Maksym Yakovlyev on Ukrainian History, Soviet Legacy and Historical Moment

Political Scientist Maksym Yakovlev of Kyiv-Mohyla Academy talks to host Bohdan Nahaylo on the new political season vs. Ukrainian history background.

Nahaylo: Well, I’m delighted to welcome you all back to Ukraine Calling again, after our summer break. And my guest this week is Maksym Yakovlev, the young political scientist, political methodologist, recently appointed Director of the School for Policy Analysis at the National University of Kyiv-Mohyla Academy, a very prestigious institution in this country. He’s also an associate professor in the Department of Politics there, so welcome Maksym.

Yakovlyev: Well thank you for inviting.

Nahaylo: Look Maksym, we find ourselves in these strange and turbulent times. Let’s try and use the historical GPS, September 2018, 100 years of Ukrainian independence, or rather, since the first attempt to establish a modern Ukrainian state was made, 27 years after the restoration of Ukrainian independence in another form after the Soviet period.  We’ve just had this week the beginning of the latest parliamentary session. But most importantly, we’re entering the sort of campaign phase, pre-presidential elections due in March of next year, and the parliamentary ones due in October of next year. So as a young political scientist, do you have a sense of a historical moment? Have we again reached a turning point? Or is a case of more of the same in these recent years?

Yakovlyev: To answer your question, it is always a problem to recognize that you are really experiencing and living up to a historical moment, ‘cause I think sometimes people realize that they actually lived and witnessed some historical developments only after they realize it and sit down and meditate and think for a while. That’s why it’s really difficult to tell that this is something of particular importance for an average Ukrainian citizen. Especially in Ukraine, where politics is never boring. We had so many Maidans, different uprisings of people actually this –

Nahaylo: And revolutions in our history.

Yakovlyev: Definitely; we’ve had a lot of revolutions, so Ukrainians are very apt at fighting for their rights and claiming their rights and establishing, well actually, overthrowing regimes; not only Ukrainian but on the whole Soviet scale.

Nahaylo: Polish, Russian, Austro-Hungarian.

Yakovlyev: Of course, once recently there was a talk show on Ukrainian 112 TV channel, and there was an interesting Ukrainian politician, whom we would refer to as the previous group of Party of Regions, Mykhaylo Dobkin, the MP from Kharkiv. And when answering the question what Ukraine really missed and what was the Ukrainian mistake, his first answering was really a surprise, he said the first mistake of Ukrainians was active cooperation and a very active contribution to the dissolution of the Soviet Union. So he really perceived that to be a problem. And he is a Ukrainian political person well known with his own position, but we definitely understand that he shares this view of Mr. Putin, that the dissolution of the Soviet Union, as he said, was a catastrophe.

Nahaylo: The greatest tragedy of modern time.

Yakovlyev: Exactly, so I would say that the majority of Ukrainians disagree with this statement. But answering your question and coming back to your question, I don’t think that many Ukrainians realize that this is a historical moment, but they experience it from another perspective, from an economic one. Because this year, especially this autumn, Ukrainian hryvnia, the national currency, since its exchange rates is something that has bothered many Ukrainians, and many Ukrainians are worried about their economic prosperity, and the future for Ukraine. And I do understand that as a political scientist we cannot substitute economic questions with political questions, but on the level of political theory we really dwell on any economic theory. And we really think deeply as well about any political theory – they are very, very interrelated. So that’s why I think this question is of high importance. The problem with one hundred years of reestablishing Ukrainian independence, and this is unlike the Baltic states who could really refer the history back then when Stalin and the Soviet Union called these countries limitrophe. So, the problem with Ukrainian independence, especially with Tabachnyk, Minister of Education during the Party of Regions rule, is that many Ukrainians could really not relate what happened. And after that another historical moment is the very big interview of [pro-Russian politician Victor] Medvedchuk, again 112 TV channel, where this movie about [late poet Vasyl] Stus and him being like, I don’t know what is the correct English word –

Nahaylo: Defense counsel, I suppose in American, yeah.

Yakovlyev: Something like that. For example, he said that people who evaluate the poems of Stus, being those anti-Soviet, those people are still active working for Ukrainian legal enforcement agencies, now writing reports and other writing stuff. So, this is again an interesting development. That’s why I think many Ukrainians unfortunately do not feel this heritage, because we had ups and downs in discussing the Ukrainian Peoples’ Republic. I’m really glad I was a Ukrainian translator for [James] Mace’s book on dilemmas in national liberation.

Nahaylo: I know it well, he was a good friend of mine. This about the 1920s, early ‘30s. I was with him when he was writing his doctoral dissertation in Harvard about that.

Yakovlyev: This is his doctoral dissertation.

Nahaylo: He had this funny accident I remember, he was like a Ukrainian Gomułka – that’s how we described him.

Yakovlyev: This is interesting. Unfortunately, I saw him back when I was a student so I could not experience him like personal contact. But working on Ukrainian translation of this book, and I’m glad that the International Renaissance Foundation supports the translation publication of this book, so it is published in Ukrainian. And for me it was really, even though I studied history, I know about Ukrainianization, I was really surprised how it was not only about the spelling in Ukrainian, you know the huge discussion still in orthography in Ukrainian writing –

Nahaylo: The letter ґ (g) and the letter г (h) as well.

Yakovlyev: Кафедра, катедра [varios spellings for cathedra in order to Ukrainize sound th] and other things, but also about economic theories, Volobuyevshchyna [Волобуєвщина, named after Mykhailo Volobuyev, a communist economist who claimed in 1928 that Moscow did not take into account peculiarities of the Ukrainian economy] –

Nahaylo: Volobuyevshchyna, national deviationists, yes.

Yakovlyev: How many of them were there? And unfortunately, many even young Ukrainians are really not aware of those developments. As I said because historically speaking this hundred years of this legacy is not something people had an opportunity to study in schools, discuss on broader scale.

Nahaylo: Well you see Maksym I think a lot of people, the majority I think, are not aware of what happened in the ‘20s, and what were branded as national deviations, whether in the arts or in literature with [writer Mykola Khvylyovy], whatever it was, economics with Volobuyev, etc. But look at the ‘60s, more recently, people aren’t aware that some of the шістдесятники [intellectual generation of 1960s], the people writing in Ukrainian on existential themes, were branded as deviationists. Let’s say, as people who refused to toe the party line. Not because they were nationalists but because they wanted to be free creative souls, but to express themselves in Ukrainian. And the apogee of all of that was the ousting of the first party secretary [Petro] Shelest in ‘72, on a charge of national deviationism. It’s as if history repeated itself. And somehow, though this is so recent, it’s not in the present consciousness of the Ukrainian people, the population. Even the younger people, maybe at school they‘re getting some of this impact. You know it’s as if somehow, independence fell to us from on earth because the Soviet Union collapsed, and we’ve been somehow zigzagging along. Yes, we are Ukraine, we’re different, but the price of that independence, the investment, ideological in terms of lives, in terms of struggle etc, it really doesn’t seem to have registered.

Yakovlyev: For a number of reasons, and I would mention because you mentioned national deviation and nationalism, I think there is a huge misunderstanding about this term from political theory perspective in science. And this is also true for the Russian legacy because the problem with the whole Russian empire, it really did not experience a period of national liberation in that respect, because it had народництво as such, and that was a really bad translation of the Polish version of [French] nationalité, it was translated as narodowość, and then the Russian theories and stuff like that. When I teach my students, and I do agree there are, like Micheal Freeden, who is one of the well-known scholars on political ideologists, in his book he does not recognize nationalism as a separate ideology, but I always say to my students that we can regard nationalism as the only victorious ideology. And what I mean by that is on the level of language, something that is difficult to register with the Ukrainian language is, for example, we also have the word нація, nation, but we use it differently, because the ‘wealth of nations’, for example, is difficult to translate because we’re talking about the state.

This is ‘derzhava’ as another term. But then there are organizations, like the United Nations Organization. We [Ukrainians] say Orhanizatsiiya Obiednanykh Natsii, it’s difficult for Ukrainians to image Orhanizatsiia Obiednanykh Derzhav, States, it means something different. And now we have visa free travel to the European Union countries, most of them, at least, but previously everyone experienced this problem in filling out any application form for any visa, where nationality means citizenship.

Nahaylo: But do you think, I’m sorry to interrupt you, maybe part of our problem is that we’ve always confused these incomplete processes of nation-state or nation building and, at the same time, state building? Creating out of an ethnographic mass a modern political nation? And, at the same time, building a viable, modern state? The two processes have been parallel. Sometimes they’ve overlapped. But they seem to be incomplete even now, a hundred years later.

Yakovlev: Exactly! I’m glad you underlined this aspect. Because for many in Ukraine, especially those who share this Russian vision of Ukraine, see this as not being a failed state but just as a part of Russia. Because even back in the Russian imperial times, I read a small piece which says that those who claim to be Ukrainian nationalists are all under Austro-Hungarian influence…

Nahaylo: Invention of an Austro-Hungarian coffee shop…

Yakovlev: Exactly!

Nahaylo: I think Rosa Luxembourg even said that.

Yakovlev: I love that. I would like to mention this book by [James] Mace about the ideas on the national question. And then the problem for many Ukrainians is that modern countries, the most successful countries, they have their own stage of nationalism, a very high peak of nationalism. But that really came along with developing and improving the state system. And when we move from the concept of nation as an imagined community, where we all share the same heritage and understanding as a political nation, not only blood and soil, as we would have in other nationalities theories, many Ukrainians would support Russian language in Ukraine, and this is a huge problem, [they] even claim that the Russian speaking population needs its right protected, stuff like that, they really have this misunderstanding that we now have both processes together. In Germany they have this very nice term Nachschulung-Bedacht [?] that there is ‘a need to catch up’ with developed nations. And we are going through this process. And that’s why, understanding that we have a legacy of 100 years of statehood, and other developments where, language is important. Understanding Soviet history is also important. What is called ‘national deviation.’ Many of those people, writers, did not claim to be nationalists in that respect, but felt they had the right to express themselves on different issues in their own language, and have the potential readership, people who will read your stuff, people who would be able to publish it, to discuss it. I remember times going to movies and having a movie dubbed into Ukrainian was something funny. Especially something like an action movie from Hollywood. Now it’s normal. But I can recall those times.

Nahaylo: Which is very important. Look at the flourishing of publishing since the ‘Revolution of Dignity.’ Many of the best international literary works are appearing in Ukrainian first.

Yakovlev: Yes, I recently submitted my Ukrainian translation of Fromm’s Escape From Freedom. There are already Russian translations, but I was commissioned to translate this book into Ukrainian, this is very important. And, also, for example, my translation of The Creative Class, by Richard Florida. Four of my translations have been presented at the Book Arsenal, so I’m glad there is a readership, people who buy books, support this flourishing of publishing into Ukrainian. This is really improving and changing the language, as well.

Nahaylo: Yes, we’re speaking about these qualitative improvements connected with modernization, and the building of the modern Ukrainian political nation. Let’s spend the last little while, since we don’t want to come across as being too theoretical and too philosophical, let’s look at the nitty-gritty. Parliament has just opened its session, and there are these opening broadsides in preparation for the presidential election campaign. What are the key issues of the day that you, as a young political scientist, see? What should we be watching in the coming months?

Yakovlev: I am thirty-five and the thing about myself which I think needs improvement is discipline. And our Verkhovna Rada, our parliament, also needs some discipline, in terms of being able to get together and pass laws. Or at least have decent hearings [debates]. Discipline is a huge problem. This session [of parliament] will change the electoral law…

Nahaylo: Is discipline [lack of] not simply a reflection of laziness or self-interest but of political will? If the political paymasters, oligarchs and others, don’t crack the whip and don’t have whips as in the British system, forcing their deputies to attend, then what can we expect? I mean, they’re used to just coming and going as they see fit.

Yakovlev: This idea came to me, maybe we should reduce the room, as in the classic British parliament, so that not all the people would fit into the room [chuckles]. Yes, political will is a term which is often used in Ukrainian politics and people don’t know what is happening, and political scientists are lazy to get into the as you say nitty-gritty. The problem of political will. But I do agree with you that the most disciplined faction is Liashko’s faction…

Nahaylo: The Radical Party

Yakovlev: The Radical Party. They go and hope that they will get paid, otherwise, maybe I’m making a joke, I wouldn’t like to offend them or anything but we see that they are more disciplined. They are using democracy, and this is something from Escape from Freedom, this will to be disciplined can come from within. Especially if you are in a position of responsibility. The problem with the Orange Revolution, people, the population had huge hopes for political developments. But not going into philosophical issues. Discipline in the Verkhovna Rada, many people await this. For example, changes to the electoral law. It would be a slap in the face if we elect deputies using the laws of the Yanukovych regime [previous president now fugitive]. That would be a huge surprise. Then the Central Elections Commission [TsVK]. We need to change the constellation and the huge political play between the president…

Nahaylo: We need to open up the system, in other words…

Yakovlev: Yes.

Nahaylo: Because it’s still a closed system, it’s still masquerading as a fully democratic one. But you and I and the population know the reality is different. We are committed to Europe, we are committed to a democratic future, and yet we are still retaining these residual elements from systems that we claim that we have overthrown or discarded.

Yakovlev: In my PhD dissertation, which I defended in 2010, I wrote about institutional isomorphism, where we changed the appearance of the structures, we have a façade democracy not one of content. This is one of the phenomena. There are certain fields where there is a lack of political will to change some institutions, because some actors, those who have the power and the money, are afraid that the system might collapse.

Nahaylo: Do you think we’re at the stage yet where new forces can, I don’t want to say emerge, because they’re probably around, but be allowed to make themselves felt, sufficiently? Is the system open enough? Or, shall we say, does the status quo demands, because of the oligarchical set up, that only trusted elements, those that serve the status quo, the present set up, will be allowed through?

Yakovlev: I had a discussion with a friend of ours, Mychailo Wynnyckyi, about how we understand oligarchs. Imagine, you and I are successful businessmen in Ukraine. The only way for us to protect our business from any misdeeds from law enforcement, from the state, from different structures like the taxation office, etc. is to have our own representatives in Verkhovna Rada [parliament]. Unfortunately, this is the case. This is changing step by step, but there is a huge Soviet legacy, of the Soviet bureaucracy, so the only way for you and I if we were businessmen, would be to have someone in Verkhovna Rada, a political force.

Nahaylo: That’s normal. That happens in Congress, in the British Parliament.

Yakovlev: Yes, but the problem is the degree of protection, how much I need someone to protect my interests, and how much I feel endangered. Because nobody in the United States or the United Kingdom would expect such raids by competing oligarchs, and such interests by actors who are not in the business sphere to take over your business, basically take it away from you. This is, unfortunately, still possible in Ukraine. So in order for those political forces that have already emerged, in order for them to get into parliament, or local councils, we really need to improve the state’s capacities.

This is only a partial text version of the interview. Please refer to the attached audio for the full version – https://hromadske.radio/en/podcasts/ukraine-calling/ukrainian-history-soviet-legacy-and-historical-moment-political-scientist-s-point-of-view