Ukraine: Democracy and Science in times of war – Interview with Nataliya Reshetova

After the fall of the Berlin Wall, Ukraine declared its independence together with other Soviet republics. More than 90 percent of the population confirmed the step towards a nation-state in a referendum on 1 December 1991. For many former Soviet citizens, both Russian and Ukrainian, the final collapse of the Soviet Union meant that overnight they lost their cultural and political affiliation. Many Russians who had lived on the territory of the Ukrainian Republic had become foreigners in their own country from one day to the next. The same happened to many Ukrainians who were now living on Russian territory and no longer on the territory of the Soviet Union. Since 1991, Ukraine, with its historically grown multi-ethnic population structure, has been in search of a role in international politics. This search is culturally characterized by the exploration of independent national identity and the myths that go with it. Politically, it is characterized by a tension between neutrality, Western identity-building, and pragmatic relations with Russia.

In our interview with Nataliya Reshetova, we talk about how democratic structures were established in Ukraine and which factors and guiding ideas have led to the fact that people in Ukraine today fight for their nation and their democracy at the risk of life and limb.

Nach dem Fall der Berliner Mauer erklärte die Ukraine gemeinsam mit anderen Sowjetrepubliken ihre Unabhängigkeit. Mehr als 90 Prozent der Bevölkerung bestätigten den Schritt zum Nationalstaat in einem Referendum am 1. Dezember 1991. Für viele ehemalige Sowjetbürger*innen, sowohl Russinnen und Russen als auch Ukrainer*innen, bedeutete der endgültige Zusammenbruch der Sowjetunion, dass sie über Nacht ihre kulturelle und politische Zugehörigkeit verloren. Viele Russinnen und Russen, die auf dem Gebiet der Ukrainischen Republik gelebt hatten, waren von einem Tag auf den anderen zu Fremden im eigenen Land geworden. Dasselbe geschah mit vielen Ukrainer*innen, die nun auf russischem Gebiet und nicht mehr auf dem Gebiet der Sowjetunion lebten. Seit 1991 ist die Ukraine mit ihrer historisch gewachsenen multi-ethnischen Bevölkerungsstruktur auf der Suche nach einer Rolle in der internationalen Politik. Kulturell ist diese Suche durch die Erforschung einer eigenständigen nationalen Identität und der damit verbundenen Mythen gekennzeichnet. Politisch ist sie durch ein Spannungsverhältnis zwischen Neutralität, westlicher Identitätsbildung und pragmatischen Beziehungen zu Russland gekennzeichnet.

In unserem Interview mit Nataliya Reshetova sprechen wir darüber, wie demokratische Strukturen in der Ukraine entstanden sind und welche Faktoren und Leitgedanken dazu geführt haben, dass die Menschen in der Ukraine heute unter Einsatz von Leib und Leben für ihre Nation und ihre Demokratie kämpfen.

GESIS Blog: Hello Nataliya, thank you very much for being willing to have this interview with us under these difficult conditions. Where are you at the moment and how are you doing?

Reshetova: Thank you for the opportunity to share with you crucial information on Ukraine. I’m in Ukraine, in my native city in Lviv.

GESIS Blog: You have been a visiting researcher at GESIS several times over the past decade. The last time we met was in autumn 2021 when you visited GESIS for three months within the DAAD Alumni program. With other Cologne partners, we were planning academic cooperations and exchange programs. Thinking back upon the developments over the past six months – what are your main thoughts?

Reshetova: Nothing is secure anymore. On the 23rd of February 2022, we slept in Europe, and on the 24th of February, we woke up in a war zone. We have to learn to live in a new reality, even when the war is finished, and Ukraine wins this unprovoked defensive war, there always will be a threat of a new attack from Russia.   

We have already been in warfare for eight years – since the Crimea annexation by the Russian Federation and the consequent Luhansk and Donetsk occupation. Though, I think we did not expect the whole scale of war with the shelling of all regions on the first day of the war.

GESIS Blog: You are an expert in research on Ukrainian democracy. Could you tell us very briefly how the democratic system was established in Ukraine since the collapse of the Soviet Union and especially what were the decisive factors and guiding ideas in this context?

Reshetova: For Ukraine, it was a big challenge to build a democratic state and establish democratic institutions in 1991. The governing elite in Ukraine was very pro-Russian oriented. Those who were Ukrainian-focused were persecuted or killed. One of the most prominent political figures of the 1980s–1990s, Viacheslav Chornovil, who paved the way for contemporary Ukraine to regain its independence, was killed in 1998. He was the main opposition candidate for the presidential elections in that period. A big influence for decades in Ukraine had still the ‘fifth column of communists and the pro-Russian deputies in the Parliament. Ukrainian institutions have been suffering from corruption. Thus, the trust in public institutions was quite a law but the support for the democratic state was always high among Ukrainians.

Since 1991, the people have had a great interest in politics, and always execute high participation in voting during parliament and presidential elections. We have seen strong support for democratic values during the Orange Revolution, Maidan protests, and now the brutal invasion of Ukraine. In Ukraine, we do not have long-standing democratic traditions as developed democracies in Europe have. But nowadays we are the only nation in Europe that is paying the highest price to remain a democratic country and a part of the European community with European values including the right to choose how we want our country to develop. Today Ukraine is fighting not only for its sovereignty and independence but also for defending all democratic countries (Francis Fukuyama, April 2022). Putin wants to “break” the course of history since 1991 and restore the order, in which Russia had a sphere of influence not only in Ukraine but in the whole of Eastern Europe. From this perspective, the whole of Europe is under attack.

GESIS Blog: What impact did the “Orange Revolution” of 2004 have on the democratization process?

Reshetova: It has given birth to a strong civil society in Ukraine. We all understood that our voice has the power to change totalitarian authorities. 

Ukraine is a developing, transitional democracy. According to Mishler and Rose (2001: 304), the country in transition could advance towards the consolidation of full democracy, it could end its evaluation resulting in incomplete permanent democracy or “broken-back” democracy. After the Orange Revolution, Maidan Protests, and now the heroic resistance of all people against the Russian invasion are benchmarks that Ukraine is steadfastly moving to become a strong democratic state. Ukrainians are exposing strong support to moral principles. It is much more than just a country located on the edge of Europe ( Francis Fukuyama, April 2022)

Ukraine is a strong nation built on the ideas of democracy and freedom. Ukrainians during the Orange Revolution and the Euromaidan protests had shown that they are not accepting the transformation of the country not only de facto but de jure into one of Russia’s colonies. In 2013 President Victor Yanukovitch and his government in response to his sudden decision not to sign a political association and free trade agreement with the European Union (EU), instead chose closer ties to Russia and the Eurasian Economic Union. This decision provoked strong disagreement among the people, and the Revolution of Dignity started. 

Ukrainians have executed their civil position and declared which way they want their country to develop – EU integration and NATO members. Victor Yanukovitch and his government fled to Russia. Polls from the beginning of the war, conducted on March 1, 2022, by the sociological group “Rating“, showed that 86% of Ukrainian citizens support joining the EU, and 76% joining the NATO

GESIS Blog: In your PhD, you analyzed the existence of cleavages such as ethnicity and language in the Eastern territories of Ukraine. Did you see any evidence that Ukraine was a divided nation?

Reshetova: On purpose the Ukrainian nation was always targeted by the Kremlin to be divided – they have thoughtfully carried out the russification strategy of Ukrainians, especially in the East, and South of Ukraine for more than 400 years. For centuries, Ukrainians and the Ukrainian language faced a strong russification policy – the prohibition of any Ukrainian literature, published articles, and the Ukrainian translation of the texts was prohibited. To concrete, the Russian government decrees such as the Valuev circular (1863) and the Ems Ukase (1876) prohibited the Ukrainian language, all publishing in Ukrainian as well as musical texts. Public performances and lectures were banned, any import of Ukrainian books was prohibited, and Ukrainian literature was blocked (Szporluk 1997). The Russian Empire started to ban the Ukrainian language calling it the little Russian language (Census terminology 1897).  Prominent Ukrainian authors such as Taras Shevchenko, and Pavlo Chubynsky, were exiled for a long period (10 years). The Brotherhood of Sts Cyril and Methodius that reestablished the name for the Ukrainian language in the 18th century was prohibited by Russian authorities.

The Soviet policy of Russification carried out by the Party machine at all levels of the educational system in Ukraine had caused that the majority of Ukrainian schools (72%) had become Russian, only 12% remained Ukrainian and 16% were mixed schools. As a result, there were no Ukrainian schools in Chernihiv, Donetsk, Luhansk, and Simferopol in 1987.  Today, these are the cities severely attacked during the invasion or occupied by Russians.

Almost all scientific journals were published in Russian. The academic language became Russian. The mass media was mainly in the Russian language, and radio and television programs were broadcast from Russia. By rating the quality of the Ukrainian language lower, Russians also discredit its validity and authority (Bilaniuk, 2003). As a result of Russia’s russification policy of Ukraine, the Soviet government achieved the linguistic assimilation of Ukrainians. In 1989, 78.4 % of Ukrainians were fluent in Russian. 

Moreover, millions of Ukrainians were forced to migrate to different parts of the USSR.  Meanwhile, the Ukrainians constituted the biggest minority in the Russian Federation; they did not have any similar support as Russians had and still have in Ukraine nowadays.So far, it was a target policy on total assimilation of Ukrainians with Russians on the linguistic and ethnic level in Russia. In a contrast, there are no Ukrainian schools in Russia, where Ukrainians constitute around 2  million people which is the third largest ethnic group in Russia.

From 1926 to 1989 the population of Russians in Ukraine drastically increased from 8% to 22%, following and fulfilling the russification strategy of Ukraine. The Russian language became prestigious in big cities of Ukraine, meanwhile, the Ukrainian language was considered a peasant language. Finally, the language patterns can explain Russian foreign policy toward Ukraine. Due to the distribution of the majority of the Russian-speaking population (not Russians but Russian-speaking Ukrainians) and the claim of the Kremlin to protect their rights because they say their rights are oppressed when in the Kharkiv, Donetsk, and Luhansk regions there are more Russian schools than Ukrainian ones and it is hard to find a book shop with Ukrainian editions. The majority are Russian ones.

The outcomes of my Dissertation “Satisfaction with Democracy in Ukraine from 2005 until 2011” have shown that speaking the Ukrainian language has a strong positive (highly significant) impact on the support for democracy, support for democratic values irrespectively in which region a person lives, in Crimea, in East, in the North, West, or the South of Ukraine. Thus the Ukrainian language is crucially important for the development of democracy in Ukraine. 

Moreover, now we can observe that the territories where the majority of Ukrainians are Russian-speaking have been occupied (Donbas region) and annexed (Crimea) in 2014 (Donbas region) and are suffering today from the mass invasion of Russian troops – Russian-speaking Ukrainians (not Russian population) – Kharkiv region (where 70% consider themselves Ukrainians), Sumy region (where 88% consider themselves Ukrainians). To record, please notice that Ukrainians constitute the majority (78%) of the population in Ukraine, meanwhile, Russians constitute only 17% today (who predominantly live in the Autonomous Republic of Crimea). All the Russian speculations go around Russian-speaking Ukrainians that in Eastern Ukraine constitute the majority that today show the biggest resistance to the Russian invasion in Kharkiv, Sumy, Mariupol, and Kherson regions. 

GESIS Blog: If one looks from a distance at the history of Ukraine, as a young nation with a multi-ethnic population situated at the same time geographically and politically between the east and west, it seems that it still has an issue with its national identity. But now they are fighting as one nation. How would you interpret this?

Reshetova: We are not a young nation. We are a young independent state (31 years now) that finally was re-established in 1991. But not a young nation. And this false narrative was always spread by Russians. Ukraine’s nationhood dates to Kyivan Rus in the 9th century – the biggest state in Europe at that time when Moscow had not even appeared geographically. It is well known that Moscow was created in 1277 as a subservient vassal region or ‘ulus’ to the Golden Horde, established by the Khan Mengu-Timur. By that time, Kyivan Rus had existed for more than 300 years. So, Kyiv was the first, not Moscow. And the older one is Ukraine, not Russia. This narrative that they (Russians) are Kyivan Rus was always spread in Russia and worldwide to mislead and dismiss the importance of Ukraine and the Ukrainian people.

Today, Russian authorities officially state that Ukrainians should suffer for believing that they exist as separate people; only this can lead to the “redemption of guilt.” “Denazification” in official Russian usage just means the destruction of the Ukrainian state and nation. A “nazi,” as the genocide manual explains, is simply a human being who self-identifies as Ukrainian. 

According to their handbook, the establishment of a Ukrainian state thirty years ago was the “nazification of Ukraine”. Indeed “any attempt to build such a state” has to be a “nazi” act. Ukrainians are “nazis” because they fail to accept “the necessity that the people support Russia.” Thus, we are all united now against the Russian invasion because we all understand if we do not resist the invasion – there will be no Ukraine, no Ukrainian culture, and no Ukrainian language.

GESIS Blog: As a research infrastructure we are especially concerned about what happens in the academic field. How are the universities involved in the war? How are the scientists? Do they stay or can they leave the country?

Reshetova: Buildings of higher education institutions are severely damaged in the areas of active hostilities. According to the Ministry of Education and Science,as a result of constant shelling and bombing by the Russian military in the regions of Ukraine, 43 institutions of higher education were damaged, five of them were completely destroyed. The most affected universities are in Kharkiv region (1 destroyed, 19 damaged); Donetsk region (6 – damaged); Zaporizhia region (4 – destroyed); Chernihiv region (3 – damaged); Mykolaiv region (3 – damaged).Under Russian shelling was a unique nuclear installation of the Kharkiv Institute of Physics and Technology, which was used for nuclear physics and materials science, as well as for the creation of medical isotopes.More than 33 institutions of higher and professional education moved to other regions of Ukraine to carry out their activity. On the Education Emergency, Save Schools website you can follow all the information on Ukraine education institutions that have been destroyed since the war started in Ukraine. More than 33 institutions of higher and professional education moved to other regions of Ukraine to carry out their activity.

The National Academy of Sciences of Ukraine called its institutions and scientists to make every effort to continue research in Ukraine at this extremely difficult time for the country and its science in particular and if necessary, to use opportunities to move to safer western regions of Ukraine and work remotely or using the scientific infrastructure of the institutions of the National Academy of Sciences of Ukraine located in Lviv, Uzhhorod, and Chernivtsi. The Academy calls on our colleagues, especially men, to help defend the country and Ukrainian cities by staying and working in Ukraine.

At the same time, there is large international support for Ukrainian scientists by providing them with employment opportunities in other countries. This is associated with a certain threat of a new wave of scientific emigration, including talented young scientists. Therefore, paying tribute to the collegial solidarity and support of our scientists from foreign research centers and while deeply grateful to the world scientific community for their support, we consider the expansion of our scientists abroad as a temporary phenomenon caused by martial law and hope for a normal scientific process. The European Commission has launched ERA4Ukraine, a web portal to provide information support for Ukrainian scientists who have fled from Ukraine due to the war in Ukraine. Other EU initiatives include access to Science4Refugees, an existing EURAXESS initiative that provides internships as well as part-time and full-time jobs for refugees. Within the Research4Life project, Ukrainian scientists are provided with free access to full-text electronic resources of leading publishing houses of scientific literature until the end of 2022.

At the same time, there is large international support for Ukrainian scientists by providing them with employment opportunities in other countries. This is associated with a certain threat of a new wave of scientific emigration, including talented young scientists. Therefore, paying tribute to the collegial solidarity and support of our scientists from foreign research centers and while deeply grateful to the world scientific community for their support, we consider the expansion of our scientists abroad as a temporary phenomenon caused by martial law and hope for a normal scientific process.

GESIS Blog: What can we do in Germany to support the researchers in Ukraine or Ukrainian researchers abroad?

Reshetova: Launch and or continue scientific cooperation with Ukrainian institutions, researchers, and scientists. Co-author scientific articles, books, and chapters of books. Assist Ukrainian researchers in gaining more visibility in EU research. Support Ukrainian research to refute Russian propaganda rhetoric in Academia

Furthermore, you can become a member of the Network of Solidarity and Strategic Partnership and join UCU research teams. We are thankful for your support and willingness to help Ukrainian researchers.

GESIS BlogThank you very much for this interview!

About the interviewee:

Dr. Nataliya Reshetova is a Political Scientist. She received her European Ph.D. with the thesis “Satisfaction with Democracy in Ukraine from 2005 until 2011” from the University of Deusto in Spain in 2015. Nataliya has been a visiting researcher at GESIS several times, amongst others for one year from 2016 to 2017 as a DAAD Leibniz Grant holder. Afterward, she was a visiting scholar at the University of Melbourne in 2019 where she researched the impact of the Ukrainian language on the satisfaction with democracy in Ukraine at the School of Social and Political Sciences. Currently, Nataliya is affiliated with Ukrainian Catholic University (UCU) and UCU Business School supporting internationalization, partnership, and research projects.

As the interview with Nataliya takes place against the background of the Russian offensive war on Ukraine on 24 February 2022 we were, of course, also highly interested in her current situation as a scientist at a Ukrainian university and what impact the ongoing war has on universities and their researchers.

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