In the past year, Svyatoslav Vakarchuk, one of Ukraine’s most famous rock stars, has travelled to the front lines to give morale-boosting performances to those fighting there.
During a visit to Kyiv last week, I asked him who organised those risky concerts: was it the government? Vakarchuk laughed, as if I’d suggested something totally crazy. “No!” he said, going on to explain that the trips occurred without any centralised plan or top-down orders. The government did not usually issue orders, he said – and most citizens would not heed them if it did. “I think this is the strength of the Ukrainian nation. We are individuals,” he said. “The government doesn’t tell us what we need to do, and we don’t expect that. It is the most important argument why Ukraine will win.”
It would be easy to dismiss this as plucky propaganda. But it would be a mistake. A year after Russia’s brutal invasion of Ukraine, an important lesson is emerging about the different ways countries can organise themselves.
The issue revolves around what sociologists call “agency”, or the degree to which individuals think they have the power to reshape the world. In the Soviet era, citizens of the USSR were presumed to have little agency, because they lived in a hierarchical state. I was living there around the time this system collapsed in 1991 and, initially, it seemed to me that not much had changed, either in Russia or Ukraine.
Ever since, however, the two countries’ trajectories have diverged. In the 1990s and early 21st century, there were signs of an emerging civil society in Russia. But the authoritarian leadership of Vladimir Putin has crushed most of that. “The only way for Russians to exercise any agency today is to leave the country,” one Russian friend told me. In the face of tyrannical rule, a sense of fatalism pervades.
By contrast, says the Yale historian Timothy Snyder, Ukraine “has changed enormously in the last 30 years”, since many of its citizens discovered a sense of agency, and civil society has taken root. There are, according to Snyder, two very different world views at play. “The Russian view, echoed in Putin’s speeches, is that we don’t need to take responsibility for anything happening to us, since everything is a conspiracy against us and we can blame others. But on the Ukraine side, the mood now is that people do bear responsibility to make the country better. They don’t expect the government to do it all.”
Snyder attributes some of this shift to longstanding historical influences, such as folk memories of the 16th-century Cossacks, who were infamously rebellious and relied on self-organisation. But what is most important is that events in Ukraine’s post-Soviet history – be it the 2013-14 Maidan Square uprising or the current war – have shown the population that it is possible for them to take grassroots action to select leaders they like, kick out those they don’t, organise humanitarian relief and, more recently, stage military attacks.
In Kyiv, Volodymyr Yermolenko, a Ukrainian political scientist, told me, “There is a lot of self-organisation today in Ukraine. When I travel around, I see that the resistance is based on local communities, often without the state.”
This pattern has drawbacks: self-organisation can sometimes lead to chaos, if not cynicism about the state. That could pose challenges for Ukraine. And if, say, President Volodymyr Zelenskyy wanted to cut a peace deal, he might struggle to do this if it went against the mood of the public. In Russia, leaders operate by diktat; in Ukraine, the crowd has power.
Ukraine’s shift is a reminder that national cultures are never static or sealed off from the outside world. It will be interesting to see whether the country’s slow embrace of civil society will push out some of the unattractive features of its past, such as corruption. Its progress could yet offer hope to nations struggling to overcome dark and traumatic pasts. “Freedom is not something automatically [found] in the Ukrainian DNA. It came from [events],” said Nataliya Gumenyuk, a Ukrainian journalist. “This has a good message for other countries in nondemocratic places – it shows that even where there is no democracy in that history, you can build a democratic society [in the future].”
Which, of course, is another reason why it is in the west’s interest to back Ukraine in its battle against Russia, to show that societies need not always be prisoners of an authoritarian history, but can sometimes embrace reform and a sense of agency. As Vakarchuk told me, “We just want freedom.”
Follow Gillian on Twitter @gilliantett and email her at [email protected]
Follow @FTMag on Twitter to find out about our latest stories first