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We should be asking what feature of Russian politics is not fascist – Timothy Snyder

Historian Timothy Snyder and political scientist Ivan Gomza. Collage by Euromaidan Press
Historian Timothy Snyder and political scientist Ivan Gomza. Collage by Euromaidan Press
We should be asking what feature of Russian politics is not fascist – Timothy Snyder

Russia’s entire invasion of Ukraine is one large example of schizo fascism, where Russia, a country that is evidently fascist invades Ukraine while claiming Ukraine is fascist. There is an overlap between the German and Russian colonial practices – ignoring Ukraine. But because of the war, Ukrainians have finally forced Germans to recognize that they are a subject in history, not just an object. These are all topics that historian Timothy Snyder touched upon in a conversation with Ukrainian political scientist Ivan Gomza.

Pundits who haven’t visited Ukraine can’t understand it, Timothy Snyder in a conversation with Ivan Gomza

Timothy Snyder, an American author and historian specializing in the history of Central and Eastern Europe and the Holocaust, was interviewed in a webinar by Ivan Gomza, a Ukrainian political scientist and lecturer from Kyiv School of Economics, on the nature of the current Russian political regime as a fascist state and a tyranny, German and American misconceptions about Ukraine, influences of COVID-19 on Putin and on the war in general, and on the “solidarity of the shaken” in Central and Eastern Europe. The webinar was organized by the Global Minds for Ukraine project by the Kyiv School of Economics.

Professor Snyder is a historian at Yale University. He is the author of eleven books, many of which brought him such prominent accolades as the Hannah Arendt Prize in Political Thought. Professor Snyder speaks five languages and reads 10, including Ukrainian, which is still a rarity in academia. In fact, Ukraine occupies a particular place in his heart, as Snyder once called it the most interesting European country to study.

Russia is a fascist state. And Ruscism could be interpreted as a variation of fascism

IG: In “The Road to Unfreedom,” you coined the notion of schizo fascism. You described with this notion a regime that is unambiguously fascist but refers to others as fascists and applied the notion to Russia. What about 2022? Is Russia a fascist state or has it evolved into something else?

TS: When I used the term schizo fascism to describe Russia in “The Road to Unfreedom,” I was applying it to particular individuals like Alexander Dugin and Alexander Prohanov. I was citing particular documents where people who are just unmistakably fascists are calling other people fascists who are not fascists at all. I was trying to identify a phenomenon.

I think since 2014, we’ve arrived at a place where schizo fascism is clearly at the center of Russian policy. The entire invasion of Ukraine is one large example of schizo fascism where we now have a regime that by almost any criteria you can think of is fascist while invading another country while claiming that this country is fascist. And this is of course very confusing for most European and American observers. And I’ve been working hard to try to clear up that confusion. I think what’s changed since then is that we’ve moved from a phenomenon to a foreign policy.

IG: What are the indicators that Russia is a fascist state? And which elements of the Russian policy and politics would the world understand better if they accept that Russia is fascist? Not everybody accepts it.

TS: I accept the premise of the question. As for me, fascism is not an epithet. It’s not just a word to be thrown around. It’s an analytical category. And so I quite agree that the right question is do we understand more of the world if we use that category or we understand less of the world.

I think it’s very important to start out by noting that fascism is about the priority of will over reason. Fascism is a project of political imagination. And therefore it’s difficult to define fascism in a precise way because it itself involves a rejection of both factual and logical reality.

Hunting fascism in Ukraine, you overlooked fascism in Russia

One of my lines of analysis in “The Road to Unfreedom” is that certain kinds of post-modern moves like the rejection of factual reality and the insistence on a kind of subjectivity could be read in a fascist way. If everything is about subjectivity, then, what if there’s a monopoly on subjectivity? What if a leader is able to control television networks in such a way as to build a certain kind of subjectivity.

Then, suddenly, we’ve looped around from what seemed like a liberating idea, namely, that individual subjectivity is all that counts to what is clearly a repressive idea, namely, that one person might build a monopoly on subjectivity by saying there’s no such thing as truth and then, by dominating spectacle, which is in fact, a description of the Russian regime. Not just me but plenty of other people have described it that way.

Another unexpected route towards fascism, which is on my mind because of yesterday [9 May when Russia celebrates Victory Day] is the whole idea of victory as the central category of politics. That may not have had fascist origins. But nevertheless, the notion that politics is all about victory can be a fascist interpretation.

Putin speaks in Moscow on Victory Day, 9 May 2022. Photo by Kirill Kudryatsev

As the word, fascism in the Soviet Union and then in Putin’s Russia lost all content and became the idea of “just the enemy.” A fascist in Russian usage is not someone who has fascist views. A fascist is just an outsider. But in fascism itself politics begins from the definition of the enemy; that’s Carl Schmitt’s classic definition [of fascism].

So, if you just use the word fascist to mean the enemy, then, you are engaged in a fascist practice. And if you have A Day Of Victory in which you just use the word fascist to mean “the other,” that is actually a rather fascist thing to do. That may have come from a Soviet tradition and so we may not be used to thinking of it as fascist but in fact, it is.

Back when I published “Road to Unfreedom,” I was insisting on fascist ideas and fascist features of the regime. I wasn’t saying then that Russia is a fascist regime. I would say it now.  

  • In addition to a cult of the leader, there is only one party that matters.
  • There are ritualized elections.
  • There is the propagation of a fantasy of a “Golden Age” in the past which can only be restored by healing violence. That’s Putin’s ideology of the invasion of Ukraine.
  • There is a cult of the dead, which again, although it might have had Soviet origins, the more time passes, the more the idea of The Day of Victory seems to be rather a cult of the dead. It is getting ever closer to the fascist notion that the very means of politics is sacrifice, and that it’s the job of the leader of the country, or of the nation, to translate death into political meaning. That’s a fascist idea and that’s exactly what happens in contemporary Russia.
  • There are also features like the total control of the media, and the repetitive use of very simple forms of state propaganda.
  • And, again, the politics of “us and them” when everything is about “us and them.”
  • Finally, there is Putin’s idea that globalization and the West are corrupt and have forgotten our values, whereas it’s only in our country that the basic values have been preserved.

So, honestly, I think we’ve reached a point where the question might be asked more usefully in the other direction. Namely, let’s find a feature of Russian politics that is not fascist. I think that’s actually at this point a more challenging question.

IG: Another important classical feature of fascism is the corporate economy when the state is actually running most of the parts of the economy.

TS: I appreciate you saying that because this whole idea of corporatism is very central to fascism. We’re using fascism as an analytical category here, which includes various cases, like Italy, or the Romanian fascists who never controlled the state. Romanian fascists are actually in my view most similar to [Ivan] Ilyin and Putin. That’s a tradition that I think is very close with its use of Christianity and with its appeal to orthodoxy.

How the Russian Orthodox Church enabled Putin’s war against Ukraine

Within that interpretive category of fascism, the corporate estate is something that often gets overlooked. It’s the idea that the state is a kind of pyramid and then everything has its place, and nothing should be out of place. That is a very central idea for the Italians, for the Austrian fascists, and also for Ivan Illin himself, an important Russian fascist thinker. In this idea, there is no difference between state and civil society. You have a certain role and you fulfill that role and ultimately, everything is along – to use the word that Russians like to use – along a vertical.

IG: In one of your most recent articles, you advocated the neologism Ruscism. And although you rate a number of convincing arguments for introducing the notion, there is something that makes me unsure whether we really should do it. I think it is counterproductive to substitute the generic term fascism with national variations because it all points to differences between these national variations. There is even a scholarly tradition that argues that German national socialism was not fascism at all. Could the benefits of using the notion of Ruscism, overweight, the drawbacks?

TS: I think you’re several steps away from all I was trying to do in my little Ruscist article. I’m very happy this article exists. I mean, we’re now in a world where the New York Times magazine let me write 5000 words about a single Ukrainian word. There’s something marvelous about that because it wasn’t so long ago that Ukrainian culture just really didn’t figure in the American mainstream at all. And suddenly, I’m allowed to write 5000 words about this sort of very minor Ukrainian linguistic phenomenon.

What I was saying about Ruscism in the article is that it is an example of Ukrainian linguistic creativity. I spent a lot of time in this article explaining that it is a Ukrainian neologism, and a kind of conglomerate of [another Ukrainian neologism] “Rashka” plus fascism. This is an example of a larger practice of Ukrainian play with language, not just Russian but English as well.

What I was trying to do is to introduce a feature of Ukrainian culture, which is this kind of creativity. Because in the English-language discussion about Ukraine, there’s always a sense of, well, are they maybe Russians? Because they speak Russian or maybe they’re Ukrainian nationalists, because they speak Ukrainian, and somehow that doesn’t leave room for the actual civic Ukrainian nation with its actual linguistic practices.

Is this a useful category or not? I mean it’s in massive Ukrainian use. You can’t get through the comment section of the Ukrainian article without seeing it and it’s also in use by the Ukrainian state constantly. So, it is just a kind of brute empirical fact.

Russian ideology: imperialism, militarism, and racism

The second point I would make is that Ruscism is clearly a kind of fascism. The way it’s spelled and the way it sounds suggests it. People have a hard time in my experience imagining that there can be such a thing as Russian fascism because, on the surface, there’s all this anti-fascist rhetoric and because of the Soviet legacy of anti-fascism, which of course, wasn’t always so clear cut.

So, I actually tend to think that this word that puts Russia and fascism together might be useful because, and in Germany especially, there’s a lot of difficulties actually imagining that Russia can be fascist even when the signs of it are pretty strong.

German Ostpolitik and memory politics was directed toward Russia and overlooked Ukraine

IG: In 1919, the German Minister of Economic Affairs, Robert Schmidt suggested that Germany should restore economic ties with Russia as a means to get Germany out of dire post-war economic circumstances. And he had some reasons to advocate for this policy because Germany had been Russia’s top trading partner in 1912 and 1913. And Russia had simultaneously been the second-largest importer of German goods prior to the first World War.

So Schmidt and his other colleagues at the German Foreign Ministry constituted a group that would become known as the Ostpolitik Faction. They sought to normalize relations with Russia and push for economic collaboration. This Ostpolitik group envisaged that Germany as a producer of high-tech industry products and Russia with its countless raw materials were natural allies. Russia at that time was a state which was still eager to provoke a revolution in Germany.

But despite ideological differences, these countries collaborated. So the net outcome of this cooperation was the bloodlands and the destruction of East and Central Europe by Germany and Russia. Is there a geopolitical reason for German unwillingness to acknowledge its historical responsibility towards Ukraine?

TS: Yes, of course. Ostpolitik can mean various things but in the last 40 years or so has generally meant “going to Moscow” – either to Brezhnev’s Moscow or Yeltsin’s Moscow or Putin’s Moscow. And in the German mind, it’s connected to the project of getting over the past. What’s been dangerous here for Ukrainians has been the problem of Germans trying to come to terms with the past by talking to another imperial power.

The overlap between German colonial practice and Russian colonial practice is ignoring Ukraine. Or treating Ukraine as a kind of object. I’m not trying to say that it’s exactly the same but there has been a kind of comfortable overlap. Naturally, neither Brezhnev nor Putin is going to remind Willy Brandt or Gerhard Schröder that Ukraine is a country and we should take it seriously. If Ostpolitik means “going to Moscow,” that’s never going to happen.

What I’ve been trying to explain to Germans – and of course, many Germans understand this now themselves, – is that an actual politics of memory, or an attempt to come to terms with history, has to begin with your own colonial practices. It has to begin with your history as opposed to what happens to be convenient in foreign policy.

Germans have to remember that the Second World War was actually a colonial war and that Ukraine was the main object of the war. And therefore Germans have to remember that if they are not used to talking about Ukrainians or if they find it easy to criticize Ukrainians and less easy to criticize Russians that might be a colonial inheritance that has to be worked through and still requires a great deal of work.

German Russophilia: a product of imperialism

Of course, you’re right that material interest can have an ideological consequence. It might be convenient to imagine that you can go to Moscow to get forgiveness if you’re also going to Moscow to get natural gas. Any Marxist would make that point. But what’s demanded is for Germans to actually realize that history and convenience are not always the same thing.

What’s happened, if I can put a kind of optimistic spin on a horrible situation, is that Ukrainians have forced Germans to recognize that they are a subject in history and not just an object in history. Now, what we’ve seen in the last few weeks, is that Germans are having a discussion, which really should have happened in the last few decades.

At the very latest from 1991, there should have always been a German turn that part of the German policy of remembrance has to be about Ukraine because Ukraine was at the center of our colonial war. That hasn’t happened and so what we see then is all this German confusion of the last few weeks as this process which should have happened over decades is now being compressed into a matter of days.

germany ukraine russia
Russian President Putin (R) and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz attend a press conference following their meeting on Ukraine and security in Moscow, February 15, 2022. Photo: Mikhail Klimentyev

IG: One of your fellow historians, Richard Evans, while reviewing your book “Bloodlands,” criticized your position, building a functionalist argument. He tried to explain that the decision to exterminate Jews was produced not by the maniacal antisemitism of the Führer but by the institutional jungles of the Third Reich. It is a discussion of the intentionalist and functionalist approaches that made sense in the 1980s. But I would like to temporalize the question. What about atrocities committed by Russians in 2022? Would you espouse a functionalist or an intentionalist approach? Why did they commit Bucha?

TS: I have to slow down and explain some of the premises of your question. So, first of all, a problem with a lot of German discussions of the Holocaust was its use of only German-language sources. If you only use German-language sources, naturally, you’re going to be trapped into two options: was there an intention from Germany or a bureaucratic dynamic inside Germany. The reason why I rejected both of these approaches is that I didn’t think the Holocaust was possible to understand without seeing what happened when the German force got beyond Germany.

I’m not saying that I’m right about everything, but what was different about my methodology is that, unlike professor Evans and many other German historians, I was also using Yiddish, Polish, Russian, Ukrainian, and other sources. Those sources give you a different picture of what’s happening in Eastern Europe. Those sources allow you for example to see how important it was that the Soviet Union had destroyed state institutions before the Germans arrived.

My argument in “Bloodlands” and then in “Black Earth” about the Holocaust is that you have to follow the Germans into the territories where they actually commit the crimes and you have to understand certain things about those territories that the Germans themselves did not necessarily understand. So, my approach was actually a very conservative historical approach – to collect all the sources and understand things that actors didn’t understand.

Nazi dreams of an enslaved Ukraine: the blind spot of Germany’s historical memory – Timothy Snyder

Whereas, what professor Evans is defending is a kind of standard conservative view which says, let’s look at everything from the point of view of the imperial power and only use their sources. Which I think turned out to be insufficient to put it politely with respect to the Holocaust.

The intentions of Hitler are very important. But they only matter once German power gets beyond Germany where German institutions are destroying other pre-existing institutions. The dynamics of German bureaucracy are also very important. But what matters more is the destruction of other bureaucracies which had already existed and which allowed people to be even Jews to be citizens of other flawed regimes.

My argument has to do with a colonial scale, and the war as it was actually fought than it does with narrow German interpretations.

Concerning the Russian war of destruction in Ukraine, I would say that Putin’s ideas are very important but like Hitler’s ideas, they begin from the assumption that a country is only realized outside its own borders. The ideas are not exactly the same, but they have this common feature. Hitler’s idea was that the German race had a mission, which could only be fulfilled beyond Germany. Putin has been saying that Russia only exists in so far as it absorbs Ukraine, that Russia only becomes itself when it absorbs Ukraine.

Russian propagandists should be put on “Bucha List” for inciting genocide – Ukrainian MP

So that’s an intention. But how that intention becomes a policy of mass murder can only be understood when that intention meets reality. So in the German case, Hitler has an intention that the Jews be removed from the world. How is that carried out in reality? When his intention meets a kind of resistance in the form of the Red Army also in the form of the Americans and the British coming into the war, the intention then becomes a reality. Not in the way he expected but in the killing of Jews where they lived.

If we look at Russia’s policy towards Ukraine, Putin’s intention involved Ukrainian surrendering, the Ukrainian political elite being murdered, and the rest of the Ukrainians turning out to be a kind of undefined mass, which would go along with Russia. When that turned out not to be true, then there has to be an escalation. If there are more people who identify with Ukraine, that means more people have to be deported, and more people have to be murdered.

So, you can only understand the intention when you get into contact with the other country. You have ideas about the country to be subjugated but those ideas only become policy in a kind of interaction with what actually happens in the country itself.

IG: There was a scandalous (at least in Ukraine) article where Jurgen Habermas refers to Ukraine in not-so-good terms. Whether the recent debate in Germany about whether it is useful and even permissible to supply Ukraine with arms has something to do with the German memory politics? [Question from the audience]

TS: Yes, it has everything to do with this politics. To be fair, I think the Germans are absolutely right that democracy depends upon a constant re-engagement with history. They’re right when we say Russia has to engage its own past and so on. We should recognize that now the only country in Europe which says that you should engage with its past is Germany. Does that mean that Germans are always correctly engaging with their own past? No. Because part of engaging with your own past is recognizing that your prior interpretations were not necessarily correct.

In the German case, sometimes the politics has gone in a direction of what’s comfortable as Ostpolitik. In other words, if we’re going to express our guilt for the Second World War, let’s do so with respect to Moscow. But in order to have an honest Ostpolitik, history has to be included.

The German war on the eastern front was largely about Ukraine, largely fought in Ukraine, and Ukraine was supposed to be the main German colony. What the Germans didn’t do, is they never directed their Ostpolitik toward Ukraine. It didn’t happen during the Cold War, obviously, but it also hasn’t happened in the 30 years since 1991 and so the Germans now are still in a way recovering from their own colonial attitude towards Ukraine. It was reinforced by colonial attitudes towards Ukraine coming from Russia.

Why does Germany refuse to export arms to Ukraine?

There’s been a kind of overlap of a German tradition of Nazi of not seeing Ukraine as a subject with a Russian tradition of not seeing Ukraine as a subject. Now the Germans in the last few weeks have been trying to recover from the absence of this conversation. But the reason for hope is that you can always appeal to the principle that one has to think of the past. You can make the argument to the Germans: this was a colonial war and you have never come to terms with it and now is the time. The debate is about what it means to take historical responsibility. And I think if you’re a Ukrainian or if you’re interested in Germany you have to engage in debate at that level.

The people who say to just listen to Russia or that Ukraine should surrender, their notion of historical responsibility is very narrow and misunderstands what actually happens in the war.

If you think that Germany shouldn’t help Ukraine because that just extends the war, then you would also say logically that America shouldn’t have helped Britain because that just have had extended the Second World War. On that principle, the aggressor is always right. For me, that’s not the right lesson from the Second World War. There has to be a more sophisticated lesson.

The first step of coming to terms with the past is listening to the other side. I’m very sympathetic with Ukrainians because the Germans have had a very hard time listening to Ukrainians. And there’s been a lot of irritation and a lot of rudeness of Germans towards Ukrainians. That’s a sign of failure. When you don’t accept the other side as an equal partner in discussion, you just find them irritating. You want them to go away. You want everything to be simple.

The American left’s “inverted nationalism”: blaming America for everything and not noticing Ukraine’s agency

IG: You called yourself the last Cold War generation member. Could a generational difference explain some historians and public intellectuals espouse a relatively pro-Russian view? Here is some context. In a recent article, Sheila Fitzpatrick claims that there has been a civil war in Ukraine since 2014. She explains that Ukraine must not join NATO because “Ukraine was a foundational member of the Soviet Union since the early 1920s. And Ukraine has close ties to the Russians in language and culture.”

So we have a very particular pro-Russian position of Fitzpatrick. And there is a professional political philosopher Noam Chomsky who has recently suggested that “President Zelensky should pay attention to the reality of the world” which effectively meant “accepting the federalization of Ukraine and the renunciation of Crimea.”

Why did Fitzpatrick and Chomsky take such an apologetic approach to invasion? And why some leftists despite their evolved anti-imperialism tend to align with Russia. Isn’t it paradoxical that they support the traditionalist and chauvinistic Putin regime? So is it about generations? Is it about ideology?

TS: First of all, I’m going to answer this question in terms of phenomena rather than personalities because it seems like the question to Fitzpatrick is a question to her and the question to Professor Chomsky is a question to him. I’d be more comfortable with phenomena, and one of the phenomena is very simple. Have these people been to Ukraine or not? It’s a rhetorical question. They have not. Or rarely, or not recently. One of my basic questions [in such conversations] is have you actually been to Ukraine? And that really decides a lot–more, I think, than a generation, or even politics.

People who had been to Ukraine, generally, would see Ukrainians as actors and would be less likely to think you have to accept some Russian view of what’s going on.

And the reason why experience is so important, I think, is that the Ukrainian nationhood or subjectivity is much more about action than it is about the declaration, and it’s much more about the future than it is about myths about the past. Myths about the past and ideology are pretty easy for intellectuals to process. Whereas experience and ideas about the future tend to require more person-to-person contact.

The Russian invasion of Ukraine is an assault on the very concept of freedom

It has to do with language. Most people [in the West] know neither Russian nor Ukrainian and then most of the people who know Russian don’t know Ukrainian, and that matters an awful lot too. [Whether you know Ukrainian] makes a huge difference to whether you see people as subjects or whether you’re relying on Russia to interpret Ukraine for you.

I’m very uncomfortable with pronouncements like Ukraine has to do this or Ukraine has to do that. Like I’m very uncomfortable with saying that Kenya has to do this or that Guatemala has to do this or Canada. I mean I’m very uncomfortable with people in the West or in the United States saying “I’m going to tell you what reality is. And then, you have to accommodate yourself to that reality.”

I’m very uncomfortable with that because it seems to me that that’s a kind of imperialism. When you say: I can see reality and you can’t see reality because you’re a small, unimportant country, so, let me tell you what reality is and how you have to adjust to reality. That strikes me as a kind of imperial position which leads me to another point about the left.

I think a lot of the problem here is that the American left at least (and the German left does this too) engage in a kind of inverted nationalism. So, if you’re on the American right, you think America does everything in the world and that’s great and if you’re on the American Left (or at least parts of the American left) you say America does everything in the world and that’s bad. I’m simplifying a little bit but that’s the basic idea.

Once you take that inverted imperialist position, it’s very hard for you to see agency. So, you don’t see agency in Russia. You don’t think the Russians had any choice. You say “Putin had to do it because of NATO.” And that’s comfortable because it confirms your deep-down assumption that America is responsible for everything.

Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba speaks of new points in Ukraine-US Strategic Partnership Charter. Source: Ukrinform

And then if you say “the Ukrainians don’t have any choice. They have to surrender because I said so,” again, that’s comfortable. Or if you say, as many people on the far left say, “Ukrainians aren’t really fighting a war. It’s just a proxy war. Or it’s the Americans really,” that’s very comfortable. Because it confirms your own assumption that it’s really America that’s running the world.

A part of this explanation I think is inverted nationalism where many people on the left are basically kind of imperialists but imperialists in reverse where they share the imperialist assumption on the right that one country – America – is really responsible for everything and should be responsible for everything. America is power and America does colonial things, and a lot of the things that for example Professor Chomsky says about America and Guatemala are certainly true.

But it doesn’t mean that America is always responsible for everything and that no one else has any agency around the world. And I think the idea that no one has any agency except America is comfortable for a certain part of the American left.

There’s also just this basic problem that no one knows anything about Ukrainian history. Some of us have been working very hard on trying to solve these last few years. But if nobody knows anything about history, then it gets in the way of simple narratives like Ukraine has never existed or Ukrainian culture has always been part of Russian culture. These simple narratives are appealing because of their simplicity. History gets in the way of that. And so we need much more history than we actually have.

IG: I must admit that since the war erupted, I repeat that one positive thing that might come out of this war is that it might kill the notion of post-Soviet studies when people just take Russian language skills and think that they can explain by the example of Russia everything which happens in Ukraine and in Kyrgyzia and in Kazakhstan. Actually, 30 years have passed, and we have taken very different trajectories. So you actually have to go to the sources. I mean they to the context and you cannot understand the Ukrainian context without the Ukrainian language or Kazakh context without the Kazakh language.

TS: But there’s also a general point here about decentering history. This is not just about Russia, and this goes back to your point about the left. In general, I agree with people on the left who say that American history has to be treated critically. We have to bring in the voices that have been ignored.

We have to listen to the things that make us uncomfortable. So in America right now there’s a big debate about whether children should have to listen to history which is not comfortable. And I think they have to. I mean your own history is always uncomfortable. But if you take that view about America, you also have to take that view of China. And you also have to take that view about Russia.

If history is about uncomfortable things, then you can’t approve of Russian memory laws and Russian taboos about Holodomor. If the empire is to be questioned and decentered, then you have to do that everywhere. It has to be a general methodological practice. You can’t just say, well, we’re going to do it in one country, but in other countries, imperial discourse is just fine. That doesn’t make any sense.

Timothy Snyder: Putin’s essay on Ukraine creates mythical history to cover foreign policy failures

I think it’s the chance for the revival of the left, because the idea that you can be the left, just by identifying with the people who criticize America, doesn’t work at all. Because who criticizes America? Beijing and Moscow. Those are the most powerful critics of America. And you just can’t be on the left by identifying yourself with those kinds of regimes, you have to be on the left by identifying with certain kinds of principles. If one implied one principle which is equality, so, one needs to identify with equality, and then that becomes a way of criticizing Beijing and Moscow and also to a lesser extent, America.

My way of thinking about this has always been to say that Russia is not an alternative to the United States. It’s more like a cracked mirror. If we allow our own oligarchy to proceed to an extreme, then, we end up in a place like Russia. Let’s use Russia as a check on the way we shouldn’t be.

The role of Putin as a tyrant and the influences of COVID-19 on Putin and on society

IG: Stalin was offended by the Miracle on the Vistula. That is why I think he harbored some resentments toward the Polish nation, and it was at least partially responsible for his murderous attitude toward the Poles. Putin was offended by the Orange Revolution. So is this what that’s all about – a dictator and his personal trauma is a part of the hatred we see in Putin’s eyes towards Ukraine.

TS: I think your point should be read as a kind of analytical point about tyranny. Whether or not we think of psychoanalysis, it’s clearly a problem when an individual’s prejudices or traumatic experiences with respect to another collectivity become the basis of policy. It is a problem that we see in a kind of spectacularly clear form with Putin right now.

When you have an aging obsessive dictator who is increasingly unchecked by other institutions, you’re going to get something like this. Because it’s harder and harder for the tyrant to distinguish his own traumas and obsessions from the interests of his country, and at this point, Putin is not making that distinction at all.

There is the inheritance of the Soviet Union, in which Russia is the victor in the Second World War, and the Ukrainians are in an ambiguous position, and you’re allowed to call them fascists when that’s convenient. There are Brezhnev years when Putin was young where the idea was that there might be variety in the Soviet Union but really only Russian counts and we only really need a Russian intelligentsia, that’s what really matters, and that’s normal.

But then there is the failure of Putin’s initial project, which was to try to create a Russia which was some way a rule of law state. But he ends up along the way becoming the head of the only oligarchical clan that matters. So, instead of getting rid of oligarchy, he centralized oligarchy and made oligarchy the central principle of his own rule. Then, domestic reform becomes impossible. After the last Russian invasion of Ukraine, when it reached its limits, Russia immediately switched to Syria. There was a weekend at the end of September 2015 when the entire Russian press just switched from Ukraine to Syria.

What’s missing is an idea of Russian policy or what Russia’s going to be in the future. So, once you [Putin and Russian leadership] freeze Russia into an oligarchy, then the action has to be somehow outside. It can’t be in the future. It has to somehow be in the past. It has to be about World War 2.

It has to be about some kind of moment when everything was fine in the past. You can’t talk about the future because once the state becomes an oligarchy, there is no future. You can’t change anything with the state at that point. You have to operate inside the past.

IG: Could COVID-19 be responsible for the deterioration of Putin’s policy? I mean he [Putin] used to be a master of public presentations. And today, he’s like a broken man. Is it because of COVID?

TS: I think COVID is connected to this war in a couple of ways. First of all, the very fact that we’re asking this question shows how we’re in the classic realm of tyranny as described by Plato, by Shakespeare. “Is he sick?” That’s a question that only matters in this realm of tyranny, of personal rule. And whether or not I agree with the premise, we have to talk about things like that because of the nature of the Russian political system.

What I can tell from a distance is that COVID-19 isolation is a bad thing. Psychically, for everyone. And it does seem that Mr. Putin was especially concerned about the possibility that he would become sick. Those two years where he was even more isolated from contact with other people than he would have been, I tend to think accelerated a process that was going on anyway. A social technology that he was once so good at, and an ideology in which he alone is the savior of his country – this process accelerated the deterioration of all of this.

Vladimir Putin Wears Hazmat Suit During Visit to Russian Hospital |
Vladimir Putin wears hazmat suit during visit to Russian hospital. Source:

I think the fact that COVID meant that there was just less interaction among countries. That probably also accelerated this war. It made everything seem abstract.

There is one footnote to all this. I think one of the reasons why people looked at Zelenskyy in the first few days of the war and said this is something we’re very happy to see, is that, suddenly, this was a country and a man who were taking control of their own situation, to turn this around.

I think the world has been also frozen by COVID, and people looked and said “okay, here’s someone who is taking initiative at this time when we’ve all, in a way, been constrained.” I think people found something healthy in it. In this horrible situation, which I’m not trying to make look good, the fact that we were all shut down by COVID, meant that people were ready for something, ready for Zelenskyy, or ready for Ukraine to say look – there’s something more important happening right now, and human beings can actually rise up and react to it in a flexible, creative way. I think that’s one of the reasons why Ukraine has been heartening for a lot of people.

IG: [Some scholars also suggest that] a sick dictator is the problem of the whole system, and when he is dying, you might see really drastic changes. So, it is about the system, not about the one person we are talking about actually now.

TS: Absolutely.

The solidarity of the shaken. Why do Poland and the Baltic States support Ukraine?

IG: In your book “The reconstruction of nations. Poland, Ukraine, Lithuania, and Belarus,” you tried to show to the western public a forgotten country, the Polish Lithuanian Commonwealth.

You depicted as a multi-ethnic, multilingual configuration that managed to keep a diverse territory almost in peace for roughly two centuries. And today, Poland and Lithuania are among the most urgent supporters of Ukraine. So, is this a sign of the Commonwealth being resurrected?

TS: The Commonwealth isn’t going to be resurrected because the Commonwealth was based upon the idea that about 10% of the population should be allowed to own land and vote. At the time that was actually quite progressive, especially the voting part. But I would think about it not so much in a revival sense but more as a question about what the 21st century is actually like.

So, is the 21st century about empires breaking up into small, homogeneous units, which have very simple languages and tell very simple stories? Or is the 21st century about units that although they’re post-imperial, are not homogeneous, that work creatively with some of the imperial inheritances? In this sense, maybe Ukraine is a bit more normal than one might have thought.

When we think of the Commonwealth or the Habsburg monarchy, as European entities, which were actually very durable, more durable than nation-states, that can help us to see that something like Ukraine is possible. A place where it’s not the center that matters, where decentralization is very important, there can be multiple religions and even multiple languages and the place can not only function but maybe in some ways function better than a homogeneous unit.

When it comes to Poland and Lithuania, I would say that that’s more about the solidarity of the shaken, where there’s a recognition of similarity. In the Polish welcome of Ukrainian refugees, if you just look narrowly at the history of Polish-Ukrainian relations, it’s not at all obvious that something like that would happen. But if you look at a more broadly as Poles recognizing something happening to someone else, which is similar to something that happened to them, then it becomes more explicable. So it’s not exactly the Commonwealth, but it’s more like, it’s more of a 20th-century phenomenon where Poles are able to say, “we see, we understand what are you coming through.” The same with Lithuania. It’s a recognition of a certain kind of pattern.

Polish-Ukrainian history: time for a reset

Is it possible that the eternity politics in Russia would be changed? And if, yes, under what circumstances? [a question from an audience]

When we look at the whole broad sweep of European history, European countries had to lose imperial wars. That’s what has to happen. I mean, for France to be France as it is today, it had to lose Algeria and Vietnam. For Germany to be Germany, they had to lose on the eastern front. For the Netherlands to be the Netherlands, it had to lose in Indonesia. For Portugal and Spain to be Portugal and Spain, they had to lose in Africa. This is the way it goes.

I’m not saying that losing in war is always going to be a sufficient condition for transformation. But I think it’s a necessary condition. I think the only way for Russia to have a serious conversation about Russia is for Russia to lose this war.

Imperialism allows the past to be recycled, and that’s what Putin is doing. Notions of past greatness as a substitute for present policy only break when you’re confronted with a very basic kind of reality, which is that we can’t really be an imperial power because we just lost a war against what we thought was going to be an easy opponent. I don’t think that Russia escapes from this general pattern. Russia has to lose this war for there to be a discussion in Russia, about what Russia actually is. It’s not going to be easy or simple. The politics of eternity can only change when the political discussion ceases to be about becoming ourselves by destroying other people.

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