Mature Ukraine

Оповідь українською

Story by Oleksii Dubrov

Illustrated by Maryna Lutsyk

One icy December night, long before there were airports, the devil landed in St. Petersburg, the capital of the Russian Empire. Riding on his back was Vakula, an ordinary blacksmith from the village of Dykanka near Poltava. The blacksmith had braved the long distance from home through a snowstorm to procure a pair of slippers worn by the tsaritsa. Oksana, a girl from his village, refused to marry Vakula unless he brought them to her. Upon arriving at the royal palace, Vakula met some Zaporozhian Cossack envoys, who had come to the capital on their own mission. The blacksmith joined them, met the tsaritsa, was awarded her slippers, and as a result, won over the girl – his beloved Oksana.

Every Ukrainian knows this story, “Christmas Eve,” written by Ukrainian-born Russian writer Nikolai Gogol and published in 1832 in St. Petersburg. Gogol, then a novice writer, told a story that appealed to the masses and would go on to be made into dozens of operatic, theatrical, and film adaptations. The first silent film version came out in 1913, when cinematography was just developing into an artform.

At the time the story was published in 1832, sixty-eight years had passed since Catherine II, also known as the Great – the very same tsaritsa whose slippers the blacksmith Vakula set his sights on – issued the decree abolishing the Hetmanate of the Zaporozhian Cossacks and later their fortress – the Sich. Gogol didn’t explain exactly what the Cossack envoys had asked Catherine, but he has a whole section where he eloquently describes in detail how the Ukrainians admired the luxurious palace and fawned over the tsaritsa. And how they called her nothing other than “mum.” And how she was happy that finally, “His Highness [Potemkin] promised to acquaint me today with a people under my dominion, whom I have not yet seen.” The Zaporozhian Cossacks, like Vakula, weren’t familiar with the manners of the court and came off as somewhat crude, but Catherine liked their simpleness so much she granted at least one request – the slippers. As for the Zaporozhian Sich, it is widely known, she destroyed it. About this, Gogol remained silent.

Simpleness would be a trait attributed to Ukrainians for about the next 200 years. We were seen as kind and hospitable. We cook, dance, and sing well. We’re also pleasant and funny. People like this aren’t a threat. At least that’s how Russians wanted to and continue to want to see Ukrainians within their empire. Nikolai Gogol, whom we so desperately want to attribute to Ukraine, did a good job of creating Russian narratives about us. The Zaporozhian Cossacks in “Christmas Eve” look pitiful, like beaten victims fawning before their abuser, whom they truly love. They fawn and in return receive smiles and mercy in the form of slippers… and a destroyed Sich.

In abusive relationships, the aggressor strives to physically and psychologically break the victim’s inner strength, to subdue their will. The weaker partner loses faith in their own strength, their self-esteem suffers, they lose the ability to make independent decisions. Worst of all – the victim believes this is normal and is drawn even closer to the aggressor. The position of the victim, so eloquently described by Gogol, was one of the worst things about the Russkiy Mir (Russian World) for Ukrainians – they forced upon us the image of what they thought an ideal Ukrainian should be.

The latest Moscow-Lithuanian war ended in 1503, more that 300 years before the release of “Christmas Eve,” with the Grand Duchy of Lithuania losing 20 cities and at least a third of its territory, and the Grand Duchy of Moscow reaching the borders of Kyiv. But that wasn’t the issue: Lithuania would go on to take back part of their land. In the peace settlement with Lithuanian Grand Duke Alexander, Grand Prince Ivan III of Moscow gave himself the title of “Sovereign of all Rus.” Thus was born among the Russian elites the idea that would fuel them for centuries, irrespective of ideologies, methods or political systems. Moscow plagiarized Byzantium’s coat of arms with the double-headed eagle, proclaimed itself the successor of Kyivan Rus, and used every means possible over the coming centuries to collect and rule over lands of the former medieval state. Russians, before they were even Russians, were hooked on injecting themselves with this idea, and have been unable to break their addiction to this day.

The Rus state emerged and flourished in the 10-12th centuries, long before Moscow existed. Its capital was Kyiv. But early 16th century Kyiv had not been independent for several centuries. The city and region hadn’t even come close to regaining its status as a center of influence after its destruction by the Mongol invasion in 1240. Ukrainians, most of whom back then called themselves Rusyns or People of Rus (the Muscovites weren’t part of the club, nor were they particularly interested in joining it) – were the true descendants and heirs of former Kyivan Rus. They helped the Lithuanians create the civilized Grand Duchy of Lithuania; defended themselves against the aggressive Catholic Kingdom of Poland while, at the same time, incorporating themselves into it, fought against the Crimean Khanate (while occasionally allying with it), and grew accustomed to the Moscow Principality. Nobles of Rusyn origin took turns enlisting Muscovites, Lithuanians, and Poles to resolve their property disputes and political problems.

For example, in 1508, Mykhailo Hlynsky, a member of one of these noble families, asked the Muscovites to help him against the Poles, who had taken away the privileges and positions granted to him by the Lithuanians. Having failed in this, he fled to Moscow, where he was given the status of a boyar or aristocrat, became the father-in-law of the Prince of Moscow, was later imprisoned and released. Then again, he rose through the ranks in the highest circles of power, was again jailed, and eventually died in prison.

Among all the elites and nobles of the Eastern European region, only those from Rus (proto-Ukrainian) didn’t take any serious steps to amass the “lands of Rus.” It was much easier to join existing systems or states. These systems were, to a greater or lesser extent, foreign, they had different languages, religions or denominations, cultures and traditions. And because of this, our ancestors, including our elites, were always seen as second-class citizens of these systems. Nevertheless, all the energy of the most active and most influential people of Rus, who were often more advanced than their neighbors, was put into effectively incorporating themselves with other states rather than creating their own.

The Zaporozhian Cossacks, who gained strength starting in the mid-16th century, did not get the chance to become the heroes in one of Gogol’s stories. These were warriors who took up arms to fight for their status and, as they called it then – “liberties.” For several decades, the Cossack leader, Hetman Petro Sahaidachny was able to burn down Crimean fortresses, Ottoman cities, and part of Moscow. Bohdan Khmelnytsky would use both weapons and diplomacy to create a quasi-independent state. However, the ambition and strength for full independence was lacking. And it would be fair to say, the idea of an independent state was not only absent among the elites and the general population, but it also simply didn’t exist. Under the Pereyaslav Agreement of 1654, the Hetmanate became a protectorate of Moscow. This was the foundation upon which the gradual transformation of the Zaporozhian Cossacks from skilled warriors into simple-minded literary heroes was built.

The position of the Cossack elites also changed depending on the situation. In 1664, Ivan Bohun and Ivan Vyhovsky were killed one month apart, in the Chernihiv and Kyiv regions respectively. The former was killed by the Poles for allegedly being a traitor with ties to the Muscovites. The latter was killed by Cossacks under Pavlo Teteria (then Hetman of Right-Bank Ukraine) for allegedly supporting an anti-Polish uprising. Both knew Bohdan Khmelnytsky well. Bohun strongly opposed the agreement with Moscow and refused to pledge allegiance to the tsar. Vyhovsky was one of the most ardent supporters of the alliance with the northern neighbor, but he would sign another agreement with the Poles a few years later. They would both die 10 years after the Pereyaslav Agreement, and in the coming decades, the elites would constantly search for strange models of survival where the main goal was to protect their own privileges and status in exchange for some form of dependence. Although they were much closer culturally to the Catholic Poles and Lithuanians, Ukrainians at the time increasingly gave in to the false fairy tale about their Muscovite Orthodox brothers.

The Cossacks fought the Poles for liberties on the battlefield. With the Muscovites, these “battles” were increasingly settled through negotiations, supplication, and humiliation at the betrayal of one’s own self. As a result, de facto independence turned into autonomy, which over the decades became increasingly restricted. Having entered into an abusive relationship of their own free will, the Cossacks, along with the rest of the population of Ukraine, gradually became victims.

In 1709, Hetman Ivan Mazepa and King Charles XII of Sweden challenged Muscovite rule over Ukrainian lands. Mazepa’s time as Hetman of Left-Bank Ukraine starting in 1687 was both a period of cultural and economic growth and a gradual decline of the institution of the Hetmanate. In October 1708, a rebellion against Peter I would have seemed logical given the military might of the Swedish army, but Mazepa’s potential contribution as a military ally was rather modest. After half a century, people across the Hetmanate had grown accustomed to Muscovite military garrisons, officers all had contact with the tsar’s people. Gogol’s Zaporozhian Cossack envoys didn’t just fall from the sky. The prospect of punishment for collaboration with the adventurous Mazepa seemed much worse than showing loyalty to the tsar. The slaughter of the entire civilian population of Baturyn, torture, abuse, and murder by “Orthodox abusers” was received with an almost tacit acceptance of such a fate. A hundred years earlier, there had been a healthy reaction in the form of resistance to similar behavior by Catholic Poles or Muslim Tatars. After all, the Cossacks emerged in part as a response to regular attacks by the Crimean Khanate.

The local elites reiterated their allegiance to the tsar, and Ivan Skoropadsky was formally elected as the new hetman. At the Battle of Poltava in the summer of 1709, neither the Swedish king nor the Muscovite tsar gave the Cossacks any special role in their armies. Charles XII had them surround Poltava and defend the military camp, while Peter I stationed them far away from his troops’ main positions. But when choosing between independence and special status as a vassal, you choose the latter, you will ultimately lose both. The former military might that Europe once respected became a second-rate human resource. For Ukrainians on both sides of the redoubts, the battle was lost before it even started. For the next 300 years, the main players in the wars on Ukraine’s land would be foreign armies, or armies controlled by foreign people.

The evolution from Mazepa’s failure to Gogol’s story was just a matter of time. Ukraine became the object of physical, mental, economic, and cultural abuse, and consciously played the game. We can’t say for certain what sentiments toward the question of statehood prevailed among Ukrainian peasants in the 19th century, but most likely there were no sentiments. Those who had recently fled to the Sich and taken up arms came to terms with being serfs – a role uncharacteristic for Ukrainians. Those who “joined the elites” first and foremost sought to serve.

In 1892, Borys Hrinchenko, in his letters to Mykhailo Drahomanov, explained that Ukrainian public figures in the region along the Dnipro River of Ukraine had two souls – Ukrainian and Russian: “The Russian intellectual of the time was pulled here and there, to his native land and to the ‘Stanislav on his neck’ [The Imperial Order of Saint Stanislav, a medal stolen from the Poles and in the Russian Empire was awarded mainly to officials]; they wanted to serve their native land while not angering those giving out the ‘Stanislav.’ Here, of course, to the rescue came ‘one all-Russian great people,’ and ‘our mutual history,’ and ‘common all-Russian culture,’ and ‘thunder of victory,’ – and all sorts of other wonderful stories, used of course, when a compromise has to be made.” At the time, loving Ukraine as your ancestral territory and homeland, while at the same time serving Russians, had become part of everyday culture. Developing the language, preserving traditions, hating the Poles, and caring about the success of the Russian state project were deeply ingrained in the minds of our elites.

Most leading Ukrainian figures of the time and Ukrainian academic curriculum writers didn’t see Ukraine or themselves as being independent. Autonomy within the Austro-Hungarian or Russian Empire was the most they aspired to. The sovereignty of the metropoles wasn’t even challenged. Meanwhile, the Finns, Lithuanians, Latvians, and Estonians, whose populations were much smaller, had very different and greater ambitions. The wave of fascination with socialism among them (like with the Poles, although they put independence first) didn’t blur the quest for statehood. The Ukrainian elites had fallen for the new fairy tale from their Russian-brothers about the need for class struggle against the global bourgeoisie or the old song about “one great nation.” At the same time, they saw the Poles or the “bourgeois West” – or even their fellow Ukrainians – as a bigger threat.

Colonel Petro Bolbochan of the Army of the Ukrainian People’s Republic, one of the most talented military figures of the Ukrainian national liberation revolution of 1917-1921 and a graduate of the Chuhuyiv Military School in the Kharkiv region, wrote: “You work especially hard and spend a lot of time thinking about how not to anger and how to please your Bolshevik comrades in Moscow, so as not to appear anti-democratic in their eyes. You don’t see that by doing this you are cultivating the same kinds of Bolshevik comrades in Ukraine as well, and through Bolshevism you are leading Ukraine towards a ‘Single United Russia.’”

Bolbochan wrote this while under arrest on orders of the political leadership of the Directorate of the Ukrainian People’s Republic. His groundless arrest was probably the result of fear of a military coup by the leader of one of the few battle-ready Ukrainian army units at the time. A unit that was completely subordinate to the Directorate and was its chance to stop the Bolsheviks in early 1919. Bolbochan wrote several letters, filled with the pain of a man who wanted to build an independent Ukraine and was ready to fight for it, but became hostage to the intrigues of small-minded men in high positions. These letters, like the quote above, were addressed primarily to Symon Petliura, who, like Vynnychenko and Hrushevsky, were always more afraid of their own military than of the Russians. In actuality, they were more afraid of those who carried the idea of an independent Ukraine than of the bearers of the idea of a global revolution of the proletariat (which brought along with it the restoration of the Russian Empire in a new form). Bolbochan was held in custody for several months and then released when the situation became catastrophic. Then the leaders again changed their minds, and on June 28, 1919, he was executed as a war criminal. He wanted to and could have resisted the Bolsheviks, but he lost the war to his own people – those who were afraid of decisive Ukrainians. People whom he urged to be Ukrainians first and members of some political camp second. You could safely say his killer was Symon Petliura, whom we customarily hail as a hero statesman.

Bolbochan wasn’t the only one who died seeking to restore the Ukrainian people’s subjectivity. On May 4, 1924, a stocky man was found hanged from a tree in an apple orchard on Zhylianska Street in Kyiv, then the center of the Kyiv gubernia (province). There was a suicide note in his pocket, and he was buried a few days later next to other people who took their own lives. Even during the Bolshevik occupation, these rules were still in place.

Not many people came to the funeral – 11 or 12, according to eyewitnesses. The person they buried that day at Baikove Cemetery had in the early 20th century been ridiculed by Volodymyr Vynnychenko, was pushed off the pulpit by Mykhailo Hrushevsky, and was sent by the Russians to the front in the summer of 1917 at the request of Symon Petliura. The most popular version put forward to explain his suicide was his supposed inclination to cooperate with the NKVD and being constantly blackmailed. But Volodymyr Shemet and Mykola Marchenko, two of his closest friends, said that in spring 1924, he was in a very wretched state. His life’s purpose collapsed and becoming part of the Ukrainian political émigré community was more demoralizing than encouraging.

The piece of paper found in Mykola Mikhnovsky’s pocket read: “By my own hand, instead of theirs.”

The idea of an independent Ukraine, which Mikhnovsky first started actively promoting at the turn of the 20th century, faced the sharpest and harshest resistance not from Russians or Poles, but from Ukrainians. The same Ukrainians in whose memory institutes and main streets of cities throughout Ukraine have been named. And although researchers cite Mikhnovsky’s being too emotional, rude, and stubborn as the reasons for his misunderstandings with the majority of the Ukrainian elite in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, it would be naïve to say the peculiarities of his character were the root cause of this sentiment.

Having been in an abusive relationship for more than 200 years, the demand for Ukrainian independence hit at the heart of the Ukrainian elites’ original sin, which was Russophilia. Russophilia, with its desire to gain favorable special status and not become persona non grata in St. Petersburg or Moscow. Compromising with evil became a new religion. And refusing to compromise was heresy. The most radical manifestation of this compromise was the quest for autonomy as part of a reformed “good” Russia. And even Mikhnovsky agreed the important priority was to preserve the unity of the Ukrainian forces.

But by making autonomy a first order priority, our intellectuals doomed the idea of independence to failure. This cultural mutation from the 18-19th centuries developed organically in the 20th century together with the Ukrainian national communists, the process of Ukrainianization, and the attitude that the USSR was a state entity Ukrainians could consider their own offspring, not their occupier. And we agreed to this, unlike, for example, the Baltic countries.

The “delicacies” the Bolsheviks fed Ukrainians to make them feel better were simply enticements. Although Ukrainians were open to leftist ideas, only 3% of peasant farms had joined collective farms by the early 1920s, and by the end of the decade, the process had slowed significantly. Although Ukrainians were amenable to leftist ideas, in the early 1920s only 3% of peasant farms had joined collective farms, and by the end of the decade this process was extremely sluggish. Ukrainians preferred to work on their own land, to have the opportunity to become wealthier, and to expand. But the communists decided to break the people’s will in the name of a dead idea. Stalin set out to collectivize the villages as quickly as possible.

Being able to work their own land awoke in Ukrainians something that seemed to have fallen asleep after the rise of the Cossacks and had just begun to return after 1917. They began to sense a responsibility for their own lives and started to resist. When they passed the law on the nationalization of cattle, peasants slaughtered the animals rather than give them away. When the authorities terrorized wealthy farms to try to destroy them, they got hundreds and thousands of acts of terrorism in response. When tens of thousands of mentally unstable Komsomol members and people from the interior of Russia were given weapons to enforce collectivization, they got more than 4,000 organized uprisings by 1.2 million Ukrainian peasants in 1930 alone. Only the man-made famine – the Holodomor – which took the lives of close to 4 million people and traumatized a whole generation, could break the resistance of the Ukrainian peasantry. By 1937, “good Russians” and their supporters in Ukraine collectivized nearly all farms, at a terrible cost.

Later, after WWII, Ukrainians were again labeled as simple-minded, somewhat dumb, but nice and funny people. However, now their reputation also included being potential traitors…who sing and dance very well. The folksy Veryovka choir and Virsky dance ensemble in their embroidered peasant costumes, comedy duo Tarapunka and Shtepsel, victories in singing competitions only confirmed this. Russian ideologues upheld this image, elevating the prestige of Russophilia for its victim. Although they undoubtedly achieved success, they themselves believed too strongly in this artificially created narrative.

Russophilia was just a smokescreen, a virus the collective immunity would try to attack every now and then. On September 20, 1987, Dynamo Kyiv football club lost to Spartak Moscow 0:1 in the Ukrainian capital. The angry hosts joined up with fans of other Ukrainian teams and started a huge brawl in the stadium with the Russian fans, which quickly spilled over into the streets. The Ukrainians attacked lighting fast, the enemy was pushed back to the central railway station and blocked there. They even smashed up their transport: the Kyiv-Moscow train and the bus for the football team’s guests. It took the militsiya (interior ministry troops), who back then weren’t on the side of the people, to break things up. Sure, football matches sometimes devolve into fights amongst fans, but in the USSR only a match between the teams of Kyiv and Moscow could have turned into such an onslaught, with the unconditional surrender of the latter.

Weeding out narratives that have been ingrained in society for decades is a long and painful process. Ukrainians, in general, preferred to avoid conflict and often tried to sit on two chairs at once, even when the chairs were on fire. By early 1991, Lithuania, Estonia, Latvia, Georgia, Moldova, and Armenia had declared their independence or transition to independence. When the all-Union referendum on preserving the USSR was held in March, those counties ignored it. Ukraine took part and voted “yes.”

Ukraine would declare independence later that year. Not because it cast off the shackles of its prolonged occupation, but “In view of the mortal danger surrounding Ukraine in connection with the state coup in the USSR on August 19, 1991…” So, the mortal threat wasn’t the USSR, the Russian Empire or enslavement, but a coup in the metropole. Maybe we wouldn’t have declared independence, but since you did what you did over there, you left us no choice. The first sentence of the Ukrainian declaration of independence contains a reaction to something that happened in Moscow, while the desire of the Ukrainians is laid out in a strange phrase about the “thousand-year tradition of state development” in the subsequent points. Not the “just right to freedom” and the “result of the struggle for independence,” but the right to be independent until Moscow figures things out. And what happened when in Moscow they figured things out?

The history of Ukraine is one of alternating opposing narratives: we’re either armed to the teeth Cossacks instilling fear in the most powerful empires (like the Ottoman Empire in the 16-17th centuries), or simple-minded Gogol-esque fawners before the tsaritsa. Either we beat the pants off one of the strongest football teams in the world (take the 2013 match against France in the World Cup playoffs), or we run around the field confused by Kazakhstan, a team five notches below us in the FIFA rankings. Today we show strength, and tomorrow we forget we ever had any.

For centuries, the dominant narrative explaining Ukraine’s defeats was its unpreparedness, immaturity, and lack of unity. Our elites weren’t as good as others, our people were in the dark and far from national consciousness, and our geopolitical location was such that we stood no chance at all. We don’t know how to unite, we conform too easily, we don’t trust the state. But what if the truth lies much deeper? What if all the reasons we’re used to hearing and giving are just a manifestation of “poor me” syndrome, which we’ve used to protect ourselves from the fact that for centuries Ukrainians didn’t really want to build their own independent state. And not just because of a personal reluctance or objective geopolitical reasons, but because of the serious psychological effects of living next to an abuser-state.

Living with an abuser can make you idealize them and want to obey rather than oppose them, sometimes even emulate them. The victim may hate the “stronger one” deep down inside and love them at the same time. For thirty years the Establishment and the post-communist elite tried to build our 603,548 sq. km. not into Ukraine, but a smaller version of Russia, even one with a chance of becoming a member of the EU or NATO. We left soviet medicine in place but thought the Russians reformed it better because they added the word “insurance.” When Moscow changed the name of its militsiya to “police,” which continued to terrorize society, Kyiv studied their reforms. We didn’t change anything in our cultural sphere, but we went to conferences in St. Petersburg and admired the scanners they used to digitize museum exhibits. We reformed nothing, but enthusiastically said, “When I was in Russia…” Moscow was the model to emulate, not the more developed Warsaw or London. We liked being a few years behind the metropole. And the metropole liked it even more… until 2014.

The Revolution of Dignity shook society to its core and made it abundantly clear we could fight back against the abuser. Having ousted an idiot president and starting to regain our lost strength, Ukraine received a slap across the face with the annexation of Crimea and the occupation of Donbas. The victim tried to hit back, cast off its simple-mindedness, and go on the offensive. There were positive results and it bought time needed to reassess the situation. We didn’t win the war then, but we definitely didn’t lose the battle.

If you delve into the history of Russian-Ukrainian relations, it becomes clear Ukrainians have never won a war against the Russians. Yes, Prince Ostrozky destroyed the best Russian cavalry in the Battle of Orsha. Sahaidachny burned part of Moscow. Vyhovsky forced the Muscovites to flee Konotop like they would a nuclear bomb. We won individual battles, but we always lost the wars for some reason for another – especially when we stopped building Ukraine and refocused on being “little Russia.” How could a little Russia ever defeat a big Russia?

We were often ashamed to build a “big” Ukraine. It seemed snobbish and unrealistic, and the timing was always wrong. It became a cultural problem. What do Ukrainians call those who want more than the past, which suited everyone – holier-than-thou dreamers or visionary leaders? What do we do when they challenge the established canons of societal compromise with evil – do we stand by and watch them be devoured, or do we lend a hand? What do Ukrainians opt to do when positive change requires conflict with the way things have always been or with the mighty? What if the old ways and the “accepted” are defended by moral authorities and even former dissidents?

We’ve been debating whether we should join NATO since independence up until the victory of the Revolution of Dignity. The prevailing opinion was that we weren’t ready, that it would anger Russia, and that you can’t make such a radical choice when choosing sides. Article 5 of NATO’s founding treaty says an attack on one member of the alliance is an attack on all. It’s like the motto of the Three Musketeers – “All for one, and one for all.” Our own politicians scared us into believing NATO would turn a peaceful and sunny Ukraine, with its chornozem (black soil) and hospitable people, into a large military base designed to solve problems for the Americans. But instead of simply “acting like doves of peace,” with the help of NATO, we were able to sharpen our teeth.

At 4 am on February 24, 2022, the Russian army crossed the border and began bombing Ukrainian cities all over the country: Kharkiv, Chernihiv, Sumy, Kyiv, Mariupol, Lviv, Odesa, and others. They brought with them three days’ worth of expired food rations and parade uniforms for their triumphant parade down Kyiv’s main street – Khreshchatyk. After more than two months of war, blue and yellow flags still fly over each of those cities.

A lot has been said about the Kremlin’s miscalculations: they were ill-prepared; they didn’t understand Ukrainians. But our strong resistance to the empire came as a surprise to most of us as well, did it not? For almost two centuries, Russians and Ukrainians alike have loved Gogol’s “Christmas Eve.” They staged it in separate and joint productions. They laughed at how the royal court liked the simple-minded Vakula.

Big data showed and continues to show the Ukrainians should have lost the 2022 war in several days. Western countries were convinced of this and were awaiting the dawn of “a new reality.” Ukrainian diplomats recall this in their interviews. But the collective memory of Konotop and Pereyaslav, Mazepa and Baturyn, Bolbochan and the Ukrainian People’s Republic, the Holodomor and collectivization, the Dynamo-Spartak match and Russian intervention in Crimea proved to be stronger than analysts’ forecasts. The phrase “Russian warship, go fuck yourself!” resonated in every part of Ukraine because it expressed the purpose and strength Ukrainians always had inside of them but were afraid to show. The same strength the Cossacks had when they fought the Poles for “liberties” and the peasants had when they killed the Komsomol who came to take their land in the 1930s.

Russians are classic abusers: they can dish it out, but they can’t take it. The only way to overcome an abuser is to destroy him. If you accept another compromise, he’ll come back again and again, taking advantage of the collective trauma he himself created. The ongoing people’s war for independence is our test of maturity. It’s a terrible tragedy, but also a chance for our first victory against Russia in all of history. The chance exists, but success isn’t guaranteed. And the risk of repeating traditional mistakes after the war remains.

We have the strength to win, and the NATO principles we have been striving for have always been in our blood. The West was taken by surprise because it hasn’t repelled aggression for a long time. International organizations called to help people during conflict have proven incapable of upholding their own principles and goals. What good is the UN, an organization whose mission is to ensure peace on the planet, if after the first month of war there is just one resolution condemning aggression? It speaks to the UN’s impotence and challenges its very existence. It must be replaced by a different structure, one that is more decisive, less bureaucratic, and can truly ensure peace for those ready to take responsibility to defend their right to exist, as well as for those who are weaker. One in which 200 member states will not be held hostage by one insane country with veto power.

On March 18, 2021, Vladimir Putin, while in illegally annexed Crimea, described to one of his propagandists what he sees as the messianic purpose of his presidency: “The main milestone is the collection, the restoration of Russia as a single centralized state.” Muscovites have been deliberately talking about “the gathering of lands” since 1503. Six hundred years have passed but the sick imperialist idea under the guise of the double-headed eagle hasn’t changed. The collectors achieved their goals so long as Ukrainians were ready to compromise, believe in their own simpleness, and forget about their “sharp teeth.” The destroyed city of Mariupol must become what ravaged Baturyn did not – the ultimate vaccine against the Russkiy Mir. Then it will become a symbol of a rebuilt, strong and mature Ukraine.

Other stories written by Oleksii Dubrov

Other stories illustrated by Maryna Lutsyk


Story by Oleksii Dubrov
Illustrated by Maryna Lutsyk
Oleh Mahdych, Stanislav Hreshchyshyn, Cadmus & Marichka Melnyk contributed to this story.


Ivan Fedorovich from Moscow

“I told you from the very beginning it was a bad idea to come to this mudhole…”

To Run Like a Rabbit, You Need Balls

“Show me your ticket!” the inspector’s thundering voice startled Masha out of her reverie…