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Does Europe want Ukrainians as living partners or dead heroes?

The Ukrainian flag illuminates the EU Commission, European Council and European Parliament buildings in Brussels to mark the anniversary of the war on 23 February, 2023. Photograph: Anadolu Agency/Getty Images
The Ukrainian flag illuminates the EU Commission, European Council and European Parliament buildings in Brussels to mark the anniversary of the war on 23 February, 2023. Photograph: Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

Nine years ago, Maidan, the main square of my home city Kyiv, was filled with people carrying EU and Ukrainian flags. Maidan, or the Revolution of Dignity, was the last successful European democratic revolution. The protesters won. They – we – managed to overthrow a regime that was actively preparing Russia’s political annexation of Ukraine. Nine years ago, the human ocean of Maidan carried on its shoulders the coffins of activists who had been shot dead by police. The tragedy was immense but the space for mourning was limited: the annexation of Crimea began and we realised that the Kremlin had gone to war against Ukraine, against us.

We learned then that achieving the impossible might be romantically beautiful in songs or movies. It came at a price, however, a price that was too high from the very beginning. But that image of Maidan filled with European flags remained a point of reference and a symbol of the change we sought. Social togetherness and community, democratisation and responsible citizenship were our goals.

Yet now, these citizens, these people who waved European flags, are sinking into the ocean of a war of extermination.

Where are most Ukrainian flags now? They fly in the cemeteries of our cities and towns, where funerals take place non-stop.

Genocide is being perpetrated on my country as punishment for those Ukrainians who persisted in, and still insist on, their own political subjectivity. Flags on Ukrainian graves illustrate the Putinist idea of counter-revolution. Seen from the Kremlin, the desire for change must be crushed. Maidan should rest in war. Putin’s physical hatred of Ukraine is not just ethnic, it is political. What we witness is the physical extermination of life and time.

Since our military authorities keep silent about Ukrainian losses, avoiding these statistics of horror for strategic reasons, the cemetery with its newly planted woods of flags is where the body count becomes concrete, visible and speaks the truth of death.

The truth is that there is a country in Europe where the deaths of hundreds of people every day is considered bearable. The living – if they are not male and aged between 18 and 60, or living under Russian occupation – can freely cross its borders. They are accepted by other European states. Within Ukraine’s borders however death becomes more and more concentrated.

Even before Russia’s full-scale invasion, I often heard people refer to Ukraine as Europe’s back yard. Now it resembles a graveyard, the war itself a gravedigger – missiles and shells form huge pits, digging graves for Ukrainians themselves. This cemetery is planted with beautiful flowers – notions of unbreakability, courage and resilience, which should give hope, the promise of rebuilding and that life is possible after all the horror.

A few weeks ago, I crossed the border between Ukraine and the European Union. Today there are no fast connections to or from Ukraine. The long journey has its own logic: the mental transformation takes time. In order to move from peace to war or from war to peace, one has to travel through a process, out of accelerated time – where the countdown applies not to seconds, but to human lives – into a time where there is room for reflection and discussion (sometimes just the wasting of words) and, most importantly, where there is time for choice. This mental metamorphosis creates anxiety, fear, disrupts sleep and deprives you of the most basic confidence in the ground under your feet, even when this ground is no longer dug up by shells and grave shovels. The borderline is felt as a kind of mental disorder.

Perhaps the current Nato strategy of supporting Ukraine in doses can be viewed through the prism of the fatal political logic of the borderline. The repressed can wait. But for how long? For me, being inside the borderline means being haunted by a question: What would anti-war politics look like if the bloody slaughter was not taking place on the margins of Europe?

The truth of death is to see it without the embellishment of heroic rhetoric and admiration for dignity and courage. It is often said of Ukrainians, and they themselves say it, that they have lost their fear. Yes, giving up the fear of death can be the key to freedom. But does Europe attribute to us the virtues of courage and indomitability because our territory is frightening in its proximity? Does Ukraine strike fear by asserting its identity, which can’t be accepted into the inner self and so must be kept on the other side of the border?

Overcoming that border thus becomes a question of peace. To integrate Ukraine into Europe as soon as possible, to accept Ukraine, means to integrate the repressed. If the catastrophe of genocide and the nightmare of war became part of Europe’s experience, the desire to stop the dying might manifest very differently.

When my colleagues comment on Russia’s war against Ukraine, they talk about our history of Russian imperialism, Russification, about Stalinism and colonisation. For me, this war has a clear point of reference – the Maidan. Perhaps it is worth returning to this place to find the future. Our common future. The last European revolution, which has not – not yet – received its proper place in the history of Europe. Maidan was a signal from people on the margins of Europe that peace and justice, key goals of the European Union, require a complex, sensitive and inclusive construction. But was that signal noticed?

The idea of radical transformation seems to be in the air, but the political and strategic decision-making process in Europe is now influenced by fear. This fear will corrode and slowly suffocate the new impulses. Because the willingness to fight for Ukraine means challenging the death that Russia is so fatally in love with today.

I feel that in its collective imagination, Europe is on the threshold, ready to step into the future. It is rediscovering itself, rethinking the subjectivity of its eastern-European part and looking beyond its own protected borders. I believe in a European victory, a joint victory over contemporary Russian fascism, which to some extent also manifests in the growth of rightwing radical movements and sentiments throughout Europe.

Today European cities are full of Ukrainian flags. But what does their presence mean? Do these flags represent the revolutionary future or rather its commemoration? Is Ukraine supposed to be a dead hero or a living partner? It’s time to decide.

Kateryna Mishchenko is a Ukrainian author. This article is adapted from her closing address at Debates on Europe 2023. It is published in collaboration with Voxeurop.

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