How did we come to such cruelty, and does the West believe in the values it is preaching? A studio talks with a Chief military chaplain about the war

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Andrii Zelinskyi, a Chief military chaplain and Adviser to the Head of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, became a guest in the studio of «Tvoe Misto» media-hub. The author, publicist, and philosopher speaks about the dimensions of the ongoing Russian-Ukrainian war and why it marks not only the local conflict, but the contemporary state of humanity.
Photo: screenshot from the video

Photo: screenshot from the video

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Referring to Joe Biden’s speech in Poland, Father Andrii Zelinskyi agrees that the war in Ukraine will define the history of humanity for the next hundred years. Still, the key question of the events that started in Ukraine on February 24 is how the cruelty of such scale became possible at the beginning of the XXI century. The speaker says that the philosophy would not give certain answers about the causes of this situation, rather it sets additional questions to help us make appropriate conclusions.

The first question is how we have come to the violence we see during this war. For instance, there is a video on Youtube showing an unarmed Ukrainian man who stood in front of the tank calling it not to shoot, after which he was shot with a missile. 

«The term «tankman» appeared after the 1989 events of the Tiananmen square in Beijing when students came against the party’s military without fear, showing their dignity and strength to oppose the authoritarian regime. Now in Ukraine, we see how it received a new meaning.» – Andrii Zelinskyi says.

The same was when the Russians dropped a bomb on the Drama Theatre in Mariupol causing the death of 300 people, or when they shot peaceful people who stood in a queue for bread in Chernihiv. These cases illustrate that something went wrong before this time on the global scale, not just in this local conflict. 

«The question I would set is how it came to the situation that people at the beginning of XXI century are capable of this kind of violence, which Europeans have not experienced since the end of World War Two. Of course, you may say that there were other wars, wars in Yugoslavia, but this one is different because it’s completely senseless, totally absurd violence against millions of Ukrainians.»

The speaker emphasises that this absurdity makes the ongoing war much crueller than the previous ones that had some clear established goals. The purpose of «demilitarisation» and «denazification» is an illusion, and everybody understands that these words have no sense.

«Demilitarisation» would mean depriving us of any means of self-defence, as the war has been continuing in Ukraine since 2014. This would sound like «please die, and then it will be peace». Regarding «denazification», on March 27, I attended a conference in Jakarta, Indonesia, where we discussed the question of where we can find Nazis in Ukraine. The answer was that we can find them on our territory only in the Russian tanks.» – Andrii Zelinskyi explains.

The number two issue posed by this war is where we have failed as humanity. After World War Two, the newly established international institutions and agreements were designed to prevent this kind of violence. However, the speaker notes, now they don’t fulfil their mission, even the European Union with its 27 member states sometimes shows a lack of efficiency. 

«So, where did we fail? Maybe, we built it all on the wrong values? What did we miss, was it education, culture? The whole culture was created to prevent such violence and cruelty. But when we see what the Russian soldiers do, and the world continues to see Russia through Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, and Turgenev – it’s a wrong perception.»

He notes that one thing is to talk about these things here in the office, but it’s completely different if we go to the battlefield or the cities destroyed by Russians. Mariupol shows that the violence obtained its even worse sense.

The number three question is related to the previous ones: who is responsible?

According to Andrii Zelinskyi, the biggest, formal responsibility lies on the political authorities who make decisions that society is expected to follow. The responsibility also lies on the military commanders, like Mikhail Mizintsev who tries to «do his best» in destroying Mariupol, as he did earlier in Aleppo, Syria. Then, there are those most loyal and faithful Russian citizens, but still, common people also have their guilt in it.

«When the German chancellor Scholz announced that it’s only Putin who is guilty of these crimes, while the Russians are not, I’m asking myself: is it Putin who dropped the bomb on the drama theatre? Is it Putin who shot a missile at that man? No, it’s a human person.» – the speaker claims.

The chaplain cannot understand how the captured Russian pilots who have relatives in Ukraine dared to bomb our cities. Obviously, the Russian propaganda made its impact, he says. But if they are still human beings, then where is their freedom, their consciousness when they kill innocent people? The same with the soldier in a tank who shoots a missile at a man in front of him – there is no putin there, no mizintsev there. 

«Where did we miss these people? The XX century, liberal democracy. It’s a serious question, because otherwise, we only pretend and live in a society that is not real. We preach the values which we don’t believe in. We say politics but it doesn’t do the work it is supposed to do. Politics is an organised society, and it’s aimed to prevent people from such violence. 

So, who’s to blame? Of course, everybody is to blame. Not only those who shoot, but also 74% who support the military activities of Putin. I’m also saying that «putin» is eternal as long as there is that 74% because all of these are responsible, not only one person. Moreover, not only Russians are responsible. Russian gas, diminished support of NATO institutions in part of the EU member states – aren’t they responsible?» – the philosopher asks.

One more important question Andrii Zelinskyi sets is whether we can build a real democracy by sponsoring totalitarianism. Just a week before the war, some German officials claimed that the Nord stream is not a political question but a pure business. Now we see how naive it is to say that economy has nothing to do with politics, the speaker notes. 

«Come on, is not it hypocrisy? The problem is that we all understand that it is, but we still accept it, saying that something is a more social question, or relates only to the economy. Anyway, can we build democracy by investing in Russia, and doing like the European leaders who were fascinated with Putin because he was stronger than them? They tried to act according to some ethics, while he did not, which evoked this kind of fascination – this is also their responsibility for what we have now.» 

Sanctions are another important question, as we all saw how ineffective they were after 2014. The European countries tried to implement them to impact Russia, but in a way to leave their own interests unharmed, Father Andrii Zelinskyi says. 

«The Hungarian officials told that for Zelenskyi, Ukraine is the most important, but Hungary is important to them as well. Of course, it went about the Russian gas on which these countries were dependent. One of the biggest lessons we learned since World War Two is that we can win only if we are acting together. The question is when did we forget about it?»

Finally, the last issue the speaker sets is more philosophical: what is reality? Andrii Zelinskyi says that there are two different realities, and one of them is based on sociological data. 

«When you ask people in Ukraine who they consider themselves, do they want to go to Russia or be Russians – of course, most of them will answer «no». Here is Ukraine, it’s an empirical reality. And there is also a different reality, when Putin presents the «Russian world», a mental construct, as a standard in which he wants to fit Ukraine with the help of military means. He does not consider the sociological data, the reality which is prived by science but sees it through the prism of «Russian world», which he considers a community, united by the same values of the Russian speaking population of Russia, Belarus and Ukraine.»

The speaker says that Putin has been talking about it since 2007, accompanied by Patriarch Kirill, who said that Ukrainian folklore exists, but Ukraine does not. And last year, Putin even wrote his own «historical» article which was mandatory for reading to all Russian servicemen. In this concept, for Putin, Ukraine does not exist as a people, for him, it is only a part of a big sacred Russia transformed by the West. 

«Therefore, while imagining his mystical significance, he doesn’t even consider current events as a war – because there is no Ukraine, no Ukrainian people for him. But as I say, this war is the hardest argument against the «Russian world». First, Putin says about unity, based on values. Which values, who have defined them?»

There is another video on Youtube that Andrii Zelinskyi likes the best because it shows these parallels. In its first part, there are people in Russia who are trying to escape the police, and in the second part – unarmed Ukrainians in Kherson go with Ukrainian flags against the Russian military. 

«This is about two different sets of values, we are different. In the «Russian world», there is one main religious institution that’s been uniting it for centuries – it’s the Russian Orthodox Church. Now, since the beginning of this war, the Patriarch of Moscow said not a single word about the cruelty that kills thousands of his believers! In Mariupol, Kharkiv, Sumy, Chernihiv – most of these people belonged to the Russian Orthodox Church. Not a single word of empathy or sympathy from the Christian leader, from the leader that claims that all of these people belong to his church. There’s no unity based on religion. 15 of the 53 dioceses or eparchies of the Russian church in Ukraine refused to mention the name of the Patriarch of Moscow during the Liturgies.»

The Russian language is another popular claim of the Russians, as they say, that this whole culture consists of people who speak it. 

«Come on, let’s turn again to the sociological, empirical data. Over 60% of Ukrainian soldiers speak Russian, killing the Russian soldiers. Ukrainian mothers who lost their sons curse the occupiers in Russian. Language doesn’t unite. But for Putin, these are not the arguments, he does not consider the empirical, sociological data. He only sees this great, sacred Russia.» – Andrii Zelinskyi summarises. 

By Vitalii Holich

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Lviv Now is an English-language website for Lviv, Ukraine’s «tech-friendly cultural hub.» It is produced by Tvoe Misto («Your City») media-hub, which also hosts regular problem-solving public forums to benefit the city and its people.


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