Nicolai N. Petro: Looking Beyond the Current Tragedy in Ukraine

I view the crisis in Ukraine in much the same way that Thucydides viewed the  Peloponnesian War – as a “long suicide” of the Athenian city-state. Simply put, I define tragedy as an outcome made inescapable by the fact that the actors cannot see how their own actions are leading to the very outcome they wish to avoid. This, of course, implies that if the actors ever did recognize this, the tragic cycle could be broken.

One of the many poignant manifestation of tragedy in modern Ukraine is its economic policy, which since 2014 has sought to break all ties with Russia, even those that are vital to its well-being. As a result, Ukraine has become the poorest country in Europe, with one in four eligible workers seeking employment abroad and a net population decline of more than a quarter million persons a year. Although these facts are well know to the country’s leaders, they refuse to acknowledge the extent to which their own policies have contributed to the country’s economic and demographic collapse.

Such blindness is not unusual. Throughout history the failure of ideology has been masked by revolutionary fervor. The value of tragedy is that it rips away these masks, and reveals the brutal consequences of ignoring reality. It does so, Raymond Williams points out, by engaging the body politic “in such a way that the underlying disorder becomes apparent and terrible in overtly tragic ways. From the whole experience of this disorder, and through its specific actions, order is recreated.” This aptly summarizes what Ukraine is now undergoing. The aftermath of the disorder of 2014 and 2015 is giving birth to a new order in which millions of Russian speakers—the Other Ukrainians, as I call them—no longer have a place.

By combining social analysis with tragedy, we can shed light on two aspect of Ukrainian politics that have long troubled analysts: Why do the reform efforts of every new Ukrainian government so quickly run out of steam? And why do political conflicts replicate themselves so persistently along the country’s traditional cultural divide?

I believe that the answers are to be found in the tragic and cyclical nature of Ukraine’s internal divisions. This does not mean that other factors, and I am referring here specifically to Russian intervention, are irrelevant. It means that focusing on external factors to the exclusion of indigenous factors will not help to resolve Ukraine’s domestic dysfunctions. Approaches that focus on a single issue—corruption, corruption, oligarchical infighting, Russian intervention, Western external administration—treat the symptoms of the disease rather than its underlying causes. Classical Greek tragedy was designed to reveal, and to heal, the root causes of conflict. It did so by inducing a change of heart, known as catharsis, in order to create a more just society.

Calls for introspection are never popular. Not surprisingly, in search of a quicker remedy, many Ukrainians have turned to nationalism. The difficulty with nationalism, however, is that it aggravates the problem of achieving social harmony. That is because nationalists believe that Ukrainian history and Ukrainian identity must be thoroughly cleansed of Russian cultural influences before they can be used for nation-building. This effort to lobotomize Ukraine’s national consciousness inevitably sparks resistance among those who have grown up thinking of themselves as both Russian and Ukrainian. The inability of Ukrainian nationalists to see this fuels the tragic cycle.

In the Oresteia trilogy the Greek playwright Aeschylus presents an alternative approach, which links the compassionate transformation of the individual to the creation of new social institutions. In this way the former Enemy can be made a stakeholder in society, and false Justice (vengeance) is replaced by true Justice (compassion). I gave a long talk about this last month, which can be found on YouTube at

One possible criticism of my approach is that there was no internal strife in Ukraine, and hence no tragic cycle, before Russia intervened militarily in 2014. This is, of course, the Ukrainian government’s official position. As Greek tragedians point out, however, appeals to righteousness miss the point entirely. It is not differences of interpretation or fact that lead to tragedy, but rather the pursuit of justice for one’s self at the expense of justice for all, including the Enemy. This is actually vengeance not justice. For social harmony to be restored, society must embrace a concept of justice that is acceptable to all parties in a conflict.

This is precisely what the Ukrainian government has failed to do. Rather than acting like the Kindly Ones, in Aeschylus’s Oresteia, they have acted like the Furies, driven by a sense of righteous vengeance, both against Russia and against their own Russophone citizens, who are frequently labeled a “fifth column” inside Ukraine. This sets up a perpetual confrontation between those the government considers “true Ukrainians,” and those it does not. Its acknowledged purpose is to either convert Russophone Ukrainians to their “proper” identity, or to erase them entirely. As the Secretary of the Council on National Security and Defense said just last month, “there is no Donbass, and it is very dangerous to say such things . . . it is a definition imposed on us by the Russian Federation.”   Although they are undertaken in the name of national unity, such policies in fact lay the seeds for future retribution—the next round in the tragic cycle.

To break this cycle the “Fifth Column” will have to be given a meaningful stake in the social order. The fear among the supporters of the 2014 Maidan is that this will increase Russia’s cultural and political influence in Ukraine, something they have fought long and hard to end. As a result, they dismiss attempts to accommodate the grievances of Russian-speaking Ukrainians as treason.

But surveys suggest that the vast majority of Russian-speakers are loyal Ukrainians willing to defend their country from undue Russian influence. Treating them as potential traitors can only undermine that loyalty and threaten the unity of the Ukrainian state. The path advocated by nationalists is therefore not only unlikely to lead to national unity, it is actively destructive of it.

Fortunately, there is another path. Policies and rhetoric that promote rage and vengeance can be replaced with ones that promote compassion and reconciliation. Examples can be found in places as diverse as Northern Ireland, Cyprus, South Africa, and Columbia, but they all begin with dialogue. The usefulness of Greek tragedy is that it serves as a universal model for dialogue. It exposes us to our own tragic flaws, thus bringing about catharsis—a purging of the soul that restores healthy perspective by removing toxic emotions and hate.

The lack of meaningful dialogue between Galicia and Donbass, the cultural heartlands of Ukrainian-speaking and Russian-speaking Ukraine, runs through Ukrainian history like a red skein. Such a dialog will be possible only if Russophone Ukrainians are embraced as true Ukrainians and not treated as potential traitors within their own country. Ukraine’s ability to break the cycle of tragedy will ultimately depend on this.

Nicolai N. Petro, University of Rhode Island (USA) and Visiting Fellow, Institute of Advanced Studies at the University of Bologna (Italy).

The above essay is adapted from prepared remarks for the conference on “The Foreign Policy of Ukraine in the Post-Covid World” organized by the Research Center of Post-Soviet Countries (RCPSC) in Moscow, April 2, 2021 (online).



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