By Andrei Kurkov

30 June 2015 - 00:01

'Young Ukrainians do not differ  from the majority of their peers in Eastern Europe or the European Union.' Photo (c) Ira Matviiuk / British Council Ukraine
'Young Ukrainians do not differ from the majority of their peers in Eastern Europe or the European Union.' Photo ©

Ira Matviiuk / British Council Ukraine

Young Ukrainians are optimistic about their future, hold values similar to those of their peers in the UK and are looking outward, according to a British Council report published today. Ukrainian author Andrei Kurkov comments on the findings.

What's the most unexpected finding of the survey?

The most unexpected fact in this research is the high number of young Ukrainians who know what they want to achieve, although they are, to my knowledge, not prepared to fight for it. This was maybe the only real discovery for me. In all the rest – above all, in their moral and social values – young Ukrainians do not differ  from the majority of their peers in Eastern Europe or the European Union, according to the research. Almost all respondents said, for example, that it's OK to hold different views from the majority (93 per cent) and even express those views through protest and demonstrations (80 per cent), which is perhaps a sign of a liberal attitude and not very surprising.

How are we to understand that young Ukrainians apparently want a strong leader?

A large number of respondents (66 per cent) believe that the country needs a strong leader. This is not a mere reaction to the weakness and corruption in Ukrainian politics. The reason for this is rooted in historical preferences, not only in Eastern Ukraine but also in the West.

Many citizens of Eastern Ukraine are supporters of a 'strong hand' or a strong leader, romanticising the Soviet past and looking to Russia and President Putin. But for a certain part of the population in Western Ukraine, there is a historical example of a strong leader too, namely Stepan Bandera, the leader of the Ukrainian nationalist and independence movement in the 1920s-1940s. Svoboda (Freedom) Party, which declared itself the heir of his ideology, won the elections in three regions of Western Ukraine in 2012 – Lviv, Ternopil and Ivano-Frankivsk – but has since lost its popularity there because of its own corruption and incompetence. Now the portrait of Stepan Bandera is proudly carried about by the far-right nationalist party Right Sector, which initiated an armed conflict with the police and 'Berkut', Ukraine's special police force, during the events on Maidan.

Despite this, in the last parliamentary elections, which took place in October 2014, neither Svoboda nor the Right Sector managed to get into parliament. Nor was this possible for the Communist Party of Ukraine, who parade portraits of Lenin and Stalin. One can conclude from this that the number of people who really want to see a strong and authoritative leader as Ukraine's head of state is declining. Young Ukrainians may be declaring their preferences for a strong leader, but they are neither prepared to vote for such a leader nor to take part in any political actions or parties that support such an idea.

Why are so many young Ukrainians - at 45 per cent - thinking of emigrating? 

Young Ukrainians are ambitious, soberly assessing their strengths and abilities. There's a history of finding and carving paths for other Ukrainians to follow. For example, more than a hundred years ago, the mass emigration of Ukrainians to Canada began, following encouraging reports from two Ukrainian farmers who had landed in Montreal. In the same way, Ukrainians established entries for fellow guest workers to Spain and Italy, where the jobs are handed down from returning Ukrainians to their outbound friends, acquaintances or other countrymen. The influence of these 'trailblazers' cannot be underestimated.

By the same principle, Ukrainian students paved the way for fellow Ukrainians to Polish universities, especially in the provinces. They now account for more than half of Poland's 46,101 international students. The rumour that's circulating among Ukrainians is that there is a constant shortage of students at Polish universities because a large number of Polish students go to study in Germany and it is therefore easy for Ukrainians to take up those places in Poland. One could attribute the large number of Ukrainian students in Poland to our countries and languages being close to each other. In truth, however, it is hard to say what the main reason is. The British Council survey found that only about a quarter of respondents actually want to study in Poland, against 43 per cent who want to study in the UK, although only a little more than 1,000 Ukrainians are in fact enrolled at UK universities.

Are differences in political views between East and West due to the conflict?

I would say it is the other way around. The difference in political opinions between respondents in the East and the West of the country is not the result of the military conflict in Donbass, but rather the cause of the conflict and the reason for the continuing mutual mistrust. Citizens of Luhansk and Donetsk regions, and partly of the Kharkiv region too, who live on or near the border with Russia, have been closer to Russian culture and politics during all the years of Ukraine's independence from the Soviet Union. That is why, in these regions, the number of people who consider themselves Ukrainian patriots or active participants in the Ukrainian political and social processes is only very small.

Is it a division along linguistic lines, then?

Many articles about Ukraine show this current conflict as one between the Russian-speaking and Ukrainian-speaking population, or as a conflict between ethnic Russians and ethnic Ukrainians. In reality – and the British Council report says this – language is not the cause of the conflict. Russian is spoken not only in the Crimea or in Donbass. Russian is also widely spoken by the majority of people in the capital of Ukraine, Kyiv, as well as by most people in Odessa, Dnipropetrovsk, Zaporizhzhya and other big cities in central, northern and southern Ukraine.

More than 60 per cent of newspapers and 80 per cent of magazines are available in Russian, and in Ukrainian book stores, up to 90 per cent of the books are in Russian. This is despite the fact that the only official language is Ukrainian. The Russian language in Ukraine has never been forbidden. That would be impossible to do. Among the participants of the conflict on the separatists’ side, you will find up to 50 per cent of ethnic Ukrainians. However, most of these ethnic Ukrainians are Russian-speaking and support a union with Russia.

What we see, then, is a conflict between two mentalities: an individualist, pro-European mentality, which is the norm for most people in Ukraine, and a collective, 'Soviet', pro-Russian mentality of the majority of residents in Donbass and the Crimea. The main problem of Ukraine is that the boundary between these two mentalities does not coincide with the borders between the Russian Federation and Ukraine.

The British Council report Hopes, fears and dreams: the views of Ukraine's next generation is based on a survey of 1,200 16- to 35-year-olds across Ukraine.

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