Diplomacy as Storytelling: Ukrainian ambassador visits Goethe University

Oleksii Makeiev, Ukraine’s new ambassador to Germany, is currently touring the country. Goethe University was one of the stops he chose for his travels to engage in his heartfelt desire: entering into discussions with students.

The Ukrainian Ambassador Oleksii Makeiev visited Goethe University.

Oleksii Makeiev, Ukrainian Ambassador to Germany, has been in office since last October. In his quest to win trust and reach out to people to drum up solidarity for his country, he has deliberately chosen a softer approach than his predecessor, whose provocative interjections made him an ambivalent celebrity in Germany. “There is no speech,” he says upon taking the stage, immediately dismissing any notion of him delivering a big monologue. To find arguments for supporting Ukraine, he says, he needs to listen to the doubts and fears expressed by Germans and rely on his own brand of a “diplomacy of stories”. That being said, he also immediately takes a stand on the “Wagenknechts and Schwarzers of this world”, referring to the “Manifest for Peace” published in February by German left-wing politician Sahra Wagenknecht and author Alice Schwarzer: “Our soldiers also want peace, but we have to fight for it. We have no choice.”

Goethe University gladly provided the space for exchange, not least as an expression of solidarity with Ukraine, University President Prof. Enrico Schleiff said in his welcoming speech. Schleiff pointed out that last year, 1.000 refugee students from Ukraine affected by the Russian war of aggression had taken their test for university admission at Goethe University. Currently, 223 students with Ukrainian citizenship and several researchers are learning, researching and teaching at Goethe University, some of them thanks to the support offered by the Goethe Ukraine Fund. Alongside students of political science, global economics and international law, many of them were present at the panel discussion with the Ukrainian ambassador, held on March 16. The discussion was moderated by Tobias Wille, professor of political science, who was accompanied by his colleague Lisbeth Zimmermann.

Ambassador Oleksii Makeiev on the podium with Prof. Lisbeth Zimmermann and Prof. Tobias Wille. Both are political scientists at Goethe University.

Wille began the panel discussion by asking about the current situation at Ukrainian universities. Instead of rattling down facts and figures, Makeiev responded by recounting a visit to a Ukrainian university: students are forced to go to the shelters whenever the air raid siren sounds. Not once, but several times a day.

Modern, contemporary diplomacy is all about storytelling, the Ukrainian ambassador believes. And he consistently resorts to this technique when it comes to answering the questions of the more than 120 students who attended the hybrid event – an exchange that is a matter particularly close to this heart and for which the busy diplomat spends half an hour more of his time than initially planned. It is mainly Ukrainians and young people from neighboring countries such as Romania who are grateful for the opportunity to ask questions, in near perfect German, but also in English. Their questions, too, reflect elements of personal storytelling, contain references to flight, family fates, new beginnings. What they as researchers can do to counter Russia’s powerful propaganda is a concern raised by several young people. “Tell the truth, tell your story,” Makeiev advises, adding that this is something each and every refugee should do. “We have a million ambassadors in Germany.”

More than once, both questions and answers revolve around the fractures and fragments of individual human fates and the difficulty of telling them at all – including the overarching story of one’s own country. How can Ukrainian history be preserved, a young scientist asks, pointing out that little information is available on the subject in Germany, that Ukraine’s history is often overshadowed by Russian history, while at the same time material sources – in Ukrainian museums especially – are being destroyed. Germany and other countries are in the process of securing museum assets, Madeiev replies. In addition, he says, the German Bundestag’s classification of Holodomor (“murder by hunger”, the Ukrainian term for the famine to which around 4 million Ukrainians fell victim between 1931 and 1933) as genocide, made an important contribution to the perception of Ukrainian history. The Ukrainian ambassador also left no doubt about the European Union’s role in building security. Whether there is enough awareness about Russia’s influence on Moldova and what can be done about it, a student asks. “There is nothing more successful than the EU,” Madeiev replies – with the tongue-in-cheek addition: “unless you are a British citizen.” Eastern Europe, the ironic reply connotes, appreciates a united Europe far more than some of its members. And the fact that Ukraine is by no means a backward country applying for membership is made clear by another humorous reference: one of his friends, the ambassador says, offers university classes from inside the trenches. Why there is Internet reception in Ukrainian trenches but not always in Berlin is something he is still trying to understand.

Many questions, and even more so Madeiev’s answers, refer to the concrete everyday reality of war: Why can’t teachers and young people leave Ukraine to study, a Ukrainian medical student asks. Special arrangements are being sought, Madeiev replies. “In the end, the military decides,” he sums it up. “We need men and women who can fight. Our future is in their hands.”

Other questions testify to the longing for such a future, however uncertain it is: what professions will be needed in Ukraine once the war is over (“All of them.”); and whether he believes, another student in exile asks, that there can ever be a democratic Ukraine without oligarchs? Madeiev replies by pointing out that the Ukrainian Foreign Ministry just openly advertised the positions of ambassadors to Asian and African countries. Whereas it took him 29 years to reach his current position, in today’s Ukraine, it is now possible to apply for this job.  

The one question underlying all the others, however, was not asked that morning: how this future can be achieved, how peace can come about. Rather, the last minutes of the event once again led right into the middle of the bitter reality of war, as the young Ukrainian Yuliia Kotvytska presented the “Unissued Diplomas Project” exhibition: The project shows 35 fictitious diplomas and photos of Ukrainian students and young people who died in Russian army attacks. They are testimonies of life plans abruptly cut short and unrealized study goals – and represent an attempt at telling them in stories. The story about the 36th document is missing: The student died together with her family. There is nobody left to recount her life or her dreams.

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