Oleh Pokalchuk, social, military psychologist
Elections in time of war can only increase people's irritation with politicians
21.09.2023 14:24

Forecasts for the second military fall for Ukraine are mostly that it will be difficult. Accordingly, this affects the already unstable psychological state of Ukrainians.

According to social and military psychologist Oleh Pokalchuk, each of us can find a conditional "eye of the hurricane" in the whirlwind of military, political and geopolitical elements in our inner world. But to do so, we need to learn to separate real problems from those created by the virtual world.

Ukrinform spoke with Oleh Pokalchuk about how to do this, as well as whether we should try to return our compatriots from abroad, whether military censorship is needed in Ukraine, whether we should try to convince Russians of anything, and where to look for positive news now.


- Mr.Oleh, because of the war, Ukrainian society is currently living in different realities - abroad, at the front, in the rear, in the frontline regions, and in the temporarily occupied territories. In your opinion, is the combination of these realities a problem that needs to be worked on now, or will everything somehow work itself out?

- Any society always exists in different parallel realities. But for Ukrainians, they have been mixed up, so to speak, physically-some people's previous places of residence were destroyed or became dangerous, people were forced to move or went abroad, and so on. And from these new locations, they are looking at the multichannel world. That is, such a scientific banality as the multidimensionality of society has become a reality for them.

But it is not just a reality, it is a need to constantly make a choice. This is generally not very typical not only for Ukrainians, but, let's say, for middle-aged and older people, because their previous life was devoted to creating life circumstances in which everything would happen automatically.

And here, a huge number of people have to start from scratch - I think almost all of them. However, in fact, the world around them has not changed, they just started to see it in all its unpleasant multidimensionality. And this, of course, is an emotional trauma for them.

- But I notice even from my friends who went abroad after the war started that we now have fewer points of contact and even topics for communication. What will happen in the future?

- We have to call a spade a spade. These are people who left Ukraine due to tragic circumstances, and if their new place of residence gives them any better prospects, they will stay there. That's all. This is a very simple story.

We are wringing our hands about this, but these are people who have potentially emigrated, and this will be a diaspora.

We are still living in the verbal images of the last century, of the Soviet Union, that a person who went abroad is like a dead person, he or she is "gone." But this is the 21st century, people travel back and forth, communicate, cooperate, and there are no problems with this.

And socially, if people continue to live in other countries, how does this differ from the aspiration to the European Union that we have been talking about for so many years? Absolutely nothing, except that people were forced to move by dramatic circumstances.

Similar stories happened in Eastern European countries when they were accepted into the European Union, and millions of people went to work in other countries and stayed there.

These are unavoidable processes. We perceive them in a dramatic way because we are in the grip of rather simple national stereotypes. They are not archetypal - they are what the government generates as propaganda. Moreover, these are puzzles made of completely different Lego pieces from different historical eras. They don't fit together very well.

When we hear, for example, that the number of people in Ukraine is decreasing, it seems like some kind of dramatic drama! But the population has been decreasing since 1994, a process that no one can influence. And it's not just happening here.

People who went abroad are now connected to Ukraine in their thoughts, emotions, and feelings. Some of them - I think a smaller number - will return, some will come and go like all Europeans, some will adapt, assimilate and live there. Then they will either keep their Ukrainian roots, if it is important and necessary for some reason, or not.

- Is there anything that depends on us? Should we try to bring them back somehow?

- If you look at the "skillfulness" of the authorities' actions in the social space, it's better for them to do nothing. Nature will take its course, and it will somehow work itself out.

Because, first of all, there is no coherent vision and strategy of how we are going to ensure the welfare of people who will return home from Europe is better than it is now. Yes, there are moments of nostalgia, a sense of home, land, homeland, and so on, but no government has ever had any influence on this, and thank God! People have it, and if they feel it, they will return.


- So, in your opinion, when planning post-war reconstruction, the authorities should rely on the real number of people?

- To begin with, they should at least conduct a census. In reality, according to different methods of calculation, the discrepancies in the numbers reach about 10 million. For example, a person who is registered here has been living in Portugal for 10 years. So where is he or she? We need to approach this matter more subtly. I think the necessary mechanisms exist, in principle.

But there will be many unpleasant surprises. I don't mean in terms of numerical results - less, more - but in the fact that this lie about the number of people gave endless opportunities for manipulation during the elections.

That is, these are dead souls. And all these local territorial communities, deputies, and officials who prostituted their positions in relation to a particular government were trading in dead souls. And then it turns out that this is not the case. So, there will be other budgets. This will automatically reduce the volume of corruption schemes, because you can't steal money from people who died 20 years ago, and they are allocated social security in a given locality.

And so on.

- If we have already mentioned the topic of elections, our partners are now also slowly raising it. And although the authorities have not yet made up their minds on the matter, the topic of elections still exists in the information space. In your opinion, what are the social consequences of holding them during the war? Because, on the one hand, the government is still bronzed, and on the other hand, it threatens to polarize society.

- The bronzing of power has never really affected anything. Yes, it irritates the electorate, but not to the extent that it has an alternative replacement for this "bronze". Because every Ukrainian revolutionary, when he comes to power, turns bronze at the same rate as his predecessors. This is an absolutely biological story, and there is no reason for it.

If we are talking about the feasibility of this issue - compliance with the law or, conversely, its restrictions during hostilities - I always recommend starting from possible negative consequences, because everyone will tell you about the positive ones.

- What are the negative consequences of these elections?

- First, there may be more disappointment among people who think that elections really change something dramatically.

In fact, elections in any country do not change much, because there is the economy with its capabilities, the authorities everywhere redistribute funds in favor of one or another ruling party and manipulate taxes, and this is the end of social policy in general.

So if some other political group comes to power, it will redistribute the same flows for its own political purposes, and in the interests of the state as well. But we do not have a clear, understandable answer to the question of what is the place of society and people in this state.

We have either a presidential-parliamentary republic or a parliamentary-presidential republic, or let's turn the flag over or come up with something else. But the essence of it does not change.

That is, there is development, progress, but it is so... civilizational. We are moving forward, but certainly not thanks to the efforts of some political party that shows us the way. It is because people grow up, learn, develop, and integrate into the European world.

- But elections, if they do take place, involve political campaigning. How can this affect Ukrainian society during the war?

- I think they may increase people's irritation with politicians.

- So you don't see any danger of a deepening split?

- The fault lines already exist and are characterized not by the depth but by the dramatic nature of subjective experiences. There is a fundamental difference here.

We have a rather contradictory picture. All sociological surveys show a really great unity and cohesion of the Ukrainian people around patriotic values, a decrease in the influence of liberalism and an increase in nationalism - all this is true. And at the same time, the basic attitudes and patterns of behavior remain the same as they were before the war. This is a paradox.

What does this mean in the context of possible elections? People can take part in them and there may be some consensus on accepting the results. I don't foresee any riots.

But there is also the subjective disappointment of the participants in this process, who constantly give something in favor of the state - money, health, or part of their lives, that is, they fulfill their civic duty, but receive nothing in return. This, of course, dramatizes personal experiences.

These personal emotional crises can then be transformed into various scenarios of deterioration of the overall psychological climate with the corresponding consequences. I can't make predictions, because it has to be done with numbers in hand.

We started with the fact that we need to know how many of us there are, what the real demographic tree is. I know roughly that the percentage of people in the 20-30 year old segment is mathematically insignificant. This means that young people who actively hang out in a few big cities and seem to have an impact on something have no influence from an electoral point of view. The 12.5 million pensioners, who are the main electoral core, will have an impact.

Everyone is fighting for it, so the values that will be discussed in potential future elections will be focused on this electoral group. Yes, taking into account current trends, the constitution, global norms, and so on, but the reality is this.


- Ukrainians are now involved in the events at the front in different ways - some volunteer, donate and help in any way they can, while others deliberately psychologically distance themselves from the war. Is there a middle ground here?

- No, the polarization will only increase. This will be one of the serious rifts in society that will shape the political picture of Ukraine's future, the emotional climate, and value orientations.

"Where were you during the war? What did you do?" - the answers to these questions, or the lack thereof, will determine the attitude of other groups toward these people. This is already happening. So the golden mean... No, it will not happen.

- Now the soldiers at the front openly say that they are exhausted and that gratitude to the Armed Forces is not enough, they need to be replaced, they need rotation, they need to rest. The government also says that everyone should be involved in the war. Don't you see a potential crisis in the fact that in some time there will be no one left to fight, and the part of society that is not fighting will not be ready to go to the front?

- I would distinguish between fighting and dying for Ukraine. While mobilization measures are necessary, I am a categorical opponent of simply recruiting people and filling the ranks of the Armed Forces with them. After all, war is a science, it needs to be studied, and people need to be targeted for those positions and segments of military activity that they are qualified for.

Many of us have probably lost acquaintances who were highly skilled IT professionals or specialists in other fields, and they were assigned to grenade launchers or something else. Well, it happened that way. But from the military point of view, they could have been of more use if the military registration and enlistment office had taken their capabilities into account more accurately.

The same applies to medical support, as there are also many scandals about this, logistics, moral and psychological support, including chaplaincy.

The army is a huge machine, and when it is standing still and not fighting, everything seems to be fine. And when this machine is "driving," it starts creaking, cracking, and smoking. This always happens. A "parquet" army that is not at war is usually very beautiful, while a warring army always has some kind of trouble.

Therefore, to return to the answer to your question, replacing people at the front with people who will die in a few days simply because they are inept... They can be motivated in any way, but this is not the eighteenth century, when it was enough to grab a saber, get on a horse and ride to the Sich. This is a sixth-generation war (a non-contact, non-nuclear war of a strategic scale, the concept of which is based on the use of precision weapons - author) people need to be taught.

These replacements are taking place, but, of course, not as fast as we would like, and we also need to replace people with technology. This is a question for our Western partners. This is also happening, but, again, not as fast and in the numbers that the Commander-in-Chief, in particular, is talking about.

- Do you think the government is aware of the need to train people and is it setting up a training system?

- Yes, of course. These processes are actively underway, including the training of middle commanders and NCOs.

I am not qualified to speak about this, but I was partly involved in this - I was invited to such courses.

But it's not just about training. It usually requires a change in the army system itself-what is called "NATO standards," which we have been talking about for decades.

This is the topic of a separate, longer conversation. I will only say that according to NATO standards, a person, a soldier, a fighter comes first. Everything works in such a way that, despite the value of each individual soldier, if he dies, the system does not collapse, but continues to work, because the person who replaces him has exactly the same qualifications, understands all security protocols, commanders are trained according to the same template, and everything works as it should.

And we still have some places that are essentially volunteer battalion, some places that are super-NATO, some places that have something that only we, Ukrainians, invented, and it really works, and everyone is open-mouthed: "Wow, you did it so well!"

For now, it's just like this.


- Nowadays, I would say, the media is sucking up every detail of our contrast, some experts commenting on the actions of the Armed Forces and expressing their forecasts. This creates the impression that our military are always breathing down their necks...

- I have a very negative attitude to this. It irritates me.

- Perhaps this is justified from the point of view of public involvement in the events at the front?

- If we're talking about awareness, the well-known DeepState MAP online map is enough, where you can go every hour, look at it and draw your own conclusions.

And expert assessments of events at the front look a bit unethical to me. If you see a problem in the segment of someone's responsibility, there are perfectly legitimate mechanisms for conveying this information to the right people without using public space and, accordingly, the possibility of "pressuring" them to make any decisions. Including through the civil segment, which actively cooperates with the Armed Forces, the Security Service, etc. So there are mechanisms in place.

And if you don't do this, but go from one show to another with the proud title of an expert, I understand that you are increasing your self-esteem and your click-through rate. This is the business, and personally, it makes me "tense."

- Some countries, such as Israel, have military censorship. How do you feel about this?

- Positive. I've said before and I keep saying that I'm not very liberal. But my conservatism is limited by the understanding that we live in the 21st century, and the consequences of any tightening of the screws can be negative. We have to take this into account.

That is, any control must have reasonable limits, and at the beginning of its implementation, as they say, it is necessary to reach an agreement with civil society.

The liberalization of the modern world leads to the fact that everyone needs to be "kissed" in some places, asked to agree, and they will think about it, because it is their rights. So we have to take this into account, because this is the reality, and there is nothing we can do about it.

Therefore, the restriction of information flows must have two parameters: the first, as I said, is to agree with civil society on the rules, and the second is to develop clear protocols of what is possible and acceptable, which must be communicated to every editorial office and every information source.

People who are engaged in the information business on their own, as individual entrepreneurs, should bear the same responsibility as all media. The Criminal Code should have clear articles, and the punishment should be inevitable, public and demonstrative. Then people will very quickly realize that this has nothing to do with restricting their rights, it's just the rules, and if you break them, you are responsible for it.


- Recently, President Zelensky put forward an initiative to equate corruption during the war with high treason. How do you feel about this idea in general, regardless of whether it would be the SBU or the NABU that would investigate this corruption?

- I don't like the way this topic is unfolding at all. The word "corruption" has become a metaphysical concept in our country, it has very little to do with the actual processes of embezzlement, theft, and various actions that should immediately be subject to criminal liability.

- But in our country, the fight against corruption is one of the IMF's beacons, and assistance to Ukraine depends on it.

- I think this is a form of pressure on Ukraine that is justified, because the way we have been using finance is certainly transforming into a more civilized way, sometimes even ahead of the curve when it comes to digitalization, but in general, our banking system and cash flows are not transparent to people who would like to monitor and control it. That's what I said so delicately.

They would like to keep track of every dollar that circulates here. But then the question of sovereignty arises. And they say: "It's our money!". And in principle, they are right, it is indeed their money now. They demand full accountability according to the rules they set. And these rules do not always fit with our reality.


- Recently, the HUR reported that the Kremlin has approved new methodologies for Russian propaganda in Ukraine, saying that "everything is lost," "the counteroffensive is choked," "partners are draining Ukraine," and so on. This coincides with the fact that our government says that the war will be protracted and that we need to put the economy on a war footing. Given such emotional swings, how can people maintain their inner balance and not succumb to the influence of Russian propaganda?

- The essence of propaganda is not total deception - it is counter-propaganda that says that the enemy is always lying about everything. Technologically speaking, this is not true, because good propaganda should always contain three quarters of true information, appropriately interpreted and presented, with a little bit of lie added. And as a result, the effect that propagandists are counting on is achieved.

As for resistance to Russian propaganda... First of all, you need to ask yourself personally, who are you that Russian propaganda should personally attack you? And is it worth it for you personally to be exposed to its source every day?

Of course, propaganda creates the background of the media environment, but it is artificial. It's technology, it's not your thoughts. Those people who have nothing personal behind their hearts, as they say, live in this digital world. Well, I feel sorry for them. But we need to remember that they are still real, living people. They have their own interests, friends, family, some kind of communication, responsibility, work. This is what you need to do. Don't do anything stupid!

- The writer Oksana Zabuzhko once said that the first to speak wins in an information war, and the one who reacts is always in a more disadvantaged position, even if he is right. Do you agree with this point of view?

- Partly yes. I'll rephrase what Oksana said: whoever makes the rules wins the game.

But propaganda is characterized by the fact that it does not set rules at all - it is the rule itself.

Take the propaganda of the "Russian World". What rules can the "Russian world" have? But the propaganda of the "Russian world" exists. This is such endless schizophrenic content. It is based on a global scale where people see and hear it and think: "This can't be all fiction, there must be something to it." That is, this demonic scale has a hypnotizing effect.

And what Zabuzhko is talking about is the bickering of counter-propagandists. I would not seriously pay attention to this, because it is possible in terms of some kind of internal Ukrainian polemics-this is called seizing the initiative.


- It seems to me that in political terms, the authorities have realized this and have begun to act proactively - let's take the "Formula for Peace" or the "Grain from Ukraine" initiative. That is, Ukraine is forcing the Russians to respond to this, and they are even monkeying with the grain initiative. But I cannot recall any public or everyday narratives that would become part of Russian discourse. Maybe I missed something?

- No, they didn't. This is a natural phenomenon, because we are very different nations, we are different people.

Why did the attempt to propagate the "Russian world" fail? Because they believed in their own fairy tale, that we are "very similar to them," that we are "almost the same," only we were spoiled by some Poles, Jews, Freemasons, reptilians. But it turned out that we were not. And this is a disaster.

That's why they have generally given up this propaganda, at least total propaganda, in our direction, because it doesn't work. We just laugh at this, and at the social level we have our own clear ideas about how the world works. They may be quite bizarre and mythologized, but they do exist, just like in every country. We have become an ideologically coherent nation.

- But do we need to work for the Russian audience or are they impenetrable?

- If we are talking about propaganda, no. I think it is unpromising.

I will repeat what I say all the time: propaganda creates narratives for its own population. This is its primary task, its role and function.

In the narrative of Ukrainian propaganda, there should be no Muscovites in principle, in fact, no Muscovites at all. It can include Poles, Czechs, Estonians, Lithuanians, Latvians, and the British-the whole world of normal people. Why do we need Katsaps?

- So we don't need to convince them of anything?

- Why? It's a waste of time. We have this Ukrainian resentment that Datsyuk [Ukrainian philosopher Serhiy Datsyuk] is always talking about, and it is really fatal.

Moreover, just as Muscovites think they can re-agitate us, we think we can re-agitate them. Well, it's like talking to a frog. In fairy tales, it happens that it turns into a princess. But here, no matter how much you kiss a Muscovite, he will not turn into a princess. A frog is a frog.


- Psychologists say that there is a growing demand for positive news. Where do we get it, apart from the Armed Forces of Ukraine reports on the latest attacks on the Russian fleet? Where do you personally get positive news?

- I have two dogs and two cats at home, it's just an inexhaustible source of positive news!

And the media is just a supplement, I look at it out of the corner of my eye. News is the events created by living people, I would say. There is less and less rational and good in the digital world. The Internet started out with some kind of positive euphoria about a bright communicative future, and it turned into what it has become.

The priority is the life you live and the life that surrounds you.

Nadiia Yurchenko, Kyiv

Photos from the Ukrinform archive and by Anastasiia Sirotkina

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