A Bird in Hand – A Thorny Choice for Ukraine

Оповідь українською

Story by Marichka Melnyk

Illustrated by Iryna Lysenko

The (Un)declared War

In July 2013, preparations were underway to mark the 1025th anniversary of the Baptism of Kyivan Rus’. The main event would be hosted in Kyiv, although celebrations were planned all around the country.

Greetings and well wishes from then-President Yanukovych were plastered across billboards and lightboxes polluting the capital. Restoration and repair work on centuries old churches and religious ruins dating back to the times of ancient Rus’ were completed in a frenzy by construction workers. Road crews hastily filled potholes with crushed stone covered with tar and smoothed out by steam rollers to create a short-lived veneer. Municipal workers rushed to trim trees, whitewash curbs, lay fresh lawns in parks, and plant flower beds. Stages were built on the slopes of the Dnipro River for a moleben’ (in Ukrainian, молебень – a supplication prayer service according to the Eastern Orthodox Church) and on Khreshchatyk Street (Kyiv’s Champs-Élysées), for a celebratory concert.

Ukrposhta (Ukraine’s postal service) was preparing to release a set of commemorative stamps and the National Bank of Ukraine was issuing commemorative 5-, 20- and 100-hryvnia coins. Museums, archives, and libraries retrieved their most valuable paintings, documents, and books from storage to be displayed in new exhibits. Researchers busily wrote the final sentences of their conference papers, while teachers planned special lessons and excursions to various churches for their students…

The Baptism of Kyivan Rus’ was added to the calendar of official Ukrainian public holidays thanks to President Yushchenko. Five years earlier, on July 25, 2008, on the eve of the 1020th anniversary, he signed a decree paying tribute to “the importance of Orthodox traditions to the history and development of Ukrainian society.”

One of these traditions included a decision by the Holy Synod of the Russian Orthodox Church in 1888, to recognize July 28 as the baptismal day of ancient Rus’. It also happened to be the feast day of Prince Volodymyr the Great of Kyiv, during whose reign the Christianization of ancient Rus’ took place. Following Yushchenko’s decree it would now be a state holiday.

Yushchenko made the announcement about the new public holiday in a speech a day after signing the decree. He said, “I believe any kind of division of Ukrainian believers is short-lived. I believe, as a gift from God, in historical truth and justice, there will be a single national church in Ukraine.” Yushchenko was speaking from a stage on St. Sophia Square, in front of a huge banner with an image of Our Lady of Oranta while standing next to him was the Ecumenical Patriarch, Bartholomew I.

This was Patriarch Bartholomew’s second visit to Ukraine as the head of the Church of Constantinople, but his first to Kyiv. In his address to the faithful, he stressed the fact that for seven centuries, the Ukrainian Church – from the Baptism in 988 to its annexation by the Russian Empire under Peter the Great in 1687 – belonged to the canonical jurisdiction of the Ecumenical Patriarchate. The church in Constantinople relinquished the right and recognized the Ukrainian Church’s religious subordination to the Moscow Patriarchate, and according to Bartholomew I, did so as “to not multiply the suffering of the pious Ukrainian people and so it would remain under Orthodox political leadership – although the Ukrainian hierarchy strongly and unanimously opposed the decision.”

Following the official speeches, Bartholomew I laid flowers at the nearby monument to the victims of the 1932-1933 Holodomor on St. Michael’s Square and held a memorial service for them.

But five years later, in 2013, the Ecumenical Patriarch was not expected to be among the honored guests to recognize the 1025th celebration of the Baptism of Kyivan Rus’, when the same roads in the capital were again being paved at breakneck speeds. He declined the official invitation (instead, the delegation from the Church of Constantinople was to be led by Metropolitan Emmanuel of Gaul). Ukraine awaited the arrival of many other church leaders, most notably the patriarchs of Alexandria, Jerusalem, Georgia, Serbia, Bulgaria, and the Russian Church. Several presidents from various countries also confirmed their attendance at the event.

Ukrainian diplomats spent more than half a year negotiating the presence of high-ranking foreign dignitaries at the events commemorating the 1025th anniversary of the Baptism of Kyivan Rus’. Everything appeared to be planned out, agreed upon, and under control. They even found money for the celebrations: the national government allocated 47 million hryvnias and the city of Kyiv chipped in another 30 million hryvnias from its own budget. Some events, such as the concert on Khreshchatyk Street (which would cost between $600,000-$700,000) were to be paid for by anonymous philanthropists (apparently in exchange for a ticket directly to heaven).

But, almost a month before the festivities began…

On the night of June 26, 2013, a 29-year-old woman from Vradiyivka, a small village in the Pervomaisk district of the northern Mykolaiv region, was on her way home from the disco, when three men drove up to her and offered her a ride. When she refused, they forced her into the car.

Despite pleading to be let go, they raped and beat her. They took her jewelry, watch, and phone, and tossed her out of the car, like a piece of trash, in the forest not far from the village of Syrove, 12 km from her home. When she came to, she found enough strength to crawl to the outskirts of the village. There, by the mill, she was found by a local woman who was the first to come to work that day. The young woman from Vradiyivka had most of her clothes torn off and showed obvious signs of physical, and specifically, sexual violence. She tried to cover her nakedness with large leaves from wild rhubarb plants. The woman was immediately taken to the local hospital.

Even though she had multiple skull fractures, a broken nose, and numerous other injuries, the victim – Iryna Krashkova, a salesclerk – survived. The following day, when she regained consciousness in the intensive care unit of Vradiyivka District Hospital, she identified her attackers. They weren’t random strangers; they were from her village. All three men had shopped at the store where she worked.

Her health deteriorated shortly after being hospitalized, and she was flown by helicopter to the city of Mykolaiv’s Emergency Hospital. She ended up staying there for nearly a month. A photo of her in the hospital bed with a bandaged head, swollen black eyes, and a stitched lip smeared with green-colored antiseptic was picked up by the media; first local, then national.

The crisis threw a wrench into the plans of Ukraine’s then political leadership and had every chance of derailing the upcoming celebrations or completely overshadowing them.

In just a few days, the story of Iryna Krashkova had spread like wildfire, not because she had been raped (frankly, that wouldn’t have surprised anyone back then, at least not in Ukraine), but because of who had committed the crime. She had been attacked by members of the Vradiyivka militsiya (militarized police troops of Ukraine’s Interior Ministry): Lieutenant Dmytro Polishchuk and Captain Yevhen Dryzhak. The third perpetrator was Serhiy Riabynenko, a local guide for hunters and part-time taxi driver, who drove the two hunters law enforcement officials around Vradiyivka that night looking for prey entertainment.

After Iryna made her statement, Polishchuk and Riabynenko were arrested the very next day. They were charged with rape, robbery, and causing grievous bodily harm. The judge in the case had them locked up for 60 days.

But the third man identified by the victim – Dryzhak – avoided being charged. According to the Mykolaiv region prosecutor’s office, he had an airtight alibi: allegedly he was on duty. The surveillance cameras at the Vradiyivka district militsiya station hadn’t recorded the moment when the captain supposedly left the building. And five of his colleagues confirmed he was at work. The captain was only put on leave for possibly being involved in a crime.

On June 30, 2013, local residents, outraged that one of Iryna’s assailants remained free, gathered outside the Vradiyivka District Court. The memory of the rape and murder of local 15-year-old schoolgirl Alina Porkul two years earlier in 2011 was still fresh in their minds (eleven people confessed but nobody was punished for the crime). The protesters outside the courthouse did not want a repeat of that situation and demanded the captain of the militsiya, this officer-rapist, be detained.

The people, by the way, had proposed their own seemingly banal, but plausible (given Ukrainian realities) explanation for Dryzhak’s airtight alibi: simply put, the captain was the godson of the chief of the local branch of the Ministry of Internal Affairs in the Mykolaiv Region, Major General Valentyn Parseniuk. Incidentally, in the early 2000s, Parseniuk had been the chief of the Vradiyivka District Militsiya Department, the victim’s hometown.

The prosecutor’s office needed two days to figure out how (or to admit that) Dryzhak could have left work through the back door unnoticed and returned equally unnoticed, and in so doing, acknowledge the victim’s words carried more weight than the testimony of Dryzhak’s subordinate colleagues and friends. And their decision was helped along by the rocks, petards, and Molotov cocktails thrown at the doors and windows of the Vradiyivka militsiya station throughout the night of July 1, 2013 and into the morning of the next day, after protesters moved from the courthouse to the station. The Berkut, Ukrainian internal ministry special forces, known for using unnecessary and excessive force, were sent in to clamp down on the rebellious and unruly villagers.

By this time, the incident with Iryna Krashkova, the outrage in Vradiyivka over the appalling behavior of the local militsiya, and the escalation into an open confrontation, had made its way into the foreign press. The Washington Post, The Telegraph, USA Today, and other media published articles whose main message decried the culture of impunity that remained the rule in Ukraine.

On July 3, 2013, Dryzhak was finally detained. But the public outrage didn’t subside. People throughout the country rose up in support of Vradiyivka. “Community vengeance for government irresponsibility!”, “MVD = OPG” (Russian acronyms equating the Ministry of Internal Affairs with an organized crime gang), “Down with fascist cops in the militsiya!”, “All of Ukraine is Vradiyivka!”, “What happened to law and honor?”, “No to banditry in uniform” – these were some of the slogans of the protests in Lviv, Donetsk, Zaporizhzhia, Kharkiv, Dnipro, and Dzhankoi in July 2013. In Kyiv, protesters marching to the MIA (Ministry of Internal Affairs) building carried posters and brought along blow-up dolls.

Under public pressure, both militsiya officers accused of beating and raping Iryna Krashkova; the chief and deputy chief of the Vradiyivka District Militsiya Precinct; one of the local prosecutors; Gen. Valentyn Parseniuk, his deputy, and the head of the personnel department of the Ministry of Internal Affairs in the Mykolaiv Region, all lost their cushy jobs they’d had for years.

These actions calmed public anger somewhat but didn’t extinguish it completely. On the morning of July 7, 2013, some twenty protesters from Vradiyivka began their march on Kyiv, demanding the recertification of all the officers of the militsiya and the dismissal of the Minister of Internal Affairs (MIA) Vitaliy Zakharchenko, who by the way, in classic Ukrainian bureaucratic tradition, went on vacation as soon as things got messy.

On July 18, the “Vradiyivka Procession” reached Kyiv. But with just over a week to go until the celebrations commemorating the 1025th anniversary of the Baptism of Kyivan Rus’, their arrival was far from warmly welcomed.

Not by coincidence, that same day two equal-sized rallies took place in Kyiv, with about 4,000 protesters combined. The first rally gathered on Slava (Glory) Square, holding obviously prefab, professionally printed banners with slogans like “The militsiya are a reflection of the Ukrainian people,” veterans of the MIA demanded respect and higher salaries for employees of the militsiya. “A hungry militsiya is a scary militsiya,” the head of the Association of Veterans of the MIA in Ukraine, retired Interior Ministry Lieutenant General Volodymyr Korniychuk said, unapologetically, in an interview with Radio Liberty.

Meanwhile, some 3 km away, despite the vileness and cynicism permeating the sizzling hot summer air in Kyiv under Yanukovych, the seeds of dignity began to sprout, breaking through from an alternative reality.

The second rally of family and friends of those who had suffered at the hands of the militsiya – or from their inaction – had gathered on Independence Square (the Maidan). They were joined by several hundred strangers who understood the need to advocate for urgent reform of the criminal law enforcement system. They too did not come empty-handed. Their banner read: “Of the 114,474 complaints about the militsiya sent to the prosecutor’s office in 2012, only 1,750 were investigated.”

At approximately 11:30 pm on July 18, 2013, the slightly more than 100 remaining participants of the second rally on the Maidan were violently dispersed by the Berkut. This was the militsiya Ukrainians, apparently, deserved, on full display. The same militsiya, who were poorly paid, or so Ukrainians were told. Yet, their alleged paltry salaries did not stop them from executing their orders to smash the skulls of their fellow citizens with batons. Shortly thereafter, the District Administrative Court of Kyiv banned all protests on or near Independence Square from July 20 through July 31, 2013.

And so, the month marking the grand celebration in Ukraine of a momentous date for the entire Christian world was stained by the brutality and violence of the militsiya.

Remarkably, Ukraine’s Churches almost completely ignored the open wound causing their flock so much pain. The only one not remaining silent was the Ukrainian Orthodox Church-Kyiv Patriarchate (UOC-KP).

“What happened in Vradiyivka was a wake-up call for our entire society. More than a year ago, all of Ukraine was outraged by the crime committed against Oksana Makar (an 18-year-old girl raped, strangled and burned alive by three young men in Mykolaiv on March 9, 2012), which showed the abyss a person can fall into and the evil cruelty they can inflict if they don’t know and don’t obey moral law.

The current crime in Vradiyivka forces many people to ask where to seek protection from lawlessness and cruelty if those called to protect the law turn out to be criminals themselves? In such a case, a person has the right to defend the law themselves,” read the statement the press service of the UOC-KP posted on their website. The press release also expressed sympathy for Iryna Krashkova and urged parishioners to pray for her.

The celebrations in Kyiv started as planned and lasted three days. The official program was planned out by the hour, starting at 10 am on Friday, July 26, 2013, and ending at 9 pm on Sunday, July 28, 2013. Thirteen different planned events included an international academic conference “St. Volodymyr and the Baptism of Rus’” at the Diplomatic Academy; a meeting between President Yanukovych and members of the government with representatives of the All-Ukrainian Council of Churches and Religious Organizations at the National Palace of Arts “Ukraina”; a joint prayer service by heads of the various national Orthodox Churches at the Monument to St. Volodymyr attended by foreign VIPs; and the unveiling of the restored Monument to the Magdeburg Rights – one of the oldest monuments in Kyiv, erected in honor of the city being granted the right to self-government.

All the events took place during an unbearable heatwave, causing gridlock involving an unprecedented amount of security. Downtown Kyiv was overrun with armed militsiya. For example, 3,000 law enforcement officers monitored public order during the concert on Khreshchatyk Street, where 4,000 residents of Kyiv and guests had come to listen to the Soviet/Russian rock bands Voskreseniye, Yu-Peter, and Bratia Karamazovy.

Ostensibly, they were monitoring “order” on the streets of Kyiv. But the real purpose of the show of force by the almighty militsiya was to save the face of the country’s political leadership against the backdrop of the scandal in Vradiyivka. And they did an excellent job, letting in only those selected few with special invitations to the events, and detaining the insolent “provocateurs” who dared to hold illegal protests.

One of those protests took place outside Mystetskyi Arsenal (The National Art and Culture Museum Complex) – the largest arts and culture center in Ukraine. On the morning of July 26, 2013, the exhibition “Grand and Great” opened, featuring a thousand pieces of all kinds of Ukrainian sacral art, gathered from different places, and representing various time periods. Supplementing the mostly museum artifacts were works by contemporary artists Anatoliy Kryvopal, Tiberiy Silvashi, Roman Minin, and others.

“The aim of the exhibition is to awaken the historical and cultural memories of Ukrainians, strengthen the feeling of a common civilizational experience and the unity of historical principles and worldviews, comprehension of everyone’s involvement in important events of the past, and thus take responsibility for creating the present,” the project curators said in their announcement.

One of those thousand works of art was supposed to be a piece by contemporary artist Volodymyr Kuznetsov titled “Koliyivshchyna: Final Judgment.” The large canvas, 6 meters tall by 11 meter wide, was made especially for the exhibition. The author wanted to adapt the classical Christian scene of Judgement Day, and at first nobody objected.

The composition, in traditional fashion, consisted of three parts. Slightly left of center, the artist depicted Christ judging people, dispensing rewards to the righteous and punishment to the sinners. Beardless, with a chiseled torso, muscular arms, and strong stocky legs, Christ looked more like the Greek god Apollo than the usual depiction of Jesus. Kuznetsov borrowed the unusual image from Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel frescoes in the Vatican.

Christ’s right hand was raised and with his left he was cradling a man in protective gear, a Chornobyl disaster first responder. Next to the Son of God there was a miner wearing a helmet and holding a hammer, with two members of the LGBT community, alongside a hunched-over elderly female pensioner with a cane, and… a woman with a bandaged head and stitches on her upper lip.

Although all the others on the canvas were generalized images of suffering Ukrainians, the last one depicted a very specific person – Iryna Krashkova.

Having miraculously survived being raped and beaten, the woman towered over her abusers. The entire Vradiyivka militsiya department was behind bars and boiling in a blood-filled cauldron. Alongside, being punished in hell for their sins, were the drunk children of the privileged rich sitting in a limousine, corrupt judges and parliamentarians, and unscrupulous priests. A swastika and hammer and sickle floated next to them and in the background the Chornobyl Nuclear Power Plant was ablaze.

Even unfinished, without the third part, which was to symbolize paradise, the painting already threatened to become a very painful thorn in the side of Yanukovych and the retinue of church and state officials who were supposed to open the exhibition. It was a direct a reminder of their “responsibility for the present day.” The message was obvious. So, the day before the opening, the curator of the project and director of Mystetskyi Arsenal at the time, Natalia Zabolotna, personally painted over the canvas in black.

“The exhibition ‘Grand and Great’ is supposed to evoke pride for the country we live in… You can’t criticize your homeland, just as you can’t criticize your mother. I consider anything you say against your homeland to be immoral,” she commented, after this overt act of censorship infuriated a large part of the Ukrainian artistic community.

On the evening of July 26, a handful of protesters gathered outside Mystetskyi Arsenal. As they just started raising their signs and posters, the militsiya detained eight of them. On the afternoon of July 27, the same thing happened to six protesters on Independence Square. Among them were participants of the “Vradiyivka Procession.”

Coincidentally, another event began at the same time as the official program opened in Kyiv. It was a conference called the “Orthodox-Slavic Values: The Foundation of Ukraine’s Civilizational Choice.”

“… This was not just Ukraine’s civilizational choice. On the exact spot, where we now stand… in the Dnipro baptismal font, in the Kyiv baptismal font, the choice was made for all Holy Rus’. The choice was made here for us all. Our ancestors, who lived on these territories, made the choice for all our people.

‘For all our people’ – I say this, of course understanding the current reality: the Ukrainian nation, the Belarusian nation, and other nations exist, and we respect that heritage; but, naturally, the foundation of our common spiritual values make us one people. Today the representatives of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church spoke about just that. And you can’t deny it, you must only agree with it,” one of the special guests said categorically while sitting in front of banners of the “Ukrainian Choice” political party.

These words belonged to Vladimir Putin, on his last visit to Ukraine. Today, as researchers try to establish the date and time when Russia declared war on us, many of them refer to the Russian president’s speech in Kyiv on July 27, 2013. In his official speech, instead of saying “in Ukraine” he constantly used the phrase “on Ukraine” – a direct reference to his plans to invade.

Honestly, at the time, the conference didn’t seem all that important. Ukrainians had other, bigger things to worry about.

His words didn’t incite much shock or stir deep outrage, because the oft-repeated tune about Holy Rus’ being the cradle of three brotherly nations with common values is as old as the hills. Yes, every now and then a fan would take an old turntable out of the attic, wipe off the three-centimeter layer of dust, and play this antique recording. Scratched over time, it produced more hissing than music, and no longer had the same effect. The number of people who loved the melody and were nostalgic for it dwindled with every passing year.

“There’s nothing to worry about. At least not about this,” Ukrainians thought, unconcerned, during what would become the last peaceful summer in Ukraine.

The Science of Choice and Choice as Science

Time has shown, making a choice and being responsible for that choice is a complex science. Humanity has been studying the science of choice from the very beginning of its own existence; nearly every day we encounter different options upon which to act. The history of the world is in fact the history of good and bad choices made by people and the repercussions of these choices.

Perhaps the most famous choice is described in the biblical myth about the exile from paradise. The first people created by God live in Eden, a garden of paradise where grace reigns and life is carefree. If you’re thirsty – here’s some water. If you’re hungry – there’s food all around. People live in harmony with nature, are an integral part of it, and don’t even need clothes. Humans are part of the whole. In paradise you don’t need to think, you don’t need to choose, you don’t need to work. Adam and Eve are freed from all that. And it will always be this way because they have eternal life. But there is one condition: they must never eat fruit from the tree of knowledge of good and evil.

The day Adam and Eve ate the forbidden fruit, they made a choice – a choice which disobeyed the rules of God. And so, the first people had to face responsibility for their actions. They were driven out of paradise and forbidden to return. They became mortal. Man was punished with physical labor, and woman with the agony of childbirth.

The story of Adam and Eve is often given as the textbook example of a bad, incorrect choice. It’s hard to disagree because you can’t wrap your head around it: how could a person who had everything they needed trade eternal life in paradise for total uncertainty, an existence outside of God’s plan? From the point of view of the Christian Church, the choice was a sin because it was a direct act of disobedience of the higher power.

But what the church elders call a fall from grace can be interpreted from a different perspective – as the first act of freedom in the history of humanity. The freedom to control one’s own life and to decide for yourself what is good and what is evil. It very well could be life in Eden didn’t seem like paradise for those first people; it was more like a prison. The forbidden fruit, therefore, was nothing other than their ticket to freedom.

In his book Escape from Freedom (1941), German psychologist and philosopher Erich Fromm wrote: “Human existence and freedom are from the beginning inseparable.” However, there is “freedom from” and “freedom to.” The former refers to freedom where a person doesn’t have to choose; they agree with the given conditions of life (which may not be the best) so as not to feel alone and not take responsibility, instead delegating their right to choose to someone else, and hence, escaping from freedom. In the latter, a person is freed from outside control and coercion and chooses how, where, when, and with whom to live their life. But fear, doubt, hesitation, and consequences for actions are eternal companions of choice, because freedom = responsibility.

There is a fundamental difference between the two freedoms. The first ends in a gray, faceless mass of people (an object that is controlled), and the second results in a separate, self-conscious individual (a subject that is in control). To find out which category you belong to, ask yourself a seemingly simple question: Do I live my own life, or does someone else choose how I live? Making choices is an integral part of a person’s evolution towards becoming separate from the masses (or nature, as in the case of Adam and Eve) and transforming into an individual.

Fromm called this transformation the process of individualization. It is what Ukrainians have been going through for the past 30 years and will likely continue doing for several more decades. Ukrainians are noticeably lagging behind others on the path to individualization, largely because there was a long pause interrupting the process in the last century – it was called the Soviet Union.

Totalitarian regimes don’t want citizens who can’t be controlled, and communism was no exception. From the very beginning, the Bolsheviks proclaimed the primacy of the interests of the whole over the interests of the individual and went on a crusade to meticulously root out any manifestations of individualism.

The compilers of the Soviet Brief Political Dictionary (1971) describe individualism as nothing more than “the fundamental principle of bourgeois ideology and morality” which “grows into cynical egoism in the era of imperialism.” And here the authors admit: “The vestiges of individualism in the minds of Soviet people are in deep contradiction to the principles of communist morality.” To overcome these vestiges, “socialist society protects the genuine interests of the individual and creates real conditions for the blossoming of the individual and the development of an exceptional person.”

The state actively used propaganda to convince the masses of the correctness of these declared postulates. Take for example the cartoons by Danish artist and member of the Danish Communist Party Herluf Bidstrup, often published in the official Soviet communist newspaper Pravda.

One of his cartoons from 1950 reflected the life of Danish individualists: a kindergartener holds onto a rope and is led by a teacher; next the youngest schoolchildren carefully catch every word the teacher says; then the little bit older ones go through scout training. Self-aware and responsible, in adulthood the Danish individualists queue to pay taxes, march in military formation under the command of some general, and finally… lie down in evenly spaced rows in cemeteries.

All this time, as the Danish go through the cycle of life, a bourgeois is watching them with a wide grin on his face, rubbing his giant potbelly with pleasure. He stands atop a pile of bags filled with hundreds of thousands of dollars, wearing an expensive suit and smoking a cigar.

With nary a word, the cartoon proselytizes: “Look! You see what awaits individualists? They may think they’re so different from us, but they’re deceiving themselves. In reality, others are shamelessly prospering off them and they’re too blind and stupid to notice.”

Bolshevik ideology rested on such blatantly manipulative messages. Ukrainians, like the other nations imprisoned in the Soviet Union, were for decades duped by promises of building a paradise on earth, a bright future for humanity, through communism. It was supposed to be a society of equality and justice, without exploiters and the exploited, where everyone gave according to their abilities and received according to their needs. For our future happiness, which by the last account was to come in 1980, Ukrainians paid with the right to choose. Not officially, of course. The USSR tried to the very end to imitate the outward appearance of a democratic state. Which is why it was so important to teach people to choose correctly.

The correct choice Soviet-style meant, for example, coming to the polling station before it opened, standing in line, and voting for the only candidate on the ballot. It meant becoming a Young Pioneer, a member of the Komsomol, a candidate for membership, and then a member of the Communist Party. It meant ceding all your property to a collective farm, conscientiously plowing hectares of beets, doing twice the amount of work “for yourself and the other guy,” and exhibiting gratitude for the equal pay of wages. It meant working in the same factory until you died, not having any chance of moving on to a different job with better conditions. It meant not having relatives abroad because they were considered foreign agents by default. It meant not finding yourself on occupied territory because only “traitors of the homeland” could survive under the Nazis. It meant being grateful to stand in line for hours with ration cards and coupons for poor-quality food and goods. It meant fulfilling your international duty, no questions asked – in Hungary, Poland, Czechoslovakia, or Afghanistan, to later constantly hear “I didn’t send you there!” It meant referring to the classics of Marxism-Leninism in every research study, even if it was a monograph about the tradition of sacrifice among the Chukchi people. It meant writing odes praising the Communist Party and its leader à la Rylsky’s “Song about Stalin”:

Let the land rejoice in singing

In this inspiring, exalted time!

Stalin’s word is with us,

Stalin’s will is among us!

In the communist paradise they knew how to convince those who even slightly doubted whether they had made the right choice. “The almighty power of the argument” is what Vasyl Barka called the technique in his novel Paradise (1953). All you had to do is herd citizens into camps, fence them off with barbed wire, and surround them with guards armed with rifles and bayonets. Afterwards you fed these fortunate folks any fantasies you wanted. For example, that they really do live in paradise. And the cigarette kiosk in the middle of the camp yard resembling the witch Baba Yaga’s hut is actually the Academy; and the guy selling cigarettes is “Shakespeare, who in the afterlife heard about the paradise you now live in, rose from the dead, and is selling cigarettes.”

Maybe, as Barka wrote, the first, second or third resident of the camp still doubted whether the man standing before them was the great English poet. But shooting and killing these dissenters easily remedied the situation. Then when the head of the camp asked the tenth resident of paradise if they “understand everything,” they would answer: “Yes, maybe the hut is indeed the Academy, Shakespeare is selling cigarettes, and we’re here in paradise.” The twelfth would happily declare: “Long live the servant of socialist construction, dear comrade Shakespeare!” The time would come when the guy selling cigarettes would believe he is Shakespeare and on behalf of the camp would proclaim to the leadership: “We are grateful to our dear leader of paradise, the father and the life-giving sun of the global proletariat, for a joyous existence!” and the prisoners would shout in unison “Hurrah!”

Decades of such education – or drills – were not in vain. In fact, the only real choice Soviet citizens made was when a revolver was pointed at their temple. It was the choice between life and death / prison / camps / exile. The compelling proof of this is the fate of Valerian Pidmohylny, Mykola Khvylovy, Mykola Zerov, Mykhailo Semenko, Les Kurbas, and other artists of the 1920-1930s, or Vasyl Stus, Alla Horska, Ivan Svitlychny, Yevhen Sverstiuk, Valeriy Marchenko, and their fellow Sixtiers (the name given to the Ukrainian dissident literary generation of the 1960’s).

The price of the indulgence which allowed you to live was unconditional loyalty to the regime. Most chose the loyalty path. But this couldn’t last forever – and Ukrainians ultimately tasted the forbidden fruit.

“Today, not supporting independence means only one thing – supporting dependence,” reads the statement by the Presidium of the Verkhovna Rada of Ukraine (the parliament) published in Holos Ukrainy (The Voice of Ukraine) a few days before the national referendum. After more than three months of active campaigning, on December 1, 1991, ninety percent of those who voted supported the Act of Independence of Ukraine. Those who believed the corpse of the USSR could still be revived, and who campaigned for the signing of a new union agreement, considered the choice a betrayal, an act of disobedience. For them it was a textbook fall from grace, because instead of a communist paradise, Ukrainians chose to live their own lives – the same way Adam and Eve once did.

By Fromm’s logic, every vote for Ukraine’s independence was a vote in favor of “freedom to.” The freedom to choose from multiple candidates in presidential, parliamentary, and local elections. The freedom to travel the world. The freedom to live and work where you want. The freedom to private property. The freedom to choose what to cook for dinner tonight. The freedom to create science and culture outside the ideological guidelines of the ruling party. The freedom to independently manage mines and factories without having to share profits with the leaders in the Kremlin (in fact, in making this particular choice, each person was guided by their own individual motives, some of which were far from altruistic).

But, as often happens with inmates who spend half their lives in prisons, not everyone was ready for this freedom. The symptoms of post-incarceration syndrome include confusion over the uncertainty of tomorrow, the inability to choose, and the unwillingness to make decisions and take responsibility for them. For Ukrainians, the lack of readiness for the freedom to choose was the direct result of 70 years of being in the prison of nations called the USSR.

Perhaps post-incarceration syndrome is the source of the result of the second important choice made on the same day, December 1, 1991: the election of Leonid Kravchuk as president of Ukraine. It seems as though some of those who voted for independence were afraid of taking responsibility, and so, when choosing a head of state, they delegated the position to the person who seemed to have the most experience in state-building – a former Communist Party functionary.

But you can also look at the results of the first presidential election in independent Ukraine from a different angle. Maybe a bad choice wasn’t made. Instead, maybe Ukrainians didn’t make a choice at all.

Modern psychology research asserts people are more inclined to leave things the way they are rather than to change them, a phenomenon called the status quo bias. On one hand, when you’re talking about minor everyday things like buying milk or eggs at the supermarket, choosing the brand you like and always buy could be justified. In this case, making an automatic choice equivalent to not choosing an equally priced alternative product saves energy and time.

But walking a trodden path isn’t always okay, especially when it comes to more important things, such as, choosing the head of state. Giving preference to the status quo by default can result in lost opportunities. Even when aware of the bias, people still have a hard time finding the courage for change.

Psychologists have proposed several explanations for the phenomenon. First, people may stick with the current state of affairs because they don’t want to lose. Research has shown we feel the pain from failure more strongly than the joy from success. The second reason is to avoid regret. According to research, people regret negative consequences of their actions more than inaction. Another possible factor forcing us to stick with the status quo is choice overload. Having too many options causes people to make bad decisions, to choose what’s familiar as a way to avoid the stress of choice and feel safe.

In 1991, six candidates ran for president of Ukraine: Leonid Kravchuk, the then head of the Verkhovna Rada and until August of 1991, a member of the Communist Party Politburo; Volodymyr Hrynyov, deputy speaker of the Verkhovna Rada and member of the Democratic Platform in the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU); and four representatives of the democratic forces in parliament: Ihor Yukhnovsky, head of the opposition group People’s Council, the leader of its radical wing Viacheslav Chornovil, Levko Lukianenko – head of the Ukrainian Republican Party, and Leopold Taburiansky – head of the People’s Party of Ukraine.

61.69% of voters chose Kravchuk.

Knowing the scientific explanation for the psychological biases that form in our heads when making decisions, today it’s much easier to see the reason for this (non) choice. “Kravchuk was familiar, and we understood who he was. We knew what to expect from him and what not. Any other candidate for president was a risk which could lead to unforeseen losses. Lukianenko, Chornovil, Yukhnovsky – how do you know which one of them would be better? Better a bird in hand than two in the bush,” is what the average Ukrainian probably thought when heading to the polling station on the first Sunday in December 1991.

Perhaps, the last president (in exile) of the Ukrainian People’s Republic Mykola Pavliuk thought, “What’s the difference if we are led by a ‘reformed’ communist, as long as we’re independent,” when he gave Kravchuk the symbols of power (the “kleinods”) and a declaration of succession on August 22, 1992.

The Harvest

The protests sweeping across Ukraine after the rape and beating of Iryna Krashkova by the Vradiyivka militsiya officers in July 2013 became harbingers of a much larger protest against injustice four months later, that became the Revolution of Dignity. And is even sometimes called “The Great Vradiyivka.”

The analogy became crystal clear after the violent dispersal of the EuroMaidan student protestors on November 30, 2013. The thousands of people who had the courage to take to Independence Square (the Maidan) to express their disagreement with Yanukovych’s policies, despite the threat of being expelled from university or fired from their jobs, facing the batons of the Berkut, the brass knuckles of the titushky (thugs for hire), or the bullets of unidentified snipers, are living proof that after more than 20 years of Ukrainian independence, a cohort of citizens had emerged who could make difficult choices, and they were ready to take responsibility for their actions.

Another opportunity to test the theory came shortly afterwards, when in late February and early March of 2014, Russia occupied and annexed Ukrainian Crimea, and a month later invaded Ukrainian Donbas. And once again, a vast number of people, risking their lives and sacrificing their personal comfort and well-being, rose to defend the country.

To stop Ukraine from becoming part of the Russkiy Mir (Russian world) which had flourished freely for years under the banners of the Ukrainian Putin-Medvedchuk Choice political party, according to the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, between April 14, 2014 and January 31, 2021, more than 7,000 Ukrainians (military and civilians) were killed and at least 16,500 were wounded. And this was the number before the start of the full-scale Russian attack in February 2022. As of June 9, 2022, according to Defense Minister Oleksiy Reznikov, every day up to 100 soldiers are being killed and 500 injured.

Difficult as it may be, we must admit some of the responsibility for the incident in Vradiyivka, the shootings during the Revolution of Dignity, and the war with Russia (going on its ninth year), also lies with ordinary Ukrainians. Mostly those who, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, got stuck in the paradigm of simple choices and swapped their vote for a bag of buckwheat or populist promises of high salaries, low taxes, and virtually free-of-charge utilities, and brought to power the Party of Regions led by Yanukovych.

No, they didn’t rape Iryna Krashkova personally. No, they didn’t pull the trigger of the gun that killed Mykhailo Zhyznevskyi, Serhiy Nihoyan or Yuriy Verbytsky. No, they didn’t organize the illegal referendums in Crimea or ORDLO (Occupied Regions of the Donetsk and Luhansk Oblasts). But yes, every ballot check mark next to the name “Yanukovych” – in the east and west, center, north and south of Ukraine – contributed to the establishment of a criminal regime in our country, which protected the criminals by covering for them, and gave direct orders or laid the necessary foundation for Russian troops to capture Ukrainian territory.

Along with Yanukovych’s voters, the responsibility is also shared by those who used various means to protect his spheres of interest.

For example, those law enforcement officers (active and retired) who, instead of condemning their colleagues, did everything possible to prevent the Vradiyivka story from going public and to stop citizens from expressing their rightful indignation. Because it’s easier to tacitly obey orders from above. And they didn’t want to risk losing their jobs.

Or the All-Ukrainian Council of Churches and Religious Organizations of Ukraine, who, by refusing to comment about police violence against the young woman, betrayed their main spiritual duty – to support a person in need. Because it’s easier to stay silent. And they didn’t want to lose their front row seats next to the president at the celebrations of the 1025th anniversary of the Baptism of Kyivan Rus’.

Or the director of Mystetskyi Arsenal Natalia Zabolotna, who destroyed Volodymyr Kuznetsov’s mural “Koliyivshchyna: Final Judgment.” Because it’s easier to censor a truthful statement by one single artist rather than to incur the wrath of the highly placed “men in charge” of the government and church, and, God forbid, lose her job as director.

Ultimately, the responsibility lies with every Ukrainian who chose to turn a blind eye every day to lawlessness and injustice and continued to live peacefully, pretending nothing disgraceful was happening.

The easier path often looks more welcoming, since it saves time, doesn’t require effort, and carries less risk. But it usually turns out to be the wrong path and leads to devastating consequences.

Making good choices isn’t easy but can be learned. 

One way to do this is to analyze your previous choices and take an honest look at the consequences.

Learning to make good choices leads to standing apart from the faceless masses, to taking charge of your own life, and living deliberately. Choosing this path also requires courage and helps us to avoid repeatedly making the mistake of which Fromm wrote: “The unhappy fate of many is that they do not make the choice. They are neither alive nor dead. Life becomes a burden, an aimless enterprise, and busyness is the means to protect one from the torture of being in the land of shadows.”

Other stories written by Marichka Melnyk

Other stories illustrated by Iryna Lysenko

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