Hromadske Radio

2022 helped Ukrainians to overcome the inferiority complex — Volodymyr Yermolenko

Volodymyr Yermolenko talked about his book about Ukraine, which is addressed to an international audience, the war, Russian fascism and what a fantastic country we live in.

Show hosts

Andriy Kulykov


Volodymyr Yermolenko

2022 helped Ukrainians to overcome the inferiority complex — Volodymyr Yermolenko
2022 helped Ukrainians to overcome the inferiority complex — Volodymyr Yermolenko

Hello and welcome to Ukraine Calling, the English-language podcast from Hromadske Radio. Our interlocutor is Volodymyr Yermolenko. He is a Ukrainian philosopher, essayist, translator, Doctor of Political Studies and the head of PEN Ukraine: Poets, Essayists, Novelists.

It’s a book that collects the multitude of visions on Ukraine

Andriy Kulykov: A couple of weeks ago, our common acquaintance, Andreas Umland, a German political scientist, published a tweet where he said that one of the books edited by Volodymyr Yermolenko is again in print and recommended reading. This post collected quite a number of visits, likes and all those reactions that we find on Twitter, and I decided to talk to Mr or rather Dr Yermolenko about this book to start our conversation. It’s about histories and stories from Ukraine, and it was originally published as far as I remember in 2020. Why do you think it is still important now?

Volodymyr Yermolenko: Hello Andriy, it’s a big pleasure to be on your podcast. So indeed it’s a book published back in 2019 even by Internews Ukraine, the organization in which I’m also working, and by Ukraine World, our big multimedia website about Ukraine. And our idea was to collect the voices of intellectuals, of historians, philosophers, writers, essayists, security experts and to talk about Ukraine in English and to write a book of essays which would be addressed to the international audiences.

And it’s really a book that collects the multitude of visions on Ukraine. It starts from the essays of historians, Yaroslav Hrytsak and Serhii Plokhii, one of the most famous Ukrainian historians. It also has the essays of philosophers like Vakhtang Kebuladze and me. Also, very interesting writers like Irena Karpa or Haska Shyyan. We also touch upon very important topics like Ukrainian-Jewish relationships or Crimea, Crimeans, Crimean Tatar identity. The question of Eastern Ukraine, of course, is touched by Volodymyr Rafeenko, a famous Ukrainian novelist.

But also we’re raising these issues of how to explain Ukraine to international audiences. And in many aspects, this book is still very valid, despite the fact that it was written before the big invasion. It was written already after the start of the war of 2014. And therefore, I think it is still very valid. And lots of ideas, metaphors, which are in this book are actually valid today.

Andriy Kulykov: But that’s an interesting mixture of poets and philosophers on the one hand and suddenly security experts. How do they mix?

Volodymyr Yermolenko: We have a wonderful security expert who is Hanna Shelest, our good friend who is from Odesa. I think, one of the greatest Ukrainian experts in the issues of international relations and security. And her essay actually comes the last. So we kind of draw this line between Ukrainian and ancient history. The essay by Yaroslav Hrytsak starts from Herodotus and his account of the Black Sea and Azov Sea steppes of the Northern Black Sea and Azov Sea region in the antiquity, the Scythes and all the stuff. But we end in today’s reality. We end in the reality of the Russian invasion of Ukraine in 2014. And basically what Hanna Shelest is saying in her essay that there are stereotypes, there are myths that the world is sometimes living with, for example, that you can fight Russia or you should deal with an aggressor, you should negotiate with aggressor and some other things. I think, she’s brilliantly showing why it is wrong. And therefore, as I say, we try to this draw the line, we try to dig deep into Ukrainian history, into Ukrainian mentalities, into Ukrainian culture, but also talk about the harsh political and security reality of today.

«The question of Russian fascism is underestimated and should be talked about»

Andriy Kulykov: As a person of international renown, Volodymyr Yermolenko does quite a lot to explain Ukraine to foreign audiences, both in person and online. While doing this, what changes in perception do you see compared to the beginning of the war back in 2014 and harking back to 2022? And what’s your main point or several points for this matter?

Volodymyr Yermolenko: I think in many aspects, what we have been saying since 2014 and which were perceived with the kind of suspicion, if we talk about Europe and America, many such things are actually had already gone and that’s a good thing. So I think Ukrainians succeeded in making our country and our situation more understandable. So we were, for example, saying that look, the question of the Ukrainian so-called nationalism of the far right is of course very important, but it should not be exaggerated. It should not be the central issue about which we are talking about while we are talking about Ukraine. The question of Russian fascism is underestimated and should be talked about. And this is what we actually see right now in this brutal invasion, in this full-scale invasion. We also were trying to go beyond this traditional focus on Eastern Europe, which was the knowledge about Eastern Europe in many European, American universities were formed by people who are specializing in Russia. Slavic Studies equalized to Russian Studies. And of course we were trying to prove that this is wrong, that there is a huge other history of Eastern Europe, which is non-imperial, which is democratic, which is Republican, which dates from the medieval times through the early modern history, through Kyiv medieval state, through grand Duchy of Lithuania, through Rzeczpospolita Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth and so on and so forth. And all the stuff, I hope that they are better understood. I hope that it is better understood that Ukrainians are fighting for not only for our land or for our national interests, we are fighting for values, and we are fighting for the values of freedom. And these are the words which are not banal for us, which have the concrete sense.

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But there is of course an issue that we should not only talk with the West, we should also talk with other countries, we should talk with Argentina, with Brazil, with Nigeria, with South Africa, with China, with India, with Japan of course, with the Middle East. And this is a much more difficult task actually I think because Ukrainian voices, Ukrainian voice was not present there for decades or for centuries. And we’re kind of trying also to develop a vocabulary and to talk to these societies too with hope that there are some issues that these societies and people there can also recognize them in the Ukrainian fight.

  • And one of the biggest metaphors that we have in Ukraine is that the Ukrainian fight is the fight of David against Goliath to use the biblical metaphor. It’s the fight of an underdog or a weaker state against this visibly stronger state. And that means that the success of the Ukrainian fight can also give a chance to other states which were kind of excluded from the global politics, from the global culture to express themselves, to assert themselves.

Andriy Kulykov: Since you have mentioned the Russian fascism and since one of your notable books is about fluid ideologies, how do you accept, how do you perceive this term «Russian fascism»? Is it actually fascism? And what’s your attitude towards the term «Ruscism», which has been offered or suggested by a number of political scientists or publicists?

Volodymyr Yermolenko: I think there are certainly similarities of current Putinism with fascism, with Italian fascism and German Nazism. The first is of course the cruelty and this thinking that actually you accomplish your state only in a big war. And the goal of the state is actually the war. That’s what we see in contemporary Russia, that’s what we have seen in German Nazism and Italian fascism, this kind of a militarization of society, this idea that society should turn into soldiers who sacrifice themselves for some bigger goal and who are actually ready to sacrifice other people because they consider other people as lower than themselves, the so-called Untermenschen as the German Nazis were saying.

There is another parallel I think is that fascism and Nazis were the creation of the wounded empires. So the empires that were feeling that they are weak, that they are getting weaker, but they kind of try to make a revenge against the other powers, other societies that actually won against them. And it’s clearly the case of Germany’s Nazism. It’s also the case, I think of Franco in Spain or Salazar in Portugal. It’s also a case of Mussolini’s Italy despite the fact that Italy was on the winner’s side of the First World War, but it perceived its victory as a loss because and for Italian nationalism the results of the war, the Versailles results of the war, were not at all what Italy expected. And I think this makes us parallel with Putinist Russia, which also perceives itself as a kind of a wounded empire, the empire which lost its lands like Ukraine, Belarus, Central Asia, Kazakhstan, the Caucasus, Georgia, Armenia.

And there is this revengeism. So I do think that what Putin tries to do is to have the revenge against the loss in the Cold War and therefore the idea of re-establishment of the Soviet Union is one of these ideas. And if this is true, then there is a bad news and the good news. The good news is that this is a reaction to the decline of the empire. Then we will witness this decline because you can never dwell in the past. But the bad news is that the empires which were in their decline are actually usually very cruel because they feel that this is maybe the last battle. But there is a difference with fascism I think, an important difference because fascism was an ideology of the young people. Both Hitler and Mussolini were relatively young politicians and the people who followed them were even younger, the 20 years old, the 25, maybe 30. And this makes a difference with today’s Russia, because today’s Russia is actually very old. The elites are very old. Putin is very old. His anti-Russia is very old. People who are around him are over the 70s. And people who support him are also mostly old. And I have the metaphor that Putinism is a Stalinism, is a Brezhnevism that wants to be Stalinism. So it’s a Brezhnevism in the sense that it is also a creation of the old elites, physically old, with very low energy. But they want to be Stalinism. And I do hope that in the long run, this difference will play a role. Because Ukraine in this context is much younger in terms of thinking, in terms of elites. President Zelensky is just over his 40s, and people of his team are usually younger. So I do hope that this difference will also be a very important factor in Ukrainian struggle against Russian invasion.

«The nuclear deterrent and the NATO are the only things that can contain Russia»

Andriy Kulykov: Volodymyr Yermolenko, Ukrainian author, philosopher and scientist of politics, researcher of politics, is our interlocutor in the Ukraine Calling podcast on Hromadske Radio. And since you’ve mentioned the wounded empires, one of the messages that Putin tries to spread, and of course not only Putin, is that Russia has been wounded by the evil West and so on and so forth. To which extent do you think the wounds of the Russian Empire are self-inflicted?

Volodymyr Yermolenko: I think they are self-inflicted, because there is also discourse in some international circles that look, we kind of violated, we humiliated Russia after the Cold War. Which is not true, because Russia was accepted to all the key clubs. Russia was given a place of the permanent member of the UN Security Council, even in violation of the rules, as we know today, Russia was accepted into G8. Russia was suggested fantastic rules, very good actually conditions for its trade. And Russia was earning money on its trade with the West, primarily gas and oil. The NATO expansion was primarily made by the will of the people of the Central and Eastern European countries. It was actually this argument of Russia that it was threatening its interests. It’s of course a lie, it’s a manipulation because the basic motivation for the NATO expansion was actually to fill the vacuum, the security vacuum, which appeared after the collapse of the Warsaw Pact. Now we see that the only countries, the only spots at which actually there is destabilization, there is cruel war, there is genocidal war, are countries which were not included into this new architecture, were not included into NATO, I mean Georgia and Ukraine, and Moldova to some extent. There is a clear logic between the fact that Georgia and Ukraine were not really giving a true NATO membership perspective, very concrete NATO membership perspective, and Russia’s attack against Georgia in 2008 and its attack against Ukraine in 2014. So this is the question of the security vacuum.

And I think that, well, there is, our listeners should understand that we can think short term, we can think in terms of what will be the result of Ukrainian counteroffensive this year. But we should also think long term, and in the long term thinking, the only way to avoid the father wars of Russia against Ukraine and against maybe Kazakhstan and against Georgia and against other countries of its neighbourhood is actually, there are only two ways, either to include these countries into collective security, primarily Ukraine, like NATO, or to restore the nuclear weapons of Ukrainian army.

And the nuclear and the NATO are the only things that can contain Russia, we should understand that, and we should understand that even if Russia loses this particular war, it’s within the logic of this wounded empire, it will try to take the revenge and launch another war, like it did with Chechnya for example, like it did in Georgia also as well. And the thinking, I think, should be meet in long term as well, not only short term.

Volodymyr Yermolenko in the studio of Hromadske Radio, Kyiv


Andriy Kulykov: Speaking again, but taking another angle about self-inflicted wounds and wounded empires, self-mutilation actually borders on inferiority complex, and sometimes is a means of emphasising the inferiority complex and provoking respective feelings from your partner or whatever. In this respect, Ukrainians have often said that they are imbued with the inferiority complex for different reasons. How far we are from the danger of becoming a self-wounded state or self-wounded nation?

Volodymyr Yermolenko: I think that the past years since 2013, 2014, helped Ukrainians to overcome, to a very large extent, this inferiority complex. But with regard to Russia and with regard to other parts of the world, because it is true that in the 90s, 1990s, Ukraine was a country of people, in their majority, wanted to leave. Because of the poverty, because of the economic condition, because of the very dubious sense of identity. And then it was growing, I think, this sense of identity primarily, and economic condition were all, you know, ameliorating, improving, and I think Ukrainians gradually were overcoming this sense of inferiority. And of course, this invasion, which was, which is very, very painful and tragic and cost lots of human lives of Ukrainian people, but at the same time, it is giving the sense to the Ukrainian nation that it is far more powerful than it thought. And I think it is a discovery for many of us and when we speak to people in the occupied territories, we often hear that, that we actually — people found the strength that they were not really aware of. And I hope that it will have the long-term results. I hope that these victories that Ukrainians are actually having against the Russian army in the Battle of Kyiv, in the battle for Kharkiv Oblast, in the battle for Kherson, and we hope, in the future counter-offensive in the East and in the South, they are really giving the sense of being victorious, because in the Ukrainian history there is a lot of suffering, of course, there is a lot of victimhood, but at the same time, what we need is this sense of being victorious. And I think it is coming, actually, to us.

Andriy Kulykov: Being one of the people who are, to my mind, very successful in dispelling stereotypes brought about Ukrainians, what kind of stereotypes do we have to overcome in our relations with the foreign world?

Volodymyr Yermolenko: You mean stereotypes about the others?

Andriy Kulykov: Yes.

Volodymyr Yermolenko: Or about ourselves?

Andriy Kulykov: No, no, no, about the others. When we meet them.

Volodymyr Yermolenko: Well, I think, of course, everybody has big stereotypes about any particular country, and now, for example, when I travel in France or Germany or when I talk to colleagues from Spain, I see that, for example, that Ukrainians might have suspected that the support for Ukraine is lower in these countries than it actually is. And this is very important to understand that there is a public opinion supporting, in most of these countries. It can be fluctuating, it can be going down, it can be lowering, it can be up, but I think that there is this feeling. And, we should not be thinking about Europe, for example, as there is sometimes, thinking that it is well-off, rich continent which only cares about itself. I think it’s not true, and we have this feeling of solidarity, and we also see that Ukrainians kind of help other countries also to find their own identity, their own feeling of solidarity. Because this feeling of solidarity always helps everybody. When there is something that helps us overcome our atomization, our insurmountable differences. When there is something that helps us overcome it, it actually a two-way street. It is beneficial both to the both sides. But I also think we have lots of stereotypes against about non-Western world, and this world should be discovered for Ukraine, and I do hope that there will be much more interesting things not only in the interaction between Ukrainians and European or Northern Americans, but also, as I said, interactions between Ukrainians and people from the Asian countries or African countries or Latin American countries because there is so much in common to find. There are, I think, structural similarities in cultures between many nations which were under certain imperial rule or colonisation. I think there are many parallels in this kind, many parallels in the way how societies are organised, many parallels in the way how you perceive art or literature, and I think there are really big discoveries to make, and I do hope the 21st century will also be, not only the century in which Ukraine is discovered by the West, but also the century when Ukraine discovers its global role.

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Andriy Kulykov: Isn’t it already?

Volodymyr Yermolenko: Well, I don’t know, I’m not sure. I think that we are really not at the moment when we are discovering the big world. We are focused on ourselves of course, and we are focused on our partners who are helping us economically and militarily but we need to discover our global role — Ukrainian. I do think that Ukraine is able toо not only to just to fight, but to lead for certain global causes like environment or the rights of smaller nations or denuclearization or you name it.

Andriy Kulykov: You said that, now once again, it’s not the first time even during this interview that Dr. Yermolenko mentions Asian, African countries, and take note, Spain, France, and Germany, and I presume that you do not talk to people in these countries only in English. One of the worries that I have is that we are so much concentrated on the English language and seeing it as a tool to reach global audiences that we forget or overlook some other important languages in the world, both, let’s say, European and non-European. How do we overcome this problem?

Volodymyr Yermolenko: Yes, I think we should work in these directions, too. It’s good that Ukraine learned how to communicate in English, that’s already a very good thing. I also speak French, I understand German, and UkraineWorld (is an English-language multimedia project about Ukraine run by Internews Ukraine) actually has five language versions. We have Twitter accounts in English, German, French, Spanish, and Italian. And I think the more languages we can speak the better, especially given the fact that, in many countries of the world, very unexpectedly, there is Ukrainian diaspora, there are Ukrainians who actually know these languages. It’s very important to talk in Japanese, it’s very important to talk in Hebrew, it’s very important to talk — to try to talk in Chinese, as well I think, and with African countries, I think, I guess, it’s important to talk not only in English but in French, for example. Or with Latin America, in Spanish and Portuguese. And I do hope that we will get there. So, I feel that interest among some young people in Ukraine to go beyond Europe, to go beyond America, to learn Asian languages for example, but we need time, of course, for that. We need time. It is true that there are not so many French speakers in Ukraine, there are not so many Spanish speakers, I’m not sure that there are many Hindu speakers, right, and there is a big challenge to go that way.

Andriy Kulykov: Yes, but we have to keep in mind that just as we like when we are addressed in Ukrainian, and we probably perceive some things better when we hear them in our own language, then for instance French-speaking or Spanish-speaking audiences would better understand and better perceive what is given to them in those languages.

Volodymyr Yermolenko: Absolutely! And therefore, we have these language versions which are actually run in these countries: the Spanish version of UkraineWorld Spain, the German version by people in Germany, the French version by our colleagues in France, the Italian version by our colleague in Italy. So, this is very important that these people are there, that they understand the local specifics, the local culture, the local information space, and they try to tell the story, the Ukrainian story to make it better understood in these languages.

«In many ways we are incognito»

Andriy Kulykov: Also, during our conversation you compared Ukraine to the underdog but how much we are a dark horse in this world?

Volodymyr Yermolenko: «How much we are…?».

Andriy Kulykov: A dark horse.

Volodymyr Yermolenko: Uh, that’s an interesting question. I do think that we are, in many ways, out there incognito, and we will continue to be out there incognito for quite a long time because, you know, in order not out there incognito we have — really, our literature has to be massively translated, our movies have to broadcasted, and made and broadcasted. And I hope it will come to this. But in this respect, I think that Ukrainian message to the world should also be that, look, we were overseen, we were overlooked by so many decades and even centuries. And suddenly we realise that Ukraine is a fantastic, very interesting country and therefore there is so much to know, also to learn about other parts of the world which are probably marginalised, which are not noticed.

Andriy Kulykov: Dr. Yermolenko, when did you realise that Ukraine is a wonderful country and very interesting? Because I believe that each one of us has special stages when we come to understand this. Was it from the early childhood, or maybe later?

Volodymyr Yermolenko: I think that for me, actually, even the hard times of the 1990s were also beautiful times and I remember the last years of my school in Kyiv in the mid-90s and then the first years at the university Kyiv-Mohyla Academy, where I entered and I met so many wonderful people. So, we didn’t have money at the time, the economy was in ruins almost, but there was this period of personal communication which was magnificent, and I think at that time it was clear for me that I’m not going to leave the country, it’s very interesting to be here. And then, of course, we went through the really historical processes. We went through the Orange Revolution, then we went through Euromaidan, and even during the war, despite the fact that it is, again, very painful and very tragic, but there is something in human nature which develops, which shows itself, which you cannot really discover in the peaceful times. The courage, the altruism, the self-sacrifice, the humanity. All this is present here. And therefore I think, indeed Ukraine is now one of the central points of the global history and the difference with the Second World War, in which Ukraine also was a central point of the global history, as Timothy Snyder showed in his book, Ukraine, Belarus, Poland. Today it is recognized.

  • It is recognized by the world that Ukraine is indeed one of the central points of global history.

Andriy Kulykov: Probably the last question in this conversation. The last time I have seen you in person, something like four or five days ago, you were presenting a translation of a biographical book about Susan Sontag, and there were something like thirty people all in all in the audience. Why a person of such note would spend at least two hours talking to twenty or thirty people?

Volodymyr Yermolenko: Why not? When we travel across Ukraine, with our team from PEN Ukraine, we sometimes meet, spend hours talking to ten people, fifteen people, sometimes we make events for hundreds of people. Sometimes some of my posts on Twitter have several millions of views, but sometimes I really spend several hours talking to few people. I think it’s all necessary. I also keep on teaching at Kyiv-Mohyla Academy, and sometimes on the seminars we have just a few students and last year on one of my courses there were only two, and at some point I was even talking to one student for several weeks. So, I do think that this is important. We are not slaves of quantity, you know, slaves of numbers. Sometimes in order to go deeper, you really need to talk to few people only.

Andriy Kulykov: And to be a master of quality, of the quality that is so characteristic of a philosopher, a writer, author, journalist Volodymyr Yermolenko. Dr. Yermolenko, who was our interlocutor in this podcast, Ukraine Calling from Hromadske Radio.

Transcribed by Caitilín O’Hare and Leah Wagner

This podcast is produced within the project «EU Emergency Support 4 Civil Society», implemented by ISAR Ednannia with the financial support of the European Union. Its contents are the sole responsibility of Hromadske radio and do not necessarily reflect the views of the European Union.

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