The Tragedy of Ukraine

The Tragedy of Ukraine

What classical Greek tragedy can teach us about conflict.


EDITOR’S NOTE: In his most recent book, The Tragedy of Ukraine: What Classical Greek Tragedy Can Teach Us About Conflict Resolution (Berlin and Boston: De Gruyter, 2023), professor Nicolai N. Petro argues that the conflict in Ukraine has deep domestic roots. Reconciliation will require untangling these roots and embracing a change of heart, or catharsis. Classical Greek tragedy can assist in this, he argues, because it once performed a similar therapeutic function in Athenian society. Below is an excerpt from the final chapter (footnotes omitted).

Rejecting Rage, Embracing Catharsis

Legendary Ukrainian film director Alexander Dovzhenko had a keen eye for scenarios. His diary contains an idea for the film Ukraine in Flames, which he was working on in 1943. He imagines a concentration camp guard and an inmate, both Ukrainians, striking up a conversation across the barbed wire that separates them, a conversation made “all the more terrible” he writes, “because of its fervent hatred.” In the final scene, they seize each other through the barbed wire, the guard trying to choke the prisoner, the prisoner refusing to let go for fear of being shot.

Dovzhenko wonders what they might have talked about: about the authorities, about socialism, about collective farms, about Hitler, about history. About Bohdan [Khmelnitsky], about Mazepa, about everything—a symbolic eternal picture, a centuries-old duel of two Ukrainians hardened by their long, hard, thorny road. About Siberia. Perhaps the guard was a Galician, a leader of his local village, or perhaps he was just a simple peasant. Their conversation is shown up close, then from a distance: the head and barbed wire, the head and barbed wire and blood. Eyes and teeth glinting in the darkness, the wire of thorns surrounding their temples gouging into their foreheads, blood dripping with pain and hatred and passion… That is how they found them the next morning, dead in each other’s arms, in the twisted embrace of the barbed wire.

For writer Myroslava Berdnyk, this fragment from Dovzhenko’s diary encapsulates the hatred that some Ukrainians pass on from one generation to the next. The only way to escape it, says political commentator Andrei Yermolaev, is to undergo a catharsis that expunges fear, and lets people see the humanity of their antagonists. Without such a catharsis there can be no dialogue about the future, since there is no future that either side can see in which both sides coexist.

In her book Enraged: Why Violent Times Need Ancient Greek Myths, Emily Katz Anhalt shows how classical Greek tragedy helped to contain and redirect individual anger into empathy. Rage, as classicist Mary Beard reminds us, is the first word in the history of Western literature. It is also the driving force in many Greek tragedies: from Ajax’s fury at being passed over for Achilles’s armor, to the violence of Hecuba’s “justice,” blinding Polymestor and murdering his children. And yet, in Sophocles’s and Euripides’s telling of these tales, we are also shown the enemy’s point of view, in order to cultivate the audience’s empathy and self-reflection.

These are essential qualities for conflict resolution because they encourage human agency—the idea that human beings, not the gods, are ultimately accountable for the decisions they make. Thus, even when two great warriors like Diomedes and Glaucon meet on the field of battle, Homer, in The Iliad, reminds us that their fates are not yet sealed. They wind up refusing to fight each other because their grandfathers had once exchanged guest-gifts. Homer is telling his audience that, even in the midst of battle, individuals can engage in dialogue and choose to avoid violence.

Rage often masquerades as justice, but is really its opposite. Instead of solace and peace, it brings only further rage and retribution. Achilles’s insatiable rage was finally spent when he learned how to feel compassion for Hector’s father. It was by learning how to manage their rage, and replace vengeance with empathy, says Anhalt, that the ancient Greeks moved “from tribalism to civil society.”

Anhalt’s approach complements my earlier critique of the tragic realists—Morgenthau, Niebuhr, and Arendt—who gave up too quickly on the therapeutic potential of tragedy, because they deemed the human condition unchangeable. But, while an individual’s choice of what actions to take remains their own, it often depends upon the stories we tell ourselves about who we are. This is where tragedy’s moral message begins to have broader social significance, forcing us to “recognize our own needs in the needs of others.”

Having reminded us of the centrality of tragedy to Greek life, and the subtle ways in which it raised important political and moral issues, however, Anhalt also suggests that classical Greek tragedy initiated “a movement toward individual autonomy and universal human rights.” By attributing too much to classical Greek tragedy, she winds up overlooking the more limited role for which it is optimally suited—conflict resolution. Before a conflict can be resolved, the tragic cycle fueled by vengeance must end. Building empathy for one’s enemies, through tragedy, serves this very purpose, which obviously promotes social stability. Whether it also leads to universal human rights is far less obvious.

Thus, while tragedy is not a cure-all for violence, its message of empathy, dialogue, and compassion remains worth affirming. The main thing that social analysts should take away from classical Greek tragedy is the importance of benign social messaging, and of spreading the message of compassion effectively to all groups of society. Institutions per se are not enough to resolve conflict. Without a true change of heart, social transformation cannot take root. Put another way, there can be no conflict resolution without catharsis.

Building Shared Values through Dialogue

Classical Greek tragedy teaches that the pursuit of total victory in a conflict invariably breeds renewed conflict. To break this cycle, the participants must recognize that they each see only a part of the truth, and then allow themselves to appreciate the other parts of the truth, seen by their opponents. Without this, any victory will only turn to ashes.

Nothing illustrates this better than the intensity with which the opposing sides in Ukraine cling to their mutually exclusive views of what constitutes justice. If Ukrainian history is indeed a repeating cycle of mutual grievances, then perhaps the way out lies in recognizing that it is this very effort to “fix” Ukraine, that is perpetuating the tragic cycle.

Dialogue is the key to restoring community because, unlike conversation, discussion, or debate, dialogue is fundamentally concerned with sustaining the relationship of the participants. It is, in William Isaacs’s words, a conversation with a center, not sides. Its objective is not momentary consensus, but a complete self-transformation that creates a new relationship among the antagonists. Classical Greek tragedy is thus, quintessentially, a series of dialogues in which we expose our own tragic flaws to ourselves.

Today, many people, even diplomats, seem to think that dialogue means nothing more than communicating one’s wishes to another party. But a prison warden does that to his inmates. One of the most ancient meanings of the word logos is “to gather together,” which some scholars render as “relationship.” In this vein, the opening words of the Gospel of St. John reveal this insight: “In the beginning was the Relationship…” Perhaps it is for this very reason that Archdeacon John Chryssavgis describes dialogue as sacred:

If we are true to ourselves and honest with those with whom we are in dialogue; if we are not simply in dialogue in order to impose our own will and our own way; if we approach the other in dialogue in truth and in love, then we leave ourselves susceptible to transformation. Dialogue renders us more vulnerable, more receptive to divine grace and actual growth.

Back in May 2014, the Supreme Rada seemed to grasp the need for such self-transformation, when it adopted a “Memorandum on Mutual Understanding and Peace.” It called on Ukrainians to “extend a hand to each other, to reject radical actions, hatred, and to restore, together, common efforts in defense, development, and the establishment of a democratic, sovereign and united Ukraine, in which people of all nationalities, political beliefs, and faiths can live in friendship.” To achieve this, the memorandum called for “a national dialogue within the framework of roundtable of national unity.” Alas, this idea was never implemented. Instead, President Poroshenko banked on nationalism, which seemed to offer a speedier, albeit more violent, remedy. Had a national dialogue been attempted, perhaps Ukraine’s history would have been different.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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