At a conference in Kiev, Western writers and thinkers offer support to Ukraine

by Elizabeth Pond

https://ip-journal.dgap.org/en/blog/eye-europe/words-encouragementThey came to celebrate, to mourn, and to warn.

Over five days in mid-May global glitterati gathered in Kiev to hail the moral victory of Ukraine’s new democrats on Independence Square, the Maidan, who stood their ground even after government snipers killed more than 70 of those protesting the rule by crony kleptocrats. By their resolve, they revolutionized Ukrainian politics and induced Soviet-style President Viktor Yanukovych to flee to Russia in February.

In parallel, the visitors skewered the Western political class for its flabby response to the “existential” danger to European peace posed by revenge for the fall of the Kremlin’s Ukrainian protégé. In March, Russian President Vladimir Putin executed the continent’s first coercive land grab since 1945, annexed Ukrainian Crimea, waged a stealth war to split eastern Ukraine from Kiev, and destabilized the interim Ukrainian government appointed by parliament.

In the near term the visiting intellectuals were more successful in their first mission of comforting Ukraine’s beleaguered civil society than in their second mission of transforming the West’s public discourse about Ukraine.

Conference coorganizer and New Republic literary editor Leon Wieseltier set the tone as the symposium on “Ukraine—Thinking Together” opened last week, with massed Russian troops still threatening an imminent invasion over the country’s southern, eastern, and northern borders. “The Russian war on Ukraine is one of the proving grounds of principle in our time. The Maidan is one of the primary sites of the modern struggle for democracy. History sometimes provides hours and circumstances that expose and test one’s beliefs, and the beliefs of the politics and the culture of one’s society. The crisis in Ukraine is such an hour and such a circumstance. Here in Kiev you are not only clarifying yourselves; you are also clarifying us,” he thundered. And he compared today’s test of the West with “the struggle of Western intellectuals … against the Stalinist assault on democracy in Europe” in the 1950s.

The second conference coorganizer, Yale historian Timothy Snyder, concurred. “Europe’s futures depend on Ukraine’s futures just as much as Ukrainian futures depend on European futures,” he told his listeners. “A revolution happened in Ukraine and the Western countries have not noticed it.” There has been “a lack of political reaction.” Yet “history doesn’t happen by itself. There are periods in history, but we make those by ourselves … It is an existential moment. The [Ukrainian] revolution happened.”

The likes of Poland’s Adam Michnik and France’s Bernard-Henri Levy could offer no guns for Ukrainians to defend themselves against the vastly larger Russian army. They did offer solace and the empowerment of narrative, however. Again and again, the visitors proclaimed “You are not alone” and “You have our solidarity.” They saluted the grit and maturity of the Maidan demonstrators for a European future and against the clientelist form of government that has prevailed in Kiev ever since Ukrainians voted to become an independent state after the collapse of Soviet Union in 1991.

In particular, Snyder continued in this symposium his long fellowship with Ukrainian academics and activists in revising the perceived history of this country to accord Ukrainians an agency long denied them. Bloodlands, his heart-wrenching study of Ukraine as armies of its totalitarian Soviet and Nazi German neighbors swept over it, necessarily presents Ukrainians as the most numerous victims of Stalin’s deliberate famine of Ukrainian peasants in the 1930s and of World War II brutality in the 1940s. But throughout, he rejects the premises of Putin and probably the majority of Russians in treating Ukrainians as only passive younger brothers of the Russian leaders of the East Slav family. Nor does he accept the image of Ukrainians as especially vile antisemites.

Certainly the conference mounted a robust challenge to both these stereotypes and to the focused effort of Russian propaganda to perpetuate them in the ongoing war of nerves between Russia and Ukraine. Putin has pressed these images relentlessly – with disdain for factual truth – not only to appeal to his domestic constituency of chauvinists, but also to render Ukrainians repulsive to Western media and public opinion already inclined to indifference about “a quarrel in a far away country, between people of whom we know nothing,” as one conference panelist said, quoting the words of British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain in 1938, justifying letting Adolf Hitler get away with the destruction of then Czechoslovakia.

Panelists united in refuting the barrage of Russian accusations that the interim Kiev government is run by far-right fascists and antisemites, who are further persecuting and discriminating against ethnic Russians in Ukraine. They pointed out that all the specific incidents of ethnic persecution claimed so far on Russian TV have proved to be deliberate and not very skillful falsifications. Early videos said to show Russians fleeing over Ukraine’s borders to Russia to escape maltreatment were quickly identified as the mini-congestion of Ukrainian drivers on their way to shop in Poland. A more recent photo that allegedly showed a murdered Russian in Ukraine turned out to be the exact same photo that had been displayed in the past as a corpse in Chechnya.

Most substantially, in refuting the Russian charges of rampant Ukrainian fascism, conference panelists highlighted the friendly relations between Orthodox, Catholic, Jewish, and Muslim adherents among demonstrators on the Maidan and in society as a whole. Leaders of the Ukrainian Jewish Encounter, an organization started six years ago to promote reconciliation between Jews and Ukrainians in a land infamous for massacres of Jews at Babi Yar and elsewhere, described their Shared Historical Narrative and other projects. Staff from the largest Jewish community center in the world that opened last fall in Dnipropetrovsk told of its role as a cultural magnet for the entire city.

Most movingly of all, Frank Foer, editor of the New Republic, shared some family history. In the 1930s and 1940s his grandfather lived in Galicia, an area that was then in Poland and because of shifting borders is now in Ukraine. Ukrainian Christian and Jewish families lived side-by-side in the village as friends; the only difference between them, he was told by his mother, was that on Fridays the Jews ate chicken. This changed when the Germans occupied Galicia and forced the Jews in the village to live in one segregated area. One day his grandfather, who was handy at fixing things, was called away from his house to repair windows elsewhere. When he returned home, he found that all the Jews in the shtetl, including his own family, had been massacred.

At that point a Ukrainian neighbor took him in and hid him for the months and years until World War II ended. Despite several close calls, the grandfather survived. The great granddaughter of his grandfather’s benefactor was one of the protesters in the three month-long Maidan occupation, Foer continued, and was in the conference audience. There was not a dry eye in the hall as she went to the podium and the two hugged.

Perhaps the conference was a good omen. As it ended, Putin had softened his belligerent tone toward Kiev and hinted that he would be willing to work with whoever is elected president in Ukraine’s crucial vote on May 25. For the first time in weeks it looked as if the window of opportunity for a Russian invasion of Ukraine would close on May 25 without incident. Rinat Akhmetov, an oligarch who financed the Yanukovych political machine in Donetsk, stopped hedging his bets (maybe) and sent his steelworkers to confront separatists in the east. The mayor of Kharkiv, a booster of Ukrainian unity, was recovering in a Haifa hospital from the life-threatening gunshot wounds he suffered three weeks ago in an apparent assassination attempt and talking with his staff by phone every day.

There are no illusions in Kiev, Odessa, or Donetsk. What comes next will be a long, hard slog to catch up after the stagnation in Ukraine’s 23 years of statehood, to rescue the economy, give muscle to their tiny army, establish rule of law, and build the missing political, judicial, and law enforcement institutions. But already the conference to “think together” about Ukraine has further empowered those who against all odds empowered themselves at Maidan.

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