Vladyslav Starodubtsev: Most Ukrainians want the war to end when all occupied territories are freed [video]

One year after Russia invaded Ukraine, Vladyslav Starodubtsev joins Cross-Border Talks from Kyiv to tell what is the situation of the civilian population in the country. We discuss everyday life in the Ukrainian capital and in the territories closer to the frontline, questions of internal migration, healthcare and housing. Vladyslav, who is an activist of Social Movement (Sotsialny Rukh) socialist group, comments also on the situation of the Ukrainian workers and on neoliberal policies and plans of Zelensky’s administration. We also ask about Ukrainians’ hopes and feelings: as Vladyslav says, people are adapting to the conditions that come, but still they believe Ukraine will win this war.

The full transcription of the video and audio is available below.

Małgorzata Kulbaczewska-Figat: Welcome to another episode of Cross-border Talks, international relations seen from a humanist and social perspective. We are recording this video ten days before the painful anniversary of Russian aggression against Ukraine. This war has already cost thousands of lives and enormous destruction of civilian infrastructure. We still don’t know what Ukraine will look like after the war. How big will the cost of reconstruction of the country be? How big will be the impact on Ukrainians’ lives? After the year of warfare, we cannot even see the end of this imperialist war. 

This video would not be devoted to strategic military issues, as we believe there are better sources for this field of analysis. We are going to talk about the civilian population suffering. We are going to discuss how people’s lives were touched by Putin’s invasion. How did this invasion destroy the lives of people who had their dreams, their jobs, their lives, many of them now shattered forever. 

I will be the sole host of this episode. I am connecting with Vladislav Starodubtsev, who is now in Kiev and who is a historian and a member of the socialist Ukrainian organization called Social Movement (Sotsialny Rukh) in Ukrainian. Vladislav, it’s very nice to have you on the show. Hello.

Vladyslav Starodubtsev: Yeah, thank you for inviting me.

Before we ask the first question, I would like to encourage everybody to subscribe to Cross-Border talks. We are available on different platforms in both sound-only and video and sound versions. So please subscribe not to miss any episode. 

Vladyslav, as we are  connecting with the Ukrainian capital, could you tell us what life in Kyiv looks like right now? How big is the scope of destruction of civilian infrastructure? Do you see that war is going on when walking the streets, or do people try to live normally, despite everything?

I would say the situation in Kyiv is a lot better than was projected before. In October, people were thinking that winter would be a horrible challenge because of the attacks on the energy infrastructure and all the possible destruction. We feared that people would be without any heating and energy for a very long period. But it seems even most optimistic projections weren’t actually true and the situation was a lot better than we could have predicted because of new energy systems and support from the European Union, including generators and so on. Because of this, the energy situation in most of the cities that are not near the frontline stabilized. Today [13 February] is the first day where there are no blackouts in Kyiv at all. It’s a big thing that the energy grid is stabilized and Russian terror attacks that were dealing with destruction of energy infrastructure failed. Ukrainian officials and Ukrainian workers who were heroically working over time and under rocket strikes. They did something  nearly impossible. The crisis  in winter, which could have led to thousands of people ending up in cold conditions that can lead to death or traumas, was avoided. It is a very important thing and a very good development. 

Apart from this, I would say that in cities that are not near the front line,normal life is restored. We have cafes, shops, we have different clubs working, we have restaurants, we have everything that a normal town would have… with the rocket strikes and constant anti air rockets flying and so on. It’s mostly normalized and people keep doing their usual routine. War is not felt so much in Kyiv now. Not so much as for example, in March or April, when we watched destruction every day. Now it’s a lot more stable. 

A ruined building in Kyiv, March 2022.

Of course, you can still see all of the destroyed buildings in cities that are far from the frontline. The authorities try to cover destruction or repair buildings pretty fast, but in locations nearer to the front line it’s impossible. There, the situation is a lot worse with energy, with basic supply provision. There, there is no ‘normal life’. However, far from the front line, everything is kind of normal. 

There’s, of course, a lot of problems with internally displaced people. There is not enough housing in Ukraine, and housing prices are also skyrocketing. And all this happens simultaneously with a huge cost of living crisis, huge inflation of 25% and horrible situation with wages and unemployment, with wages practically dropping two times without consideration for inflation.If we count real wages, including inflation, it’s even lower, lower than two times. Before the war we had, I think, one of the poorest economies in the European Union and the lowest wages in Europe. In this sense, the situation is absolutely horrible.

I think we can return to the questions of labor market and labor rights in a moment. However, first I wanted to ask more about the situation of the displaced people and also those who fled Ukraine, who are now seeking shelter in other countries. Do you have some data of how many Ukrainians fled from the country and what is the scale of the internal displacement from the war zone? And why is it so and how popular is this, too, for the Ukrainians that have emigrated in the first phase of the war to come back to the country? Some people, some women who went to Poland in the first weeks after the war started are now trying to get back to Ukraine.

Yes, a lot of people who fled between February and March [2022], now come back. There were a few waves of people coming back to Ukraine, especially people who have jobs here. A  lot of people are coming back, but also a lot of people are staying. For now, there are around 5 million Ukrainian refugees in Europe and an unrecorded amount of refugees in Russia. As far as they are concerned, we don’t have any independent statistics. We also don’t know how many of them are refugees and how many were forcibly relocated. 

Around 5 million people are now registered as refugees in one of the European countries, receiving social help. It’s created a lot of problems here because of situations like a lot of businesses and just usual things. For example, schools cannot work properly. Some businesses collapse because they don’t have enough people to employ. And in the European Union, of course, there are also problems with a lot of bureaucracy, with understanding language. Most of Ukrainians don’t even know English, not to mention German, French or other languages that are needed for comfortable life in Europe and adaptation to European conditions. Apart from this language barrier, we know a lot of cases of bullying of people who came from Ukraine, especially from pro-Russian people in these countries. There was also a lot of stress put on the people, especially when they don’t know a language and thus they could not adapt in these countries. 

Of course, the situation of Ukrainian refugees is a lot better than the situation of refugees of any other nationality. There’s clearly racism and structural inequalities. We  know what happens in the refugee camps. We know the situation with Belarus on the border of Poland and of Lithuania, we know that people are being held in conditions that are similar to concentration camps, with people just being jailed. With Ukrainians, nothing like this happens, but of course, there are a lot of prejudices, a lot of problems with integration. The European governments and people who are involved in helping the Ukrainians cannot or do not want to do it for a long time. This creates a lot of problems.

What do we know about the situation of the civilian population in the territories that are still occupied by Russia?

Well, we don’t know much. There are reports from liberated territories of mass killings, of mass repressions. Of course, all political organizations, all trade union groups, all civilian organizations or LGBTQ organizations are brutally repressed. Everyone who can have a civil position is either killed or detained or put under another kind of pressure. I would say this is terrorism. 

Ukrainian forces and Ukrainian human rights activists in the liberated territories still find new mass graves of people, mostly civilians, who were killed. There are lots of news of continuous rapes of Ukrainians, of gendered violence committed by Russian forces. There are also problems with  housing,  food supplies, and humanitarian help. Russian forces don’t allow most of Ukrainian humanitarian help to go to the occupied territories. The situation there is a lot worse than on the front lines, at the territories that are under Ukrainian control. It also creates this horrible humanitarian crisis, especially for the people in cities that were completely destroyed or nearly completely destroyed like Mariupol. People are still living there, without housing, without any good heating, without electricity, water, basic food provisions. And they’re practically surviving on the very thin line of poverty and without basic provisions of basic resources needed for human survival. So the situation is pretty much horrible, a lot worse than on the territories controlled by Ukraine. But we don’t have enough information for producing some clear statistics about what’s going on in the occupied territories.

So let us go back to the territories that are under Ukrainian control. And I would like to ask about the Ukrainian government’s reaction to social problems that you mentioned earlier:, inflation, the falling wages and also housing issues. We know that Ukraine was not really a friendly country towards the working majority before the war. It had many issues and social problems. Does the government care about citizens now?

Well, yes, but in a very neoliberal way. Most of their programs are more like temporary solutions that are just designed to at least hold the system for a short period of time. It’s not like an adequate social funding scheme, but some temporary help is provided for refugees. Some temporary housing is provided. These solutions are unsustainable in the long term. But they are done because it’s the easiest way to do them without introducing any progressive reforms like relying on debt and on credits. The housing options offered are something that doesn’t need a lot of financing, a lot of effort. It needs to be sustainable to help people to survive.

They’re trying to continue with their neoliberal policies. And because of this, they’re very limited and pushing social policies that are needed. In Ukraine, in fact, we don’t have any social housing. We have something like 4000 rooms, and it’s absolutely not enough with more than 7 million internally displaced people. And the situation becomes worse with a lot of bombings being conducted. 

The government practically doesn’t proactively work on the problem of the housing market, they don’t react on the topic of social help, and it creates a lot of problems. Tasks that the government did not do are like gaps  filled by social activists or help from the United Nations or different organizations.For instance, these groups are working on evacuation of people or organizing some houses and some food redistribution. It mostly revolves around people organizing and not government programs. Of course, it is a lot less effective than if the government was doing social stuff and some activists could focus on more narrow issues. But now because of this absurdly awful neoliberal government mismanagement, people are engaged in the work that should be done by the government.

When you say neoliberalism, we immediately think about privatization.This is also what the government announced a couple of months ago. What happened next?

Some of the strategic infrastructure is privatized. Some of them are actually nationalized. It all depends more on actually pragmatic thinking in terms of privatization. 

The most horrible stuff is not going in the privatization field, but on the social issues and financing. Privatization is nearly a secondary thing to finance all the tax cuts and all of the social cuts that the government is doing. Government is practically pursuing policies of lower taxation in time where there is absolutely a huge need for some macroeconomic help or some big budget. They’re just filling the gaps by privatizing everything that cannot be profitable and by privatizing the structures that they cannot sustain.

With all the bombings of the energetic system, the government doesn’t have money and they’re refusing to raise taxes on the rich people to sustain their industries. So they’re forced to privatize them because don’t they they don’t know other ways around these issues. They don’t don’t want to go into more orthodox, socially oriented, high tax policies that are usually applied in times of war. But the scale of privatization is not big. I would say that mostly it’s about cutting corners with this infrastructure that they cannot sustain either way.

Another issue that was discussed last year concerning the neoliberal orientation of the Ukrainian government was the question of the labour market and the laws introduced under the war that hit the trade unions and deprived the workers of smaller enterprises of some of their rights. Did this loss have a direct impact on the labour market? Were the workers really hurt under the work conditions?

One thing that is important to understand about Ukraine is that most of the workers don’t work officially.  They work in some shady legal environments without business registering them as workers and trying to find straight illegal ways not to pay for taxation that they need to pay for the workers and not to provide good social guarantees, or at least some social guarantees for the workers. A big part of the labor market of Ukraine is simply unregulated. But the market that is regulated now is just also a horrible place. After these attacks on workers’ rights, it became a lot harder to defend workers rights. There’s a lot less possibilities to do this. In the past,  we were going to courts and winning cases and workers were compensated a lot. Now there is less possibility to do this and a lot of companies are trying to exploit their workers, to exploit the situation. However, many of them are still doing this illegally and there is still a possibility to win legal cases. 

I think most of the effects of the new labour legislation will fall upon people who are newly employed or who will be employed after the war. For them it will be harsher. But now practically the situation is already absolutely awful in the unregulated part of the market, in the regulated part new contracts are worse than before, but there are still people who are working with old contracts and for them not much has changed for the moment.

Could we have a look at yet another social issue, that is, on the language issue in Ukraine? A lot of Ukrainians, from what we can see on social media, have abandoned the usage of Russian language in everyday life, which was still quite widespread in Ukraine before the war. But what is the real scope of this phenomenon? Do people in Kyiv, for instance, or in other cities in the south and the east of Ukraine really stop speaking Russian and switch to Ukrainian in everyday use?

The language issue is very, very complicated. For some, it’s more about identity and people changing to Ukrainian to show their national consciousness. They’re patriotic Ukrainians, feeling they are making  a civilizational choice between authoritarian Russian state and more democratic, free Ukraine and of the identification with their nationality. But also it creates a lot of really toxic behavior and toxic environments. There is also a rising amount of hate for the Russian-speaking communities or for giving space to Russian speaking people. It hasn’t produced physical violence, it is not a structural discrimination, rather, a more emotional one.  But there are less places for Russian speaking people and they can feel less comfortable. It is an issue, for example, for people who are moving from south or east as internally displaced people. Some people decide not to move, but stay because they’re feeling that they will face some discrimination on the language issue.

But I would say that this discrimination isn’t very hard. Social media is not really representative. If you speak in Russian in a public place – it is still OK. A lot of people still speak in Russian and it’s not like it’s completely prohibited. However, some really awful proposals were made, for example, for banning Russian language in one of the universities. A lot of emotions and hate are rising because of the war, and the language issue is a very strongly tied issue with identity in Ukraine and the questions of Russian-Ukrainian relations. It is very hot and controversial.

Okay. I think you already gave us the picture of what is happening in the language sphere. I wanted to switch back a bit to everyday life. What can you tell us about health care in Ukraine now in the war conditions?

Before the war, there was an important reform of the health care system that tried to make health care profitable, or at least self-financing. Of course, it just was a pretext for major cuts to health care and major commercialization of health care. When the war started, the healthcare system was radically underfinanced, collapsing and with cuts to wages and to personnel. Because of this, the efficiency of health care was a lot weaker than before. 

But when the war started, there was just an unimaginable amount of heroism by the workers who were not leaving their working place, sleeping here and there and giving  all of their energy to survive in these conditions and do their duties. We still have a radically underfinanced health care sector with still going cuts to the personnel and with people taking more responsibilities, more tasks on work, more working hours and more pressure, which creates a more pressuring and more stressful environment in the work with practically continuous wage cuts. The work creates a lot of pressure on the healthcare system and especially in frontline areas, and especially when the hospitals are bombed or destroyed. The government tries to introduce some temporary measures too, but the general tendency still looks  very bad. But it also has this regional aspect: healthcare workers near the front line have a situation ten times worse than those in Kyiv. In Kyiv, what we see is similar to the state of things before the war. 

I know this might be a difficult question, just like the one on language, but I will try to ask it anyway. What can you tell us about the general feelings of the population? Do people in Ukraine believe in victory? Do people in Kyiv,with whom you had direct contact, feel that the war may be ended in some foreseeable perspective, or do they expect a long, perhaps frozen conflict? Do they brace for living under world conditions for a longer time? Or perhaps people are thinking about migration?

I would say that most of the people wouldn’t answer this question because it’s just a hard question to answer. They don’t plan for a long time, because it’s very hard to plan in these conditions. They don’t know what will happen and they are usually not very keen on making any predictions about the future because of the situation. You really cannot predict what will happen in the near future. Most of the people just say that they will try to adapt to whatever happens. 

There were opinion polls about what people think about possible compromises. Very clearly, most of the Ukrainians are determined to fight for the victory, for the liberation of all occupied territories or even for demilitarization of the border with Russia. A recent study on this topic was released in December, questions asked in November. Most of the people asked said that they wanted this war to continue until the liberation of Crimea and Donbass, and they claimed they would  fight for as long as needed for this. 54% of people who were asked were in favor of liberating all occupied territories. And 22% of people are a lot more radical. They feel that this war can be stopped for some time with the liberation of all occupied territories, but then it would  start again as it was the case with the war in Chechnya. They feel that if Russian imperialism is not halted, if Russia still has Putin as a leader and still maintains a functioning army, that the war will continue even after our territory is freed.

These 22% believe that we should fight for the end of the war with deoccupation of all the territories, but also until a demilitarization of Russia or changing of the government of Russia, or something like this. Only 16% are thinking of possible compromises they could accept for this war to end. I think 8% said that they were okay with giving territories of Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics to Russia. 9% were okay with giving Crimea to Russia. Conclusion? The absolute majority wants to fight for the liberation of all of the Ukrainian territories. It’s a mainstream opinion and it is what you will hear while speaking to the people in the street. 

Of course, people who stayed near the front line, who were under constant pressure from the bombs and bombings, are more keen on some negotiations. But even among them, a majority of people stand for a complete victory. A lot of people who actually were displaced don’t want to accept any compromises until their home region, their homes will be liberated. They just don’t want to accept any compromises or peace deals with this territory being ceded. There is also this dynamic that a lot of internally displaced people are really now without any proper home with their homelands being occupied and are really militant on this issue. 

I think it’s important that still, after one year of war, a lot of the population is, I wouldn’t say optimistic, but very determined to win this war. Ukrainians are still ready to fight and have very big tolerance for all of the possible hardships that are connected with the war. 

At the beginning of the war, I had the opportunity to interview your comrade, Taras Bilous, also a member of Social Movement, who told me that after the war, Ukraine would not be the same oligarchical state it used to be because people felt what solidarity was. People gave their effort in defense of the country and felt how important was the effort of every Ukrainian, in particular in the first stages of this war. As he suggested, people would never allow the government to rule them as it was before. Do you agree with this statement?

I think there certainly was and is this revolutionary feeling of people handling their stuff themselves and doing everything by organizing, solidarity, cooperation. I think there is also a quote of Fanon about the people in wars and national liberation wars, the developing feeling of commonality and understanding that they are running this country and not the bosses, not the government, but them – by doing their work. They see that people make this country work and not oligarchs, not the wealthiest, not the elite. I think this feeling is present and it will be present when the war ends. 

But also, I think there’s a lack of political subject to make this radical change be more institutionalized after the war. I think the influence of civil society will rise and all of these organizations that are organized in cooperation and self-help will still exist. But I don’t think that there will be very radical and major political changes in the structure of Ukraine, because there’s no political party or political organization that can formulate these demands and practically make them be implemented. But of course there are revolutionary feelings of people that are understanding that there could be other ways of governance. I think this experience, if not immediately after the war, but l maybe later, we’ll be very important for changing this country from a neoliberal oligarchic state to a more progressive and more cooperative country.

I think that to close this conversation, we can only wish the Ukrainian people, first of all,  peace. Secondly, a just peace without secessions of territory that was occupied by the invaders. Thirdly, exactly what you said in the end: changing this country from a neoliberal state, which does not really care about most of its citizens into a country which is progressive, which ensures basic social guarantees and much more. We stand in solidarity with Ukraine and Ukrainians. We encourage everybody listening to Cross-border Talks to support Ukraine in the ways that are possible to him/her/them. Thank you very much for being with us in this talk, for explaining how life in Ukraine looks like under the war. And once again, solidarity with you all.

Thank you for the support.

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