The Psychological Contradictions in the Modern Russian-Ukrainian Conflict: How Can Contemporary Psychology Help?

May 21, 2014

Views expressed are the author's and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Kennan Institute. 

I want to stress the special role of psychological knowledge and practice in dealing with modern Russian-Ukrainian relations and conflicts. Understanding such conflicts requires that psychologists find their own perspective in addition to contributing to multi-disciplinary discussions in related fields such as sociology, linguistics etc. What is the specific position of the professional psychologist in the study of these questions?  

The theories and practices of contemporary family therapy can provide insight into some possible ways of understanding and responding to this complex situation as the state of affairs in a family can be a good metaphor for social-political conflicts (it is believed that every family can be in a crisis some time and this is normal!). That is why I see the Psychology of Modern Russian-Ukrainian relations and conflicts in the context of the concept of "family crisis".  The experience of family therapy teaches us how to understand and tolerate difference. Even within a family, people often live in different worlds and do not understand one another. Family therapy stresses the importance of hearing the voices of everyone in the family, including children and the elderly. In such a framework of relationships, tension and conflicts are possible; but there are also other types of interactions: acceptance, care, and support, the latter helping individuals to tolerate conflict and tension as existential realities, and not be afraid of them. This leads to "win-win" (not "win-lose") approaches to resolving conflicts and the positive potential every family has as well as such concepts as reconciliation, resilience, and tolerance. That's why family therapists often are interested in politics! On such a basis we may observe that between the Ukrainian and Russian languages equality does not exist in Ukraine, Russia, or even in the international community. Russian has always been the “big brother”. Also the concept of a “scapegoat” in family therapy applies to the “Jewish question” in the Ukrainian – Russian conflict: Ukrainian nationalists have been accused of anti-Semitism (“Banderovtsy”) and it has been said that opponents to Mr. Yanukovych were primarily of Jewish background.

So, this approach stresses the importance of hearing the voices of all the actors, of comprehensive description of their psychological characteristics, as well as of the challenges and opportunities to overcome the negative events in the past. One aspect which has become particularly meaningful for me in these conflicts is the problem of “politeness” versus “honesty” in the behavior of “family members” toward each other.  This is vividly illustrated by Ukrainian and Russian attitudes, with “honesty” dominated by aggression and “politeness” bordering on a lie. As an illustration, we can take an emotional poem composed (in Russian!) http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DNvu9hDKvko by the young Ukrainian poetess Anastasia Dmitruk (pay attention to the fact that the family context is not accidental here!): “We will never be brothers, neither by country neither by mother…  You call yourself the “eldest,” we don’t mind being the youngest, as long as we’re not yours…  But you keep pushing, nothing is ever enough…  Freedom is a word unfamiliar to you… Silence is worth “gold” in your home… We’re grown-up now and brave, under a snipers aim… You’re waiting for orders while we’re burning fires of revolution. You got the Tsar we got Democracy, we will never be brothers…” On the Internet you can find many alternative verses. I’ve translated one roughly from Russian.  (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cjTiRZDiyPU)   Here are some lines from it:  “Evidently you were raised not by the mother, and not with sisters and brothers. Since childhood your head was filled with the pro-fascist’s super-heroes…. And you stupidly betrayed your ancestors who bravely died for you… If you chop off the basic branches where your fathers are sitting now… you never will be our brothers! The Nazis couldn’t be our relatives; they always will be our enemies… And do not dare you, traitors, to call yourself Ukrainians by blood.”

Can we say that the issue of lying is partly a psychological one?  Being once asked by a journalist about “lying”, President Putin said that people sometimes like to be deceived. In this connection I can give as an example a few lines from Alexander Pushkin’s verse “Confession” (it is important to note here that in Russian, the word for "declaration" (of love) also means "confession"): “Alina! Have a little mercy. I wouldn't dare to ask for love: Perhaps, for sins I'm guilty of, my angel, I'm of love unworthy... But feign it! All can be achieved by that expressive gaze, believe me! Ah, it's so easy to deceive me!.. I'm glad myself to be deceived!” (translated by Genia Gurarie).  It is important to note here that in private life people can become stuck in the “honesty” (humanistic/suffering/weaknesses/therapy) mode, or stuck in the positive “politeness” approach of looking for strengths and solutions and forgetting to address the weaknesses. Perhaps awareness of these two modes/values of approaching psychological and social problems will prevent people from over-focusing on one set of things to the neglect of others. Perhaps developing the skill of switching back and forth between “politeness” and “honesty” would lead to greater health and effectiveness for individuals and for society.

What can we do in the psychological realm to prevent further bloodshed in the present Russian-Ukrainian Conflict? What is the psychological reason for miscommunication, misinterpretation, and misinformation in the mass media? Can modern psychologists play the role of peace-keepers, in particular to help "peoples’ diplomacy?" What are the psychological similarities and differences between Kosovo and Crimea?   Perhaps the representatives of other modern psychological approaches (not only family therapists!) would want to participate in the discussion and Kennan Institute can take a leadership position in this.  

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