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Massacre in Bucha, end of peaceful life in Europe and lack of justice in Ukraine

The massacre in Bucha shocked the civilized world. It was an act of genocide against peaceful civilians in the heart of Europe, reminiscent of the crimes of World War II. What lies behind this atrocity?

More than two years have passed since it occurred, and Ukraine still fights for its survival. But Vladimir Putin’s appetite will not be sated with Ukraine alone. Is the West prepared to face a new Hitler?

In addition, Ukraine faces its own internal challenges. For years, its people have longed for freedom and justice. With its survival at stake, will Ukraine finally shed former sympathies for Russia and become a fully democratic country?

Massacre in Bucha, end of peaceful life in Europe and lack of justice in Ukraine

Brian Bonner: Hello, everybody, and welcome to Ukraine Calling. I’m your host, Brian Bonner. This is our 16th episode since we restarted Ukraine Calling, and I have a personal note. Originally, we received funding for 15 episodes from Internews Network, a U.S. media support arm, but thanks to our viewers and listeners, we received the good news that we will have more episodes.

I’m very happy about that, and I ask you all to please subscribe to us on YouTube, listen to us on Hromadske Radio’s website, or wherever you get your podcasts. It’s very important. We started our YouTube channel from nothing, and now we have well over 1,000 followers, so please continue to support us.

Without further ado, I will introduce our guest today in the studio, Yuri Polakiwsky. He was born in Toronto, but his parents are from Kharkiv. He is a longtime resident of Ukraine, the author of three books now, with the third one coming soon, and one of the sharpest commentators on Ukraine. He is fluent in Ukrainian and English and understands what’s happening here. Welcome to the program, Yuri.

Yuri Polakiwsky: Thanks, Brian. Just tickled pink that I’m here.

“Bucha” – a story of genocide committed by the Russians

Brian Bonner: Let’s start with your book, “Bucha,” about to come out. You were kind enough to send me the unedited, unfinished version, which I enjoyed. It’s 88 pages, but I know you will expand it before publishing.

It falls into the historical novel category, focusing on the real-life events in Bucha, the northwestern suburb of Kyiv, which was occupied by Russian troops for over a month. The final death toll was 400 Ukrainians killed before it was liberated. Tell us why you wrote this book and decided to memorialize what happened there.

Yuri Polakiwsky: Accountability—legal accountability and responsibility. I’ve been here for 10 years, and one thing that’s missing here in Ukraine, and definitely in Russia, is legal accountability for crimes. One of the key aspects of a democracy is the rule of law.

So, the reason I wrote the book, or I imagined it, was to imagine what would have been if the proper directions or procedures had been undertaken. I wanted to see, and then I wrote it in the book, how that process would be and what it could be.

I wanted to focus on one very important aspect: If we want democracy here in Ukraine, which people want, we must establish the rule of law. That means that they have to hold people who are committing crimes and war crimes accountable. In Bucha’s case, specifically, we have to bring them to account.

Ukraine has many laws but little justice

Brian Bonner: We’re still waiting for that. Do you think it will happen?

Yuri Polakiwsky: Yes, I do.

Brian Bonner: It might take years. I mean, Russian accountability.

Yuri Polakiwsky: I don’t care how long it takes. What is important is that we in Ukraine, and I write this in the book, are a lawless land. But listen carefully. We are a lawless land with many laws. We have laws, but there’s no justice. So, how long will we wait for justice? I hearken back and make a quick allusion to the Holodomor.

I wanted to write and make the point that we have Bucha, and the reason we have the war is that we still haven’t punished or established traditions here. There’s going to be the following of the rule of law. That means behavior will be governed by objective standards, right? That’s what I wanted to write in the book.

Brian Bonner: Unfortunately, you made it clear in the book that Russia has never been held to account for anything it’s done historically. And you also make the point that you don’t let Ukraine off the hook because we are a country searching for our own democracy and the rule of law, fighting corruption.

Yuri Polakiwsky: Well, you know, because I was writing for you at the Kyiv Post, you gave me that opportunity. As you know, you told me that you reread some of those articles. One of the key themes of my work has been precisely that: the road toward democracy, which leads through the rule of law, truth-telling, and the pursuit of justice.

These are the fundamentals of a democracy. Having been here over 10 years, I see where there’s a deficiency in this. People don’t know what these things mean. Years ago, someone in the studio asked me if people understand what democracy is in Ukraine. I said, yes, they want democracy. Do they know the full meaning of democracy? I would say no.

I wanted to write that book not only about Bucha and holding Russia accountable on the world stage but also to create a sense of hope within the Ukrainian community here, to overcome their cynicism and say there is a possibility for the rule of law. This is a big hope for me.

Brian Bonner: Well, we certainly learned in the last more than 10 years, but especially during the previous three years, what it is to fight for your independence, freedom and nation.

Yuri Polakiwsky: That’s shocking to many people because, as you know, our friends or people we know said that Ukraine would be overrun in a week. Well, it’s been over two years, and we’re still fighting for our freedom and trying to define what it is to be free. This is not a new issue. Ukraine has been subjugated under Russia, Imperial Russia, for 400 years, some would say longer. This is our quest.

Book on Bucha: real-life events and composite characters

Brian Bonner: Let’s talk about that. We have a lot to talk about today. You are very eloquent, and you’ve written a lot for the Kyiv Post, the Atlantic Council, New Europe, and other places. You’re a very lyrical writer. After reading the book, why did you write it as a historical novel, weaving the real-life events of Bucha, the horrible tragedies, with composite characters? Two of your main protagonists are Hanna and Petro. Who are Hanna and Petro, and why did you tell the story this way?

Yuri Polakiwsky: The reason is that I felt Bucha is a microcosm for the war between Russia and Ukraine. If you want to know what this war is about, look at Bucha. There is a conflagration here between an authoritarian dictatorship and a society that yearns to go towards democracy and to employ democratic values in their way of life. I wanted to have that discussion because people here don’t believe that actual justice can be done.

Brian Bonner: This is a recurring theme, and it’s a central thread. Who is Hanna, though? Just answer this.

Yuri Polakiwsky: I’ll get to that. She is the character who is both a witness, commentator, and explicator of what is going on there. Hanna is a Ukrainian woman who chose to stay in Ukraine during the war. Many people left, and a lot of women left. She decided to stay. Her major preoccupation is finding out the war’s meaning and what happened there. I chose a woman because I didn’t want people to think it was just me pontificating. Hanna is a sympathetic and objective figure in how she deals with the facts. The book is written in imaginary philosophical speculations, documenting the crimes there.

Brian Bonner: Fair to say she’s a composite of many Ukrainian women you know. She meets up with Petro. Who is Petro? How does he relate to Hanna?

Yuri Polakiwsky: In the book, she imagines that there’s going to be a criminal proceeding against the Russian war criminals in Bucha under the Geneva Conventions. Petro is the chief prosecutor. There’s a meeting between the two where they discuss justice, and he begins to realize the importance of pursuing justice in Ukraine. That is one thing this country lacks – a spirit of justice. We have so many laws here, but people are dying for justice to be done.

Brian Bonner: We haven’t had it. The book has many other characters, but I will defer to one of my new best friends, ChatGPT. Thank God you gave me the book in Word format so I could put it into AI and ask what it thought of the book. It came back as “a profound and heart-wrenching account of the atrocities committed in Bucha, a town in Ukraine, during the Russian invasion in 2022.”

It goes on to talk about how well-written it is. Your literary style “is evocative and deeply emotional, capturing the raw pain and indomitable spirit of the people of Bucha.” I’m reading ChatGPT because that’s how I felt. I just couldn’t articulate it as well.

I did highlight a few lines. Maybe not the best, but you do have a way of structuring that is very interesting. One line, «The longer a war continues, the more ordinary it becomes.» I’m afraid we’re in that phase. Last night, between thunder, lightning, bombs, and heavy rain, it was a night to behold in Ukraine.

You quote Hanna, «I’m here to witness the prosecutions of the war criminals.» She’s at the courthouse, saying, «I want to bear witness. My name is Hanna.» And Petro says, «I’m Petro.» They start their dialogue and relationship in the pursuit of justice.

Yuri Polakiwsky: I stole that line, by the way, from Victor Klemperer, who was a Jewish professor in Germany during the war. He wrote two books titled «I Shall Bear Witness.» This is an essential part of why I want it. Nothing here is taking place in secret. People have seen this. There are witnesses.

Brian Bonner: And some of it’s on camera.

Yuri Polakiwsky: CCTV. Do you remember the original day of the attack and occupation? The taking of the nine fellows on 144 Yablunska.

Brian Bonner: Yes, famous address now.

Yuri Polakiwsky: They marched them. There’s camera evidence showing the procession of the nine being led to Yablunska Street, the Russian occupiers’ headquarters. There’s actual video evidence of that.

Brian Bonner: You were up there because you wrote a wonderful description.

Yuri Polakiwsky: Yes.

Brian Bonner: And Bucha’s place, I mean, as an affluent, new, up-and-coming suburb.

Yuri Polakiwsky: It is an up-and-coming suburb of Kyiv. When you go to Bucha, you can see that I’ve been there eight or nine times, and I think I mentioned in the book that there are old and new sections. The Russians shot up the new sections. A quote there says, «We destroy what we can’t have.» And that’s what they did. The older sections were left alone, and the newer sections were destroyed. Another influential thing for me was the discussion I had with Father Andriy.

Brian Bonner: Father Andriy, I remember him.

Yuri Polakiwsky: You know Father Andriy; he’s from Lviv, and he’s a wonderful man.

Brian Bonner: Now he’s real.

Yuri Polakiwsky: Oh yeah, most of the people there are real. He got a call from a city councilor a few weeks into the occupation. The councilor said, «Father Andriy, what do we do about the bodies?» The Russians had summarily executed ordinary citizens and left the bodies on the street. After a few weeks, there were dogs. And they said, «What will we do with these corpses?» Father Andriy said that in the back of the church, and I’ve been there in Bucha, they had a mass grave there.

Brian Bonner: Is it still there?

Yuri Polakiwsky: It’s now overgrown with vegetation, but there are pictures of the corpses.

Brian Bonner: Are people still buried there, or were they identified and taken to individual family cemeteries?

Yuri Polakiwsky: It’s interesting. My real inspiration was seeing Andrew—Father Andrew—in a picture in the Guardian. He was in his cassock, standing over an open body bag. I asked him, «What were you attempting to do?» He said, «These were my parishioners. I wanted to give them a sense of dignity and bury them.»

He couldn’t because the Russians were still occupying the part of town where the cemetery was. So they gathered the bodies and buried them there.

Do Ukrainians know what justice is?

Brian Bonner: Well, you have it memorialized, and that’s a service. Before we move on to other things, you had two lines here. The first reflects where we’ve been as a nation in Ukraine, and the other reflects where we are individually. You wrote, «Corruption is the main culprit. A deficiency characterized by the depravity of fundamental moral values.  With so much money changing hands, so many schemes implemented, and many interests being served, but never the public interest.»

That was the larger point. And here’s Hanna, expressing what many of us feel: «I feel like I’m on a quest to a place I’ve never seen, never been, let alone understand.  The trials have not even begun, but I’m already tired. Nonetheless, I know I must find the strength to continue. To give up would not only be a personal failure, but it would have failed my people.» Good writing, my friend.

Yuri Polakiwsky: Thank you. That’s Petro saying that.

Brian Bonner: Oh, that’s what Petro is saying. Sorry about that.

Yuri Polakiwsky: No, it’s okay. Even though I wrote that, as you were reading it, I was almost moved to tears because I sensed that, and I want you and the people who are listening and those who are going to read to understand that there is such a thirst here for justice—fairness, justice.

In that sentence, you see that. Where are we going? We don’t know. We need to find out what justice is. And when I say «we,» I mean Ukraine. I consider myself already Ukrainian.

Brian Bonner: Well, you are. You were born to Kharkiv parents, even though your citizenship is Canadian.

Yuri Polakiwsky: There is this hunger for justice in this country. We want to get to the truth of a situation. We want fairness.

Brian Bonner: Don’t you agree that societies that don’t bring justice don’t move forward?

Yuri Polakiwsky: Of course.

Brian Bonner: Russia is a living embodiment of impunity. But on our domestic scale, our leaders have been unable to deliver justice.

Yuri Polakiwsky: Some of them don’t know what justice is. Why? Because they have never experienced the lack of justice. I’m talking about the politicians. But the ordinary folk of this country yearn for that. They’re dying for that. Just look at our culture.

Our culture is full of songs and poems that yearn for freedom and the freedom of the soul. This is an existential question, too. The classic question Hanna asks in the book is: What is justice? What is fairness? We’re fighting a war with a country that represents a culture of death.

A society needs justice to define itself as a culture of life. In Bucha, and in this book, there is a clear contrast: a culture of death represented by Russia, its forces, its society, and its soldiers, and a culture of life.

Brian Bonner: You made it clear they will only stop once they’re defeated.

Yuri Polakiwsky: Yes, the war can be formally called genocide, war crimes, and genocide. But what you’re seeing now is the attempted murder of a modern European nation. The Russian strategic objective is to destroy and murder Ukraine. That’s powerful.

Brian Bonner: I don’t dispute it. They’ve proven it. I want to mention your other books briefly. In 2023, «Dispatches, Amidst the Sirens and Bombs,» a collection of your columns, is a good read. In 2015, «Ukraine, a Lament of a Promise» is more poetic. I have yet to read it, but I will. You’re also a member of the Kyiv Association of Ukrainian Writers and Poets.

Was there sympathy for Russia in Ukraine?

Brian Bonner: Let’s step back. We’re now well into the 3rd, 11th or 400th year, however, you want to count it. Where are things going right and wrong from your view? Because you’re an astute connoisseur of news, events, and the rhythms of society.

Yuri Polakiwsky: A few things come to mind. First, people thought that Ukraine would be taken over in one week. It has now been two and a half years. The resilience of the Ukrainian populace and their rejection of anything related to «Ruski Mir» have been absolute.

Brian Bonner: Point taken. But let’s look ahead. Where are we now?

Yuri Polakiwsky: I’ll finish this point. I’ve noticed a couple of key things. I`m born Canadian, so I know the language of Canadian or American politicians. I see fear.

Brian Bonner: Fear of Russia?

Yuri Polakiwsky: Yes, I see fear and a lack of leadership. During the war, I’ve been here the entire time, and it sometimes feels like we’re fish in a barrel being shot at. We have no ability or permission to fire back or attack Russia with Western weapons.

Brian Bonner: They’ve dribbled out the weapons and aid. That’s true.

Yuri Polakiwsky: One of the biggest problems is the fear and lack of leadership regarding what could be. The usual excuse is that they don’t want Ukrainians to use these weapons for fear of escalation. What, are the Russians going to start a war?

Brian Bonner: So you’re talking about foreigners? The Western allies. What about inside? Is Ukraine doing everything it can to win this war?

Yuri Polakiwsky: They want to win. But the question is, how do you define «win»?

Brian Bonner: I define it as returning every piece of territory from the 1991 borders, and being strong enough that they don’t have to fight this war again.

Yuri Polakiwsky: You ask a specific question: Are Ukrainians doing enough? My question is, what have we been doing for over 30 years since declaring independence in ’90? Where are the people whose responsibility was to protect this nation? You can’t suddenly blame the Americans or the Europeans.

Now, there are details we can discuss. I’m not a real expert on military issues or equipment provision. But is it not the responsibility of a nation and the political class to protect and provide security for its citizens? I would say yes. Who would be best to know? Well, Ukrainians here. But we had Ukrainians here who had to understand what the Russians were, who they were. Why weren’t they prepared for this? Why weren’t they ready for this?

Brian Bonner: Do you have an answer to that question? Because that’s a great question.

Yuri Polakiwsky: It is a great question. I think there was a great sympathy towards Russian culture and the effects of Russification. There was great sympathy towards Russia. I asked people on the streets of Kyiv, why are you speaking to me in Russian? Don’t you realize that these are the people killing our sons and daughters? Don’t you get it?

Brian Bonner: It’s colonialism. The victims of colonialism.

Yuri Polakiwsky: My biggest shock was in Lviv a year and a half ago when I met a fellow from Kherson who spoke to me in Russian and told me what was going on there about his brother-in-law, a policeman. He said that some of them opened the gate and welcomed the Russians. I’m shocked at the level of collaboration and traitors that are here.

Brian Bonner: Well, we still have it. It is a mystery to me. I would like you to explain it.

Yuri Polakiwsky: What do you do with collaborators in a time of war? What has historically been done with collaborators and traitors in a time of war? Answer that question, and you’ll have my answer.

Brian Bonner: Well, they’re shot or imprisoned. But you’re right. I mean, first, we had the initial invasion in 2014, and we were in bad shape because (ex-President Viktor) Yanukovych had just fled, and he had already hollowed out the military. It ties into the oligarchy and everything. But we did put up a valiant defense. Ukrainian soldiers did, even though they weren’t fully ready for what would come in 2022.

Yuri Polakiwsky: No? Who do you blame for that? Who takes responsibility for that?

Brian Bonner: The nation ultimately has to provide for its self-defense.

Yuri Polakiwsky: Rather than have their hand out in Washington. But even this past week, with President (J0e) Biden, let me be critical of President Biden. There was a TikTok of his discussion with President (Volodymyr) Zelensky, and he said, «Forgive me, President Zelensky, for the delay of a few weeks on the decision to send arms.»

Brian Bonner: The $60 billion package.

Yuri Polakiwsky: That’s disingenuous. It wasn’t a few weeks. It was six months, half a year. The Ukrainians were fighting demographically in a precarious position against the Russians and were holding their own. They lost all that land because they didn’t have enough artillery to fire back.

Does the West owe Ukraine its defense?    

Brian Bonner: Yes, and we lost half of our electricity production because we didn’t have the air defenses to fire back. But again, you raise complicated issues that will be history discussions. The West has a responsibility—Budapest Memorandum.

Yuri Polakiwsky: Oh, that’s not even worth discussing.

Brian Bonner: The surrender of nuclear weapons. That’s key. That’s why Ukraine deserves unlimited support. Because they did that. On the Ukrainian side, we’ve had corruption. We still need to build the defenses or the rule of law, the justice we need, or the strong economy we need.

Yuri Polakiwsky: But people in the United States and the West don’t fully understand. I have acquaintances and friends who are diplomats and so on. The ones that are here understand, but not entirely. They haven’t yet convinced their masters in their various capitals of what is exactly going on here. Gordon Brown, here I am.

Brian Bonner: Talking about Gordon Brown, Britain’s former prime minister?

Yuri Polakiwsky: Yes, that’s the one, Labour. He said that the West has to consider the ramifications of Russia committing an act of aggression against another sovereign country. People have to understand even though the years have gone by, specific facts don’t change. Russia broke international law and is committing war crimes in Ukraine. They have to be held to account.

Brian Bonner: I agree. But a big part of the world doesn’t care. And we have to figure out how to make them care. Part of the world doesn’t care because many other tragedies are going on. And part of it is because, as you said, we’re seen as a problematic case.

How can we end the war?

Brian Bonner: All right, Yuri, we should wrap it up and talk about the war, how this ends, and how we get out of this nightmare. Let me throw out some observations, and you can agree or disagree. By the way, the Budapest Memorandum was worthless. But because Ukraine got rid of its nuclear weapons, the West owes Ukraine, no matter how imperfect this nation may be.

What I’m seeing—and maybe you don’t see this—is that the West has started, maybe not out of great love for Ukraine but out of self-interest. They see that if Ukraine is defeated, if Russia is not defeated, it will have horrible consequences for the rest of the 21st century. Yet, at the same time, we must be aware of the foe, which does not believe Ukraine is an independent nation or that its people deserve to exist independently or be left in peace.

When you see this going forward, how can the West and Ukraine combine to get the best possible outcome of this war? Have you thought about that?

Yuri Polakiwsky: I have. I actually thought about it in preparation for coming here today. I think we should go from the Cold War to the Cold Peace.

Brian Bonner: You mean Hot War to Cold Peace?

Yuri Polakiwsky: I want a Cold Peace. Cold Peace means developing an armature that is both political and geopolitical and would isolate Russia. It doesn’t deserve to be part of the family of nations. We need to talk about international accountability. We are no longer going to react just to Russia; we need a clear agenda. There should be no Olympics and no membership in international bodies—economic, cultural, or sports bodies.

Brian Bonner: No trade. So they are like pariahs.

Yuri Polakiwsky: Isolate them. I want to bring this up: would you cut a deal with Hitler?

Brian Bonner: No. It’s impossible. And you equate Putin with Hitler.

Yuri Polakiwsky: The acts of genocide and the war crimes that took place are the same as what Germany perpetrated. We won’t cut any deals with them. The result should be restoring international order and isolation (of Russia – ed.). I mean, yes, I would like to see the arrest and prosecution of Putin. But if you corner a rat whose only desire is to survive. You can see the way he reacted to (Yevheniy) Prigozhin. He wants to be a survivor.

Brian Bonner: He’s a coward.

Yuri Polakiwsky: I didn’t use that term, but his preoccupation is survival. It’s good that you can survive, but you live in your own little hole. We do not allow him to participate in the world’s cultural life.

Brian Bonner: He’s not alone, unfortunately, in the world. He does have allies. But Ukraine can’t change its geography. It is always going to live next door to Russia. So that means we are going to have to become like a big Israel—brute military force and readiness. We are going to have to reconstruct society.

Ukrainians are generally peace-loving and will not attack anybody. But if you agree with that principle, can Ukraine adjust to being a big Israel and be ready to defend itself? And that means taking 18-year-olds and making all kinds of innovative weapons in great supply. It means stamping out corruption and really unifying the nation and our Western allies to preserve the Cold War. Can it do that?

Yuri Polakiwsky: Can it do it? Yes. Will it do it? I don’t know. Does it have to do it? Yes.

Brian Bonner: So you agree with the premise?

Yuri Polakiwsky: Yes. I talked to one young fellow, 30 years old, a few weeks ago, and he said, “Yuri, what do you expect me to do? They attacked my home. They attacked my home. What do you expect me to do?”

Brian Bonner: He explained that’s why he fights.

Yuri Polakiwsky: “I’m 30 years old. I have to give commands. I’m an IT guy; I have to give commands.” The Russians have taken our children, raped our women, destroyed our infrastructure, destroyed schools and hospitals. There is no moral equivalence.

So we have to say, and the West has to say, and Ukraine has to learn, by the way. They have to learn that, and they’re doing it. They have to learn something: that freedom has a cost. Freedom has a cost. And the Ukrainians, in their suffering now, they’re paying the price.

And the West has said, we’re going to support you. Okay. We’re paying the price. Our house is on fire. Are you going to help us?

Has the West woke up?

Brian Bonner: Well, you’ve described what Ukraine needs to do. Whether they can do it is still a question. How about the West? Do you see signs? I know that they’re waking up, that the peace dividend is spent, and that the West has finally, though slowly, woken up to the threat of Russia. Still waiting?

Yuri Polakiwsky: Not 100%, but over the last year, they’re beginning to realize that Russia poses an existential threat.

It’s not only their existence. That’s why you hear all this talk about nuclear weapons. Last year, the CIA director, on a trip to Moscow, basically said, «If you use any type of tactical nukes, we will destroy your army. Period.»

Brian Bonner: We have that capability, thank God.

Yuri Polakiwsky: So, it’s not only a security threat. It’s not only an existential threat that the West is recognizing. They also acknowledge the fact that there are absolutes in this world. That’s what I talk about in the book. What is evil?

That moral category is not often used. But when you see the summary executions, the two shots in the back of the head on the streets of Bucha, when you see a guy who, after dinner, went on the balcony with a young girl and other people and was shot while smoking a cigarette on his balcony, when you see an older man who went on a bike and got sniped from the second floor, what else do you call this? I’m ready, what is it? It’s evil.

Brian Bonner: Yeah, it’s evil.

Yuri Polakiwsky: You have to decide what you will do about it. Evil is defined as killing, destroying, massacring, and eliminating. What Ukraine is doing reminds me of a place in the New Testament where evil was discussed. Jesus said, «How do you deal with evil? Resist it.»

Brian Bonner: No room for neutrality.

Yuri Polakiwsky: Neutrality means to stand, and resist means in Greek, to stand up against it. And that’s what Ukraine is doing: standing up against evil.

Brian Bonner: And let’s hope it ends soon and favorably. We’ll have to leave it there, Yuri. Yuri Polakiewsky, thank you so much for diving into the depths of Bucha, one of the worst chapters in a horrible nightmare for us, and delivering the story you will bring to people. Let’s hope it goes our way.


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