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Where there is no law, but every man does what is right in his own eyes, there is the least of real liberty
Henry M. Robert

From Chornobyl to Maidan

Liubov KOVALEVSKA: “Historically, Ukraine’s mission is to be the burial ground of a totalitarian dogma”
29 April, 2014 - 11:04

Whenever April 26 approaches, we more and more hear such word combinations as “horrible tragedy,” “aggressive ‘peaceful atom,’” “USSR’s crime,” and “Chornobyl disaster.” But very few remember that this disaster could have been averted. The writer and journalist Liubov Kovalevska warned in a Tribuna energetika article that the Chornobyl nuclear power plant disaster was “only a matter of time.” A month before the event, her article was reprinted in Literaturna Ukraina. But this voice remained unheard. Moreover, there was an attempt to make the journalist keep silent not only in the USSR, but also in Russia, its “legal successor.” “Who dealt with politics and nuclear problems in the USSR? Only suicides,” Ms. Kovalevska noted in our conversation. For these publications as well as for further years-long efforts to gather materials, including frequent (more than 30) visits to the exclusion zone, the journalist was decorated with the international Courage in Journalism Award. “As a citizen of Ukraine,” Kovalevska emphasizes. On the eve of the Chornobyl accident anniversary, The Day spoke to Liubov Kovalevska about the tragedy’s “human factor,” a transition from “barbarian patriotism” to civilization, the old-new political elites, as well as about Russia’s informational and military aggression.

Environmental movements in Ukraine still remain marginal, ecological problems are considered even less than secondary, while the Chornobyl nuclear power plant disaster has almost been forgotten in 28 years. Have any lessons been learned from Chornobyl?

“There were no such environmental movements as in Europe either in the USSR or in Ukraine. Nature belonged to the state, while people only consumed it. They did this legally by gathering mushrooms, berries and herbs or illegally by poaching. Nature was to be loved ideologically and romantically, but nobody had ever tried to safeguard and protect “somebody else’s” at the ethical and, moreover, legal level. Therefore, forests, fields, and lakes were polluted and destroyed – mass awareness saw no link between a clean environment and a full-fledged personal life. In these conditions, environmental consciousness was not being formed, let alone developed. Nor did the government pursue a clear policy to this effect. What triggered a mass-scale ecological protest (not a movement) was fear of the nuclear disaster that had already occurred. This protest was being gradually politicized, ‘infecting’ the other Soviet republics, and finally brought down the communist empire. This slowed down again the formation of ecological movements, and a dramatic collapse of the empire, associated with grassroots plundering and impoverishment, put millions of people on the verge of survival again.

“Naturally, Chornobyl did not vanish and still reminds of itself with a series of technological and personal disasters because the weak and corrupt economy of Ukraine is unable to forestall local or nationwide calamities.”

In a 2000 Den article, you named the “human factor” as one of the causes of the Chornobyl accident: “…any government resorts to violence WITH THE HELP OF PEOPLE or on their tacit CONSENT. Humankind was and still is moving very slowly from barbarian PATRIOTISM to civilization.” Can you see any transition from barbarian patriotism to civilization in Ukrainian society now, 14 years on? Or are we still on the way?

“The centuries-old dream about a Ukrainian state, the vague ideas of its essence, and lack of state-building experience resulted in a lot of mistakes in the choice of the authorities (from Soviet-era managers and an accountant with a peasant-style mentality and absolute ignorance about this county’s multiethnic society to a tongue-tied former criminal) as well as in the choice of basic values, which can be called barbarian patriotism. It is for this reason that, two decades later, Ukraine came to the verge of a split and a war with Russia – with an empty state coffer, a loss-making economy, unformed state institutions, non-delineated borders, and an unviable army.

“Yet that period had seen a hidden growth of civilizational protest, which resulted in the majestic and tragic events of the Maidan. Ukraine at last opted for the common human values instead of a provincial customs union of states with uncompetitive economies. I fully share the Maidan’s goals and Ukraine’s choice of civilization. There are models and benchmarks for us to take shape as a European state.”

Also in 2000, analyzing the making of Ukraine as a state, you wrote in the article “Is Development not our Idea?”: “Our elite never offered any unity-oriented ideas.” Has the situation changed since then? Did the Maidan offer any? Does Ukrainian society need the ideas formed by the elite or can it, figuratively speaking, “build bridges” on its own?

“Today, I feel alarm as the May elections in Ukraine are coming up. They will mean the change of not only the government, but also the elites. The latter is the most important point, as the old elite have shown a complete inability to generate civilization-related ideas and rally Ukrainian society together. None of the presidential candidates is a new personality who is not associated with the government’s crimes or oligarchic clans. Embittered revenge-seekers or communist time-servers are absolutely incapable of doing the colossal work which must be done once and for all, going, if necessary, through new ordeals. Still, the May elections are a matter of responsibility of not so much the ‘Yulinist’ caretaker government whose inconsistent actions surprise everybody, as of the citizens of Ukraine. The voters’ turnout will have a crucial effect on the integrity of Ukraine and the very dignity of citizens.

“It is not the Maidan’s job to generate ideas and build bridges. It is the job of Ukrainian civil society which has learned an object lesson of self-organization and self-government on the Maidan. This experience should be used now to establish peace and normal life.”

Until recently, existing as part of its state, Ukrainian society verbally expressed discontent with the way governmental offices worked, but it did nothing to change the situation, showing tolerance to it as if it were inevitable evil. Russian society existed in the same paradigm. If we compare the Ukrainian and Russian societies now, can we say that the former has changed and the latter has remained intact? Has Ukrainian society evolved in some aspects?

“Much to our regret, we have all come from the Soviet pattern, and many are still there. This fact considerably complicates things for civil society which is, incidentally, in the making. Yet, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Ukraine existed as a soft state, which allowed citizens to see the advantages of being free and respecting human dignity and the individual. I am judging this by the million-strong manifestation of Kyivites and other cities’ residents after an unmotivated savage beating of students by riot police on the Maidan. That was a stunning spectacle, which is absolutely impossible in Russia. Since Vladimir Putin came to power for a second time and allowed the uniformed services to hold sway, Russia has seen the never-ending suppression of freedom, dissent, self-organization, and civic initiative. Inability to stabilize Russia from inside has pushed the current leadership again to an aggressive foreign policy based on compensating for the inferiority complex by ‘victories’ over Georgia (which is mindless), the US (which is funny), and Ukraine (which is shameful and painful).

“Russian society is much more complex than Ukrainian. Besides, it is full of imperial ambitions, hypocrisy as a way of survival, and unwillingness to take responsibility or the blame for what is going on in the country. The authorities keep on feeding, crumb by crumb, their electorate, thus letting themselves be in power perpetually. And they call it stability! This is why a third of Russians watched the Maidan with a hope and excitement and sincerely approves of Ukraine’s choice, even though this attitude is dangerous now.

“If Ukraine solves its domestic problems and does not veer off its vector of development, neo- totalitarianism will not catch on in Russia. In other words, historically, Ukraine’s mission is to be the burial ground of… not an empire but of a totalitarian dogma: the state is above all and man, the citizen, is secondary. It is time to repay brotherly debts.”

Is there freedom of speech in the Ukrainian and Russian informational space? What is the difference between the two media spaces?

“The situation in the information space is, of course, similar – there is neither a freedom of speech nor a wise speech. I don’t even want to dwell on Russian television that discredits Ukraine day and night. Even Soviet propagandists never stooped to this meanness! There is the Internet for those who can think. And, although it also has enough information war lies, you can get information from your friends and colleagues in various nooks of Ukraine which was and still is my native land.”

The media are more and more using the news-bulletin-style coverage (they only announce what happened without drawing conclusions or telling the reason why). A still worth format is the “No comment” rubric. Where has analysis gone?

“Analysis is for the wise! There is a demand, but it is small. Motivation disappears. It is a time of paid-for journalism.”

Your article on Chornobyl in the newspaper Tribuna energetika remained an unheard forecast of a disaster. You also repeatedly analyzed challenges to Ukraine in your further analytical publications. It is clear from your Facebook page that you continue to follow events in the country. What do you think the Russian aggression against Ukraine will end up with? When will this occur? What will be the correlation of forces on the geopolitical arena? What can make Putin turn back to the norms of international law?

“All that I said and deliberately hushed up above has brought about the situation when Crimea was ceded to Russia without a single shot fired, so to speak. Those who ceded it are Ukrainian citizens, no matter what their ethnicity is. And Ukraine must answer the question ‘why.’ And why did its special analysts not study a variant when after the Maidan, which is basically terrible for the Russian government, and the shameful escape of Yanukovych, the Ukrainian leadership simply presented Russia with a pretext and an opportunity, beginning its rule not with a show of brains but with stumbling over the notorious language problem (the same stupid mistake in the past 20 years)?

“It was clear even to a fool that the Crimea crisis would be followed by the emergence of patriots and ‘people’s mayors’ in the east. In reality, this cynical Russian flag-waving separatism could and should have been nipped in the bud – without a single shot fired.

“Russia did and does not intend to fight with Ukraine. And it will choke if it tries to swallow eastern Ukraine – they are raising funds for Crimea all over the country virtually by coercion (Putin’s electorate is not exactly bursting to pay for their ‘complete approval’). What does Russia want? A federative Ukraine, when each region will be independently (under Putin’s protection) shaping its own economic policy – it can join the Customs Union, thus not only blocking the road to the EU, but also undermining the very existence of Ukraine as an independent state. In other words, the aim is to prevent Ukraine from being able to change today’s criminal system of government and become a democratic rule-of-law state. So Russia is offering its own experience of federalization.

“The first time the world came to know about Ukraine was through Chornobyl and, in a way, thanks to me. At present, deeper knowledge of this country is being received through a specialized operation of Russia which pretends to be a superpower capable of flouting, unpunished, any international law that has been established in the postwar time. So the entire world is supporting Ukraine, which is extremely important for an inexperienced and undeveloped country. We must not make the same mistakes. We must learn to establish equal and fair relations with any country but to rely on ourselves only, even though it is only the US and the EU that can save Ukraine from oblivion today.”

By Anna SVENTAKH, The Day