The Ambivalent Future of Ukraine

From the Series: Ukraine and Russia: The Agency of War

Photo by Alexei Yurchak.

"Illustration of Ambivalence by Robert Neubecker for Ian Leslie's 'Ambivalence is Awesome' on Slate, June 13, 2013.”

The situation in Ukraine can be grasped best by a specialist on geopolitics, a scholar of the (il)legitimacy of power, an ethnographer of insurgencies, an analyst of media propaganda wars, a trauma therapist, or by a psychologist of phobias and love-hate relationships. I have none of those specialisms, but I share their intellectual challenge—the theme of ambivalence. While “East” and “West” embark on another cycle of ideological confrontation and political standoff, there is little room left for marginal positions and ambivalent attitudes. As the outside world lashes out at Putin over the Crimea and East Ukraine, Russians turn wartime patriotic. Yet paradoxically, exactly because it is impossible to achieve a consensus, and because the black-and-white forefront positions over the Crimea and east Ukraine split families, friendships, and international clubs, it is the understanding of grey areas and backgrounds that might help define the way forward for Ukraine.

The Bi-Polar Background

One legacy shared by most survivors of oppressive political regimes is what George Orwell called “doublethink” and what Yury Levada and Alexander Zinoviev branded as being the key feature of Homo sovieticus. Under late socialism, as the present-day elites in Russia and Ukraine were growing up, it was irrelevant whether people believed official ideological messages or not. Instead, the relation to officialdom became based on intricate strategies of simulated support and on “nonofficial” practices (Yurchak 1997, 162). Individual doublethink developed into collective double standards that implied the ability to hold contradictory views in private and in public and the capacity of switching between them smoothly, when applied to “us” and “them,” to “ordinary citizens” and to the Party leaders, and to one’s personal circle and to society as a whole.

In its sociological sense, ambivalence, in the definition of Robert Merton, refers to incompatible normative expectations of attitudes, beliefs, and behaviour. The incompatibility is assigned to a status and the social structures that generate the circumstances in which ambivalence is embedded (Merton 1976, 6–7). The core type of sociological ambivalence puts contradictory demands upon the occupants of a status in a particular social relation. Since these norms cannot be simultaneously expressed in behaviour, they come to be expressed in an oscillation of behaviors (Merton 1976, 8).

In the context of modernity, ambivalence is associated with fragmentation and failure of manageability. Zygmunt Bauman defined ambivalence as the possibility of assigning an object or an event to more than one category and views it as a language-specific disorder, with its main symptom being the acute discomfort we feel when we are unable to read the situation properly and to choose between alternative actions (Bauman 1991, 1, 12). Those who have detailed knowledge of geographical maps and the economic history of Ukraine or have done exhaustive research of the conflicting accounts on the current situation end up developing symptoms of ambivalence. Bauman lists ambivalence among “the tropes of the ‘other’ of Order: ambiguity, uncertainty, unpredictability, illogicality, irrationality, ambivalence, brought about by modernity with its desire to organise and to design” (Bauman 1991, 7). Ambivalence thus implies a form of disorder and negativity. In my view, ambivalence can be singled out from Bauman’s list for its bi-polarity, oscillating duality and the relative clarity of polar positions.

I note the clear visions represented by the White House and the Kremlin, even if they leave me feeling schizophrenic. Russia has gone anti-American yet again, but with a passion as if it is the first time. The United State’s approach toward Russia, as Andrew Wilson points out, reflects traditional concerns, even phobias, that are not based on an adequate understanding of the country, in part because Russia has ceased to be a focus of U.S. foreign policy. The U.S. approach to Ukraine is probably even less informed, if one follows that logic.

These irreconcilable visions constitute thesis and antithesis that co-exist without a possibility of synthesis, yet without an uncertainty as to what they are. The catch is that the clarity of polarized positions does not help in dealing with the complexities at hand. An adequate understanding of the situation in Ukraine, in my view, is unachievable without complicating matters, viewing modern Ukraine in the context of its geographical, historical, economic, and political bi-polarity and without understanding the clash between the completely different modus operandi of Ukraine and Russia vis-a-vis Europe.

The “Open Secrets” of the Ukrainian Sistema

In psychoanalysis, ambivalence is often associated with ambiguity, but the differences are significant. First, ambivalence is a bi-polar concept, not multi-polar as is the case with ambiguity. Its poles (thesis and anti-thesis) are defined and there is little uncertainty as to what these poles, or co-existing views, attitudes, and beliefs are. The uncertainty is created by the unpredictability of their actualization. While ambiguity is best illustrated by shifting centers of power and political influences (as represented by the EU multi-polar model and positions of its individual members on sanctions), ambivalence is an outcome of conflicting constraints.

The ambivalence of the Ukrainian elite can be defined as substantive ambivalence (they are Russian speaking, Russian educated, and Russian thinking individuals, while fighting their own background), functional ambivalence (they criticize and attack the system that they themselves had been an integral part of), and normative ambivalence (they commit to pro-democratic values that oppose their political behaviour, for example, their position on the EU membership goes contrary to their business interests).

The ambivalence of the Ukrainian elite is distinct from duplicity, from the deliberate deceptiveness in behaviour or speech, or from double-dealing. When molded by clashing constraints, ambivalence can result in the ability for doublethink (the illogical logic), dual functionality (functionality of the dysfunctional), and double standards (for us and for them). Ambivalence is best understood through the paradoxes of modernity, such as the role of hackers in advancing cybersecurity, for example, or the elites that propagate democracy and rule of law but are ready to use any amount of force to maintain themselves in power, as Vladimir Pastukhov argues.

Living with Ambivalence

My take on Ukraine evolves from my understanding of sistema, a network-based system of governance in Russia, which operates behind the facades of formal institutions. One “open secret” of the Ukrainian sistema is that it has been unable to serve its own reproduction: in short, elites simply have grabbed too much. I agree with Wilson’s framing of Maidan as “anti-sistema” forces and his argument that people want to reboot the system but don’t have methods for doing so.

The other “open secret,” however, is that ex-Maidans and Maidans-to-be are unable to make a fundamental change: sistema has gone but long live sistema! This points to a certain grip, if not effectiveness, of sistema forces, even where weakened by violence and its own protagonists.

The bad apples vs. bad barrel dilemma of the Ukrainian governance system, sometimes referred to as kleptocracy, cannot be resolved in a non-ambivalent way. It is not the question of changing all the apples (people of the former sistema), or of changing the barrel (the regime). Living with ambivalence will remain the name of the game until Ukraine becomes capable of sustaining itself as an independent economic unity. In the last twenty-five years, there has been very little progress in this direction. The tragedies of the 2014 military confrontations in east Ukraine have made the future of Ukraine even more difficult.


Bauman, Zygmunt. 1991. Modernity and Ambivalence. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press.

Merton, Robert K. 1976. Sociological Ambivalence and Other Essays. New York: Free Press.

Yurchak, Alexei. 1997. “The Cynical Reason of Late Socialism: Power, Pretense, and the Anekdot.” Public Culture 9, no. 2: 161–88.