This article is accompanied by subtitled interviews on YouTube, which can also be read in english as a transcript here.
As millions of people escape the war in Ukraine, last month, Kseniia Tomchyk returned to the city where she was born, Berehove, near the border with Hungary. After spending 7 years in Brazil, the conflict motivated Kseniia to return to her home country to help her family. Aside from love and concern for the country, she is motivated by human values. According to Tomchyk, Putin is a “psychopathic dictator” who does not accept the independence of her country, much less its tendency to lean towards European values.
The debate which orbits this tragic geopolitical event tends to focus on the relationship between NATO and Russia, and the international policies of the United States. But, for Kseniia, "using NATO as an explanation is a lame apology." In the intimacy of the family realm, where there are dreams of a better future, Kseniia shows how the ethical and moral principles of her people are closer to the real reason for this conflict.
In the interview above, Kseniia introduces herself, and tells us why she is returning to Ukraine.
What are European values, and how do they differ from Russian values? Kseniia describes Russia as an authoritarian country where there is no democracy, the press is not free, and there is no freedom in general. On the other hand, Europe preaches “democratic” values: life, freedom and respect. They are formalized in an article of the European Union Treaty, and aim to guarantee that the population has the freedom to “express opinions”, including through voting.
Russia, in theory, also had elections. Putin always won, and when he reached the limit of consecutive terms, Medvedev came into power but never ran again. United Russia, the country's hegemonic party, has values that exist in symbiosis with those of its leader. These principles are denominated “conservative”, “pragmatic”, and “anti-radical”.
“Conservatism” can be seen as associated with the values of the Russian Orthodox Church. Among other things, it formalizes the Patriarchy, as an individual in the role of Patriarch exercises political power and works closely with the party. “Pragmatism” can be seen as prioritizing the ensuring of social order above any other moral or ethical motivation (such as freedom of expression). And “anti-radicalism” represents the rejection of the binary political paradigm of Left and Right, favoring ideological and governmental centralization.
"Anti-radicalism", in particular, has a direct bearing on the precarious state of independent journalism in Russia (Source) — which has recently become a global issue. Russia is notorious for being a dangerous place for journalists, with hundreds of deaths and disappearances recorded (Source). Since the 1990s, after the fall of the Soviet Union, the country's constitution has included freedom of the press, but in practice, journalists are coerced into self-censorship (Source). Today, Russia becomes a threat to international journalists; since the war in Ukraine began, at least 12 journalists have been killed (Source).
For this reason, among others, Putin is not a leader who conceptually represents the values of Democracy, but he has the support of many people in Russia, as there are many people who adhere to the principles of his party. If there were elections, he would have high chances of winning. Kseniia believes that "we can't just blame this on lack of information or manipulation by the media. The Russian population had access to the internet before this conflict started" and, in theory, a world of information was at their fingertips.
The government can formalize great and beautiful values, and put them on paper, but each person also has a responsibility to put these values into practice, on a daily basis. Now, there is an opportunity for these people to rethink this complacent position with dubious political values, as Russia's reputation is shaken, and sanctions are causing discomfort throughout the population.
In the above interview, Kseniia tells us what she has been doing in Ukraine and her perspective on the political situation in her country. [Transcript available below]
Europe has its contradictions, it has amassed wealth through the occupation and exploitation of colonized countries, it still has Monarchies, and in many cases, at least until recently, laws prohibiting “injury to the majesty” in the media (Lèse-majesté). So when we talk about freedom of the press, coercion of independent journalists is not just a Russian affliction. In the US, some famous whistleblowers (e.g. Assange) have gone into exile, some even in Russia, such as Snowden. In Brazil, politicians, researchers and writers have received threats to the point of exile in Europe (Jean Wyllys, Larissa Bombardi, Marcia Tiburi, for example). Not to mention political assassinations, as in the case of Marielle Franco.
Moving towards a European value such as Freedom of the Press or Democracy does not necessarily mean believing that European civilization is superior, as it is far from perfect and from putting its values properly into practice.
In the case of Ukraine, as described by Kseniia, preferring a set of values, even if they are not yet perfectly practiced, means believing in a journey towards a horizon, a desirable potential for the future. This exists in opposition to a society whose authorities offer a horizon, an ultimate goal for the people, which, despite aiming at social equity and minimizing economic inequality — values registered in the United Russia manifesto — also aims at an existence confined in the paradigm of Christian patriarchy. And more, where authorities aim to centralize power through the eradication of divergent ideologies, in favor of 'order' through social control.
This is not to say that some Ukrainians do not embrace Russian values and prefer to choose this path. Given the history of coercion, corruption and less-than-truthful reporting, judging the authenticity of these positions can be tempting. But in the end, we all deal with disinformation which fuels political polarization. What guarantees the existence of a State is the consent of the population, and creating and maintaining this consent is a major challenge, as much as it is essential for the effectiveness of its policies. In other words, the population of a democratic country, in theory, actively allows the existence of the State and makes its actions viable. However, it is common for this consent to be acquired through coercion and media manipulation.
This is not just true in Russia. It is common, in a democracy, for individuals to vote for a “lesser evil” — a candidate whose values do not robustly represent the voter – because they know that the politician (usually a man) has a better chance of winning. Especially in a nation like the USA, which, despite considering itself politically decentralized and free, elections are centralized in 2 parties. In Brazil, many people who were critical of Lula's and Dilma's political regime, also took a stand against the 2016 impeachment, and are more than willing to put their party back in power if it means removing Bolsonaro from office. No option is perfect, but it is a preferable alternative when we don't see any other.
The terror and urgency of this global paradigm of democracy and the struggle for freedom is that it threatens the survival of vulnerable people. Certain options are preferable enough to the point where we risk our lives to ensure that we go towards them. In Ukraine, “no person wounded in the war, who is in the hospital now in Berehove, intends to return home after recovering. Everyone will return to war. We want to be free, not to exist to satisfy the desires and ambitions of one individual [Putin].”
Kseniia took the risk of returning to her hometown to defend her values and support her family. “Big organizations help, but each one doing their part takes us much further, and we achieve much more.” Everyone in her village with space at home is sheltering a refugee family. Donations of clothes, medicine and food keep coming. “I'm asked how I can go back to Ukraine in this situation, and I answer 'how can I not go back!' To surrender is to say we agree. We'd rather die than surrender to it. It is not an option to live under Putin's control. Ukrainians don't want to be slaves to a psychopath with ambitions, and live to fulfill those ambitions. It is even difficult to answer the question 'why not surrender?', this possibility has not even crossed our minds. Surrendering is not an option.”
Published originally at Abeautifulresistance.org.