11 November 2022
Martin Dewhirst reviews Iuliia Mendel, The Fight of Our Lives: My Time with Zelenskyy, Ukraine’s Battle for Democracy, and What It Means for the World, translated by Madeline G. Levine. One Signal Publishers: Atria, London, etc., 2022, £20. xxvi + 208 pp. ISBN 9781668012710.
Perhaps the best way to understand contemporary Russia is to read books about contemporary Ukraine. The ‘qualitative’ differences between the neo-Soviet Russian Federation and the genuinely post-Soviet Ukrainian Republic are so striking that one can perhaps best explain President Putin’s recent decision to occupy more of Ukraine by his well-founded realisation: otherwise the Russian Empire will, in the fullness of time, come to an end and he will be regarded as a great loser. In his opinion, it seems, any means to prevent this are justified.
For those who have not been reading many Ukrainian sources on the background to the ongoing war, the book under review is an excellent introduction. The author, now in her mid-thirties, hails from Kherson, and has a PhD. for her thesis on Ukrainian poetry; she was President Zelenskyy’s press secretary and a spokesperson for him from 2019 until 2021. Both her parents spoke Russian, but from the start of her education she went to a school where all the subjects were taught in Ukrainian; like millions of other Ukrainians, including many without any higher education, she is completely bilingual. (Other Ukrainians speak a mixture of the two languages, which, she writes (p. 146), are more different from one another than Spanish is from Italian. A British reader might ask how many voters for and members of the Scottish National Party have a really good grasp of Scottish Gaelic.) ‘Perversely, it’s the Russian-speaking population [of Ukraine – md] whom Putin has been trying to “save” for the past thirty years […] who have been hardest hit in this war’ (p. 194).
Chapter 9, ‘Oligarchs and Fake News’, is the most important part of Mendel’s book, even though the author seems not to realise that her (and the widespread) criticism of many of the Ukrainian oligarchs is even more applicable to Yel’tsin’s and Putin’s Russian oligarchy, which to a much greater extent than the Ukrainian version has been supported, encouraged and even praised by many wealthy but short-sighted people outside Russia – not least in the UK. In the opinion of your reviewer, this is the direct and inevitable result of the choice, influenced by the so-called ‘Washington Consensus’, at the end of 1991, of the economist Yegor Gaidar’s strategy for the economic future of neo-Soviet Russia, which ultimately led to the illegal invasion and occupation of parts of Ukraine from 2014 onwards.
It’s tempting to quote at some length from this chapter (see especially pp. 152-169), partly because Mendel has, in general, a very high opinion of Angela Merkel. ‘Merkel was right to be concerned: oligarchs were like an invasive species, spreading their weblike influence into every area of life and suffocating everything. Even though oligarchs were not official representatives of the government, they nevertheless had accumulated a huge amount of power in their hands, owning Ukrainian resources and enterprises, influencing politicians and the financial system. Merkel understood this and condemned those who built their wealth and power through unfair, unchecked, and greedy competition. […] Meanwhile, the oligarchs continued to undermine the state of Ukraine. […] The oligarchs, in response to any attempts to curb them […] would unleash floods of negative or even fake news through the most popular media platforms they controlled.’
‘But even before Zelenskyy’s election, there had been some initial, important efforts to de-oligarchize the country.’ However, ‘Ukrainian oligarchs were just as creative in figuring out ways to keep dodging accountability and to generate profits for themselves’. ‘In 2008, the combined wealth of Ukraine’s fifty richest oligarchs was equal to 85 percent of Ukraine’s GDP.’ ‘The oligarchy’s negative impact on Ukraine’s present – and its future – was evident to all.’ ‘The pervasive corruption and poverty in our country were a result of the oligarchs’ monopolies in every sphere, stifling competition and allowing no opening for small businesses.’ ‘One of the main reasons Zelenskyy was elected in 2019 was because the voters wanted a president who would commit finally to dismantling the power of the oligarchs.’
In February 2021 Zelensky imposed sanctions against three television channels linked to the oligarch Viktor Medvedchuk, ‘a friend and close associate of Vladimir Putin’. These channels ‘used fake news to attack every anti-oligarch reform, every effort to move toward creating a solid market economy’. Last year Zelenskyy asked all the Ukrainian oligarchs, ‘Are you prepared to work within the law and work transparently, or do you want to continue creating monopolies, to control mass media and influence parliamentary deputies and other state officials? The first is viable, the second is over and done with’. This went down very badly with at least some, but perhaps with many, of the Ukrainian oligarchs. Only the Russian reinvasion ‘stopped this bacchanalia of invective’.
In February this year, after about 14,000 Ukrainians had already been killed since the earlier invasion in 2014, many people around the world got the fright of their lives when, to their shock and horror, the Ukrainians had to continue the fight of their lives to preserve their dignity, self-respect and independence. They have made an excellent start, not least in Kherson, but what might really help them would be not only the deputinization of Russia, but also the deoligarchization of that country. The latter could be much more difficult than the former. Perhaps, for a start, more political parties – and not only in Russia, but also around the whole world – should adopt the name and purpose of Zelenskyy’s party: ‘Servant of the People’?