Svyatoslav (Slavko) Vakarchuk, the lead vocalist of Okean Elzy, has come under virulent attacks recently for his talk in Lviv on May 27 this year. For example, writer Yuriy Vynnychuk stated that Vakarchuk is “better off singing rather than talking”, while a language tutor in New York declared him “a propagandist of neo-Russian colonialism”.
It all started when Slavko Vakarchuk called for thoughtfulness and tolerance — things that don’t easily fit within the outdated mental framework of the more combative representatives of our so-called national elite, who still operate with last century’s lackluster concepts of what (and who) constitutes a nation.
To do justice to his lecture, which was offered as part of the annual Oleksandr Krivenko journalism award ceremony, here is its full translation.
Freedom Lecture, IV Lviv Media forum, 27.05.2016
Translated by Tanya Zaharchenko
For twenty five years we are building a state, Ukraine, and all this time we’ve been arguing about what Ukraine actually is, and who are the Ukrainians. How can these concepts be defined in the 21st century?
Someone might say that it’s obvious — if you identify as Ukrainian, you have a right to be called Ukrainian. Fine, but what if someone does not wish to be identified this way? Or what if you were not born here, or have a different passport, or speak with an accent? If you sing a local song wholeheartedly, but with an accent, and your skin is dark? Who gets to decide which of us are Ukrainian while others are not?
Think of Armenian Serhiy Nigoyan or Belarusian Mykhailo Zhyznevsky — do they have a right to be called Ukrainians? And who is more Ukrainian: they, or those who voted at the referendum in Donetsk as Ukrainian blood flowed through their veins?
To answer these questions with ease and without controversy, we must fundamentally alter the paradigm of approaches to our country. For the first time in twenty five years, we must resolve for ourselves: what kind of state do we want to have, who is building it, and for whom? These are the three key questions.
The main point of my lecture today is as follows: we need to stop building a state based on blood patriotism, and start building a state based on constitutional patriotism.
We should stand united neither by a shared past, nor by origins or blood, nor by visual similarities, but by values, by our way of life, by our chosen rules of the game, by the constitution — all that forms our lives in this society, here and now, as well as for our children in the future. This, I believe, is the key to success.
Some might object: so what’s the problem, don’t we do this already? Actually, we don’t. We still function within a paradigm that constituted the dream of our ancestors, or of those who sought to build Ukraine at the end of 19th and beginning of 20th century. At the turn of the era, when empires collapsed, all smaller European (and not just European) peoples affirmed their identity, gathering exclusively on the basis of language, or culture, or common history. This was the way to oppose great cosmopolitan empires: Russian, Habsburg, German, and so on.
It worked back then, because the world was confined, and the only way to unite against the bigger enemy was to find a neighbour, to find someone like yourself. This concept no longer works in the 21st century, especially in a country like Ukraine.
Ukraine is often compared to Poland, but it is not Poland. We never saw national homogeneity across our entire territory, we never spoke just one language. Yes, we are descendants of a great heritage, starting with Kievan Rus. But we must realize: the nation that sprung forth in 1991 was created not by our subjective influence, but as a result of objective historical conditions. It is not a perfectly organic formation. Our country was sewn together from pieces of various lands, where people had different visions of history and of the future; different origins, languages, churches.
Today, in order to define what a nation is, we need to stop focusing on things that tear us apart. Not only because they provide grounds for political speculations, but also because such a system will always remain unstable. Without pillars to support it, it will keep swaying.
Moses led the Jewish people from Egyptian slavery into a desert for forty years so that, in the end, they could reach Mount Sinai and acquire the Ten Commandments from God. This was the Jewish constitution of the future. Based on these new guidelines — rather than merely on a shared past of slavery — they began to create their own history.
Recall the United States, too. When the founding fathers established their country in the 18th century, they did not rely on common origins, they relied on nothing but principles. They gathered these principles from books and from their own dreams; they read Locke, Montesquieu, Hobbes, Aristotle, Plato… They wanted to build an ideal state, where people could live comfortably. Yes, it was easier for them, because they started from scratch, but they managed to formulate a country of dreams, a country of the future, without looking back at things that chained them to the past.
The German Reich, fortunately, was defeated in World War II. But what was Germany to do afterward? A country that, over many years, had grown accustomed to being the best and the strongest? It was now divided into two parts, and Germans faced a crisis of identity. They could not figure out who they were. So Chancellor Adenauer proposed an idea: “Yes, we all speak German, we have a common culture, but this is not what unites us today. We have to coalesce around the notions of free society, free market, freedom and democracy.” On these principles of constitutional patriotism they built West Germany, which later successfully merged with the east.
Spain, too, faced a crisis of identity after Franco’s death, because it was not a monoethnic country. There are so many cultures, nations, languages, that if they all focused primarily on the Kingdom of Castile, they would be much worse off these days.
Constitutional patriotism works in heterogeneous environments, where histories differ and where people come together around basic principles, which may seem trivial, but which in fact unite a nation more than anything else does. Think about it: any politician can split us along the line of what language we speak, or which church we attend. But is it easy to divide a nation on the basis of who does or does not desire a fair justice system; who does or does not support freedom of speech and freedom of the press? It is difficult to shatter a community based on such seemingly idealistic, but actually pragmatic and highly effective canons of life.
In the 21st century we can build a unique state that has its own roots, its own Ukrainian and Slavic identity. But it must rely on clear postulates and rules of the game, inherent to all Ukrainians, regardless of what language they speak, which church they attend, which part of the country they come from. When a resident of a village near Kharkiv (on the border with Russia) will feel a mental, intellectual and social affinity with a resident of a village near Lviv (on the border with Poland) — more than with his immediate neighbor across the border — we will know that we have achieved a political nation.
Some of you might retort: doesn’t this sound like the kind of liberal cosmopolitanism that can erase history and obliterate the past? Absolutely not. Constitutional patriotism and cosmopolitanism are two different things. I believe that the Ukrainian nation has its own identity, which it must nurture and support. But before this identity can be given some weight, we should turn to even more fundamental things: what kind of society do we live in? How do we make it just? How do we ensure that each of us feels comfortable in our surroundings, that we are proud of our way of life, that our kids don’t want to flee this country?
These things cannot be achieved simply by raising the flag and singing the national anthem every day. Instead, they arise from determined and difficult work, a struggle for simple but essential criteria: one law for all, fair courts, freedom from corruption, freedom of speech, freedom of enterprise, and basic duties carried out by every citizen.That’s how you take responsibility and begin to create your own country, step by step.
Recently we saw how national identity and patriotism come in handy in the face of external aggression; how the events in east Ukraine revealed who is who. One could reply: “Perhaps you’re right, Svyatoslav, but don’t you think that when external threat arose, it was the people with a keen sense of nationalism who went to defend Ukraine?” Right. Because they own at least some principles, and we have not established other principles yet — like the ones I’ve been talking about. But I am convinced: if the battle was not only for language or culture or identity, but also for a way of life, for a moral code, for a constitution one can be proud of, then the army’s recruitment centers would attract three times more people.
Our task is to finally start building a country based on the postulates of justice and comfort. Let’s stop operating within 19th century paradigms. Today there can be no split between “us” and “them” based on origin, passport, or language. “Us” includes all who stand by the same principles, who are prepared to build the future, who fight shoulder to shoulder to defend this future. All other divisions only weaken us.
If we fail to change our approach, if we don’t start thinking of Ukraine as a country where we have to create a world for ourselves and for our children — if we continue to think in small-town terms about our past merits — we won’t last long.
The current situation reminds me of something you might also recall, especially those of you who are older. The living rooms of our childhoods always featured cupboards full of dishes that no one used. They were served only when guests arrived. It was a symbol of sorts — one you could not touch. Every day we ate from our usual, old plates, and when I asked my grandmother about the dishes in the cupboard, she said that it was simply an accepted thing to have.
So let’s stop treating our country like a living room with cupboards. Let’s get functional furniture, let’s pull out those nice dishes, and let’s eat from them every day. We deserve it. Stop seeing our house as a place where we should dread throwing away unnecessary things, just because they remind us of something from the past. Our primary memory won’t get discarded: it is protected by our genetic code, by the instinct of self-preservation. But it is the future that matters today.
You will be far more effective in defending your children, or the things you built with your own hands, than anything you’ve inherited — and, in the worst case, inherited from your parents. Creations of our own: this is our highest happiness, which we hold dear and refuse to concede. This cement, this clay, these rules of the game, this constitution, this way of life — they are what unites us. Our national identity forms the bricks; they won’t go anywhere.