"You Cannot Destroy The Whole Nation." Oleksiy Panych In Dialogue With Martin Pollack
In order to comprehend the events of recent days, PEN Ukraine has launched a series of conversations entitled #DialoguesOnWar.
On March 22, Oleksiy Panych, philosopher, translator, public activist, and senior researcher at "Spirit and Letter" Publishing House, held a conversation with Martin Pollack, a well-known Austrian writer, journalist, and translator.
This is a transcription of key moments from that event. You can check out the recorded conversation here.
Martin Pollack: First of all, thank you for the invitation. It is a great honor to speak with somebody from Ukraine during terrible times like this. We in Austria and in the West see the pictures, but we really have no idea what it means to live during war. I was born in 1944, so there was still a war going on, and I was in a house which was bombed. But I was a very small child, so I have no remembrance of this. But let me start right away with a question for Oleksiy. The war has shown from the very beginning that Western Europe, Free Europe – let’s call it that — has shown a deep misunderstanding of Russia, Russian history, and its role in Europe. In particular, the West has misunderstood Putin and Putin’s role in Europe, his ideas of Russia’s role in Europe, and Russian politics. So, most people in the West believed that Putin is a very normal politician, maybe an aberration in some terms, maybe a bit of a dictator, but on the whole, he is a normal guy with whom we can do business and with whom we can have a normal dialogue. Many politicians in Austria, Germany, and everywhere else in the Free West thought that we must go back to after this war or even during the war. We have to find a way to start this dialogue again. Do you believe that this is possible? Do you believe that the West seems to have changed? The West’s feeling for Ukraine, the help for Ukraine is really overwhelming. But there is, in my opinion, the danger that it will be short-lived. And after the war or even during the war, we will fall back into the old modes, that it will fall back to the old ways, that it will fall back again to find a dialogue with Russia, to find a dialogue with Putin’s Russia. Do you think this is a real danger?
Oleksiy Panych: Well, I do. I do think there is a danger. But first of all, let me say I’m honored to meet you online. I wish we would meet you in merrier times, but we are not in a position to choose the time in which we live; time chooses us to do something or not to do something. The best we can do is react properly. That’s what we are trying to do. With regards to your question, indeed, it is not a single question. It’s a multilayered question. To respond shortly, I would say we Europeans, including Ukrainians as Europeans, should learn from the past— where was the mistake? What was wrong in our attitude towards Russia in the past? So that we will be ready not to repeat the same mistakes in the future. And here, I would split the answer. It’s a long story. So I would just review where to look for some parts of the answer, and I would say there is a European part and a Russian part. There is a recent and long-term answer in the European part going back into history. The recent answer is to look at the European community steel and coal, to look at post-war Europe as it was designed – peaceful Europe, as Robert Truman and Konrad Adenauer designed it. And that was a brilliant idea. It was a huge project, very successful inside Europe. It is part of the answer to why European politicians are trying so stubbornly and eagerly to find an understanding with Putin, to involve him, to drag him into this mode of peaceful European co-existence. This is part of an explanation in recent historical terms. A deeper explanation is to look at what Europeans mean by peaceful co-existence. And there we should go much deeper in history, all the way back to Grotius and then to Aquinas and, finally, to Plato to understand the deep roots of European culture. What is the typist understanding of what is good and evil, how to transform evil into good, how to deal with evil, and how to understand and correct it? This is one part. I’m not giving you the answer. I am just trying to mark where we should look for this part of the answer.
And another big part is the Russian part. And here we are starting from the bottom. I would say a deep misunderstanding that I tried to explain to my western colleagues before the war — although I was mostly met with smiles. My claim was that Russia is not a European country and does not belong to the European concept. Despite its ability, despite all you can say about Russian music, Russian literature, Russian architecture, all these relations between Russia and Western European and Central European culture. Russia as a state is not European.
When we speak about Russian culture – it’s not just music, it’s not just architecture and literature. It’s a more multidimensional phenomenon, including political culture.
And then add to this some Russian history. This is one part of my answer. Another part would be the most recent misunderstanding regarding the Russian Federation after the break-up of the Soviet Union. Most Europeans believe that it is just a new country, a national community, a nation-state, just like any European state. And we should deal with it as a newcomer in our European family. In fact, I would claim, just a claim with no explanation so far, I would claim that the Russian Federation is the same country as the Soviet Union. The Soviet Union is a reincarnation of the Russian Empire. It is still the same country. It is still an empire. The Soviet Union was an empire that inherited all lands, almost all the lands of the Russian Empire. And now the Russian Federation is still an empire. In 1918, Lenin called the Russian Empire a prison of nations. The Russian Federation is still a prison of nations. Moreover, it is less European than before because, after 1991, the Russian Empire lost the most European parts of its subordinates – Ukraine and Baltic countries. The remaining part is less European than ever before.
As a result, Russia is now trying to get back its imperial territories to restore itself as a stronger empire, because that’s the only thing the empire could do. The question for Putin is to either lose more lands starting with Chechnya or grab more lands. And he is trying to save his empire by grabbing more lands. This is the survey and which part you would like to pick up for a more detailed screening. It’s up to you, Martin.
Martin Pollack: Thank you. I think one at the root of this whole conflict, at least from the Western perspective, is also a deep misunderstanding or lack of understanding of what Ukraine means and what Ukraine is. The same goes for Belarus. We have never really understood in the West, or many people have not understood that Ukraine is an independent country. A few days ago, a friend of mine, an Austrian intellectual, asked me if Ukraine is really a country, an independent country, and if Ukrainian is really a language. Yes, of course, it is. You know there is this deep misunderstanding here in the west. That’s why many people tend to say, "Oh okay, Putin. Maybe his methods are not so nice, but he is taking back what belongs to him. After all, Ukraine is really something in between, and it really should be there, you know." As intellectuals, authors, and translators, we have to point out the beauty of Ukrainian and Belarusian literature. This is still a surprise for many people here. You know it is a huge misunderstanding. They think, "Andriy Kurkov he writes in Russian, so he must be a Russian author, he must be a Russian." But look, I mean, we never would call a Swiss author writing in French a French author. But we don’t call an Austrian author writing German a German; we are not, we are Austrians. It is a normal thing in Europe. I mean, we are multicultural, and, normally, countries like Belarus or Ukraine, Austria, or Switzerland are multilingual, but there is still a lack of understanding of this.And my Ukrainian friends for many many years, did a beautiful job of explaining it to us. But this is taking a long time, you know. And I’m not so optimistic that this is working very well. When I look around here in Austria or other western countries, I still find this lack of understanding. And my question to you is what can we do about this – me, Austrians, Germans, French, English, American intellectuals like Marci Shore, like Tim Snyder.
Oleksiy Panych: The best thing we would probably do is to translate and publish some books by Ukrainian historians in European languages, who could tell Ukrainian history from a non-Russian eye. Most Europeans know about Ukraine from Russia. Now Europeans like Gayatri Spivak said, "let the subaltern speak for himself or herself." Let the Ukrainians speak for themselves. Not only in terms of literature. It’s a very good idea to translate more Ukrainian literature, but we could also start with Ukrainian history and show that the Ukrainian community is a mirror. The problem is that it’s like a mirror of a misunderstanding of Russia. Russia is a huge country with no national community. This empire has subordinates, not a nation state. Many folks are melting in this melting pot of the Russian Empire. Ukrainians were a stateless nation for centuries. Things are very understandable for German, for German-speaking people, for example. There was a long period in German history when Germans felt like a stateless nation. Ukrainians got their state only recently, but their traditions of political culture and local self-governance have been ongoing for centuries are very different from Russia. Russia has never had traditions similar to Magdeburg Law as Ukrainian cities have had. Russia was never a part of The Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth with its traditions of legal culture and culture, which are deeply rooted in Ukraine today and in Ukrainians' attitudes towards the Ukrainian state, we can see there. Russia has had a very different religious culture, not like Ukrainians, who have had varying types of Christianity, with different perspectives in the same territory, with the Orthodox, Catholics, Greek Orthodox, Protestant churches. Ukraine is the most multiconfessional country in Europe, and this is an extraordinary mode of co-existence in terms of religious culture. Also, unknown to Russia at all. So, Ukraine has very distinctive cultural faces in many dimensions, including artistic, legal, political culture, traditions, folk culture, ethnic origins, and local governance. All this, taken together, gives us a very distinctive picture that Ukraine is not like Russia in any important aspect.
Martin Pollack: Yeah, this is a huge challenge for us. As an Austrian, I feel ashamed. As you know very well, part of today Ukraine used to be Austrian and part of the Habsburg Empire – Galicia. And I was still amazed how little Austrians know or how little Austrians want to know about this history of ours, about what is our history. We are connected to these people. It is our history. Lviv, Lemberg, Lwow was an Austrian city to a certain extent. Of course, it was always Ukrainian. It was always Polish, so it was a melting pot itself. Galicia was a melting pot itself. And that was very good. That’s why it had such a rich culture in such a huge influence, cultural influence on Austria and Germany. Many authors come from Galicia, many more than from this small and poor country. And we look with admiration when we know the history of Galicia. And we watch with admiration what Ukraine did to find its own identity, find its own culture, to find its own role in Europe. That's why we know, and I was always sure of this – Ukraine belongs to Europe and not to the Russian part of the world. And we have to tell this to our people, we have to convince our politicians of this. And they are really blind. And one of the reasons they are blind is pure greed. They just want to do business. They envy oligarchs, Russian oligarchs Derypaska, Abramovich, etc. They envy them, their palaces, their yachts, their wealth, their millions and billions of dollars, euros, and pounds. And they want to have a little part of this.
In Austria, we have hundreds and thousands of Russians buying land, penthouses, and villas, so we have been very comfortable with this. And now it is really the time of the truth. All of us are dependent on Russia, we are dependent on Russian gas, and we did this deliberately, you know. Austria could have done something about this 20 years ago. But it didn’t. Now we are dependent. 80% of our gas comes from Russia. And so I hope that this war is some kind of a watershed moment, that this war should be or could be a turning point. But on the other hand, I'm not too optimistic about this.
Oleksiy Panych: I would say it was a strange mixture of idealism and greediness in this attitude to Russia. Because on the one hand, it’s very profitable to have friendly relations with Russia. On the other hand, you can believe, or at least you can try to believe that you involve Russia in this European concert of nations, that this would be the best guarantee that Russia would remain peaceful. They act up sometimes, but we are teaching them. We are trying to show them that to trade is much better than to fight. They don’t need war. For example, this was a dominant attitude for Angela Merkel. And where was it mistaken? I go back to my claim of Russian imperialism. It was mistaken in one crucial dimension to start with. When you try to create a liberal democracy in Russia, it clashes with Russian imperialistic statehood. That’s the point.
Look at Yeltsin’s time. In the 1990s, Yeltsin tried sincerely to liberalize Russian economics, to build capitalism in Russia. It was still state-controlled, but it was still some kind of private capitalism mixed with some liberalism. Yeltsin said to Russian regions once: "Get as much sovereignty as you can swallow." And what happened? By the end of Yeltsin’s rule, Moscow started to lose control over Russian territories. Not only Chechnya. Tatarstan wanted equal relations with Moscow and was preparing to claim state independence. Russians in the Ural mountains wanted to create a Ural Republic. In Siberia, they wanted to proclaim the Siberian Republic. I remember these political projects clearly.
So, when Putin started his presidential campaign in 1999, his starting point was "we are losing Russia. Russian regions are running away in different directions." The imperial center was angry and disturbed, and that’s why Putin started "liberating" Chechnya from all nationalists who wanted to leave Russia and claim an independent Chechen statehood. So far, Putin recaptured Chechnya as the starting point of restoring control inside Russia. And then if Chechens are Russian, why not Ukrainians? Why can Putin not admit that Ukrainians are a separate nation? Because he thinks of the world not as it is, but as it should be for the Russian Empire to have a future. And from this perspective, if he admitted that Ukrainians are separate people deserving to have a separate state, why not Tatars, why not Chechens, why not Dagestan, all the way to Yakutia? It was the clash overlooked by Western politicians. They wanted to see liberal Russia with a more or less liberal democratic economy. The price for this liberalism was the disintegration of the Russian imperialistic state. It was too big of a price for the Kremlin to pay, and this was why the Kremlin started to rip up liberalism, restore authoritarianism, and now is going all the way back to Nazism. It is the only preservation of this imperial state. That would be my explanation. Now we can see it clearly.
Martin Pollack: One of the missed concepts in the West was that many people thought that with regards to business, we could civilize Russia, we could civilize Mr. Putin, we could make him one of ours, a normal businessman who has his own interests. But I think we must understand that this is not everything he is thinking. This is not his main purpose. He is, after all, an imperialist and a dictator. He is not interested in business, he is doing business. Of course, he likes money. Today, I just read that they confiscated a yacht that belonged to Putin in Italy. So he likes his wealth, luxury, no doubt about it. But I think, in the end, he is an imperialist. In the end, he wants to destroy Free Europe and he wants to split Free Europe. And this is always his aim. That’s what he is mainly interested in.
Oleksiy Panych: Yes, I would say, only add that it is not about Putin personally. It is about a group of politicians who connected Putin as their leader. And the question I would put like this – in a world controlled by western rules, the Russian Empire has no future. To have a future, Russia has to redesign the world order. It has to make it look more like Huntington's "The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order." Huntington was one of the favorite writers of Alexander Dugin, a theoretician in Moscow. Dugin is very popular in the Kremlin. So my claim here would be that what is happening now in Ukraine is a question for world history. It is being decided whether the 21st century will be the century of Huntington or the century of Fukuyama.
On the other hand, regarding the clash of civilizations — and Russia certainly feels that it is a separate civilization — every civilization writes a moral code for itself. No civilization can dictate a moral code to others. So, it's, "this is our territory, that is your territory, Ukraine is our Russian territory. Don’t touch it. It’s Russian. We claim it as ours. You can do whatever you like on European territory, but we are natural enemies. Our purpose is a zero-sum game. It is not win-win. If we are better off, then you are worse off." This is the picture Putin is trying to establish. And the only alternative is a Fukuyama-style future, a future where countries obey one common order, obey law, respect dignity, respect a nation’s right to self-defense and self-organization. And now Ukrainians are defending a Fukuyama-style future against a Hungtinton-style future. And this is why the West should help Ukraine by whatever means possible. The future of the West is at stake, the future of human civilization is at stake now in Ukraine.
Martin Pollack: I have the impression that Putin does not really understand what cooperation means. It doesn’t mean anything to him. It is foreign to him. Apparently, the only thing he understands is the friend and enemy scheme: either you are my friend or you are my enemy. And he needs enemies apparently, Russia needs enemies, Russia needs to be surrounded by enemies to fight back and have this fighting spirit. The West is this foe and the West is this big, immoral enemy to keep the people there under his reign. I think it is very difficult, or even impossible, to find a dialogue with this. I mean, we have to really stand, and I am afraid that he only understands might. He only understands strength. That was what the West hasn’t shown in the past.
Oleksiy Panych: In Putin's logic, I would say, indeed, peaceful dialogue doesn’t work. It’s only a cover. In the same way that European artistic culture and the European-style of religion inherited by Eastern Europe Christianity, Orthodox Christianity is a cover for non-European statehood. It is just a cover. It’s a very strong claim but it's very sincere: I don’t believe in peaceful dialogue with Russia as long as Russia remains within its current borders. Just because Russia needs to be authoritarian to keep its geographical space under central control from Moscow. That means being hostile to the rest of the world. If Russia would become more peaceful and more liberal in its internal policy, the story of Yeltsin's rule would repeat again. Russia’s regions would again get back to their projects of independent statehood. That is why the Kremlin cannot afford to be anything other than authoritarian. And how could you have a dialogue with this evil empire? Evil because it uses evil tools, evil political means to keep the state under control. That’s why dialogue with Russia is not possible. I would say the best future for Russia is to be reconstructed as a sort of commonwealth of independent states. The same story that happened to the Soviet Union, hopefully peacefully, but I would claim this is what the world will try to do with Russia in the foreseeable future. Russia can only be hostile as it stands now. We have to reconsider the political order inside Russia.
Martin Pollack: I understand this kind of thinking a little because I came from a Nazi family. Every member of my family was a hardcore Nazi, my father was in the Gestapo, my father was in the SS, he was a war criminal. It was exactly the same thinking that enemies surround us, we have to defend ourselves. Also we are witnessing now a change from victim and perpetrator. The perpetrator pretends that he was a real victim. It was the same in my family. I grew up in this thinking. I was brought up with this logic. It was not to Jews who were the victims, it was not the Poles, not Ukrainians, not Russians. No, it was us. We were the true victims. So I was brought up until I was 14 or 16 in this kind of thinking. And this is exactly what I find now. Russia says, "we have to destroy the Nazis in Ukraine." I know Ukraine very well. I mean may be there are some nazis, some right-wing people. But they are everywhere. There are many more in Austria. I know that. Many more in Germany, many more in France. No doubt about it. In Poland. No doubt, you know. But this is the logic Putin is now using when he say, "now we have to destroy the Nazis in Ukraine and we are the victims of a new genocide." This is rubbish, but many people in Austria or in other countries want to believe it. They think that Russia without Ukraine is not a complete country. Ukraine belongs to Russia. We believe in that logic. Putin has been telling this to us for many many years, that Ukraine is part of Russia. It’s not an independent country, not an independent culture, not an independent language and so on. So, I think this thinking goes back, I mean not just to Nazi times, but much further of course. But we should know this. We have lived through this. I lived through this. I was brought up with this kind of thinking. So I can at least try to imagine what’s going on in Russia, what’s going on in Russian heads. That was what my parents thought, what my grandparents thought and what my grandparents taught me. I had a hard time getting away from it. It’s not so easy. You get brought up by people, by loving people, loving parents, loving grandparents and at the same time they are monsters. And we have to understand this. That must be true of Russia. They are nice people, they are nice fathers, they are nice lovers, and so on. But at the same time, they have become monsters. There is only a moment when people can switch. We must understand that. We can not think that they were monsters from the beginning. They were normal people. When they come back from the war, they will become normal people again. And this is what makes this so terrible for me. I have witnessed it myself in a certain sense.
Oleksiy Panych: Russians indeed are blind, trying to persuade to Ukrainians, "Look! We are the same people!" They believe that. They have been told for so many years that we are the same people. When they asked Ukrainians and Ukrainias disagreed, Russia became angry. And to respond to Austrians or Western peoples, Western intellectuals who believe in the same Russian story, I would say that Ukrainians are paying the highest price to prove a different position. Ukrainians now are dying for their right not to be Russians. What else do you need to prove that they are distinct people? Ask Ukrianians. Don’t ask Russians who Ukrainians are. Ask Ukrainians. We will tell you. We will tell you that we defend our freedom with the price of our lives. We are not Russia. Putin expected a repeat of part of the population in Crimea from eight years ago. It's not the same story. Nobody wants to greet Putin. Nobody greeted Putin in the first days of the war. And still people are trying to resist by whatever means they can. This is the best proof that Ukraine is not Russia. In fact, I would add one more claim. I would say Putin came to Ukraine to destroy Ukrainian national identity. He is destroying the remains of the Russian world in Ukraine. There will be no tolerance for the Russian world in Ukraine after this war. Putin cannot destroy the Ukrainian nation as such. As our president said several years ago, in order to obey Putin, we have to die. He should kill us first and then we will comply with his claims. So, that is why Ukrainians will win this war. You cannot destroy the whole nation. And after this war there will be no remains of the Russian world in Ukraine. There will be no Russian music, no Soviet movies, which are actually Russian movies. There will be no Russian propaganda. This tolerance is over. People in Ukraine also had a lot of illusions about Russia. Just like in Austria, as well as in Central and Eastern Europe. But now it’s all over. Game over. Now there will be a different future, another history for Ukraine and hopefully for Europe as well.
Martin Pollack: I think in this sense we should be very grateful to Ukraine, because Ukraine is opening our eyes to reality. The reality has always been like this. But we just didn’t want to believe it. We didn’t want to see it, and this is our mistake. That’s why we should be very grateful and thankful. As you said, Ukrainians are dying for freedom, we are not dying for your freedom. It’s not like, as the Polish saying goes, "For your and our freedom" — "Za waszą i naszą wolność." No, we are sitting here very comfortably. We are eating good food, I’m going to tend my garden tomorrow, but I never stop thinking about Ukraine. And I think this is very, very important. And so in the end, to be a bit optimistic about the whole situation. I know this is very comfortable for me to think in terms of optimism when I’m looking at Ukraine, where Ukrainian people, Ukrainian women and children are being killed senselessly and very cruelly by Russian soldiers, by Russian generals and by Putin, who is ordering all these bombardments and everything. But we must understand that Ukraine is fighting for our freedom also, not only for their freedom, but also for European freedom. Ukraine is fighting and Ukrainians are dying for our democracy. They are dying for democracy as such. And therefore I think we must never forget what Ukrainians are going through. Now the one last question I have for you. You are a philosopher. I think you are contemplating the problem of the philosopher and war. Can you tell me, enlighten me, what this means for you? Your role as a philosopher in this war?
Oleksiy Panych: That would be a good question for another conversation of about 40 minutes or more. I could only say that I started thinking about it when the war in Eastern Ukraine started. I wrote a piece in 2014 called "Philosopher and War." There are a lot of examples that came to my mind starting from Voltaire's "Candide."At the beginning of the story Candide happens to be on a battlefield and Voltaire says, "What did he do? He didn’t fight. Candide, trembling as a philosopher, tried to hide as best as he could." So why is it so? Why does Voltaire think a philosopher has a right to some exam status? For what? This was also a question for Wittgenstein who came to war deliberately and started his philosophy in times of war. There is a deep relation between the philosopher and war. And one of the answers why philosophers should hide and stay alive is to find some way to stop the war and prevent the next war. And this is actually our entire conversation today. That’s what it was about. What we should learn from our past, what the lessons from the past should be, and which mistakes would help us to stop this war and never have it again. This is a part of what the whole world of philosophers is doing. Historians, political scientists, specialists in cultural studies, translators, and writers are doing the same. Actually, it is a part of what we are doing today, Martin. And thank you for this conversation.
Martin Pollack: I thank you very much.
Thank you Martin for your eye-opening perspective of the best optics and also about explaining the mechanism of friends, enemies and cooperation, as well as the meaning of strenth for Nazi-like thinking. Thank you Oleksiy for your deep philosophical, historical and cultural approach and your thoughts on the possibility of conditions for dialogue and the place of philosophers in the war. PEN Ukraine is thankful to both of you for the discussion on values, better understanding of how Russia thinks and the geopolitical angle of war. A lot of strong things were said here. We can pick up from this conversation a deeper understanding and some answers about what I can do as an intellectual to help Ukraine today. And today we would say: learn, understand and acknowledge to fix mistakes.
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