The Ukraine War is Nihilism Made Systemic

By: Constantin Sigov

March 1, 2023

Constantin Sigov, Ukrainian philosopher and director of the European Center at the University of Kyiv, has decided to stay in Ukraine as a witness. In this interview, he reflects on the presence and role of nihilism in the ongoing conflict between Ukraine and Russia.

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.

“Third World War;” “war of the trenches;” “war of opinion.” How do you characterize this conflict?

It is an incredible war. No war has been covered like this, in real time, not only by journalists but also by civilians who testify live on social networks with their mobile phones. American journalist Thomas Friedman called it the “first connected world war” in history. Receiving an exact description of what is happening, along with images of the destruction, is another way of experiencing this war that penetrates our body and our mind. It is necessary to enter the very terrain of opinions as a way of not letting words and reality itself become perverted.

This war is nihilism made systemic. It is not only waged against a neighboring state, but against reality. Since the annexation of Crimea, we have been beset by lies. Defending reality and re-establishing the exact nature of words and things is essential and requires permanent effort. The only way for Putin to escape the international tribunal is to not just systematically deny reality verbally but also destroy it concretely. When you see the destruction of houses, it is not just a metaphor. It is real, just as real as the destruction of the semantic field.

The relationship to the dead also illustrates this nihilism. In all civilizations, there is a level of decency towards the dead. Here, the mass graves show a desire to erase all forms of humanity for the dead.

The falsification of the truth is also a falsification of the past.

For Putin, the past is a saber that can be wielded at will to manipulate and disfigure. Instead of acknowledging Stalin's crimes and the enormous losses, Putin does not hesitate to glorify Stalinism as a way of denouncing the West. This manipulation is unbearable for the families of the millions of victims of the gulags. On the eve of the invasion, the banning of the Memorial association, which documents the reality of the gulags, stems from this desire to manipulate the past. Instead of noting that it was impossible to win World War II without the help of the allies, one denies this historical reality and the fact that Stalin was an ally of Hitler between 1939 and 1941. This falsification began in the 1990s, when the KGB archives in Russia were opened and then quickly closed again. In Ukraine, they are always open. With the arrival of Putin and the closure of free media in the 2000s, a kind of revisionism took hold in history textbooks. But it was especially after 2004 and the Orange Revolution in Ukraine, which was perceived as a strong signal against this neo-Sovietism, that it gained momentum.

How do you define Putinism in relation to Sovietism?

Putin absolutizes Sovietism by relying on the KGB, the real backbone of the regime. The institution has changed its name but it is the same thing. More than political police, it is a mafia organization which, during the Soviet period, competed with the Communist Party but under Putin no longer has this competition. Today, all parties are subject to the power of the Kremlin and therefore to the Federal Security Service (FSB). Also, the Soviet period was turned towards the future with the idea that it would be radiant. Today everything is turned towards the past, and we find at the ideological center of the Kremlin a sacralization of capitalism. Finally, during Stalinism, torture and repression were concealed. In recent years, we no longer even hide the crimes; we glorify the massacres. There is absolute cynicism. The Wagner group totally assumes this criminal aspect.

How do you explain that the majority of Russians do not react to this glorification of death?

Hannah Arendt said that the essence of totalitarianism is to atomize society. She spoke of 12 years of Nazi totalitarianism, but in the USSR this atomization lasted almost 70 years without counting Putinism. When people are isolated, when there are no more standing institutions, fear sets in. Even reflection is amputated. Europe was built on three major institutions: universities, publishing houses, and free media. With these three elements having been destroyed in Russia, how can we engage in debate of ideas or use our critical spirit? There is no more room for free speech. The Russians with whom I am in contact are completely isolated and very pessimistic. Thinking about a change is completely out of reach.

How did Ukrainian thought become autonomous and emancipated from Putinism?

Before the Bolshevik revolution, Kyiv had direct and long-standing relations with Europe. I work at the first university founded in the East in 1615, where Latin has been taught for two centuries. This tradition was artificially cut off by Bolshevik power and the Iron Curtain, and after Stalin. Since independence, we have been very keen to re-establish cultural bridges with Europe. Shortly after defending my thesis in 1990—written in the midst of perestroika—I was invited to the Collège de France by Claude Lévi-Strauss and Françoise Héritier. I am part of this generation of thinkers who wants to re-establish links with the French human sciences. This is why I came to the EHESS (School for Advanced Studies in the Social Sciences) in Paris in 1991 and then founded a publishing house in Kyiv. My son also helps European journalists on the scene. For two generations, we have been forging links.

Why did Europe take so long to grasp what was at stake and to act?

Europe was asleep, and part of it still doesn’t want to be woken up. Several enchanting illusions favored this monstrous dream, starting with the idea that the economy rules everything. Geopolitical questions have been replaced by geo-economic questions. Until recently, Germany was still supporting the Nordstream project. Despite what was announced, the economic games continued, business as usual, and opened the door to violence. This greed, even when sporting the colors of the West, got out of control. We are now paying dearly for the consequences of betting everything on the economy. Schröder and Berlusconi were active members of this illusion.

Was it also a lack of courage?

Only the acts that we have experienced can lead to courage, the etymology of which means “acting with the heart.” To qualify the conflict, as is sometimes done even in France, as “gearing” or “escalating” connotes a form of weakness. Rather, the keyword here is “delayed,” because in 2014, and then since February 2022, the European capitals could have acted to avoid this catastrophe, via the G7 or the G20. Responsibility is collective. After seeing with our own eyes what was happening in Bou, Cha, or Irpin, as Macron did, we can no longer pretend.

Is Putinism at a tipping point?

We are witnessing the agony of the regime, as the Russian army has neither won the war nor encircled Kyiv nor kept Kherson. Evil carries its own destruction within itself. Western illusions about the regime are no longer accepted. February 24, 2022, was a trigger when we realized that we could no longer show indifference as we did during the annexation of Crimea. The destruction of order and international law is now perceived as very serious. Our critical capacity has been awakened. To put an end to Putinism, we must not neglect economic means—one of the most peaceful and advanced tools for the West today—and apply the measures of the nine previous sanctions packages. A tenth package must be adopted before February 24, 2023.

How is this war an opportunity to rebuild another “European ethos”?

Europe as a whole has every interest in reviewing its relations with Central Europe and putting an end to the condescension towards these “small countries.” We must take seriously and listen to the courage of countries like Estonia or the Czech Republic, which were among the first, long before France, to welcome refugees and supply weapons. These countries are critical of their own past. “You are doing what we didn’t do in 1968,” my Prague editor told me. They could not resist militarily against the Red Army. These prevented realities can be awakened and brought into shape, as we see with the election of the former NATO general as the new Czech president. In Hungary, solidarity coexists with the signs of its totalitarian past. Moreover, we should not underestimate the strength of democracies where ordinary citizens can be stronger than the aggressor, however better armed it may be. Solidarity is played out between countries and between citizens. To avoid being swallowed up by authoritarian regimes, Europe must be strong, courageous, and united.

How are you coping with the situation?

We face different challenges. Regularly, we must mourn those who give their lives for our freedom. There is the enormous and daily work of mutual aid. We try to support their families, financially or otherwise. We must also help our most vulnerable loved ones or neighbors, with shopping for example. The most privileged who live on the upper floors of residential buildings are now worse off because without electricity, one must walk all the way down. I live with my 94-year-old mother, who still has an excellent memory and a brilliant ability to analyze the situation. She was born in Kyiv and remembers the German occupation during World War II, to which the bombings brutally bring her back. Faced with dramatic news, she read poems that she wrote herself. Culture is what remains when you have nothing left. Without electricity, only what we know by heart remains.

Finally, it is necessary to develop and maintain the structures of society: houses, institutions, electricity, and roads. Maintaining education is also vital, even if it is only remote as it has been for a year. Students can be in Kyiv, in the free part of the country or in the occupied areas, or even abroad. When there are power cuts, we have to adapt and use generators. These common moments of exchange and shared experience are precious and fragile.

This interview originally appeared in French in Libération.

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