Soviet dissident Myroslav Marynovych talks about the challenges facing Ukraine and how Ukrainians can build a strong state.
For Myroslav Marynovych, the 30th anniversary of Ukrainian Independence is a particularly significant event. Myroslav Marynovych and his comrades, who spent several years in Soviet labour camps, were at the root of Ukraine’s statehood and contributed to its foundation.
Myroslav Marynovych is a former political prisoner, human rights activist, philosopher, vice-rector of the Ukrainian Catholic University in Lviv, and member of the First of December Group (founded on the 20th anniversary of Ukraine’s independence referendum). He is considered one of the most important moral authorities of Ukraine.
– If we go back 30 years in history, could you, a prisoner of the communist regime, have imagined that an independent Ukraine would appear during your lifetime?
– I was firmly convinced that Ukraine would one day become independent. The communist system was so rotten, so entirely based on falsehood that it had to collapse. But, I confess I didn’t think that it would happen so soon. I was overjoyed when the Soviet Union collapsed, but, to be honest, it was quite unexpected…
Have my hopes and dreams come true? Yes and no. On the one hand, Ukraine is independent, has retained its sovereignty, and that makes me happy. On the other hand…
During my incarceration in Soviet penal colonies, I believed that Ukraine had hit rock bottom during the period of Soviet gerontocratic rule, when old party members continuously replaced one another. It couldn’t be worse, I thought, and I truly believed that subsequent governments, especially the future government of an independent Ukraine, would be wiser and adhere to moral standards. But, that didn’t happen. It seems that another “rock bottom” was hiding behind the first… It was during Yanukovych’s rule that Ukraine really touched bottom.
I had different dreams for Independence, but I now understand that these dreams were too idealistic and utopian. Reality is different. And, as former president Leonid Kravchuk said, “we’ve made our bed, so now we must lie on it!” On the one hand, Ukraine has achieved a lot; on the other hand, it has lost too many precious things. Accordingly, this prevents Ukraine from growing and developing further.
– What strategic mistakes have Ukrainian leaders made?
– Over the years, Ukraine’s leadership has made many mistakes. In particular, I’m very concerned that no decisive steps have been taken to establish the rule of law . Each leader has tried to concentrate power in his hands and, accordingly, instrumentalize the judiciary. I admonish all our presidents for this.
However, I also reproach society. Ukrainians shouldn’t point their finger at their leaders, blaming them for corruption… because corruption has become a stimulus not only for the upper classes, but also for the lower classes. Ukrainians have become used to corruption. They truly believe that they can’t live any other way. In my opinion, this seriously burdens their conscience. Therefore, Ukrainians and Ukraine’s leaders must share the responsibility for all shortcomings and miscalculations.
– How would you assess Zelenskyy’s role in nation-building? Is he on the right track?
– Today, Ukraine has a populist leader and government. They are very sensitive and react painfully to ratings. This leadership is unlikely to take unpopular steps that are sometimes required for a true democracy. A responsible government that cares about national interests sometimes has to tell the people: “You’re wrong! We must change course and steer the other way!”
The voice of the people is not always the voice of God. Therefore, despite its ratings, a populist government can’t lay the foundations for properly functioning policy. I’m sure we’ll all see something very soon: the same people who support the president today may abandon him tomorrow (precisely because they’ve been brought up on populist principles). There may be a sharp decline in the aggregate level of trust in Zelenskyy’s government.
I want our government to care not about ratings, but about national interests. Then, I’d feel a bit calmer… even if this team’s authority declined. Let’s look back into the past: during the Solidarity period in Poland, the popularity of Prime Minister Tadeusz Mazowiecki’s government dropped to almost zero. He was cursed by everyone in Poland. But, Poland was saved by that same government.
This is roughly what I mean when I say that sometimes national interests require unpopular decisions. Sadly, our president and his government are not very capable of taking such decisions…
– Why does the government find it so hard to implement nation-building policies? Why are these policies so hard to assert, in particular, with regard to the Ukrainian church, language, etc.?
– The point is that too many Ukrainians live in a state of pseudo-slavery, like the Jews in ancient Egypt; they live by the rules that prevailed in the past. They find it difficult to get used to other rules, to another way of life that should correspond to reality.
If I continue this biblical metaphor, it seems that Ukrainians are still making their way through the desert, searching for their Mount Sinai. In other words, we have yet to find or receive the Tablets of the Law, a new social contract. Ukrainians continue living according to a quasi-Soviet social contract, in the old way, except that Soviet ideology has been replaced by corruption .
Therefore, Ukrainians must continue to search for their Sinai. They must lift their spirits, enliven their hearts and understand how they should live. This is easy to say, but difficult to implement… because Ukrainians lack an organized critical group that’s actually ready to live by such new rules. There are such people; I’ve seen them, talked with them. And, I’m glad they’re here, all around us. But, these people live alone, figuratively speaking, in their bubbles. They must gather together, become a united force that sets new rules of the game, a new rhythm of life. And that’s why Ukraine’s development has been stymied. I’d say that we’ve taken two steps forward, and then one step back.
But, despite everything, I remain optimistic. Very rapid changes that we all dream of can be dangerous. It’s better when society changes slowly and retains what it’s gained. This is more important than changing quickly, imagining that Ukraine and Ukrainians have become completely different and then, suddenly, it all disappears…
I’m not worried about the slow pace of reforms. On the contrary, it may be better this way, because hopefully such reforms will be irreversible.
– Is the statehood of Ukraine a well-established fact? Will the next generation have to fight to retain Independence?
– We can’t just sit back and say: “Well, that’s it! We’ve reached our goal, so why continue?” Times have changed, and even democratic western countries that have enjoyed peace and prosperity suddenly begin to falter; destructive processes worsen the situation… There will be work for every generation, and it’s important for this generation to do its job.
– If you’d been tasked with a special mission – to lead Ukraine… which steps would you take to achieve your dreams?
– I don’t see myself as the leader of a nation. But, your question has reminded me of another popular phrase in the Soviet Union: “If I were the director of…”
If it so happened that I was part of an administration, a management team that was tasked with resolving matters of state importance, I’d repeat that we must start with spiritual recovery. The moral degradation in our society is obvious .
Today, many Ukrainians give way to corruption; they ignore the law, do what they want because they know they’ll get away with it and no court will sentence them. If such degradation continues, nothing good will happen even if beautiful ideas and policies are developed.
Let’s begin by re-educating the people. Consequently, there will be a larger critical group of individuals who will live by new, civilized rules. Only then will these people gain a strong foothold and be able to turn our old rotten world upside down…
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