Petro Kendzor, long standing Ukrainian partner of Körber Foundation and founding member of EUSTORY, shared reflections from the first year of the war in Ukraine with his European colleagues at the EUSTORY Annual Meeting in Warsaw, 8-12 March 2023.
Petro Kendzor, Doctor of History, is co-founder and associate of the All-Ukrainian Association of Teachers of History, Civic Education and Social Studies “Nova Doba” in Lviv. For more than 20 years, he has been promoting the need to view history from multiple perspectives and a modern approach to history teaching in Ukraine. He is also the initiator of a Ukrainian history competition founded in 1997, which he has been organising in cooperation with DVV International since 2017.
The Ukrainian history competition as well as accompanying teacher training programmes continue even during the war. Since the outbreak of the war, Petro Kendzor and his team from NOVA DOBA have also developed additional educational programmes for Ukrainian internally displaced persons, especially for children and young people and their families.
This is a slightly shortened version of his speech held on 11 March 2023 in Warsaw at the EUSTORY Annual Conference 2023.
Warm greetings from Ukraine! I am happy that the EUSTORY Network is meeting again in Warsaw, ending a long period of remote collaboration due to Covid.
In my speech today, I would like to share with you some experiences and reflections on the war in Ukraine. I have grouped my thoughts together based on reflections about our three societies: The Ukrainian society, the Russian society, and the European community – yours, dear colleagues and friends.
1. Reflections about Ukrainian Society
Before the war, Ukraine was spiritually, politically, and religiously divided and heavily dependent on Russia, both economically and politically. In the meantime, however, Ukraine has turned from a terra incognita into a strudel, a threat to democratic values, to the future of Europe, perhaps even to the world.
Usually, the values of a person and of a society are formed slowly. Now, under the dramatic conditions of war, this process is accelerating. This is particularly relevant at a time when our children encounter war not on the pages of history books, but in their daily lives.
Therefore, in the current Ukrainian reality, teaching history should be based on the values that are most important in our situation. These are the same ones that are predominant in Ukrainian society today and without which the war cannot be won:
- Cooperation and Self-Organisation. Representatives of the different regions in the country, of different cultures, religions, or political convictions must unite to resist the enemy.
I remember an online seminar that I had attended a week before the war broke out. It was about coalition building in society and how to move from polyphony in society to an organisational structure. Each of us NGO representatives was represented by a small dot, and the task was to jointly develop clear forms for discussion and exchange. We worked hard for hours but did not manage to emerge from the chaos.
When the war started, I was involved from day one in setting up the large humanitarian logistics centre in the Lviv Exhibition Centre. Together with about 250 other volunteers, step by step and day by day, we created a perfect logistical system for providing people with their basic needs. I often looked out for well-known politicians or experienced activists from the NGO scene. Mostly, however, I saw ordinary people at work – people without any special training, but with great human and civic responsibility. These people also form the basis of the Ukrainian army right now.
- Very closely related to this situation is the next value: Ingenuity. The ability to find unusual solutions, especially in difficult situations when resources are lacking.
- Courage. Our society understands that in order to win, you have to stop being afraid. There is no alternative to that, and our whole society is an example of this.
- Humanity. In the current, extreme conditions, we and many of you, too, are taking in the families of displaced people, providing help, working as volunteers. Many internally displaced persons in Lviv, for example, come from Kharkiv, the large industrial city 38 kilometres away from the Russian border. The city has been politically and spiritually oriented towards Russia for a hundred years. That’s how it was before the war, but that’s not how it is now. Russian-speaking internally displaced people from Kharkiv usually did not choose to travel the 38 kilometres to Russia, but set out on a longer route for evacuation towards Western Ukraine or Western Europe.
- Humour and the Ability to Laugh at Yourself. Jokes are also a means to survive and to win. We have popular memes about Zelenskyj, we laugh at people collecting scrap metal from Russian tanks. But we respect them, we don’t laugh at them.
- Patriotism. Until recently, Ukrainian patriotism was rather ethnocentric, histrionic, and abstract. Now it is about acting and taking personal responsibility.
- I would like to highlight another social value that is particularly important in today’s Ukraine and which should be the result of civic education: Trust. Usually, we talk about trust as a moral and ethical category in the context of family, friends, but also in the context of educational institutions. But as the modern philosopher Francis Fukuyama stated: “Trust is a by-product of social capital. It is the ability of people to cooperate with each other. Trust is based on people sharing the same values. If people do not trust each other, such a political community and the state itself can collapse.”
If we transfer the meaning of this quote to the dimension of civic education, we can claim that democracy and trust are interdependent categories. On the one hand, democracy depends on trust between citizens and government. On the other hand, trust is only possible among free and responsible citizens.
Currently, under the conditions of war, we observe an increase in Ukrainians’ trust in state institutions. However, an extremely important factor for the strength of Ukrainian society is the great trust among citizens. Charity, solidarity, and fairness were evident when receiving and housing internally displaced persons and during collections of money and goods to support the armed forces or charitable purposes. Trust arises from responsible living, and vice versa, responsibility forms the basis for trust. This combination of two moral categories is the basis for the civil courage that sustains us.
This positive view perhaps only looks at the tip of the Ukrainian iceberg. Of course, there are a lot of problems. We are suffering great human losses, great physical and psychological injuries, but we will talk about that later. Right now, we have to stay strong, because otherwise we cannot survive.
2. Reflections About the Russian Society
We knew that the Putin regime wanted to attack us, but we were convinced that Russian people would never shoot at Ukrainians. But we were wrong. We do not forget it, and our children will not forget it, either.
We were sure that Russians would take to the streets to demonstrate and to support us. Now we see that the Russian people and Putin are one, that many Russians want to feel that they are still the very centre of an empire. They now have their own narrative about the past. But they have no vision of the future.
But this situation is not only the fault of Russian society. It is also the fault of those Ukrainians who used to look to Moscow on many levels, who sought approval and permission there or had their actions rubber-stamped in Russia. And it is also the fault of Western politicians, who closed their eyes to the human rights violations in Russia in order not to lose access to cheap gas or oil. Their money was used for tanks, missiles, and weapons in Russia.
Russia has big problems on many levels, but in the area of propaganda and manipulation, the country functions extraordinarily well. I don’t think anyone in the world is better at it than they are. Modern Russian propaganda is no longer just posters or political speeches. It is comprehensive, you can find it for example as cartoons for the little ones, as flash mobs for young people, or in the comments when everyday topics are discussed on social media.
Russian propaganda does not have it easy in Ukraine. Be aware that it is on its way to your countries. Please be prepared for it and to recognise it for what it is.
3. Reflections about Europe
First of all, I would like to thank you as representatives of all of the countries and societies that welcome our migrants, that support Ukraine militarily and materially, but above all that strive to distinguish truths from lies.
I do not want to comment on each country individually here, but I will mention the most important ones. Globally, of course, the United States is our most important supporter. Our biggest European sponsor is Germany now, but little Estonia provides the most aid if you put their contribution in relation to their gross national product.
And I have to mention one more country. Poland, like Russia, is our neighbour. Before the war, we struggled with Poland about our complicated common history, we also had differences in attitudes and positions, and there was mutual mistrust that was rooted in history. But, when our neighbour Russia attacked us with weapons, our neighbour Poland immediately opened its doors for us and, to this day, continues to help as much as it can. The strong moral support for Ukraine from Poland is also very important, which continues to this day. My special thanks therefore go to Poland, which is also hosting this year’s EUSTORY Annual Meeting, as well as to all of you in this room.
One day, books will be written about the current support for Ukraine, because those who help others also save themselves.
Values vs Interests?
I come to my conclusion. The difficulties and sufferings of World Wars I and II had led to a joining of forces of the world’s democratic countries, which have done much in recent decades to ensure that war does not happen again. This political cooperation was based on fundamental values of democracy like freedom, human rights and solidarity.
At the same time, we know that the definition of values often also depends on needs and interests. In the current situation, it is very important that our values dominate our interests. Because when interests start to dominate values, a situation can easily arise where we lose both!
I wish for myself and for us, that with regard to Ukraine, our values and interests may be in harmony.