Historian and sociologist Oksana Mikheyeva:“We must drag people out of the media coma”

10 September 2014, 16:37

Oksana Mikheyeva is a historian and lecturer from Donetsk with significant experience in the research of her region, also as a sociologist. She was forced to move to Lviv because it was dangerous for pro-Ukrainian people to remain in Donetsk, even if they were not actively involved in political or military activity. The Ukrainian Week speaks to Ms. Mikheyeva about the humanitarian future of the region.

U.W.: What needs to be done to “cure the Donbas” in the sense of humanitarian policy? How and by what means can the brains of those zombified by the “vatnik” ideology be saved?

The concept of curing is a little premature. First of all, these people should find themselves on territory controlled by Ukraine. When it comes to prospects, then first and foremost, I would like to propose we move away from such terms as “sick Donbas”, populated by “zombified vatniks” who must be “cured”. Unfortunately, in recent times, Ukrainian society has created a whole range of offensive branding for people. Beginning to work with people who have long been fed with specifically designed information by labelling them defeats the purpose. The population of territories that have now turned into a war zone is clearly not as uniform and unanimous as seen in the mass media that focus on the most scandalous images of vatniks.  Stigmatisation provokes negative feelings in everyone: those who do and don’t support the concept of the Donetsk People’s Republic, the DNR.

Using the concept of the “sick Donbas”, we stay within the paradigm of geographic differences. Meanwhile, these differences have long been a result of the potential of consumers to think critically rather than of access to information. Access to the Internet, for example, is not a guarantee that a person will choose controversial texts in pursuit of the truth. Readers tend to collect ideologically close messages in the diverse flow of information and reject those that are not. Eventually, they remain in their own paradigm even if they contact with the full flow of information. When society polarizes and forces everyone to demonstrate their position, and in a situation where subtones began to fade out completely, I saw the image of a matrix – Russophile or Ukrainophile, a kind of periodic table with strict hierarch of elements. Any information that does not fit into this system is simply rejected, not even as an oppositional one, but as one that is, in principle, impossible, absurd, etc. I think it is very important to research how firm systems of worldview are constructed, why they turn out so monolithic and inflexible, and some information is acceptable while other is blocked out entirely in them.

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As far as changes are concerned, I feel that the most reliable means to save fellow countrymen – not just in the Donbas, but in Ukraine as a whole – is to gradually withdraw them from a media coma. I’m not talking about “armed people” and supporters of terrorists now. It is necessary to talk with regular citizens, gradually appealing to their rationality, not as if they are sick. At the same time, it is best to talk directly, face-to-face. Reasonably and convincingly. We should not forget that under current conditions, the average resident of Ukraine, oversaturated with emotionally charged information, is choking on its volume, and in truth, continues to be in an information vacuum, because at the moment, he or she can neither understand what is happening (the war has not been declared officially but it is happening and taking lives), nor what awaits us in the future. In this sense, I think that a well thought-out, realistic and publicly announced programme for the future development of the Donbas could become an extremely effective means of “treatment”.

U.W.: What should the education policy be at all levels, from school pupils to college students? What teaching methods can be used to instill patriotism and avoid the most conflicting subjects?

I think that we’ve reached a stage where we cannot avoid them. If there is no dialogue on the level of society, if we do not help people to find their historical memory in the overall vision of the past, we shall remain doomed to manipulation of our consciousness through distortion of facts that occurred in the past socially significant events. I won’t say that nothing has been done as regards this in Ukraine, but a lot has yet to be done. At the same time, intense pressure in education, particularly in high school, should not be permitted because it will no longer be high school.

U.W.: Where can lecturers be found, given that teachers in the Donbas are often unreliable (many cases are known when teachers in schools and high schools promoted separatist, anti-Ukrainian, anti-American and anti-European ideas – Ed.)? Particularly in higher education institutions, some of whom have become true sources of separatism, such as your own Donetsk National University. Is it worth conducting lustration in this sphere, and if so, how?

From my experience of studying Soviet society and especially its system of repressive bodies, for me, the notion of “unreliability” and “source of separatism” are terrifying, because this is the rhetoric of a society, which chooses repressions as the main means of forming patriotism and, God forbid, unanimity. I was a student in the late 1980s and early 1990s. The Soviet Union collapsed and independent Ukraine was born before my eyes. Of course, the challenges of that time also significantly impacted teaching at higher education institutions. And I consider my clear advantage to be the fact that my mentors were people who had different views: from those who did not show any particular reaction to events, to those who were critical of the innovations or, on the contrary, those who welcomed them gladly and saw the opportunity to speak on forbidden subjects and study the “blank spots of history” as a breath of fresh air. Something important that I gained, was the awareness that such diversity in the interpretation of events was practically possible, and with time, also the understanding of the fact that the thoughts and conclusions of lecturers, which were seen as being funny and antiquated from the point of view of young revolutionary-minded people, now seem more worthy of attention, taking the current times and experience into account.

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I think it would be great to gradually turn society to the possibility of co-existence of different views. I realise that this is difficult to do under war conditions, because the escalation of division into “ours” and “theirs” is almost inevitable. And ultimately, this will be a long process, because the fear that a certain directive can be used and implemented with the use of weapons will impede true satisfaction from diversity for a long time.

As far as lustration in the education system is concerned, as someone who is pro-Ukrainian, I would like to see it revived and cleansed – preferably as soon as possible. However, no sooner do I begin to imagine a lustration mechanism under current conditions, than I transform into an opponent of such actions. Ukrainian higher education has long been filled with people who secured their academic status with bribes. The number of such people increased continuously and as far as I’m concerned, has reached a critical point. Without talent and inclination for scientific work, most find themselves holding administrative positions and forming juries for PhD defenders, which produce the same kind of academics. It’s a vicious circle. In practice, I’m almost sure that the lustration process will transform into a regular bureaucratic procedure at the higher education institution or secondary school level, whereby those who should undergo lustration in the first place, will decide the fate of those who should stay. What are adequate grounds for lustration? Where is the line between the right of the citizen of a democratic state to express his/her view and the “separatist activity” that is a threat to the integrity of a country and its statehood? Could this be a matter for consideration by various public committees or panels, or it is something the courts should look at?

As my experience of studying processes that are almost similar to the cleansing of Soviet entities in the 1920s shows, such a situation provokes people and creates an overall uneasy situation whereby people report each other, settle scores, do chicanery, etc. The positive result is statistical, rather than actual. Such a state of affairs induces negative feelings in those who are “cleansed” and those who stay, because people understand that they can end up in the same situation as soon as policies change again. By protecting the values of democratic statehood for ourselves, we have to remember that within its limits, a citizen has the right to express his/her views and stand up for them in discussions. We should not lessen intellectual potential of young people, particularly on the university level. By this time, the student must already have a mature and stable perception of the political sphere that will allow him or her to filter what lecturers say off-topic, and to see it as expression of the lecturer’s individual opinion. Such lustrations actually deprive students of the opportunity to comprehend different positions and choose their own. As a result of it, some slowly claim the right to think and select on behalf of others: thus, step by step, a democratic society disappears and a totalitarian one emerges.

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It’s even more complicated in secondary schools, because there, we are talking about children, whose political socialization is still developing. At this level, the pupil generally absorbs information about politics uncritically, so a wonderful opportunity appears to influence their consciousness. But even here, I don’t think that the prospects for lustration are optimistic. Surely we have sufficient great and patriotic teachers, who would be ready to fill the vacancies left by “the unreliable”? For example, try to find a qualified geography teacher.

U.W.: Is it worth bringing in teaching personnel from other oblasts?

No, in my view, it is far better to make teaching mobility a reality. The strategy of sending teachers to “acculturate backward regions” is more likely to be rejected, while true mobility will strengthen the country’s unity through the exchange of positions, dialogue and the demonstration of the desire for mutual understanding.

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U.W.: In your opinion, what should the new information policy in the Donbas be?

I think the entire country needs one. If we come up with different information policies for certain regions again, we shall never have the sense of being a united country. You know, I torture myself when I read how users comment publications about key developments in Ukraine (of course, they are not sufficiently representative to form a distinct public opinion, but they show the sentiments in society). When I read how people comment on events in Crimea, and later in the Donbas, I start reflecting about the fact that Ukrainians do not have a “sense of state”. People, albeit in words, prove capable of giving up territory: “Let them take it, Crimea is expensive and I’ve never been there anyway” or “Who needs the Donbas? It only hampers our development”.  But this is worth thinking about: what is the next region that will become a hindrance? And what is Ukraine to us then? I have an optimistic view of an integral information policy. As shown by my experience of coordinating positions on the level of different regions of Ukraine, it is often sufficient to select the right synonyms to resolve the problem.

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