«We need to distinguish trust and faith, because trust should not always be blind» — a conversation between Larysa Denysenko and Volodymyr Yermolenko

Larysa Denysenko is a writer, lawyer and civic activist

Volodymyr Yermolenko teaches philosophy at the University of Kyiv-Mohyla Academy and is the director of analysis at Internews Ukraine

Yermolenko: In the piece you wrote for our collection, “Ukraine in histories and stories,” you talk about an important feeling you can sense in Ukraine, among different people, different groups and different identities, “The majority is like a minority.” Ukrainians feel like a minority, although they are a majority, Ukrainian speakers feel like a minority, Russian speakers feel like a minority, although they are certainly a majority, and so on. This sense of being constantly under threat is sometimes real and sometimes imaginary. And it seems to me that we are all inclined at times to exaggerate this threat. But then we get the feeling that we are the minority and are surrounded by predators who only wish us harm. Clearly, when people feel this way, trust isn’t going to happen, right? So how can we deal with this?

Should we be reconsidering our sense of threat, learn to distinguish the real threats from the imaginary ones?


Denysenko: My sense is that we can’t not be affected by the habit of living in an environment where right does not make right but might makes right, and we see a strong person and a strong state in the form a strong hand, even in violence. This is such an outdated form of leadership and view of leaders, both men and women, for those who dominate to thunder, punish, pressure, suppress, and prohibit those who are subordinate and that’s considered a completely normal form of communication.

We often walk around with fists clenched, constricted by circumstances, by people, by distrust, by the desire to seem bigger, meaner, more influential. Do you remember the phrase, “for everyone to be afraid, for no one to laugh at me”?

To walk with open palms, relaxed hands, our fingers ready, not for a fight but for making music, touching another, satisfying each other. We can’t allow ourselves that, it’s not the right time. That’s only for the chosen few. Can you imagine that we are walking around in the constant expectation that we’re about to get smacked? We’re constantly holding our breath, and that means holding our very lives.

Of course, we have to resolve all the “you owe me/blame me for...,” all those conversations between generations, and conversations with those who represent different identities and traumas, talking honestly, not measuring who owes someone more, to try to live out those events of the past that hurt us the most in the current time. But we also should then think about the “I appreciate/ respect you for....,” because we have to add light, bright colours to our future. The palette always seems to have more tubes of dark colours.

There are no universal recipes, other than to reconsider our attitude towards strength and our own responsibility, to respect our own subjectivity and a legal approach to resolving conflicts by understanding that this is not going to hurt, that this is a manifestation of strength, that this ensures trust, and that it guarantees justice.


Yermolenko: That’s quite interesting, how we have to separate the notions of strength and violence. In Ukrainian and in Russian, the two words have the same root. And in our culture, where, for so many centuries, people thought primarily about how to survive, there’s a huge risk that they will become even closer. As if to say, he is strong who can engage in violence. We don’t reflect enough on the fact that violence is mostly a manifestation of weakness. An inability to find any other leverage over others. The inability to persuade, to get people to follow you, to attract them with ideas or emotions.

On the other hand, the word “strength” has quite a few other meanings in our language. For example, in Marko Vovchok’s novel, “The Living Thought,” the word “strength” is a key concept and is synonymous with the word “freedom.” “Strength” means being in charge of your life, being able to make decisions on your own and stick to these decisions. Strength and freedom are also key words in Lesia Ukrainka’s vocabulary. It’s very interesting that so many of our classical women writers wrote so much about strength—and very interestingly at that.

But let’s return to the idea of trust. It seems to me that we sometimes exaggerate the level of distrust in our society. Trust is a kind of physical energy: if it goes down in one area, it grows in another one. Remember how, in the nineties, people started to believe in the White Brotherhood, psychics, UFOs, new messiahs and so on, because suddenly their trust in something great disappeared, their society collapsed like a house of cards and this huge element of faith that suddenly found itself without an object of worship plunged into something else.

The same happened in politics: if distrust in one group skyrockets, people almost fanatically trust others, and then are quickly disillusioned in these new ones. This magical flowing of trust into distrust is what accompanied us on our Maidans and in our elections: the 2019 election was the most striking example. I also think we are missing some kind of reasonable balance between trust and a critical view of reality. Our people seem to always swing between blind faith and blind distrust. At this point, we probably need to distinguish trust and faith, because trust need not always be blind.


Denysenko: I like to joke that the way we operate, we crown someone in the morning and in the evening we trample that crown underfoot. And that’s in the best case. Have you seen that in the global ratings, we are among those countries where people say they are unhappy? Well, we can discount the fact that we deliberately act as though we are unhappy to some extent, to avoid being jinxed, but it’s hardly surprising that a TV show about psychics continues to get high ratings, no matter what’s going on. That’s my idea of a joke.

But it seems to me that this distrust also arises because we are tired of struggling, of barely surviving, of suffering, but we know that we know how to do this: how to protest, and how to suffer through just about anything. Yet we don’t quite get that, in order to blossom and live really well, you have to put at least as much effort as into the confrontation or the suffering.

This is also all linked into the idea of an adult life, being in charge and taking responsibility. Blind faith and blind distrust really are a lot less energy-intensive. One gives you happiness, the other rage, and so there’s an impression that we live in these emotional extremes. The question is, how long can an organism go on like that?

There’s another interesting psychological conundrum here. We don’t trust him, her, those in power because we have reason to believe that this is a lie, a danger, a manipulation or just because it pisses us off? Because someone has to be at fault and they’re it!


Yermolenko: I really like what you said about having to put at least as much effort into living well as into merely surviving. That’s spot on! Being happy is also an effort, feeling pleasure is an effort, seeing something good where the media or politicians keep insisting that you see only what’s bad—is also an effort. And here, seems to me, ia one of our typical characteristics. In Ukrainian history there was plenty of psychological ascetics or sado-masochism, but little hedonism. When the western world went through its periods of hedonism, such as in the 18th century of the second half of the 20th, our history mainly taught us to “suffer.”

What’s interesting is that lately we are seeing some kind of new hedonistic revolution in many areas of life—despite the war and all the anguish! I think that more and more people are beginning to discover these new geographies of joy and it’s very important that they keep expanding.

There’s one more aspect to this. You often hear in our circles that Ukraine’s problem is that people treat reality as a zero-sum game. If I win, that means someone else has lost. If someone else wins, that means I will definitely lose. This then leads to an attitude that success is somehow suspicious. If others are successful, that means they got there at my expense! In other words, success is really theft. This is a kind of post-soviet echo of Proudhon’s anarchic principle, “property is theft.”


Denysenko: I agree absolutely, and that’s why success needs to be as glaring and visible as possible. It should be the first to announce you. So that no one ever thinks that we are the side that lost in this life. After all, that’s the way losing is perceived. Not because someone just made a mistake, not because they were wrong, for instance, not because someone else played dirty, not because winning in this situation wasn’t actually important. To not succeed is a little death.

It seems to me that, precisely because of this, corruption is tolerated among us as a normal means of attaining success. Because someone in a government job has the option, so it’s stupid not to take advantage of this. On the other hand, it would be decent if the government grabbed some successful thieves by the collar and threw them behind bars. But none of this really has anything to do with us, the little guys. This is where people easily turn into an audience and once again give up power over their own lives.

Look at what we are coming back to. Successful people are hated and envied, admired and imitated. We’re back on the emotional merry-go-round. People think a lot less about what constitute the measure and the price of success, what it really means, and what constitutes success specifically for me and what makes it so. What do I do in order for my life, the life of my family and my community to become better?

In any case, is a better life for the community at all about success?


Yermolenko: I think we really need to fight this kind of envy, with this feeling that “success is theft,” to raise people to feel that society can be built on a positive-sum game, where I win and you also win. On the other hand, when this principle of a win-win game goes too far, it can also turn into a weakness. Look at how some European leaders to this day believe that you can come to an agreement with Putin’s Russia, that you can play a positive-sum game with Russia. We Ukrainians understand that this is not the way it is. We know that if we try to play a positive-sum game with Russia, it will be perceived as a weakness, because their goal is not to have both sides win, but for their opponent to clearly lose. It’s possible that you will lose as well, but your opponent is supposed to lose a lot more. So we need to look at the positive-sum game a bit sceptically as well. For instance, you can’t trust a crook.


Denysenko: Russia is exhibiting very outdated behaviour of a strongman leader. It acts like it’s unbeatable, although its leadership is evolving before our very eyes. I expect that this behavioural model will remain only in a few textbooks as a geopolitical atavism. But its persistence is ensured by the fact that (a) no one seems to notice it and instead they try to imagine that this partner is one what values parity; (b) others are mesmerized although they may say otherwise; (c) others take it into account, not because they respect it but because they are afraid to break their necks. But you can hardly even call this a healthy instinct, never mind a healthy critical attitude, to treat someone playing a shell game as an equal.

But you brought up some examples of geopolitical attitudes towards the Russian Federation, especially in Europe, although our citizens are often also impressed by precisely this kind of display of strength. It’s unfortunate that the display platform happens to be us... but then... Just watch them give what for...!


Yermolenko: I’d like to ask you about a field you know a lot better than I do, the law. With law, trust is a key component, especially trust in the arbiter. John Locke, one of the main liberal philosophers in European intellectual history, wrote that the search for an arbiter is the main basis for the social contract that gives birth to the state. People need an arbiter when they enter into a dispute, when they need a third party to establish justice. And only trust in this third party makes law possible. The very notion “rule of law” is translated in Ukrainian as “the supremacy of law,” although it could also have been translated as “the right of law,” or “the government of law”, meaning the case of a state where the law rules and not a dictator, a messiah, a king, or even a group of oligarchs. In order for this model to be developed, there has to be trust in those who are generating these laws, but above all in those who interpret them.


Denysenko: Trust in the system of justice is a very important factor in both a country’s success and the happiness of its people. Because justice, security, guaranteed rights, and the inevitability of punishment, are fulcrum that ensure this system and are of great value to most people.

We can’t just ignore cases of judiciary wrongs, but neither can we engage in a game of public pressure and anger versus telephone justice and the dictates of those in power. This is bombarding the judiciary on all sides, when the public has no trust and their elected representatives also distrust the system. If Justice saw this every time on its scales, the cups would rattle like crazy.

Judges need to understand that they cannot tolerate corruption or the reputations of inappropriate individuals within their system. Disciplinary and anti-corruption entities must adhere to laws and procedures. They must be objective and unbiased, to ensure both basic conventions and constitutional principles, as well as human rights and freedoms.

It all sounds to simple and ordinary, but for some reason, it all too often doesn’t work.


Yermolenko: But, on the other hand, I can’t help but thinking that rights can only arise in pluralistic societies. I mean in societies where might no longer makes right, because there is a certain proportion of players who have equal power. Either they balance each other or they are able to come to agreement with each other. I hope that Ukraine, a country that by its nature is a very pluralistic society—ethnically, linguistically, culturally, geographically, climatically, confessionally, and even oligarchically—is now engendering precisely the situation that will germinate the rule of law: when Ukrainian players themselves become interested in it and rule of law becomes their recipe for survival. Or am I mistaken?


Denysenko: You and I have been talking about strength and law. I’d like to return to the beginning of our conversation. I believe in the force of law and I’m convinced that the conduct of both individuals and communities will foster it precisely because the ecology of the judiciary will become far healthier as a result. This happens when the law and knowledge about individual rights and freedoms, and about responsibility, move beyond the codes and textbooks and become part of the worldview of every individual.


Translated by Lidia Alexandra Wolanskyj

All terms in this article are meant to be used neutrally for men and women

Larysa Denysenko and Volodymyr Yermolenko participated at the International Expert Exchange, "Development of Municipalities: trust, institutions, finance and people", organized by U-LEAD with Europe Programme in December 2020. Their interview delivered during one of the workshops is to a great extent depicted in this paper.

In the name of the U-LEAD with Europe Programme, we would like to express our great appreciation and thanks for both inputs of Ms Denysenko and Mr Yermolenko. The interview will be included in future online publication Compendium of Articles.

Compendium of Articles is a collection of papers prepared by policymakers, Ukrainian and international experts, and academia after International Expert Exchange 2019 and 2020, organized by U-LEAD with Europe Programme. The articles raise questions in the fields of decentralisation reform and regional and local development, relevant for both the Ukrainian and the international audience. The Compendium will be published online in Ukrainian and English languages on the U-LEAD online recourses. Please, follow us on Facebook to stay informed about the project.

If you have any comments or questions about the Compendium of articles or this article in particular, please contact Yaryna Stepanyuk yaryna.stepanyuk@giz.de.


This publication has been produced with the assistance of the European Union and its member states Germany, Poland, Sweden, Denmark, Estonia and Slovenia. The contents of this publication are the sole responsibility of its authors and can in no way be taken to reflect the views of the U-LEAD with Europe Programme, the government of Ukraine, the European Union and its member states Germany, Poland, Sweden, Denmark, Estonia and Slovenia.

22.10.2021 - 10:17 | Views: 1245
«We need to distinguish trust and faith, because trust should not always be blind» — a conversation between Larysa Denysenko and Volodymyr Yermolenko




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