Postnormal times are often seen as synonymous to collapse and apocalypse, and this image overshadows the unprecedented innovations and opportunities that open up in this era. Perhaps this is because PNT is usually perceived through the lens of societies where normalcy was good, and the social machinery functioned perfectly. However, this is not the case anywhere in the world.
Ukrainians were one of the first to encounter postnormalсy—back in the early 1990s, given that the collapse of the USSR was truly postnormal. The communist empire, one of the world’s two hegemons, fell apart not because of an attack by an external enemy, a long, gruelling war, or internal ethnic conflicts, but because of its inadequacy and under the weight of its own enormous weight, which rested on a dubious structure built on sand. Therefore, should we be surprised that the first harbingers of a postnormal storm washed it off the face of the earth? Afterall, it happened completely unexpectedly with a frightening speed – almost in a matter of days – and entailed changes of a huge scale and scope, completely in the spirit of 4S's of postnormal change. (It is often said that the Soviet Union did not survive the arms race, and here we also have a reference to the essential characteristic of PNT—speed. Where former empires could exist in the same state and slowly disintegrate over the course of centuries, this is no longer the case).
Former Soviet people, including Ukrainians, found themselves in chaos and in the middle of the void, and this state is difficult to understand for people who have not lived for seven decades in the society where private ownership of anything meaningful was abolished, private entrepreneurship was prohibited, any individual independent initiative was suppressed, there was no real politics or elections, and endless incantations of Marxism-Leninism sounded from all sides. On the other hand, the independent state, for which the ancestors of modern Ukrainians fought and died for in 1708-1709, 1917-1921, and the 1940s, suddenly and unexpectedly ended up in their hands. Only a few months before, even the greatest Ukrainian dreamers could not have imagined this in even a distantly projected long-term preferred future.
The way others reacted to the overnight independence of fourteen Soviet republics from Russia is also very revealing. Shortly before the collapse of the Union, the Americans, represented by their president, were fascinated by their last leader, Mikhail Gorbachev and the policy moves coming out of Moscow. They even warned Ukrainians against ‘suicidal nationalism based upon ethnic hatred.’ As the US and their Western allies had become cosy in the ‘normalcy’ of the Cold War world order, their goal became to prevent further dissolution of the empire and maintain ‘stability’ – at least in terms of concentrating the nuclear weapons in the hands of one. The West tried to sew normalcy together creating a manufactured analogue of it. There was no international trial for the crimes of Stalinism, few foreigners noticed how the Chechen struggle for independence was drowned in blood, and the ‘peoples of the empire’, who were not lucky enough to escape, were urged to continue obeying the hegemon, who for centuries had committed real, cultural, and linguistic genocide against them. A new lightweight version of the cold curtain was built in the form of the borders of the Schengen zone and the EU, and Russia easily inherited the status of a ‘great power,’ including the USSR’s former permanent membership in the UN Security Council without any strong legal basis, as well as all the Soviet nuclear weapons.
The normalcy manufactured by the West was meant to ‘take into account the interests of Russia,’ but the West clearly did not understand this country well enough. During the twentieth century—the era of decolonization and the collapse of empires—the Russian Empire not only managed to slip by, largely unchanged, only appearing in a new incarnation, but also was actually invited to the winner’s table following the Second World War – growing its already vast control over territories of the West, which it had never before held any claim to. Normalcy of international relations in the twentieth century cemented the triumph of Russian imperialism and chauvinism, giving rise to unbridled ambitions. It is not surprising that the postnormal burst of 1991 was a very painful blow. Putin’s regime began to reconstruct such a desired former normalcy, and everything looked quite viable, because the new Russia was much more flexible and adaptable and actively used new trendy tools such as corruption, post-truth, and brainwashing through new and old media. However, it became entangled in its own fictional constructions and myths and began to lose touch with reality. Proof of this is seen in Russia’s direct demands on the West to turn the wheel of history back several decades in its draft treaties between itself and the US/NATO at the end of 2021 (‘Treaty Between the United States of America and the Russian Federation on Security Guarantees’ and the ‘Agreement on Measures to Ensure the Security of the Russian Federation and Member States of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’). After several veiled acts of aggression against its neighbours, Russia lit the fuse of a big war that is now devouring it.
What have the Ukrainians gotten out of all this mayhem – apart from devastating destruction of territory, personal and societal tragedy, and overall suffering? First of all, the war (which should not be limited to actions of corresponding militaries, but also extend especially to the mass atrocities committed against civilians by Russian militants) became a ‘great simplifier’ that made it possible to significantly reduce the complexity of the world in postnormal times: many complex things that people were so concerned about recently became much less important, disagreements concerning Russia’s role for Ukraine were overcome, many Russian-speakers switched to the Ukrainian language, the vector of the country’s development towards the West became undisputed and now it is supported by 80-90% of the population. The number of contradictions and the level of chaos have decreased, although it is erroneous and dangerous to believe that war and victory will solve all problems.
The people have understood their capacity and are recovering from the inferiority complex which was being instilled in them for centuries by the empire whose myths were spread by many people in the world. In historical terms, Ukrainians compare current events with the events of 1917-1921 and conclude that the present situation is incomparably better than the national catastrophe that occurred one century ago.
As for all those not from Ukraine, they have finally learned that the Ukrainian people really exist and deserve attention. Now the majority understand that these are not at all ‘different communities of people who by the will of fate happened to be in one country’ called ‘the Ukraine’. In international relations, the laws of the jungle seem to rule, and it is extremely difficult for those who are weaker and who have been bullied in the past to stand on their feet, because they are disliked, put out the door, labelled as failed states, corruptors, radicals, fascists, and terrorists. And those who are strong are admired, invited to summits, and offered collaboration.
Earlier, in Ukraine, there lived ‘radicals’, ‘nationalists’ and ‘corruptors’, while in Russia (where the indicators of these issues are worse or similar, not to mention the radically worse situation in terms of democracy and freedom) there was ‘a great power’ and ‘a mysterious soul.’ Until 2022, for many, the war waged by Russia (even in its aggressive and invasive manner, clearly aimed at seizing new territories) meant the defence of its geopolitical interests, and the war waged by Ukraine (even though defensive and for the sake of sovereignty and continued existence) meant tribal clashes which continue indefinitely, if the ‘elder brothers’ do not stop them from above by imposing a sort of peace. The seizure of Crimea was considered by those on the outside to be the will of the people of Crimea (the Crimean Tatars, an indigenous people who suffered deportation and genocide in the past from the USSR remain the black elephant in the room), but the will of the people of Chechnya was discarded, seen as a threat to the international order and a violation of Russia’s legitimate interests and sovereignty.
The year 2022 changed a lot in this regard, but let’s see what many people in the West are doing now – the same thing as in 1991 – trying to sew back normalcy by preserving the integrity and face of Russia, its dubious status as a great power, and leaving the conquered peoples in their wake in an oppressed position indefinitely. In numerous projects and images of the near and distant future, we can see the special role of Russia, yet the existence of many diverse peoples around and inside it is completely ignored. Is this not the colonisation of the future through extended present and familiar futures described by Ziauddin Sardar?
Postnormalсy offers a chance to break this pattern and to break out and give voice to the silenced, oppressed others. It carries the breath of freedom and renewal which Ukrainians already fully felt in 1991, leaving the musty ‘prison of nations.’ Now it gives a chance for liberation to many, including the Russians who can get rid of imperial complexes and open a new path for themselves, as other imperial nations did long ago. It is also an opportunity for billions to be heard for whom normalcy meant nothing good, and it is a chance to reverse a crazy course of natural destruction where the catastrophic consequences fall, for the most part, on those who none of the benefits are afforded to by the smooth functioning of the system.