What were once perceived to be weaknesses are turning out to be advantages.
What were once perceived to be weaknesses are turning out to be advantages.
On a recent trip to a village near Ukraine’s border with Russia, during a break between the seemingly constant explosions and skirmishes taking place nearby, a teenage Ukrainian soldier told me of how he did not want to live under a leader like Vladimir Putin, someone “who believes he may tell others what they should do.” Another volunteer fighter, a former Thai-boxing coach, chimed in that whereas Russia offered only “stagnation,” Ukraine was “a place where things are developing with the influence of the people.” In a neighboring area, a former appliance repairman recounted to me his disbelief that Russian soldiers would invade “and kill innocent people, as if they have no choice.” He would prefer to go to prison, he said.
As a Kyiv-based journalist working for Ukrainian and international media, I am very much a representative of the professional class, what many may call my country’s “liberal elite.” My circle of friends and I discuss democracy, accountability, and the rule of law, but we long believed we were a minority in Ukraine, that the majority of our compatriots did not care about these abstract terms. Yet in reporting on Putin’s invasion, in traveling through my country, I have heard fellow Ukrainians, without any prompting, explain these enormous concepts better than many academics.
I listened as those frontline fighters spoke of the freedom to choose who governed them and change course if need be, and the freedom to chart one’s own path in life. I heard a mayor say that his town near the Russian border was defending civilization and fighting on behalf of a world where laws mattered. A window installer in Odesa, on the Black Sea coast, told me he had learned how to fire a gun to ensure that he did not have to “live in a country where Moscow tells me whom to elect.”
This started happening so often—in bombed-out villages as well as bustling cities—that I began to understand that something deeper was under way. I watched as Ukrainians articulated their values and, more and more, I started paying attention to how they exercised them, how they interacted with the state, and how representatives of the state interacted with them.
Ordinary people have been confronted with autocracy and opted against it. They have not simply taken up arms, but made demands of their leaders. Officials have addressed citizens’ needs and requests with creative and responsive government. Activists I spoke with would complain about their elected representatives but still worked with them, reaching compromises and finding solutions. With the central government in Kyiv often overloaded and under-resourced, local administrators, mayors, and governors have had to band together and devise their own solutions.
Over time, I saw that the war hadn’t just forced us to defend our land and our freedom; it has accelerated our progress as a democracy. Ukraine was far from perfect when the war began—we struggled with corruption, mismanagement, and centralization of power. In responding to Putin’s invasion, however, we have become more democratic, more decentralized, more liberal. The Russian leader’s efforts are not merely failing in the narrow sense; they have highlighted how different we really are from Russia, and are having the opposite effect from what he intended.
Pavlo kushtym had grown up wanting to play the trumpet professionally, but ended up repairing furniture to make ends meet, eventually saving enough money to buy an apartment on the outskirts of Kharkiv, where his wife was born, near the Russian border. He persuaded local officials to set aside a small plot of land amid the walls of concrete for a park, an oasis of green where people could relax in the summer, and had plans for more such little projects. This was before the war.
His neighborhood of northern Saltivka instead became one of the most dangerous places in the country, subject to relentless shelling during the early weeks of the war, and has since made headlines for the extent of damage it has been subject to. He walked me through the area, around the burned-out skeletons of buildings—one is called “the Barbie house” because the facade has been destroyed and you can see the furniture inside—and flipped through the notebook protruding from his flak jacket, filled with the names and contact details of the more than 200 people he had helped to evacuate so far.
Once the war began, Pavlo sprang into action, initially working with local school deans to refashion a building space as a basement bomb shelter, and then calling the heads of villages nearby that were somewhat safer—officials he had never worked with before—to arrange for communal displacement centers. Not everyone has agreed to leave, but Pavlo has tried to ensure that they aren’t abandoned. One 77-year-old woman who insists on collecting her pension in cash now receives it from policemen who, at Pavlo’s request, are fulfilling the job of the postal service in the area. Pavlo has persuaded a former security guard to stay on patrol outside the Barbie house, to prevent looting.
Like many Ukrainians, Pavlo was wary of the state, but the invasion left him with little choice but to work with local officials and elected leaders, and he has since softened his stance. He still has his frustrations with the mayor of Kharkiv, but has nothing but praise for local civil servants, among whom are men, he says with wonder, who were restoring destroyed water pipes while bombs were raining down.
“I was always engaged,” he told me, recounting how he was the type to complain if a bus driver was smoking while on the job. “I was considered a weirdo, but today, being like me is normal.” His neighbors, he said, were active and helping however they could, including many he knew before the war who were either indifferent to or suspicious of officialdom.
“Ukraine’s democracy is still developing, but we as a society are dangerous for Putin,” Pavlo continued. “We are a ‘bad example’ for Russians—we are showing that, even in this part of the world, people can influence decisions. So he wants to erase us.”
Ukrainians have always distrusted the state, and with good reason. For centuries, we didn’t have our own country, and were instead ruled from afar, part of empires that persecuted us, forbade us from speaking our own language, and sent us to prison en masse. In the 1930s, the Soviet Union took crops from the peasants, triggering a man-made famine that killed an estimated 4 million Ukrainians. When our country won independence, after the Soviet collapse, corruption was still rife, and leaders served oligarchs rather than citizens.
So even if Ukrainians may have felt some greater affinity to the state when Russia invaded in 2014, annexing Crimea and using its proxies to take over territory in the Donbas, they still placed more trust in the effort of individuals. Then, citizens stepped in, helping the internally displaced on an individual, ad hoc basis, and funding the army through donations.
This dynamic—of lingering ill will toward officials, combined with enthusiastic circumvention of the state to solve problems—persisted for years. Earlier in the pandemic, for example, the efforts of volunteers contributed to undermining the government’s own measures, according to research conducted by the Public Interest Journalism Lab, an organization I co-founded, and the Kharkiv Institute for Social Research. When Volodymyr Zelensky was elected president in 2019, relations between the government and civil society were antagonistic. Activists and the cultural elite who dominated the media arrogantly dismissed him as a populist former comedian (which he was); he was annoyed by criticism coming from people he did not know whom he believed were not taking any responsibility for effecting change (also true).
Because of the war, we can’t conduct follow-up research. For one thing, the director of the Kharkiv Institute now serves in the army—in a platoon with a successful businessman, a 21-year-old architectural student, and two locksmiths. Instead, I conduct pseudo–focus groups on my travels, and I have seen drastic shifts.
Today, I see genuine cooperation among elected leaders, apolitical civil servants, and civil society. If officials can’t procure, say, flak jackets for territorial defense forces—Ukrainian bureaucracy lags behind the realities of war—then local businesses help, after being told by the authorities what they need. This applies not just to war matériel but to generators for hospitals or kindergartens, ambulances, and fire trucks, all of which are typically delivered with the support of the military. There is little debate about who does what, or whose fault it is that something isn’t working. Everyone cooperates to address the task at hand: to make the impossible possible.
Before the invasion, Oleh Bibikov’s Chernihiv pizza place had been a haunt for local officials, but Oleh told me he long believed that they seemed to “live beyond their means,” something he said he really began thinking about when he would pay his taxes, and wonder where the money went. The 25-year-old exemplified the kind of young Ukrainian I often came across before the invasion: largely apolitical, but wary of the authorities. The war gave him no choice but to work with them. For all of March, Chernihiv, a regional capital close to Belarus, was effectively inaccessible, as bridges around it were blown up and the city was encircled. His restaurant—meters away from a hotel that was decimated by aerial bombardment—became a volunteer canteen in which 40 people cooked 22,000 portions of food a day for the army and territorial defense forces.
The city’s power grid had been destroyed, but his fridges were full of meat and Chernihiv residents were going hungry. “I called the mayor, and he called the general in charge of the area, and together we drove to the biggest supermarket in Chernihiv to get a generator,” Oleh said. The water pipes, too, were badly damaged by explosions, but Oleh called the city’s geological service, which dug a new well close to his restaurant, allowing him to provide free drinking water to anyone who needed it (including me).
Stories such as these—businesses working with local government and the military, under little or no direction from Kyiv—abound. Kostia Bielov, an anti-corruption activist, told me how he still believes his local government in Zaporizhzhia is making mistakes. Perhaps it hasn’t distributed aid in the absolute fairest way, or has risked humanitarian supplies it has received by holding them in one location, he said. So he circumvents it to the extent that he can, working with a friend from Ukraine’s Armenian community to pool donations received in cryptocurrency from abroad to purchase real items such as hygiene products and baby food and deliver them to villages where people can no longer work because of curfews or limits on public transportation.
Yet he still has to work with the authorities in plenty of instances, despite his misgivings. He knows many people in the government, mainly because there is no generational or social gap between current Ukrainian local politicians and civil-society leaders. During the first parliamentary elections after the 2014 Euromaidan protests, and then again during polls in 2019, the so-called professional politicians who had dominated Ukrainian politics since independence were voted out. (In fact, Zelensky’s party suffered criticism for actively excluding professional politicians from its ticket.) Now the same generation is both inside and outside the government: They went to the same schools and worked together, so even political opponents have each other’s phone number.
An array of local officials, meanwhile, now post daily updates on Facebook or host live videos on the platform so that their constituents can ask questions, or receive updates on what is happening, an effort modeled on Zelensky’s own communications strategy but without any direction from his office.
Old grudges have also been forgiven. After imposing martial law, Zelensky had the right to appoint mayors and governors across the country, but he has mostly opted to reappoint those who won election, including those from opposing political parties and even those whose loyalty to Ukraine itself was in question. Kryvyi Rih, the president’s hometown, offers perhaps the best example. It and the nearby town of Dnipro each elected leaders who were against Zelensky, albeit on opposing sides of the country’s political spectrum—Dnipro’s leader was considered more pro-Ukrainian; Kryvyi Rih’s was considered pro-Russian. They used to openly fight each other, and clashed publicly with the president. Both told me they now speak daily, and both swear absolute loyalty to Zelensky’s government. Or they would, they said, until the war was over.
Partly this is because the war has united Ukrainian society against an external aggressor. But partly this is because Kyiv is often consumed with other issues, and elected leaders at lower rungs must simply make decisions, collaborating with nearby locales or other arms of government, unable to rely on direction from the top. In effect, the war has forced Ukrainian democracy to decentralize, bringing leaders closer to the people they govern.
Mayors and governors in the Donbas call up their colleagues in Ukraine’s west to discuss transfers of displaced people. Dnipro acts as a hub for goods and people going to and from Kharkiv; Zaporizhzhia does the same for Mariupol, Kryvyi Rih for Kherson, Odesa for Mykolaiv, and so on. The governor of the Kharkiv region told me he would regularly call the mayor of its eponymous capital, a member of an opposing party, to jointly make key decisions, such as when to impose a curfew, or whether reopening the city’s subway is safe.
Russia’s leaders, in common with other autocrats, call democracy “chaotic,” but this decentralization of power has strengthened Ukraine, empowering people to take action and substitute for one another in cases of emergency. If a local mayor isn’t available, a local MP or a city-council head is ready to step in.
Yet this comes with a risk. Russian occupiers in Ukraine do not understand that local authorities here do not follow orders from the president or security service, but represent communities or their own opinions. Unable to comprehend this freedom of thought, they torture officials and activists, demanding to know who is orchestrating protests in Russian-controlled areas. Just my team was able to identify hundreds of local politicians and civil servants who have been abducted, detained, tortured, or even executed for refusing to cooperate. Near Kyiv, a village head named Olga Sukhenko, her husband, and their son were tortured and killed. In the still-occupied region of Kherson, in southern Ukraine, at least 35 out of 49 local heads have been detained at one point or another.
In 2015, Liubov Zlobina won an election to become one of the eight representatives for the local committee governing her village, Mala Rohan, in the Kharkiv region. She proudly recounts how she, a farmer, had defeated the village’s “first lady,” the wife of a former chief. After the invasion, a local resident told Russian troops that Liubov was among the local leaders, and before long, her farm was hit in an air strike, killing 160 cows, pigs, and lambs. It was far from the only violence exacted on the village: Mala Rohan was cited in a Human Rights Watch report as among the early sites where Russian occupiers raped Ukrainians. The Russian soldiers who had taken the town told Liubov that they wanted to commandeer her decimated farm, but she refused. She told them they may as well kill her. They pointed their guns at her, but opted against firing.
Russian soldiers have struggled to grapple with that kind of resoluteness: Ukrainians standing up for themselves, and their local areas. “We Ukrainians, we can’t be satisfied with just a mediocre life—we want better; we want to live in dignity,” Liubov told me. “I believe that’s what we’re fighting for.”
Iam reticent to say, as many do, that freedom is “part of Ukraine’s DNA.” I believe that history doesn’t influence society as much as howhistory is taught in schools and discussed over the dinner table and in public life. Ideas of freedom and a willingness to rebel have always been strong in Ukraine, but the 30 years since we attained independence are more important to our current makeup. In that time, despite attempts to rig elections, Ukraine remained pluralistic; political competition tended to be ugly and violent, but it existed; the idea of freedom was misused by populists, but remained a part of our political culture and social upbringing, at all levels, passionately defended during mass revolts in 2004, and again in 2014.
Ukrainians today aren’t just living through a history book—an experience that is far from a blessing—but a playbook about the expansion of democratic governance. Theoretical concepts such as the rule of law, human rights, and electoral accountability are being exercised on the ground, with people’s lives at risk. This, then, is also what makes Ukrainians disappointed by international players and institutions who are cynical about the strength of these values, and our belief in them.
We are also showing that democracy isn’t simply important for an elite minority, but for entire populations. Our experience illustrates that democracy is worth defending not only because it is better for its people, but because democracies are more resilient in the long run, and offer greater hope for the future.
More than four months into this war, with many foreign embassies having returned to Kyiv, I am often told how surprised the West has been by the extent of Ukrainian unity, and asked whether the political fights of recent years will return. Then, political division was considered a reason Ukraine might one day cease to be a state. But when the threat against us has been gravest, our country has emerged strongest. The things we considered our weaknesses—our political disputes, our multiculturalism, our lack of hierarchy—have turned out to be advantages.
Putin could still be right about one thing: that being Ukrainian is a political choice. Indeed, being Ukrainian has shown itself to be a conscious decision about values, about believing that a people with free will make their country better. His great worry is that this could be inspiring to others. Forty million Ukrainians have been brought up with this choice, and our decision cannot be undone unless we are exterminated as a political nation.
First published at The Atlantic.