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The current situation in Ukraine has unexpectedly catapulted all Europeans into a situation of constant anguish. What does he feel, however, who at this moment - far from home - sees his loved ones in danger and the city where he grew up on the ground? Can we really understand this feeling? Maybe not, but we can certainly engage in listening and try to understand the torment of such a situation. I tried to confront Snizhana, a brilliant Ukrainian student living abroad, who gave me many food for thought and allowed me to better deepen the history of her country and her people, without the media filter that currently grips it. I leave it to you to draw the appropriate conclusions from our conversation.
Hello friends of Il Confronto Quotidiano, today we are with Snizhana in order to discuss about the Ukrainian conflict together.
A) First of all, how are you?
S) Hi Antonino, I’m fine, I’m in Portugal, in Porto. I’m a student here. I moved out of Ukraine two and a half years ago in order to attend my master, but of course with all my heart and thoughts I’m there, with my family and my friends.
A) Do you want to tell us in brief your story?
S) In 2019, I got a scholarship from Erasmus Mundus in order to study in a program of European Master in Lexicography. Lexicography is about dictionaries (laughs a/n), it’s a complicated word, even if I didn’t know it before coming here to study. My main university is here in Portugal, in Braga, although now I’m located in Porto. I had also a semester in Germany and in Spain. I got my bachelor degree in Kyïv, Ukraine, although I’m originally from Černihiv, which is a city in the north (of Ukraine a/n).
A) Before we get to the heart of our conversation, I would like to ask you a few personal questions so that our readers can get to know you a little bit. Do you have relatives in Ukraine at the moment? Could you describe your connection to the territory?
S) Although already one million and a half people left Ukraine, my whole family is there, they have not really moved out. My mother, my dad, my younger sister, our grandma, our aunt and her family are now located in Černihiv. Also, another aunt is still located in a village into the region. In particular, that part of the region (where my aunt lives a/n) is currently under occupation, although for the Russian army is not strategically important. They are now trying to bring their forces to the cities, but there is no connection between Černihiv and (my aunt’s a/n) village, since the bridges are blown.
A) I believe that your testimony is rather significant, because here in Italy the perception that someone has and can mature on the conflict in Ukraine will naturally be different from yours. I would therefore like to focus precisely on these aspects: perception, sensitivity, politics. I would like to try to reconstruct, as far as possible, the last years that preceded the conflict. We know that what we see in these days is certainly not the result of a last-minute decision, but rather it is the result of a long political reflection that at least (if not much earlier) started in 2014. From the Crimea crisis until today, could you summarize the events of the Ukrainian population, from your point of view?
S) Oh, yes. The “Crimea crisis”, as you call it, doesn’t appear from nowhere. We had the “Revolution of Dignity” during last years, because our President was pro-Russian and didn’t want to sign the association with the European Union, which would have made us closer with EU and also, in the further future, a candidate for accessing (EU a/n). That’s why we had a revolution. Our President(Janukovyč a/n) tried to suppress it. It didn’t work and in the end he ran away. After that, Russia used an unstable situation in Ukraine in order to occupy Crimea. It had been something obviously prepared for years, but it was just the perfect moment: they had their military there, there was also an agreement between Ukraine and Russia that their fleets could be based there… which was obviously not our politicians’ best decision. After Crimea occupation there was a fake referendum in order to show that people who lived there wanted to be with Russia. This procedure was not in accord with any international law. A war started also in the East, because of Russian separatists, so that they could show that a part of Ukraine was not actually Ukrainian, but Russian. There were also soldiers, whom (existence a/n) Putin denied, saying that there was none there and people wanted to be free. During the last eight years, there was at first (in the next two years) a harsh conflict with many losses, then there was a low intensity conflict and many of us thought it was going to keep like that, as it was in other regions of the world such as Moldova or Transnistria. So that there were some unrecognized republics controlled by Russians forces, (although it was said a/n) that it was no one’s land and that nothing was happening there. That’s what we all expected. This how it all escalated.
A) I would also like to understand, did you know that war was coming? Were you aware of the risk or has the invasion begun unexpectedly?
S) I think no one really believed it until the end, although there had already been this threat for around one year. Russia kept bringing forces to our border. Last year there was a lot of tension but at last, they brought it back. Then during fall-winter they started (again a/n) bringing a lot of forces. We received messages from the American and British intelligence that (Russia a/n) was preparing a full-scale attack. At some point even people were making jokes about it because they kept changing the date (of the attack a/n). People even thought at once that those were false messages used to destabilize the situation. In the end, as we could see it was all true: this is what was prepared and this is what happened. Maybe they really had those dates and kept postponing them… Regular citizens and our Government too saw the threat, but it was really hard to believe that such a work could happen in twenty-first century and in Europe. I personally thought that on one hand it would have escalate in the East, where they already had the army, but on the other hand I think that such a growing tension could not just disappear.
A) During recent weeks, the conflict escalation has been accurately reported by our media, with such meticulous attention to detail; we are constantly aware of what happens in Ukraine and Russia, just thanks to our mobiles and people tend to distinguish this war from the previous ones specifically because of this trait. Could you tell me about the media’s narrative of the conflict in Ukraine and, if you know it, in Russia?
S) I saw even here in Porto how Western media report it. Mostly, it is quite accurate, for what I saw. Speaking about Ukraine, I am honestly not following the general media, also because the news are coming from all sides. I get notification from regional journalists. Speaking about Russia, it is not like I’m following any Russian media, because I know quite well how they portrayed the situation, especially the general media. Of course, I get some news about how general ones are describing the situation, basically most of them lie, although they recently started accepting some facts: for example the losses they had or people attending an obligatory military service. Sometimes they spread such a nonsense, like some kind of birds which would spread biological weapons.
A) Is it true that there are child-soldiers who have not completed a military training?
S) It is true that there are soldiers in the Russian army, but some of them are subjected to an obligatory military service and are very young.
A) One aspect that struck me a lot about the exquisitely Italian cultural reaction to the conflict (although similar events are beginning to appear abroad), is the phenomenon of russophobia that is beginning to manifest itself in a worrying way? What is the reaction of the Ukrainian people?
S) I don’t know if it is correct to speak in this context of russophobia. Well, I’m against violence and I think we should solve the thing peacefully. But obviously, because of what is happening know, we Ukrainians…we won’t be able to forget and forgive this. We are seeing our loved ones killed and suffering. There’s also this narrative that it is only Putin’s (fault a/n) and there’s only a person who decides everything. It is not true, because Putin didn’t clone himself and sent his clones to fight in this war. There are ordinary people who are supporting this or being silent. I think all of them (the ones who are either supporting or silent a/n) are responsible for this. Because even though many say that they are apolitical and do not want this war, they have chosen this President, it’s their President and they have to take the responsibility for this. I’m not supporting violence against russians, but I believe in some kind of responsibility that they should take in this situation.
A) Regardless of the need for resistance, do you also see a cultural conflict or is it just political?
S) We have to understand that…. There is this great story about Russia and Ukraine as brother nations, that our ties and cultures have a common history, but actually Ukrainians’ independence was destroyed and our people were killed during Soviet Union and Russian empire. This is just the continuation of that. Putin is not super original in his ideas. What contributed to it is a lot of Russian’s acceptance of the political situation. I understand that they cannot change in one month, but they have been accepting it for all these years. They have been silent while those crimes were happening, not only in Ukraine in 2014, but also in Georgia in 2008. I know personally that many Russians are happy that Crimea has returned to Russia. I see an acceptance of Russian Imperialism, which implies that many territories are originally Russian, that Ukraine is not a separate nation, it does not exist, and that we are acting as enemies, while Russians are coming for attacking us, in order to get a part Ukraine – as independent State – territories.
A) What is your opinion about the Russian demonstrators?
S) I believe that people who are protesting are really brave and I wish courage to them. Unfortunately, the Russian repressive machine is strong and the system that has been established is hard to overthrow. I read that in the current situation our “Revolution of Dignity” could not be possibly repeated in Russia. That’s probably true because in Ukraine there are issues like corruption and other problems but, in our years of independence, we’ve had our President who actually changed. People are responsible for the government. It’s true that is hard for those people, that the repressive machine is very violent, I also heard of what is happening to the people who are getting arrested. For this, I think we should also not forget Belarus in this situation. Although their soldiers are not officially involved in the war, lot of attacks are launched from Belarus, for instance the ones on my city. It’s true that the repressions of those years after Lukašėnka’s fake elections are terrible, but this system was not also built in a moment. I’m not only referring to ordinary people, who often think they do not have a voice, but also to famous people who either accepted it or stayed silent.
A) Another fact that puzzles me is Patriarch Kirill I’s presence, among the group of Russian oligarchs who are waging Putin’s war. It is certainly not my intention to confuse religious matters with such a tragedy, but a doubt arises: is this also a religious conflict?
S) I respect religion and I think that also in this case it supports people a lot. We should not forget however that Church was perfectly integrated in the KGB system that Putin has built over these years. Patriarch Kirill is just a part of it and we knew it in Ukraine since long time, although there were churches of the so called Moscow Patriarchy too. Our ex-President Petro Porošenkohas gained tomos for the Church, in order to legalize Ukrainian Church. I think it was quite important, since many of our religious treasures, such as the Kyiv Pechersk Lavra, and many other important things are still controlled by Russians. After the tomos, many things have changed. Indeed since the war started the Churches under Moscow Patriarchy refused to celebrate sermons for our dead soldiers, they were supporting the war for all this time. The Patriarch could call himself a spiritual leader, but I think it’s just part of the repressive machine. It’s all important to consider that most of the population in Ukraine is Orthodox, but there was always an opposition with Catholics and Protestants. Church as an institution has always been quite important in Russia for all this time. We might all agree that Putin is insane, but according to some political experts, he has the idea of being a Messiah. It is connected to religion too; indeed, he thinks to be the one who is going to liberate Russian people worldwide.
A) An element that immediately catches the eye is the patriotism, which Ukrainian people are showing. It goes without saying that is certainly also embodied in the figure of the President. Indeed, many citizens, rather than fleeing, even return to their homeland to fight. Is it a feeling that people have always possessed or that instead has manifested itself just now?
S) I think it’s what we all had and maybe many of us didn’t even realize it. I can see that even though we always had arguments, for instance the one about President Zelens'kyj, who used to be a comedian – I could not believe myself that the guy I used to see on TV in comedy shows, now is a President – Ukrainians are united as ever. Putin basically wants to destroy Ukraine, its cities and its people. Many things had been already destroyed in two weeks. I think that what Putin doesn’t also understand is that since 2014 we could see who is the real enemy for us. We are prepared now, we were not in 2014, and indeed, we lost many territories. It is true that Russian army is big, but during these years we were not losing time and now people are united, also around our President. I know he’s becoming popular now in other countries, his Instagram account is spiking and his TV show (Sluha Narodu – Servant of the people a/n) is now on Netflix (laughs a/n). Although we didn’t want to believe this was going to happen, it was not really a surprise that Russia doesn’t want the existence of independent Ukraine.
A) What’s your opinion of President Zelens'kyj? How is he considered by the population? Was his election welcomed?
S) There was a significant change, we couldn’t believe how brave could he be in such a time. When he was running for elections, he had absolutely different slogans. The times were different, we could see how his rhetoric was changing as this threat on the border was accumulating. Although I was no fan – not like a hater, but I didn’t vote for him – is impressive how he is handling this war and it was quite of unexpected for us. Now we can see the choice was good and that not every President of the european countries would have handled it with such dignity as President Zelens'kyj is doing.
A) What is the opinion of Ukrainian people towards the European Union? In your view, is the integration process desired or is it dictated by the difficulties of the times?
S) I think Ukrainian people already made their choice eight years ago. We paid our lives for that, more than one hundred people died in the Revolution. It was a clear manifestation of our people’s free will. It was millions of people manifesting that we need to take the European way. It’s not even a discussion, to be honest: “should we be in the EU?”, the answer for us is clear. Every one decides, and there could be people who think that this is not our way, but personally, I think it is and I am sure most of Ukrainians would agree.
A) Do you think that the conflict is going to end soon or rather it will last some years?
S) I wish it could (end soon a/n), but it doesn’t look like it will stop now. There was some information that circulated, according to which until summer Russia will use most of its resources. Maybe then, there could be a change or something like that. I think we all need to be courageous, I see many people in EU who are ready to help and it is really amazing. I’m not referring to political institutions, but to ordinary people who are helping, volunteering, going to the border for helping the refugees and collect humanitarian aids. I’m really grateful that there are so many people like that.
A) Thank you so much. Would you like to leave us with a final message?
S) I want to thank everyone who is helping Ukrainians and the refugees, it is important to understand that Ukraine is really close and if we lose our independence, we won’t be the only ones, Putin won’t stop. This is what we all need to realize. I also noticed that in many questions, you used the word “conflict”… I do not know if it is a common expression in Italian media, I also saw it in Portuguese ones. I think we should call it, as it is, “a war”.
A) Thank you!
S) Thank you!
Articolo a cura di: Antonino Palumbo