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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

We and the empire

14 February, 2006 - 00:00

This installment concludes the publication of Stanislav Kulchytsky’s study on Ukraine’s existence within empires and some enduring historical myths.

Continued from No. 2 and 3


Alain Besancon, one of the West’s most authoritative researchers of Soviet communism, made an observation that provides a key to understanding the mechanism by which the Russian empire was transformed into the Soviet Union. In his article published in the book The Concept of Empire, which appeared in Paris in 1980, he pointed out that before the First World War of 1914-1918 Russia had serious prospects for resolving its social and economic problems, but it had no chance whatsoever of resolving the national question. A liberal, democratic, and modernizing policy of the imperial regime could become a key to resolving socioeconomic problems. Only this kind of policy could earn Russia the status of superpower among the Western democratic nations, and no alternative existed. At the same time, such a policy would result in a revival of oppressed nations, which would inevitably undermine the empire from within.

To preserve the Russian empire in a world that had changed completely, the empire needed to be given a different form and substance. If we begin to be surprised by the foundations from which the Soviet Union emerged, we must remember Besancon’s profound observation. The architects of the Soviet Union had only one overriding goal: to prolong the empire’s existence, possibly within its boundaries, and better yet in a much larger territory. The form and even substance of this multinational state formation were secondary to this goal.

The world truly changed after the First World War. This war accelerated the objective transition from a traditional society founded on a medieval hierarchy to a democratic society that was founded on citizens’ equality before the law and did not recognize such a notion as empire. Empires became an anachronism, while the changed world order brought nation-states into the limelight.

However, the civilizational crisis that materialized as the First World War and the Great Depression of 1929-1933 spawned social mutations in countries with especially high levels of social tension. Such countries did not develop into democracies in which societies would control the state and elect its leaders in free elections. Instead, forces from the lower ranks of the popular masses came to the surface of political life, forming nontraditional hierarchical structures, taking control of the country, and exterminating their rivals. The state established total control over their citizens, depriving them of any real influence on political processes.

The first country to witness the triumph of totalitarianism was Soviet Russia. The Russian revolution was marked by the almost immediate overthrow of autocracy and spontaneous emergence of councils (“soviets”) of workers’ and soldiers’ deputies. While adapting to the councils’ demands, the Bolshevik Party gained control of them from the inside and established its dictatorship.

On the heels of Russia a totalitarian regime was established in Italy. Benito Mussolini’s Fascist Party came to power on the wave of a mass movement and started building an Italian colonial empire. Using revanchist slogans, Adolph Hitler’s National Socialists secured a mandate of state power in an electoral struggle against the Communists and Social Democrats. They proceeded to establish a single-party dictatorship, proclaiming the Third Reich and attempting to spread their “new order” in the rest of Europe.

Soviet communism was completely unlike fascism or Nazism, although it was a totalitarian form of government just like them. The communist state had much greater vital strength and capabilities because it not only dominated society, but also merged with it in an integral system. Designed by Vladimir Lenin, the unique political regime was characterized by a symbiosis of state party dictatorship with the completely real power of the Soviet organs. The Soviets and their executive committees directly controlled social life. For this reason the communist regime became nominally associated with Soviet power. In reality, in every segment of the administrative-territorial system Soviet government organs were subordinated to a corresponding Communist Party committee. Owing to the principle of “democratic centralism” that was at the core of the state party and its subordinate organizational structures, power was entirely in the hands of the top communist-Soviet leadership. This political regime had unusual properties. On the one hand, it reached deep into the masses through a system of councils (soviets). Millions of people were invested with real, albeit limited, administrative or controlling functions. This created the illusion of a popular government. On the other hand, the country was dominated by an invisible dictatorship of Communist Party committees, i.e., one that was not reflected in the constitution. These committees controlled everything, from elections to Soviet organs of power.

In the tandem that was called “Soviet power,” Communist Party committees and executive committees of councils had different organizational structures. The nature of the state created by the Bolsheviks was determined by the constitutionally invisible dictatorship of their party. The party had an external camouflage in the form of a multimillion-strong membership, but its nomenklatura was structured as a dictatorial hierarchical structure. Therefore, in each country where Soviet power prevailed, this country became part of a unitary state with a highly centralized government.

Conversely, the Soviet organs of power were structured quite democratically, in line with the constitution. The world’s most democratic Soviet constitutions camouflaged totalitarian pressure on society, which was generated by the Communist Party dictatorship.

While “gathering” the empire that had broken up, Lenin not only tried to avoid a head-on collision with the national-liberation movement, but even tried to use the protest potential of oppressed peoples in his own interests. This strategy proved more effective than the primitive, coercive method of restoring the “single and undivided” Russia, which was chosen by the main adversaries of the Bolsheviks, the White Guard generals.

To restore the multinational empire, the Bolsheviks used the advantages of the dual construction of Soviet power. Almost simultaneously with the introduction of Soviet statehood in Russia, Lenin started to build a national Soviet statehood. Ukraine became the main testing ground for implementing a corresponding policy.

The nature of national statehood created by the Bolsheviks will become clear once we analyze the statutory rights of the republican organizations of the Communist Party. Their official names created the misleading impression of independent political parties. However, the Communist Party (Bolshevik) of Ukraine was in fact a regional organization of the unitary Russian Communist (Bolshevik) Party. It had a central committee of its own, and party committees of Ukrainian gubernias were subordinated to it. However, the statutory rights of the Central Committee of the CP(B)U did not exceed the rights of party committees in Russian gubernias, which were directly subordinated to the CC RCP(B). After the CC RCP(B) formed the Politburo, which concentrated absolute power in its hands, ambitious Ukrainian communists succeeded in securing the same title for the leading organ of the CC CP(B)U, while all other republics simply had bureaus, not political bureaus or a Politburo. When the CC RCP(B) introduced the post of General Secretary, Ukrainian communists secured the same title for the head of the CC CP(B)U. (The post of Ukrainian General Secretary existed until 1934.) However, under the RCP(B)’s statute, the Politburo and Secretary General of the CC CP(B)U had no more powers than the bureau and secretary of any gubernia committee in the Russian Federation.

Even during 1917-1922, when the Russian empire, restored by the Bolsheviks, existed as a country without a name, it remained a unitary, centralized state. The conglomerate of the nine formally independent states (Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, the Far Eastern Republic, the republics of Transcaucasia, Bukhara, and Khorezm) were linked to the imperial capital in two ways: the main one — via the dictatorship of the governing elite of the RCP(B); and an additional one — through the direct subordination to the Soviet center in Moscow of all uniformed services and some economic structures situated on the periphery. National Soviet statehood functioned within the rigid parameters of a system defined by dictatorship.

With the establishment of Soviet control over the Far East in 1922, the Far Eastern Republic, which had previously functioned as a buffer zone, was abolished. At the same time, the leadership in Moscow decided that it was awkward for the state to carry on without a name. After the Civil War ended, the victors viewed the independent national republics as an anachronism.

Combining the country with the state could be effected by “absorbing” the national republics into the Russian Federation, i.e., by turning them into autonomous republics. Scholars generally consider Stalin to be the author of the idea to turn the “independent” republics into autonomous republics. There is no doubt that he presented this project in his capacity as the People’s Commissar of Nationalities of the Russian Socialist Federated Soviet Republic and Secretary General of the CC RCP(B). However, the central communist-Soviet apparatus considered such autonomization as the only possible and quite logical way out of the situation. The only alternative could be the further existence of the republics as nation-state formations that were “independent” of Russia. In analyzing the events of 1922, we should forget for a moment about another alternative, which was Lenin’s brainchild and had not occurred to any other politician before he voiced it.

In the absence of Lenin, who had just experienced the first onset of his terminal illness, the organizing bureau of the CC RCP(B) approved a decision to autonomize the national republics. It turned out, however, that this decision was disputed by individual republican leaders, primarily CC RCP(B) member Khristian Rakovsky. This opposition should not be viewed as an attempt to preserve the sovereignty of the Soviet republics, a sovereignty that did not exist to begin with. They viewed the proposed demotion of republican status as a blow to their prestige.

Lenin considered it best not to encroach on the interests of fellow party members in the national republics to which he ironically referred as “independents.” Moreover, he preferred to abandon the “infamous question of autonomization,” as he declared in his Dec. 30, 1922, letter to the RCP(B) leadership, and insisted on leaving the format of relations with the republics unchanged. While the leadership could put up with the dissatisfaction of fellow party members, much greater danger would come from a wave of popular outrage in the republics that were being deprived of their sovereignty.

Is there a conflict between this statement and the statement in the previous paragraph that the national Soviet republics did not have any sovereignty from the very outset? If there is such a conflict, it is hidden in the very concept of national Soviet statehood developed by Lenin himself. It makes it possible to understand how cunning and deceitful Lenin’s nationality policy really was.

The leadership of the state party considered the autonomization of national republics, I repeat, as a completely logical and the only possible way to complete the process of “gathering” the lands of the former empire. However, in his above-mentioned letter to the RCP(B) leaders Lenin called this idea an “incorrect and untimely trick.” The autonomous republics were not states. Autonomization would destroy constitutional national statehood, while preserving only Soviet Russian statehood. This would revive a de facto “single and undivided” Russia, which would be different from pre-revolutionary Russia only in that some of its gubernias would become autonomous national republics. The Soviet Russian government was facing the specter of a national-liberation struggle. Squeezed into the narrow frameworks of autonomies, the nations that had gone through the crucible of national revolutions would sooner or later rise to defend their rights.

Lenin proposed a fundamentally different way out of this situation. He chose to build a centralized state not along Soviet lines, i.e., by abolishing the national states, but along Communist Party lines. In these conditions the sovereignty of national states was provided for in the Soviet constitutions, but vanished in the invisible force field generated by the state party dictatorship.

The party chief agreed that the existence of a single country with several states was inconvenient, that was why he offered a simple way out of this inconvenient situation, one that no one before him had ever proposed: all the Soviet states as of 1922 — the Russian and Transcaucasian Federations, Ukraine, and Belarus — formed another federated state on equal terms, a “second tier” federation.” He also proposed a name for the newly created federation: the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics of Europe and Asia. Each of the republics making up the Soviet Union had the constitutional right to secede freely from the union.

The unification of the Soviet republics into a single multinational state would have been a noteworthy historical event if it were not for the state party. In reality, the signing of the union treaty on Dec. 30, 1922, was merely a ceremonial event that was planned in advance in the agenda of the CC RCP(B) organizing committee. This event was significant in that it only made the autonomization of national republics impossible. In other words, national Soviet statehood was not terminated.

Although Stalin occasionally accused Lenin of a liberal approach to the national question, he fully appreciated the benefits of preserving national Soviet statehood. Preserved in the 1936 Constitution of the USSR, which Stalin could edit as he pleased, was a clause on the republics’ right to secede freely from the union. As long as the force field of Communist Party dictatorship was in place, similar constitutional norms could not undermine this empire-like unitary state.

At the whim of state party leaders, the nations of the Soviet Union formed a multilevel hierarchy. The Russians occupied the top rung. On the rung lower were representatives of the nations that had given their names to the union republics. In this connection the concept of “titular nation” emerged. The third rung from the top was occupied by the peoples in the national autonomies within the union republics. The fourth rung was occupied by the “non-titular” nations, which did not have their own union or autonomous republics. Thus, the USSR was structured on the basis of ethnocratic principles.

Despite the limited powers of the republican centers, the Politburo of the CC RCP(B) decided it was dangerous to form a full-fledged center in the Russian Federation. Only the Council of People’s Commissars of the RSFSR was created in Moscow, which controlled secondary enterprises. Larger enterprises were subordinated directly to union organs. There was no party center in Russia, while gubernia party committees were subordinated to the CC RCP(B). Thus, the Russians’ top spot in the hierarchy of nationalities was combined with the absence of national statehood. Soviet Russian statehood was not national but imperial.

Immediately after the creation of the USSR the Kremlin introduced the policy of “indigenization”, which took the form of Ukrainization in Ukraine. Although its main goal was to enroot Soviet power in the periphery, it fostered a revival of national languages and cultures. Ukrainization was implemented even in areas outside the Ukrainian SSR, which were densely populated by Ukrainians. In particular, the population of the Kuban, two-thirds of which was comprised of ethnic Ukrainians, gained the opportunity to send their children to Ukrainian schools, read Ukrainian books and magazines, and listen to local radio broadcasts in their native language. With time “national communists” started to hint that it would be fair to transfer the Kuban district of the North-Caucasus Territory to Ukraine.

The national revival in Soviet Ukraine had a profound impact on the political community of Western Ukraine. Dmytro Levytsky, the leader of the most influential party of national democrats, wrote in the newspaper Dilo in February 1925: “We are firmly convinced that, much like abstract communism, the Soviet form of government is alien to the mindset of the Ukrainian nation. But as we register facts, we cannot make note of certain facts while ignoring others. Therefore, we state the well-known and unquestionable fact that the national idea is growing, strengthening, and developing in Soviet Ukraine. As this idea is growing, the foreign shell of fictitious Ukrainian statehood is filled with the native content of genuine statehood.”

The Kremlin chiefs valued the propagandistic merits of the demagogical Soviet constitutions, but feared the prospect of a decorative national statehood developing into real statehood, which could happen if the central government became weaker. For this very reason they deprived Russia of the attributes of national statehood. For this very reason Ukraine, as the largest national republic, from 1929 found itself at the epicenter of repressions designed to prevent possible future manifestations of separatism. This fear explains the organization of the famine-genocide of 1932-1933 under the guise of a grain procurement campaign. This fear also explains the ban on Ukrainization outside the Ukrainian SSR and the colossal campaign to exterminate the Ukrainian intelligentsia, which continued almost without interruption until 1939. In an attempt to conceal the anti-Ukrainian nature of the repressions, the Stalinist regime with marked enthusiasm took pains with the flowering of Ukrainian culture that was “socialist in content and national in form.” In 1934 the capital of the Ukrainian SSR was transferred from Kharkiv to the national center of Ukraine — Kyiv.

The repressions of the 1930s defused for many decades the “ethnic bomb” that was embedded in the foundation of the Soviet empire during the creation of the USSR. However, the most discerning researchers in the West (much like the mastermind behind these preventive repressions — Stalin) never forgot that the Soviet Union could exist only within the force field created by the state party dictatorship. In his book [Weberian Sociological Theory — Ed.] published in New York in 1986 the sociologist Randall Collins spoke with certainty about the imminent collapse of the Soviet Union. He predicted the outcome of the ethnocratic principle on which this new type of empire was built: “The formal mechanism of withdrawing from the Soviet Union is ready. Fifteen most ethnically diverse regions are officially autonomous states with a local mechanism of government. Now this autonomy is ineffective, since the armed services, the monetary system, and economic planning are controlled by central government organs, while political control is administered by the single national Communist Party. However, the significance of an autonomous- ethnic state structure is that it contains ethnic definitions along with organizational structures that can form the basis of truly separate states, if the central government becomes significantly weaker.”

Collins predicted not only the collapse of the USSR but also the political force that would accomplish this. This conclusion was self-evident: there could be no civil society in a totalitarian country, and the communists had always been the only organizationally established political force: “The possible disintegration of the Soviet Union will most likely take place under the leadership of former communist politicians. Taking into account the communists’ present monopoly in the political sphere in the Soviet Union, it will be difficult for political changes to occur in any other way, at least initially.”

In convulsive efforts to overcome the socioeconomic crisis, Mikhail Gorbachev set about improving the political mechanisms of the Soviet system of government, which had not changed since Lenin’s time. The constitutional reform that he initiated liberated the Soviet organs of power from the dictatorship of the Communist Party. The force field in which the union republics and Central and Eastern European countries had existed suddenly vanished. The reformers could not predict the resulting situation: the fictitious and propagandistic norms of Soviet constitutions became operative. The Baltic states and the Russian Federation, which had been politically marginalized by the Kremlin, immediately took advantage of this situation, followed by the remaining union republics. Divesting the CPSU of its state party status brought about the collapse of the Soviet empire. Perestroika spun out of the Kremlin’s control and turned into a revolutionary process.

At the core of the anti-communist revolution in the USSR, much like in any other revolution, was the strongly expressed refusal of the popular masses to be content with what they had. The Soviet political system along with its command economy appeared to be an anachronism against the background of accelerated scientific, technical, and socioeconomic progress in the West. However, unlike during earlier social cataclysms, the driving force behind the anti-communist revolution was the Communist Party and the Soviet nomenklatura. This was due not only to the fact that other political forces had begun to emerge in the USSR only during the perestroika period. A no less, if not greater, role in the mass emergence of so-called sovereign communists was played by the fact that the revolution was not so much an upsurge of social energy as a self-disintegration of a system that had exhausted its historical lifespan.


I will start by mentioning two indisputable facts. First, Soviet practice knew federations of the first order (the Russian Socialist Federated Soviet Republic, and the Transcaucasian Socialist Federated Soviet Republic) and second order (USSR). Second, unlike the overwhelming majority of federated countries in the world, the Soviet federation envisioned the right to secede, i.e., its subjects could withdraw from the federation. The question is: Did the Soviet people have the experience of living in a federated state?

In answering this question, we should try to make a careful reading of the union and republican constitutions, which were quite numerous. Strikingly, the word “federation” appears only in the titles of the countries. No clause mentions any rights of the federation’s subjects, which the federative center could not contest. The only exception was the right to secede. Although it was proclaimed, the mechanism of secession was kept in total secrecy.

The reason why the specifics of life in a federated state were ignored in the constitutions is quite simple: from the very outset the Soviet Union and the Russian Federation were not federated states. Federalism involves a distribution of administrative powers between the center and the periphery. Is any division of power at all possible in a dictatorship? This is a rhetorical question.

Why and when, exactly, did the Bolsheviks arm themselves with such a notion as federation, which was by definition alien to them?

In August 1917 Lenin sensed that his party could seize power if for a certain period of time it abandoned the communist agenda, which was unpopular among the masses. The Bolsheviks renounced the idea to turn the imperialist war into a civil war and began demanding that a separate peace treaty be concluded with the Central Powers. They abandoned the idea of creating Soviet farms on estates seized from landowners and began campaigning for the egalitarian distribution of land among the peasants. Finally, they gave up the idea of a centralized state and began popularizing the creation of a Soviet federation of free peoples. In other words, they adopted Soviet slogans. When Lenin’s party came to power on the backs of the soviets and established its dictatorship, it returned to its communist agenda. Then the empire revived by the Bolsheviks saw everything: a civil war, soviet farms and collective farms, a “federation of free peoples,” etc. Soviet federalism proved to be a camouflage for the ethnocratic principle, which the “proletarian internationalists” at the helm of the state party considered to be the most convenient for building a multinational empire-like state.

After the elimination of the communist dictatorship, Russia turned on the spur of the moment into a real federation. However, relations between the center and periphery were not constitutionally regulated. For a long time, therefore, regional elites attempted to secure as much sovereignty as possible. Nonetheless, President Boris Yeltsin’s efforts at the negotiating table to eliminate the threat of disintegration resulted in a compromise. In 1994 all federal subjects except Chechnya signed an agreement with the center, which stated that the realization of their rights is possible only if Russia’s state integrity is preserved, along with its political, economic, and legal unity.

All the post-communist countries are going through a transition period from a directed to market economy, from dictatorship to democracy. Transformational processes in Russia have a third dimension: a transition from empire to nation-state. The imperial cast of mind, which had formed during centuries, remains a prominent factor in Russia’s political life. In his book Empire and Nations (Dukh i Litera Publishers, 2000), Roman Szporliuk quotes Geoffrey Hosking’s famous aphorism coined in 1995: “Britain had an empire, but Russia was an empire — and perhaps still is.”

A civil society can develop only after communist dictatorship has been toppled. Therefore, traditionally strong state institutions have the final say in the transformational processes in the Russian Federation. However, the state’s prospects to direct economic processes are limited by two factors: the spontaneous collapse of the directed economy and the need to integrate into the global economy on its terms. The state’s possibilities for establishing a strong government are much greater, but they are also limited by the presence of the free market, which is linked to the global economy by thousands of tiny threads. To revive a dictatorship, Russia would once again have to separate itself from the rest of the world with an iron curtain. However, the country has no influential political forces that could propose such an agenda.

However, the state in Russia can afford to slow down the process by which the country is losing its imperial traits. It can do so owing to rich natural resources, which fill the state coffers with foreign currency. It draws an adequate amount of support from a significant percentage of citizens whose historical mindset has an imperialist bent.

Many Russian citizens do not see any danger in the ethnocratic principle of the structuring of a multinational country with a hierarchy of nationalities. Soviet experience has not taught them anything, and they tend to seek the use of this ethnic bomb in their national state building. In particular, the Russian Orthodox Church persistently promotes the idea of building a hierarchy of ethnic- confessional communities in the following order: the state-forming Orthodox people; traditional religions (Islam, Buddhism, Judaism); nontraditional religions (Catholicism and Protestantism); “totalitarian sects” and the ethnic communities that are associated with them. Doing so, it ignores the constitutional norm concerning the equality of all ethnic and confessional communities of the multinational peoples of Russia.

With increasing frequency the Russian press has been discussing the unfolding demographic catastrophe, which boils down to the changing ratio between Russians and non-Russians in favor of the latter. The threat to the welfare and security of the indigenous population is constantly discussed in connection with the influx of multiethnic emigrants (“profiteers,” “terrorists,” etc.). Ethnic minorities in Russian society are very often seen as a threat to its stability. Even Valeriy Tishkov, director of the Institute of Ethnology at the Russian Academy of Sciences, who was once renowned for his liberalism, says that it is time “not only to defend oppressed minorities, but also defend the majority from the radicalism and aggressiveness of the minority.”

President Vladimir Putin of Russia is pursuing a rather balanced policy within Russia, respecting the constitutional rights of all citizens. Meanwhile, in the post-Soviet space both Russian presidents adopted a policy of reviving the USSR in various forms: the Commonwealth of Independent States, the Slavic Union, the European-Asian Economic Commonwealth, the Single Economic Space, etc. Since 2000, when Putin took over the reins of power, Russia adopted a systematic and persistent approach to dealing with Ukrainian issues. With the emergence of the idea to form the SES, pressure on Ukraine to force it to integrate has become simply unbearable.

In 1990 Alexander Solzhenitsyn wrote a small book entitled Rebuilding Russia: Reflections and Tentative Proposals. His final thesis is an emotionally charged conclusion that stems from the author’s many years of researching Russian history: “We have no strength for an Empire! And we do not need one. May it fall from our shoulders. It is crushing and exhausting us, and speeding up our destruction.” Perhaps it is worth heeding the opinion of this great thinker.


The final chapter has the same heading as the article title. The repetition is no accident. In the past we were an ethnographic mass exploited by the rulers of empires for their own interests. Now we can independently define our purpose and defend our national interests.

Books about contemporary Ukrainian-Russian relations can be written, and they have been written. I have also written one. Here I should confine myself to a general conclusion: if we survived under empires for hundreds of years, if we are now an independent state on the European continent with a territory of 603,000 square kilometers, then we will be here tomorrow and a thousand years later.

I hit upon the subject of empires accidentally. Analyzing it on the basis of familiar material, I spent many thrilling hours. I had to reconsider several well-known scenarios and imagine versions of the past that never happened. I would like to share with The Day’s readers my impressions of analyzing this subject.

I kept thinking of the Chinese — not the contemporary Chinese who are proud of their Celestial Empire, but those who are long gone and not mentioned in the imperial chronicles. We do not even know their names. So we should congratulate ourselves that in our empire there was not enough time for us. If there had been, nobody would know anything about us, and we ourselves would not know anything about our people. Recall that many of us did not know our own history until 1991. Many still don’t know it.

Occasionally I read in the papers or hear on television: “Our rights are being violated, give us a second state language!” These are my fellow countrymen speaking, and I understand that they have the right to say this. But I yearn to tell them that they are we, Ukrainians, and we have one language for all.

I keep thinking about the regional breakup of Ukrainian society, which manifested itself during the presidential elections of 2004: the west and center versus the east and south. This is partly due to economic circumstances that are tightly interwoven with political manipulations. There are profounder reasons, since Ukraine is situated on a civilizational fault line. However, regional differences should not undermine national unity. We must remember that our ancestors in the two empires extended their hands across the state border and became a single nation.

Finally, I will touch on the subject of the famine of 1932-1933, which is mentioned only once in this article. This is because I revealed the mechanism of the genocide in my series of articles entitled “Why did Stalin exterminate the Ukrainians?” which The Day published in October and November 2005. An analysis of Ukraine’s existence in the Soviet empire prompts one banal conclusion: one should never place one’s country in dependence of decisions that are made outside its borders. In other words, one should never become a part of an empire.

Unfortunately, the validity of this banal conclusion has yet to be proven to some of our compatriots.