What Is Ukraine Offering the World?

Philosopher Volodymyr Yermolenko on how the 21st century is becoming Ukrainian and why freedom needs not only teeth and arrows but also tanks and air defense

18 Січня 2023

The Ukrainians Media is an award-winning independent media company focusing on high-quality, long-form, and visual journalism. Our mission is to foster positive social changes in Ukraine.

This story was created thanks to the support of our readers. Please join The Ukrainians Community on Patreon and help us publish more important and interesting stories.

It is hard asking this question when, every day, one sees destroyed, turned inside-out houses and torn human bodies and hears stories of murdered children or families forever incomplete.

When only skeletons of houses remain of the entire villages, and one can still blow up on a mine on the sides of long Ukrainian roads.

When the dead come to us in dreams, when our occupied cities contain torture chambers and mass graves.

It is hard asking this question, but we have to because, for the first time in many centuries, Ukraine is not only playing a global role but this role is finally recognized. The 21st century is already becoming Ukrainian. The world admires and looks up to Ukrainians, even if it still does not fully understand us.

So what are we offering the world today? Let me summarize in five short theses.

The ethics of struggle as a balance to the ethics of exchange

A healthy society builds upon the balance of two ethical systems: the ethos of struggle and the ethos of exchange. I will refer to them using two concepts of ancient Greece: the ethics of the agon and the ethics of the agora.

The agora is where people meet to exchange: goods, services, experiences, stories, emotions, and ideas. In the agora, everyone wins, meeting their needs and expanding their outer and inner space. In the agora, one realizes their need for others.

The agon, on the other hand, is where people meet to fight and win. There can only be one winner. The logic of the agon is “either or,” and there can be no “both.” In an agon, we defend our borders and prove there is no place for others.

The ethics of exchange is the basis for our existence as social beings and the foundation of societies. But if it prevails, interpreted as the only possible ethics, people start believing they can exchange anything. Then they become cynical and unscrupulous and, in the end, prepared to sell or trade life itself—someone else’s or their own.

On the other hand, the ethics of struggle helps us build walls. It whispers to us the end of compromises, the end of a space for exchange. However, if this ethics prevails and becomes dominant in a society, one sees an enemy in every opponent, loses the ability to speak, and becomes destructive in every unclear situation. And this is not good either because one starts destroying their fellows.

Today, Ukraine reminds the world that the ethics of struggle is essential, that there comes a time when it has to balance the ethics of exchange, and that there are red lines where irreplaceable and unexchangeable begin.

But Ukraine also proves today that even a society in a state of war can have a conversation and nurture the agora and solidarity, for the agon is not a law of social life but a tool to protect a society’s inner agora from enemies.

The modern democratic world has believed in the omnipotence of the agora for far too long. It thought that it was possible to speak and negotiate with a criminal. Now is the time for the world to wake up and understand that there comes a moment when the agora must be defended, when there are no further compromises behind this line, and the ticket is no longer valid.

The balance of tradition and modernity

The conflict between radical “conservatism” and radical “progressivism” divides many modern societies: American, British, French, Polish, and others.

In Russia, the radicalization of conservative ideology has led to a regime copying 20th-century fascism and Nazism.

On the other hand, Ukraine today maintains a balance between tradition and modernity.

Furthermore, various attempts to balance tradition and modernity, the past and the future, fill Ukrainian cultural heritage. For example, our literary modernism of the early 20th century was both a search for new forms and an immersion in tradition: otherwise, it is impossible to understand Lesya Ukrainka, Vasyl Stefanyk, or Mykhailo Kotsiubynsky.

Our artistic avant-garde of the 1910s and 1920s was also an immersion in deep folk traditions—suffice it to mention Kazimir Malevich, Heorhiy Narbut, or David Burliuk. In our opposition to the empire, we searched for folklore depths and, simultaneously, for a leap into the future. Our modern music, combining folk melodies and instruments with contemporary rhythms and arrangements, seeks the same.

We learn to look at our future and past not as conflicting elements but as two parts of one life that may be in dispute but never in conflict.

The power of the powerless

Václav Havel’s essay The Power of the Powerless once became one of the symbols of the 1980s revolutions in Central and Eastern Europe. Today, the Ukrainian struggle gives this slogan a new sound.

Today, Ukraine sets an example not only for our “Western partners” but also for the countries that suffered from any type of colonialism, were silenced for centuries, and were deprived of their names, voices, and a role in world history. Ukrainian history can become a window for theirs.

Ukraine shows that it is possible to leap out of obscurity and escape the artificially imposed muteness and the prison of the past.

One of the tools of imperialism is locking the colonized peoples in their past, amputating their future, and proving they can have no future other than the imperial one.

The Ukrainian struggle shows this is not the case. On the contrary, one can overcome the past. It is possible to become someone you were not or the winner, even if defeats dominated your past. You will be heard of, even if no one wanted it before. History is no fatal walking in bloody circles of endless repetitions.

Democracies are stronger than authoritarian systems

The Ukrainian struggle shows that democracies can be stronger than authoritarianism. Authoritarian regimes rest on fear and violence, whereas democracies rest on the feeling of personal power and influence and, therefore, on individual responsibility.

Democracies are based on “Who but me?” Authoritarian systems are based on “Someone but not me.” Someone but not me can change something; someone but not me will define my life; someone but not me will send me to die.

The last few decades in the Western world have been marked by a great distrust of democracy, its self-criticism, and self-flagellation. This democratic masochism continues, but today Ukraine provides a counterexample. Ukraine shows that democracies can be strong, and freedom has teeth and arrows—but it also needs tanks and air defense.

There is nothing more important than human life

The Russian regime is necrophilic; it is in love with death; it considers life an anomaly and does not know what to do with it. Its “flowers of evil” bloom only whenever an opportunity arises to kill and destroy.

German Nazism proclaimed that some groups of people had the right to exist while others did not. In contrast, by its centuries-long history, the Russian regime declares that no group of people has the right to exist, and only the tsar (a god and a demon all in one) will decide who dies today and who a little later.

Ukrainе is resisting when the rest of the world has also started forgetting the value of human life and plunged into virtual existence and social networks that increasingly resemble a computer game where you can always “re-log” and “start over.”

But that’s not how life works. Instead, life walks a fine line, takes decades to build, and disappears in an instant. And when it does, it is gone forever.

Like a glass toy, life is fragile and breaks from an awkward movement. And our civilization is just as fragile.

It is unspeakably painful to see a life that, just a minute ago, was right there, next to you, in front of you—and now it is gone. It hurts so much, but it is critical to understand that nothing can be more valuable than this fragile breath, this soft, warm heart, yet another compression and expansion of the lungs, yet another child laughing, yet another morning joke.

The Ukrainian experience tells the whole world again that the real value is right there, in front of you—you only need to open your eyes.

Volodymyr Yermolenko, philosopher, writer, columnist, President of PEN Ukraine, Editor-in-chief at UkraineWorld.org, Analytics Director at Internews Ukraine, lecturer at the National University of Kyiv-Mohyla Academy, author of Liquid Ideologies, Closer People, Distant People, and The Catcher of the Ocean.

Translated by Stanislav Ostapenko.

The Ukrainians Media is an award-winning independent media company focusing on high-quality, long-form, and visual journalism. Our mission is to foster positive social changes in Ukraine.

This story was created thanks to the support of our readers. Please join The Ukrainians Community on Patreon and help us publish more important and interesting stories.

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