent to which our international partners realize that Ukrainian resilience isn’t infinite and help us fight Russia off. Disappointment is inevitable. Channelling that frustration toward people who least deserve it can be avoided. This is our in-house work. Already today we can see how people who are willing to—have actually already begun—prey on fears, anger, and pain and people who see their self-realization in a demodernized society are tracing the contours of their future political careers. The price of their political success will be that the people our country needs the most will leave. It’s not true that “everyone who wanted to leave has already left.” It is not fear that always drives people away. Sometimes they leave out of hopelessness or repugnance.

This brings us back to the demographic situation. It creates a framework for us in which we are forced to take a look at the risks of population outflow not as economic, but as a matter of security. And therefore value and protect each other more than ever before. This task becomes even more important in light of the fact that a variety of uncomfortable, unpleasant, difficult conversations and compromises await us. For example, what is the fate of the territories where industries, the towns were built around, are gone and won’t be coming back? Do we restore the landscapes created during the industrialization of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries or create new ones? Can we afford universities that only provide an imitation of education and don’t even attempt to meet the standards of science? Are we aware that our neighbouring countries are also suffering from a demographic crisis and we will be forced to compete with them for young, adaptable Ukrainians? (Just like Ukrainian, these societies must constantly look for compromises between survival and maintaining the expected standard of life and the tension that the newcomers will inevitably cause.)

We are only just learning how to have these conversations without hurting or pushing each other away. Whether we survive peace largely depends on this.

Oksana Forostyna
author and publisher
Kyiv, Ukraine
Opinion Editor at Ukraina Moderna, a Visegrad Insight Fellow. The newest publication – “Another Country” at Liberties journal. She also contributes to The European Review of Books, Krytyka, and Visegrad Insight. Editor of the Ukraine! Unmuted essays collection. The 2022–2023 Europe’s Futures Fellow at the Institute for Human Sciences in Vienna (IWM).

Translated from the Ukrainian by Ali Kinsella

The “War Is… Ukrainian Writers on Living Through Catastrophe” essay project is created with the support of Ukrainian Jewish Encounter (UJE), a Canadian charitable non-profit organization.