The conversation between Chelsea Follett and Maria Chaplia can be found here. The transcript is below.
Chelsea Follett: Today joining me is Maria Chaplia. Maria is a Ukrainian lawyer, economist, and award-winning human rights advocate who has helped to bring about reforms in her country, particularly in the area of education, and brought attention to big picture issues regarding freedom. She has served on Ukraine’s National Reform Council, the Ukranian president’s advisory body, and she is also the founder of Ukranian Students for Freedom, the largest liberty-oriented student organization in Eastern Europe. She is additionally the research manager at the Consumer Choice Center where she focuses on consumer freedom policy, and she is a fellow at the Independent Women’s Forum.
Chelsea Follett: So her expertise is very wide-ranging, and her writing has appeared in The Daily Mail, the Independent, Financial Times, Huffington Post, and the Kyiv Post, among many other outlets. Maria lives in England, but she joins the podcast today from Poland, where she’s on the ground assisting refugees from her native Ukraine. And she joins the podcast to discuss freedom in Ukraine and the humanitarian response to the fastest-growing refugee crisis in Europe since World War II. Together with Alexander Hammond, who may be familiar to listeners of this podcast, he’s a good friends of Human Progress, our former research associate who’s now doing wonderful things at the Institute of Economic Affairs… Together with him, Maria has raised nearly $10,000 to provide shelter, transportation and humanitarian assistance to Ukrainian refugees. And you can find the link to donate to her fundraiser and more information about that in the description… the YouTube description for this episode. Maria thank you so much for speaking with me. How are you holding up?
Maria Chaplia: Thank you very much for having me. I’m really delighted to be able to discuss what’s happening in Ukraine, in particular the refugee crisis on your podcast.
Chelsea Follett: Yes.
Maria Chaplia: Well, things are more or less good and at least to the extent that they can be in the moment. My family has made it safely to Poland, they are staying with me and my cousin here in close to Krakow. Some other family members who lived in Kyiv and who managed to escape a few days ago after shelling stopped for a few hours, they also made it to Western Ukraine where it’s more or less safe, but it’s really difficult to know at the moment whether that safety is going to continue at that part of Ukraine. So yeah, but today has been crazy, many requests from refugees that we are handling, and people are very, very lost when they cross the Polish border. They have no idea what they want to do, where they should go, for how long all of this is going to go on and there is a lot of anxiety and uncertainty here.
Chelsea Follett: Before we get deeper into discussing this very grave current situation, could you speak a little bit more about your background, where in Ukraine you’re from, and your family is from–obviously the crisis has extended much further west in Ukraine than anyone expected–and just give us a sense of your background.
Maria Chaplia: Sure. I was born in Lviv region, it’s very close to the Polish border, in a small town called Borislav. It’s probably about 90 minutes away from the Polish border. So since childhood, I’ve been very exposed to everything European to say so. And then, at the age of 16, I got a free place in Ukraine’s main University in Kyiv. So I left everything behind and moved to the capital of Ukraine of Kyiv and started my Bachelor’s as a lawyer. And then, initially, I got involved in various movements, so I spent five years of my life in Kyiv starting various non-profit organizations such as Modular European Union, Ukranian Students for freedom, and then trying to get as engaged as possible in the things on the grounds. Then after graduating, I did my internship at Students liberty in Washington DC. Afterwards I moved to London for another internship and then I got a place to do research masters in France. And anyway, I’ve been a bit all over the place after that, but I know Ukraine quite well. I’ve traveled to Kharkiv where there is a lot of shelling happening on the grounds. We went to Odessa, which is also a very southern city in terms of increased threats in the moment. So I’m very, very familiar with many places.
Chelsea Follett: Right, so you’re connected then to friends and family members across Ukraine. I want to talk a little bit about your political advocacy before we get to the current situation. You’ve helped to bring about so many positive changes in your country: education reform, helping to re-focus public attention on bigger issues and ideas… You once wrote that you advocate putting ideas, not corrupt politicians on a pedestal. That’s a very much needed message. So before the current crisis struck, what kind of trajectory was Ukraine on? What was the state of freedom in Ukraine? And what kind of progress was the country making before this crisis?
Maria Chaplia: I think starting from 2014 when the Revolution of Dignity happened and the regime of Viktor Yanukovych, who was a pro Russian politician was overthrown, Ukraine has been on a trajectory towards membership in European Union. We didn’t know when that would happen, but we all knew that we were moving towards it, as well as potentially membership in NATO, and all of country got very much united towards those efforts. So after 2014, there’s been an emergence of a great deal of various non-profit organizations, they were all trying to fight corruption, increase economic freedom, increase individual freedom. There is a really wide, wide network of those non-profit movements happening in Ukraine.
Maria Chaplia: I was very lucky to get involved with the National Reforms Council last year, and they have been doing an amazing work, and how they’ve liberalized regulations in many, many areas, starting from energy to transportation, to helping get more refugees into Ukraine from countries such as Belarus, as well as to regulate wine industry, to regulate lands ownership. There’s been a wide scope of things happening on the grounds, and even though there’s been fluctuations in Ukraine’s level of economic freedom according to various indices, that trajectory was very much clear, Ukraine was moving towards more democracy, towards more economic freedom and towards less corruption, I think that low would be fair to say.
Chelsea Follett: And the crisis has obviously disrupted everything, and this is obviously very personal to you, it’s affecting you and your friends and family in the country… And you were in England when the invasion began, and you were following the crisis: at the time, I saw an interview you did with the Centre for Risk Analysis as the situation was escalating, and you correctly predicted that there would be a full-scale invasion soon. So could you recount when the invasion came about, how you heard about it, how it impacted your family and what led you to leave England for Poland to come help?
Maria Chaplia: Yes. I remember that day very, very vividly. It was last thursday when the invasion started. So in the weeks leading up to that day, the situation was very, very stressful and tense. I remember I was really struggling to focus on my work and my studies, because of various announcements by President Biden as well as by Boris Johnson, about how the invasion was imminent, so it was very, very stressful for me and many members in my family. I even remember, probably about two weeks ago, calling up everyone and saying, “You need to make sure that you have this emergency pack, meaning that, if there is an invasion, you are prepared to go now”. But most of them just like many Ukrainians were skeptical.
Maria Chaplia: I remember speaking to my aunt 24 hours before Russians started shelling Kyiv, and she was like, “Yeah, I’m not sure it’s gonna happen”. And she lives in Kyiv at the moment. And then a few hours later, I started to see a number of notifications saying that, in the major airports in Ukraine were all emptied to make sure there was no one there. So I could feel before going to sleep that there was something really bad about to happen that night, and then I remember, I couldn’t sleep well, and I got up about 4:00 AM, so I opened my telegram and I see a missed call from my aunt who lives in Kyiv, and I call her, and she’s like, “Well, you know, the war has begun, they’re shelling in right next to where I live.” Then I had to talk to my cousin who is 12 years old, and she was also super scared, she couldn’t stop crying, and I myself, spent probably the next five, six hours, just being shocked.
Chelsea Follett: And then you decided to move yourself… You and Alex went to Poland, to start assisting your family and then other refugees. Can you talk a bit about that?
Maria Chaplia: I didn’t decide to go to Poland the same day. It wasn’t an easy decision to make, but I was… Since I’m also a student at King’s College London, together with other students, we were trying to raise awareness, we’ve started a number of campaigns, and then on the first day of war, there started to come in various requests from people who are starting to move into western Ukraine, who were fleeing war, so I was on my phone all the time just trying to help and connect people in any way I could. But then, since things didn’t look any better after two days and… What’s interesting about Ukrainians perception of the situation is that, in the first few days, we were all hoping that I wake up today and there is no war, like Putin dies or something, and it didn’t work like that. We kept waking up and it wasn’t because of some positive news, it was because the war started to get even more intense.
Maria Chaplia: So I decided… I was speaking to my mom saying, as well as to my aunt, saying, “You should probably leave, because we don’t know how things are going to evolve, and it’s better for us if you are in a safe situation.” My dad couldn’t leave, because he’s… In Ukraine, men can’t go abroad, since they are military and they have military duties, if you are not part of the army, you are expected to join the territorial defense, or you are supposed to help in any other way. So mom said “I don’t want to go without dad.” And everyone else in my family who’s a female didn’t want to leave without males, so we’ve decided that we should go and make sure they have a safe place to stay, make sure they have everything and to pick them up from the border, so they don’t just go into nowhere. And as we were traveling, we’ve came up with this idea that we can help other people, since we can connect them together, we can find accommodation for them and to potentially raise funds to do that, and this is how the idea for a fundraiser emerged.
Chelsea Follett: And you said your family are all in Poland now, does that include your male family members or was anyone conscripted in the end and are having to take up arms?
Maria Chaplia: So it’s only females in Poland. My dad… I’m still not sure if he will be conscripted, he’s got heart problems, so he’s unfit for military service, but just because males are not allowed to leave, to go across the border, everyone who’s between 18 and 60 can’t leave Ukraine, so my dad is staying there. He’s helping refugees as well, but he’s in Ukraine.
Chelsea Follett: Right. So then you’re helping women and children who are fleeing. The attack on Ukraine is also a clear violation of the international norm against conquest as a justification for war, the norm of respecting territorial sovereignty, this assault is obviously… I mean on HumanProgress.org, one of the long-term trends that we’ve documented, that listeners of this podcast will be familiar with it, is the decline in violence, but this event really serves as a reminder that progress is not inevitable, norms can be broken, and the way people around the world have reacted with horror because of this violation of Ukraine’s sovereignty, in this act of conquest… It’s out of step with current values. That really shows that the way we think about war has at least changed. But you have described the situation as a war of ideas or of ideology in addition to an actual war, with Putin representing authoritarianism and Ukraine representing democracy, freedom and so forth. So stepping back from the on-the-ground experience for a moment, can you talk a bit about the ideas at the heart of this conflict?
Maria Chaplia: Yes. And so, as I’ve mentioned, Ukraine is a young democracy, obviously as every young democracy, Ukraine has got many problems, and corruption being one of the major of these. But Ukrainian people are very freedom-loving, which is very much seen from the revolutions that happened in the past, including the 2014 revolution of dignity, which I mentioned where 100 Ukrainians were killed because they’ve decided that they are willing to die for freedom and for their European future, as well as for many things, including freedom to expression, freedom to choose and all various sorts of freedoms. And while in Russia, as we’ve seen, even though there’s been attempts to protest, to speak up against Putin’s politics, it wasn’t very successful because at some point you see that people get arrested and they give up. So they are not willing to go a step forward. And in Ukraine, people were willing to die because they wanted to have this European future, democratic future. A future where they can protest where they can say things they want to say against the government, so much that they were willing to die for it.
Maria Chaplia: In Russia, people are willing to protest, but they are still so so afraid of Putin and of the consequences of their protest. I think coming back to the main question, what’s annoying president Putin so much is that Ukrainians are actually fighting, and that they are willing to move towards the West. I think after the USSR fell, Russia has been traumatized by the experience that all of these Soviet republics, they were choosing European future, or western future, over the partnership with Russia. Georgia, which is an example of booming economic freedom, of successful fights with corruption, Estonia, Latvia, all of which joined NATO very early on after the USSR fell. All of these [chuckle] countries chosen democracy and freedom, and they didn’t want to stay close to Russia. And this is what’s annoying President Putin so much, because he feels like he can’t get hold of all of these republics, which are supposed to be part of Russia, all leaving and all wanting to have something better and not live in slavery and oppression, which is actually now happening in Russia where they are banning everything. I think the internet is about to be banned in a few days. So Ukraine didn’t want to live like this, which is why President Putin decided to take violent and barbaric steps to make Ukraine to accept his conditions.
Chelsea Follett: I think you’re right that he was really caught off guard by the response of the Ukrainian people and also the extent of the international response. And they say in dark times to look for the helpers, you and Alex are certainly helping out right now, and there’s been such an outpouring of support from across Europe with this ad hoc network of volunteers forming to help the women and children and elderly fleeing the crisis, and you’re part of that effort. Can you talk a bit about the humanitarian work that you’re currently doing as well as what you’ve observed others doing there on the ground?
Maria Chaplia: So there is a lot of humanitarian aids coming towards to Ukraine as well as there is many humanitarian workers and just volunteer students from Ukraine, anyone who’s just willing to help. The support that Ukraine has received from the international community has been enormous, we’ve been hearing from many people on the Polish border that when the refugees cross the border, they are welcomed with cookies, places to stay, they get some basic clothes, warm clothes or whatever they need to spend the next two weeks in Poland. So it’s been absolutely astonishing to see that everyone has been so united and so to say desperate to help Ukrainians. At the moment, but obviously, even though this help is enormous for many Ukrainians, especially for women, who are so used to kind of travelling with men, and making sure that men still are kind of involved in that decision making, and many of those women have kids.
Maria Chaplia: I was speaking to one woman – and we were helping her – who has got a breastfed baby, whose father is somewhere abroad, I think Qatar or something, and she had to travel on her own from Kyiv where her house was close to a place and it was being extensively shelled by Russians. So she had to escape and then she didn’t know where to go. She was like… She was crying when she called us, so we can help her, she was extremely nervous she was like, “My baby is just a few months old, I need a place where I can be safe, where I can spend the next two weeks,” She didn’t even have a stroller because she had to leave everything behind. So it’s very, very tragic. And we get to talk to people like this on a daily basis. Some of these are older people who had to leave everything behind, and they still remember the sounds of shelling close to the building where they lived, it’s very, very dramatic things happening once people cross the border because they have no idea what’s going to happen.
Maria Chaplia: And what’s interesting is that, many Ukrainians still expect that this is going to be for a few weeks, and they come to Poland, they spent here a week, maybe a month or so, and then they can all come back, but we don’t know yet. And this is what is so scary, because after months, those people might realize that, “Well, the war hasn’t actually ended. What do I do? Where do I go?” And this is when it will be so important for these humanitarian efforts to step in again and help those people.
Chelsea Follett: Absolutely. In the best case scenario where everyone is able to return home… Obviously many homes have been destroyed, damaged and so forth, so there will still be a long road back. And this is a huge effort. It’s many individuals as you mentioned. Many organizations, NGOs, prominent individuals have gotten involved. Elon Musk has personally, with Starlink, helped to maintain internet in the country. There’s a story about a celebrity chef setting up a kitchen at the border to feed fleeing refugees. And of course, many companies around the world are making donations. What other kinds of efforts are you observing there at the border?
Maria Chaplia: So inside Ukraine, there has been also a number of various apps developed to help people traveling from extremely affected areas towards safer places. It’s like BlaBlaCar, but it’s for people who are fleeing the war, meaning you can connect with a driver who’s traveling from Kyiv today at like 6:00 PM and you can get you to Lviv or… Or where they’re traveling, and it’s been… And the same with sort of Airbnb for refugees in Ukraine, where we got another app which helps people who can accept refugees advertise their place for free, obviously, and then a person who’s looking for a place can go on that app and find a place to stay. It’s been very, very helpful because… Because of the amount of refugees traveling to western Ukraine is enormous. It’s impossible to book a hotel. It’s impossible to find an Airbnb place so these apps have been… Have been very, very helpful.
Maria Chaplia: As well as… So Ukraine’s civil society is very, very developed, and I have to be very honest, I didn’t realize how developed we are until the war. It’s fascinating how all of these connections and networks work, someone knows someone who actually know someone who can get ammunition tomorrow to people who are suffering in Kyiv, because they don’t have anything to face Russians with. And then you get many people connecting each other across network. On Instagram all of the Ukrainians are posting day and night. Oh, my friend is looking for a flat, my friend is looking for… I don’t know. Goggles, night goggles to help his territorial defense. So there is so many initiatives, everyone is trying to do and to help in any way that can, it’s astonishing to see as well as to see how foreigners are trying to help us by creating, as you mentioned, setting up kitchens on the border, as well as helping with humanitarian aid and all sorts of other things.
Chelsea Follett: That’s a really interesting point about not only civil society, but also technology, and its role in the crisis. What else are you observing there?
Maria Chaplia: So on the technology side, I think generally, I’m struggling to see how we would be able to deal so effectively with this refugee crises and the consequences of the war itself where back in the time of WWII, there was no connection, because at the moment people fleeing, they can still get in touch with someone they know, thanks to all of these various Telegram channels, apps offering shelter, apps offering safe rides to a safer place. I think if it wasn’t thanks to technology, so, so many more women and kids would be way more lost than they are now. As well as many Ukrainian… Many Ukranian military members, as well as territorial defense people, they wouldn’t be able to get their ammunition, food and things they’re looking for. As well as, thanks to technology, many Ukranians have been able to raise awareness about Ukraine and speak up actually about what’s happening, because I think even though the war, the full scale war started last week, and there’s been a war in Ukraine happening in since 2014, but it wasn’t… It didn’t get that much attention. It’s obviously because of the emergence again, of this great Civil society. Many journalists, the attention of the world is very, very much focused in Ukraine.
Chelsea Follett: When you speak… you mentioned when you speak with refugees, many seem to expect that they will be returning home soon. Is that the prevailing mood, one of hope? Or what are the refugees telling you when you speak to them about the situation and their expectations?
Maria Chaplia: Yeah, I think the prevailing mood is that they will be able to come back home. I’m assuming, speaking to my mom a few hours ago for the podcast, because obviously, you get to a safe place abroad, you spend there a few weeks and then you kinda have to decide what to do. Do you get refugee status until you find work? Or you travel to… What country should you travel to, so that you can afford it and you can still feel like you’re not too far from home? And then there is a question, when do you eventually get reunited with your husbands, boyfriends, or whoever’s left in the Ukraine? These are some of the minor worries. Many people crossing the border have and don’t have a lot of money with them. I was speaking to a woman yesterday, who just took $100 with her because she was fleeing, it was shelling and she didn’t get to take her credit cards and she could only pay for a night at the hotel and then she was like, “What do I do?” So there is this type of problems.
Maria Chaplia: Even though Ukrainians believe that they will be able to return, I think once they settle down in a safe place, they start to think, “Oh, what happens next?” And one of the very popular questions in Ukraine at the moment, among my friends and people I know is, “Does anyone actually need us anywhere else in the world? As in, we left our homes. Does the world really care that much about us? Where do we find our home? Where do we live? Where do we find this community?” Many of these people who are fleeing, they had well paid jobs in Ukraine, some of them had their corner shops, entrepreneurs. Well, essentially everyone not involved in an end-of-the-line economy who can work remotely, they can’t come back. Some of them are going to lose their jobs permanently, some will be able to keep up for the next month, but not much longer. So there is all these questions. I was speaking to my professor from university, who works for an international organization, and she told me that her contract was extended for the next six months, and then because they can’t return to Ukraine, she’s like, “What do I do? Do I go to Dubai to work as a waiter? I mean, I’m a lawyer.” So, there is all these problems at the moment circulating in our heads.
Chelsea Follett: It’s completely heartbreaking. Can you share some more anecdotes on what the situation is like right now, being there in Poland, close to Ukraine?
Maria Chaplia: So many heartbreaking stories. I have a friend who is also involved in the liberty movement, we started Ukrainian Students for Freedom together, and he managed to leave Ukraine because he wasn’t in Ukraine at the time of war. He was abroad, but all of his family is in the north of Ukraine, so they are in Chernihiv, where it’s like crazy amount of shelling happening at the moment. And we were trying to think how we can maybe know someone who can help them get out. But one of his nephews is two years old, and we don’t know at the moment whether they will be able to leave and what’s actually gonna happen. And when you speak to… When Ukrainians talk to each other about this, you can always hear that even though we are trying to stay strong, many of us just burst into tears because there is so much stress and so much fear and uncertainty about what we do next, whether we get to see our relatives and friends again, so it’s heart breaking.
Maria Chaplia: He was crying on the phone, asking about if there was a way to help evacuate his mom as well as his two year old nephew. And then, there is many, many stories like this, it’s all extremely heartbreaking because we are all trying to stay strong, especially since now, it’s been more than a week, but because pressures are taking over. Now there’s been reports that some people I know, who knows some of their parents were killed by Russians, so the war is getting closer to say so. I fear, at some moment soon, there will be someone I know who is killed, because the network is so very well connected.
Chelsea Follett: Absolutely, the group that you founded, Ukrainian Students for Freedom… now has that group helped as well with organizing any of the humanitarian efforts, or the disruption has just made that impossible?
Maria Chaplia: No, the Ukrainians seem to have risen, they are doing amazing. They’ve started their own fundraiser to help raise money for ammunition, so they’re not doing much on the refugees side of the conflict, but they’re helping a lot to help raise funds for helmets, for various night goggles, all the things that the Ukrainian military and territorial defense needs. They’ve been doing amazing. I believe they’ve raised like $40,000 at some point, because I was helping them with donations. I think from our fundraiser, we donated as well, because they needed this, like there was something about $20,000, and they were approaching this target, so we had to help them. They are doing amazing, and they have actually… Many of them are fighting on the ground, some are in Vinnytsia, some are in Kyiv and they’re doing all they do to help stop this war.
Chelsea Follett: That’s fantastic to hear. Are there any other… Obviously, there are so many heartbreaking stories, but are there any other stories of hope like that, that you can share as well?
Maria Chaplia: I think what actually speaks to all the help is that Ukrainian Army and Territorial Defence have been showing a lot of resilience, and that combines with the civil society and working on the backgrounds of all of these efforts, as well as in Ukraine, there is a thing called an Information Military, which is a group of people who are on a daily basis involved in sending photos of killed Russians to their mothers to say that, “Look, you are supporting Putin, but this is what Putin is doing to your son, to your husband,” because Russians don’t have access to this information. Russia’s not reporting the number of deaths; I mean they are, but it’s not an actual number, the number is really big. I think it’s been more than 12,000 as of today.
Maria Chaplia: So there is many campaigns happening in Ukraine, where people are asked to post, for example one of them includes going on Google Maps and posting information. So you want to write a review on restaurants in Moscow and St. Petersburg, and as part of your review, you post those videos and photos of what’s actually happening in Ukraine. And there is many, many things you can do. For example, you can use Russian social media called VKontakte and you can just keep posting those photos so that Russians get access to this information, and as a result, there is hope that this might encourage them to actually take to the streets and protest more, but this is information army in Ukraine. But the resistance has been amazing, I think Russians were not expecting to face this much resistance. And I think the performance of the Ukraine’s military is actually what gives many, many Ukrainians hope. This is one of the main reasons why people think, “Oh, this war will be done in a month because the Ukrainian army is just gonna destroy the Russian army and we’re going to come back to our home, rebuild everything and be happy again.” This is the moto among all of my friends who fled Kyiv or Hlukhiv, everyone is very, very hopeful but we’ll see what… Time will tell but there is lots of hope there.
Chelsea Follett: I think that’s a very important point about information and it underscores the importance of freedom of the press, freedom of speech, which they do not have in Russia. Could you speak a little bit more about… Obviously Russia and Ukraine, there’s been a lot of interaction and long history there. Can you speak a bit more about the history of this conflict, the ideas at stake but also just the long history that has led to this moment?
Maria Chaplia: Yes, the history is taught and then dates back to the time of Kievan Rus’ when Kyiv was the capital of this big enormous kingdom and Russia started claiming that it was… It owns its legacy to Kievan Rus’. But the conflict has been going on since the very foundation of Ukraine and Russia as countries because Russia has always been trying to impose its laws on Ukraine prior the long history of Ukraine and Russia, you see this conflict emerging every few years, when Ukraine was part of the Russian Empire or during the USSR time when it was constant that Russians have been… I’m actually struggling to understand why they hate Ukraine so much. I can see that it’s because Ukraine has been trying to become independent, to be an independent country, to have its own say over its national matters, and choose freedom but sometimes, it just… There’s so much hate that they have towards Ukrainians, which is evidenced by the number of people who died during World War I in 1930s, the USSR enforced starvation and created hunger, and many Ukrainians died as well as when the Russians by killing Ukrainians and generation of Ukrainian artists, writers, poets. They were killing everyone.
Maria Chaplia: And I think that their policy towards Ukraine is just driven by hate. It’s like… I… Before the war, there was a day, on Monday when President Putin was explaining why he will be starting this war. He didn’t say it very explicitly, but it was his very historical speech. When for 90 minutes he was lecturing Russians, Ukrainians and the world on why it is necessary to start this war. And it was it was traumatizing to hear but it also made me very, very angry how Russia has been rewriting history to its own benefit. And yeah, I think what he was saying in those speeches, what Putin was saying in those speeches was really bad. And I think he just hates Ukraine and he’s got, I don’t want to say psychological problems, but he seems to be very much obsessed.
Chelsea Follett: Right. And I don’t think people who are outside of Ukraine are maybe as aware of that long history of human rights abuses you mentioned or alluded to: The Holodomor, the starvation, imposed famine, under the Soviet Union. Gulags. There are all sorts of human rights abuses in that past so I see why Ukrainians are fighting as hard as they are. And that hatred that you speak of, it seems to be based on, from what I’ve seen people in Russia saying, it’s coming partially out of that lack of freedom of the press. There’s an inability to fight propaganda, there seems to be under a lot of misapprehensions. They speak of deNazification of Ukraine as though Ukraine is ruled by fascists. Can you talk a little bit about some of the misunderstandings underlying this and the propaganda?
Maria Chaplia: Yes. So, Russian propaganda has been obviously very successful given that there is so much support for President Putin’s actions against Ukraine, I think, since he… Since Russia invaded Ukraine, there’s been a spike and the population supports for what President Putin is doing. This also happened in 2014 when Russia invaded eastern parts of Ukraine. So there is a chance that Russians actually want war, even though some of them go and take to the streets to say they don’t want war, many of them actually do. In the past few days, there’s been interviews being published by various media outlets where Russians were asked about their opinion on war in Ukraine and many were supportive. And it’s very strange because of all of these sanctions imposed on Russia, the expectation would be that once the population experiences that there is shortage of foods, that they can’t go to an Apple store, that they can’t go to KFC, which has been shut in Russia today that they will kind of feel that there must be something wrong that maybe we should think about this one and what’s actually happening in Ukraine, but it looks like no, many of them actually support the actions of Putin and those who don’t support it, they flee somewhere. What I’ve seen so far, Turkey and Georgia seem to be the preferred destinations.
Maria Chaplia: So it seems the propaganda in Russia is really, really effective. But speaking on Nazis, so I think it’s interesting that Russia is saying that Russians are fighting some Nazis in Ukraine while in fact, Russia has now turned into a Nazi state. You’ve probably seen this, that sign that they are using on their military vehicles. And it’s now being very much spread in Russia. It’s very similar to a Nazi sign and kids. There was recently a video where kids who are terminally ill, they were made to stand up in a form of this, Z sign, which is a sign of Nazi Russia. So they’re exploiting kids. They are arresting kids because there were reports of kids being arrested in Moscow after protests and they’re arresting old people. So they have no sympathy for anyone as well as they’re leaving the bodies of Russian soldiers in Ukraine, no one comes to pick them up. They don’t report the number of deaths. So they say Ukrainians are Nazis, but Ukrainians, they call us Nazis probably only because we want to fight for their freedom. If that’s so they’re misrepresenting the terms because it is Russia who is a Nazi state, if not worse, judging by what’s happening now.
Chelsea Follett: It is definitely an authoritarian state. And part of the success of their propaganda seems to be, again, cutting people off from information. We’ve seen even more crackdowns on the press, limiting people’s access to foreign press in recent days. And that seems to be born out of fear that if people get access to alternative sources of information, then they might start to doubt these actions of Russia. Would you agree with that?
Maria Chaplia: I think it’s been… I think yes, there is definitely a fear that if people access information about the war in Ukraine and the information from various Western media sources about what’s happening in Ukraine and the world overall, and it’s about how everyone in the world is now united against Russia, how Russia is being ostracized in any way possible. They fear that once people learn that this is the case, that they will want to protest, try to overthrow the Russian… The current Russian government, as well as engage in various types of protests. But I think this is obviously the reason why they’re shutting the internet and why they’re blocking all social media, they are blocking access to everything. But I think even without it, it doesn’t seem like Russians would be in any way open to reconsider their support for Putin. Russia doesn’t have a very long history of civil society protesting or overthrowing government. It’s very hard to pinpoint moments in history when Russians actually managed to stand up to authority, rebel, and succeed in it. One example would be a Socialist Revolution where Lenin managed to raise the people up and do something, but Russians naturally tend to be very obedient and fearful of any type of protest.
Maria Chaplia: So, even though they’re shutting the internet, it shows that Russian government is very much afraid of the possibility of this protest happening, but I don’t think that would happen anyway.
Chelsea Follett: You describe the Russian culture as one of obedience. How would you contrast that with the prevailing culture or attitude toward freedom in Ukraine?
Maria Chaplia: So it’s very different. Ukrainians love to protest. So on an average day in Kyiv, obviously not now but a few months ago, you could walk in the main square and see people just protesting against this new tax that the government was considering or against this new other regulation by the parliament. So you could see people people doing all they can to raise their voice against some piece of law that they didn’t like or didn’t want the government to implement. In Russia, protests are punished which obviously when you’re an individual, considering whether to protest or not, and you think about the cost of going to the main square and that the cost will be spending a night at a police station, you’ll think twice. But for Ukrainians they realized that because Ukraine is a democratic country, they won’t be arrested, but even if they were arrested, Ukrainians would still go to the street because they know if they don’t do this, well, the government will just go wild and tomorrow there will be no Ukraine as a nation, there will be some dictatorship and Ukrainians cannot allow that to happen.
Chelsea Follett: Well, we’ve covered this a little bit, but Ukraine is defending itself much more successfully than many predicted, and we’ve spoken about what you’ve heard refugees saying about how they perceive the situation, but I’m curious as to your thoughts. How hopeful do you feel at the moment and what would you like to see for the ultimate outcome?
Maria Chaplia: [chuckle] It’s a very difficult question to answer at the moment. I think the Ukrainian military is doing amazing as well as the territorial defense and the Russians obviously miscalculated their offensive assuming that the Ukrainians will step aside very easily and that they will take over the capital in Ukraine in three days. I think that was the plan. Well, that didn’t happen. And in fact, Russians didn’t manage to take over big cities so far. They are controlling some of the roads and some minor cities, but overall their offensive haven’t been very successful. My biggest worry in this situation is that, again while listening to president Putin’s lectures in history, reading his axis in history and knowing about all the hatred coming towards Ukrainians, my worry is that he doesn’t really know… He doesn’t really have where to step back.
Maria Chaplia: So he can either go full on and, I hate to say this, destroy Ukraine, or I can’t see where he has to actually go back. My worry is he can either be overthrown by one of his generals or military experts or whoever is in his close circle. We don’t know because he’s hiding somewhere in a bunker or he’s gonna go until the very end, because I think president Putin is actually obsessed with Ukraine. And this is not to say like the last wish of a dying man. This is like the last wish of a dying Russia under president Putin to take over Ukraine and control it or destroy it. So, I think there is… I’m sorry, my predictions are very grim, [chuckle] but actually having listened to what president Putin has said on many occasions, my worry is that this might be the case.
Chelsea Follett: Thank you so much for joining me, Maria. I hope that things improve in that situation. Thank you for all the work you’re doing with Alex there at the border, helping refugees. And… Slava Ukraini.
Maria Chaplia: Heroiam slava. Thank you. Thank you very much for having me.
Chelsea Follett: Thank you.