The brush-up on the scholarship program illustrates a broader phenomenon: Despite their mutual fury at Putin, Ukrainian activists and Russian dissidents shun each other. There is little cooperation and no serious coalition building. Instead, there is tremendous suspicion on the part of the Ukrainians and a defense on the part of the Russians.
Tensions suggest that no matter when the war ends, the social rifts between Ukrainians and Russians will deepen for much longer.
Russian dissidents simply aren’t doing enough to support Ukrainians, said Daria Kaleniuk, a Ukrainian anti-corruption activist. There is no large Russian dissident campaign to help Ukraine gain NATO membership or funds from seized Russian assets, she said.
Instead, « they’re very focused on themselves, » Kaleniuk said. « They try to present themselves as victims and no less victims of Ukraine. »
Tensions have emerged in many arenas: from debates over who speaks to a college degree at the decision of a free speech group to cancel a panel with Russian writers after objections from Ukrainian writers on another panel.
An Oscar won by a documentary about imprisoned Putin’s opponent Alexei Navalny attracted the Ukrainian eye a lotas well as the fact that the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded last year to civil society activists from Russia and Russia’s allied Belarus and Ukraine.
And last month, Elizabeth Gilbert, bestselling author of « Eat, Pray, Love, » announced he was delaying the publication of a novel set in Russia after a huge backlash from Ukrainian readers.
The book, titled « The Snow Forest, » is set in 20th century Siberia, and deals in part with resistance to the Soviet empire. But it would be published around the two-year mark of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, and Gilbert said Ukrainian readers objected to any book set in Russia.
« I don’t want to add any harm to a group of people who have already experienced and continue to experience severe and extreme harm, » Gilbert said.
Some prominent Ukrainians say that, contrary to what many in the rest of the world may believe, Putin is not the root of the problem they face in Russia. And taking away his power won’t solve anything.
The problem is the Russian mentality – the Russian « soul », some say – and its imperialist bent. Many Russians simply cannot accept that Ukraine is a fully independent country, Ukrainians complain. This is especially true of Crimea, a Ukrainian territory that Putin annexed in 2014 and which many Russians believe has always belonged to them.
“We even have an expression: ‘When the Ukrainian question comes, all Russian liberals are gone,’” Lisa Yasko, a member of Ukraine’s parliament, told POLITICO during the Oslo Freedom Forum in June.
However, these are complicated feelings about complicated relationships and the ties between Ukrainians and ordinary Russians are far from severed.
Many Ukrainians and Russians have relatives in the neighboring country. Ukraine has been a haven for some Russian dissidents during the more than two decades of Putin’s rule.
It is not uncommon for individual Russian dissidents to help Ukrainian activists with projects, such as organizing protests. Some groups collaborate, though usually silently. The Free Russia Foundation, a Washington-based group, works with Ukrainians on some rights issues.
Ukrainian activists also acknowledge that large numbers of Russians have distorted their views on the war and Ukraine due to Kremlin propaganda. Overall support for their military’s actions in Ukraine remains high among Russians, especially those who rely on TV for news, according to recent reports. survey data from the independent Levada Center.
But even many Ukrainians get tired of such excuses for Russians. While Putin might be issuing the orders, Russian citizens are the ones dropping bombs on their cities and commit atrocities against children.
Prominent Ukrainians note that their population has been ousting corrupt leaders for the past 20 years, while Russians have never rallied enough to oust Putin.
« Something that is very painful for me personally is that many Russians lack a sense of responsibility, » said Yasko, the Ukrainian lawmaker. « They don’t understand what they can do to make a change in their own country. »
The feelings of anger and trauma appear to reach well beyond Ukrainian officials, academics and others who fall under the broad label of « activist », filtering down to ordinary Ukrainians without public megaphones.
Some Ukrainian commentators complain that Russians and their views have garnered attention for decades — whether in the United Nations, in academia or in entertainment — while Ukraine and other former Soviet states have struggled to be heard. Some are calling for a « decolonization » of this Russian influence.
The debates are reminders of how a post-World War II world struggled to reintegrate what was once Nazi Germany. Even today, for example, the music of Richard Wagner, adored by Adolf Hitler, is rarely heard in Israel.
Russia’s dissident community is divided on how to talk about and feel about the war in Ukraine.
A big debate among Russian dissidents is whether to view the conflict in Ukraine, which began on a smaller scale in 2014, as Putin’s war or Russia’s war, said Garry Kasparov, the former chess champion who co-founded the Free Russia Forum, an umbrella group for the Russian opposition.
“In my view, the question is irrelevant – obviously it is Russia’s war, just as it was Nazi Germany’s war,” Kasparov said. “But for some of them it is very painful. They say ‘No, no, we are not responsible for the war. We have to make sure that the Russian people are not dragged in.’”
Sergei Guriev, a prominent Russian economist, made a distinction between guilt and responsibility. The blame should be placed on Putin, his associates and those who directly committed crimes against Ukrainians.
That said, « I never voted for Putin, but I didn’t fight him well enough to prevent this war, and for that, of course, I feel responsible, » said Guriev, who lives in Paris and fled Russia. like many members of the Russian dissident community.
Ukrainians engaged in public campaigns of support for their country have varying degrees of distrust of Russian opposition leaders.
Kasparov is more respected than many others in part because he is willing to talk about the need for the Russians to assume large-scale responsibility. Kasparov appears regularly in the Ukrainian media. He has also helped raise funds for Ukrainian groups through the Renew Democracy Initiative, an American organization, said Uriel Epshtein, executive director of the group.
Navalny, Putin’s longtime opponent, could be the biggest threat to the Russian leader, including from the penal colony where he is being held in Melekhovo, 150 miles east of Moscow. But many Ukrainians are skeptical of him because he has been ambiguous for years as to whether Crimea should be returned to Ukraine.
Navalny has made it clear that he believes Russia should leave Crimea in a series of tweets last February, but his Ukrainian critics are not entirely convinced.
Demonizing Russians as a whole « is disastrous for the future peace of Europe, » he warned Anatol Lieven AND George Beebe of the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft, which advocates a more militarily restrained US foreign policy.
« While people expressing such sentiments about Russia claim to oppose Putin’s regime, their actions and writings actually provide Putin with better internal propaganda than he himself could ever have conceived, » the two wrote, hinting to the Kremlin’s claims of rampant globalization. « Russophobia ».
Others dismiss it, saying the Putin regime has long cried « Russophobia » as it goes ahead with invasions and other nefarious activities, regardless of the response from other countries.
« The onus is on the Russians here, because they’re the ones who caused this war, » said David Kramer, a former State Department official involved with the Free Russia Foundation.
After weeks of discussions with donors, associates and others, Polyakova and her think tank agreed to include both Russians and Ukrainians in the new scholarship program. But the decision led a Ukrainian analyst to end his longtime affiliation with the center, Polyakova said.
The program’s Russian and Ukrainian fellows get along very well, even when discussing thorny topics. The conversations offer insights into potential future reconciliation efforts, Polyakova said.
Such initiatives could be many years away, but they have to happen, he said, « because these countries are linked together by geography, first of all, and there is no escape. »