During war, resilience means survival

Oleg Pokalchuk

It is difficult to be resilient in times of crisis, but even more challenging to remain resilient in times of war. Oleg Pokalchuk, a military psychologist from Ukraine, said in a presentation at the virtual “Social Enterprise Conference 2022” organised by “Geri norai LT” that during the war, resilience means survival. How to accept the reality ‘here-and-now’, and not make any plans. How to treat yourself ironically. And preserve the sense of humour.

We suggest reading his entire speech below.

I am Oleg Pokalchuk, a social and military psychologist. I have devoted most of my life to the struggle for the independence of Ukraine and the development of the free and independent State of Ukraine. My grandfather was a member of the Central Council of the Ukrainian People’s Republic in 1918. The Communists imprisoned my father for promoting the Ukrainian language and literature. I became a member of the dissident movement back in the 1970s . In the early 90s, I was one of the organizers of the People’s Movement of Ukraine, which is like Sajūdis in Lithuania. Since then, I have been a member of many public and state organizations engaged in state building and the development of national security. Together with Estonian partners, I participated in the creation and development of the research project Resilient Ukraine (which was and is currently involved) in studying the problems of national stability of the Ukrainian society for the needs of the Ukrainian State.

In 2014, I was a volunteer in Eastern Ukraine in a territorial defence unit. After that, I was actively working in the field of countering Russian informational influence. I am an expert and instructor of the ‘Information and psychological operations’ PSYOPS.

Therefore, in February 2022, I was physically and psychologically ready for the start of the war. For two months, my home near Kyiv served as and was converted into barracks. Soldiers and officers of various divisions and units of the Ukrainian Army were living there. I received the first money for food for these soldiers from our Estonian friends.

Meanwhile, the first (and not the last) humanitarian aid – such as food, clothes, batteries, and medicines – came from Lithuanians. Mr. Giedrius Sakalauskas did this more than once while being under fire. 

I will never forget that Lithuanian was the first bread in my house when the war started.

For several years, I worked with Estonian colleagues on a project called ‘Resilient Ukraine’. The goal of the project was to strengthen the national stability of Ukraine. The project’s task was to strengthen civil society’s cooperation with the State and its authorities. We pursued optimization of communication and sought to avoid value gaps between interactions. We conducted sociological research and did interviews, as well as prepared analytical reports for the Ukrainian Government; they are officially available.

Once, when I was training for the Estonian territorial defence, I told them – at the first rocket explosion – that “all your paper plans and book ideas about what to do will turn into ashes.” 

“You will find yourself in an unfamiliar place, among unfamiliar people, and you will only have what is in your head at your disposal. And it is not a fact that it will be of any help to you. Only very basic knowledge will help. Which you will not be able to forget under heavy stress.”

February 24, 2022, proved once again how right I was. 

So I want to tell you a little truth about sustainability. It may be somewhat impolite.

80% of everything – whatever is written and said about resilience – is either pure theory, which works for peaceful and stable societies. In the second case, it is more correct to refer to resilience as a kind of preparation and readiness for a crisis. When the war begins, our society is divided into approximately three groups. 

The more minor part, whose positions should ensure the stability of society – the police, the army, firefighters, and rescuers – already know what to do. In theory, reality makes part of their knowledge unusable. 

The second part deals exclusively with their personal survival. As they think about it. It is basically all about the disorder.

 The third part, which we call volunteers, helps the first and second groups. But only until they run out of money, health and life. It is impossible to understand the share of these groups because the media coverage about them cannot be representative.

This third group, the volunteers, best fits the term ‘Resilience’. There are two types of people in it who have psychologically proven to be best prepared for the most challenging trials. These are religious people and nationalists. These types of worldviews give them a stable architecture of their inner world. They provide support, relying on which they can effectively help others.

Accordingly, public organizations created by these people are the most resistant to the most unexpected challenges.

All these three groups suffer from emotional burnout, neuroses of various kinds, and PTSD. This radically changes their behaviour of struggle and survival, and all theoretical discussions about personality growth are vain and meaningless. 

Psychologists work with them according to the protocols provided for such cases. But this is absolutely not the gradual work in medical offices they had done before the war. The primary tasks are the reduction of unmotivated aggression and, self-aggression, suicides. Absolutely the entire society is covered in wounds and scars of psychological trauma. It breaks some, while others, on the contrary, are inspired by them to fight.

Therefore, my main thesis is that resilience is ineffective under wartime conditions. Sustainability does not imply flexibility. 

If aesthetics and hygiene prevent a soldier from crawling through a muddy puddle, it is potentially a dead soldier. And if the same circumstances force a civilian to behave the way he used to behave and think something about himself before the war, then this is also a dead person. 

I will say more. All the modern humanistic views of yourself and the world evaporate in you at the very moment when you see the bodies of peaceful people nailed by the Russian occupiers along the forest road. You wanted an example. Here it is, this is the village of Moschun, Kyiv Region.

Here are my personal tips for building resilience right now. It’s all about personal survival. I tell people how to use candles to light and warm a room effectively. How to use water economically. How to use thermal underwear correctly. What warm clothes are better to sleep in, and with what kind of gloves should be worn? How to accept that you will never go back to your previous life? I tell them – Your task is to preserve the existing life and keep your mental balance. How to accept the reality ‘here-and-now’, and how not to make any plans for the future. How to treat yourself somewhat ironically. And preserve the sense of humour.

Recommendation. All conversations about resilience should not go from top to bottom, from strategy to practice, but vice versa. From the bottom up. From practical skills to survive in any conditions. 

Only then will people be able to organize into effective, sustainable groups. War is not a Hollywood movie where smart and beautiful heroes save the world. 

I have seen a large number of not highly intellectual and spiritually rich people who have saved many lives. Due to their lack of reflection, tourist skills of life in nature and ordinary smartness. 

Resilience is not a potato that can be grown, dug up and stored for the winter. You can’t teach people about resilience in seminars and discussions, no matter how lovely the drinks and meals that happen to get served there.  The core of national stability is those people who, because of their psychological characteristics, are already stable. They should have a protocol of behaviour in extreme situations. Estonians have one; it’s called ‘Ole Välmis’, ‘be prepared; it’s a smartphone app. Then, these people will have more opportunities to save others. Now, I have to go and turn off the generator producing electricity for the house because I need to save gas.

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