What Ukrainian society was like before the war, and the transformation it has gone through - an interview with Vitaly Portnikov

5 December 2022, 12:30 PM
Quarters of Irpen, which were destroyed by the Russians during the offensive on Kyiv (Photo:REUTERS/Valentyn Ogirenko)

Quarters of Irpen, which were destroyed by the Russians during the offensive on Kyiv (Photo:REUTERS/Valentyn Ogirenko)

Author: Oleksiy Tarasov

Journalist Vitaly Portnikov discusses how the full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine has changed society in the country and has actually transformed the part of the population that was always distinguished by loyalty and piety to Moscow, in an interview with Radio NV published on Dec. 2.

NV: Can we say that the source or root of our current problems is the fact that back then, in the 1990s, the Ukrainian elites did not see themselves as separate, and tried to maintain business and ideological ties with the Russian elites as much as possible?

Portnikov: I don't understand why you keep talking about the elites. Why don't you talk about the people? Why don't you talk about a society that was completely unprepared to understand what independence is? The elites were just a few steps ahead of this completely Soviet, marginal society. Of course, I am not going to blame the society here, everything Ukrainian had been exterminated over the course of decades, and these so-called elites, whom you are talking about, participated in this, who then decided that sovereignty was more important to them than preserving the alliance with Russia.

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However, society did not really imagine what real independence was. I remember very well on August 24, 1991, the discussions in the People's Council, in the democratic faction of the parliament, about whether a referendum on independence should be held at all. There were MPs – and there were many of them – who believed that a referendum would simply put an end to the Act of Independence, that the majority of Ukrainians would vote against the Act of Independence in order not to break their ties with the "beloved Russian people."

By the way, this is exactly what the President of the Russian Federation, Boris Yeltsin, believed – he who did not even prepare for this referendum until the final weeks before, until his meeting with presidential advisor Galina Starovoytova, who told him what the real results could be, instead of those that Yeltsin invented for himself.

The truth is that Ukrainian party leaders – who were already headed by Leonid Kravchuk at that time, on August 24, because the "concrete" cadres among the communists had left the political scene after the defeat of the putsch – a certain part of the Ukrainian National Democrats better understood the psychology of the Ukrainian people. He had a readiness to perceive independence primarily as an economic victory, as a victory for well-being.

I remember well the campaign before the referendum. The main focus of the then-leadership of the country, led by the future president Leonid Kravchuk, was not on history, but on the economy. The protagonist of this campaign, if you will, was a woman.  I remember this interview very well – she said: well, if there is only one child in the family, then she is better off than when she was one of fifteen. Such simple peasant wisdom, but the Ukrainian authorities emphasized this wisdom and got their way.

NV: If we talk about business interests, when did the moment come when the Ukrainian elites, or so-called elites, realized that they were not really of the same orientation as the Russians?

Portnikov: The question is not when they realized that they are not of the same orientation as the Russians, as I am not at all sure that they have realized it. I'm not sure they understand that now. I think that this is not a problem of the Ukrainian super-rich, but of the Russians themselves, who do not want these Ukrainian oligarchs or any other representatives of the so-called Ukrainian elites to enrich themselves on primordial Russian land, which is another story.

But I again point you to the mood of Ukrainian society. Set these oligarchs aside for a moment. The first years of Ukrainian independence were years, I would say, of choosing to understand what independence is. But in 1994, Ukrainians made a clear ideological choice, no longer the same as in 1991, when most of them considered Vyacheslav Chornovol a nationalist – and nationalists, of course, could not lead such a beautiful country as Ukraine.

And in 1994, after three years of independence, there was a simple choice between sovereignty and a return to special ties with Moscow. The majority of Ukrainians, at least half of Ukrainians, that's for sure, chose to return. Leonid Kuchma acted as a person who was supported by the Russian leadership, Russian television, who was supposed to bring Russia back to the status of an empire, and Ukraine back into the fold of this restored empire, together with Belarus.

It was no coincidence that Leonid Kuchma won the elections on the same day when Alexander Lukashenko's victory was announced in Minsk. It was the first successful operation of the Russian FSB – the elections in Belarus. In Ukraine, it was more difficult, for in Ukraine, Kuchma enjoyed the support not so much of the Soviet Chekists, but of the Soviet landlords and Boris Yeltsin's team.

And when you ask, when did they realize that they were not on the same path with Russia, they realized in 1994 that they could get rich together with Russia, but not as they wanted in Moscow, under Russia. And Russia really could not endure this symbiosis for long.

NV: That is, we can claim that now, looking in retrospect, that even though they talk about Yeltsin's regime as liberal – even democratic –  we can say that even then no one in the Kremlin saw Ukraine as an independent, separate country from the Russian Federation?

Portnikov: I think that when the Belovezh Agreements were signed in 1991, for Mr. Yeltsin it was a step towards the future creation of a Union State with its capital in Moscow. And for Mr. Kuchma, it was a step towards a peaceful divorce from Russia. Both presidents interpreted the same agreements in completely different ways. I remember all these moods very well. Moreover, it became absolutely obvious to me already after Kravchuk ceased to be the president, when the so-called multi-speed integration of Russia and Belarus was already taking place at the CIS summit in Chisinau.

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And other presidents, President of Ukraine Leonid Kuchma, President of Kazakhstan Nursultan Nazarbayev, President of Uzbekistan Islam Karimov, and President of Moldova Petro Luchynsky, arranged a real scandal for Boris Yeltsin: why the hell does Belarus get Russian resources at one price, and the rest of them at another? Why does Russia create preferences for Belarus just because Lukashenko makes some speeches about brotherhood and unity, despite being no different from other post-Soviet presidents in terms of their mechanisms of relations with Russia? What is that about?

Yeltsin, stunned by this joint position from his counterparts, jumped out into the street. I was just right next to him outside the palace where the meetings were being held; he had turned red – red with anger. He turned to me and said: "Can you imagine, Vitaly, can you imagine? Who do they think they are, you saw them! They are yelling at me, who the hell are these people, what kind of people are these?!"

He saw himself as the general secretary of the Central Committee, as a tsar, and saw them as secretaries of the communist parties of the republics, do you understand? In his head, they were not at all leaders of states – he did not see them that way. Another thing is that he obviously would not start throwing tanks at Kyiv or Tashkent, although who knows how the situation could have changed, it could have been different. In the end, it was under Yeltsin that tanks entered Grozny.

NV: If we talk about tanks in Kyiv or Tashkent, we saw them actually under Putin. First there were gas wars. This greater cruelty on the part of the Russian regime that we have seen towards Ukraine – what do you attribute it to? To 2004, when it seemed that now Ukraine could completely move away from Russian influence?

Portnikov: I attribute it, if you like, to Ukraine's failure to fulfill one of Moscow's conditions, which is again in the minds of the Russians. I don't even think that they communicate this condition to anyone, or broadcast it, but it can usually be formulated absolutely clearly. They expect that sooner or later, all former Soviet republics will undoubtedly become part of Russia. There is no need to hurry with this, because we need to rebuild our own state (so they said in the 1990s), and we need to rebuild our integration structures (so they said in the 2000s).

It is necessary to bring our puppets to power in all these countries, as they already said in the 2010s. But there is one clear condition: none of the former Soviet republics, with the possible exception of the Baltic states, can be part of integration entities in which other members of these entities have an obligation to protect these states’ sovereignty. . And if any of these states make real efforts to join an integration entity with such obligations, the statehood of this "quasi-state" should be liquidated, specifically by force.

Simply put, everything really did not start in 2004, in 2004 they simply believed that it was necessary to corrupt the Ukrainian government at the expense of energy equipment and ensure the possibility of a revanche by pro-Russian forces. It all started when we got close to signing the association agreement.

Russian Presidential Advisor Sergei Glazyev explained to Vladimir Putin that the signing of this agreement by Ukraine, Armenia, Moldova, and Georgia was the first step towards EU membership, which can impose quite serious obligations on EU countries at the moment when the statehood of the ex-republics is eliminated and they are able to become "part of Russia" again.

Putin reacted to these remarks by Glazyev and representatives of the Russian special services quite quickly. He could not influence Moldova and Georgia, but he met with the President of Armenia Serzh Sargsyan and forced him to refuse to let Armenia sign an  association agreement. And he met several times secretly with the President of Ukraine, Viktor Yanukovych. Yanukovych explained to Putin that he could not completely abandon the agreement, but after serious threats against him, he agreed to postpone the signing of the agreement indefinitely.

This suited Vladimir Putin, but at that moment an uprising began in Kyiv. The victory of this uprising meant to the Russian leadership that there was a possibility of Ukraine signing an association agreement – especially the departure of Yanukovych, who for Putin was the guarantor of not signing this document.

At this moment, the decision was finally made that the statehood of Ukraine should first be brought to the level of a disabled state with part of its territories occupied, and later, in the following years, eliminated, with the territory of Ukraine should be fully annexed to the Russian Federation. And so it will be with every Soviet republic that is ready to sign documents that will oblige other states to protect them from possible Russian military intervention.

NV: Referring to the fact that you said that in Russia there was this conviction that any post-Soviet country would sooner or later become part of this Russian Federation, the fact that our Ukrainian society tolerated pro-Russian politicians and the Ukrainian elites themselves were calm about that among them were Russian citizens. Bohuslayev, the head of the SBU...

Portnikov: Lebedev, Minister of Defense. And now the prime minister, the prime minister.

NV: Does this mean that these elites and the society of Ukraine also agreed with this thesis that sooner or later we will "be with Russia"?

Portnikov: No, they are simply fools. They thought that they would be allowed to exist like this all the time, in the role of a state that loves Russia very much, but is not part of Russia. It's like Lukashenko – he still thinks that Belarus will exist like this forever. It's just a mismatch of opportunities. I keep saying that Ukrainians have three identities, and this also applies to your elites.

One is a classic Ukrainian identity, when we consider ourselves Ukrainians as Poles consider themselves Poles or Hungarians as Hungarians, French as French. There is an identity of people who believe that Ukraine is Russia, just ordinary Russia, and Ukraine is "Little Russia," just like Russian regions are called. And there is a third identity, I would say that the majority of our country adhered to it. I don't know how many now, maybe polling will show someday, after the war.

These are people who believed that they were Soviet-type Ukrainians, Ukrainians friendly to Russians, fraternal nations. Well, we created our state, you created yours. We are close states, you will sell us cheap gas, and we will speak the "Russian language.” "What's the difference?" Oh, the exact characteristic of this elite is "what's the difference?"

And since this was a widespread mentality, these people who adhered to it, and of course, most of them were in million-person cities, in Kharkiv, Odesa, a large number of such people were in Dnipro, a large number in Donetsk. For example, in Dnipro they lived next door to those who had a Ukrainian identity, in Donetsk - to those who had a Russian identity. Of course, the Russian bombs that fell on Kharkiv, Odesa, and Mariupol – Russian atrocities are now finishing this mentality.

That is, we have been showing the holders of this mentality the whole time: you will not succeed, you will not be able to live with them in this regime, you can either be under them or against them. They will destroy you, they will kill you, the chance is exactly zero. They always thought we were crazy. Now they have gotten in their heads everything they should have gotten in terms  of historical justice and underestimation of the danger.

I really hope that these tens of millions of people will become real Ukrainians as a result of this terrible blow inflicted by Vladimir Putin and Russia, not only on their mentality, but on their homes, cities, their children, and their wives. They are being killed deliberately, just as we are being killed, as, by the way, are those who consider themselves Russians.

NV: Do you agree that the things that Putin planned for Ukraine, in particular with the help of this large-scale invasion, will turn us into a failed state, and that right now we can see signs of this [specifically] in Russia?

Portnikov: To be honest, I don't see any gang formations, I believe that the private military company Wagner is just a part of the Russian FSB which carries out missions that the FSB or the GRU do not want to even think about. So here, gang formations are still very far away, and I think that Prigozhin is an absolutely ordinary, classic FSB officer.

Regarding the uncertainty of the borders, of course, this is a consequence of underestimating the situation, which was connected with the fact that Putin sincerely believed that the Ukrainians would agree to his intervention, to the occupation of their country. He did not understand that the bearers of this "what's the difference?" mentality do not want their country to be part of Russia at all. They are ready to live next to Russia, but not in Russia.

And that was a serious underestimation of the situation, yes. But I do not yet see signs that Russia is turning into a failed state. Moreover, I see signs that Russia is moving in the same paradigm in which it has been moving throughout its history, thanks to which it is indeed Russia, and not Moscow. It moves along the path of territorial acquisitions and occupation of foreign lands.

The whole of Russia looks like it does, and of course, in this occupation of foreign lands (they simply forgot the history of the Russian Empire) there have been territories both gained and lost. [But] Russia has been forced to give up many territories throughout its history.

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