By Defending Eastern Europe, You Are Defending Your Own Home
By: Constantin Sigov
August 30, 2022
Constantin Sigov, Ukrainian philosopher and director of the European Center at the University of Kyiv, has decided to stay in Ukraine as a witness. August 24, 2022 marked not only National Independence Day in Ukraine, but also six months of the conflict launched by Russia. In this essay, Sigov deconstructs the enduring barbecue metaphor of Russian militarism and reflects on the lasting impacts of the war in Ukraine, both across Eastern Europe and on the world stage.
Sigov is director of the European Center for Research in the Humanities at the National University Kyiv-Mohyla Academy and consultant on religious questions for the State Service of Ukraine for Ethnic Affairs and Freedom of Conscience.
The multicolored vegetables and all the other good pieces that are effortlessly threaded on a barbecue do not resemble the cold steel spit that pierces them. Squeezed together, slices of meat or fish and rings of bell pepper, onion, and tomato can effectively and entirely hide the metal axis which holds them together above the flame, thanks to which they can cook and change appearance.
In a recent interview which garnered much attention, the director of the Russian Hermitage Museum designated this axis without ambiguity. “We are militarists and imperialists,” he said. It is indeed on the axis of militarism that one threads multicolored cultural products which hide, less and less, that their only objective is to support “the special military operation.” On this axis we put any salad: fragments of previously incompatible ideas and symbols, obstinate speeches and hypocritical phrases about a “truce,” all kinds of “pictures at an exhibition,” and sets of Orthodox priestly vestments and kitsch icons of the Russian Armed Forces Cathedral. War as Putin’s dominant passion and as the core of the Russian state’s ideology erases any distinction between hinting at the truth and outright lying. This is why nothing and no one prevents foreign minister Lavrov from citing Hitler’s Jewishness as the cause of his anti-Semitism.
Moscow fears Western sanctions, which are painfully felt, and seeks to convince Europe that they are “ineffective.” To ease these sanctions and hide their scope, Putin officials skewer colorful and distracting international cultural events that they cook on the “Russian barbecue.” Who will find this infernal cuisine to their liking? Certainly not us.
From now on, we can no longer separate the Ukrainian experience from the new historical experience of other European countries. Paradoxically and constantly, our resistance calls for an interest in the position of other European societies. Today, citizens of any European country can give full meaning to the phrase: “We Ukrainians.”
The Kremlin seeks to take hostage any society or any state. No European state can have any illusions on this point any longer. What Russia is doing in Ukraine bears the same brand of violence and blackmail as its negotiations with its Western partners, but without the mask of friendliness. Peter Pomerantsev is right: “By relying on Russian gas, Europe has become a victim of abusive relations. There is only one way out: to end it as soon as possible. It will not be easy. This will be costly. But it has to be done.” The crimes against civilian populations of which the Russian army was guilty in Chechnya, Georgia, and Syria are now being committed in the heart of Europe. Who can assure us that it will not go further? That is why by coming to the aid of Eastern Europe, you are defending your own home. This defense has a cost, unless you are sure you can tell yourself and your loved ones that you will not have to wake up in the middle of the night to run for shelter. Such is the new historical experience which is already ours and in which we are going to have to live.
What fundamentally distinguishes the current cynical regime of Russia from the previous Soviet regime? Until the collapse of the USSR and the publication of innumerable damning documents on Soviet crimes, one could claim “that one did not know.” The Soviets could fool themselves and say, almost honestly, that they knew nothing of the horrors of the gulag. Since 1991, such indulgence became impossible and, on the main television channels, the Soviet regime was deemed a criminal by many of its victims. Thus fell the curtain that hid the KGB torture chambers and the camps where millions of “evil-thinking” people had been sent. Throughout the 1990s, the post-Soviet population as a whole was able to assimilate these facts. This historical experience transformed the model of Soviet xenophobia. In the days of the USSR, all the evil in the world lay abroad, especially in the West. Now we realized that a considerable part of the world’s evil came from at home, from our country, and from our society.
Tens of millions of Soviets saw the Georgian film Repentance, which focused on exposing Stalinist crimes. However, instead of condemning the crimes, purifying the memory, and repenting, the opposite political choice was made, one based on revenge and resentment. It is with festering cynicism that the illusion of “ignorance” of the crimes has been rejected and that any complex on this subject has been repudiated.
In Soviet times, the Kremlin, so to speak, adopted the well-known mantra, “hell is other people.” Today, its actions bluntly assert that “hell is us.” Be afraid of us; we will establish hell wherever we want.
The war has dug the bed of this river of hatred. Influenced by Russian media, whole masses of people have accepted war crimes and glory obtained in these conquests. Will we succeed in accustoming Western citizens to such cynicism? Will Schroeder remain an odious exception? Or will others like him undermine the foundations of democratic rules?
The Kremlin militarists wanted to skewer the city of Kyiv on their barbecue along with Mariupol, Kharkiv, and Odessa. But now, in 2022, Ukraine thwarts this project to expand the Russian barbecue.
Since February 24, six interminable months of war have illuminated the criminal alloy of which this military “spit” is made. The shreds of speeches and myths that once decorated it have caught fire and fell into the embers. Bare and black with soot, the steel weapon stands in the middle of the twenty-first century. Covered with wounds, Odessa seizes this ignoble object like loot and throws it at the feet of its legendary mayor, the Duke of Richelieu. Is this not the irony of history?
It was in Odessa that I first heard the expression: “Militarism is the spit of the ‘Russian barbecue.’” When will the metaphor finally be outdated?
Apparently, not in the foreseeable future. Around the world, and especially in France, we see the Internet circulating horrific photos of the heads of Ukrainians on stakes planted by Russian soldiers. The spit metaphor has become a vivid reality. The intention of this bestiality seems twofold: to incite the victims to discredit themselves before world opinion by indulging in their turn at symmetrical horrors, and, at the same time, to dissuade Westerners from meddling in this conflict by leaving the assaulted alone against his attacker. To all this, we must oppose any kind of denial.
This is not an electronic game, but a human reality that we are actively trying to destroy before our eyes. And it is through each of us—and through our solidarity—that life opposes the inhuman.
This essay originally appeared in French in L'Express.