May 15-19, 2014, Kyiv
International conference "Ukraine: Thinking Together"
I'm going to say a very quick word about something you all know, that is to say, about the European history of Ukraine. And then, I will try to develop an argument about how the European history of Ukraine mattered, as the national way of seeing the world came to be prominent, and then say a word about how the European history of Ukraine matters as Europe itself becomes the way that we think about the past.
So, it's controversial where I come from, but you all know that Ukraine has a European history. In fact, it's a very typical European history. The beginnings of Ukrainian history, or the beginnings of Kyivan Rus, in a confrontation between Vikings and local peoples, this is central to the history of France. It's central to the history of Great Britain. These are central European themes. The next stage in the history of Kyivan Rus, the confrontation between Eastern Christianity and Western Christianity, the various bargains, the various betrayals that were made in Kyiv as in Warsaw, as in Prague, as in Bulgaria, as East European leaders oscillated between Rome and Byzantium, trying to find the best possible bargain: this is also a very typical European story. After the end of Rus, the history of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania - which is, I think, the step in Ukrainian history which is most often forgotten: it's forgotten in Lithuania, it's forgotten in the West - is a very interesting stage, because it is in the Grand Duchy of Lithuania that the Kyivan inheritance is preserved: the Kyivan language, the language of state; also the Kyivan law code. These things are preserved precisely in the Grand Duchy of Lithuania.
The next stage in the European history of Ukraine is, of course, the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, after 1569, after the Union of Lublin. The Union of Lublin is a very important moment, because it draws a line between what is now Belarus and what is now Ukraine, for the first time in history. Ukrainian territory falls under the Polish crown, the rest falls into the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. And it is during this period, the period of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, that the history of Ukraine is, so to say, most recognizably European. This is the period when we see a Renaissance, a Reformation, a Counter-Reformation, all of these nice things. It's a period when we see a Republic. The specialty of Polish history at this moment is that Polish history recreates all the things that it didn't really have: so, Polish history has a renaissance, but it doesn't have a “naissance.” There was no classical history in Poland, but there is a renaissance all the same. And Ukraine takes part in that renaissance. Poland calls itself a republic; it has no ancient republican traditions, but it refers to them all the same. Ukraine is part of that republic. But within that republic, we have a very important tension, a tension that is worth recalling today. The tension is between the very few Ukrainians, the magnates, the great aristocrats, the "mahniteria," who did extremely well in this republic, and the vast majority of the population that did not.
And so the rebellion, which is against actually the rulers of Ukraine, the rebellion against the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, which is in fact against the rulers of Ukraine, is a rebellion against inequality, it's a rebellion on behalf of people who are excluded from the system, people who call themselves Cossacks. It's a very important moment in Ukraine's European history, but it's also the moment when a certain stage of that history breaks down. Because, as you all know, the Cossacks find themselves in an alliance with Muscovy, the Cossacks then find themselves under Muscovy, and after 1667 this city, and all of right-bank[KP1] Ukraine, finds itself under Muscovy, then under the Russian Empire. It's a very important turning point because from 1667 onwards, until, let's say, about two decades ago, the elites from this city primarily moved northwards, to Moscow.
Now, that is a very short sketch of a certain history. In the 19th century, all Europeans, not just Ukrainians or Poles or Russians, but all Europeans, had to remake their history in a national form. That was the dominant spirit, the dominant ethos, of the day. Everyone had a complicated history, which was reshaped, remade, reconstructed - as Konstantin was nice enough to refer to my book - reconstructed as a new sort of history, as a national sort of history. And here, too, it's striking how typical Ukraine is. The move to romanticism, to populism, that begins in Kharkiv, which spreads to Kyiv, and then to Lviv - Lviv was actually at the end of this, and not at the beginning - is very typically European. The idea that you have to move history away from the elites and in Eastern Europe away from the state and towards the people and their language and their stories and their songs is quintessentially European. It's something that is absolutely typically European. It begins in Germany, it spreads elsewhere. Now, what's worth noticing here - and this is a crucial moment too - is that Ukrainian romanticism, Ukrainian populism, the move in Ukrainian history to put the people at the center of the story, is primarily against the history of the Commonwealth. It's primarily against Poles, or Poles identified, as Shevchenko put it, as the aristocrats and the priests. Populism is directed against the western neighbor, and thus in some sense against Europe. And this is a very important tendency to watch play out. In other words, Ukrainian patriots, or people who were identifying with the Ukrainian speaking population, always had at least two problems. They had the problem of the Russian Empire, and they had the problem of Poland. And from the point of view of the 18th and 19th century, you could make an argument about which of these was Europe. You can certainly make an argument that St. Petersburg was Europe. You could also make an argument that Warsaw was Europe. But in both cases, they seemed to be a problem. And this is a development that we're going to watch.
So, these tensions - the multiple problems that Ukrainian patriots faced, the multiple problems that Ukrainian state builders faced - become apparent in 1914. 1914 is a moment where I would say things start to become very unusual. Thus far I've emphasized how typically European Ukrainian history is. In 1914 something unusual happens. The First World War in Eastern Europe - and now I'm going to lose all my Polish and Czech and Romanian friends - is generally a moment when you do nothing for statehood, but you get it anyway. There went my chance to write the Polish history textbooks. But in general, there's very little connection between how hard you fight for national independence and whether you get national independence. So, Romania does very little in the First World War but it gets a lot of territory. Czechoslovakia, the Czechs and the Slovaks are fighting on the wrong side, but they get an entirely new state. The Polish movement for independence exists, but it's very minor, and nevertheless an entirely new Polish state is created. And so on and so on. In general, you don't have to do very much. Serbia started the war - the war was Serbia's fault - and yet Serbia ends the war as the central part of a much bigger state, Yugoslavia. But the Ukrainian case here is atypical: after the war, many Ukrainians do fight for independence. There are two major efforts to create a Ukrainian state, one based in Kyiv, one based in Galicia. All of you already know this. There are a huge number of casualties on the part of people fighting for Ukrainian independence: Kyiv eastward, and then all the way back to Warsaw, in fact. As you probably know, there are a good number of Ukrainian soldiers buried in Polish military cemeteries in Warsaw because they were fighting all the way back to Warsaw in August 1919. So here you have this unusual situation: you have a lot of conflict, a lot of people who are dying to create a state, but at the end of it no state. At the end of it, the failure to create a state. The failure to create a state because the Russian Whites are against this, because the Poles only support it very late and within certain boundaries, but ultimately because it's the Red Army that wins this very complicated civil war.
Now, this brings me to the Soviet Union. And the Soviet period in Ukrainian history is extremely interesting. It's extremely interesting because the victory of the Red Army, the creation of the Soviet Union, casts the question of Ukraine and Europe in an entirely new way, because, after all, the Soviet Union - and there are many things to say about the Soviet Union; I'm only going to focus on one aspect here - the Soviet Union was, among many other things, an attempt to recreate Europe. The premise of the Soviet Union was: "We are a backward country; we need to recreate capitalism - that is to say, Europe - in order to surpass it later on." That is the premise of the Soviet Union. The second premise of the Soviet Union is that nations exist, although maybe not forever. So the Soviet Union is established as a state which is going to try to create something that looks like capitalism, in order to go past capitalism, and as something which has interior national boundaries, in order eventually to transcend them, to go beyond them. So a Ukrainian republic is created inside the Soviet Union.
Now, I know it's easy to dismiss this reality. It's easy to say the Soviet Union was just very repressive, and of course it was, and I've written about that. But there's something here to be understood, that we have to understand before we get to the end of the story, and that is the way that Europe was both a model and an enemy at the same time in the Soviet Union, and the way that this was most intense in the case of Ukraine. Europe is a model because the entire Soviet Union has to catch up to Europe, but it's also an enemy because it's capitalist. And this ambivalence is most intense in Ukraine because Ukraine is, of course, the western frontier of the Soviet Union. It's a big republic that has a long border with Poland and Romania, therefore with Europe. So in the 1920s, in this very interesting period of affirmative action for Ukrainians within the Soviet Union, of the subsidization of Ukrainian culture, of the support of Ukrainian modernism and futurism, you see this tension be resolved, because yes, a new generation of Ukrainian writers and artists and even historians grows up within the Soviet Union, making very interesting art, writing very good novels, carrying out very good scholarship. But they are generally pro-European.
And now this is a story that you know. Somewhere around 1928, 1929, 1930 it's no longer all right to be in favor of Europe. Especially after January 1930, when collectivization begins in earnest, and peasants resist collectivization in Soviet Ukraine massively. From that point forward, something turns. Europe is no longer seen as a model. It's no longer acceptable to be pro-European. Instead, all the problems of collectivization, including the famine, are now blamed on Europe. I don't know how closely the rest of you have read this propaganda - I spent a long time with it. The idea is expressed that the famine in Ukraine is the fault of Poland, because Polish agents are paying Ukrainian nationalists inside the Ukrainian Communist party and so on. And then at a slightly later stage, after the famine has happened, the discussions of the famine are blamed on Nazi Germany. So if you mention that there was a famine in Soviet Ukraine, this means, according to Soviet propaganda, that you were an agent of Nazi Germany.
Now this is a very interesting moment, of course. I mean, it's a horrible moment, it's a terrible moment, but it's an interesting moment for our story of Europe and European futures, because it's at this moment that the dichotomy, the Manichaean absolute opposition between fascism and anti-fascism is created, where anti-fascism means we have no external colonies. I quote Comrade Stalin. Unlike the Western powers, we have no external colonies, therefore we must colonize ourselves. Which means very precisely exploiting the peasants and exploiting the lands. That's one model of colonization. A second model of colonization comes from Nazi Germany: the idea of lebensraum, the idea of living space, that we all know, has a precise geography. The precise geography of lebensraum is Ukraine. Like Stalin, Hitler understood Ukraine as a breadbasket. He understood it as a place that could feed an entire continent. The question was just which continent that was going to be. Whereas Stalin presented Ukraine as the territory that must be controlled if the Soviet Union was going to survive the world capitalist conspiracy, Hitler presented Ukraine as the territory that must be controlled if Germany was going to survive the world Jewish conspiracy. So in both cases there is a regional colony that has to be mastered, that has to be controlled, in the service of a slightly lunatic but very coherent ideology about the way the world actually works. Or, to put it in more technical terms, there was a territory that had to be controlled if you wanted to be a world power, whether you were in Berlin, or whether you were in Moscow. Now, the Germans looked at collective farming and they saw it as a positive model. The German planners assumed that they were going to keep the collective farms in Ukraine as a means of controlling the population and of controlling the food supply. Their idea was that they would extract the food from Ukraine and use it to feed Germany and Western Europe, and along the way starve 30 million Soviet citizens to death in the winter of 1941. They never starved that many people, but the intention gives you a sense of what they intended to do if they could control the western Soviet Union.
So, here we see a kind of extreme. We see Ukraine at the middle of unmistakably European projects at a time when perhaps Europe deserved its good name less than it does today. This is a very different Europe. These were unmistakably European projects that put Ukraine in the middle. Ukraine was in the middle of two rival European projects based on global ideologies aiming for world power. Now, just exactly how this plays out in practice is the subject of my book Bloodlands, which Konstantin was kind enough to mention. But the general outcome you all know: between 1933 and 1945 there was no more dangerous place in the world than Ukraine. More people were killed as a result of policy in Ukraine than anywhere else in the world between 1933 and 1945.
I won't tell that whole story, but within that story of Soviet power, German power, rivalry and war, there's also a smaller story of alliance that I want to make sure that we don't skip over without mentioning. The alliance between the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany between 1939 and 1941, the time of the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact, is very important for how we think about Europe today. Or, it's very important, to put it a different way, for how people in Moscow think about Europe today. Because the period of the alliance with Nazi Germany shows what anti-fascism actually was. Anti-fascism didn't mean actually opposing fascists. Anti-fascism meant strengthening and protecting the Soviet state. The alliance with Hitler, in Stalin's mind, was a way of turning Europe against itself. The idea was, and Stalin was very explicit about this, if Germany and the Soviet Union are allied, then the Second World War will be a war between Germany and France and Britain, and the result of this will be the destruction of Europe, the hastening of the contradictions of capitalism to their final collapse. So you see there's a very interesting model here between 1939 and 1941. The model is, you say you're against fascism, you make an alliance with the actual fascists, and you try to destroy Europe. We'll get back around to that.
From here, we're now at the midpoint. From here we move into a very interesting stage, which begins still before you were born - you're awfully young. I'm now going to tell you something which you will laugh at, because everyone in the world thinks this is funny. The crucial decade, and the really interesting decade, is the 1970s. Ok, you didn't laugh - that's nice. That's very respectful. The 1970s are, I think, the axial decade. They're the crucial moment that brings us to where we are today. Because in the 1970s, you begin to see a competition between two ideas of integration, a competition which is still going on, but which has to do with, in the end, where Ukraine actually is. In the 1970s in the Soviet Union, there is no longer the hope that Ukrainians will become Soviets and the Soviet Union will become a utopia, but there is the idea that Ukrainians will become Soviets. And there is the Brezhnev project of making sure that the Soviet Union just has one humanist intelligentsia, one technical intelligentsia, and that these intelligentsias speak Russian. There is the shift away from the Ukrainian language in elementary schools, high schools, and universities in this country.
That is one project of integration. And then, on the other side, there is a European project of integration, which by the 1970s has been going on for a couple of decades, which by the 1970s receives a lot of attention in the Soviet empire and a bit of attention in Ukraine itself. There is a European project that leads indirectly to the Helsinki final act of 1975, of which the European states, Canada, the United States, and the Soviet Union are all signatories. 1975 and the Helsinki Final Act is a symbolic moment in politics because here, as elsewhere in Eastern Europe, people seize onto the idea of human rights, an immanently European, also of course American, idea, but less well known is what the 1970s mean for Ukrainians and Poles. And in particular for a particular conversation in which, for the first time, really, in decades, and arguably in centuries - I would say probably centuries - for some Ukrainians Poland starts to seem like Europe, and Europe starts to seem like a positive thing at the same time. Those are two very important developments. And they begin with the conversation in the 1970s in which some people here I see took part, centered around the journal Kultura, in which Poles said, "We are interested in a future independent Ukraine in its existing borders" - that is, okay, we're fine, we're not going to claim Lwów - while many Ukrainian intellectuals were moving towards a civic understanding of Ukrainian patriotism, which made it easier for them to talk about Poland. To make a long story short, this meant that in 1989 something very important, a very important success could happen. Polish foreign policy in 1989, when Poland was sovereign but Ukraine was not yet sovereign, could openly declare, "We are following a policy of European standards. European standards mean we recognize your boundaries, we recognize your western boundary. We recognize your western boundary even though you don't exist yet. We preemptively recognize your western boundary." Many preemptive things are bad. Preemptively recognizing someone's boundary is probably good. And this reference to Europe was actually true, because an essential part of the European project is that boundaries are not challenged. The boundaries of states are taken for what they are. It's assumed that then you can have movement across those boundaries, and you can create something meaningful in that way. So, in this way, something begins to shift. Another, a positive idea of Europe, in which Poland could play a positive role - because that's very important: if Poland is negative, it's very hard to code Europe as positive - anyway, that new idea begins to take shape.
I'm going to pass over the history of the last couple of decades in Ukraine, because you know it, you know it better than I do: the history of foreign policy that shifts from east to west, east to west, east to west, the history of domestic policy, which is an alternation among various oligarchical clans, the way that this ends, I think decisively, in 2013 and 2014 with the Maidan. What I want to emphasize instead is the way that another project has now in fact emerged. As of the early 21st century, the European Union seems to be the only game in town. And it is very attractive. It is attractive to a whole group of East European countries who join, a whole group of East European states who don't actually imagine themselves without Europe. It's a very striking thing that as soon as sovereignty is gained, the immediate step was to try to compromise that sovereignty. But over the course of the early 21st century, it could seem that this was the only integration project. The old Soviet integration project was gone; the Soviet Union was gone. The European project was moving onwards: in the 1990s, the early 21st century, Europe arguably presented - I now feel guilty in front of my Americans compatriots - Europe arguably presented the most impressive common market, the most impressive collective, if you like, welfare state that had ever existed. And Europeans had a certain tendency to believe that this was it, this was the only model, and everyone likes us.
Now, what's happened in the last year - and here I'm moving towards my conclusion - what's happened in the last year is that something has fundamentally changed. There is now a rival to this project. The rival is not a Soviet rival, and it's not exactly a Russian rival, although it comes from the Russian Federation. The rival is this Eurasian project. And what's special about Eurasia - both as an ideology in the words of Dugin or as a policy in the hands of Putin - what's special about Eurasia is that for the very first time, someone - I mean, aside from some of my more radical Republican friends back home - someone is treating the European Union as an enemy. Someone is treating the European Union as something which is evil and needs to be destroyed. Someone is mounting a cultural, ideological and political attack on the European Union as such. Now, I'm not telling you the history that you already know of the Maidan. You are here. What I'm trying to stress is that this counter-project revealed itself during the Maidan. For those of us who were watching from afar, who were spending the day paying attention to the Maidan and the night watching Russian television, it was very clear that something had changed fundamentally in Russian propaganda. You've all noticed this too. That the Maidan was being treated as aggression from the European Union. Not just the Americans: I mean, of course it's our fault. Let's take that for granted. But for the first time something was being presented as aggression from the European Union, and that aggression was coded in certain ways. As decadent, to use the dominant word. Where decadent means all kinds of toleration of things that I would regard as essential human freedoms: how you would like to live and with whom and in what way. Essential civil rights. So, the European Union is being coded not only as an enemy, but as decadent. And this is new, and the Maidan brought this out, because the trend of presenting - this whole trend of presenting Yevropa as Gayvropa, which was already there - it sounds funny, but it's actually not funny - which was already there in Russia came much more to the fore, because the Maidan was then described to the rest of the world in this way, as part of this offensive of this evil and decadent European Union.
This has led to a very interesting dichotomy in the way that Russia is presenting Ukraine to the rest of the world. To us in the West, as I'm sure you're aware, what the Russian propaganda says is: Ukrainians are bad Europeans, because they're fascists. Meanwhile, although that exists in Russia too, but meanwhile within Russia the problem is that Ukrainians are too good Europeans. You're too much like Europeans, that's the problem. You're different, you're like Europeans. So there's this basic contradiction in the Russian propaganda, a logical contradiction. And of course it's bound to a political contradiction, because the Eurasian project finds and seeks allies across the European far right, and this is now no longer a secret. I mean, the members of the European far right parties in France, as we see, in Austria, the smaller parties across Europe, Hungary, Greece, you name it, they have all been recruited and they have all essentially publically pledged allegiance to the Putinist project. So there is now a kind of fashion turn; there is now an international cooperative movement of far right parties, which is basically centered in Moscow. At the same time, everyone is supposed to criticize Ukraine, because Ukraine is too far to the right. So, all of the European far right is for Russia, and yet we're not supposed to like Ukraine because it's on the far right. So there's a contradiction here, which it's taken us a while to see, but which is very clear.
Now, no one in Moscow cares about these contradictions, because they assume that we in the West are simply too slow and stupid to pick them up - and, unfortunately, they're mostly right. We are very slow, and we have to be slow, because we're pluralists. We take arguments seriously, we think every argument belongs to a constituency, we have to balance it all out: on the one hand, on the other hand, and so on. And honestly, that's what's good about us. We can't be so quick because we think there are different kinds of arguments we have to...But this is not actually a difficult one to have to think through, and I'm confident that we'll think it through pretty quickly. But the contradictions don't matter; in Moscow, they're perfectly aware that these are contradictions; they just don't care. What matters is that this is a coherent project. It's not at all crazy or irrational, it's not the kind of thing that if you point out the contradictions it then goes away. It's a coherent project, the aim of which is to bring down the European Union and replace it with an alternative European project, which is where I want to conclude with this idea of European futures.
Of course the European futures have everything to do with the past, everything to do with the past as it happened, everything to do with the past as we remember it, as we constantly remember it. There are multiple European futures now. There's one European future which is not possible. That is the European future of the return to the nation-state. And this is true here just as it's true in the European Union. In different ways, Ukraine and European Union member states face the same situation. You know, or at least all sensible people in Ukraine know, that a strong Ukrainian state will exist insofar as it is integrated with other meaningful and hopefully well-meaning entities in the world. This is true in Ukraine, just like it's true in Belgium or Austria or Italy. None of those places are tenable by themselves. This is why the position is the same in the European Union: in the European Union, in the elections for Parliament which are going on right now, big important parties are campaigning on the platform of going back to the nation-state, which is a foolish utopia, a foolish, self-destructive utopia. Anyone who knows anything about Europe in the 1920s and 1930s, leaving aside the Second World War, but just the 1920s and 1930s, knows how nasty that was. How painful that was. How utterly and qualitatively different that was from the 1950s and the 1960s or today. But that is the utopia, of going back to the nation state. That future is not possible. That is a utopia. That can't happen. What can happen is Eurasia. That idea of returning to the nation-state, or of a nation-state being by itself, whether that nation-state is Austria or Ukraine, leads, so to speak, inevitably to Eurasia, because the Eurasian project is precisely to make Europe, the whole of it, look like Ukraine does now: that is, alone, without enough friends who understand it, fragmented, intervened in from the outside. That's the idea. What Russian policy towards Ukraine is now, of course it's directly a Ukrainian policy, and I don't mean to diminish that, I don't mean to diminish your very special situation, but it is also a test case for the European Union as a whole.
In this way, Ukraine and Europe are now bound together, I think, much more than Europeans or even Ukrainians have quite understood. There is a Eurasian future, which you can all go into together, and there is a European future, a European Union future, which you can all go into together. There isn't anything else. That's what you have in common. Oh, well, I didn't have applause written here. I don't mean this politically; this is just a logical deduction. Staying around as a nation-state is as much a fantasy for you as it is for the Italians, or for the Belgians. Europe will be together, or Europe will be Eurasia.
Ukraine is the European present. We have now reached a point where Ukrainian history and European history are very much the same thing, for good or for evil. The European Union is no longer alone in the world. The European Union can no longer delude itself that it has no enemies. The European Union can lose control of its own references, as is going on in this information war about the Second World War. The European Union no longer controls the history of the Second World War. German elites are losing control of the history of the Second World War, as we watch. So Europe is losing control of its history, it’s losing control of its references: the information war, which is so sharp here, is taking place across the entirety of the West. And it’s working better in Germany, by the way, than it’s working here. So, an entire European order – the entire European order – is under challenge, just as Ukraine is under challenge. Not as immediately, not as sharply, not as painfully, but it is now one challenge. And in that sense European futures depend upon Ukrainian futures, just as Ukrainian futures depend upon European futures. Thank you very much.