Open Letter from a Ukrainian Facing Prison for Speaking for Peace

By Yurii Sheliazhenko, World BEYOND War, November 15, 2023

Greetings from Kyiv. Yesterday my city was disturbed again by air raid sirens, so I ran from Vernadsky scientific library to hide in the closest shelter,  a subway station. Ruthless Russian aggression against Ukraine continues, as well as the Ukrainian defensive war effort. Civilians are dying, cities are being bombarded on both sides of the frontline, and that is the essence of any war — aggressive or defensive — the pure evil of war, which is barbaric mass killing by definition.

The air raid alert didn’t stopped President Zelensky from signing a request to his pocket parliament to continue martial law and compulsory mobilization for another 90 days, and not for the last time: top Ukrainian General Zaluzhny has admitted that the war is a stalemate. This stalemate has already taken more than half a million lives, but enormous losses on the battlefield haven’t changed attitudes in Moscow and Kyiv to fight, not just for months, but for years and years.

The irony is that ambitious plans to win in the indefinite future cause everyday losses in a cruel irrational war of attrition. Corpses buried in trenches, endless graveyards of fallen heroes will make questionable any value of victory if someone even dare to celebrate such after this tragic mess, and I am optimistic about this “after the mess” expectation because some chilling voices on both sides have already said that this war will never end.

It is forbidden to seek peace, peace activists are persecuted, and international initiatives like the Vienna Summit for Peace in Ukraine are falsely portrayed as enemy’s propaganda with personal defamation of organizers and participants. Propaganda of war has become the state ideology; intellectuals are mobilized to serve it and punished for any doubts. Just one example: for long years Jürgen Habermas was an icon for Ukrainian philosophers, but now, after his moderate advocacy of peace talks, they have turned the academic journal “Philosophical Thought” into a quarterly exercise in pamphleteering which should be called more correctly “Philosophical Thought Against Habermas” because there are attacks on Habermas in almost every article.

Structural, existential, fundamentalist militarism poisons our minds and our everyday lives. The hate consumes us. Even pro-war thinkers can’t ignore this. I didn’t expected from Myroslav Marinovich a realist quip that there will never be a ditch with crocodiles between Ukraine and Russia. Sergiy Datsyuk warned quite rightly that the war will never end if people will continue to refuse to think and transform, because the war is exactly how you deal with conflicts without thinking. Any war is dumb indeed. These voices of common sense, however, are rare. Talking to Time magazine about the unrealistic military goals of President Zelensky, a member of his team preferred to be anonymous, and not without reason: immediately after the publication, one of the functionaries in the presidential office called for the “security” service to expose and punish those who don’t believe in victory.

As you probably know, the “Security” Service of Ukraine absurdly accused me, a pacifist, of the so-called justification of Russian aggression in a statement which clearly condemns Russian aggression. They searched my house and took my computer and mobile phone. I am under house arrest now until the end of this year at least, and then a trial could be started: there is a risk that I could be jailed for up for five years. My “crime” was that I sent to President Zelensky a statement entitled “Peace Agenda for Ukraine and the World” which calls for a ceasefire, peace talks, respect for the right to refuse to kill, non-violent democratic governance, and conflict management.

To be precise, that is what is written in the formal notification of suspicion I received, but my real crime in the eyes of militarists is that the Ukrainian Pacifist Movement and I have raised popular awareness about the human right to conscientious objection to military service, which is furiously denied by the Armed Forces of Ukraine, contrary to all obligations and commitments according to Constitution of Ukraine, European Convention on Human Rights, and

International Covenant for Civil and Political Rights. The number of people willing to die for the sake of militarism decreases. There are thousands of draft evaders, but it is a pity they are not courageous enough to become antiwar activists. Lacking manpower, instead of changing ambitious plans, Zelensky’s regime still pursues the fantastic goal of making soldiers of the whole population of the country and punishing all those who refuse to kill. So they opened a criminal investigation against me for the thought-crime of pacifism, and started hidden surveillance, and infiltrated agent provocateurs into our organization long before the letter to President Zelensky. His pocket national “security” service has done this because of my human rights defending work, my legal aid to conscientious objectors.

Individual conscience and a serious attitude to peace studies or just to the old commandment “Thou shalt not kill” could easily make you an enemy of the state in Ukraine. Seventh-Day Adventist Dmytro Zelinsky became a prisoner of conscience, thrown into jail for his demand to replace conscription with alternative service. Another prisoner of conscience, Vitaliy Alekseyenko, was released from jail by the Supreme Court but not acquitted, a retrial was ordered with reference to an outdated law which, contrary to the Constitution, grants access to alternative service only in peacetime. I prepared a constitutional complaint for Vitaliy but my notes were seized during the search. I still managed to prepare constitutional complaints in his case and in my case, but the Constitutional Court found procedural pretexts to avoid consideration of both complaints on the merits, so apparently constitutional complaint is not an effective human rights remedy in Ukraine, but I will continue to try this instrument in hope that at some point it will start to work properly.

There always should be hope for peace and justice, it is the worst thing to lose hope. I am persecuted for a dream about the world where everybody refuses to kill and because of that there could be no wars; but even if militarists will imprison me, I hope to continue my human rights work and advocacy of peace from behind the bars. I am convinced that peace is possible, but I don’t expect that peace could be reached in some secret high level talks. Don’t leave the cause of peace to generals and heads of states armed to the teeth!

Recently it was leaked that due to the stalemate on the battlefield some Western officials tried to suggest to their Ukrainian counterparts negotiations with Russia, not because they want peace but because they want to wage war on China and the Arab world, but this high-level pseudo-peace impulse was not welcomed, and even the fact of the stalemate was denied by President Zelensky who still demands more weapons and promises quick victory.

Quiet diplomacy hardly helps against loud militarist arrogance. How could it help when the media calls to war, churches preach war, war chests are full, and budgets for diplomacy are laughably poor? The main problem is that militarism is a structural problem in the West and everywhere following the West’s model — so the West needs to think about how to provide for the rest of the world a more sane and peaceful model to copy. Without the post-Soviet military patriotic upbringing and conscription copied from centuries-old Prussian and French militarism, or the cult of the sacred army, I doubt Russia could have started or Ukraine could have been dragged into the current senseless bloodshed, this pointless waste of lives. Without the Cold-War epoch heritage of the military industrial complex there would be no NATO expansion and no nuclear arsenals in Russia and the United States threatening to kill all life on our planet, insanely pretending it somehow ensures so-called national security. I don’t even know what that means: the security of the graveyard protected from a second death?

I remember parades of nukes on Red Square in Moscow, and I am horrified by a thought that such deadly glory could make people, deceived by propaganda of war, not scared, but proud for their “great country.” And even if there is no radioactive militarist vanity display on the streets of your city, people almost everywhere are proud about having an army, the organization of people trained to kill a lot of people. Only one in ten countries in the world has decided not to have an army; I envy Costa Rica which prohibited creation of army through its Constitution. It hosts a United Nations University for Peace, and most of all I wish that every country could have its own University for Peace, I mean a real peace institution, not just a signboard for another despicable military school. I wish peace education courses would be a part of the curricula of basic education everywhere. I wish when people heard terms like “nonviolent resistance,” and “unarmed civilian protection,” they wouldn’t ask what is that. Propaganda teaches that nonviolence is utopia and total killing of others is supposedly not utopia.

And I wish when a minister of “defence” makes a witty remark like “Go talk about nonviolent resistance to people in Bucha, where the Russian army perpetrated the horrible massacre!” that someone among his audience could tell him: “Actually, I was in Bucha and I learned from locals their experience of nonviolent action; furthermore, I donated to local NGOs and religious organizations to prepare for nonviolent resistance in the future, to protect their right to conscientious objection. Because no violence, even self-defending killing can give hope for a better future; only readiness to resist violence without violence can give hope for a better future.” We need strengthened peace movements, more people engaged, more intellectual and material resources. We need investments in peace — not into weapons, armies and militarized borders, but in nonviolent conflict resolution, peacebuilding dialogues, peace education and human rights initiatives.

Workers humiliated by war should work for peace. Markets robbed by war should give peace a budget. You could start by donating to the ObjectWar Campaign, to provide asylum to conscientious objectors from Russia, Belarus and Ukraine. Every soldier rescued from the militarist serfdom of conscription weakens warmongers and brings peace closer. All so-called enemies of the West are wannabes copying Western militarist politics and economy; so the best way to end all wars is to discuss at home and abroad profound antiwar reforms and to work on big structural changes towards nonviolent governance. Any pacifist changes in the West will entail pacifist changes everywhere, just as Western militarism generates omnipresent wars.

Without structural changes in our way of thinking and our way of life the war in Ukraine, the war in the Middle East and all other wars will never stop. We need to awaken the popular conscience to make the refusal to kill a preeminent factor in culture and politics. We need to activate popular imagination, produce and popularize more textbooks, or just books, as well as games, films, songs and paintings of the world without violence. It should be easy to imagine and try life without violence. It is called culture of peace, and it is already approved by consensus of the United Nations General Assembly.

People need to believe, discuss and understand the simple truth that it is possible to live without violence, without wars, and in fact it is insane to succumb to violence while deep rooted structures of peace are so powerful and universal that peace could thrive everywhere even in a tragic time of war. Take this preeminent dynamic of peaceful life and develop it in modern democratic institutions, because true democracy is decision-making in conversation with others, in cooperation, knowledge sharing, harmony and service for common good, not in killings, hate, inequality, coercion and dictate. Make reason, truth, and love great powers ruling the world.

A path to peace lies through big structural changes. Our mission, as peace movements, is to move forward and pave the way for the whole family of humankind on the common planet to future knowledge-based nonviolent way of life.

5 Responses

  1. Brilliant writing, rational thinking for anyone truly concerned about humanity and preventing endless suffering from wars. It is writings like this that led to me supporting pacifism late on in my life. Thank you Yurii for everything you are doing in such difficult circumstances for you just now. And please know that there are people like me who have taken inspiration from your writings after coming across your articles since the media attention on the war in your country and it has been transformational..

  2. Dear Juri, every word of your letter I agree. Last year, I have been in prison for 20 days, not very long to tefuse to pay for their wars. I got a price, acting for many more brave persons as you. We don#t know personally, but we are connected in our common fight against militarism. We haven’t to fight against people or persons, we have to fight against the institution of war and war-logic, a mass-killing institution, we have to fight for peace, peace thinking and peace-logic. Therefore I’m struggeling in the juridical system. The next trial is on 8th of January 2024. We are 7 people who stand again in front of the judge because of our disobience action against war., specially against nuclear weapons.Warm greetings to you. Elu

  3. really incredible piece–why do we accept all this violence as”normal”while”peace”is nonsense???what angers me so much is the yelling/shouting for war as though those deemed enemies-sooner or later everyone-must be killed-there is no idea of peace-no thought it could occur–where are the arts-the poets/films/ballets/operas/songs/novels that deplore war-where the wilfred owens/sartre/camus/ballets like gloria???why all this silence-they dance for ukraine–no for empire-the hell with all who serve empire-what a coewardly world we live in-as millions suffer/die

  4. Exactly how do you propose to convince Putin to agree to peace? After all, it is he who has been raining missiles down on Ukraine for the past two years.

    1. In March 2022, after negotiations mediated by Turkey, it appeared that Russia was ready to withdraw from Ukraine if Ukraine would commit to not joining NATO. Ukraine was prepared to agree and end the war in one month that has now dragged on for years. But well-sourced news reports show that the U.S. and UK told Ukraine to refuse the deal and keep the war going.

      In late 2023, Russia proposed new negotiations — to include the United States this time, since it was calling the shots. The U.S. government refused.

      Now Russia has indicated it wants a ceasefire on the current frontlines. The U.S. could allow Ukraine to sit down and negotiate — and to make a counter offer to Russia. The U.S. could indicate to Ukraine that there is a limit to the supply of free weapons costing U.S. taxpayers billions. Ukraine is already realizing that there is a limit to the men it can conscript to do the fighting. As desperation increases on both sides and the risk of nuclear war reaches new heights, surely a step back from the madness of militarism is long since overdue.

      Instead, the Secretary General of NATO is publicly telling the U.S. government to allow Ukraine to use U.S. weapons to attack inside Russia, something that Russia claims is already happening.

      As experts have delcared since the beginning, this war is “unwinnable” by either side. There is no military solution.

      Please consider:

      >> Reuters: “Putin wants Ukraine ceasefire on current frontlines”

      >> The Economist: “NATO’s boss wants to free Ukraine to strike inside Russia”

      >> Reuters: “Putin’s suggestion of Ukraine ceasefire rejected by United States, sources say”

      >> Responsible Statecraft: “Diplomacy Watch: Did Boris Johnson help stop a peace deal in Ukraine?”

      >> Jeff Cohen, Common Dreams: ” That Other War: Open Letter about Ukraine to Progressives in Congress”

      >> ” Former Israeli PM Bennett Says US ‘Blocked’ His Attempts at a Russia-Ukraine Peace Deal”

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