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Where there is no law, but every man does what is right in his own eyes, there is the least of real liberty
Henry M. Robert

The threat of Russian nihilism

Or why the French philosopher Glucksmann favors granting Ukraine the MAP
7 October, 2008 - 00:00

The French philosopher and essayist Andre Glucks­mann, who calls a spade a spade and is close to France’s President Nicolas Sarkozy, is known to many. The distinguished Frenchman recently welcomed some Ukrainian journalists to his old Parisian apartment whose walls are hung with 15 mirrors. The rest of the walls are covered with books on philosophy.

Glucksmann told the group of Ukrainian journalists that he decided to become a philosopher at the age of seven. He also confessed that he does not understand how the collapse of the Soviet Union can be called the biggest catastrophe of the 20th century. The French philosopher emphasized that Europe needs to start paying closer attention to Russia’s juridical and economic nihilism instead of indulging in pipe dreams of colonizing or modernizing a country whose leaders have become true cynics after 70 years of communist rule.

Why does Europe not see Ukraine in the collective security system, and why should Ukraine be granted the NATO Membership Action Plan? What should Ukraine do if it has an aggressive Russia on one side and a well-fed and indifferent West on the other? These and other questions are raised in the following interview with Andre Glucksmann.


There is nothing original about Ukraine. I have supported the dissident movement since the Brezhnev era. In 1975 I published a book called La Cuisiniere et le mangeur d’hommes, reflexions sur l’Etat, le marxisme et les camps de concentration. In it I examined Lenin’s maxim that a female cook will rule the state. I compared this to a book by Solzhenitsyn, who portrayed a peasant woman named Matriona who does not rule the state. It is true that the book polemicized with Marxist ideology, which was very strong in France at the time. This book made a certain impact abroad. The Pole, Adam Michnik, told me it had helped him understand the necessity of uniting with the Catholic Church and independent trade unions to fight communism. There was a traditionally deep rift in Poland among intellectuals, atheists, and the extremely conservative Catholic Church. And my book helped him form an alliance between the liberals and the trade unions, which led to the formation of Solidarity. A great follower of mine, a Social Democrat from Portugal, who lived in Paris, said that my book helped him thwart a communist coup.

In my opinion, the time of the Jacobinic Bolsheviks is over, but revolutions continue. There were great, peaceful democratic movements that completely changed regimes: the first was the Portuguese revolution, which put an end to fascism in Western Europe, and then Franco’s dictatorship crumbled in Spain. There was a simultaneous movement of “Velvet Revolutions” and, finally, the Rose and the Orange revolutions. My postulate is that this was one of the most important events after World War II. I was seven when the war ended. Europe was divided into two camps. There were still ruins in the West and Stalin in the East. Since those days Europe has transformed itself tremendously.

The other important event is the development of economic communism in China, which has opted for a market economy and worked a fantastic economic miracle in the past 30 years to become the world’s second largest economic power. I can affirm that there were two economic miracles in the 20th century: the Chinese and the Japanese. This inspires optimism in me. This economic transformation, which began 30 years ago, is very important, because when the Africans see the Chinese model, they lose their illusions about communism.


“The fantastic modification of the map of Europe began in 1953, when there was a popular uprising in Berlin, which continued in 1956 in Hungary and Poland. Then there was the Prague Spring of 1968, Solidarity, and Charter-77, led by Vaclav Havel. At the same time, one fiasco followed another. Nevertheless, there were transformations in Europe, and I think democratic revolutions in Eastern Europe were the main motive force. I see the Rose and Orange revolutions as a continuation of this. Maybe, my vision of this differs from that of the officials you have talked to.

But there is another man who talks about permanent revolution: Putin. In my opinion, the Ukrainian revolution scared him. He knows that the permanent democratic revolutions that have occurred in the past 50 years have already put an end to the communist regime. My friend Anna Politkovskaya, who was murdered, told me that the Georgian and Ukrainian revolutions had caused panic in the Russian government, especially the Kremlin leadership. They suddenly saw that the same thing could happen in Russia. Hence the crackdown on those movements that pose a threat to the regime.

I think this also explains the attack on Georgia. One should never forget that they fear for themselves and their power. Their panic and fear exceed the limits of reality. In my opinion, they have not finished yet and the Ukrainians are next in line.

What does the attack on Georgia mean? This is the way the Kremlin issues signals: either us or them. The Kremlin thinks that if democratic revolutions continue, this will pose a threat to their power. This is not fair, of course. Remember that Putin’s autocracy is based on the complete control of the mass media. The Kremlin believes that a democratic Ukraine and mass media that are independent of Russia are a danger to Russian autocracy. So, in the interim Putin is absolutely right in his desire to stifle democracy in Ukraine.


Is the West prepared to defend a democratic Ukraine?

Starting in the 1950s, I purposely began to show in perspective the changes that have occurred in Central and Eastern Europe over the past 50 years. I said there had been failures each time – Budapest, Prague. Each time the West displayed passivity. Obviously, the West is not, and never was, prepared to defend anybody. There was a speech by Churchill in 1947 and one by Reagan in the 1980s. But I cannot say that there is a very firm stand. At any rate, we do not have one now.

What can Ukraine do in this situation, where it is caught between the devil and the deep blue sea? On one side is well-fed Europe, which doesn’t want anything. On the other side is Russia, with its ravenous appetite and the intention to regain its influence over Ukraine.

Mao Zedong’s advice is good in this situation: rely on your own strength. It is obvious that Russia, I mean the Kremlin, wants to sow discord. I do not believe in a military intervention. It is much easier to provoke a civil conflict or, at any rate, to cause mental confusion. You cannot expect a Westerner, who has little interest in international politics, to know the difference between the President of Ukraine and its prime minister, who cooperated with him three years ago but is not with him today. You cannot demand this from a Frenchman, an average statistical Western European, who may even be inclined to understand this mess. Incidentally, officials are unwilling by definition and ex-officio, because they want to have as few problems as possible. They will probably take advantage of this situation and say: look, they are divided. In other words, you are showing your true face, and your destiny is in your own hands.

Take Poland, for example. There were negotiations between Solidarity and the people from Jaruzelski’s entourage when martial law was lifted. And the negotiations did not end up in a situation where one goes to prison and the other into power. They struck a deal during a small booze-up. Maybe it was not so heroic, but it was far more sensible. And everything was finally done very well.

You can’t possibly come out of communism into post-communism with a clear mind. Communism reduced humans to animals. During the Prague revolution, I took part in a TV program to explain to the Czechs who Vaclav Havel was because he had not been talked about for 10 years. I was the first Westerner, a Parisian, to explain to the people of Prague that he was a great writer and the founder of Charter-77. They had never heard of it. Czechoslovak television was quite good, and the people who worked there were not animals; they were absolutely sincere. My impression was that I was visiting a communist municipality in France: the same politeness and stupidity.


The impression is that no matter what Russia does, the West is afraid to annoy it even more.

I have always said that it was the people of Central and Eastern Europe who opted for the movement towards freedom – not some foreigners, like Putin likes to claim. Our politicians are generally full of illusions. When they see a Russian president or prime minister, they think he is their equal. This is a Western malady typical of all countries, the Left, the Right, the Republicans, and the Democrats. Remember when Bush was enchanted with Putin’s blue eyes and said he was a good guy? Blair supported Putin even before he was elected. The British prime minister went to see an opera with him in St. Petersburg. He recognized him even before the voters expressed their opinion. Berlusconi calls him “my friend Putin” and invites him to his Mediterranean summer retreat. Schroeder is on Gazprom’s payroll. And when he was chancellor, he was a big friend of Putin’s. Today he is maligning the Georgians and explaining that the Russians acted within the limits of international law.

Why is this happening? Is it connected to a particular mentality? Why is the veil not falling?

Everything goes from small to big. When the French peacekeepers were in Yugoslavia, they sided with the Serbian army, not with the Bosnians because the Bosnians, who were defending Sarajevo, did not have uniforms (laughs), whereas the Serbian army had both uniforms and weapons. I see it this way: the military likes the military and diplomats like diplomats. The ideology that emerged after the fall of the Berlin Wall says that everything is OK: there is no communist and ideological danger anymore; all the conflicts are over. Fierce struggles and debates have also come to a close. This is called “the end of history.”

But in reality, things are getting more difficult. Even people who have not read Fukuyama agree. I must say that this kind of reaction is customary after any war, be it a “cold” one or a “hot” one. People think that all bad things are in the past and only good things are ahead (laughs.) When I was seven, I threw a fit when I was told to forget the war and to behave as if there had never been a war. When you are seven and told to forget the war which had lasted for five years, this means to forget everything that you are thinking about. At the time I understood that some politicians like lulling people to sleep.

This may be the reason why I became a philosopher. I think we must be attentive. Half-sleep is a normal reaction in many countries that are relatively happy and loath to think about what may happen. Some Germans call this looking the other way if there is some kind of danger, so they shut their eyes. The same thing is happening after the Georgia war. We are told it is a mishap, that Saakashvili is to blame. And nothing is being said about Russia. But the danger is coming from Russia, not Saakashvili. The Georgian president will not set the world on fire. So, on the whole, people just do not want to see the danger.


What kind of future awaits dissidence in Russia? Why are its intellectuals unable to persuade the Russian people that the government is wrong, or why do they not believe them?

There is a fundamental problem in Russia – its humiliation. The people allowed themselves to be manipulated even though there are people in every family who died in the GULAG. They are forced to say that it is not the Russians who did this, that somebody else is to blame. In this case, one should say that the 70 years of communism never happened, that the mistake was made in 1991, when the Soviet Union stopped existing. They can say that it was a CIA plot and that their fantastic pride was destroyed so stupidly. Vladimir Putin said without thinking long about it (and this is exactly what he thinks) that the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century was the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Was this a bigger catastrophe than World War I, which claimed 10 million lives in Europe? Was it more horrible than World War II, which claimed 50 million lives, including perhaps about 20 million Russians [sic]? Was it bigger than Auschwitz or Hiroshima? Bigger than the GULAG? We have to think about this.

I believe he is aware that the entire West does not share this viewpoint. But he thinks so. And, to think so one must have a very special vision of history. The point is that when he was a KGB colonel and his bosses lost power, this was the worst moment in history for him. Following this train of thought, we must restore the system that he pities so much. I would believe this, but he is not a Marxist. He absolutely understands that Marxism has nothing to do with this. Unable to restore the Soviet Union, he wants to establish control over his closest neighbors.

In order to think so, one must have disrespect for the Russians and think that the tens of millions of victims of the two world wars and Stalin’s dictatorship never existed. The Kremlin does not, in fact, respect the Russian population today, when there is the problem of tuberculosis, AIDS, unemployment, prostitution, and the mafia. Russia is a colossus on feet of clay, and the Kremlin does not care about half the country’s population. This is absolutely correct from the economic viewpoint. Oil and gas sales account for 70 percent of Russia’s revenues. To utilize all this, the two percent of the population involved in this sector are quite enough. Since it is a country with a not-so-well-developed industry, the Russian proletariat and peasantry are of no account, but the big cities, where the bourgeoisie lives, need the West, which purchases oil and gas and sells everything, including strawberries.

I traveled illegally to Chechnya and Dagestan, where people told me that they used to sell their fruit to Moscow. Today Moscow no longer wants to buy their fruit and is buying it from the West. So this is the Russian leaders’ disrespect of their own population. My conclusion is that it is a weak regime. Should there be any unexpected events, unanimous support for Putin, now running at more than 70 percent, may vanish in a matter of minutes.

In a recent article you said that Europe showed resolve on the Georgia issue. At the same time, you end the article with a rhetorical question: Will Europe choke on Russian gas or give in to Putin’s doctrine? What did you mean by that?

That was not a rhetorical question. Let me give you an example. During the abortive coup in 1989, Jaruzelski sent the leaders of Solidarity to prison. So Prime Minister Mauroy of France said, “Should the sufferings of the French people, who are deprived of gas and unable to fry a steak, be added to the sufferings of the Polish people, who are deprived of freedom?” When I speak of gas, I am not joking. The press and all sorts of experts say that nothing can be done to Russia because the amount of gas and oil purchases in Europe is absolutely fantastic, even larger than in France. France has nuclear power plants, while imported energy resources amount to 40 percent in Germany, 90 in Poland, and 100 in Bulgaria. Italy is also cooperating with Gazprom.

Meanwhile, Germany is even building a pipeline to avoid the transit across the Baltic countries, Poland, and Ukraine. Before leaving office, Chancellor Schroeder urged German industrialists to abandon their fears and invest in this project. A month later he became a top executive at Gazprom. Every time I visit Germany, I say that Schroeder should be put in jail. This is absolute corruption. He has even published a book, which is a bestseller in Germany. He is playing an important role.

What he has done is murdered freedom of thought in Europe. I say “murdered” because nothing in these matters is objective. Russian gas is a noose made out of a Bickford fuse. Russia needs to sell its gas, which accounts for 60 percent of its revenues. To whom can they sell this gas? The could sell it to China, for example. But the network with the aid of which they are selling gas to Western Europe was built 20 to 30 years ago. So it will also take about 10 years to build a network to supply gas to China. What can the Russians do if they don’t sell gas to Europe for 10 years? They are not in a position to keep so much of it in storage. At the very least, Europe and Russia occupy the same positions. They should sell and we should buy. It is totally wrong to say that we are bound hand and foot to the Russians only because they are selling us energy resources.


Why does France say “we” in the name of the West instead of saying that it is the very country that is against granting Ukraine the MAP and EU membership prospects?

This is hypocrisy pure and simple. One must analyze the negotiations that have taken place. The first idea was to admit Ukraine and Georgia to the European Union. Then, after the problem with Turkey emerged, the French and the Germans said that it was very difficult to do this at the time because our voters would not understand us. The way they contrived to put forward a constitution convinced everybody that it was impossible even from the viewpoint of national consensus.

After the EU failure, the problem of Ukraine’s accession to NATO emerged. Then the Americans proposed the idea of inviting Ukraine to NATO, which the Germans and the French supported at first. In 2003 France and Germany did not openly oppose this. It turned out that the opposition came from Iceland, with its population of under one million. But it was impossible to pressure Iceland. Iceland had American bases, which the US no longer needed. The Icelanders were dissatisfied that the Americans were abandoning the bases. As a matter of fact, the United States could have forced Iceland or abandoned the bases if they had really wanted Ukraine to join NATO.

Chirac and Schroeder had ample grounds for saying that they did not oppose granting Ukraine the MAP. Naturally, the French and the Germans are really the ones who oppose Ukraine’s admission to NATO. The French have always been anti-American. Anti-Americanism in the French foreign ministry has been somewhat on the decline since Sarkozy came to power.

As for the behavior of the parties, most of the Socialists in France and Germany are anti-American. Schroeder had never supported dissidence in Russia, and he won the election on a wave of anti-US feeling. A large number of German industrialists believe they can colonize Russia, as was the case in the 19th century, when the tsar’s administration consisted of German and Baltic barons. Today’s German industrialists believe they have the same pretentions; they think they can modernize Russia and guarantee their investments.

But they have forgotten that the Russians, including the current leaders, are no fools and that 70 years of communist rule have produced absolute cynicism. Which means that top statesmen and factory managers have no respect whatsoever for the law, morality, and promises. I can cite the Russian leader Dmitry Medvedev, when he talks about juridical nihilism. This means disrespect for the law. Juridical nihilism is total nihilism. When Putin razes Grozny, the capital of Chechnya, with its population of 400,000, this is strategic nihilism. This was the first instance of this kind after Hitler razed Warsaw to the ground.

When Putin crossed the borders of Georgia without confining himself to the two breakaway provinces and bringing Russian troops as close as 30 km from Tbilisi, the capital of Georgia, this is diplomatic nihilism. When he has Khodorkovsky arrested and imprisoned in Siberia, this is legal and economic nihilism. I also call it nihilism when people do not accept the existence of evil and things that must not be done, when they do not accept the difference between truth and lies. The Russian leadership has no vision or understanding of this. They continue to cherish the cult of Stalin even though they are not Marxists. Russia still maintains the cult of Ivan the Terrible and Peter the First – even though Peter I had his own son executed.

The Germans simply cannot see that present-day Russia does not understand that there are categories of moral behavior and that there are rules in trade. The Germans do not understand that they are dealing with people who are even more cynical than they are. When German industrialists hope that they will succeed in putting the Russian capitalists in their pockets, they are displaying nothing but utter naivety. The world-famous misanthrope George Soros has had billions of dollars stolen in Russia. It is difficult to imagine another country where so much money could be stolen from a person like Soros.

We must say clearly and bluntly: the danger of present-day Russia is being underestimated. That country is not controlled by the people, and there is no counterweight to the leadership. That country thinks that it can allow itself everything. At the same time, it is the second largest nuclear state, an energy power, and the world’s second largest arms trader. So, for Russia, power has a very great force of negative influence, and that is why it is extraordinarily dangerous.

The Russians think that the worse things are for the West, the more money they will make. The Chinese think absolutely differently: the lower the price of oil, the better their industry works, and the more their trade embraces the world. China is interested in cooperation with the West.


What were your reasons for supporting for Ukraine and its bid to obtain the MAP?

My reason is Putin. You should not give in to Putin’s blackmail. It was a catastrophe when we backed down and said that granting Ukraine and Georgia the MAP would be on the agenda in December because Russia thought: if we lose in December, then let’s win something earlier. So we added fuel to the fire by deciding to appease the Russians. I said to Sarkozy’s advisors, “You made the Russians act fast.” I am not certain that they would have done the same in Georgia if the Georgians had had the MAP. So this very slippery half-promise could trigger a reaction that would make it impossible for Georgia and Ukraine to obtain the MAP.

In my view, we will make the same mistake if we say: yes, you will come to NATO, but not immediately. This is the best way to say to Russia: please act faster. As for the NATO foreign ministers’ December decision, I have no hopes at all, but we must say that the best answer to Putin’s blackmail is granting Ukraine and Georgia the MAP. And if NATO favors democracy, it must say that Ukraine and Georgia are part of Europe.

Quite a few experts say that Ukraine is the heart of Russia. They speak about the Varangians, but they always forget one thing: there was a dictatorship here for seven decades. And Ukraine, once the granary of Europe, became a scorched land. We forget this every time.

You not only have the right to stand up for your independence. Your demands are much stronger than those of the “Varangians” because of the millions of victims of Soviet collectivization. In every Ukrainian family there is somebody who died a death provoked by the Soviet power. Your desire for independence can be explained by the fact that Russia does not look at its history with the same critical eye and does not show even a minimum of human feelings. Putin does not understand this, just as he does not understand the recognition of Kosovo’s independence, which occurred after decades-long negotiations, after millions of Kosovars were thrown out of their country into neighboring Albania and other countries. It is difficult to imagine after this that 90 percent of Kosovars would subject themselves to the Serbs. This is a human factor. An international law expert may not understand this, but it is elementary.

If Putin cannot understand this, there is something inhuman in his head. In my opinion, you don’t talk enough about the Holodomor. I do not call it genocide, but it can be called so in principle. That horrible extermination of people created a wide gap between the two countries. But this does not mean that you should exterminate as many Russians.


The Germans often advise the Ukrainians not to raise this issue in order not to irk Russia.

Then you should remind the Germans about the times when Germany did not want to talk about its misfortunes. I am talking about the Weimar Republic. Germany explained that it was stabbed in the back by the bad socialists, the French, or the British. The Germans also emphasized that they were not the only party responsible for the 1914 war. Even so, they were responsible for something, and they were punished for it. And not to admit this is the same as not admitting a return to oneself.

The Russians are not doing this. So I can say that Russia is now in the same situation as the Weimar Republic. They say it is not their fault and they are not to blame. There was a conspiracy against us, they say. We lost our beloved Soviet Union. But after the war in 1945 Germany made a critical analysis of its crimes with no problem. And it is better for them and for the world. If the Russians do this, they will have a greater sense of family. After all, it is very difficult to do this in a family, where a husband has killed his wife.

But they don’t want to do this.

They are doing just the opposite. But there is something that the Russians do not want to remember: that Stalin was officially the head of the Communist International after 1945, although he no longer believed in it. He had already deported all the Chechens, except for the men who had fought against the Nazis on the battlefield. This was Stalin’s nationalities policy. He continued this policy against the Baltic countries and against the Jews. Putin’s policy does not differ very much from that of Stalin, who did not have truck with communist ideas after World War II and why he disbanded the Comintern. He really didn’t understand this.

By Mykola SIRUK, The Day