The growing gap between Ukraine and Russia – and the people trying to bridge it

Ukraine and Russia are mired in a self-perpetuating conflict. Ukrainian and Russian activists recognise the problem, but will they be able to overcome it? RU

Yulia Abibok
21 February 2018


“Write a letter to Moscow” - an action in Kyiv, 2015. From left to right: Andrey Ignatchuk, an actor from Minsk; Varya Darevskaya, Natalia Bugreeva. Photo: Elena Podgornaya.

Of all the possible post-Soviet models of political behaviour that might be adopted in the face of separatist conflict, Ukraine appears to have opted for the least successful one of all – namely, the Azerbaijan-style strategy of blockading territories not under its control and limiting contacts with its neighbouring state. In these conditions, the actual everyday experiences of citizens of both countries are easily supplanted by propagandist bravado, and any attempt at diplomacy from below becomes risky. It feels as if the conflict is hooked up to a kind of perpetual motion machine, whereby it replicates itself on all possible levels, forcing even local governments to keep the flywheel of confrontation constantly spinning.

Without the opportunity to operate freely in their own country, some Russian nationals who have come out against the war in the Donbas have attempted to participate in Ukrainian civic life. The response they’ve met with, however, has been less than enthusiastic. Motivated as they are by the best of intentions, Russian activists grow disillusioned when they encounter a wall of antagonism across the border.

Today, no one’s awaiting any magnanimous gestures in Kyiv or Dnipro. The only thing people are waiting for is the day Russia leaves Ukraine alone – and they’re transferring all their grievances from those who are really to blame (specific politicians) to people within range (activists and volunteers). The resentment is quickly becoming mutual: Russian anti-war activists expect Ukrainians to oppose any continuation of the armed conflict in the Donbas, without realising that you can’t protest against a war fought in self-defence.

“Your fear is no better than our fear”

“I had a meeting with some local youngsters in Gorlovka [a town west of Donetsk, inside the separatist-controlled territories], and invited the people in attendance to write letters to Kyiv. They really brightened up: ‘To Kyiv?!’ For them this was like writing a letter to Mars.”

At a table in my Kyiv kitchen, Varya Darevskaya lays out stacks of handwritten letters, children’s drawings and postcards. Varya’s idea is to persuade the opposing sides in the Ukrainian-Russian conflict to “start talking”: hence the letters, and hence, too, Varya’s Facebook page, which she uses to urge the parties in question to exchange views on developments in Ukraine and Russia.

“When people enter into direct dialogue with one another – even if they end up quarrelling – I think it becomes harder to pull the trigger. After all, the injunction ‘Thou shalt not kill’ is deeply ingrained in us,” she tells me.


Letters and drawings as a way to start a conversation. Photo courtesy of the author.

According to Varya’s scheme, I can answer any of the letters she’s brought over from Russia and the territories in Ukraine’s east outside of state control. The letter mustn’t contain anything insulting or offensive. And yet several letters remain unclaimed – they were penned from people living in the Donbas to Ukrainian soldiers, but the latter are keen only on letters which praise them. Varya’s Donbas letters, however, are full of bitterness and exhaustion more than anything else.

Varya, too, is tired and disillusioned. She’s been doing this work at her own expense since 2014. In addition to her postal services, she delivers medical supplies for the Ukrainian military and collects humanitarian aid for civilians affected by the war.

Varya hasn’t found the response she was counting on in Ukraine. At first, she says, she was upset at not being invited to the west of the country – before realising that the Donbas interests only people with direct links to the region. As for the Donbas itself, militants operating in areas beyond Kyiv’s control have even threatened to kill Varya, and to punish any local residents with links to her.

“Many Russians went into complete shock on account of the war. They were ready to help, and did so,” Varya recalls. “They sent money over, found medical supplies, uniforms and much else besides. They looked into what was going on in our military units and went to fight for the Armed Forces of Ukraine. Hundreds of thousands of roubles have passed through my hands alone. As I was saving Lugansk’s grannies, I was sure that I was doing all this for Ukraine. And then they told us that, since we couldn’t stop the war, we could all do one – good guys or bad, it didn’t matter. And a great many people stopped helping.

“At first I found it very upsetting that Ukraine had such hatred for us. Yes, there’s Putin and there was Crimea. But we tried to take a stand against that. But now, believe it or not, it’s all the same to me how Ukrainians behave towards us, and towards me personally. This is why I haven’t got any ideas about reconciliation at the moment. That goes for both reconciliation between Ukraine and Russia and even between Ukraine and the Donbas.”

Ukrainian activists who’ve made attempts to initiate or respond to initiatives akin to that promoted by Varya encounter condemnation or even aggression from their compatriots – and pull the plug on their endeavours as a result.

“Your fear is no better than our fear,” she says.

A country of free people

“Some separatists have arrived and are staging a rally by the Eternal Flame. I’m instructing the legal department to draw up a suit to ensure that there won’t be any provocations on the eve of Independence Day.” This was the response given by Ruslan Martsinkiv, mayor of the west Ukrainian town of Ivano-Frankivsk, to a “shared kitchen” event staged in 2016 by activists who’d relocated from Luhansk together with their Russian colleagues.

Yaroslav Minkin, one of the rally’s organisers, says that its format was jointly developed by Ukrainian and Russian human rights activists involved in a project run by the Human Rights House NGO in Chernihiv, which is supported by the OSCE. The activists concluded that controversial issues ought to be discussed in public forums, giving anyone keen to speak out the opportunity to do so. The name “Shared Kitchen” – a nod to the fact that apartment kitchens were the primary forums of the Soviet era – hints not so much at the danger of talking openly, but rather an intimacy of sorts.


“Shared kitchen” event in Ivano-Frankivsk, 2016. Source: Facebook.

“We wanted to establish an open dialogue with people who’re sticking up for Ukraine on the territory of Russia,” says Minkin, who hails from Luhansk, lives in Ivano-Frankivsk and heads the STAN youth organisation. “It seemed obvious to us that patriotically inclined Ukrainians would support the desperate guys prepared to speak out for justice on the territory of the aggressor country. Instead, however, the reaction of the majority turned out to be a negative one. We began to receive threats from people with close links to the local authorities, and from radically inclined citizens as well.”

STAN was able to hold three more “shared kitchens”, after which the event was transformed into an “open dialogue”, conducted with the same participants, but now without any involvement from Russian nationals.

Another Ukrainian NGO, Country of Free People, also recently encountered attacks of this kind. “Friends, you must agree, this is out of all proportion – to bring in a psychologist specialising in work with military men from Moscow and Grozny to train up Ukrainian psychologists who work with Ukrainian soldiers. And this event will take place tomorrow or the day after tomorrow in Kyiv.” The head of another NGO wrote this on Facebook last November, attaching to his post a scan of his appeal to the Security Service of Ukraine. “Who are these ‘experts’? What motivated them to come to Ukraine and make speeches at the conference? Could it be that they’re cooperating with the intelligence services of the Russian Federation?” the NGO head asked in his appeal. On the day of the conference, a crowd of aggressive youths gathered in front of the hotel where it was taking place with the intention of disrupting the event. The organisers were forced to call security.

Nadiya Khomenko, who heads Country of Free People, maintains that Russian psychologists and trauma therapists are her favourite professional partners. This partnership was made possible thanks to projects run by the German-Russian Exchange, which is supported by the German Federal Foreign Office; prior to the outbreak of war, the parties in question knew nothing about each other.

“We’re dealing with an enemy that used the same modus operandi in Russia – methods grounded in deceit, wiliness, propaganda, intimidation. Their support is therefore important to us: they’re the senior, more experienced players, they’ve been through more than we have. On the other hand, they draw inspiration from our example. In their eyes, we represent a new generation of people fighting for our country,” says Nadezhda about her organisation’s Chechnya-based partners. She’s glad they can still hold meetings in Ukraine, even if doing so isn’t difficulty-free, since going to Russia is dangerous for patriotically minded Ukrainian activists and volunteers. The risk of ending up in a Russian prison remains significant.

Country of Free People do more than simply train Ukrainian psychologists for work with sufferers of post-traumatic disorders. CFP and their Russian colleagues also co-administer projects involving engagement with children and young people, as well as those aimed at countering domestic violence in the families of Ukrainian servicemen – projects that encompass areas of the Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts not currently under Kyiv’s control. They’re planning to hold a peace camp for children from Russia and Ukraine, including children from the self-proclaimed “republics”, during the summer.

“We realise that this won’t break the Putin regime,” Nadiya Khomenko admits. “We haven’t invented some kind of magic machine that’s going to solve all our problems. We don’t convene simply to bandy about slogans like ‘We are brothers’ and ‘Peace, friendship, chewing gum’. The boundaries remain demarcated: there’s black and there’s white, there’s annexation and there’s military aggression. But when politicians are incapable of reaching any consensus, human relations must endure nevertheless. When you’re overwhelmed by hatred, thinking straight becomes impossible. Cooperating with our friends from the North Caucasus – for me, this is a pill against hate.”

The failure of intervention

The idea of participating in peace-making projects, however, provokes nothing but scepticism in many other Ukrainian activists. For certain people in Ukraine, peace-making has, to put it bluntly, become a lucrative area of ​​activity: Western donors don’t stint when it comes to financing any such initiatives, although in practice participants in these kind of initiatives are sometimes unwilling to hold even the most rudimentary of dialogues with the opposite side, understanding the notion of “peace” only in terms of that side’s surrender.

Like CFP, the humanitarian organisation Vostok-SOS was established at the peak of the conflict in 2014 to provide assistance to civilians in the Donbas. Initially, Vostok-SOS also played a part in the peace-making project run by the German-Russian Exchange. But the organisation quickly left the project, considering any efforts at mediation with Russian participation – regarded here solely as attempts to “reconcile Ukrainians with Ukrainians” – as out-and-out hypocrisy.

“They’re looking where it’s light, and not where everything is lost,” asserts Vostok-SOS co-founder Konstantin Reutsky, referring to the organisers of these kind of peace-making projects.

Reutsky doesn’t doubt that it is imperative to reconcile the warring sides – but only after the cessation of hostilities. As long as the war in the Donbas continues to smoulder, he says, representatives of Russian civil society can assist their Ukrainian counterparts only by working to expedite regime change in Russia itself.

Ilya Ponomarev, a former deputy of the Russian State Duma, is in partial agreement with this stance. He was far from a household name in Ukraine until early 2014, when he became the only Duma deputy to vote against the annexation of the Crimea. Residing in Kyivv since his forced departure from Russia, Ponomarev acknowledges the fragmentation of Russian civil society. Differing attitudes to the “Ukrainian question” and differing tactics of behaviour under conditions of regime pressure, says Ponomarev, have divided Russian civil society into two factions, one exclusively civic and one exclusively political, with the former becoming more moderate and the latter more radical. In his opinion, Ukraine has many opportunities to influence the situation within Russia by supporting separate camps in these factions. Unfortunately, he notes, Kyiv is letting these opportunities slip by.

“It’s completely possible to turn them [Russian civil society] into allies simply by adopting a decent attitude towards them, by holding regular joint events and facilitating media cooperation,” the former deputy says with conviction. “However, the dominant stance here is this: ‘It’d be great if Russians just stayed out of our way.’ No one wants to work with a potentially toxic asset. This is a mistake, in my opinion – we have to work with them.”

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Ilya Ponomarev. Photo: Wiki Commons.

Russian NGOs, Ponomarev notes, are more robust and more dependable than numerous others across the post-Soviet space, including many Ukrainian ones, relying as they do on internal resources rather than the support of foreign donors. At the same time, he believes that civic life in the Russian regions is more active and diverse than the capital, and that the Ukrainians could certainly look for suitable partners there.

“I’m generally a supporter of an interventionist approach to foreign policy,” says Ponomarev. “In other words, if I need something from someone – whether from my friends or my enemies – I’m going to engage with them in an active fashion and not just sit there and wait for things to happen of their own accord.”

Konstantin Reutsky, for his part, notes that Ukrainian and Russian human rights activists cooperate effectively on international platforms and under the aegis of structures such as the UN and the OSCE. In particular, they make joint monitoring visits to the conflict zone before reporting to the international community on conflict-related challenges facing civilians in the Donbas, thereby influencing public opinion abroad. According to Reutsky, however, there’s a lack of similar efforts on the part of Russian nationals to influence public opinion in Russia itself.

“We offered a number of Russian colleagues the opportunity to work together in an attempt to change the situation inside Russia, because we believe that doing so is crucial if the conflict in the east of Ukraine is to be resolved,” says Konstantin. “We for our part have always expressed our willingness to play a part in such efforts, relaying intelligence and making trips to Russia, despite full awareness of the risks involved. Unfortunately, we can see that our Russian colleagues shrink from work of this sort. They don’t say that it’s bad or unnecessary, but they do talk about the associated risks and opt for neutral tactics – tactics we believe to be completely ineffective and perhaps even harmful.”

Russian activists themselves, however, can’t help but recall the fate of Boris Nemtsov, the fate of the people behind the various “federalisation marches”, the fate, too, of teacher Alexander Byvshev, on trial in Russia for penning a poem in support of Ukraine. Worse still, they think back to the murder of Duma deputy Denis Voronenkov in Kyiv, to the attempt on the lives of Adam Osmayev and Amina Akuyeva – Russians who travelled to Ukraine to fight on the Ukrainians’ side only to be abandoned to their fate by Kyiv and denied any legal status or documentation, with the threat of court proceedings and extradition to Russia frequently hanging over them. No public initiatives will in and of themselves tackle the conflict without the broad involvement of the Ukrainian state and society. Ukraine, after all, has never boasted its own instruments of soft power, whether in Russia or anywhere else.

As the victims of military aggression, Ukrainians believe that the Russians are in their debt and must repay that debt unconditionally. The burden of the debt, however, falls not on those who unleashed the war or supported it, but on those who attempted, by one means or another, to take a stand against it.

As for the future, it’s likely that mutual grievances and misunderstandings will accumulate; internal pressure will be exerted on activists in both countries; and the public sphere will be corrupted by investments from donors for the sake of simulating any kind of activity, whereby funding and encouragement is given to people willing to make the right moves and say the right words, and not those who possess real social clout and are capable of making a real impact.

Ukrainians have long since decided not to mention their partners and colleagues from Russia and the Donbas territories outside of Kyiv’s control, acutely aware of the dangers facing them both in Russia and Ukraine. This has been driven home to them by the most active and aggressive strata of Russian and Ukrainian societies – and by certain individuals in power – that they’re less than pleased with these contacts and interactions. And without publicity, these joint ventures won’t change anything.

Here, the most natural thing that’s likely to happen is mutual isolation à la Azerbaijan or Armenia. Diplomacy from below remains the only means to counter the hatred poisoning these feuding countries, not least because government-level negotiations have dragged fruitlessly on for decades. And vice versa: when people stop talking, it becomes easier for them to kill each other.

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