As a child, he dreamed of becoming a projectionist, and among all the countries, Greece attracted him the most. He entered the University for a Bribe, and his student years were spent with rock music and alcohol. About life and principles of one of the country’s main historians, beliefs and historical memory, Ukraine and Ukrainian Maidan, the Crimea and Donbas ‒ the way Yaroslav Hrytsak himself sees it in the section “Who is…” from Opinion.
About childhood, adolescence, and student life
My father grew up as an orphan; he was forced to give up many things in his childhood. Perhaps, that’s why he tried to make me a little happier than himself. In particular, my father spared no expense to buy books for me.
As a child, I dreamed of Greece. I still cannot explain this to myself rationally, but from my very childhood, Greece has been associated with some very large, indescribable happiness. Probably, because in Greece the sky is even closer than in Ukrainian village…
Once in childhood, my uncle purchased a short-wave radio and it was the best literature, the best books of that time. I can say that the entire “GULAG Archipelago” of Solzhenitsyn I “read” on the waves of that radio.
You won’t believe me, but I wanted to be a projectionist. It was so interesting, even somehow mystical. It has been my dream since childhood.
When I was twelve years old, the book “Seven Wonders of the World” by Czech author Vojtech Zamarovský, dedicated to the history of the ancient world, came into my hands, very popular among my generation. It grabbed me so much that after reading it, I wanted to become an Egyptologist.
40 years ago, my father paid 500 rubles for me so that I could enter the history department of Lviv University. Not because I studied badly ‒ I had a gold medal, and went at lower rates (others paid much more) ‒ but because, as he was convinced, the entrance to the history department was as an entrance to the theater: you had to buy an “entrance ticket”.
When I arrived in Lviv, at first I hated this city. It was gray and dirty. For me, it was a symbol of civilizational collapse, with emphasis on the first word, because then I generally disliked all civilizations. The hostility quickly passed when I met Lviv citizens.
Of course, I studied well, but the dreams messed up. Student’s life begins. Parents are far away, there is no control, and… briefly, the culture of drinking is something that was better developed in the history department.
We drank a lot, so much that a day did not pass without an alcohol. It got to the point that we came drunk at lectures. There were even competitions, who, while being drunk, would give the best speech at the seminar.
They said about me that this student will drink himself into his grave. Parents began to notice unpleasant changes. And at some point I became indifferent to it, I realized that there was nothing interesting for me in drinking. It was fun, fun, fun, and then suddenly it became just stupid. I began to look for myself in something else, meaningful.
We were looking for prohibited books ‒ not because they were forbidden, but because we wanted something other than information we were “fed” at the university.
Rock music was almost everything to me. By the way, I’ve learned English thanks to it: it was important for me to understand the words of the songs.
I was probably the first in Lviv to have “The Wall” album. Then I lived in a dormitory with two young Greeks, who were communists, they went to the Christmas holidays at the end of 1979 and brought me this record from Greece.
About own principles and beliefs
I do not attribute myself to any ideological trend. As my intellectual guru Leszek Kolakowski spoke about himself, I am a conservative-liberal socialist.
I do not believe in the existence of a national idea. This is a fine formula that no one has ever derived; it’s like Yeti: everyone talks about it, but no one has seen it. There is no national idea: nations are formed not by an idea, but by everyday life.
I was one of those who introduced the word “values” in Ukrainian discourse, and now I suffer a lot because of this because the term “values” has become so vague and trivialized that I would even temporarily forbid its use.
Corruption is like a neglected disease. One operation or one medicine will not help here. For recovery, it needs emotional balance. And in the case of corruption, it cannot be achieved without a daily moral dissidence ‒ that is, to act differently from what is expected from you, to do what your own conscience dictates to you.
The concept of dignity ‒ even the revolution was named so ‒ it is more than apartments and cellphones.
If you, in a poor country, take responsibility for this country, you have no right ‒ neither you nor your wife ‒ to flaunt such things. It is necessary to have at least an elementary minimum of solidarity with those, who elected you and whom you represent.
We must be able to take care of our hearts because it is the same tool for our success as the brain. You should be interested, excited to do what you do. You should love your work. And extremes are not good.
To those, who consider me an idol, I can advise one thing: don’t create idols for yourself. The hardest task and the biggest challenge is to learn to live with your own mind.
About the history, historical memory and himself as a historian
I didn’t want to explore the history of Ukraine. I had exorbitantly large ambitions (laughs), and the history of Ukraine seemed too simple, not very interesting. Specialization in the history of Ukraine threatened to a limitation to the narrow scope of socio-economic history. None could ever dream about political and intellectual history or about inscribing Ukrainian history into a wider European context then.
As a historian, I lack academic school and it always would not be enough. We were born and spent our formative year in a country that was extremely isolated and liberated. Like most historians of my generation, I am self-taught, a kind of “intellectual pooch” among the “pedigreed dogs”.
I will always give way to those historians, who studied at first-class universities and from first-class professors. But there is an advantage to this: I am less constrained by the rules of the game of the academic world, and therefore I can more easily afford to violate them.
Every historian, even if the theme of his work is ancient heroes, writes ‒ in his own way ‒ about himself and about the times in which he or she lives.
My experience tells me that the greatest challenge for a historian is the ability to go, as far as possible, beyond the limits of one’s times and one’s own views.
History is a hostage to politics, and in politics, the one, who speaks louder and nicer wins.
There is no regularity in history; there are choices and free possibilities in history; the question is whether we choose the right and good opportunities. We lack an understanding of history.
Historical memory is like a strong substance. In some proportions, it can be a remedy, in others ‒ a poison. More often we are poisoned by historical memory rather than cured.
History and historical memory is not the same thing. History must be selective. It should demonstrate some points and hush up others. It should sound heroic. And precisely this heroic history should be taught in schools because you cannot bring up patriots on another one. And such education is an important task of the school because it is a state institution.
To understand the difference, let’s suppose that someone decided to reproduce the ocean world in an aquarium. So, the aquarium is history, and the ocean is the historical memory.
It is impossible to love the history of Ukraine. It is complicated. There are many defeats and traitors in it. However, if we want to succeed, we must know and take into account our history.
I used to put other countries as an example to Ukraine. After February 2014, I do the opposite. Now, towards Ukraine, I have a feeling similar to UCU (Ukrainian Catholic University, the place where Mr. Yaroslav lectures – translator’s note) – this is a very promising child. Today, Ukraine has a chance to make a civilization leap. This is what we lack.
Ukraine won’t be able to become a new Germany; we have a completely different history. But as for the development, it can definitely become a new Poland, for example.
Ukraine has a spine, one cannot break it. And what is most important: this spine is now not only in the west or in Kyiv, but also in the east, in Dnipro and in other major cities.
A civil society as it is, no matter how effective and fine it could be, cannot change the country.
The country is not made quickly. Here we need long-term players.
Ukraine needs radical reforms. Call it whatever you like: reboot, civilization leap, modernization ‒ the essence is the same.
First of all, Ukraine needs economic changes that will take the country out of poverty. But these changes are impossible without political changes. This is something like “chicken and egg”.
Ukrainian nation has taken its place. The best proof of this is the collapse of the “Russian spring”. It was a great threat, and Ukraine withstood it.
Let’s not despair. Now there is no question about the disappearance of Ukraine from the world map. Until now, no country that declared independence has disappeared from the map. The question is what Ukraine will be. Now it is like a big state, but weak. It is like rich, but poor. We have already tried several times to make a successful and strong state ‒ and we have never succeeded in this. We need to know why.
We shouldn’t underestimate everything that we have managed to do over these years. We came approached very close to the goal, our goals became crystal clear, and we are a new generation and an organized society. It would be bad, but even a sin to squander it all because of depression or nervousness.
About Ukrainians and the new generation
Ukrainians are one of the most educated nations in the world. That is, if we are talking about the coverage of Ukrainian secondary and higher education ‒ this is obvious. Another thing, if we turn to qualitative criteria, then this quantitative is leveled.
I like this generation. I believe that its appearance is the largest achievement of independence. It has its own ideological leaders ‒ Svyatoslav Vakarchuk and Serhii Zhadan.
If Ukrainians agree on this, then these are the heroes of Shevchenko, Lesya Ukrainka, Franko, Khmelnytsky and Cossacks, Hrushevsky, the Kyiv princes and for the last 10 years is the Holodomor. This is what unites. And we need the history that unites in times of reforms. Bandera is a hero, who separates us now.
Ukrainians know only two states of the disease ‒ bullshit or full shit. Bullsh*t will pass itself, and full sh*t is too late to treat. We will be ready to live long with corruption, paternalism, populism. It’s like a neglected disease: it’s not bullsh*t, but they don’t die from it. Our failure is worse.
About Maidan, the annexation of Crimea and the occupation of Donbas
Maidan won in February 2014 and won notwithstanding the little chance of winning and with the victims. Its victory was magnificent and dignified. But Maidan failed as a long-term goal because it did not lead to a radical change in the political rules of the game. The main, the key systems are not changed.
The absence of Crimea and Donbas, no matter how painful it is, has made Ukraine more homogeneous. This is a chance we have to take advantage of then Donbas and the Crimea will return to Ukraine.
In terms of politics, I don’t use faith, I use belief. I am convinced that Donbas and Crimea will return.
About Russia and the war
I belong to those historians, who believe that the difference between Ukraine and Russia is not in the language and not in the culture ‒ here we are quite close. The main difference lies in the different political traditions: it is almost impossible to have in Ukraine some version of Putin, Stalin, or Ivan the Terrible. In Ukraine, the option of a strong centralized government is impossible, because historically in Ukraine there was a fairly strong organized society. Therefore, Russian history is written from above ‒ as the history of the state, and Ukrainian ‒ from the bottom, as the history of society.
For the Ukrainian nation, Russia is the biggest test. Russia, through their leaders, more than once declared that Ukrainians and Russians are the same nation. Ukrainians think differently.
Ukraine is not following the path of Russia and Belarus, this is obvious to me. Another question is whether it will be a good democracy or a democracy simulator?
We have the war with Russia. The one that has better and longer-lasting resources wins the war. And our rival is stronger and has more resources ‒ human, natural, military, financial, and so on. To survive, we need to have access to bigger resources.
The war with Russia will last for a long time. This is a very long war because this is a civilization war! I think that Ukraine has won the first round ‒ it was the “Russian spring”. And at that time Putin was defeated completely.
In fact, this is one of the decisive wars. It will decide the course of further world history. And in this regard, you need to understand which battles are important, which are less important, and which are generally not significant.
Text by Dmytro Zhuravel
The publication was collected from numerous interviews, speeches, and appeals of the material’s protagonist.