For anyone who visited Kiev – I was there at the end of January – in the weeks preceding Vladimir Putin’s coup de force, the prospect of seeing the weapons speak is a heartbreaker and an appalling waste. For two reasons. Firstly, the youth I met in the cafés of Kreschatyk Street, the main and monumental thoroughfare of the Ukrainian capital, is fundamentally pro-European. In the region, they look more to Vilnius in Lithuania, an EU member state where many young Ukrainians study, than to Moscow.
At 20, Galina and Itsvan, with whom I shared a sparkling cranberry kvass – the national drink – only envisage living in a democratic environment, where freedom of the press flourishes along with freedom of movement of ideas and people. But this closeness to the youth of Paris, Berlin or Rome is at the same time shattered by the situation in Ukraine.
The Russian decision to send tanks into the separatist regions of the East, now recognised as “sovereign” by the Kremlin, comes after eight years of conflict in the Donbass. The so-called vigilant observers in Europe had completely forgotten until the last two months that this real war had left 13,000 dead. Combined with the annexation of Crimea, the conflict in Donbass, which turned into an invasion of all Ukrainian territory, has completely perverted Kiev’s political reflexes. It is a logical response to Putin’s perversion, of course, who has been proclaiming the non-existence of Ukraine ever more loudly.
Terrible words that he repeated, quoting Lenin and Stalin, for an hour and a half in his televised address on 22 February. Naturally, the reaction over the years has been to fall into the Russian trap. Ukrainian nationalism has flared up. And nationalism here is haunted by ghosts. We are in the land of blood, as the American historian Timothy Snyder rightly called it, tracing the dark saga of these lands caught between Hitler and Stalin. Ukraine is a hotbed of the Holocaust: one and a half million Jews were exterminated. Among the Ukrainian leaders who lent a hand to the Nazi murderers was a certain Stepan Bandera, head of the Organisation of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN), which rallied to Hitler in 1941 in the hope of obtaining an independent Ukrainian state. Eighty years later, it is important to know that in Ukraine any historical figure who claimed independence is mythologised, regardless of his crimes. This is the case for Symon Petliura, leader of a short-lived Ukrainian republic in 1917, whose reign was marked by a multitude of pogroms. Petliura has his own streets and statues. As for Stepan Bandera, a torchlight march organised by the Right Sector party and other currents of the nationalist right was held in his honour in the centre of Kiev at the beginning of January, on his birthday. He too has a statue in Lviv, the most European city in Ukraine. And Bandera remains a fixture in many Ukrainian hearts. An awkward silence breaks out in the discussion when his crimes are recalled. “He was arrested by Hitler,” is the response. But he was released two years later in the hope that Bandera and his men would slow down the advance of the Red Army.
The Soviets! At these words, tragedies collide. The memory of the “Holodomor”, the extermination by starvation decided by Stalin in 1932 and 1933 to liquidate the Ukrainian peasantry, remains a memory in the present with its five million victims. This funeral procession continues to occupy the identity. President Volodymyr Zelensky, elected by a large majority in 2019, has never made a secret of his Jewish origins. Public opinion demanded that he tackle corruption and keep the war at bay. “We hoped that he would prepare the autonomy of Donbass”, explains the historian Pierre Lorrain, author of an enlightening book, “Ukraine between two destinies” (Bartillat). “But Zelensky was overwhelmed by the pressures of the ultra-nationalists and the oligarchs”.
The ghosts of the past never left the Ukrainian scene. Their shadows were reflected in the eye of Vladimir Putin, to the delight of the Russian autocrat who, in turn, never ceases to go back in time. This once red and black has taken my young friends Galina, Itsvan and their entire generation hostage. I read their messages while no French plane lands in Kiev. A three-hour flight. A heartbreak.