A group of young women A group of young women
Participants in the Bakhmut Street Art Camp, 2021
Democracy and human rights

“We need to talk about the Russian war of aggression”

Young people from Ukraine need dialogue

The film-maker Tetiana Kriukovska is the director of Tolerance in You, an NGO that uses art to discuss difficult issues with young people while applying non-formal education methods. She fled to Germany in 2022, shortly after Russia began a full-scale war of aggression against Ukraine. She disagrees with some of the preconceptions that persist in Germany around youth exchanges with Ukraine. Tetiana sat down with IJAB to explain why that is and to suggest some elemental ways to improve exchanges for young people.

17.05.2023 / Christian Herrmann

ijab.de: Tetiana, a Ukrainian network of mediators and dialogue facilitators published a paper entitled 7 POINTS ON THE WAR AND DIALOGUE in which the authors state, amongst other things, that a civil society dialogue between Ukraine and Russia is inappropriate given the ongoing conflict. If you consider that statement in the context of youth exchanges, what would be your comment?

Tetiana Kriukovska: I agree with it, because during an aggression it is unethical to encourage the victim to sit down with the aggressor. Every day, civilians in Ukraine are killed by the Russian army. Every single person in Ukraine is suffering under Russia’s aggression. Imagine young people from Ukraine and Russia sitting together in the same room during a youth exchange, and consider what the friends and relatives of the young Russians might be doing at that very moment. Maybe they’re killing people in Ukraine. Or they pay taxes to the Russian state, meaning they are helping to fund Russia’s war of aggression in Ukraine. These are the kinds of thoughts that young people from Ukraine may have.

To ask young people from Ukraine and Russia to engage in dialogue would mean placing the aggressor and the victim on the same level. Only in Germany do I ever hear this idea of “talking to each other”. None of our other international partners ever call for that to happen. There are a number of reasons why Germany does this, and I think it’s important to reflect on them.

First of all, Germany has a tradition of engaging in dialogue, with all parties sitting around the table and discussing the problem. What people in Germany are forgetting is that the war is not over. It started nine years ago and it is still happening every day. Whether we will ever be able to engage again depends on civil society in both countries. Maybe the next generation will be capable of dialogue, but that will depend on Russia’s position once it has been fully defeated by military means and has run out of resources to pursue its imperialistic objectives. At the moment, many young people in Ukraine are disappointed at the silence that Russia’s civil society has maintained over the last nine years. They are also angered by Russian civil society’s support for the country’s military aggression.

The second reason is connected to Germany’s post-World War II position that what happened then should never be allowed to happen again; “never again war”, if you like. But there is no public reflection on the imperialism behind it all, which likewise should never have been allowed to happen again. Germany may say “never again war”, but fails to respond to Russian imperialism at the same time.

Thirdly, Germany appears to have major tolerance for Russia, which goes back to a misinterpretation of history, a historical responsibility that Germany feels towards Russia. Yet it was not just the Russian army and Russian civilians who sustained catastrophic losses at the hands of Germany’s Wehrmacht, and it was not just Russia that the Nazis destroyed. There was also Ukraine, Belarus, Moldova, Georgia and other Soviet republics. And people from all of these former Soviet republics fought in the Red Army and as civilians became victims of war crimes. Many Germans fail to recognise this, and so they object to the supply of arms that are to be used against Russia. It is this attitude that could be to blame if Moldova or Lithuania end up next in line for a Russian attack.

Young people in Ukraine expect to be supported in line with their needs. At the moment they feel no need to reach out to people in Russia. If people in Germany still believe that dialogue with people from Russia is helpful in the present situation, then they are free to pursue that without the involvement of young people in Ukraine. In the present situation, young people in Ukraine have a right to feel hate, and it is our job to support them through that. We have nine years‘ worth of methods to help them.

Young people from Ukraine: First-hand accounts

ijab.de: With what countries does it currently make sense to organise youth exchanges for young people from Ukraine? Given the circumstances of war, is a youth exchange even feasible?

Tetiana Kriukovska: Youth exchanges are actually really important. Ukraine has been comprehensively invaded, so many young people in Ukraine feel isolated. They need to engage with others, but the circumstances have to be carefully created. When young people from Ukraine come to Poland or Germany, they experience a different reality. Life there goes on as normal. They want to talk about their situation, they want to share what they are experiencing at home and talk about the destruction that Russia’s aggression is causing. We have a highly active civil society that is willing and able to share information on the situation in Ukraine. So during an exchange, we have to talk about the Russian aggression and share information about it. While we cannot prevent the war, we can be a strong voice to counter Russian propaganda. Young Germans or Poles can receive first-hand accounts from us and learn from what they hear.

As a film-maker, I believe that art is a beneficial form of therapy, a good way to talk about difficult issues and express one’s emotions. There are many ways to apply art-based methods drawn from non-formal education.

ijab.de: The above-mentioned 7 POINTS paper states that dialogue should not be initiated without involving Ukrainian mediation and dialogue experts. I understand that to mean “Talk with us, not about us.” Is that a fair interpretation?

Tetiana Kriukovska: Yes, of course. But the principle is hardly new; it’s one of the fundamental rules of communication. When we talk about abortion, we don’t just want to hear male voices – of course we want women who are affected to be heard on the matter as well. So please don’t treat people from Ukraine who have fled to Germany as objects; instead, consider them independent people who can make their own choices. I understand the debates that the influx of refugees has triggered in Germany, and the people from Ukraine are not the first and not the only ones to come here. We need to hear a multitude of opinions and perspectives. Everyone needs to be heard, and that includes us. We understand that this is challenging.

As for youth exchanges: having facilitators from Ukraine is important, because only they are capable of correctly interpreting the behaviour of participants from Ukraine. Without their presence, the atmosphere can destabilise because German team leaders have no insight into what may have motivated certain behaviours. When young people from Ukraine travel to Germany or Poland, they typically leave behind friends and family in Ukraine. That can trigger anxieties that are hard to understand for the German team, and can lead to behaviours that they are unable to comprehend. Facilitators from Ukraine are a valuable addition to the team because they help create a safe space for the participants.

One last comment: I prefer to speak of “people from Ukraine” rather than simply “Ukrainians”. We are a multi-ethnic country with many different identities, and we don’t exclude anyone.

For more information on Tolerance in You, go to https://www.toleranceinyou.com/

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