Oleksandra Matviychuk, Nobel Peace Prize Laureate
We cannot postpone justice and democratic transformation of state until after the war
01.01.2023 09:13

The watershed year 2022, in addition to trials and losses, brought us many important things. The realization that the independent Ukrainian state is a value. The Ukrainian Army is an army of heroes. The Ukrainian people are the selfless brave. The whole civilized world was fascinated by the greatness of the spirit of the Ukrainian people. “Now, when you come abroad and say: 'I am Ukrainian’, this means something,” says Oleksandra Matviychuk, a Ukrainian human rights activist, laureate of the Vasyl Stus and Democracy Defender prizes, the Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought, the Head of the Center for Civil Liberties, who received the Nobel Peace Prize in 2022. We spoke to her in Ukrinform about these global changes and challenges that have appeared before the whole world due to the war unleashed by the Russian Federation against Ukraine.


- Oleksandra, in your opinion, why did the Nobel Prize go to human rights defenders this year? And why did the Nobel Committee decide to give it at once to three human rights groups from three countries – Russia, Belarus and Ukraine, which are currently in such a confrontation?

- To me, as a human rights defender, it is obvious. But, I will take this opportunity to explain once again that peace and human rights are inextricably linked. Let’s take Russia as an example. The state that has been destroying Russian civil society for decades, killing journalists, imprisoning activists, and dispersing peaceful student demonstrations. At the same time, it waged wars and committed war crimes in other countries. Such a state poses a threat not only to its citizens, but also to the security of the world as a whole. Because sooner or later this culture of violence, this arbitrariness in relation to human rights – it goes beyond national borders. And so, it seems to me that the Norwegian Nobel Committee wanted to emphasize exactly this – the important role of human rights defenders in preventing a military threat around the world.

Regarding the fact that this prize was also awarded to Russia’s Memorial and Ales Bialiatski from the Belarusian Vyasna. I constantly receive questions from foreign journalists, who know what kind of reaction this caused in parts of Ukrainian society, and for me this is a great opportunity to once again explain to the foreign community that, when you put Ukraine, Russia and Belarus next to each other, there can be no other reaction. And not even only because we are now at war, and Russia and Belarus are the aggressor states. But because for decades the myth of fraternal nations had been being imposed in the Soviet Union. But, everyone knew that this had been a huge lie and that there had been no fraternal nations. There is one nation, and it dominates: its language, its culture. Hence, such combination is reminiscent of this Soviet myth about fraternal nations. However, here, it is important to understand that the Nobel Peace Prize is not for countries, it is for people. The people who protect human rights and have been working together for years. Through all these eight years, we had been working closely with Memorial, which always called the war ‘war’, which was one of the first to say that the occupation of Crimea is an illegal act and violation of international law, which helped us fight for the release of Ukrainian political prisoners and that they lived to this, and defended their rights. Thus, it is a prize for people who fight together against a common evil that is again trying to establish itself in our part of the world.

- You repeatedly emphasized that the world had not noticed Russia’s crimes for many years. Now, do you have a feeling that the world has finally noticed them? That is, after Georgia, after Chechnya, after Syria, after thousands and thousands of killings, and already tens of thousands of victims in Ukraine, has the world already made up its mind about whether it will fight against Putin or incline us to peace?

- There are two questions, and I will answer them separately: has the world noticed and has it decided on the behavior, because it is important. I will start my answer with a simple example. Do you remember these photos and videos from Bucha that appeared after the Kyiv region’s liberation, when the Ukrainian military first, and then foreign journalists and our mobile teams, came to Bucha, Makariv, Motyzhyn, Vorzel and began to take photos and videos of killed civilians, whose bodies were lying on the street. Our mobile teams found the bodies of people lying in the yards of their own houses. As they were killed there, they lay there, these bodies. When these photos appeared, when they flooded the social media and began to appear across all publications in the world, this information about Russian crimes, then for the first time Ukraine began to receive serious weapons and for the first time they began to introduce more serious sanctions. Why am I emphasizing this? That is, they started doing this not when the Russians were killing these people, and we knew about this, because we were documenting, and some people managed to escape from that encirclement. You remember: civilian cars were shot at, but people were breaking through and telling us what kind of terror was happening there. That is, [the world noticed this – Author] not when we spoke of the fact that civilians were being killed there, but when people all over the world saw this and began to put pressure on their own politicians in order to change this. Because there are things that have no national borders. And this horror, this pain has no national boundaries. So, what am I leading to? We live in a digital world, and even 20 years ago, such coverage and connection with the social media and other digital tools was not so dense. Hence, the world could afford itself not to see Russian crimes. They could turn it off, like a television program, and do other things. But, here, it is impossible, because tens of thousands of Ukrainians are communicating this, writing in English and other languages on the social media, and showing all the horror that is happening. But, whether the world will react is a very important question to ask, and I see how it has been changing over 10 months since the full-scale aggression started. At first, let’s be honest, I remember how we told each other: we need to hold out for a certain time, because the world’s reaction, if there is one, will be late. And for a certain time, we just need to hold on to our own heroism, our own resistance, our own understanding that this is our country, our people, our values, and they must be protected. And then, even the developed democracies, just like Putin, thought that Ukraine would not withstand: 3-4 days, and Kyiv would fall. You know that very mantra. Actually, not only Putin was convinced of that...

I was convinced otherwise, because I, like many millions, had the experience of the Revolution of Dignity. I knew that, when an existential threat arises, the points of crystallization appear in various sectors of society. In the developed democracies, people living in these countries are used to having stable public institutions and, if something happens, they can rely on them. But, we, Ukrainians, have never had such an opportunity. We should have always been ready to take on the responsibility.

- Did you start documenting crimes in the Kyiv region after it was liberated?

- We started earlier. Because documenting crimes can have different sources: you can come to the place and see with your own eyes, you can interview people who left from there, or you can also search for information in open sources and verify whether it is reliable. We used all methods. And, of course, as soon as it became possible, our mobile teams came to work in the Kyiv region in order to see first-hand what had happened there.

- After receiving the Nobel Prize, you named three priorities, for which you would be using this platform. One of them is the desire to initiate the reform of the international peace and security system, which is now lying in ruins. Can you give your assessment of this system of peace and security and say what should be done first for such reforming?

- The assessment of this system was given by a Russian missile that had killed journalist Vira Hyrych in her own apartment in Kyiv at the moment, when the UN Secretary General was paying an official visit here, and Russia, of course, knew about that. [During the visit of UN Secretary General António Guterres to Ukraine’s capital city on April 28, 2022, the Russian military launched missile strikes on the city of Kyiv. One of the missiles hit a residential house in the capital city’s Shevchenkivskyi district. As a result, Radio Liberty journalist Vira Hyrych was killed, and 10 more people were injured – Author] This is the assessment of the entire system. It is lying in ruins, like Ukraine’s Mariupol. It is an illusion that there is some international system of peace and security. Ukrainians, like no one else, can say – and, prior to them, people in Syria, in Afghanistan, in Myanmar, there are now protests raging in Iran, I can list further, –that this system protects people neither from authoritarian regimes nor from the war. It does not fulfill the mandate, for which it has been created. And it is necessary to investigate honestly – why? Because it is still the UN system that is much better and has been built on more correct principles than its predecessor, the League of Nations. And, of course, it seems to me that this is a dangerous world not only for Ukrainians, but for any person, because it turns out that the life of this person, their safety, whether the rights and freedoms of this person are protected – all of this depends not on the international system, not on international law and any architecture that has been created to support it, such as committees, special rapporteurs, working groups, missions, not on all of this but exclusively on whether this person lives in a country with a powerful military potential. If such style of thinking is spread across the planet, it will be a very dangerous planet for living. Because then it would mean that every country has to invest in weapons. And, of course, everyone will want to invest in the advanced weapons, everyone will want to create nuclear and other arsenals. And they will stop investing the appropriate amount of money in education, health care, some scientific inventions and progress, resolving global issues, such as climate change. This is a dead-end world, because when the military arsenal grows, sooner or later, as we know from the scenic art, “the gun has to go off”. Thus, this system should be rebuilt. We need a radical reform. On the day when the Nobel Peace Prize was announced and that we became its laureates, I immediately said that Russia should be excluded from the UN Security Council. And this should be the first step towards this reform.

- On December 26, Ukraine initiated a complex process aimed at depriving Russia of its status as a permanent member of the UN Security Council and excluding it from the UN as a whole. I am interested in your opinion as a lawyer: who had the right to be the successor of the USSR in the UN Security Council? Did Russia justly take this place? And is it possible to exclude Russia from the Security Council now, bypassing all these conflicts, the vicious circle of these legal conflicts? Who should decide on its exclusion and depriving it of the right to be a permanent member of the UN Security Council?

- It is necessary to exclude it, and there are legal opportunities to do so. There is an opportunity to vote at the UN General Assembly, but this means that we have to collect at least two-thirds of the votes of the countries for the exclusion. And it must be done, because the system that was created after World War II by its victors gave the countries – some of them – unjustified indulgences, which they began to use in a way that goes against all the norms and the spirit of the UN Charter. I am primarily talking about Russia, but we can also talk about the abuse of other countries. That is, we need the member states of the General Assembly to say: no, this architecture does not work, this Security Council does not fulfill its functions, it does not guarantee security, it is not even able to solve the issue of helping people and punishing war criminals. I will remind you that several times the Security Council considered submissions related to the transfer of the crimes committed against civilians in Syria to the International Criminal Court. And several members of the Security Council, including Russia, constantly vetoed such transfer. Hence, it is not even capable of this, the UN Security Council, it does not work.

As for the legitimacy [of Russia’s membership in the UN Security Council – Author], there were very good studies by Ukrainian scientists. They paid attention to the simple fact that, before entering the Security Council, not as the Soviet Union but as Russia, a vote had not been held, as was the case with previous countries that were in such a situation, in which the name, constitution was changed – this was not met in relation to Russia. Nonetheless, it is not even a matter of its legitimate membership at that time, although it is important. The fact of the matter is that now it cannot be a member of the UN Security Council.


- Another question or topic you focused your attention on is the establishment of an international tribunal to bring war criminals to justice. You are also a member of the working group on the establishment of a special international tribunal over the crime of aggression against Ukraine, which has been created by President Zelensky. Have there already been any meetings within the framework of this group, or are you planning to hold any talks aimed at promoting this concept?

- It is an important concept, because we have four international crimes: the crime of aggression, war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide. Talking of the crime of aggression, there is no international body that currently has jurisdiction over this crime. Basically, we have an obvious accountability gap. It must be filled, and an additional mechanism must be created. And there is a model of a special tribunal over aggression, which is being promoted by Ukraine. I am a member of the working group, I held one face-to-face meeting, because I joined it not so long ago. Our organization is actively involved in the promotion of the special tribunal. We have always talked about the need to create the new international mechanisms. And now, when it has already been formalized as a group, the representatives of our organization participate in trips with an official delegation, which presents this model in different countries and persuades politicians that such support is needed and such a historic decision should be made.

- But, if we talk about precedents, then, for example, the International Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia was established precisely by the UN Security Council. Now, such a path seems impossible, for as long as Russia is there. Therefore, we return again to the need to exclude it. But, in general: when should this tribunal be established – after our victory or right now? And how many resources are needed for this? Can it be estimated? Because the international tribunal for Yugoslavia lasted 24 years, and there was a much shorter period of crimes.

- Here, we have three things that I would like to pay attention to. Firstly, we should not wait until the end of the war, and I will say – we should not wait until our victory. We must take all the necessary actions now, because the world is still looking through the lens of the Nuremberg trials. I will remind you that it was the court created by the victors over the defeated Nazi regime. However, law should not depend on the strength of authoritarian regimes. If you think about this logically: if war crimes are committed and there is a direct prohibition on this in international law, if there are hundreds of thousands of victims, if there are war criminals who commit these crimes with their own hands or issue decisions or orders to commit them, then why do we have to wait until the war is over? Violations are already obvious, and the civilized world must react to this. Therefore, I believe that it is necessary to create all these additional international mechanisms now.

Why do I say – all these? Because, when we talk about a special tribunal over aggression, the voices of the victims will not be heard there. Aggression is a leadership crime, it is a crime for the very fact of invading an independent country. Here, we will have a discussion: whether we hold accountable Putin, Shoigu, their surrounding persons or, for example, whether we include on this list members of Russian parliament or not, because they actually do not take any decisions, and they do not have any parliament, but there is some sham, simulacrum, consecration of decisions made by the presidential vertical of power? There will be a discussion about this.

But, we need to make a mechanism, which guarantees a chance for justice for every person that has fallen victim to a crime in this war. This is a task, I feel it very keenly, because I had been working with people over the past eight years, and we have been documenting war crimes for eight years. And I know for sure that these people, who have gone through hell, who have lost their loved ones, need restoration not only of their destroyed lives and vision of the future. They need restoration of this belief that the law exists, perhaps delayed in time, that justice is possible, and they can wait for it. In this regard, we have to solve another problem, when the national system is overloaded with tens of thousands of criminal proceedings, and the International Criminal Court will take only a few cases for consideration. And it turns out that hundreds of thousands of victims are left without a guaranteed vision that their case will be investigated effectively.

Once again, the best Prosecutor General’s Office in the world would be unable to handle as many war crimes as committed by Russia, because it is simply impossible. That is why we need to talk about another model of international involvement at the level of national investigation and justice. Here, in Ukraine, there should be such a model, in which national judges work together with foreign judges, national investigators work together with foreign investigators, i.e. [we need – Author] something that will enable the national system to digest these tens of thousands of criminal proceedings . And this is also a model of an international tribunal. It is not some court, somewhere in The Hague, but it will be here, in Ukraine, because justice helps to be visible.

And, lastly, you asked how much will it cost? It seems to me that some things, of course, are calculated in some monetary units, but they are priceless. Justice is one of such things. Because when we say that every person’s life matters and that we will launch a very expensive justice system to find out what happened to any person, no matter what their social position is or how rich they are, or if they have recognition in the society where they live, if someone write about their case, if international organizations take an interest in what type of crime they went through, – then, we are sincere. Because every person’s life matters. And we have to launch this expensive machinery of justice, so that every person feels satisfaction.

- Actually, I meant primarily human resources, because I can't imagine the number of lawyers, judicial and prosecutorial employees that are needed to comprehend this scale of crimes. But, this will entail corresponding financial expenses on this process, and it must be done.

I have such clarification, in development. You spoke of the need to establish the international tribunal at a meeting with Emmanuel Macron. What did he answer you? Does he support this idea?

- He said that he was open to this idea. However, prior to that, he had a meeting with Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court Karim Khan, and we all know that Karim Khan does not support this idea, he speaks from the perspective of the interests of his institution. Well, for example, he says that the consideration of the matter of aggression – this is why his court does not have jurisdiction over it – depends on the decisions of the states parties to the Rome Statute, and that this decision must be changed and somehow renegotiated. But, this may take years. And justice should not wait. Because, when it is so delayed in time that the victims do not live to see it, then, excuse me, this is not justice.

Therefore, there is a discussion here, a discussion with very powerful players in the international arena, and we have to convince both the President of France and all other leaders that these additional mechanisms are not a competition to the International Criminal Court, in any case. When the International Criminal Court chooses its cases – and we are working closely with them, with a group of prosecutors, we are giving them all the information they need, – these will be the cases that they will conduct. But, the question arises about hundreds of thousands of other people who will not be “lucky” to be included on the list of the chosen: what to do with them?

- Oleksandra, do you agree with the opinion that Russian propagandists should also be on trial together with war criminals?

- Russian propagandists, both those who work in the mass media and those who work in the Russian church, should be there. Because this is not journalism. Talking of the so-called Russian mass media, it has been obvious to me over these years that it is part of Russia’s military and industrial complex. They work exclusively for military purposes, they incite hatred, they program people to kill, they create an image of the enemy. Well, let’s take our first cases of political prisoners, when they detained Serhii Lytvynov, an unemployed man from the Luhansk region’s village of Komyshne, who came to Russia for dental treatment. They decided that the man was perfect for their television image and accused him of raping and killing about 30 women there, at the instruction of the head of the region, with the aim of ‘genocide of the Russian-speaking population of the Donbas’, although he himself spoke Russian. Thus, this is simply beyond the bounds, these are not journalists, this is not freedom of speech, this is a legitimized lie that is used as a weapon. Even before 2014, Shoigu openly wrote that we live at a time when information, words and videos become the weapons of mass destruction, and this is exactly how they see it. Therefore, I know that Russian propagandists will be on trial, and I am already waiting for Skabeeva, Solovyov and others to claim, like Nazi propagandists did, that “our words should not be taken literally”, “in fact, we meant not what you heard but something completely different”.


- Oleksandra, you have been fighting for the release of political prisoners from Russia for many years. It did not start in February 2022 but had been lasting since the beginning of the Russian-Ukrainian war in 2014. Previously, you initiated protest actions that drew attention to the case of Oleh Sentsov, to the case of our colleague Roman Sushchenko. It really had an effect and impact, because the simultaneous action in several dozens of countries for the protection of Ukrainians who suffer from illegal captivity did attract attention. They became known, these names became significant, and global leaders constantly raised this issue during meetings with the Russian leadership, and this eventually led to the release of many. But, now I hear very little about the cases of the Crimean Tatars, for example, those illegally imprisoned by Russia. And now there are prisoners of war, civilians, children, – how to return them? Hence, please tell us about this aspect of your work now, who you keep in touch with, what are you planning, are there any chances of bringing these people back?

- I am convinced that sooner or later we will release all people from Russian captivity. The problem is that there is no algorithm that would work so that one, two or three steps,  and there will be some result in the predicted near future. There is none. Because Russia demonstrably ignores international law, it does not care about the decisions of international organizations. Well, you saw during the evacuation from Azovstal – under the guarantees of the UN, under the guarantees of the International Committee of the Red Cross,  – that it does not save people, as it did not save medic Victoriia Obidina, who had been separated from her 4-year-old daughter Alisa and sent to a filtration camp. Thus, we are still working in the conditions of complete uncertainty. And there are a few more significant changes compared to the previous eight years. I remember, in 2014, I met with the UN Deputy High Commissioner for Human Rights and said that Russia had imprisoned and held 11 political prisoners – these were the first months of the war. He looks at me like that and says: “Eleven thousand?”, and I begin to realize what numbers the heads of international organizations think about. And I say: “No, 11 political prisoners. But, excuse me, every person’s life matters, and we will fight for their release”. Now, the number of people who are in captivity is unprecedented. I do not even dare to assess what it is, because only in our database, only civilian hostages, – prisoners of war are not included there, and these are only those people who were imprisoned after February 24, and only those people whose relatives applied to us, that is, it does not cover a large number of the cases that are even known, – we have over 700 cases. It is simply impossible.

And then we talk about the fact that publicity has become a rather complex tool, because there are different stages at which publicity is useful, and at which publicity can be harmful. Even before, during the previous phase of the war, we knew: when there were signals from the Ukrainian authorities that talks were underway, we kept quiet, we took a pause, followed the regime of silence, which had been written about in the mass media, and it was possible then. Now, negotiations on exchanges are ongoing, but new people are constantly being arrested or taken prisoner, if we are talking about the military, and in general, it is unclear how to act, because there is no certainty and, therefore, publicity becomes a rather difficult tool. For example, we have cases, complex cases, on which we have made several advocacy visits, and no one knows about them, we do it confidentially.

- It seems to me that now the way of this work has changed in general, because before, when the world was still talking to Putin and he traveled, had international meetings, then public protests had such a toxic effect on him. Mark Feygin, who defended Sushchenko, constantly said that it was necessary to draw attention to the name of the journalist detained in Russia illegally, so that Putin would not like to hear it every time. But now, when no one is in contact with him, then, indeed, the question of silence during such negotiations is very important...

- Publicity still remains a tool, and we conduct campaigns – next year we are planning to conduct targeted campaigns about Russia’s war crimes in certain countries, and we will use it. I’m just saying how difficult it is to use this tool, how unpredictable it is, because for us, human rights defenders, for female human rights defenders, it is a very important principle to do no harm. I always say: if you cannot help, please do not hurt. And this responsibility for the decision you make, –  whether to make this name public or not, – it is not only on the relatives, it is also on us who work together with the relatives.

- So, what do you think: should a special agency be created in Ukraine, with sufficient resources and personnel, which would deal with the release of prisoners in a centralized way? This issue has been discussed since 2014, because relatives often do not know, which door to knock on and whom to turn to. Do we need such an agency?

- We definitely need some better coordination between government agencies and a ‘single window’, so that a person who has faced this problem would not have to call six government agencies on their own, tell the same story six times in order to enter this information into six different databases, and then, as they receive some new information (because people conduct their own investigations), to repeat this again six times in a row. This is just pointless, we need a ‘single window’. Whether it is just close coordination or a separate body, – it is already a technical matter, – but it should be some kind of humane interface for relatives who have either their civilian family members illegally arrested or the military taken prisoner. Here, there is a potential to transform the Coordination Headquarters for the Treatment of Prisoners of War into such a ‘single window’. We have now signed a memorandum with the Coordination Headquarters and are starting to work in this area.

- On March 16, 2022, the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe endorsed a decision to exclude Russia from this organization, due to which Russia ceased to be a party to the European Convention on Human Rights in September, but its crimes are subject to consideration by the ECHR. Do you recommend that Ukrainians use this platform and file lawsuits there, or does it no longer make sense?

- I do. We see that Russia is now ignoring all the decisions of the Council of Europe, its conventional monitoring mechanisms, as well as, predictably, the European Court of Human Rights. But, authoritarian regimes are falling, and Russia’s future government will have to pay its debts.


- At your press conference after the announcement of the Nobel Peace Prize laureates, you mentioned Yevhen Sverstiuk’s slogan that human rights defenders are fighting “for our freedom and yours”, you said that the Russian Empire would fall, sooner or later. Do you believe in the possibility of a democratic Russia? Do you support the opinion that it is now necessary to talk with the Russian oppositionists, who are mainly in Europe and are trying to make some kind of protest, or should this conversation with the “good Russians”, as they are called, be postponed until better times?

- The Russian people support this war, because it is not Putin’s war, it is the war of the Russian people, who seek to revive the Russian Empire by force, and Russians themselves – scientists – call Putin a “big ear”: he hears what the Russian people want. Because Putin governs Russia not only with the help of repression and censorship, but also with the help of a certain social contract, and this social contract is based on Russian greatness and, unfortunately, Russians see their greatness in seizing, at least by force, the territories of other independent states. Unfortunately, there is no advice for this. Therefore, the answer to the question about whether they have a democratic future or not is obvious to me: Ukraine’s success in this war and in democratic transformation gives them a chance to rethink their imperialist culture, which will be very painful, because it is unpleasant to look at yourself in the mirror: here you called everyone “fascists”, and suddenly it turns out that you are a fascist. In order for them to begin any democratic transformations, there must be a strategy in such a short-term horizon, in which one must invest: it is to do everything so that Ukraine wins. And there should be a long-term strategy for Russia. We can imagine: Ukraine won, but the regime in the Russian Federation was preserved, and we have a huge North Korea nearby. If you don’t have a strategy of what to do with North Korea of such size and treat it as a “black hole”, then it will receive all the properties of this “black hole” and will slowly pull into itself. That is, we must say now what we will do with Russia in the future, after the implementation of the short-term strategy, i.e. Ukraine’s success.

Here, I need to express my attitude to this discussion about “good Russians”: I do not divide people by ethnicity. It seems to me that, when we talk about “good Russians and not very good ones”, we drive ourselves into a corner. I have a question: a person, does he/she support this set of value guidelines, is he/she ready to take responsibility for these steps? If they do not support and are not ready, there is nothing to talk about with them. So, if the Russian opposition, conditionally, some of them, are not ready to bear responsibility before Ukraine for all the crimes committed by Russia as a state, then, excuse me, it is obvious that we will never come together in a common opinion. Because it is very easy to shift the responsibility to the Putin regime. This is a convenient configuration, but let’s take a look at the Levada-Center poll for 2014, when 94 percent of the Russian population supported the occupation of Crimea.

- Well, now the same number supports the special military operation, that’s how they call this war...

- Slightly less, not 94 percent, but they do support it. And, honestly, when you enter the battlefield and a Russian soldier comes against you, if you think at that moment: “perhaps, he has five children and went to the war to pay off his mortgage, or maybe he was forcibly mobilized, and now he will shoot, but he is forcibly mobilized, or maybe he is fooled by Russian propaganda and really believes that we are all ‘fascists’ here...”, – if you think so at that moment, he will kill you.


- Instead, the people of Ukraine have for many years been proving their desire to live in a democratic country, a real democratic country with law, with fair courts, with equal access to all benefits – educational, medical, etc., and Ukraine aspires to become a full member of the European Union. We are winning. So, in your opinion, what are the biggest possible threats on this path for Ukraine, what can hinder us from transforming into a truly democratic state?

- There are three threats before us, and I will start with one, perhaps more obscure, which we seem to be successfully overcoming. Frankly speaking, Ukrainians have always treated the state like this: “we do not touch you, and you do not touch us”. They did not see value in the state, they did not understand the importance of public institutions. And it was clear. Why? Because for many years, decades, we have not had the luxury of having our own state, we have not had one, we have had the power imposed by the metropolis, which treated us like a colony, we simply have not expected anything good from the state and public institutions as an apparatus of coercion. When Ukraine’s independence was restored in the 1990s, people did not change psychologically, because time has to pass for this realization, and they chose a paradigm, a national idea, which Les Podervianskyi vividly expressed with his joke in two words, – it was attitude towards the state as a state apparatus. But now, after the full-scale war started, it seems to me that there has been a huge shift in people’s mind, and they are beginning to understand how important it is to have the effectively functioning public institutions, what a blessing it is, when the state represents you. Because now, when the President [of Ukraine Volodymyr Zelensky – Author] speaks in Congress, regardless of your political views, regardless of the fact who is a member of which party and who you voted for, you understand that he is saying the things that your country needs. Inside the country, you can criticize him, but abroad, when he speaks and speaks about supporting Ukraine, you understand that he speaks for you, and this is an important change. And now it seems to me that after this experience we will be able to complete this homework. Because Ukrainians several times overthrew authoritarian regimes: there were the Revolution on Granite, the Orange Revolution, the Revolution of Dignity, but we could not build stable democratic institutions, because there was no understanding that it was ours. Now, this understanding, as it seems to me, is beginning to emerge.

But, there are two more threats. The first is that we cannot postpone – just like justice – reforming until after the war, we do not have that luxury. The world is changing a lot. If we want to jump into this civilizational space of developed countries, we have to carry out democratic transformation even amid the war, no one will wait for us. In 2022, we were given the status of a candidate for membership in the European Union. This is Ukraine’s application not just to join some geopolitical entity but to build here, in Ukraine, such a society in which the rights of every person are protected, the government is accountable and does not steal, the police do not beat peaceful student demonstrations, and you can come to the court and know that it will solve your case fairly – this is what the application is about. And we have to do so, no matter how difficult it is, and this is very difficult, and some things are even incompatible during martial law, but we will not have the luxury of waiting, putting it off for later.

And, the last threat, it is not typically Ukrainian, it is typical for all societies during the war. Because when you encounter savages, when you encounter barbarians who say that they do not care about international law and the decisions of international organizations, that is, they have not yet matured in terms of civilization and commit war crimes as a method of warfare, and simply destroy cities, churches, residential houses, they rape, cut, kill, – there is a big threat to start reflecting this and start paying back in the same way. And we, especially now, have to constantly remind ourselves that we have no right to win the war with Russia and turn ourselves into Russia, to become similar savages. Because Putin started this war in 2014 precisely to stop us on the path of democratic transformation, and we should not do him such a favor. As difficult as it may be, we must remember that we are fighting for our freedom to have a democratic choice, for the freedom to prepare a society where law matters.

- Absolutely agree. Here is another question: has our civil society already appeared, is it complete, has it proven that it is already effective, or does it still need to acquire some qualities?

- When we talk about the period after the full-scale war started, we are talking about the flourishing of civil society. It seems to me that there are almost no indifferent people left. You look, and everyone is doing something, people who have never been involved in any public work, probably even surprised themselves and began to do things so devotedly in different areas to make their contribution, even if it is small, to the common victory, which is admirable – not only for me, but also for the whole world. Now, when you come abroad and say: “I am Ukrainian”, this means something.

This phenomenon, when people do extraordinary things, is amazing. In different spheres of life, people invest their time, invest their knowledge, their private resources, moreover, sacrifice their lives for the sake of other people, even whom they have never seen before. I remember all these evacuation echelons, when the International Committee of the Red Cross was not given permission for safe evacuation and ordinary people began to evacuate civilians amid Russia’s shelling. I have a friend, her civilian husband was killed like that, and it was said that they were hit by some projectile and that they collected what was left of his body in a bag – he was evacuating people he had never known. Because now we feel very acutely what it means to be human, to fight for freedom, to be brave, to make difficult but correct decisions, to help each other.

- At the press conference upon the presentation of the Sakharov Prize to the Ukrainian people, with President of the European Parliament Roberta Metsola, you talked exactly about that, you talked about how Europe has so many resources and our people are being killed in mine blasts, driving unarmored vehicles, and you talked about how we need a lot more help than we have right now. What did Metsola answer you about this, did she say why this is happening, did she promise anything?

- A few days later, she made a public statement, in which she called for increased aid – financial, humanitarian and military. However, words are very important, because the words are correct, but we will judge by actions. Because, indeed, I mentioned this story of our colleague, Andriana Susak, who had tripped a mine near Kherson, driving a civilian car, and I asked: here we go to the European Parliament, meet with the leadership, with political groups, and everyone tells us that we understand that you are fighting not only for Ukraine, but you are fighting for the whole of Europe, because this war is not a war between the two countries but a war between two systems, authoritarianism and democracy. Hence, I ask: if we are fighting for the whole of Europe, why does my friend trip a mine in a civilian car, while you have armored vehicles in your warehouses?


- I hope that your voice will be heard along with other voices that keep saying this: we need more weapons, and we will win. Oleksandra, and now a few questions about you personally. You often mention the outstanding philosopher, dissident, Yevhen Sverstiuk. How did you meet him and how did it happen that he had such an impact on your development as a person?

- We met when I studied at the Ukrainian Humanities Lyceum during my school years. The Ukrainian Humanities Lyceum tried to constantly build ties between lyceum students and Ukrainian writers, philosophers, dissidents. Yevhen Oleksandrovych held an evening dedicated to Taras Shevchenko. He asked the lyceum to give him readers for this evening from among the lyceum students, but so that these children chose the poems they wanted to read themselves. I chose two poems, I was invited. I remember my first meeting with Yevhen Oleksandrovych at the Teacher’s House, and he asked me: “You are so little, why did you choose these two poems?”. I don’t remember what I answered, but I remember this moment of the meeting. And it was a significant meeting in my life. Yevhen Oleksandrovych always took care of the youth, and somehow he singled me out. I can say that I have been growing up under his influence for years. I come from an ordinary family: my mother is a teacher, my father is a doctor. Like any ordinary family, they wanted their child to be successful, they surrounded me with love, but some valuable, worldview things came to me from books and then from communication in that dissident circle, because it was there that I understood that the evil against which these people were fighting is not in some middle ages, it is very close, that is, you can feel its breath, if you can say so. And it was a very good school, when you saw fantastic people, very worthy, very talented, who gave their lives to what they thought was right, to the struggle for values, for the values of freedom and human dignity, who had no other tools but their own word and their own position, and that’s all, and they were able to do a lot thanks to their own word and their own position.

- Were there such events that became turning points for you, that changed your life, perhaps by 180 degrees?

- There were, of course, several events. The major of them are related to such historical events as, for example, the Orange Revolution, the Revolution of Dignity, but I recall even earlier memories, because these are always the events that were associated with taking on responsibility. During my student years, I was the head of the student government, I studied at Shevchenko University’s Law Department, and once we held the All-Ukrainian Debate Tournament. Debates are a game, but if they are conducted correctly, they not only develop rhetorical skills but also promote critical thinking. The debating movement used to be powerful, because it was supported by donors, and then donors stopped giving money and everything died. So, the students of this movement, who caught this period at school and now studied at universities, turned to me with a proposal: let’s hold a debate tournament, gather senior debaters who are already working, who graduated from universities, and let them create an organization, which would deal with the development of critical thinking in the youth throughout the country. I said: “Let’s go!”, we made the all-Ukrainian tournament, invited the older generation. We expected them to say: “Oh, yes, thank you for your trust, we are taking this flag, we are starting to work together for the revival of this intellectual movement among the Ukrainian youth, because it is important...”. Instead, they told us: “There are 24 hours a day”, – I quote them: “We are busy and will not do anything, and you simply will not succeed”. Honestly, I was so outraged at that moment that I, without expecting anything from myself, as the organizer of this whole event, came forward and said: “Thank you, but we will set up this organization anyways.” At that moment, I took on a public responsibility, which, to be honest, I did not even think about while organizing this whole forum. That is, when the elders refused responsibility, someone had to take it. Hence, we established an all-Ukrainian youth organization that fulfilled its mission. It revived the debating movement, and now there are debate clubs at schools and universities. In 2009, it was even recognized as the best all-Ukrainian youth organization in Ukraine. We united students from all regions at that time, and these were, remember, the years 2007, 2008, 2009, and we voluntarily paid membership fees from our meager scholarships – that is how we appreciated the work being done. It was without any grants, without any donors – we didn’t know about their existence at all, honestly. It was not because we didn’t want to apply, we just didn’t know that there were foundations that supported anything – all of this was on pure enthusiasm. So, now I know for sure that if you have an idea and do a good deed, someone will always help you.

- Oleksandra, at the beginning of our meeting you talked about the importance of reading. Can you recommend any must-read books for a thinking person?

- I would advise you to read The Revolt of the Masses by José Ortega y Gasset. It was written in 1930s, on the eve of World War II. As you read it, – and I reread it twice, for the second time it was last year or the year before last, – you realize that he describes social phenomena that are happening right now. This is a very small book, but it brought him world recognition. This is a diagnosis, this is a diagnosis for us as people, and these are exactly the topics that you need to read more about.

- At the press conference after the announcement of the Nobel Peace Prize laureates, you said: “We document pain, sometimes it seems to us that this pain simply burns us out...”. This is a very difficult topic, because now, during the war, we are all experiencing such a critical, stressful, cortisol state, and we still need to work, we need to get together somehow and act, drive, explain. So, how do you recover? With what? What inspires you, what helps you to be in good shape all the time?

- I have no answer to this question. I realized that finding something that helps you to recover is also a path, and even if you haven’t found it yet, the fact that you are trying to find it is already a way out. I know what inspires me. That is, I don’t know what fills me up, but what inspires me are the examples of ordinary people. Because you understand that they do fantastic things. We have been holding the Euromaidan SOS volunteer award for years in a row. In the previous few years, I was on the jury for this award, and we read the questionnaires of those who had been nominated, and these are the people who, perhaps, have never been heard of, and, perhaps, have never been mentioned in the mass media, but you read how these people describe their work, and it makes you cry with admiration.

- Let’s imagine that we have gained the victory, that goodness and justice prevailed in the world, there are no authoritarian regimes in the whole world, on the planet, every person is protected, every person can develop as they want, what would Oleksandra Matviychuk do then?

- During my school years, I wanted to be a theater director, and Yevhen Oleksandrovych, I mean Mr. Yevhen Sverstiuk, he was very surprised that I did choose jurisprudence and went to fight against injustice, instead of going into the field of art. Together with him, we held many evenings dedicated to the restoration of the forgotten historical memory, literary evenings, some memorable dates at the Teacher’s House – at that time he was the head of PEN Ukraine, – and we composed scenarios, we invited bands and performers. Hence, it was something that brought me comfort and, in fact, if I had had to be born not in Ukraine but in some more stable country, perhaps I would have become an artist. But we choose neither the country in which we are born, nor the time in which we are born. The only thing we choose is whether to be honest and respond to those threats and challenges that occur in life, or simply go with the flow. So, I chose not to go with the flow.

Maryna Synhaivska

Photo: Hennadii Minchenko, Geir Anders Rybakken Ørslien

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