What Awaits the Ukraine?

15. 3. 2017

A new and more European Ukraine may be expected if positions of power start to be occupied by the generation of the “peers of Ukrainian independence.”This is going to happen if the most active from this generation do not emigrate and do not allow themselves to be corrupted.

I was asked to assess where, in what place the Ukraine finds itself now, after 22 years of independence, and hence what may be expected in the next 20 years. I have formulated a similar prognosis before. At that time (in 2008) it could be reduced to three points:

  • the Ukraine will remain an independent state (that is it will not disappear from the map of the world, as some analysts predicted);
  • most probably it will remain within its current borders (that is it will not break up);
  • it will join the European Union (if the Union itself does not collapse until then).

This prognosis was formulated after the victory of the Orange Revolution. Now, after its fiasco, times have changed. Once the “counterrevolutionary” Victor Yanukovych assumed power (2010), the Ukraine increasingly started to resemble the neighboring Belarus and Russia: Opposition leaders are in prison or seek refuge abroad; journalists are once more beaten or even killed; national assets are appropriated by the elites headed by the Yanukovych family; corruption, not much reduced in the Orange times, returned to or even exceeded the prerevolutionary level. And all this against the backdrop of arguments about language and history, which almost literally rip the country apart and increase the fears (or hopes, depending on who we are dealing with) of a possible break-up of the country. To some extent, today’s situation of the Ukraine resembles that of Poland during the Martial Law. Just as it was then, many people have a sense of defeat and helplessness. It was said then that a band of gangsters broke into a lunatic asylum. In today’s Ukraine, the word “gangsters” is not a metaphor: many members of the ruling elite, including Yanukovych himself, have a criminal past. And regardless of the personal history of one or another highly placed official the regime as a whole behaves like a mafia-like structure. No one feels safe in this country. The position of the Ukraine in almost all global rankings is falling.

To quote the classic: there have been worse times but there have been no more ignoble ones.

The question I should answer in such circumstances is: has the time come to change my prognosis?


Asked to predict the future, a historian should explain why he or she is an adequate person to undertake this task: historians are not prophets and what they know best is the past; moreover, history is full of fits, starts, and unexpected turns, so the future is impossible to predict. Leszek Kołakowski once wrote an excellent essay on this subject and his argumentation may be reduced to one claim: in historical research, there is no explanatory method.

Kołakowski summed up the crashing failure of the “noble dream” of 20th-century historians, namely to turn history into a true science—meaning one which reveals the laws and tendencies of social development hidden from the human eye. After the fall of the Annales School and the discrediting of Marxism in 1970–1980, contemporary historians would be embarrassed to speak about historical laws. They avoid speaking about long-term processes and macrostructures. If earlier they looked at the past through a telescope, now their favored instrument is the microscope. Historians not only shrink from generalizations—instead of studying actual processes, they look into how they are reflected in human minds. This is why the titles of their works are full of such words as “notion” or “invention” (of nations, traditions and so on), and it also explains the dominance of the irritating research on historical memory.

But many a historian nurses a hope that today’s crisis of history will not last forever and that it is coming to an end. We may agree that there are no laws in history. But perhaps it can at least show some social tendencies? And these tendencies, even if they do not lift the veil of the future for us, will at least help us to think strategically.

So far this hope is coming true, not so much in history but in other social sciences: political science and economic history. The classics of each of them, such as Robert Putnam or David Landes, independently came to the conclusion that “history/culture matters,” the development of a given country depends on its historical/ cultural heritage. For there is something like path-dependency: where you arrive depends on where you began your journey.

For me as a historian the most convincing is the sociological study called “World Values Survey.” Marc Bloch once compared historians to cannibals: both groups feed on human flesh. Historians do not care much for great theoretical schemes. They want to be given empirical material, from specific human flesh and blood. The study I quoted above perfectly meets this criterion, for it is fully empirical. Its conclusions are based on results of surveys started back in the 1980s and repeated several times later, and now they cover all countries of the world except for a few states in Asia and Africa. After the fall of communism the survey was also conducted in Poland, Russia, the Ukraine and other post-communist countries—so today we are able to compare the results.

The respondents were asked very specific questions, for example, what they think about abortion or homosexuality. Who do they trust and to what extent? How often do they go to Church? The answers were statistically processed for each country. The project is based on a hypothesis formulated by a sociologist from Michigan, Ronald Inglehart, that the quality of our live is related to what truly and deeply motivates our actions—that is to our values. This hypothesis has been confirmed: the map based on survey results has shown that “values are spread like butter.” Societies with established traditional and survival-directed values are usually located in the group with the lowest per capita GDP. And vice versa—countries where self-expression and (often although not always) secular values are highly esteemed are the wealthiest.

What is the cause and what is the result of this correlation, do values determine the quality of life or the other way round? This cannot be established beyond any doubt. It resembles the chicken and the egg conundrum. But what is important in the context of our reflections, this correlation has a clear historical dimension. The principal factors defining the position of a given country on the values map are related to history. The most important among them is religion. Unavoidably simplifying a bit, we could say that if someone wants to be happy and rich, he or she should be born in a Christian country (the most important exception from this rule are Confucian countries); among Christian countries, the indices are better for those belonging to the tradition of Western rather than Eastern Christianity and among Western Christian countries Protestant ones are faring better than Catholic ones (Max Weber was right, as we can see). The second factor is the empire you once belonged to. As it turns out, states originating from the former British Empire, regardless of the seas and oceans separating them, have very similar (high) indices, while the countries from the two remaining empires, Spanish and Russian, were pushed by history somewhere to the sidelines of economic and cultural development. And finally the third rule, which sounds almost ridiculously simple: it is better not to have a communist legacy than to have it. In 1990 the distance between East and West Germany on the values map was greater than between East Germany and Estonia or Bohemia (see the figure below).

The Ukraine on the Values Map

In its history, the Ukraine has been unlucky in all three respects: it belongs to the area of Eastern Christianity, it belonged to a problematic empire from the point of view of modernization and communism in the Ukraine assumed the most savage form. The last issue is not limited to the famine in 1932–33 and regular repressions against Ukrainian intelligentsia, for there was also the systematic destruction of civil society, the strength of which constituted one of the fundamental historical differences between the Ukraine and Russia, and there was also the deliberate isolation of the Ukraine and reducing it to a provincial role, which turned it into a kind of Albania the size of France. All these factors combined led to the replacement of savage communism with savage capitalism and the “shock without therapy.” The system changed, the savageness remained.

In any case historical heritage a different development trajectory predicts for the Ukraine— different than in, let us say, the neighboring Poland or Lithuania. This trajectory oscillates between two poles—on the one hand there is the scenario of the downfall of the Ukraine as a state, with a split into a Ukrainian-speaking West and Russian-speaking East (the famous“two Ukraines” theory) and a possible integration of the latter with Russia, and on the other hand there is the scenario of slow “change without movement, movement without change” (or, as Alexander Motyl once summed up this development scenario: langsamabersicher). The Ukraine is still struggling with these two extremes and it seems to be closer to the second pole. Come what may, fast and effective changes in the Ukraine do not seem (for the time being?) possible, as witnessed, for example, by the failure of the Orange Revolution.

But history is not a prison. It may limit possibilities of development but does not preclude it. With its historical experience after 1991, the Ukraine had no chance for becoming similar not only to Germany but also to the neighboring Poland. But it may become similar to Bulgaria and Romania—countries with Eastern Christian tradition which managed to join the European Union.

That history is not a prison is confirmed by the research quoted. Because the study was conducted in a number of waves—in the early 1980s until early 2010s—the material for comparisons and generalizations covers the period of almost thirty years. And this material clearly demonstrates that countries can and do change their development trajectories. In some cases, the changes have the character of great leaps— as in Poland or East and West Germany in the 1990s. In other places, for example in Russia and Belarus, we are dealing with a regression (see map below), which shows, among other things, that coming to power by such people as Lukashenko or Putin was not only the result of political manipulations, but it rather reflected profound changes in the social awareness.

So we can venture certain generalizations regarding the circumstances and conditions for these trajectory changes. The first scenario, revolutionary one, is that power is assumed by an elite having the political will to enforce systemic reforms. Some of these reforms involve changes of values, for the elite has access to such valueshaping instruments as the educational system and the media (this may explain, among other things, the failure of Micheil Saakashvili’s reforms in Georgia: it seems that the radical changes “from above” were not backed up by adequate changes in the system of values “at the bottom”). The alternative evolutionary scenario is implemented through generational change. The global values survey covered eight age groups: from people born before 1921 to those born after 1980, with ten-year intervals. The general dynamics shows that all countries except for African ones, regardless of their history, move towards secular- rational values and self-expression together with generational change.


How does the Ukraine look from this perspective? It was included in the global values survey relatively late, in the early 2000s. Since that time the survey had two further installments, in 2008 and 2010–2012, but the data from the last one are not available yet. But comparison of results from early 2000s and 2008 clearly shows that in this decade the Ukraine was moving in the “right” direction. This movement was particularly visible against the background of the almost immobile Belarus and Russia. Moreover, the Ukraine got close to the external border of the “Russian world” and if this movement will go on by force of inertia (we will not be able to verify this until the data from 2012 are published), it may even leave this world. In this context the feverish efforts of President Putin and the head of the Russian Orthodox Church, Patriarch Cyril, to bring the Ukraine back to the “Russian fold,” assume a special significance: these dignitaries feel that the moment is remarkable, for in a few years similar actions may no longer make sense. On the other hand, the fact that despite deep internal divisions a consensus around the European integration emerged within the Ukrainian elites, finds reflection (and support) in an adequate shift of socially shared values. And this allows us to hope that regardless of whether the Ukrainian government succeeds in signing the association agreement with the European Union before this year is out, the integrative ambitions of the Ukraine will remain unchanged.

Even greater hopes in this area are warranted by results of surveys among the Ukrainian youth. In the Ukraine the younger and more educated you are, the more you want to be part of Europe. Young age and good education are to the largest extent combined in the age group called by commentators the “peers of the Ukrainian independence”— they are young Ukrainians born in 1980–1990 and later as well as those who made their electoral debut in 2010–2012. The European Values Survey (2008) shows that a kind of a generational gap has sprung up in the Ukraine: young Ukrainians from the 15–24 group are closer in the values they believe in to their peers from Slovakia, Poland, the Czech Republic, Portugal and Greece than to older Ukrainians from the 50–59 group.

In other words, if we are to formulate a prognosis on what may happen to the Ukraine in the next twenty years, one of the likely scenarios will be the following: when the generation of the “peers of the Ukrainian independence” will turn 35–45, that is achieve an age when people start to take up leadership positions in public institutions, we may expect a new, more European, “normal” Ukraine. For this scenario to come true, at least two conditions must be met: the most active representatives of this generation cannot emigrate and those who stay may not allow themselves to be corrupted and become similar to the current Ukrainian political elite.

Both threats are very real. The problem is not limited to lower living standards—even compared to the neighbors—and high unemployment rate, discouraging young people from tying their own future with the future of their country. In my opinion, the main problem is the high level of corruption, which makes Ukraine a rich country (based on natural resources) of (mostly) poor people. Corruption is omnipresent and pervades all spheres of life. One of the most corrupt areas is education—both on the primary and secondary level and (perhaps mostly) on the university level. And education is a natural habitat for the young, so Ukrainian youth cannot be free from corruption. The survey from 2010 showed that in the opinion of university students from Kyiv— one of the most numerous and most important groups of educated Ukrainian youth—professionalism and leadership qualities do not guarantee success in the Ukraine. They believe that personal connections are much more important and the method for success is to “do less but get more.”


The situation of the Ukraine cannot be unambiguously described. As one of Western analysts recently put it: “The Ukraine is never as good or as bad as you think it is.” What is happening in the Ukraine and with the Ukraine must irritate or disappoint. But the “path-dependency” perspective shows that the situation is not hopeless.

For all we have said, in-depth and therefore not very visible changes in values do occur in the Ukraine. Seizing power by Lukashenko in Belarus or by Putin in Russia resulted from some deep changes in both countries. And in view of the in-depth transformations in the Ukraine the rule of Yanukovych seems an aberration. After every failed revolution, there is a period of counterrevolution. But history rarely ends in a counterrevolution, just as history does not end in general. It is not impossible that a number of changes will take place in the Ukraine before developments lead to a measure of political stability and emergence of a new quality in the Ukrainian politics.

Ihor Shevchenko, professor at Harvard and a well-known specialist in Byzantium, before his death in December 2009 predicted: Assuming power by an authoritarian regime in the Ukraine is inevitable. The fundamental challenge for the Ukraine will be to show if in the first 20 years of independence it has created enough normal, “European” institutions, leaders and movements to cope with the authoritarian disease.

We will not find the answer to this question in academic discussions but it is important at least to formulate the question well. For I am convinced that the lack of good answers for the Ukraine results above all from the lack of good questions. And historians have something to say in this matter—as I attempted to prove here.

Jaroslav Hrytsak

Ukrainian historian, director of the Institute of Scientific Research at the Lviv University, professor of the Central European University in Budapest, head of the Department of Ukrainian History at the Ukrainian Catholic University in Lviv.

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