When I came to Ukraine for the third time, as it turned out for good, in March 1991, I was wary and wanted to learn. I quickly learned that Soviet upbringing had made people behave quite differently from what I was used to. The differences were everywhere and often subtle. If, in the United States, we all lie at least a tiny bit, “spinning” events and the things we talk about, the level of lying in post-Soviet Ukraine, simple everyday lying, was ratcheted up several good notches. This was inevitable in a society which was based on lies.
Documents, for example, are still routinely falsified. One of the reasons raiding activities in Ukraine – not to be confused with Western capitalist raiding, but rather stealing assets by using the power of government agencies and brute violence – target the company seal is that it is the key to producing any backdated documents, as desired. At a court hearing on a speeding ticket my lawyer presented a letter from a British specialist as evidence and the judge actually asked how could he be certain that the letter was genuine and not, for example, Photoshop-ed. In everyday conversation it is common to ask the same question again, as if repetition could serve to buttress our defenses against being lied to. Potemkin villages, laws that had no force, political rhetoric which would have made Goebbels blush, the burden of the Soviet dictatorship is that it changed people and these changes persist, in the minds of Ukrainians today.
Yet Ukrainians have been quite self-aware and know that they are different, albeit not necessarily in the particulars, due to their experience of the Soviet period. From soon after Ukraine restored independence in 1991 Ukrainians referred to themselves as “Homo Sovieticus,” the personified product of 75 years of Soviet rule. This anthropological being was closely related to “sov-depism,” an abbreviation for “soviet deputies” in referring to the post-communist system as a whole, “soviet” meaning “council” and based on the fiction that the USSR was governed by people’s councils.
With the war with Russia that is currently under way Homo Sovieticus morphed into vatniky, literally a reference to an often dilapidated cotton vest worn by menial laborers. Vatniky refers not just to people psychologically stuck back in the USSR, but to those who have decidedly pro-Russian views. It was the vatniky who put themselves forward to halt Ukrainian army columns earlier this summer. Vatniky gathered to protest in eastern Ukrainian cities, with Russian flags in their hands, often with the participation of “rus-tourists,” Russians coming over the border into Luhansk and Donetsk.
Vatniky are driven by motivations that have nothing directly to do with corruption, regional dissatisfaction or any other factor. Their nature and role today has exposed the lie on which the Soviet Union was built, that it was not a mere extension of the Russian empire. Thus the core belief and essential purpose of the vatniky – as of the Russian invasion itself – is Russian expansion.
The vatniky are the Russian army’s avant-garde. Before the tanks rolled in, both in the Crimea and in the eastern region of the Donbas, the vatniky were there. Besides creating an image of a local population clamoring for Russian rule, the vatniky formed mobs which surrounded local government buildings, intimidated Ukrainian law enforcement officials and terrorized pro-Ukrainian protesters, several of whom were killed by young vatniky toughs in March in Donetsk and Kharkiv, one later in May in Odesa.
The violence practiced by younger vatniky is replaced by naked belligerence in older vatniky. Older women cursing at Ukrainian soldiers in some eastern cities are a typical example. Both young and old are characterized first and foremost by their allegiance to the drivel being spewn by the Kremlin these days, regarding a “holy Russian and Orthodox mission,” completely fanciful characterizations of the “Kyiv junta” and “Ukrainian fascists” and so forth.
The presence of the vatniky and their role in Ukraine today are a testament to how little the country has done to rid itself of the effects of Soviet rule. Many Ukrainians do not even view Ukraine as having been occupied, first by the Russian empire, then the USSR. Many speak Russian in everyday life instead of Ukrainian because Russian was promoted intensively for three quarters of a century while the Ukrainian language was inhibited and prohibited for over 300 years. This is the flip side of the vatniky world, an environment that has allowed first Homo Sovieticus, now the vatniky, to remain a potent force in Ukrainian politics. But this context has changed, dramatically.
The war has decimated the vatniky, literally. An entire region replete with vatniky, the Crimea, has been cut off from Ukraine. Some have been killed while fighting for the separatists in eastern Ukraine. The remainder are clearly doomed in post-Maidan Ukraine. Vatniky are similar to crack addicts, their status ensures their eventual demise because they have no future in a more modern, European-oriented Ukraine. The “grand experiment” of Soviet communism, which manipulated people’s consciousness, from my grandmother in a small village in the Sumy oblast to young toughs in the Donbas raised on a diet of criminality, is coming to a close, finally.
Ivan Lozowy is a Ukrainian political activist, analyst, and business consultant.