Twenty Plus Years

Emblem transpoзиция by Gennady Bondarenko

From politicians to coaches, one hears that inviting (and beating) uncertainty is exactly what one needs to thrive in life. There is even a specific term – if I understand it correctly – for this concept: a bifurcation point. In the course of life, one comes to some kind of “fork” – and, if one makes the RIGHT choice (or rather MAKES the right choice), life will shift to the next, more advanced level.

It is probably so with an individual’s life; and definitely so in the life of a society as a whole. And if we – all of us, as a society – delay a choice, it does not mean that the right choice will be made for us. Rather, wallowing in uncertainty will bring stagnation, followed by inevitable decline.

Nowhere, and to no one, is it as obvious as to a Ukrainian who happens to come to Poland. You walk on the clean streets, drive the smooth roads, and inevitably compare all this to the razrukha reigning on our streets and roads. And a recurring thought keeps crossing your mind: “We too could – and ought – to be in a similar situation!” Aren’t we just as industrious, hard-working and creative as the Poles? So why have they succeeded and we haven’t?

The answer (at least one of the possible answers) suggests itself the moment you arrive at the train station in Przemysl, the first city on the Polish side of the border. It catches your eye in the direct, literal sense – when you get on a Polish train and see a metal plate by the car’s entrance. After some short grappling with the combinations of letters like “sz”, “cz” and “ch” and comparing Polish words with similar sounding Ukrainian ones you quickly grasp the meaning of the sign: “Railway vehicles are modernized thanks to funding provided by the European Union.” You “encounter” such plates time and again during your stay in Poland. They can even be found inside Wawel Castle – the museum complex at the place of the former residence of Polish kings.

Why do I not see such plates in our country? (at least I cannot recall seeing even one). The answer is quite simple – corruption, Ukraine’s most distinctive feature. Because any form of help, all funds coming from outside, would be stolen, sometimes cynically and openly.

But why have we here in Ukraine seen that sort of bitter fruit ripen? One hears different opinions. Each of them is fair and correct in their own way. It is true that Ukraine and Ukrainians do not have a tradition of statecraft (so in a sense the direct comparison between Ukraine and Poland is not correct). A millennium has passed since our country lost its independence. The heroic and tragic attempts from 1917 to 1921 when we tried to break free from the Russian empire and struggled to create an independent Ukrainian state bore no fruit for us. Instead, Ukraine became an integral part of an incomparably crueler Soviet empire, with its Gulag and Golodomor, which still take their toll in our reality today.

So how weird is it that even now, after more than two decades of independence, many in Ukraine still cherish nostalgic feelings about the Soviet past. Yes, there is a certain element of aberration in the present here too: life is hard now, especially for the elderly, and a person may seek to hide in the imaginary world.  But time and again I hear even from the younger generation about the horoshaya zhyzn’ (good life) people lived pri Sovietah – strange words to hear from those who cannot physically remember that Soviet way of life. All the more – whether this life was or wasn’t good – it is already gone, period.

In such nostalgic moments one understands that, as a classicist writer once said, “razrukha (the ruin) is not in the toilets, but in the heads…”

Only in the recent years has Ukraine’s ruling elite agreed (more or less definitely) that our future lies in the Western direction, in the Euro-Atlantic structures (quite another story is the sincerity of these declarations and whether they are ready to take the long-needed practical steps to put this manifesto into practice). But we have already lost momentum spending precious decades of time as we embraced a so called “multi-pronged approach” and “non-aligned status.”

The results of this uncertain policy on the state level are quite obvious now: “multi-pronged approach” apparently meant that we indeed can move towards Europe but with an eye on Russia so as not to irritate it. In reality we reproduced the well-known story of attempting to sit on two chairs simultaneously. As to our non-aligned status (which at the time meant that Ukraine would remain a neutral country and would not join any military alliances), we now see for sure where it led us: we lost Crimea, and foreign-supported militias keep the Donbas occupied.

Quite unlike Ukraine, Poland came out of the Soviet past without hesitation. There was total unanimity both in the elite and in the masses. As a result, this certainty allowed Polish leadership to accept some strict measures in its economy, which defined the strategy of Poland’s development in the nineties and noughties. We had nothing of this at that time due to the indecisiveness of our elite and the masses as a whole, and general uncertainty about where to head.    

After the collapse of the Eastern Block, the Poles made a decision that was definite and certain: we go back to the West. In fact there couldn’t be any other decision. With all the uniqueness of its cultural heritage, Poland always was a part of Western-European civilization. And the Radziecki period in its history – no more than the tragic page of Soviet occupation. If you say to an ordinary Pole that life was good under the Soviets, I don’t envy the reaction you will get.

Certainly, it also played a role that the West didn’t have much doubt that Poland could be an integral part of its structures (Ukraine, on the contrary, from the moment it regained independence was regarded as some uncertain territory where it was highly likely that it would return to Russia’s orbit). That’s why Poland could become a NATO member in 1999 and an EU member in 2004.

I am not a “political expert” of any kind and can easily get confused with all those figures and analytical calculations. But I don’t need them – everything unfolds right before my eyes. When I hear Ukrainian or Russian speech on Polish streets I can’t help but peer at the people’s faces. What has led them here? Why did they leave their homes? Was it for the purpose of earning more that they moved to another country? – Quite an understandable motive in the modern globalized world, but is it the one? Yes, indeed: Ukraine is the poorest country in Europe and – ironically! – any place, every country on the European continent seems to be flourishing more and enjoying greater prosperity than us. Or maybe they fled from a life that makes a person unhappy – literally “voted with their legs” against the uncertainty of their future? In the 2017 UN World Happiness Report, Ukraine landed in 138th place among 156 countries; the number of people who feel dissatisfied with their lives continues to grow.

I am far from making any moralité out of this but it is hard to escape one inevitable conclusion: the price for uncertainty and indecisiveness in our recent past was too high for Ukraine, with years lost and possibilities missed, suffering economic decline and causing people’s lives to get mixed up. They are implacable, those points of bifurcation: success comes to those who are certain in decisions and move straight ahead, leaving the outdated past to bury its dead.