A generation of profoundly soviet individuals is defining Ukraine today, and that is degrading the country's moral and intellectual capacity even further. Last, but not least, Ukraine exists outside any broader socio-cultural system, leaving Ukrainians with little external support for basic values and making them easy prey for corruption of all forms—monetary, moral, and intellectual. The Ukrainian Week talks to Yevhen Holovakha, Deputy Director of the Institute of Social Studies at the National Academy of Sciences and one of Ukraine's leading social analysts, about why this is happening.
FREE & POOR
We are now in the middle of an intellectual desert. When free people are killed and terrorized consistently, the saddest result is not the depletion of the nation’s intellectual potential, but the fact that its spirit is crushed. Paradoxically, I’ve seen the revival of purely intellectual activity, perhaps due to an innate human ability to preserve oneself. Indeed, many talented people – mostly gifted in a certain domain – are still being born in the USSR and the states that were once part of it after many terrible slaughters of intellectuals. Unfortunately, it is mostly the descendants of those who suffered from intellectual persecution rather than intellectuals that have the leading roles in Ukraine today. They are not stupid – they just aren’t striving for freedom. These people don’t understand how they can resist the rules imposed by those in power.
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You want to become free? Get ready to be poor. This leads to the question: how can we survive in this state when most people can’t live with the permanent feeling of their own nothingness and inferiority; when they know that everything is wrong and still participate in it. The current system actually requires poor taste and quality – and appeals to them. Yet, the system does not demand that every individual citizen serve it. This is not Stalin’s system where one served or was destroyed. Nobody will make you do this today. Moreover, you will be allowed to take a place that meets your moral and cultural priorities, but with zero chance of financial or career growth. There are honest teachers who do not take bribes and live on their miserable wages. There are doctors who treat patients without bribes and get the same miserable wages they can barely survive on. There are also people who take bribes and live happily on them. That’s just our weird reality – to each his own.
Ukrainian society is egalitarian in words only. In fact, it is essentially a neo-caste system. The creation of feudal pseudo-aristocracy has been very intense in Ukraine over the past decade. Unlike patricians in the Roman Empire who were not elected, modern Ukrainian top officials seem to be elected for a term yet act more and more like nobility by birth. They may be plebeians in terms of cultural taste yet they have all the resources and decide everything in this state. And note how all of them – from the president to a county prosecutor – have started passing their privileges, property and, most importantly, impunity to their children.
Today’s top officials are small-minded people. Their philosophy is utilitarianism, the most primitive version of it. They believe that everything they do should bring quick profit and benefits. If there is no direct and immediate profit, why bother? But there is another alarming trend – intellectuals have less and less impact all over the world. They are only valuable as experts in their narrow fields.
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“Bread and circuses”. Our “patricians” are very distant from their Roman predecessors in terms of personal development, yet they are doing everything right in terms of keeping the plebeians under control. The modern cultural “mosaic” makes this easier for them as it makes people more superficial. I’m talking about TV and Internet first and foremost. In 1991, Soviet people gained access to a variety of information sources they hadn’t known before. Yet their habits of obedience remained, making most of them accept everything superficially: visibility equals truth. Meanwhile, what is on the surface in those sources of information is mostly trash. And people don’t know how to dig deeper to reach the real cultural layer.
The Ukrainian elite does not realize that in egalitarian societies the ruling class rejects showcase consumption. In Ukraine, it’s the opposite. Our top officials enjoy drawing attention to the gap of wealth and status between them and average people. Just think of the wristwatches our MPs, prosecutors and judges sport.
Moral plebeians have nothing holding them back. The mechanism of social growth is very complex in the West, unlike in Ukraine. Here, you just have to be in the right place at the right time and get the right people to like you. Then, no matter how useless, lazy and stupid you are, you have your spot in the sun provided that you’re ready to drop all of your principles and follow your boss’ instructions. That is why the most greedy, immoral and foul people end up at the top of the social hierarchy. This happens because people who are more or less intellectually free and honest have many personal limitations: their conscience or dignity won’t let them do certain things.
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Social inertia has taken over Ukraine. Creative social mechanisms are only effective when implemented by creative people. And it’s difficult to find creativity in modern Ukrainians – homo sovieticus in essence – who just reproduce the Soviet mechanism as the only one they know, while there are hardly any intellectuals who could communicate different values. Our society is stuck between the industrial and post-industrial stages. We are marginal because we have no idea what to do next. Russia has opted for a complete restoration of Soviet society in its struggle with marginality. It is using its mass media to transplant this system to Ukraine, endlessly reproducing a falsified past and doing great damage to our country.
Entertainment has become much more primitive for Ukrainians. Overall, society is degrading in virtually all aspects of both material and spiritual development. People think less and prefer to be entertained instead. Yet the demand for high culture – theatres, museums and classical music, has declined. Clearly, this is largely linked to the welfare of most citizens, yet the situation is far from optimistic. Literary culture probably fares worst in Ukrainian society. It is simply frightening how little people read. The best sellers in Ukraine are cheap detective stories from Russian writers. This signals the total loss of literary culture in Ukraine.
In the USSR, people drank out of hopelessness. Our marginal society today drinks due to the uncertainty of the future. Notably, residents of Eastern Ukraine, where the Soviet experiment in breeding homo sovieticus went much farther than elsewhere in Ukraine, drink far more heavily than residents of other regions. Still, alcohol abuse as a means of overcoming internal chaos is typical for all regions of Ukraine.
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Total preventive mistrust is the key aspect of public sentiment in Ukraine. Nobody trusts anybody: the bandit government, mean neighbours, corrupt officials, or doctors, to name a few. Surely, the average Ukrainian thinks that everyone around him is immoral except him. This is typical of marginal societies. Attempting to blame someone else for one’s own misfortune is another common feature. That’s why Ukrainians are so easy to manipulate with the “good cop – bad cop” scheme. And that’s why Ukraine is vulnerable to authoritarianism.
Some segments of society need to re-focus on the middle class and small businesses. In fact, Ukraine lost its biggest chance 20 years ago when it could have and should have launched a “shock therapy” program like they did in Poland, as most people were ready for great changes. Back then, the party nomenklatura and Soviet-bred intellectuals did not do it. But we will come to it sooner or later.
A generational shift and new technologies will help us to break free from vulgarity. The more Ukrainians have never lived in Soviet society or known its mechanisms, the sooner Ukraine will change. Of course, the exchange of values between generations will not stop completely and new generations will still have some of the cynicism of our epoch. The utilitarian mindset should play a positive role here because young cynical Ukrainians will realize that a European lifestyle is simply better and more profitable. The visa-free regime with the EU should contribute greatly to this social transformation. It will help most Ukrainians to experience a different life and social order.