By Kiran Yeh
The truth doesn't drown in water and doesn't burn in fire - Ukrainian Proverb
In the aftermath of the Kakhovka dam explosion in Ukraine, water flooded every crevice in Kherson (The New York Times, 2023). Thick plumes of smoke billowed from the fiery orange flames on the Bakhmut frontline, where some of the most brutal and violent battles have unfolded (Forbes, 2023). Since Putin’s devastating attack on Ukraine on February 24, 2022, it’s estimated that 8,983 people have been killed and 15,442 injured (United Nations, 2023). A desperate cry for justice and healing echoes amidst the debris as a profound need arises for a Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC)— a catharsis to move the country forward.
Russia's armed invasion not only intensified the rivalry between Ukraine and Russia but also exacerbated internal divisions within the former Soviet Republic regarding its national identity, evoking sentiments reminiscent of the collapse of the Soviet Union. After 1991, unifying the nation proved challenging. Former ambassador to Ukraine, Steven Pifer, explained the transition to democracy was turbulent, leading many Eastern Ukrainians to yearn for the stability of previous times (National Geographic, 2023).
Many of those from Galicia, the historical and geographic region spanning what is now southeastern Poland and western Ukraine, hold the predominant perspective that Ukraine is a defender of the West against Russia, rejecting any relationship with it. In contrast, many individuals from the Malorossiya region (Little Russia) view it as a bridge between Europe and Russia, seeking to advance a harmonious partnership between the three (National Geographic, 2023).
Since 2022, this tension has continued with Russian intervention: in occupied territories, Russian forces pressure Ukrainians to acquire Russian citizenship and set up elections to boost loyalty among locals (Skorkin). Moreover, communities and infrastructure are not the only casualties of destruction– an overwhelming cascade of deep fake videos on Twitter and false announcements on Telegram propagated by the Kremlin have led to confusion and distrust. It’s evident that this war is not solely about territorial control, but also a battle for, and against, the truth. The legacy left from history coupled with recent Russian action, thus, weakens a united Ukrainian identity.
A TRC between Russia and Ukraine is a distant prospect; the deep wounds inflicted by the war will take a long time and much more than that to heal. Instead, as Professor Nikolai Petro proposes, a TRC between Ukrainians that would provide a space to those “who fought on either side of this conflict” would lead to “a purging of the soul that restores healthy perspective by removing hatreds” (Petro, 2022). By providing a calm space for open and honest discussions, such a process could facilitate the forging of a sense of trust, forgiveness, and most importantly verity, thus, mending the concept of Ukrainian identity.
A TRC between Ukrainians would prioritize reconciliation over punishment or persecution, seeking to engage all parties involved in the conflict and prevent further exacerbation of ideological divisions. By facilitating public testimonies from survivors who experienced the atrocities committed, the commission would work towards delivering justice, strengthening the rule of law, and ultimately putting an end to the cycle of violence between Russia and Ukraine. In the spirit of justice and healing, Ukrainians who aligned or sympathized with Russia would be offered amnesty after revealing the full extent of human rights violations or untold stories that would benefit the nation (Lauterpacht Centre for International Law). Through this process, a more resilient Ukraine would emerge, anchored in a collective memory that is free from a narrative clouded by Russian influence.
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