Václav Havel and Ukraine

Speech on the International conference in Prague devoted to to Vaclav Gavel Prize on 10 October 2023.
Yevgeniy Zakharov10 October 2023UA DE EN ES FR RU

[євген захаров, премія вацлава гавела, харківська правозахисна група, ХПГ]

I am sincerely grateful for including me in the Vaclav Havel Prize shortlist. In Central-Eastern Europe, his name and deeds symbolize intellectual opposition to dictatorship, the victory of free reason and free speech over violence, state lies, and hypocrisy. He remained frank, honest, and consistent not only in his words but also in his concrete political deeds. His understanding of the world, cultural outlook, and political philosophy are sorely needed in my country.

Havel wrote: we must abandon the arrogant expectation that the world is a book of guidelines that can be read or an information array that can be uploaded into a computer to extract ready-made recipes. On the contrary, all that is happening in the world evidences that our times call for the release from confinement of such forces as: archetypal wisdom; unique experience of the world; a sense of justice; the ability to look at everything through another’s eyes; personal responsibility; taste, courage and compassion; and a belief in the mystery and importance of specific acts which, however, are not the universal key to salvation. This declaration of freedom, individualism, and tolerance contrasts sharply with such widespread in Ukraine attitudes as restrictions of market, information, and academic freedom, distrust of the free land market, low level of social capital, the national intelligentsia’s suspicious view of the freedom of expression and tolerance, the mass dislike of the wealthy, and the belief that everyone steals amid massive corruption.

In the context of the armed conflict with Russia, all these and other Soviet mental vestiges have become even more acute and painfully affect the Ukrainian state and society.

The apparent desire of the Russian leadership to destroy the Ukrainian state and all people who genuinely perceive themselves as its citizens leaves us no room for compromise. Our enemy is bombing civilians and life-support infrastructure to spread fear and force surrender. We cannot agree to de-escalation and a ceasefire. That will mean allowing the invader to strengthen its defenses, effectively approving the continuation of killings, disappearances, torture, and sexual violence.

Finally, such an agreement equals recognizing that the last 80 years of international law development can be thrown in the trash. After that, Russia will be able to invade another country, not afraid of any consequences. Therefore, we need only victory, a necessary condition for which is the liberation from the Russian occupation of all Ukrainian territories within the borders of 1991. But this condition is not sufficient.

Since last March, I have led a major project dedicated to collecting information and documenting crimes committed by the Russian military against Ukrainian civilians and civilian targets. These crimes can be qualified as war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide.

We also recorded data on dozens of thousands civilian deaths, wounded persons, disappearances, destroyed or significantly damaged civilian objects.

We provide to victims of crimes not only legal but also psychological, monetary, medical, and humanitarian assistance. Thousands of families have already received it.

Naturally, such a nightmarish experience entails hatred for the leadership of the Russian state and the Russian military in the Ukrainian population. This hatred is often expanded to everything Russian — the country, its citizens, language, literature, and art. It becomes practically all-encompassing.

Because of the dominance of hatred in the public consciousness, we are particularly acutely aware now of human rights’ axioms. Truth is above the law. Fairness is above the truth. Mercy is above fairness. Love is above the mercy. Hate destroys, first of all, those who hate. It devastates the soul. Hatred is natural on the battlefield where the Russian soldier should be exterminated. But once such a soldier is captured, the hatred must retreat. At least to protect ourselves from becoming killers of unarmed people. To avoid becoming a Dragon while fighting Dragons. Otherwise, our victory will be a Pyrrhic one.

Hatred of all Russians is irrational: you cannot evaluate people by their citizenship, but only by their actions and words. And we must not forget that there are open opponents of Putin’s regime in Russia. They are not numerous, no more than 5% of the Russian population, but they publicly oppose Russian aggression and face criminal prosecution with sentences of up to 15 years in prison. These people often help Ukrainian refugees to leave Russia and collect money for them.

The hatred of the Russian language, literature, and art is even more senseless, although understandable. And I deny entirely the harassment of Ukrainian writers for their joint public appearances with Russian writers if the latter are known anti-Putinists.

I am convinced that we need a dialog to support the anti-imperialist current in Russian culture, which has always existed. Just recall these names: Chaadaev, Berdyaev, Fedotov, Pomerantz, and Averintsev. However, today, this attitude is losing to the supporters of dictatorship. As to removing Russian-language books from the Ukrainian library funds and their disposal, I can’t call it any other than infantail.

Sympathy and mercy always go together with love. Ukrainians have become more humane and warm-hearted to each other. Common misfortune rallied us. But even more significantly, we are rallied by the values that Václav Havel starkly outlined: love of freedom, independence, commitment to democracy, and rejection of authoritarianism.

Indeed, Havel’s unique experience and example are really mesmerizing. For example, when he was President, he was asked to restrict the travel of intellectuals abroad. He refused because he could not allow a person to have “less freedom than a swallow.”

We are fighting for freedom, independence, human rights, democracy. We will stand, and the trouble will recede. And then Václav Havel’s values will become even more conscious. I also hope this war will lead to the overthrow of the Putin regime.

It will allow to bring to justice the Russian leadership, the Kremlin propagandists, and all those who gave direct orders to commit crimes and carried out those orders. At one time, we considered the German people a victim of Nazism. Similarly, we should now consider the Russian people a victim of Putin’s criminal regime.

The German people went through denazification; the Russian people must go through deputinization and decommunization. And we must accomplish all this without abandoning or violating Havel’s legacy.

[євген захаров, премія вацлава гавела, харківська правозахисна група. ХПГ]

Yevgeniy Zakharov, the Director of the Kharkiv Human Rights Protection Group

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