On December 5-6, 2014 the International conference „Crisis in Ukraine – psychotherapeutic approaches“


Dear Colleagues!

On December 5-6, 2014 the International conference „Crisis in Ukraine – psychotherapeutic approaches“ was held at the Sigmund Freud University, Vienna. The conference was attended by psychologists and psychotherapists from Austria, Belarus, Great Britain, Hungary, Germany, Ireland, Spain, Italy, Kosovo, Latvia, Lithuania, Russia, Romania, Serbia, Ukraine, Croatia, Switzerland, Estonia.

Here you can read a paper given by the ECPP Past-President 

 Prof. Dr. Mikhail Reshetnikov

A Psychoanalytic Approach to Interpretation of Ukrainian Crisis


Dear colleagues and friends,


I would like to express my gratitude to Professor Alfred Pritz and Professor Alexander Filts for organizing this Conference and to everybody for your readiness for dialogue.


I hope we are not going to repeat our media broadcasts here; they are not objective, because journalists in any country depend on their public, their government and their employers. In my opinion, our task is different. It is not to tell who is right and who is wrong, not to blame or to justify anyone, but to look for deeper roots of current situation in Ukraine and to understand possible reasons for ongoing crisis in Russian-Ukrainian relationship. A special task is to seek for psychological mechanisms which can change the current situation.


First of all, I would like to stress that I am not a political or governmental figure. So I will stick to my area of competence and try not to politisize the problem. I am a Russian citizen born in Ukraine, that is why I cannot be absolutely objective, and I know it. But I hope that discussion with my Ukrainian colleagues will help me to get more correct picture of current events.


I tried to base my short presentation only on psychological, psycho-historical and psychoanalytic concepts. Again, I am not sure to what degree I succeeded. We will see it during our discussion. We all are professionals here, so let me just shortly mention psychological and psychoanalytic concepts which I used to support my ideas.


First of all, it is understanding psychology, founded by Wilhelm Dilthey, Karl Jaspers and others. Let me remind you the main idea expressed by Dilthey: “We explain nature, we understand mental life». Or, even more correctly, we try to understand it. Ideas, developed by Jaspers, are also important for me, such as: “[individual’s] psychic life is unthinkable without traditions which he gets through his community”, “Nothing is forgotten in area of inherited connections”.


The second approach, which I used in my paper, was Freud’s psychoanalysis, in particular, concept of identification. According to Freud, “identification is the initial form of emotional connection” with individual’s father, mother, kin, tribe and people.


The next concept is intergenerational transmission, a psychoanalytic idea developed by Anna Freud and Dorothy Burlingham. In a few words, after tragic events children of survivors develop deeper identification with their parents and have symptoms related to parental psychic contents and to the past in general, which they could not witness. In result of massive psychic trauma caused by a hostile large group, thousands or even millions of individuals deposit their traumatized images into their children. It leads to a cumulative effect which determines psychic content of the large group’s identity. Shared task of the traumatized society could differ from generation to generation. For instance, for one generation the task is to mourn the ancestors’ trauma, to feel shame and to be aware of their sacrifice. For the next generation, shared task might be revenge for these losses. But other versions are also possible.


Then I turn to Freud’s idea that contrasting individual and group psychic phenomena is ungrounded. Freud stresses that individual psychology is “at the same time social psychology as well”. Freud adds that it is important to view human beings not only as separate people but also as members of a race, of a nation, of a caste, of a profession.


In my works I have repeatedly mentioned and elaborated Professor Vamik Volkan’s idea that international conflicts develop like paranoia. Why paranoia? Because the main psychic mechanisms manifested in all international conflicts are projection and projective identification: “It is not true that I victimize and hate X, but he victimizes and hates me”. Let me add that in many cases such paranoia is typical for both sides of international conflict.


I also used Freud’s reflections on narcissism of minor differences. Its essence is the following: if somebody is almost like me, but a bit different in language, traditions and customs, I perceive it as a caricature at me, which provokes my negative feelings. This mechanism is manifested in relationships between British and Irish people, Jews and Arabs, Russians and Ukrainians as well.


After this short introduction I will try to offer an interpretation of contemporary events in Ukraine. Let me begin with psychohistory. Ukrainian people fought for their national identity and independence for many centuries. In this paper we will deal with the last 3-4 centuries. In the XVII century most part of Ukrainian population was under Polish rule. When we speak about history, we cannot overlook such an outstanding person as Bohdan Khmelnytsky. In 1647 he was elected Hetman (that is, the head) of Zaporozhian Army (serving the Kingdom of Poland) and received the charter from Polish King.


Immediately after that, in 1648, he initiated a war against Poland, first for Cossacks autonomy, and then for independent Cossack Ukraine. The war lasted five years without much success. After five years of war, Khmelnytsky asked Russian Tsar Alexei Mikhailovich for help and in exchange promised him to incorporate Zaporozhian lands into Russia. In 1654 this proposal was accepted, and Cossacks accepted Russian over-lordship.


I should mention that this decision did not receive nation-wide support. In Kiev, Orthodox priests refused to swear allegiance to Russian Tsar, and many Cossacks were forced to do it. Bohdan Khmelnytsky was condemned as a traitor of Ukrainian people, and there were anti-Russian uprisings. However, after that Ukraine and Russia waged war against Poland together. The power balance changed, and the victory was close.

Why weren’t all Ukrainian lands incorporated into Russia? Poland was also exhausted by this war. Swedish King Karl intended to use this situation and attacked Poland from the North in 1655, but to strengthen Sweden was not in Russia’s interests. Russia immediately concluded a peace treaty with Poland, and Sweden was attacked by joint Russian, Ukrainian and Polish troops. In result of this war, Left-Bank Ukraine was formed and became a part of Russia. Western lands stayed under Polish rule. Ukrainians became a divided nation.

Let me remind you that Russian Empire did not have national subdivisions; it was divided into provinces, one of which was Kiev Province. After revolution in 1917 Russia established new subdivisions, 15 national republics of the USSR. Borders of national republics were not important and were assigned just in view of political goals. For instance, population of Kiev Province consisted mostly of peasants, who were perceived as unreliable by Soviet power; it led to a decision to strengthen Ukrainian Republic by “working class”. For this purpose, a number of Russian industrial regions were assigned to Soviet Ukraine by just a scrape of pen; they included contemporary Donetsk and Lugansk regions with their Russian population. It didn’t have any significance in totalitarian state.

Let me repeat that contemporary Western Ukraine for many centuries was under Polish, Lithuanian or Austrian-Hungarian rule, and there was a lot of fight for national liberation. In 1939 in accordance with Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, a part of this land (which belonged to Poland but was populated by Ukrainians) was incorporated into Soviet Ukraine; more correctly to say, into the USSR in general. Western Ukrainians could not perceive it as liberation or re-union with their people. For them, it was just the next occupation.

Stalin’s regime was at the peak of its cruelty then. Soviet power was imposed upon Western Ukrainians, peasants were robbed of their land and cattle, businessmen of their possessions, and dissidents were arrested and executed. Importantly, after their long history of being colonized, Ukrainians still did not own their land.

Officials of Nazi Germany were not stupid indeed. When in 1941 Western Ukraine was occupied by Nazis, they declared that Ukrainian people were the main owners of their historical land. So, Germany secured its rear, and Western Ukrainians got hope for independence. While occupied by Nazis, Western Ukrainians established their administration, police and the SS division, and after a few centuries of humiliation they started their violent revenge upon Jews, Poles and Russians.


It is natural that for us, Russians and Eastern Ukrainians, everybody collaborating with fascists was an enemy. Every family lost its members in that war. We lost 28 million of our compatriots. But in Western Ukraine, majority of people hated the Soviet power (by the way, for long period of time “Russian” and “Soviet” were synonymous) – so, they hated the Soviet power and supported collaborators. We call them “Nazi collaborators”, but for Western Ukrainians they were fighters for independence, like Stepan Bandera.


In 1944 the Soviet Army came back to Western Ukraine, and of course, started persecuting Ukrainian nationalists as Nazi collaborators, enemies and traitors. This war was anti-fascist (Liberation and Patriotic) war for us, but for them it was just the next occupation.


The Second World War ended in 1945, but fight against nationalists in Western Ukraine continued till 1953.  According to different sources, 60 to 90 thousand people were killed from both sides. About 100 thousand were arrested, and others deported. There were public executions, shooting or gallows, and other methods of so-called “Soviet correction” which were not openly discussed in Soviet society.


However, families of murdered Ukrainian nationalists remembered these events and spoke about them, transmitting this memory from generation to generation. That is why their children and grandchildren have a different historical memory and different attitude to fascism and to Russia. Let me remind you that we are speaking about only a segment of Ukrainian population. 


This segment, however, should be understood and accepted as something which exists in reality and cannot be quickly changed. But these people, with another worldview, should also understand that we, Russians and South-Eastern Ukrainians (who are ethnic Russians, Ukrainians or representatives of other nationalities) have a different historical memory, too.


In summary: anti-Russian attitude in a segment of Ukrainian population has existed for centuries and has been repeatedly activated. Its external manifestations have been suppressed, but this fact could not influence intergenerational transmission mechanisms. Let me repeat what I have said in introduction, “Nothing is forgotten in area of inherited connections”…


And now, about current events. I should repeat that I am speaking about my point of view only. I am not a participant of these events, and I will try to avoid judgmental opinions. When in 1991 Ukraine separated from the USSR and became an independent state, there was another event which went unnoticed. The essence of this event is the following: as I told you before, a large part of population of Soviet Ukraine was formed by Russians, whose lands were assigned to Ukraine in Soviet time by political decision. But these Russians and Russian-speakers lived on their historical lands for many centuries. In result, in 1991, Russians became a divided nation as well.


I am not going to analyze political situation in Ukraine now. I will only mention the fact that Ukrainian national elite shamelessly robbed the Ukrainian people in post-Soviet time. The same situation was in Russia in 1990-s. Social crisis in Ukraine was inevitable, but to some degree it was compensated by ongoing protests (orange revolution and others), which let off the steam but did not resolve the main problems.  


In November 2013 the most powerful national protest movement started, and it was directed against the President and power of oligarchs… As we know, the protest ended with change of government and escape of the President. Let me stress once again, that from November 2013 to February 2014 this explosion of hatred and group unrest was directed exclusively against President and oligarchs.


In the end of February 2014, when there was no problem with Crimea or Eastern Ukraine yet, the protest movement - at once - became exclusively anti-Russian, and all other problems (including anti-oligarch protest) simply disappeared from Ukrainian informational space. Let me also remind you that almost all media in Ukraine belong to oligarchs. In this case it is possible to suggest, that there was re-direction of aggression by brainwashing. Considering the fact that a segment of Ukrainian population has always had anti-Russian attitude, it was not a difficult task.


Let me add that this anti-oligarchic revolution led to paradoxical results: the oligarch was elected for President and a few more oligarchs became governors.


I would also remind you that by February 2014 there was no separatism in Ukraine. I have the following hypothesis of how this separatism appeared. On February 23, 2014 (by the way – Day of Russian Army) there was a threat (just a threat) of legal cancelation of Russian language as the second state language; but for many people in Crimea and Eastern Ukraine it was mother tongue and the only language they could speak. National language is one of the main factors of national identification. Destruction of a national language - is the same, as destruction of a nation; in psychoanalytic terms, it is an equivalent of castration. In result of this attempt, another protest movement started in Russian-speaking regions of Ukraine; at first, the requirements were federalization and autonomy inside Ukraine (nothing more).


People of Eastern regions who did not carry out any attacks or explosions or shootings were blamed as separatists and terrorists. Nationalist militant brigades and regular troops were sent to suppress them. Let me repeat it, Eastern Ukrainians did not attack anyone. But after the first shootings and first murders a different psychological mechanism was triggered; and the situation started to develop like a real paranoia.


Additionally: the former President’s flight to Russia, referendum and separation of Crimea, humanitarian help from Russia to self-declared republics, Russian volunteers among irregular brigades – all these factors have increased anti-Russian attitude.


I do not know how wide-spread these events are, but I am worried by some slogans like “Ukraine über alles” (Ukraine above all), by torchlight processions, swastikas on uniforms and posters and rebirth of nationalism. It provokes another attitude to Ukraine and creates an additional reason for misunderstanding.


My main idea is that at the moment there are two protest movements in Ukraine which have some similarities and some differences.

  1. Similarities.

In both cases, in Kiev and in Eastern Ukraine there were protest movements and forceful assumption of power by illegitimate means. Both sides project enemy image onto each other, which, as we know, is the most powerful factor of national consolidation. 

  1. Differences.

А) New Kiev power actually sent a message to Eastern regions: “You have to disown your historical memory, your nationality, forget your personal and family history, your fathers, grandfathers and your heroes, and after that - you should live, think and perceive everything like we do and in our language”. In my opinion, it is imposed slavery and - at the same time - it is revenge because Western Ukrainians had to honor other people’s history and heroes for decades.

B) New leaders of Eastern regions declared: “We want to protect our historical memory, to live and think in the way we want, to honor our fathers and grandfathers and our national heroes. But we won’t prevent you from living the way you want”.


For some reasons, the Western world perceives new Kiev power as rebels, and rebels of Eastern regions as terrorists.


If a few thousand Russian-speakers came to Germany or the UK or a Western Ukrainian city, they would have to learn German or English or Ukrainian. It would be their choice. But there are a few million people in Lugansk and Donetsk regions, which did not come to these regions; they have always lived there on their historical lands and spoke their language. I believe, it gives them a right to have autonomy.  


We all need to understand that it is impossible to force people of one nation to consider themselves people of a different nation.


We should strive for reconciliation and consensus. We need to mourn those who lost their lives and to forget our former hostility. But if we try to prove to each other who was a hero and who was not, there will be no peace at all, as minimum for 3-5 generations of our children and grandchildren. Do we want it?  


In my opinion, there are two ways to deal with the situation: 1. understand and accept specifics of national history and national identification of Eastern and Western Ukrainians and help their common striving for peace; 2. try to force one nation to live in accordance with other nation’s worldview, but in this case escalation of conflict is inevitable.


The fact that we, people with different or even opposite perspectives on historical and modern       events, came here for discussion, can give us some hope.





Meritorious Scientist of Russian Federation, Rector of the East-European Psychoanalytical Institute (St. Petersburg, Russia),

Past-President of the European Confederation of Psychoanalytical Psychotherapies (ECPP, Vienna, Austria); President of Russian National Branch of the ECPP (St. Petersburg);

member of World Psychotherapy Council (Vienna, Austria); board member of Russian
Psychological and Psychotherapeutic Societies (Moscow, Russia).




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