Taking Kiev in two weeks
by Christoph Assheuer 5th Sept. 2014
It’s impossible to dramatise the present situation which has gone far beyond the immediate conflict with its one million refugees from the Donbass region alone. The promised ceasefire seems to be about to be put into practice which might at least freeze the conflict for a while.
There is no doubt: Putin c a n take Kiev in two weeks. This is one of the few things I trust Putin with. NATO and the West have promised not to interfere, but the loss of life also on the Russian side would be very high.
It’s sheer madness: Almost every Ukrainian speaks Russian and in that war, Russian-speakers would encounter Russians, possibly friends they once served in the Soviet army with or spent time with in holiday camps of the Black Sea or the Baltic. From Soviet times, people know each other intimately. It’s a little bit as if a Bavarian who happens to live in Berlin would be recruited in the Prussian army, and the Berlin guy who works in Bavaria would join the Bavarian side.
Another example may illustrate the severity of the situation: Sweden has been a neutral country for two hundred years and has enjoyed (relative) peace during all that time. Finland, too, was very apt at maintaining its independence from Russia during WWII and immediately afterwards. But because of the revival of Russian chauvinism, there are now more and more voices in these two non-Nato countries, totally committed to neutrality, who feel insecure and wonder about joining NATO. The situation is dramatic: A leading Russian general has even declared himself in favour of a new military doctrine which would include preventative nuclear strikes. I hear echoes of Reagan’s defense secretary Caspar Weinberger from the 80s.
It’s a difficult situation, the war psychology being whipped up by state media in Russia resembles the German Versailles syndrome of the 20ties while the “patriotic” Russian elite – Lavrov for example – keep their capital and their families well sheltered in the West (and we remember painfully how the Versailles syndrome made it easy for the most vicious thugs to creep to power in Germany). In “Lettre International” Russian authors talk about the Post-Soviet blues and the ideological nightmares of the presence.
What Svetlana Alexijevitch calls living in a second-hand time (for example importing the worst aspects of the West, its cheap commodity mentality), has taken its toll. Economists often argue that unlike the Chinese the Russians haven’t developed a proper economy apart from resources like oil and gas. I don’t think this is the real reason. I feel or at least I hope that there is a deep spirituality hidden in Russian people which simply isn’t satisfied with surface things and in that respect, they are rightly critical of Western capitalism (so are we). That this trait – the whole “Russian soul” mystery school – can be exploited for the purposes of power is unfortunate. The lies propagated by media monopolists, especially Russian TV, are beyond belief for any remotely civilised society if you care to check them out.
“We’ve lost the Sovietskij Soyuz and we are going to get it back, we are true internationalists at heart, and everybody here speaks our language.” People in the former Soviet republics hear the arrogance of the centre, but I also hear, faintly, a longing for true internationalism. Over all the screaming and shouting let’s not forget the other Russia. Memorial. A country of nine time zones which brought forward some of the greatest artists and revolutionaries, from Chagall and Kandinsky to Ahmatova and Svetajeva, but also Emma Goldman and Sasha Berkman, Isaac Babel, Osip Mandelstam and Solshenitzsin. What would the world be without them? Okay, I forgot Alla Pugacheva. I’m not a great fan of statistics, but in terms of life expectancy Russia is ranked 124th in the world, and in terms of GDP per capita it occupies the 70th place on the global index.
II. A country on the borderline
Ukrainian citizen are now going through the bitter experience Bosnia and Croatia experienced in the 90s: Being exposed to armed violence, the annexation of Crimea and being unable to efficiently protect the civilian population. The Ukrainian army and volunteers have been engaged in a very uneven battle (like any other country, Ukraine is defending its territorial integrity).
The uprising of millions of citizen who travelled to Maidan square – not just a few thousands as Russian propaganda would make us believe – was anti-oligarchic, against corruption, and did everything to overcome stupid divisions among the people. It was a young rebellion which tried to shake off the dead weight of Soviet lethargy (but even as I say that, don’t forget that Western financial advisors played a part in ruining the fledgling post-Soviet democracy of the 90s, pensioners of the former Soviet Union lost a lifetime of savings when the rubel was drastically devalued. No wonder they wanted old times back).
This is the greatest crime of the Kremlin – to have stepped in when a democracy emerged from the grassroots, old politicians were weeded out and new movements and projects of civil society became possible.
From my few visits in the Ukraine I remember it very well: If you ever encountered a policeman, you had to bribe him. The same went for most members of the bureaucracy, people had to pay even their professors to be able to graduate. Or take the case of NGO’s who were providing soup kitchens for the above-mentioned pensioners (they were starving before they died). They could only set them up in secret, without an official set of approval. Otherwise the town council would come in and demand bribes!! Of a soup kitchen! I heard about that at a time when teachers ploughed the fields because they didn’t receive their wages.
First the orange revolution and now the more thorough Maidan revolt have tried to reverse this trend. Since then, people simply stopped paying the police (issues of low pay remain unresolved).
Really tricky questions emerge. Has Russia not violated not only the spirit but the letter of four peace treaties it signed with the West? Is it time to abrogate those treaties? These are some of the questions asked. I won’t answer them, but I know that Nato will not come to the rescue of the Ukraine (in 2008, Merkel rejected approaches by the Ukraine on that score). Eventual EU-membership of the Ukraine may be more productive: A country like Russia that has lived through three invasions from the West, from Napoleon to Hitler, must not be pushed into a corner. Our own Western history of imperialism and superiority must be looked at, we have not purged it by good behaviour, far from it. Just look at Iraq and Afghanistan.
If the Ukraine joined Nato, we would risk a war with Russia. Nobody wants that kind of war at this time, I’m sure not even Putin. If the US-Right pushes towards a war, then only because it would benefit US domination and weaken Europe a n d Russia. And I fear that the Ukraine has only one chance: To support Poroshenko and try to come to some understanding with the Russian leadership.
I don’t feel happy about that answer, but we can’t undo the complex story of post-Soviet societies to the East of Poland or South of the Baltic states which have led to the present impasse. And I think the West has waken up, at least a little bit.
Other than that, let’s admit it: We are cowards. Germans never have been heroes: We never defeated fascism through our own force, but had to be rescued from outside. 20 million Ukrainian and Russian soldiers and civilians died in the process. And there are echoes of old-age German arrogance in our treatment of refugees and in the ignorance we show when we are faced with getting to know East European countries like Romania. Many of us have never even been to Poland, for that matter (okay, Mallorca is sunnier). But as far as wars go: It’s good to be afraid of them. Wars are inhuman. As a soldier once shouted in the trenches of WWI: Don’t shoot, there are people on the other side.
III. Conflict resolution
I would like to return to underlying causes of the conflict. It’s funny – in the time before conflicts erupt, their causes appear insubstantial, even ridiculous. I have a great quote by Jurij Andruchowitsch, a thoughtful and laconic Ukrainian writer from Galicia well acquainted with the West. He refers to people who think the Donbass should be given back to the Soviets to relieve the Ukraine of a burden of, to put it mildly, a bunch of alcoholic cretins who’d only vote for the old communists and are incapable of reform or a sober thought. It was in the late 90s when he conveyed this sentiment. It points to an issue that in the short time of the Maidan uprising was not dealt with sufficiently. Or was there a sort of Western Ukrainian arrogance perhaps, do they look down on Donbass miners who perished in their hundreds in privatised mines? (I’d just like to ask)
Once a conflict is in full swing, it seems so hard to step back from the brink. When a crisis comes to a head, even good friends can find themselves polarised by irreconcilable positions. After the terrible fire in Odessa, this happened to people there. It was a very bad omen. The downing of the plane was another such event.
In his book on deadly conflicts “Sitting in the fire”, Arnold Mindell talks about solutions in almost impossible situations. He mentioned a large town meeting he took part in during a time of race riots in the United States. The atmosphere was very tense, black and white people really had it out with each other. People were very close to coming to blows. Somehow, they contained the tension and really worked on the painful issues. By chance, the town in which this very large group was meeting was the only one (I think on the West Coast) which did not erupt in violent riots. He didn’t mention that because he was afraid of conflict, but because it is possible to start to resolve them.
Shortly after the attacks of 9/11, Dr. Mindell, a former nuclear scientist who has worked with terrorists and victims in places like Northern Ireland and South Africa, wrote this about the “nature of the terrorist”:
“The biggest problem for many of us seems to be to understand the energy and the motivation of the terrorists.
Whenever you or anybody turns into an angry terrorist who wants to hurt and take revenge without feeling anything towards those who are being hurt, something comes into view that all human beings experience at some point. The terrorist is not something you don’t know. In a hurt state of mind we all turn into terrorists.
One aspect of the role of the terrorist is the freedom fighter who is looking for a new, better and more just world for himself and his ideas. Another aspect is the one of the spiritual seeker who has found a purpose which is even greater than life itself and which makes one’s own life become unimportant.
The terror itself is an aspect of it, too. Fear and terror are very close to one another. Terror arises out of a fear (that has changed into anger), a fear of being annihilated by an omnipotent enemy, and out of the ecstatic feeling of not being a victim any more.
In this way the terrorists have become a mirror image of the things they hate most. They are a product of hopelessness which is caused by the fact that nobody wants to listen and to understand.”
He adds a chapter on the nature of the “victim” and states: “The victim – like on the 11th September the USA – has been attacked and identifies with this role. The terrorist sees the victim as the perpetrator. To understand what I’m going to say now, it’s good to be in touch with all your feelings:
If the “victim” remains stuck in the role of a victim, he neglects his own responsibility and complicity in terrorism (which comes about through his/her own unconsciousness). The victim carries part of the responsibility for an attack because s/he wasn’t ready or wasn’t able to relate to the terrorist or to perceive the signals of his misfortune or discontent when they were still much less desperate or less dangerous. It is this constant ignoring, suppressing, attempts at being dominant and being superior which creates more rules, more laws, more police, military and finally – war.
It is important that we wake up, it’s not a question of condemning anybody. Nothing happens out of the blue, the clouds have been gathering for days, months and years while everybody pretended that the weather was beautiful. My emphasis, C.A.
All these insights about the nature of the victim are usually only possible on hindsight. When we are involved with a victim of terror, we have to first deal with his experience and his self perception of being the innocent victim of an attack. We have to be prepared for a deadly need for revenge against the terrorists, too. Only when we have developed compassion for their one-sidedness, we can take the next step (as long as you feel spiritually superior to the aggressiveness of both parties, you should do nothing. Because then you are still in a state of war yourself and you will only aggravate the problem, not solve it.)” (translated back into English by me, C.A.)
Yesterday, I sat in an underground train; opposite me a man of about my age was reading a paper with Kyrillian letters. I was curious about his opinion on the conflict. He was Ukrainian, probably a Russian speaker, and said: “There are two truths”. He alluded to the different histories and perspectives of the different parts of the Ukraine. Some people in the Ukraine were living in quite a separate universe. Some considered Bandera a hero, others a fascist. On the other hand, at least all the people of an older generations shared Soviet life.
But as in Bosnia, you only need a well-organised paramilitary to destroy the previous semblance of civilisation. There were so-called ‘normal people’ in Bosnia who cared little about ethnic belonging and were still being led to concentration camps by the barrel of a gun. Outside of conflict areas, people often assume, well, the perpetrators of “ethnic cleansing” must have been provoked. However, we could not find any obvious, violent provocation. But beneath the surface, some sort of ethnic conflict that had never been sorted out had persisted over decades. “Brotherhood and Unity” was the offical slogan of former Yugoslavia, but the mentioning of massacres and aggressions that took place at the end of WWII was suppressed. Some massacres took place in the same locations as before.
Some of you may hold very strong views on the conflict in the Ukraine. I do, too, but the man in the tube reminded me that sometimes there are “two truths” or even more. When we tried to explain to ourselves the causes of the war in Bosnia, I wondered how easy it was to condemn people who found themselves on the wrong side of the fence or by definition belonged to a party to the conflict. That’s why bringing people of opposite sides together is so important, at all times. And never make the mistake to underestimate the power of people without status in society. Or as Malcolm X said, if you read the papers you may soon start hating the people who should be your friends.
For people who have grown up in a secure and mildly democratic environment it seems hard to understand that although people elsewhere have similar needs, similar feelings, etc. they often live in a different world, mentally and physically. Like Syria. Like America. It may help though to reflect on our own history from the Gestapo to the Stasi… and the KGB. Let’s forget grand geopolitical theories. You could read Svetlana Alexejevitch’s book “Second-hand time” instead, also, the first five pages of Anna Politkovskaya’s Russian Diary. “Das letzte Territorium” (last territory) by Jurij Andruchovitch also sheds lights on the many contradictions of life in Ukraine. It was written when most of us could not even imagine that these hidden tensions contained more atomic energy than the remnants of Chernobyl.
Christoph Assheuer is a therapist and the author of “Felix’ Revolution” (about the rebellion of the 70s).
For five intense years, he ran a group of former concentration camp inmates and survivors of the war in Bosnia. He took part in aid transports to Ukraine and, among many others, in a Moscow-seminar with Arnie and Amy Mindell on the subject of ethnic conflict in the former Soviet Union. When he reads the testimonies Svetlana Alexijevitch has gathered about post-Soviet life, he feels extremely ignorant and like to point out that he is not writing as an expert!
Christoph Assheuer ist Therapeut und Autor von “Felix’ Revolution” (über die Rebellen der 70er Jahre).
Er war Leiter einer Gruppe von ehemaligen Lagerhäftlingen u. Überlebenden des Bosnienkrieges.
Er war an Hilfstransporten in die Ukraine beteiligt und hat u.a. mit Arnie und Amy Mindell in Moskau zu ethnischen Konflikten in der früheren Sowjetunion gearbeitet. Wenn er die Zeugnisse liest, die Svetlana Alexejevitch über das postsowjetische Leben gesammelt hat, fühlt er sich sehr sehr ignorant und weist darauf hin, dass er kein Experte ist.