Michael Marder published in The Philosophical Salon a wonderful text on a Ukrainian woman giving sunflower seeds to a Russian soldier. I call this text wonderful because it does what is most needed today, namely it adds a deeper philosophical dimension to our reactions to the Ukrainian catastrophe. This incident brought to my mind Agatha Christie’s Marple novel A Pocket Full of Rye, in which a rich London businessman Rex Fortescue dies after drinking his morning tea, and a search of his clothing reveals a quantity of rye in his jacket pocket. In the novel, the reason rye was found there is that “pocket full or rye” is part of a nursery rhyme referred to by the murderer… This brings us back to Ukraine where something uncannily similar, described by Marder, happened, just not with rye but with sunflower seeds. In Henichesk, a port city on the sea of Azov, an old Ukrainian woman confronted a heavily-armed Russian soldier and offered him sunflower seeds to put them in his pocket — so that they might bloom when he dies and his rotting body in the earth would be of some good use, feeding the growing plant…
The only thing that disturbs me in this gesture is the lack of sympathy for ordinary Russian soldiers who were sent on a mission to Ukraine, many of them without proper food supply and other provisions, some not even knowing where they were and why, so that cases are reported of Ukrainians bringing them food. It brought back to my mind memories from Prague 1968. I arrived there one day before the Soviet invasion, wandering around the city for a couple of days till transport for foreigners was organized. What immediately struck me was the confusion and poverty of ordinary soldiers in clear contrast to the higher officers, of whom the soldiers were much more afraid than of us, the protesting demonstrators.
Even in these crazy times, we should not be ashamed of sticking to the last vestiges of normality and invoke popular culture. So, let me mention another Christie classic, The Hollow (1946), in which the eccentric Lucy Angkatell has invited the Christows (John, a top Harley street doctor, and his wife Gerda, along with other members of her extended family, to her estate for the weekend. Hercule Poirot, who is staying nearby in his country cottage, is also invited to dinner. The next morning, he witnesses a scene that seems strangely staged: Gerda Christow stands with a gun in her hand next to John’s body, as it bleeds into the swimming pool. Lucy, Henrietta (John’s lover), and Edward (a cousin of Lucy’s and a second cousin of Henrietta) are also present at the scene. John utters a final urgent appeal—”Henrietta!”—and dies. It seems obvious that Gerda is the murderer. Henrietta steps forward to take the revolver from her hand, but apparently fumbles and drops it into the swimming pool, destroying the evidence. Poirot realizes that the dying man’s “Henrietta” was a call to his lover to protect his wife from imprisonment for his own death; without a conscious plan, the entire family joined the plot and deliberately misdirected Poirot, as they each know Gerda is the murderer and are attempting to save her…
The reversal of the standard formula (a murder is committed, there is a group of suspects who had a motive and an opportunity to do it, and even if the murderer seems obvious the detective discovers clues, which belie the scene of the murder staged by the true murderer to cover his tracks) is turned around here: the group of suspects produce clues pointing to themselves to cover up the fact that the true murderer is the obvious one who was caught at the scene of the murder with a gun in her hand. So, the scene of crime is staged, but in a reflexive way: the deception resides in the very fact that it appears artificially staged, i.e., truth masks itself as artificial appearance, so that the real fakes are the “clues” themselves – or, as Jane Marple says in yet another Christie classic, They Do It With Mirrors: “Never underestimate the power of the obvious.”
Does ideology not often function like this, today especially? It presents itself as something mysterious, pointing towards a hidden underside, to cover up the crime that it is being committed or legitimized openly. The favored expression that announces such double mystification is “the situation is more complex.” An obvious fact—let’s say, brutal military aggression—is relativized by evoking a “much more complex situation in the background” that, as expected, makes the aggression an act of defense. Which is why, at some level, one should ignore the hidden “complexity” of the situation and trust simple numbers.
And is exactly the same not happening in Ukraine? Russia attacked it, but many are searching for “complexity” behind it. Yes, for sure, there is complexity, but the basic fact remains: Russia did it. Our mistake was not to take Putin’s threats literally enough. We thought he didn’t really mean it but was just playing a game of strategic manipulations. The supreme irony is that one cannot but recall here the famous Jewish joke quoted by Freud: “Why are you telling me you are going to Lviv when you are really going to Lviv?” where a lie assumes the form of factual truth: the two friends established an implicit code that, when you go to Lviv, you say you would go to Cracow and vice versa, such that, within this space, telling the literal truth means lying. When Putin announced military intervention, we didn’t take Putin’s declaration that he wanted to pacify and denazify all of Ukraine literally enough, so the reproach of “deep” strategists is now: “Why were you telling me you were going to occupy Lviv when you really wanted to occupy Lviv?”
So, what is going on? Remember a month or two ago when the big news items in our mass media were still about the pandemic? Now the pandemic has all but disappeared, and it is Ukraine in the headlines. And, if anything, the fear is now much greater; there is almost a nostalgia for the good old two years of fighting the pandemic. This sudden shift demonstrates the limit of our freedom: nobody has chosen this change, it just happened (except for conspiracy theorists who already claim that the Ukrainian crisis is another plot by the establishment to continue with the emergency state and keep us under control).
To grasp the difference between the pandemic and the Ukrainian crisis, we need to distinguish between two kinds of freedom: “freedom” and “liberty.” Let me take a risk and fix this opposition as the one between what Hegel called abstract freedom and concrete freedom. Abstract freedom is the ability to do what one wants independently of social rules and customs, to violate these rules and customs, as in an explosion of “radical negativity,” exemplarily in a revolt or revolutionary situation. Concrete freedom is the freedom sustained by a set of rules and customs. With regard to anti-vaxxers, the freedom to choose being vaccinated or not is of course a formal kind of freedom; however, to reject vaccination effectively implies limiting my actual freedom, as well as the freedom of others. My freedom is only actual as freedom within a certain social space regulated by rules and prohibitions. I can walk freely along a busy street because I can be reasonably sure that others on the street will behave in a civilized way towards me, will be punished if they attack me, if they insult me, etc. I can only exert the freedom to speak and communicate with others if I obey the commonly established rules of language with all their ambiguities, including the unwritten rules of messages between the lines. The language we speak is, of course, not ideologically neutral: it embodies many prejudices and makes it impossible for us to formulate clearly certain uncommon thoughts. Thinking always occurs in language and it brings with itself a commonsense metaphysics (view of reality), but to truly think, we have to think in a language against this language. The rules of language can be changed in order to open up new freedoms, but the trouble with Politically Correct newspeak clearly shows that a direct imposition of new rules can lead to ambiguous results and give birth to new more subtle forms of racism and sexism.
Hegel knew very well, however, that there were moments of crisis when abstract freedom had to intervene. In December 1944, Jean-Paul Sartre wrote: “Never were we freer than under the German occupation. We had lost all our rights, and first of all our right to speak. They insulted us to our faces. … And that is why the Resistance was a true democracy; for the soldier, as for his superior, the same danger, the same loneliness, the same responsibility, the same absolute freedom within the discipline.” This situation full of anxiety and danger was freedom, not liberty, which, in its turn, was established when post-war normality returned. And in Ukraine today, those who fight against the Russian invasion are free but they don’t have liberty. They fight for liberty, and the key question is what kind of liberty will prevail after the fight. Aleksander Dugin, Putin’s court-philosopher, added a post-modern spin of historicist relativism:
“Post-modernity shows that every so-called truth is a matter of believing. So, we believe in what we do, we believe in what we say. And that is the only way to define the truth. So, we have our special Russian truth that you need to accept. If the United States does not want to start a war, you should recognize that United States is not any more a unique master. And [with] the situation in Syria and Ukraine, Russia says, ‘No you are not any more the boss.’ That is the question of who rules the world. Only war could decide really.”
The immediate question here is: but what about the people of Syria and of Ukraine? Can they also choose their truth/belief or are they just a playground of the big “bosses” and their struggle? Even some Leftists see Dugin as an opponent of global capitalist order, as an advocate for the irreducible diversity of ethnic-cultural identities. But the diversity advocated by Dugin is a diversity based on ethnic identities, not a diversity within ethnic groups, which is why “only war could decide really.” The rise of fundamentalist ethnic identities is ultimately the other side of global market, not its opposite. We need more globalization, not less: we need global solidarity and cooperation more than ever if we seriously want to cope with global warming.
Gilbert Keith Chesterton wrote: “Take away the supernatural and what you are left with is the unnatural.” We should endorse this statement, but in the opposite sense, not in the sense intended by Chesterton: we should accept that nature is “unnatural,” a freak-show of contingent disturbances with no inner rhyme. At the end of June 2021, a “heat dome”—a weather phenomenon where a ridge of high pressure traps and compresses warm air, driving up temperatures and baking the region—over the Northwest of the US and the Southwest of Canada caused temperatures to approach 50 degrees Celsius, so that Vancouver was hotter than the Middle East. True, “heat dome” is a local phenomenon, but it is the result of a global disturbance of patterns, which clearly depends on human interventions into natural cycles, so we have act against it globally.
Remember how, a day or two after the outbreak of the war, Putin called on TV the Ukrainian army to overthrow Zelensky’s government and take over, claiming that it would be much easier to negotiate peace with them. Maybe, it would be good for something like this to happen in Russia itself, where, in 1953, Marshall Zhukov did help Khruschev to overthrow Beria. So, does this mean we should simply demonize Putin? No. To really counter Putin, we have to gather the courage to take a critical look at ourselves.
What games was the liberal West playing with Russia in the last decades? How did it effectively push Russia towards Fascism? Just recall here the catastrophic economic “advices” given to Russia in the Yeltsin years… Yes, Putin was obviously preparing for this war for years, but the West knew it, so the war is absolutely not an unexpected shock. There are good reasons to believe that the West was consciously pushing Russia into a corner. The Russian fear of being encircled by NATO is far from paranoiac imagination. There is a moment of truth in what none other than Viktor Orban said: “How did the war come about? We’re caught in the crossfire between major geopolitical players: NATO has been expanding eastwards, and Russia has become less and less comfortable with that. The Russians made two demands: that Ukraine declare its neutrality, and that NATO would not admit Ukraine. These security guarantees weren’t given to the Russians, so they decided to take them by force of arms. This is the geopolitical significance of this war.” This small truth, of course, covers up a Big Lie: the crazy geopolitical game Russia is pursuing.
As for the situation now, there should be no taboos. Obviously, the Ukrainian side also cannot be fully trusted, and the situation in the Donbas region is far from clear. Furthermore, the wave of the exclusion of Russian artists is approaching madness. The Bicocca University in Milan, Italy, suspended a series of lectures on Dostoyevski’s novels by Paolo Nori with an argumentation that is very Putinesque: it is just a preventive gesture to keep the situation calm… (The suspension was cancelled a couple of days later.) But cultural contacts with Russia are now more important than ever. And what about the mega-scandal of allowing just Ukrainians into Europe from Ukraine, not the Third World students and workers currently in Ukraine who also try to escape the war? And the exploding racism in the West? CBS News correspondent Charlie D’Agata said last week that Ukraine “isn’t a place, with all due respect, like Iraq or Afghanistan, that has seen conflict raging for decades. This is a relatively civilized, relatively European – I have to choose those words carefully, too – city, one where you wouldn’t expect that, or hope that it’s going to happen”. A former deputy prosecutor general of Ukraine told BBC: “It’s very emotional for me because I see European people with blue eyes and blond hair … being killed every day.” A French journalist Phillipe Corbé stated: “We’re not talking here about Syrians fleeing the bombing of the Syrian regime backed by Putin. We’re talking about Europeans leaving in cars that look like ours to save their lives.” True, Iraq and Afghanistan have seen conflicts raging for decades. But what about our complicity in these conflicts? Today, when Afghanistan is really an Islamic fundamentalist country, who still remembers that, thirty years ago, it was a country with strong secular tradition, including a powerful Communist party which took power independently of the Soviet Union? But, then, first Soviet Union and then the US intervened, and we are where we are now…
The horror of our correspondents and commentators at what is going on in Ukraine is understandable but profoundly ambiguous. It can mean: now we see that horrors are not limited to the Third World, that they are not just something we watch comfortably on our screens, that they can happen also here, so if we want to live safely we should fight them everywhere… But it can also mean: let the horrors remain there, far away, let’s just protect ourselves from them. Putin is a war criminal—but did we only discover this now? Was he not already a war criminal a couple of years ago when, in order to save the Assad regime, Russian planes were bombing Aleppo, the largest city in Syria, and in a much more brutal way that they are doing now in Kyiv? We knew it then, but our indignation was purely moral and verbal. The feeling of a much greater sympathy for Ukrainians who are “like us” shows the limit of Frederic Lordon’s attempt to ground emancipatory politics in the sense of “belonging” sustained by what Spinoza called transindividual “imitation of affects.” We have to develop solidarity with those with whom we do not share affective belonging.
When President Zelensky called the Ukrainian resistance a defense of the civilized world, did this mean that he was excluding the non-civilized? What about thousands arrested in Russia for protesting the military intervention? What about the fact that Nazism came to power in a country which epitomizes the highest European culture? It is THERE that “Europeans with blue eyes and blond hair” were doing the killing. If we just “defend Europe”, we already speak Dugin’s and Putin’s language: it is the European truth versus the Russian truth. The limit between civilization and barbarism is internal to civilizations, which is why our struggle is universal. The only true universality today is the universality of a struggle.
Ukraine was the poorest country of all post-Soviet states. Even if they—hopefully—win, their victorious defense will be the moment of truth for them. They will have to learn the lesson that it is not enough for them to catch up with the West, since Western liberal democracy is itself in a deep crisis. The saddest thing about the ongoing war in Ukraine is that, while the global liberal-capitalist order is obviously approaching a crisis at many levels, the situation is now again falsely simplified into barbaric-totalitarian countries versus the civilized West… with global warming out of sight. If we follow this path, we are lost. The present moment is not the moment of truth when things become clear, when the basic antagonism is clearly seen. It is a moment of the deepest lie. If a Europe that excludes the “uncivilized” wins, then we don’t need Russia to destroy us. We alone will successfully accomplish the task.