The Pitfalls of Forced Unity: Unmasking the Complexity in Russia-Ukraine Dialogues


An academic panel on the Russia-Ukraine war with a Russian and a Ukrainian scholar. An international peace prize given to a Russian and a Ukrainian activist. An anti-war exhibition featuring Ukrainian and Russian artists. Depending on where you are from, you might have a very different view of such events. Why is organizing them seen as a humanistic intervention by so many in the West? Why does this provoke indignation among Ukrainians?

ілюстрація до матеріалу пастки вимушеної єдності

As the Russia-Ukraine War drags on, we see more and more peacemaking efforts from various organizations. For some people in the West, the vision for bringing about peace and ending the conflict seems to be in the prospect of Ukrainians and Russians uniting against “the common enemy”, Putin. This idea has been explicitly voiced or implied by, for instance, the Catholic Church, and organizers of numerous political public events such as panels and exhibitions.

A prominent example of this idea in action was the 2022 Nobel Peace Prize, which placed Ukrainians, Russians, and Belarusians in the same category, implicitly labeling us as fighters against Putin’s regime. Honoring civil society globally is commendable, but context is important. Russian propaganda revolves around the idea of the “Triunite Russian People.” This is a centuries-old concept that aims to portray Russians, Ukrainians (“Little Russians”), and Belarusians (“White Russians”) as a unified nation, with Russia at the forefront. This narrative denies autonomy to Ukraine, deeming it an integral part of the “all-Russian” people. This is the same concept that justifies the war in Ukraine. Ukrainians, however, have long struggled against this narrative, seeking independence. The Nobel committee's grouping of Ukrainians, Belarusians, and Russians was short-sighted, and clearly showed a lack of understanding of the context.

The seemingly humanist idea of setting up the conditions and compelling Ukrainians and Russians, the oppressed and the oppressors, to unite, is flawed.

With the imperialist and chauvinist ideology being mainstream in Russia, and with thousands of Russians actively taking the lives of Ukrainians at this very moment, the call for unity is misplaced and tone-deaf. Russian political opposition, regrettably, also exhibits imperialist ideas. Without a thorough introspection, they may fail to recognize that the war is a manifestation of Russian imperialism, attributable not solely to Putin. Such conversation, however, is almost non-existent in Russian anti-Putin circles. In light of this, it is essential to acknowledge that dialogue between the offender and the victim is unattainable as long as the violence persists. The attempts to unify not only show a failure to grasp the historical intricacies; they undermine the very dialogue we all yearn for.

I believe this idea tries to fit reality into certain archetypes in a harmful way. Let me explain. The Ukrainian fight against Russian aggression seems almost too straightforward, even mundane: Yes, Ukrainians are fighting for their community’s existence and self-determination, but isn’t that the expectation? Wouldn't everyone do that? The image of a Ukrainian who opposes Russian aggression appears one-dimensional, in contrast to the complexity that surrounds a brave Russian anti-war intellectual. A Russian speaking out against Putin is akin to a multidimensional character, a Werner of “All the light we cannot see”, or a Paul of “All quiet on the Western Front.” The people in the West have learned to empathize with such characters from multiple cultural products. As a result, it seems to me that the Russian opposition’s struggle is perceived as a more interesting, complex, and heroic act compared to what Ukrainians are doing. Regrettably, the entire historical journey and the sacrifice of the Ukrainian people, marked by a repeated struggle for self-determination, sovereignty, and democracy, remains obscured in the shadow of the complex Russian anti-war heroism.

I believe this archetypal thinking is partly the reason why there is a desire in the West to seek out anti-war Russians in any contemporary event related to the invasion of Ukraine.

But what is the harm in this, one might ask?

If anything, this only reassures our common humanity and serves as a reminder not to essentialize Russians and prevent senseless Russophobia, right?

In a hypothetical panel discussion where an anti-war Russian and an anti-war Ukrainian are meant to converse on equal ground, in a safe environment, genuine safety is in fact elusive. Centuries of Russian cultural domination and subjugation of Ukrainians cannot make such dialogues occur from a position of equals. At a time when one group is literally exterminating and conquering the other one, there is a palpable aura of impending danger in any interaction between the representatives of the two. This dynamic inevitably influences the tone and direction of the dialogue. Due to the archetypical view of anti-war Russians as complex characters, this hypothetical panel sets the conditions for the Russian to be perceived as complex, interesting, and likely rational, and the Ukrainian, whose family is likely split between being displaced and fighting a war, as emotional and biased.

Let me share a concrete example of this issue in action. At the PEN World Voices Festival, Ukrainian writers, including active servicemen Artem Chapeye and Artem Chekh, agreed to participate on the condition that there would be no Russian writers present, a condition set by PEN-Ukraine. However, a last-minute revelation about the inclusion of Russian journalists sparked outrage among the Ukrainians. Despite attempts to resolve the issue, the focus shifted towards Russian-American journalist Masha Gessen’s perception of “discrimination.” Notably, Gessen's resignation as vice president of the PEN America board added to the controversy. Media attention skewed towards the Russian-American journalist’s narrative, sidelining the fact that the organizers had made a mistake. Meanwhile, Artem Chekh went to Bakhmut after the event, a war hotspot, which received minimal coverage. This underlines how for every Russian intellectual with the ability to travel, lecture, or perform in the West, there is a Ukrainian intellectual – literally, not figuratively – fighting in the trenches for self-determination and the sovereignty of their community.

There should be a space for dialogue between Russians and Ukrainians. Such dialogue, however, cannot be constructive and helpful to the victims of Russian aggression without understanding and accounting for the power dynamics. Russians and Ukrainians are not on equal footing in the discussions of war. This realization paves a way to enable dialogues with less harm: Being anti-war is not a sufficient stance to earn a platform; actively anti-imperialist stance and actions are. If such participants are hard to find, consider that not every event, exhibition, panel, or film needs the representatives of “both sides.”

In Olesya Ostrovska-Lyutа’s article, “The Dilemma of Russian Culture,” she astutely emphasizes the need for selective action, asserting that each unique situation warrants meticulous analysis and decision-making. I wholeheartedly concur with her viewpoint: at present, a blanket approach to all cases of “cooperation” is untenable, as no single formula can be universally applicable for every situation. Paramount to any collaborative effort in creating such a Ukrainian-Russian dialogue is the assurance for the Ukrainian side to feel safe, all while bearing in mind Russia’s imperialistic history. True dialogue can only flourish with the genuine consent and preparedness of the Ukrainian participants, rather than being coerced by external organizers. The initial step should involve seeking the perspectives of Ukrainian artists or event participants on the matter.

The effectiveness of any dialogue hinges on the collective sense of security for all involved parties. A constructive exchange between Russian and Ukrainian representatives amidst an ongoing conflict becomes improbable if the former persists in imperialistic behavior. For those aspiring to foster a genuinely constructive dialogue, the fundamental rule must be the willingness and opportunity for engagement on the part of the Ukrainians. Without this prerequisite, perhaps it is prudent to temporarily set aside aspirations for coerced dialogues and instead concentrate on addressing the substantial loss of Ukrainian lives in their resistance against foreign invaders. Discussing an equitable exchange of cultural ideas becomes challenging when one nation’s culture is causing the worst kinds of harm to another. If establishing a secure environment for Ukrainians proves to be unattainable, all efforts to enforce a cultural dialogue are premature and should be postponed until Ukraine achieves victory.