A Ukrainian Philosopher on What Putin Never Understood About Ukraine

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Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is only getting more brutal: We’ve seen the bodies of civilians strewn in the streets in Bucha, the city of Mariupol almost leveled and, just a few days ago, a Russian missile attack on a crowded train station in Kramatorsk killing at least 50 people. The United Nations has confirmed 1,793 civilian deaths in Ukraine, though the actual number is thought to be far higher.

Russia’s viciousness in this campaign makes Ukraine’s resilience all the more remarkable. Ukrainians have defied expectations in staving off Russia’s far larger army and holding cities like Kyiv that some believed might fall within days of an invasion. Much of the commentary in recent weeks has revolved around what this war has revealed about Russia: its myths, its military, its leadership, its threat. What’s no less important, though, is what this war has revealed about Ukraine.

Ukrainians have modeled a deep commitment to self-determination and shown how far they would go to protect it. The Ukrainian philosopher and editor Volodymyr Yermolenko has written that “freedom is the key trait of Ukraine’s identity as a political nation,” and Ukraine’s resistance testifies to how deep that trait runs.

Yermolenko is a philosopher, the editor in chief of UkraineWorld and the editor of the essay collection “Ukraine in Histories and Stories.” I invited Yermolenko onto the show to help me understand how Ukraine has defined itself in relation to the political behemoths to its east and west: Russia and Europe. Our conversation also explores what it has felt like to be in Kyiv as Russian troops have shelled the city, how definitions of time and home change during war, what has — and hasn’t — surprised Yermolenko about the Ukrainian resistance, what people in the West may not understand about the cultural differences between Ukraine and Russia, why Ukraine’s political structure makes it so difficult to conquer, how Ukraine is reminding the West why its republican and humanistic values matter, what Yermolenko would say to President Biden if he could and more.

Mentioned:

Volodymyr Yermolenko, a Ukrainian philosopher, considers his national identity” by Volodymyr Yermolenko

Dreams of Europe” by Volodymyr Yermolenko

Book Recommendations:

Ukraine in Histories and Stories” by Volodymyr Yermolenko

The Gates of Europe” by Serhii Plokhy

Lost Kingdom” by Serhii Plokhy

Chernobyl” by Serhii Plokhy

Blood of Others” by Rory Finnin

Thoughts? Guest suggestions? Email us at ezrakleinshow@nytimes.com.

You can find transcripts (posted midday) and more episodes of “The Ezra Klein Show” at nytimes.com/ezra-klein-podcast, and you can find Ezra on Twitter @ezraklein. Book recommendations from all our guests are listed at https://www.nytimes.com/article/ezra-klein-show-book-recs.

“The Ezra Klein Show” is produced by Annie Galvin, Jeff Geld and Rogé Karma; fact-checking by Michelle Harris, Kate Sinclair and Mary Marge Locker; original music by Isaac Jones; mixing by Jeff Geld; audience strategy by Shannon Busta. Our executive producer is Irene Noguchi. Special thanks to Kristin Lin and Kristina Samulewski.

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