A few days before the Paris meeting between Macron and Putin, Ukraine remains at the margins of mainstream discourse in France.
I was invited to Paris by the French Congress of People of Russian Descent. It is chaired by Gueorgui Chepelev, a historian with the University of Sorbonne.
In the Congress there are people of different views and backgrounds: descendents of “white” Russians, who came after the Russian civil war, those who moved to France from the USSR or Russia. There are people born in Russia, Chechnya or Ukraine, young scientists working in research institutions. Their views are as different as their backgrounds. I met also representatives of Russian-language diaspora of Spain or Morocco.
I focused on issues which would not cause too much dispute.
- The humanitarian situation in the part of Ukraine affected by the conflict remains difficult. People still need help, often as much as in winter 2014–2015.
- The conflict is not yet over. What could be done from Europe, many people asked. Having discussed the options which people inside Ukraine would see as preferable, I shared with the participants their views: the best way to help is to provide peace-inclined groups from Ukraine with safe venues so that they could meet and discuss matters without being threatened.
- To answer the question if Ukraine really consists of Russians and Ukrainians, it is necessary to give voice to Ukrainian Greeks, Poles, Roma, Bulgarians, Ruthenians, Hungarians, Jews.
Many came up to share their family stories after the official part of the meeting. A woman from Spain told how her family gave money to buy an ambulance for Lugansk. An elderly man who looked and spoke French revealed that his family comes from the Greeks of Mariupol, “I was there 20 years ago for the first and last time. There was a portrait of my grandfather in their museum. I am glad you speak of multinational Ukraine as its defining characteristic”. A woman remarked: “I was born in Zaporozhye and my relatives live in Melitopol. They are very critical of many things which are now common in Ukraine”. Another woman says, “I live in a small town in southern France. It is a seaport with a lot of French Navy servicemen. After the events in Donbass started to develop, young French men began to enrol in Russian language courses. Later I learnt that some of them went to Donbass and are still in Donetsk”. A French anthropologist noted her Ukrainian husband’s suffering over the plight of Ukraine, “just yesterday we had a rare quarrel as he thought I remained indifferent while the thought of people being abandoned taunts him”.
I had two public meetings with French students. The first talk was in the Paris Institute of Political Studies, for postgraduate students who study Russian among other subjects. The institute is the alma mater for quite many French diplomats. Students asked questions about the attitude of the common people living in the area of the conflict, the far-right sentiments and their spread among the military, ways to resolve the conflict as well as “whether Putin needs this war”.
The second public talk was held in Inalco, the French Institute for Eastern Languages and Civilizations, part of Paris Sorbonne. There were some forty people who also study Russian. The discussion here centered around the issue of the acceptability of silence concerning attacks on people living in the eastern part of Ukraine either on the basis of language or political views. Does this conflict exist in the French media? How well is it covered? If we stood up for the rights of the Chechen people, could we keep eyes closed to what is happening to those who are labelled “pro-Russian”? Do all people in Donbass really speak only Russian? What are the main differences between various regions of Ukraine and what is the true meaning of the “contact line”?
Main aspects of the activity of the Finnish Peace Committee on Ukraine and Russia were outlined in the discussion. People were invited to follow the Finnish Peace Committee on social media.
Among the numerous meetings some were special. We met with those Ukrainian anarchists and left-wing people who had to flee Ukraine because of threats by far-rightists. One of them said, “I have been a left-wing militant for years. During Maidan I was there. What I do know well is how to fight Nazis. But they stronger than us because the war armed them. I come from Lviv. There is a club of bikers there who are now well-equipped with submachine guns. If I return to Ukraine now, getting a disabling injury would be the best I could expect. I tried to seek asylum in Sweden. They refused me. To avoid deportation to Kiev, I fled to the Netherlands. But they returned me to France. At least, the French have not put me on the flight back immediately… There have been a number of people among my comrades killed by far-rightists in Ukraine. All in the period after our revolution. Here, in Paris, I am staying together with Ukrainian labour migrants. They are nice people but they do not know what to do with themselves. ‘Our families have sent us here to make money’, they openly state. Our revolution provided them with the notion of “dignity” but failed to explain what it actually means. The leftist idea is in crisis in Ukraine. Many have fled. Many have turned to nationalism, acting as a sort of anarcho-nationalists or nationalistic anarchists”.