Russia and Ukraine have always been considered two sister countries. Both countries link their history with the same roots. Now Russia is attacking Ukraine and questioning Ukraine as an independent country. British journalist and researcher Peter Pomerantsev notes the rise of neo-patriots in a country that has its own roots. Fueled by Putin’s aggressive war.
Journalist, writer and researcher
Journalist and researcher Peter Pomerantsev has long studied Ukrainian identity, as well as Russian propaganda that denies Ukraine’s independence. The Briton with Ukrainian roots now lives in the United States and conducts research at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore.
SRF News: Did you think that the Russians could commit crimes against their semi-sister state?
Peter Pomerantsev: Yes, because I know exactly how Russia behaves in Russia itself. The system is based on humiliation and oppression. The destruction of the post-war institutional architecture and the post-Cold War world order has long been an ideological goal of Putin. He wants to break down the philosophical concepts we hold to because he thinks we use these concepts to increase our power. On the other hand, we believe that these are universal values.
Documenting Russian War Crimes
Pomerantsev returned from a research trip to Ukraine this week. There he collected testimonies about the war with the aim of creating a multimedia archive with oral history. People should be able to use this in the future when they deal with Ukraine, such as documentary filmmakers, playwrights or journalists.
The focus is on major war crimes, such as the bombing of the Mariupol Theater. We talk to everyone who’s been out there and run through the history of the theater. The British researcher explained that there are similarities between war crimes and other crimes against humanity. Testimonies should also be useful for the legal processing of crimes.
Putin spares no effort to destroy human norms and show that the entire system, the ideology that pursues universal values, is an illusion. This violence is not random, it is purposeful and deliberate, and I am sorry to say that its meaninglessness is full of meaning.
Is Putin merely struggling to understand Ukraine as a separate country, or is this the general Russian understanding of history?
Putin is the symptom and cause of all this. It resonates in a large part of Russian culture and society. But he’s not entirely alone: German popular and political culture doesn’t really care about Ukraine either. The Anglo-Saxon countries also had an ambiguous image of Ukraine for a long time. That has now changed. But the idea that there really was no Ukraine was very widespread, especially in Russia, of course, but also in Europe and the USA.
If Ukraine does not exist, you can do anything with it. It is easy for Russians to say that Ukraine is a fiction rather than a real country. It’s also easier to spread misinformation when you don’t have a clear picture of the country in your head – you could say, oh, Ukraine is full of Nazis and prostitutes and corruption. So raising awareness of their country’s existence becomes a security issue for Ukrainians.
Russians and Ukrainians – really sister peoples?
In an earlier project, Pomerantsev researched how Russia was perceived in Ukraine before the war – did Ukrainians see Russians as brothers at the time? “It was different before the war,” says the Briton with Ukrainian roots. “I am not sure if the metaphor of brotherhood was used, but many believed that the Russian and Ukrainian cultures were closely related, even inseparable.”
For comparison, Pomerantsev is based on the relationship between Ireland and England. Ireland has a different history, a different tradition, but it was closely connected with the British Empire – on the one hand as its victim, on the other hand, many representatives of the Irish elite also belonged to the “Empire” elite. The lines became a bit blurred. Is Oscar Wilde an English or Irish writer? Is Bernard Shaw an Irish or an English writer? The same in the case of Ukraine: is Gogol a Ukrainian or a Russian writer? It’s complicated.”
But for the journalist and author, politics is not only about the past, but also about the future. “And the Ukrainians have made it clear that they have chosen a future in which they are independent.” The Russians have not yet understood this concept.
Do you have any idea how this war will change Ukraine?
A friend and collaborator of mine is a sociologist from Kharkiv. Now he works as a soldier and writes what he experiences and sees. Many things change – first of all, the idea of patriotism and heroism. Many of the most vocal patriots and well-known intellectuals went to Lviv in the west of the country. And those who defend Kharkiv every day and sacrifice themselves are, for example, street sweepers or local bureaucrats, says the sociologist. They were always assumed to be disloyal to the Ukrainian project. Today they are the greatest patriots.
On the other hand, in any society in a state of war there is the danger of brutality, the loss of humanity, devoured by thoughts of revenge. Zelensky talked a lot about it when I interviewed him last week. It’s a tough question: How do you avoid feeling bitterness and hate?
The conversation was conducted by Roger Brandlin.