a Kind of Refugee / 26.07.2022 (Part 2)
I have talked to so many people over the past several months, people whom I never would have met in my former patterns and routines. These are my fellow Ukrainians. The ones who have stayed or come back.
Practically all the men (you know they are required by law to stay in Ukraine) evacuated their women and children abroad. All the women I work with have sent their children to safer parts of the country. In other words, nobody I know who is volunteering intensely to provide humanitarian aid or in the army is actively parenting at the same time. Even I evacuated my cat to Poland in March. Our attention is not divided. Ukraine matters most now.
What is the culture of these people working in cooperation out of desire to live in their own homeland like? Each one calls this land “mine,” yet what “this land is mine” means for each is not the same. Nor does it have to be.
It is so interesting to talk to them and listen to how they think.
Again and again I hit upon a kind of impasse. A discursive impasse. A political impasse. Many of the men I talk to have the capacity to think quickly, broadly, and systematically to organize complex processes. Their intelligence sees problems and solutions. But people appear as abstract—functions or programs or a kind of dense mass that needs to be educated, persuaded, or organized.
There are plenty of intelligent Ukrainians capable of thinking strategically. They are especially effective in organizing processes that involve production, procurement, distribution. I’ve met men with a talent for assessing a chaotic situation—be it a Ukrainian business or the logistics of supplying a large volunteer battalion—and devising a system for making it work efficiently.
But then something gets in the way, whether messy reality or—more often—a person with power who just doesn’t see things that way. The person in power wants to go back to doing things as they were and destroys all the progress that was made. The intelligent men say the problem is in those people who do not understand the benefit of a logical, streamlined system different from what they are used to.
Why do these bright people not look at their fellows as capable of developing their intelligence through tough experience, trial and error, personal reflection in a similar way to how they themselves learned? What if we were to direct a greater part of our intelligence to establishing ways of working that include and involve the people with power, in a way that could shift the ways that they work (corruption, nepotism, connections, presents, etc) instead of merely demanding that they replace them?
This is also about Ukraine’s armed forces, which are able to fight with ingenuity today because of know-how learned the hard way, repelling Russia since 2014. At the same time the army is plagued by an ocean of bureaucracy, a deep-seated culture of “fuck off” instead of actually doing anything, and bright active minds who know how everything should be done but don’t have the patience to cooperate with the elements of the machine—to see those elements as people with intelligence and potential to grow.
Ukraine’s Western critics (and friends) love to harp on the country’s endemic corruption. It’s true that Ukraine’s social (and by extension political) culture thrives on personal networks and connections. This in and of itself is not corruption: it is the ground upon which corruption then flourishes.
But when someone comes along and says, “Your ways of doing things, the way you’ve always done them and the way that they actually work, are wrong,” it begs the question: Why should I abandon my culture?
The director of the organization I work for is a master of this classic Ukrainian culture of personal connections. I’ve never met anyone with so many and who puts so much energy into cultivating each one. But I find this continuous investment in personal relationships (not to mention the intrigues and posturing and power games) draining.
Focusing on the personal cannot be the foundation for political life, for it diverts attention from the matter you have in common. Authority attached to a person rather than their position has no limits and puts too much weight on the individual. When that person leaves or loses authority what happens to the power to enact?
Ukraine needs Rule of Law. Only Rule of Law must must be attractive in its own right—not just a requirement for joining the EU or the golden opposite of corruption. What does it provide that is missing from person-to-person networks?
Rule of Law holds space for cooperation in political life and offers a complex view. Instead of seeing only where you are in the hierarchy of personal connections (who has more power or the resources to do X), you see a world shared by many—equal and different. Demanding that each person act in accordance with the Law limits the power of those in authority and holds every citizen responsible for the common actions of the state.
My people in Mykolaiv are very intelligent and their talents generally fall into two categories: playing personal relationships or organizing group processes. Each of these modes of interaction falls short of politics. While the latter involves people, connections, and acting together, what politics really stands on is individual speech—speaking your mind while addressing all rather than a particular audience. However, present-day politics—not only in Ukraine—overvalues personal influence and the systematization of how people cooperate.
I arrive in Kyiv starved for philosophical conversation, something I miss tremendously in the war zone, where all intelligence and energy is directed toward decisive action. My friends here, artists and thinkers, and I fall into the philosophical mode almost naturally. But the next evening we get together it’s to learn and practice applying tourniquets and the basics of tactical medicine.
War life is not normal. You can feel delight, love, elation, but the driving force behind all your action is the need to respond to a constant barrage of evil. I feel simultaneously drained and activated. I hit regular lulls and lift myself out by force of will to do the next thing. I have brothers- and sisters-in-arms who are warm, vibrant, intelligent, and we need each other. Though I wish to keep fondness and affection separate from work I need their sweet words and hugs to keep going.
Sometimes I sense how completely alone I am. It stops short of frightening me; I know that I’m never abandoned. Still I miss moments of connecting with the universe. Tonight from the balcony I looked at the stars. Even without glasses there are so many. The quiet of a city under curfew is delicious. That quiet is something I will miss when the war is over.
PS Tonight my fellow woman warrior Lana and I were interviewed for the Museum of the Ukrainian Diaspora. Her organization Ukrainian Patriot is a labor of love and a fountain of love. It is that love, both for one’s homeland and for one’s fellows that is keeping Ukraine alive. It is a fierce love that will fight and kill to keep evil from destroying what one loves and that energizes and invigorates all that is living.
You can help her keep helping others by donating to Ukrainian Patriot: https://ukrainianpatriot.org