The seventh episode of the Off The Page podcast is special, deviating slightly into a longer format, as we take a look at the crisis in Ukraine and the history of the conflict.
Dr. Serhy Yekelchyk is the featured guest, a professor of European history with expertise in Ukraine, Russia and the history of the Soviet Union at the University of Victoria.
Yekelchyk was born in Kyiv and came to Canada in 1995 to pursue a Ph.D. at the University of Alberta.
He continues to keep in contact with friends and family who remain in Ukraine, and spoke about their spirit of resilience and modern Ukrainian identity.
“…It’s not just about those wonderful embroidered shirts and singing and dancing - which we also do well as everyone knows - but it’s also about democracy. It’s about Ukrainians positioning themselves as the people who escaped from the oppressive Soviet empire and don’t want to go back in any way.”
Growing up in Kyiv, the transition from living under Soviet rule to becoming an independent country was something Yekelchyk described as “liberating.”
He recalled celebrations on the streets and Ukrainian freedom to participate in social organizations, political parties and being able to change governments freely.
Yekelchyk spoke about the threat not only to Ukraine but other former countries that were part of the Soviet Union, such as Moldova, Georgia and Latvia, the latter of which is a member of NATO. As one of the smallest countries in Europe, he explained they are fearful about Putin’s actions to grab territory or establish control, and are also watching how the West will defend its allies.
“I’m afraid the Russian Federation is well on its way to becoming an ultimate evil for the 21st century.”
With Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy going to battle with Vladimir Putin, Yekelchyk said the country’s relatively new president breathed new life and gave hope to its residents. He spoke about Zelenskyy’s background as a well-known actor and comedian, and how with little political experience is able to relate and give hope to citizens.
“He’s very ordinary … his charisma is similar to Charlie Chaplin’s character The Little Tramp. He was powerless, but he had big dreams. And he dreamt of happiness for all the people and that’s the kind of appeal that Zelenskyy has. He came as an ordinary person from the street saying ‘I’m just like you and I will do whatever it takes,’ ” he said and added Russia was waiting for him to become president, believing inexperience would work to their advantage.
“They thought if he was inexperienced, comes from a Russian-speaking Jewish family it would be easy to take him out and he wouldn’t get much support. But no, the Ukrainians of course rallied around him. And he also has proved to be a very, very good politician and a very excellent military leader.”
As for how Yekelchyk sees the conflict ending, he noted while it is difficult to predict what might happen, Ukraine will not be defeated. He added no Russian army would be enough to police an occupied Ukraine; Russia might win some battles but it will not win a war. However, because of the nature of the Russian political regime and the lack of a voice for Russian society, it’s difficult to have a realistic projection of what is going to happen, he said.
“Mr. Putin is a dictator who projects an image of a macho, like the shirtless guy on a horse who is always right and never loses. But for his reputation to be perceived as having lost something would be a colossal blow. In fact, he could be overthrown right after that. So this makes it difficult for us, the Western commentators and for Ukrainians to see a meaningful end to this war.”
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