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17 July, 2018  ▪  Oles Oleksiyenko

Freedom, not Free-for-all

How the myth that Ukrainians are inclined towards lawlessness is used against them and why a sense of responsibility to your own people is so important

A serious stereotype used against Ukrainians, not only by enemies, but also often by themselves, is a peculiar concept of ​​their love of freedom. Indeed, a penchant for freedom is identified by our citizens as one of the key features of their national character, which, for example, distinguishes Ukrainians from Russians.


However, for several centuries, the idea that Ukrainians love ​​liberty or freedom has been primarily reduced to the myth that they do not accept any authority and order, being inclined towards constant rebellion and even lawlessness. Moreover, during the Soviet occupation, this myth on the excesses of our national character was accompanied by vivid social and class undertones.

The destructive and chaotic behaviours that were indeed inherent to some of the Cossacks or other insurgents when Ukraine was ruled by foreigners were presented as an absolute form, glorified as a classic example of a "freedom-loving Ukrainian" and actively spread among our nation.

The image of a hot-headed, freedom-loving but short-sighted Cossack, who is capable of decisive resistance against usurpers and enslavers, but does not know what to do next or how to organise himself or the country after overthrowing/exiling this internal or external oppressor, has become a persistent national myth that is pressed on Ukrainians from childhood. It was both supported from without and passed from generation to generation in Ukraine itself. Here, the emphasis was on heroism, self-admiration and self-sacrifice. However, in this way, negative social and political sentiments that push people in the wrong direction were constantly stirred up and reheated. This played its part both during the Ukrainian Revolution of 1917-1921 and during the revolutionary events of 2004-2005 and 2013-2014.

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Generated by the oppressors who Ukrainians fought against – initially the Poles, who presented their enemies in exactly this way after the numerous Polish-Ukrainian wars of the 16-18thcenturies, and then the Russians, who eliminated the remnants of autonomy and identity in Ukrainian lands as part of their empire – this myth was intended to overshadow a constructive, truly historic and dominant component of our love of freedom. This manifested itself in the desire of Ukrainians – like that of most Europeans and people of the Western world in general – for economic freedom, above all. Socio-political freedom was a derivative of this and a necessary condition to maintain it.


The tendency to neglect authority, rebellions and forced bravado were nevertheless a result of this basic desire for economic freedom. The restless Ukrainian lands on the edge of the Wild Fields were from the outset inhabited by people who appreciated economic freedom above everything else and were prepared to live with constant risks and dangers, and therefore to protect themselves and their own freedom. At the same time, only a small percentage of them refused to realise themselves economically if they had the necessary freedom and opportunities for this.


Though they, of course, were not glorified as heroes, unlike the minority that continued military activity and lived for armed campaigns. Nevertheless, the majority were those who, as soon as they had the opportunity, wanted to get involved in a business of the time. When they had a choice, they decided in favour of realising themselves economically, rapidly turning into free farmers.


This priority for economic freedom and the pursuit of prosperity, which was in no way praised in epic poems about Cossacks, always played a far more important role in the history of Ukrainians and the formation of a national character than the desire for a kind of unrestricted free will or rebellion. The desire for economic freedom and riches did not exclude, and even overtly prompted the search for stability and certainty, in no way disavowing law and order. Just clear and Ukrainian law and order.


It was for this reason – having the possibility to realise economic activity – that Ukrainians stopped demonstrating their self-will and rebellious streak, focusing on productive work to develop their own business, whether in farming or any other industry. Those who could not or did not manage to take advantage of the benefits of the economic freedom that appeared after the Cossack revolution of the 17th century continued to rebel and act out.


This entirely, though in a somewhat specific manner, fits into the general context for the Western world in the New Age of a struggle for economic freedom against feudal and class barriers that hampered the development of bourgeois capitalist society. It may have been somewhat more radical in Ukraine than in Western Europe or North America. Although this is rather an open question, since primarily, as already noted, the methods chosen by Ukrainians to fight for economic freedom and the opportunity to engage in free enterprise were discredited by those against whom they were used. So it would be strange to expect a different evaluation of such aspirations from them.

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In the following centuries too, Ukrainians above all wanted economic freedom. As soon as they had minimal opportunities for economic self-realisation, they abandoned all other activities to work on their own business. Only stressful, emergency situations forced them to leave everything and take up arms again to defend their right to economic freedom. Moreover, this was usually done without much enthusiasm, out of extreme necessity. The main desire was always to keep one's own profession and farm. This became very clear in the context of the New Economic Policy, which opened up opportunities for Ukrainians to exercise even limited economic freedom and for years dampened the desire to fight against the occupation authorities, which was not the case in 1917-1921 or later in 1929-1933.


Today, it is also very important for Ukrainians to rethink the notion of the priorities of their love for freedom in order to move away from the imposed stereotype of external origin that prevents them from directing energy towards economic development, focusing on the realisation of their potential for their own wealth and that of the rest of the country. Ukrainians' love for freedom must appear in its original form – the desire for freedom in the creation of wealth, as well as the necessary authority and order for this, instead of merely denying or rejecting anything from the outside.


Along with the priority of economic freedom, another important characteristic of Ukrainians has always been their rejection of betrayal, defection to foreign enemies or serving their interests. This was extremely well developed during both the Cossack heyday and the national liberation struggle of the 1930s-1950s in Western Ukraine. There was zero tolerance for betrayal of one's own people and cause or defecting to the enemy. Traitors of the Cossacks or national underground movement were punished no less and often even more cruelly than the traditional enemy was.


Despite differences in views and tough political clashes among Ukrainians, it is always important to have a limit – a red line when someone starts to work for the enemy in fighting against their opponents. In these cases, an instinct for punishing traitors is one of the most important for the survival of the nation, as well as the preservation, development and strengthening of the state.


Since Cossack times, reprisals against authoritative Cossacks or atamans were such a common and natural phenomenon that they even entered folk art: "No matter where they hide, they will answer to us". Underground members of the Organisation of Ukrainian Nationalists or Ukrainian Insurgent Army acted similarly with those who defected to the occupants, betrayed the national cause and began to work against their own people.


This instinct of protection was preserved by Ukrainians for centuries, but it was greatly undermined in the last few centuries by Russian colonialism and especially in the totalitarian Soviet era. Less because of punitive and repressive measures than due to the ideological and informational war that was continuously waged against Ukrainians using all possible channels and that blurred the boundaries between "friend" and "foe". Moreover, this war is still ongoing, as it has not been properly identified and a number of its manifestations in society and the country in general have not been diagnosed as extremely dangerous problems.


Meanwhile, without overcoming the postcolonial inertia in consciousness and self-identification, constructing reasonable limits for "friend" and "foe", and developing effective immunity against an external destructive influence and its agents in the country and nation, it is wrong to expect that a successful and stable state will be built. Therefore, restoring the zero-tolerance attitude of Ukrainians towards collaboration and betraying the state and national interests, no matter what reasons are put forward to justify this, is a key task.

Translated by Jonathan Reilly

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