Timothy Snyder was one of the organizers of the conference.

Conference reports Ukraine: Thinking Together. “History does not happen by itself”.

An international solidarity cum discussion conference concerning the Maidan revolution and its effects, took place in Kiev during five sunny days in May 2014. ”Ukraine: Thinking Together” was arranged by the Krytyka Institute in Kiev in cooperation with American historian Timothy Snyder and American news magazine New Republic.

Published in the printed edition of Baltic Worlds BW 1-2 2015, p 33.
Published on balticworlds.com on April 29, 2015

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An international solidarity cum discussion conference concerning the Maidan revolution and its effects, took place in Kiev during five sunny days in May 2014. ”Ukraine: Thinking Together” was arranged by the Krytyka Institute in Kiev in cooperation with American historian Timothy Snyder and American news magazine New Republic. The conference featured over 50 panellists, of whom 21 Ukrainian, and gathered over 300 participants in the big hall of the Diplomatic Academy of Kiev.

The conference was preceded by the publication of a manifesto, stating that ”In the middle of May, an international group of intellectuals will come to Kyiv to demonstrate solidarity, meet their Ukrainian counterparts, and carry out a broad public discussion about the meaning of Ukrainian pluralism for the future of Europe, Russia, and the world.”Seven six-to-eight participants’ panel seminars were arranged in sequence around specific questions, and in different languages, simultaneously interpreted to the auditorium.

The first panel, in the Russian language, had been asked to address the question “Do rights make us human?” The panel chose to link the issue of human rights (HR) to values. Panellist Sergey Lukashevsky, director of the Andrei Sakharov Museum in Moscow, meant that in Russia, human rights are supposed to be defended by the Constitution, but have in reality become powerless. Quoting the old Soviet joke “Do I have this right? Yes. Can I use it? No”, he felt that human rights need to be used as a tool for establishing and maintaining human liberty and dignity. He appreciated that Ukrainians call their revolution the Revolution of Dignity. Russian writer Viktor Erefeyev defined Euromaidan and the conflict with Russia as a war on values and thus as an existential conflict. While the Cold war was on life or death, “this war is on how to live”. Erefeyev emphasised that the West is too heavily focussed on the western parts of Russia, which is predominantly pro-western. But now, “the strong centre strikes back in its archaic Russian tradition–the world is our enemy, but we are closer to God. Europe has lost its soul, but we have our soul intact.”

Fearing that the intense Russian anti-Ukraine propaganda is the beginning of the bloodshed, journalist and HR activist Alexander Podrabinek emphasised that the propaganda needs to be balanced with information. “In the absence of information, the Russian public likes the aggression”. The Russian military aggression has two goals according to Podrabinek–to create a feeling of siege in Russia, and to create tension with the West that can subsequently be used for trading.

While values are the basis of all good regimes, stated Vice Rector of the Ukrainian Catholic University in Lviv Miroslav Marynovych,“Vladimir Putin has no values”. All the values of Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky are gone, and without them, human rights is nonsense, he argued. He agreed that Maidan had been a Revolution of Dignity, based on values, but meant that if these values are taken away, Maidan can turn into something very different. A salient feature of Maidan is that the young generation talks about values, not of ideology, thus becoming the first generation who is no longer a Homo Sovieticus.  Other comments to the panel question were that Euromaidan was also a revolution of the Autonomous Personality and that in fact, it has been a revolution only if it can result in a change of system, otherwise it has only been an episode.

Ukrainian-speaking panel two had been asked to assess “How did the Maidan change culture?” Basically, the panel reckoned, it did not. Vasil Cherepanin, the editor of the Political Critique magazine, noted that antagonism was found, possibly also positioning, but that research is needed to find out the answer to the question. Fundamentally, he stated, “Maidan is not only on values, it is also on bringing power back to the people, to Demos. The process has just started, Ukraine is on the threshold to a new world.”Author Serhiy Zhadan affirmed that the Maidan didn’t change culture, but that it changed “our understanding of things. It was a defeat, we lost our last illusions. Also, everybody says we should talk with the other side, but they don’t want to talk, we meet infantile statements, people with machineguns are not in for dialogue.”The different groups have not changed, he concluded, but maybe they have become clearer.

Deploring that nuances perish during conflict, historian and journalist Konstantin Skorkin reported that in Luhansk, many students who previously discussed in terms of nuances and complications, now see only black and white. But it seems clear that many in Eastern Ukraine want the old system back. While liberty was welcome after the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the development of more and more European values in the country has alienated many, who now have turned back. Josef Zissels, the chairman of the Association of Jewish Organisations in Ukraine, suggested that the country has two different  identities of citizenship, a European one and a Eurasian one. All elections have followed this division. While the line between them moves, the difference stays. And one identity should not be imposed on the other, one should meet and respect each other. “Ukrainians in the East need time, Ukrainians in the West did also not become European overnight.”

The assignment of the German-speaking panel was to discuss the question “When do politicians become pariahs?” Most panellists focussed on Germany and on its debt to history. Jurko Prokhasko, a Ukrainian writer and translator of German literature, meant that leaders, who try to steal our time, the time we have to live, and give us inferior time back, those leaders become pariahs. “And that is when you can see this solidaritan courage.”But revolutions, he felt, “have so much uncertainty, while evolution has certainty. We understand so little, there is so much irrationality here, and we suffer under the illusion of translatability, meaning that everything can be translated fully and exactly, without any residual being left behind.”

Maintaining that “history repeats itself”, Karel Prince of Schwarzenberg declared that “Now we are back to where we were in the 20th century, where peace is a dream.” After having fought many years to destroy the Ukrainian business sector, Russia now needs to be confronted she argued. While Putin according to Schwarzenberg “has been successful in lifting the army out of its shambles, he still sees that he would never stand a military conflict with the West, so he developed this new tactics”. Mykhailo Minakov, the director of the Krytyka Institute, concluded that now, there is a genuine opportunity to establish a third Ukrainian Republic. The most important thing now is constructive destruction, bringing down the old system. Oligarchs already seem to be moving back into their positions of power and corruption, according to Minakov.

Before continuing deliberations again on May 18, the conference observed a minute’s silence in memory of the expulsion of the Crimean Tatars in 1944.

The question referred to the French-speaking panel was “Does Europe need the Ukrainian revolution?” Former French foreign minister and founder of Médecins sans frontières Bernhard Kouchner responded in the affirmative, linking the question to the then upcoming EU Parliamentary elections of May 25. If the Ukraine issue is emphasised, more people may vote against the ultra-right within the EU. Earlier, he meant, Ukraine was not an issue, but when Euromaidan started, everything changed.“We were taken by seeing people dying for becoming EU members. Now we don’t speak about Kiev but about Eastern Europe.” Barcelona historian Carmen Claudin, specialised in Russian and Soviet history, concurred that yes, Europe needs the Ukraine wakeup call, although European leaders are not ready yet to receive it. For Putin, she stated, this is a most important moment, “because Russian leaders cannot accept that people can change history themselves.”But the Ukrainian revolution still needs to be finalized, it is about the remake of the society, and the young generation is set on not repeating the mistakes of the Orange revolution, they have organized themselves well. (At the time of the conference, a considerable group of activists was still occupying parts of the Maidan square, waiting to see whether the May 25 presidential and mayoral elections would be correct.)

Also conference initiator Timothy Snyder emphasised that “we can make history, and through our analysis, we can contribute to change–history does not happen by itself. Now that this revolution has happened, we should expect a counterrevolution. And as the Maidan revolution had a European character, the counterrevolution must also be European. What Putin is offering “is his alternative kind of democracy, in effect fascism. We need to be present, this is an important opportunity to meet his offer. And we need to keep together the Europe of Faith and the Europe of Rules, the two must not be split.”To this, French philosopher and author Paul-Henri Lévy commented that “Vladimir Putin is a chess player.”And, having travelled with Petro Poroshenko in the country, Lévy reported that “everywhere people come to listen and to applaud. When people vote, it is not necessarily for a specific candidate, but first of all for the right to vote.”But people also ask for help, for example observers to provide substantial evidence that the election has been correct. Opinions are easily manipulated and can change quickly.

“While we think that Russia is attacking Ukraine,” opined Ukrainian philosopher and essayist Volodimir Yermolenko, “the Russians feel that they are counter attacking in response to another attack. They refer to Hitler and Napoleon, and would probably ultimately be prepared to march on Berlin and Paris.” He also emphasized that the issue now in Ukraine should not at all be federalization but decentralization, which is badly needed in the country. Closing the fourth panel, Bernhard Kouchner noted that Putin is supported by both the radical right and the radical left in the EU. “We need to shock Europe, we should speak about European values, why did we create the EU in the first place. All this is actually being challenged by Russia today, something that may ultimately lead to war.”

On one of the two the English-speaking panels, discussing “Geopolitics after Ukraine”, Leon Wieseltier, conference initiator and literary editor of the New Republic, stated that the Russian regime has been practicing geopolitics since several years, although many in the West have not understood. Francois Heisbourg, chairman of the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies, emphasised that rather than the Cold War, an Inter War situation had now emerged. “My Russian friends and I” stated Heisbourg “have agreed on the following: the Post Cold War era is finished. Russia is aiming for all Ukraine. Ukraine is disintegrating. What we could do is 1) containment, 2) support Ukraine in several ways. And Ukraine should defend itself, because for Putin, a country that does not want to defend itself is free to take.”

Assenting to that, the president of the US National Endowment for Democracy Carl Gershman meant that earlier, the containment of the Soviet Union had allowed internal factors to mellow down the Soviet system, and that now, containment will lead to an internal dynamics, after which Putin will not be there. Gershman also suggested that “we need to show solidarity with the opposition in Ukraine, we should start a global solidarity movement.” Krytyka editorial board member Volodimir Kulik agreed, stating that although we might dislike entering into geopolitics, “we will just have to, strengthening Ukraine in three respects–military, civil administration and media landscape, the latter being just as important as the first two.”

Highlighting the different narratives around Russia today, Anton Shekhovstov of the Stuttgart-based Explorations of the Far Right stated that some of them are attractive in the West. For example, the narrative on multipolarity appeals to some, who are disappointed with US performance. Also Euroasianism sounds OK in many Western ears. And domestically, the narrative that Russia is good and the “Other” is bad is popular. The Russian narrative on Ukraine is particularly powerful as it is both offensive, naming fascism and anti-Semitism, and defensive, referring to the rights of Russian speaking citizens. The response to this propaganda should also be both defensive–the Jewish community in Ukraine is cooperating actively with the state institutions of the country—and offensive, digging out the many violations of human rights in Russia and lifting them out loud.

Polish speaking panel six addressed the question “Has Totalitarianism returned?” Yale historian Marci Shore reckoned that Yanukovich had implemented Totalitarianism without a narrative because he was, according to Shore, “a small gangster without ideals”. But Putin has ideals, and of a kind that brings the thought to changing peoples’ minds. But finally, she said, both Totalitarianism and Democracy have a problem of alienation. Slawomir Sierakowski, director of the Warszawa Institute of Advanced Studies, meant that Totalitarianism is not the opposite of Democracy, but of Liberalism. So, “we could very well have a government in Russia that has a democratic support while not respecting human rights and civil liberties. And we should find out what is not satisfactory about democracy in our societies.”Homo Sovieticus has been found stronger than expected. And the EU model seems less attractive than expected, which is understandable, not least as EU Member States are still delivering weaponry to Russia.

“What happened in Kiev is a demonstration of how to open a new page in history ”thoughtPolish writer and former dissident Adam Michnik.“The spectre of Maidan is now haunting the Kremlin. The dream of the Kremlin is probably the Chinese model.”In Ukraine, the great problem is the weakness of institutions. And “we should consider what is happening in Europe, as Orban and other right wing leaders within the EU are supporting Putin–this combination can become a threat to our societies.”

“It might be difficult to differentiate between truth and lie” stated Polish film and TV director Agnieszka Holland. The fact that as yet, not one Russian-speaker has been killed by ultra-right forces, does apparently not hinder the Russian narrative about this, she stated. The Euromaidan revolution needs its own narrative. There should be made a film about it. Like the Holocaust, this will not enter European drawing rooms and minds until it comes on TV. And the most important issue in Ukraine now is corruption, a heavy and painful fight needs to be fought against this problem. The previous revolution in Ukraine was betrayed by corruption. That must not be allowed to happen again, according to Holland.

But when Holland drew a parallel about values to Polish politics, Michnik interrupted and objected—the issue was gender. A spontaneous panel discussion broke out and quickly developed into an intensive debate, where several persons were speaking simultaneously and about different issues.  Interpretation services ceased to function. The panel seemed to flow out in a chatty chaos.

In a reference to modern European history, the final panel took up the double question “Can memory save us from history?  Can history save us from memory?” The distinction between individual memory and collective memory was emphasised–who will remember Maidan and how? A strategy of memory is needed. Croatian writer Slavenka Drakulic meant that one reason for the Balkan wars 1991-95 was the discrepancy between public memory and reality. “We had never learnt about the civil war after 1945 and the killings of tens of thousands of demobilised soldiers and civilians. And the nationalist narratives still surface today, for example in new history books. A man is a hero on one side of the border and a criminal on the other side.” She concluded that “We need to close the gap between collective and individual history, otherwise these conflicts may well resurface.”Moldovan sociologist Olga Filippova agreed: “Seen from heterogeneous Eastern Ukraine, the Maidan did not send any clear signals concerning how to treat the memory of the recent past. How should we treat our memory of the recent Soviet past? It is important that the collective memory includes all parts, because excluding certain parts may well lead to their resurfacing later as alternative and competing narratives.”

For the recreation of the recent history of Ukraine, history professor at Lviv Yaroslav Hrytsak assessed the German model of history recreation after WWII as less adequate. Instead, the Spanish model, where the state does not take position but says that “History and memory are private matters”, is more adequate. For reconciling different versions of history, he suggested researchers and writers to go local, “to tell the local, individual histories, that’s where the truth is” and to go global, for correctives.“Forgiveness” pronounced Slovak author Martin Simecka “is a key issue. In order to move forward you have to forgive. It is also not always fair to blame people for what they did in the past, for example if they were CP members.”Drakulic agreed on forgiveness, underlining that it has to move from the individual sphere into the public one. For it to be part of reconciliation, it has to be put into the books too, and into the public sphere at large.

Summing up, the conference ”Ukraine: Thinking Together”, was well organised and executed by Krytyka, Timothy Snyder, Leon Wieseltier and a numerous and enthusiastic staff, gathered a large number of interesting profiles and well known personalities in the seven panels. Underneath the dialogue during the conference, there could be felt a vibrant subtext of solidarity with the Ukrainian battle for democracy and human rights, undoubtedly appreciated by the many Ukrainian participants.