Translated by Larissa Babij, Oleksandr Lebediev, and Irina Kostyshina
Art by Olia Fedorova
On February 22, 2022, five days before Russia’s limited war in eastern and southern Ukraine transitioned to a full-blown invasion, Ukraine president Volodymyr Zelensky gave a speech at the 58th Munich Security Conference, where he reminded listeners of the consequences of not resisting totalitarian regimes on the cusp of World War II.
For all the unusualness of hearing about historical responsibility from this insecure person who wants everyone to like him, I was most surprised at the time by the reference in this speech to geometric concepts. For example:
“Ukraine wants peace. Europe wants peace. The world says it does not want battle, while Russia says it does not want to attack. Someone here is lying. This is not quite an axiom, but it is no longer a hypothesis.”
Even if this suspiciously resembles a rhetorical device, I can’t stop thinking about the inscription above the entrance to Plato’s Academy: “Let none but geometers enter here.” As I interpret Zelensky’s words, Europeans are so consumed by fear of Russia’s nuclear threats that they have lost the ability to think, sense, and defend themselves. They must return to geometry, and only then, having freed themselves from “geopolitical considerations,” will they again be able to love the truth.
But do we have that kind of geometry?
Modern mathematics is based on axioms (values) and, as opposed to Euclid, no longer distinguishes between what is defined (ὅρος), what demands thinking through (αἴτήματα), and the notion of common sense (κοιναὶ ἔννοιαι).
For example, a circle, a triangle, and a line need to be seen. We define them (through the effort of drawing out a sign) by making indications in the sand. In turn, our ability to think about the series of “natural” numbers demands infinite mathematical induction.
The moment we demand it, while constructing this series, we also become responsible for everything that could be created with it, and for its very presence in the thought of any person. We become responsible for the idea of humanity’s infinite progress, for the “bright future,” for the limitless possibilities of human intelligence, which led to so many people being maimed, killed, left on the verge of existence or deprived of their humanity.
The inability to distinguish the nature of the efforts required by geometry impedes logical thinking beyond the boundaries of contemporary mathematics, where the circulation of things is already schematized.
I consider the absence of the habit of being specific and demanding at the outset of logical deliberation to be deeply tied to the loss of ability to make political demands, because this incapacitates judgment, without which there can be no common sense.
Without this demand for common sense there can be no law nor politics.
Without faith in one’s own judgment, a person is left with an endless stream of external points of view (what we now call post-truth).
I would call the condition of thinking that is incapable of looking and demanding, after Heidegger, thinking in values. This thinking is always seeking validation and once it is found, it stops. In other words, this is thinking that economizes thinking.
People who are economical with thinking spare it first of all in their own deeds.
So-called “European values” are impotent. No heap of corpses will induce people who think in those values to see evil, and no threat to their rights will force them to demand condemnation of the crimes committed against these rights.
To say that Ukrainians today are fighting for “European values,” while, say, the Afghans who surrendered to the Taliban without significant resistance refused to do so, makes no sense.
What are Ukrainians fighting for? Thought comprehended by “European values” can only gape at this question. It can light the Brandenburg Gate in the colors of our flag, sing Ukrainian songs on the radio, and concentrate on millions of refugees without paying heed to what has made these people refugees. It doesn’t understand how dangerous even a smaller number of refugees (taking the war in Syria as an example) is to European democracies, and how easy it was for Russia to take advantage of this vulnerability to install nationalist-populist and far-left politicians in European parliaments to lobby for Russia’s interests.
Can I say that I have the geometry that is the basis for philosophical and political life? No. The following theorem is just a peek over the trench’s edge onto the field of philosophy, where every person has to find their own place. Do I have enough curiosity to live according to this thought? I don’t know. But I can at least ask the question, and begin to search for the reasons why the Soviet Union, whose collapse is a cornerstone of contemporary western democracies’ conception of their inherent superiority, in fact survived the Cold War and continues to promote its anti-human agenda under various guises from Putin’s Russia to Elon Musk’s technocratic messianism.
European colonialism and imperialism were preconditions for the totalitarian regimes. Were it not for the established mechanisms of control in Europe, the Russian empire wouldn’t have been able to carry out its domestic colonization and thus become a “prison of nations.” This “prison of nations” served as a model for Stalin’s version of National Socialism, better known in the USSR as “the friendship of nations.”
The first Soviet concentration camps, which appeared fifteen years before those of the Nazis, had certain historical counterparts during the Second Anglo-Boer war (1899–1902), just as the mechanisms for corrupting human nature, along with the concentration camps’ internal hierarchy, can be traced to the colonial slave trade, during which some slaves helped convoy others in exchange for the liberty to exercise almost unlimited violence against the latter.
Yet as long as we fail to comprehend the fact that the totalitarian concentration camp is different from typical displays of military and civilian cruelty, it is futile to think about responsibility for totalitarianism in terms of degree. The totalitarian concentration camp imparts a slavelike existence to an entire society, instead of containing it within an isolated zone of lawlessness. While the Boers were the primary target of the British concentration camp, the Soviet camp was aimed at all people—of every class, and later, particularly in the late Stalinist era, of every nation.
Postcolonial critique stops short of imagining the totalitarian and focuses on the familiar evils of subjugation, power dynamics, privilege, and economic inequalities. Unable (or consciously refusing) to imagine the totalitarian human condition and the threat this condition poses to humanity, this critique oversimplifies the evil it aims to criticize. By holding the West responsible only for the crimes of colonial regimes, it precludes the recognition of evil in any alternative to what it considers colonialism. This could be Putin, Saddam Hussein, religious extremists, or just very confused people of any identity, when the label itself is perceived as an alternative.
One of the symptoms of this paralysis of imagination is the established practice of refraining from comparing the crimes of different totalitarian regimes. This view is promoted by Russia, which, conflating itself with the USSR, positions itself as both the main victor over Nazism and its greatest victim. Likewise this view is very convenient for Germany’s cautious de-Nazification, which stops at the moment of the Soviet Union’s collaboration with Nazi Germany. It also fails to notice both the reciprocal exchanges between these regimes (Hitler adored the Cheka and their gulags and envied Stalin in all aspects of extrajudicial killing) and that late Stalinism adopted the Nazi agenda in its own form of Soviet National Socialism.
On the surface, it seems like if you stop thinking about the nature of Nazism and its consequences, if the evils of Nazism are declared consummate and unrivaled, and if you struggle only with its attributes or with factors that are easy to fight, then this will somehow protect from the next totalitarian catastrophe. I invite the reader to judge for themselves the degree of cynicism and naivete in this mindset.
The other side of oversimplifying evil is becoming obsessed with victims, focusing on refugees, casualties, and the tortured. The postcolonial mode of thinking is incapable of imagining that the civil war in Syria could not have happened unless some people were so unwilling to be slaves of the regime that they were ready to kill and to die to resist it, while others wished to flee from this battle for their rights. That is one of the main reasons it can’t integrate those refugees who resisted enslavement in one way or another into European society. As for making demands of those who didn’t even try to resist, that is totally incomprehensible to postcolonial thinking.
What is there to prevent this mode of thinking from considering Russians similar victims of Russian war crimes? A victim is an incredibly convenient figure, easy to insert into any scheme and put to use. Victims do not demand responsibility because they’re not responsible for themselves. They only have unsatisfied needs; their rights are the rights of a being without a voice. And the more a person wants to be enslaved, the easier it is to make a victim of them.
And really, why shouldn’t Ukrainians stop resisting? That would instantly make them the cherished victims of imperialism. Vague claims about the US’s role in stoking this war would be enough to set one’s conscience at ease. And it would reduce the number of refugees, because we all know that Russia is good at keeping its slaves from running loose.
I am also writing about this because the idea that we Ukrainians are victims par excellence has shaped the attitude of Ukrainian society toward this war and toward our own history for a very long time.
What could possibly be indefinitely worse than the Holocaust? A Holocaust with no conclusions drawn. A Holocaust made schematic and absolute, that repeatedly exhumes the ashes of the tortured to hide its ethical and philosophical failure.
One of the reasons for Europe’s inability to think of the Israeli–Palestinian conflict beyond the discourse of peace-loving states, which doesn’t obligate anyone to anything, is its inability to grasp that contemporary Israel is an outcome of the Holocaust. Europe’s inability to draw its own conclusions means that the Israelis have no one with whom to discuss the conclusions they’ve drawn themselves. Are those conclusions just, and does Israel act in accordance with them?
One could say that (the people of) Europe, and Germany in particular, have nothing in common with the descendants of Holocaust survivors, because to have something in common first requires demanding one another to draw conclusions from one’s own history. What should people like my Israeli friends, who think Israel has not done enough to think through the mass annihilation of Jews in the twentieth century, do if they face an impenetrable wall of slogans like “never again”? What never again? If the crimes of the Soviet Union (including those against its Jewish population) cannot be compared with Nazism, then what exactly must not be repeated? Perhaps they mean never reviving certain symbols and gestures.
The very notion of responsibility is so inconceivable that simply responding to the question “What do you see?” (not to say “think”) requires herculean effort. The descendants of Holocaust survivors see the Shoah in what is happening in besieged Mariupol and in the Russians’ intent to burn the radioactive forests around the Chornobyl nuclear power plant, even as German cultural institutions continue to oppose “Nazi patterns”1 and encourage Ukrainian and Russian artists to participate together in public discussions. Of course, to ensure that “never again.”
The demonstrative fight against Nazi symbolism has resulted in the Soviet Union—the inspiration and heir of Nazi Germany—being perceived until now as Europe’s liberator from “fascism.” Perhaps we should ask ourselves: Why did so many central and eastern European nations submit to the USSR’s rule, cooperate with its security services, extinguish free thought and eliminate its material basis—private property? Could it be because the Nazis had already solved the problem of local resistance to totalitarian evil? Or could it be that Nazism already contained the seeds of Soviet totalitarianism?
The Soviet Union and its Western intellectual allies were so successful in paralyzing attempts to reflect on Nazism that when the USSR ceased to exist, nobody even bothered to think about de-Sovietizing what remained of it. Whatever attention this void in the east of Europe received was focused exclusively on its late-Soviet economic collapse, which conveniently aligned with the idea of the end of history. “Liberal” economy was introduced to Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus, as if the free market is the thing that would have prevented Nazi Germany from committing crimes against humanity. Economic reform of the impoverished GDR was also the dominant factor in the unification of Germany.
As one man (a Ukrainian, by the way) said in a passing conversation, “How can we be Soviet people when we have so many fancy bars?”
1 In response to a Statement of Ukrainian Artists made on February 26, 2022, the German Alliance of International Production Houses (Bündnis internationaler Produktionshäuser e.V.) wrote, “we definitely do not want, not even for the purpose to fight this war, to participate in a summoning or resurrection of nationalistic motives, patterns and reflexes.” See https://tanzlaboratorium.org/discussion-on-the-statement-of-ukrainian-artists/
“The Soviet ‘struggle for world peace,’ along with the endless celebration of victory over Nazism, created a shining void where the Soviet people could conceal their lack of responsibility for their own thoughts and actions.”
Why does European thinking stop at the moment it has to think about the totalitarian? Why did European political thought leave Hannah Arendt, Primo Levi, and Varlam Shalamov in its margins? To understand this, we need to take a closer look at the complexity that appears before anyone thinking about the Soviet human condition.
If Nazism aimed to make every person an accomplice in its crimes, Soviet National Socialism and its subsequent post-Stalinist iterations allowed the peoples it subjugated to relieve themselves of any responsibility. Each wave of Stalinist repressions ended with a conspicuous, if not explicitly public, elimination of the perpetrators. Nazism also managed to conceal its crimes for some time, but it never would have occurred to Hitler to exterminate the leaders of the SS—and, along with them, the last hopes of their victims to bring their torturers to justice.
The Nuremberg trials marked the triumph of this corruption of justice. That those presiding over the trials for crimes against against humanity included the same kind of criminals—Soviet prosecutors Roman Rudenko and Andrey Vyshinskiy, the engineers of the show trials during the Great Purges—meant that while some of the main organizers of Nazi crimes were punished, Nazism as such was not.
The aim of justice is to delimit evil and reestablish trust between people, without which a law-abiding society cannot exist. When evil is unbounded we all become suspects automatically. The absence of justice makes people hostages of their basic need for trust, which is transformed into “being nice.” If there’s no way to punish criminals, people begin to appease them. Those who defended the Nuremberg trials from reexamination essentially permitted the USSR to reproduce its own version of National Socialism and consolidate its achievements in the mass extermination of peoples through artificial famine and deportation.
After Stalin’s death, when the intimidated party bosses began struggling with his cult of personality, they reproduced Stalin’s train of thought regarding the emancipation of criminality. There was a period when Soviet newspapers didn’t even mention the name of the personality whose cult was to be abolished.
The Soviet “struggle for world peace,” along with the endless celebration of victory over Nazism, created a shining void where the Soviet people could conceal their lack of responsibility for their own thoughts and actions. The Soviet intelligentsia, which, unfortunately, is still considered a democratic movement within the USSR, invented an even more impregnable model of irresponsibility as a reaction to the Great Terror of 1937 and ’38, when roughly 700,000 to 1.2 million people were killed by the NKVD during Stalin's campaign to solidify his power. They called it “inner freedom.” While the inability to express what one thinks is a cursed, painful, and deeply shameful condition for a nontotalitarian person, the Soviet intellectual would most likely take pride in the splendor of their inner world, or the cultural richness of their kitchen-table conversations, which were of no interest to the authorities as they had no bearing on the person’s actions. And the more fantastic and detached from reality their “inner world” grew, the more reckless the person would become, as no conscience or sensibility of their own could make them act according to these fantasies.
What is most symptomatic of late Soviet totalitarianism is neither the Socialist Realist canon nor the struggle against nonconformist art. Rather, it is Soviet science fiction, like the cult novels by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky, where enlightened Chekists fight for a bright future for extraterrestrials who have no class consciousness, or the myth around Yuri Knorozov’s quest to decipher the Maya scripts. The Soviet intelligentsia could engage in fantastical conversations about these subjects while having no conception of what they were.
Among the fantasies of the Soviet intellectual, mathematics deserves special attention. Soviet education in mathematics wasn’t concerned with fundamental research or philosophical reflection on the foundations of this realm of the spirit. Likewise, it didn’t train students to develop a taste for logical thinking. Rather it was limited to certain areas, mainly statistics and analysis, which were taught to Soviet engineers so they could create poor copies of Western inventions stolen by Soviet intelligence. This "education" essentially had to be abstract, as you could never know what you would have to steal. It’s not surprising, then, that Soviet professional plagiarists looked down on Western engineers as too specialized. It was difficult for them to understand that an inventor exists between two interests—in things and in people. This is the inventor's main aptitude (besides, of course, cleverness), while specialized knowledge is needed in their area of interest. Alas, I’ve often heard similar talk of the advantages of Soviet education from the Western left. Mathematics also served as a kind of bastion of consistency amidst the irrational swings in Soviet ideology. In the abstract world of mathematics, everything appeared so well-ordered that the person who studied it seemed decent in their own eyes.
The ability to reproduce any stolen device was entangled with the official Soviet myth of the endless possibilities of human intelligence and human labor. With its entire population as slaves, the USSR bestowed upon some of them the sense of being involved in the domination of nature. Even the less demanding could gloat (just like the Russian propagandists do today) about their country being able to turn all of human civilization into radioactive ash.
One can only pity the person who, while having certain intellectual needs, is limited to an incredibly narrow, censored, and impotent body of texts controlled by Soviet authorities. But the forms that this person’s intellectual self-destruction took were invented by them alone.
The characteristic zeal with which Soviet intellectuals cooperated in removing themselves from politics and history paralyzes the imagination. But the thing that really complicates thinking about the Soviet mind is that it is totalitarianism that has achieved its goal.
No matter how horrific German Nazism was, its forms of organization were destroyed. What remains after Nazism isn’t just millions of people killed and tortured, but also its defeat, and the judgments drawn by European thought from it; the existence of Israel; that antisemitism is no longer the driving force of European politics; and a somewhat effective, albeit limited, set of approaches to resolving international conflicts and fighting xenophobia and racism. No matter how vulnerable the world constructed by contemporary reflections on Nazism is, we still have the sense that Nazism is an evil that was divested of its power over humankind, at least for the time being.
In order to understand why the Soviet Union won, let’s recall the aim of its totalitarian project.
The most astounding thing about the post-Stalinist USSR is how little repression was needed to hold the population in a state of enslavement. What kind of people barely need terrorizing to give up their own thoughts, property, aspirations, trust, and common sense?
Was this human condition simply a convenient mechanism for domination, or was it the actual aim of the Soviet project? If the former, then why was the creation of a new kind of human declared at the very start of this project, and why did the USSR, while changing its face, hold on to this goal? If the latter, then what exactly makes a person Soviet?
A postmortem examination of Nazism and the new rise of racism (in which Russia is happily participating) create a mistaken impression that the “Soviet person” (homo Sovieticus) is something like a race. Really, some undiscriminating and old-fashioned opponents of the USSR and contemporary Russia tend to biologize homo Sovieticus. It’s as if some new breed or subspecies had been developed—a human with intelligence but no conscience.
No less misleading is the view of the Soviet human condition as exclusively tied to totalitarian society. It’s true that the latter is a state of such corruption that everything a person does becomes criminal. But this also speaks of a certain hope that if a person is removed from this society, they can end up in conditions where, devastated by their crimes, they’ll still be capable of doing good. What I see leaves me no hope.
Homo Sovieticus is neither a race, nor an ethnic group, nor a nation in the normal sense of the word, nor a defect in biological human nature, nor the product of a totalitarian society in the sociological sense. The Soviet totalitarian invention lies in the irreversible elimination of the human’s place in the universe.
The Soviet person’s main quality is their absence. This person is, first and foremost, an inconspicuous creature that hides from observation. The person who flees or starts a fight when seen or inadvertently photographed. If you catch a glimpse of this person, they will try to seem mysterious, unnaturally beautiful, intimidatingly threatening or somewhat pitiful. This is a person who can never (not even to themselves) answer the question: what do you really do, think, feel? This is a person who can be prepared for any crime but has no spirit.
This is a poetic line from the first national anthem of the USSR come to life: “The one who was nothing will become all.” Absence that prevails but still lacks qualities.
What does a person who is absent do? Now, as I am writing this in Kyiv, while Russia is deliberating about the most convenient way to make this place unfit for human existence for the next several hundred years—whether to set fire to radioactive forests or to blow up a radioactive waste repository—the answer seems both horrific and obvious at the same time. This person, in today’s language, creates an ecological catastrophe.
The absent person produces evil that can exist without agents.
Making a victim of oneself instead of existing in history wasn’t invented by Ukrainians, but it seems that we gave this practice a conclusive form. What is the Ukrainian historical narrative of the twentieth century? It is nonexistence in history during inconvenient moments.
Just as the Soviet intellectual lived in a fantasy world, the Ukrainian simultaneously inhabits two historical progressions.
The first is a history of resistance and attempts at statehood: Zaporizhzhian Sich, the Ukrainian People’s Republic 1918–1920; the national movement called the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN) in western Ukraine in the 1930s–1950s; the recurring, drawn-out Maidan protests involving the occupation of key squares and buildings.
The second is a chronicle of the historical void in contemporary Ukraine: Ukrainian pogroms2, the Holodomor3, the execution of the Ukrainian intelligentsia, the deportation of western Ukrainians to Central Asia, the mass murder of Jews at Babyn Yar, the Holocaust and Ukrainians’ participation in it, the fact that Ukrainian cultural figures publicly encouraged the repression of their colleagues.
From this perspective, Ukraine interrupts its historical existence at the very moment when the national project or movement featuring this word in its name (or in its common idea) disappears from view. As soon as you ask where Ukrainian city folk were during the Holodomor, or Ukrainian soldiers during the mass rape of German women at the end of World War II, the Ukrainian instantly turns into the Soviet.
It looks like Ukrainians are only peeking at history, but do not dare to enter it. The more they look at the crimes that have been committed in their name or with their silent consent, the more ephemeral their existence becomes.
What is this prison of conscience that Ukrainians withdraw into when they encounter uncomfortable questions about themselves? Where do we go, taking along the ghosts of the peoples who used to live on our land but who were even less lucky—the Ukrainian Jews, Crimean Tatars, Pontic Greeks? What is it that gives us the right to this land if we refuse to take responsibility for the evil that was done on it?
Contemporary Ukrainian culture lacks theater, a realm that is difficult to imagine missing from the culture of a European country. The sciences, contemporary art, cinema, and literature are all present, but there is an empty space where theater should be. What is called theater in Ukraine is mere spectacle. The audience is treated like an unworldly creature who needs pleasing entertainment or participation in something “high,” “contemporary,” or “complex.”
Without the concept of a place where a person can watch intently, it is impossible to demand observation. You can cry, “Look out!” But there is nobody to tell, “Behold, remember.”
Is politics possible without theater in the European sense? I can’t answer that question. Politics is impossible without viewers, those who act through their own view, and from whom one can demand witnessing.
Why were Ukrainians never completely engaged in the Soviet totalitarian project? This requires its own study. I will just pause on three aspects of this question.
First, western Ukraine was occupied by the USSR after the Holodomor and the Great Terror. The primary aim of the postwar repressions was to keep the population in a state of fear, and these repressions were not enough to integrate western Ukrainians fully into Soviet society.
Second, Soviet propaganda continued to portray Ukrainian nationalists as the leading Nazi collaborators (although in fact they hardly differed from other central European nationalists of that time) for long after that resistance came to an end, thus perpetuating an idea of resistance in the Ukrainian consciousness.
Third, there was a certain suspension of Soviet National Socialism after the death of Stalin. Instead of making all the peoples of the USSR equally criminal, the Soviet Union left Russians their “great Russian culture,” as well as the status of main slave (capo) in the country-concentration camp. When Putin insists that Russians and Ukrainians are one people occupied by mythical “fascists,” he’s carrying the project of the “friendship of peoples” to its logical end. Everything that Russia has been doing for the past eight years in the Ukrainian territory it has occupied resembles above all an accelerated program in the internalization of slavery.
One way or another, Ukrainians were able to look at the Soviet Union and hear the gentle voice of common sense saying: you are facing an evil that leaves no one the possibility to live with dignity. The condescension with which Russians view Ukrainians as overly earthy, uncultured creatures is tied primarily to the fact that Ukrainians weren’t ready to immerse themselves in the dreamy fantasy world of the Soviet intellectual. From the vantage point of the imperial culture of the USSR, this made them seem uncivilized. Their lack of curiosity toward who they are is the reason for their indistinctness in the free world.
Ukrainians aren’t the inventive man-eaters that their eastern neighbors are. What Soviet Ukrainians invented in order to coexist with that with which a person cannot coexist is the obliteration of the viewer. The victim is a reactionary, incurious creature that bears witness solely from the place of evil. Substituting this invention for the viewer is, to my mind, the contribution to the depository of twentieth-century totalitarian achievements for which Ukrainians earned the honorary sickle in the emblem of the Soviet Union.
2 Pogrom is a Russian and Ukrainian term for chaotic and violent antisemitic riots in the Russian Empire. Because the majority of Jews were restricted to living in the Pale of Settlement in the empire’s western regions from 1791 onward, most pogroms occurred on the territory of modern Ukraine. No matter how terrible Russian imperial policy against Jews was, we must admit that the geography of this particular crime was limited to Ukraine, Belarus and Moldova, and we, Ukrainians (not Russians), are facing the consequences of these crimes against our fellow neighbors.
3 The Holodomor was a man-made famine ordered by Stalin that killed millions of Ukrainians in Soviet Ukraine and the northern Caucasus between 1932–1933. It has been recognized by Ukraine and 15 other countries as a genocide against the Ukrainian people carried out by the Soviet regime.
“Distinguishing good from evil means sensing how much goodness demands from me. Evil doesn’t demand anything from a person, not even biological existence. It’s too busy answering questions once and for all. Only goodness is truly demanding.”
What do we mean when we say that a totalitarian person is incapable of distinguishing between good and evil? Every person has a certain idea of what is and isn’t agreeable to them. If good is understood as something nice and evil as something bad, then even a single-celled organism is an ethical creature.
Distinguishing good from evil means sensing how much goodness demands from me. Evil doesn’t demand anything from a person, not even biological existence. It’s too busy answering questions once and for all. Only goodness is truly demanding. Responsibility is the challenge that good poses from a place of inquisitiveness, from the place where a person is inclined to question, where a person is curious.
It’s important to note the difference between guilt and responsibility, which is fundamental to this discussion. If the former is bound to the future-oriented desire to return to human society (or, in the case of accusation, to preserving the social contract), then the latter is always directed toward the self. Rather than questioning your membership in the human race, responsibility questions who you are and, by extension, what is human, inasmuch as any person is part of humanity. In this sense, collective responsibility, which the helpless participants of dictatorial regimes fear so much, really is impossible. Unlike guilt, it deals with something that should not be generalized. How can I generalize a question that addresses me alone? How can I shirk the thing, without which I am just an abstract conveyor of signs, and not an example through which what I belong to (my lineage, profession, nation, humanity) comes into being? Is distinguishing between good and evil something I can delegate to another person? Responsibility (for making this distinction) is a sense, which makes people distinct. Not only from animals, but also from the collective, from one’s family, ethnic group, identity. The call to responsibility is a call to return to one’s senses.
What is historical existence? It is being responsible for the good that has revealed itself to me. What is special about historical time is that any goodness questions all of history.
Just as the Rule of Law requires that we judge a deed in respect to the law existing at the time (in other words, it requires that time follow a determined sequence), so does historical existence require that one bear responsibility not only for what one has done but also for what has been done by everyone in whom one recognizes oneself, based on the questions one’s thought unfurls.
Existing in history is not narrative. People enter history with various experiences of goodness and various senses of what they’re like (i.e., what they recognize themselves in). History as such is something indivisible; we live in it as individuals and never in part. Conversation is necessary for historical existence because it is in language that an action can appear in all of its verb tenses. The change in grammatical tense is a precondition for inquiring into the deeds of those in whose name I inherited my place in the universe.
The rigor of logic comes from the merciless demanding of good.
Ukraine’s historical uncertainty and its lack of interest in itself have shaped its particular form of political life—mobilizational democracy.
Every eight to ten years, Ukrainians come out of the shadows into the main squares of their cities and look at one another in amazement. At this moment, it becomes evident that there is something in Ukraine worthy of being called civil society. At this moment, it seems like a miracle, like being liberated unexpectedly from the Soviet concentration camp. Of course, there’s always someone who’s more decisive, but on what grounds s/he acts and for what principles s/he stands remain as unknown to us as to the person themselves. Let us recall that one of the slogans of the last Maidan revolution was “People, you are amazing.” But as soon as the immediate danger of being subsumed by the Soviet condition is averted, Ukraine stands still in a state of arrested self-admiration.
I remember how proudly we told the Russians that, unlike them, Ukrainians are capable of resisting authoritarianism! As if the desire not to be a slave weren’t simply natural for a sound person. It’s almost funny to recall the naivete with which we believed Russia is an ordinary autocracy with a postimperial syndrome complicated by its “post-Soviet” condition, that in Russia there is also room for the miracle of politics.
After the last Maidan, the Revolution of Dignity, there was no public discussion about what dignity actually is, or what makes a life dignified, and what foundation must be established for citizens to live in a way that each considers dignified. For some reason we thought it would be enough to be good people, and politics would take care of itself.
I remember a lecturer who spoke the first time I came to a demonstration in support of the Association Agreement between Ukraine and the European Union, whose brutal dispersion sparked the mass protests on Maidan. It was evening, with hardly any people around, and she was enthusiastically expounding on the microbiological standards for milk in the EU. Later, after protesters had been shot to death, after the annexation of Crimea and the occupation of eastern Ukraine, everything ended in superficial police reform led by the demagogue Avakov, who held society hostage for a while with the help of his personal “army” made up of zealous veterans from volunteer battalions.
As for the Armed Forces of Ukraine, which have been at war with Russia for eight years, talk (if we can call it talk, and not chitchat) about this deeply Soviet institution for spreading slavery’s need for reform (as opposed to removing bad apples or providing new weapons) began only after the recent Russian invasion.
It’s amazing how Ukrainian society gets carried away by the formal aspect of things: standards, schemes, and protocols, and at the same time, by the heroism of its compatriots. Isn’t this heroism another such scheme? Let’s not forget that the Soviet intellectual’s conscience takes refuge in mathematics. The complexity of any set of instructions is a mathematical concept, a term that makes sense only in the theory of algorithms. This complexity is fundamentally different from the complexity of politics, which, as Aristotle observes, is a whole that is not self-sufficient. Politics never happens by itself. It requires curiosity: constantly returning to questions that face the danger of being resolved once and for all. Stopping is not an issue for politics: it disappears the moment citizens stop being vigilant. You can’t count on politics in the way you can on mathematics, no matter how tempting the desire in today's computerized world.
We Ukrainians seem to have a sense of what we don’t like and we even trust one another, but we’re unable to imagine the peace that we’re fighting for and act according to that idea. We have countless people of conscience to thank for the civil liberties we have, for heroically protecting us from what the Soviet institutions that still make up the Ukrainian state were actually created for.
Ukrainians are ashamed to look at these institutions—and uninterested. Therefore, our political miracles are fruitless.
5 On November 21, 2013, Ukraine’s President Yanukovych announced he would postpone signing an Association Agreement between Ukraine and the European Union. This signaled a rejection of political integration into the EU in favor of deeper collaboration with Russia. Protestors gathered on Kyiv’s Independence Square (Maidan Nezalezhnosti), but the demonstrations became a nationwide movement against pro-Russian politics and Yanukovych himself after November 30, when riot police violently dispersed the mostly young protesters in the center of Kyiv. These events are now known as Euromaidan (or Maidan) or the Revolution of Dignity.
Ukraine's resistance to the Russian invasion is astounding in the context of both Ukrainian and European politics. The latter, like Ukraine, has lost sight of the conditions that political human existence requires to such an extent that it agreed to cooperate with cannibals in exchange for the illusion of security.
Take for example, Nord Stream, the project for a Russian–German gas pipeline aimed at ensuring uninterrupted gas supply in the case of a war against Ukraine. Russia never concealed what it needed this potential ecological disaster for. What other purpose could a gas pipeline at the bottom of the sea serve? It is hard to imagine how democratic states governed by the rule of law could take part in something so cynical and irresponsible. What has become of Europe’s ability to see, if only the event of Ukrainians’ desperate resistance and millions of refugees convinced Germany to halt this inhuman project?
For those who remain in relative safety (that is, where the only threat they face is from nuclear weapons) it is tempting to think of this war as a calamity. The war crimes committed by the Russian army, maternity hospitals reduced to rubble, children killed, refugees—all this is evil. But it is impossible to draw conclusions from evil as such. Evil taken as a separate object of observation paralyzes thought. Only by keeping in mind the person who is willing to risk their life for their idea of life worth living can one think and make judgments. We can think about war only when we are able to imagine the peace for which it is being waged.
What has this last month of military resistance to the Russian invasion revealed? That in Ukraine there are people who consider freedom more important than biological existence and their right to citizenship more important than “human rights” in exile.
For Ukraine, this means, above all, the following: if I am capable of seeing the truth about the political nature of man in the resistance of my fellow citizens, and if I recognize myself in the radicality of this good, then I must forever cease existing in history as a victim. I no longer have the right to say that Ukrainians were forced to witness Soviet or Nazi crimes against their will. Because I have seen with my own eyes what would have happened if Ukrainians truly did not want the evil that they enabled on their lands.
Picture the Ukrainian volunteer soldier shouting “Death to the enemies!” and going to protect the unarmed citizens facing Russian tanks and machine-gun fire as they protest in occupied Kherson. This image is more frightening to a person who doesn’t think than that of a terrorist cutting off a hostage’s head. Because the voice of conscience says that these Ukrainians are doing something that every free person should do.
The fact that Europe isn’t taking its place among the free is a political catastrophe. The fact that Ukraine isn’t drawing conclusions from its experience of freedom is my personal national tragedy.
Is it possible to demand responsibility from another person, if the former is something you can only feel one-on-one with your own conscience? The loneliness of thinking is not a matter of atomization, but rather of refusing to arrest the question my thought is aiming at.
When a person faced with deadly risk responds to the challenge with “Me”—this is precisely that solitary and personal something through which that person can be drawn into history. Russia and the Russians are unable to comprehend what they are doing, therefore we must defeat and bring them to justice. Whereas from Ukraine we need to demand responsibility.
I’ve often written “Ukrainian” here. I don’t consider this word in its ethnic aspect. I use it to refer to the particular quality through which a person can be drawn into history. A person without qualities has no historical existence.
While it is necessary to defend the place for being human that Russia is trying to take away from us, it is just as necessary to demand that Ukrainians draw conclusions from their own sense of dignity and lay the foundations for freedom. Instead of seeking excuses to rest our consciences in the wildness of the Ukrainian resistance (they are fighting to the death because they are savages and toxic-masculine sadists), we need to keep demanding that Ukrainians measure up to the level of political thought that drove them to fight against slavery.
Politics, according to Aristotle, is intercourse, whose purpose is to create the foundations for each person to live according to their own aspirations. Without politics in this sense, Europe is just a bunch of artifacts and confused well-meaning idiots. Is Europe capable of seeing a sign of its essence in the Ukrainians’ struggle? Are Europeans ready to ask themselves if the thing that European countries call politics is really politics? This—and not just the number of destroyed Russian tanks and aircraft—will decide the fate of the peace following the end of this war.
It is my sense that Aristotle is mine. Because he demands that I think and that I fight. Safeguarding the place for being human and the miracle of politics is my personal responsibility.
As a person who engaged in poetry for quite some time, I have an intimate experience of Russian language and culture, and through that, Soviet culture. Certain properties of totalitarian thought are inherent in my thinking. This means I have a better view than most of my compatriots (not to mention Europeans) of the forms that conceal this specific non-thinking and of the danger posed by the victory of Soviet evil.
I decided to write this theorem at the very beginning of the invasion, when, fleeing west from the war zone, I learned that a friend of mine had committed suicide during the first missile strikes of Kyiv. My mind keeps coming back to the difference between attitudes toward death. When you observe what people risk to fight against enslavement beside the immense losses of military personnel that Russian society remains insensitive to, you begin to wonder: maybe Russian soldiers actually want this death, which is simultaneously senseless and criminal? Maybe they’re dealing with something so horrible that death looks like a way out?
I think that for a person who has been corrupted by totalitarianism, it is easier to die than to be responsible. Yet if Soviet evil can exist without agents, then death without being responsible is worthless. We’ve come to a point where even suicide cannot be an act of resistance to evil.
What must be done in the case when those killing civilians keep insisting that they are doing it against their will, and when none of the Russian intellectuals, artists, or poets are willing to admit that it is they, and not Putin, who are waging this war, while creating an image of a resistance that does not exist? Anyone who understands the extent of this evil ought to make the effort to answer for what they see. Only this can restore meaning to death and revive political curiosity’s taste for risk, without which it remains mere speculation.
I, Mykhailo Zyatin, citizen of Ukraine, declare myself an agent of the Soviet project and personally take responsibility for the crimes committed by the USSR, for the creation of this immortal evil and for everything it is doing to us right now. It is doing this on my behalf.
March 26, 2022
Mykhailo Ziatin, Ukrainian philosopher. Born in 1983 in Kropivnytsky, Ukraine (former Kirovograd, USSR). Was engaged into Russian literature during 2000’s: poems and novels published in magazines Babylon (Moscow, Russia), Vosdukh (Moscow, Russia), Union of Writers (Kharkiv, Ukraine). Currently is an independent researcher and public educator (public study group “Math Without End”, Kyiv, Ukraine). Main research interests: philosophy of politics and history, origins and political dimension of logic.
Larissa Babij is a Ukrainian-American writer, translator and movement artist based in Kyiv, Ukraine since 2005. Her writing has appeared in The Evergreen Review, the Odessa Review, Entropy, and other publications. She writes about life in Ukraine in the midst of war at a Kind of Refugee.
Oleksandr Lebediev (b.1976) is an artist, dancer, member of TanzLaboratorium, based in Kyiv, Ukraine. During the Russo-Ukrainian war (2014-ongoing) his interests have shifted from mainstream contemporary art to reflections on the Communist ideological foundations of the Ukrainian state and society.
Iryna Kostyshina is a visual artist, graphic designer and an author of critical articles based in Kyiv, Ukraine. She combines visual research and activism in her practice. Iryna’s texts have been published in Korydor, Dwutygodnik.PL, Telegraf.Design and Bird In Flight. She also worked as a volunteer translator for Euromaidan press in 2014.
Olia Fedorova (b. 1994, Kharkiv, Ukraine) is a conceptual artist working in performance, intervention, photography, video, and text. Since she graduated from Kharkiv State Academy of Design and Arts (KSADA) in 2016, she has been the recipient of awards at festivals that include Non Stop Media VIII, Kharkiv; Nathan Altman Contemporary Art competition, Vinnytsya (winner 2017); Young Ukrainian Artists (MUHi), Kyiv; and the Second Biennale of Young Art, Kharkiv, 2019. Olia has had solo exhibitions in Kharkiv, Kyiv, Dnipro, Odesa, Ivano-Frankivsk, and Turin (Italy), and participated in projects throughout Ukraine, Poland, Germany, Austria, Great Britain, Spain, Argentina, Japan, and the US. She currently lives and works in Graz, Austria.