Again and again in television coverage of the mass protests inKiev against the Yanukovich government, we saw images of protesterstearing down statues of Lenin. It was an easy way to demonstrateanger: the statues functioned as a symbol of Soviet oppression, andVladimir Putin's Russia is perceived as continuing the Sovietpolicy of domination of its neighbours.
Bear in mind that it was only in 1956 that Lenin's statues startedto proliferate throughout the Soviet Union: until then, statues ofStalin were much more common. But after Krushchev's "secret"denunciation of Stalin at the 20th congress of the Communist party,Stalin's statues were replaced en masse by Lenin's: Lenin wasliterally a stand-in for Stalin.
This was made equally clear by a change made in 1962 to themasthead of Pravda. Until then, at the top left-hand corner of thefront page there had been a drawing of two profiles, Lenin andStalin, side by side. Shortly after the 22nd congress publiclyrejected Stalin his profile wasn't merely removed but replaced witha second profile of Lenin: now there were two identical Leninsprinted side by side. In a way, this weird repetition made Stalinmore present in his absence than ever.
There was nonetheless a historical irony in watching Ukrainianstearing down Lenin's statues as a sign of their will to break withSoviet domination and assert their national sovereignty. For thegolden era of Ukrainian national identity was not tsarist Russia -where Ukrainian national self-assertion was thwarted - but thefirst decade of the Soviet Union, when Soviet policy in a Ukraineexhausted by war and famine was "indigenisation". Ukrainian cultureand language were revived and rights to healthcare, education andsocial security introduced.
Indigenisation followed the principles formulated by Lenin in quiteunambiguous terms:
"The proletariat cannot but fight against the forcible retention ofthe oppressed nations within the boundaries of a given state, andthis is exactly what the struggle for the right ofself-determination means. The proletariat must demand the right ofpolitical secession for the colonies and for the nations that 'itsown' nation oppresses. Unless it does this, proletarianinternationalism will remain a meaningless phrase; mutualconfidence and class solidarity between the workers of theoppressing and oppressed nations will be impossible."
Lenin remained faithful to this position to the end: immediatelyafter the October Revolution, when Rosa Luxembourg argued thatsmall nations should be given full sovereignty only if progressiveforces would predominate in the new state, Lenin was in favour ofan unconditional right to secede.
In his last struggle against Stalin's project for a centralisedSoviet Union, Lenin again advocated the unconditional right ofsmall nations to secede (in this case, Georgia was at stake),insisting on the full sovereignty of the national entities thatcomposed the Soviet state - no wonder that, on 27 September 1922,in a letter to the Politburo, Stalin accused Lenin of "nationalliberalism". The direction in which Stalin was already heading isclear from his proposal that the government of Soviet Russia shouldalso be the government of the other five republics (Ukraine,Belarus, Azerbaijan, Armenia and Georgia):
"If the present decision is confirmed by the Central Committee ofthe RCP, it will not be made public, but communicated to theCentral Committees of the Republics for circulation among theSoviet organs, the Central Executive Committees or the Congressesof the Soviets of the said Republics before the convocation of theAll-Russian Congress of the Soviets, where it will be declared tobe the wish of these Republics."
The interaction of the higher authority, the Central Committee,with its base was thus abolished: the higher authority now simplyimposed its will. To add insult to injury, the Central Committeedecided what the base would ask the higher authority to enact, asif it were its own wish.
In the most conspicuous case, in 1939 the three Baltic states askedto join the Soviet Union - which granted their wish. In all thisStalin was returning to pre-Revolutionary tsarist policy: Russia'scolonisation of Siberia in the 17th century and Muslim Asia in the19th was no longer condemned as imperialist expansion butcelebrated for setting these traditional societies on the path ofprogressive modernisation.
Putin's foreign policy is a clear continuation of thetsarist-Stalinist line. After the Russian Revolution, according toPutin, the Bolsheviks did serious damage to Russia'sinterests:
"The Bolsheviks, for a number of reasons - may God judge them -added large sections of the historical south of Russia to theRepublic of Ukraine. This was done with no consideration for theethnic make-up of the population, and today these areas form thesouth-east of Ukraine."
No wonder Stalin's portraits are on show again at military paradesand public celebrations, while Lenin has been obliterated. In anopinion poll carried out in 2008 by the Rossiya TV station, Stalinwas voted the third greatest Russian of all time, with half amillion votes. Lenin came in a distant sixth. Stalin is celebratednot as a Communist but as a restorer of Russian greatness afterLenin's anti-patriotic "deviation". Putin recently used the termNovorossiya (New Russia) for the seven south-eastern oblasts ofUkraine, resuscitating a term last used in 1917.
But the Leninist undercurrent, though repressed, persisted in theCommunist underground opposition to Stalin. Long beforeSolzhenitsyn, as Christopher Hitchens wrote in 2011:
"The crucial questions about the Gulag were being asked by leftoppositionists, from Boris Souvarine to Victor Serge to CLR. James,in real time and at great peril. Those courageous and prescientheretics have been somewhat written out of history (they expectedfar worse than that, and often received it)."
This internal dissent was a natural part of the Communist movement,in clear contrast to fascism. "There were no dissidents in the Naziparty," Hitchens went on, "risking their lives on the propositionthat the Führer had betrayed the true essence of NationalSocialism."
Precisely because of this tension at the heart of the Communistmovement, the most dangerous place to be at the time of the 1930spurges was at the top of the nomenklatura: in the space of a coupleof years, 80% of the Central Committee and the Red Army leadershipwas shot.
Another sign of dissent could be detected in the last days of"really existing socialism", when protesting crowds sang officialsongs, including national anthems, to remind the powers of theirunfulfilled promises. In the GDR, by contrast, between the early1970s and 1989, to sing the national anthem in public was acriminal offence: its words ("Deutschland einig Vaterland" -Germany, the united Fatherland) didn't fit with the idea of EastGermany as a new socialist nation.
The resurgence of Russian nationalism has caused certain historicalevents to be rewritten. A recent biopic, Andrei Kravchuk's Admiral,celebrates the life of Aleksandr Kolchak, the White commander whogoverned Siberia between 1918 and 1920. But it's worth rememberingthe totalitarian potential, as well as the outright brutality, ofthe White counter-revolutionary forces during this period.
Had the Whites won the civil war, Hitchens writes, "the common wordfor fascism would have been a Russian one, not an Italian one …Major General William Graves, who commanded the Americanexpeditionary force during the 1918 invasion of Siberia (an eventthoroughly airbrushed from all American textbooks), wrote in hismemoirs about the pervasive, lethal anti-Semitism that dominatedthe Russian right-wing and added: 'I doubt if history will show anycountry in the world during the last 50 years where murder could becommitted so safely, and with less danger of punishment, than inSiberia during the reign of Admiral Kolchak.'"
The entire European neo-fascist right (in Hungary, France, Italy,Serbia) firmly supports Russia in the ongoing Ukrainian crisis,giving the lie to the official Russian presentation of the Crimeanreferendum as a choice between Russian democracy and Ukrainianfascism. The events in Ukraine - the massive protests that toppledYanukovich and his gang - should be understood as a defence againstthe dark legacy resuscitated by Putin.
The protests were triggered by the Ukrainian government's decisionto prioritise relations with Russia over integration into theEuropean Union. Predictably, many anti-imperialist leftists reactedto the news by patronising the Ukrainians: how deluded they arestill to idealise Europe, not to be able to see that joining the EUwould just make Ukraine an economic colony of western Europe,sooner or later to go the same way as Greece.
In fact, Ukrainians are far from blind about the reality of the EU.They are fully aware of its troubles and disparities: their messageis simply that their own situation is much worse. Europe may haveproblems, but they are a rich man's problems.
Should we, then, simply support the Ukrainian side in the conflict?There is a "Leninist" reason to do so. In Lenin's very lastwritings, long after he renounced the utopia of State andRevolution, he explored the idea of a modest, "realistic" projectfor Bolshevism.
Because of the economic under-development and cultural backwardnessof the Russian masses, he argues, there is no way for Russia to"pass directly to socialism": all that Soviet power can do is tocombine the moderate politics of "state capitalism" with theintense cultural education of the peasant masses - not thebrainwashing of propaganda, but a patient, gradual imposition ofcivilised standards.
Facts and figures revealed "what a vast amount of urgent spadeworkwe still have to do to reach the standard of an ordinary westEuropean civilised country … We must bear in mind the semi-Asiaticignorance from which we have not yet extricated ourselves," hewrote.
Can we think of the Ukrainian protesters' reference to Europe as asign that their goal, too, is "to reach the standard of an ordinarywestern European civilised country"?
But here things quickly get complicated. What, exactly, does the"Europe" the Ukrainian protesters are referring to stand for? Itcan't be reduced to a single idea: it spans nationalist and evenfascist elements but extends also to the idea of what EtienneBalibar calls égaliberté, freedom-in-equality, the uniquecontribution of Europe to the global political imaginary, even ifit is in practice today mostly betrayed by European institutionsand citizens themselves.
Between these two poles, there is also a naive trust in the valueof European liberal-democratic capitalism. Europe can see in theUkrainian protests its own best and worst sides, its emancipatoryuniversalism as well as its dark xenophobia.
Let's begin with the dark xenophobia. The Ukrainian nationalistright is one instance of what is going on today from the Balkans toScandinavia, from the US to Israel, from central Africa to India:ethnic and religious passions are exploding, and Enlightenmentvalues receding.
These passions have always been there, lurking; what's new is theoutright shamelessness of their display. Imagine a society whichhas fully integrated into itself the great modern axioms offreedom, equality, the right to education and healthcare for allits members, and in which racism and sexism have been renderedunacceptable and ridiculous.
But then imagine that, step by step, although the society continuesto pay lip service to these axioms, they are de facto deprived oftheir substance.
Here is an example from very recent European history: in the summerof 2012, Viktor Orbán, the right-wing Hungarian prime minister,declared that a new economic system was needed in centralEurope:
"Let us hope that God will help us and we will not have to invent anew type of political system instead of democracy that would needto be introduced for the sake of economic survival … Co-operationis a question of force, not of intention. Perhaps there arecountries where things don't work that way, for example in theScandinavian countries, but such a half-Asiatic rag-tag people aswe are can unite only if there is force," he said.
The irony of these words wasn't lost on some old Hungariandissidents: when the Soviet army moved into Budapest to crush the1956 uprising, the message repeatedly sent by the beleagueredHungarian leaders to the west was that they were defending Europeagainst the Asiatic communists. Now, after the collapse ofcommunism, the Christian-conservative government paints as its mainenemy the multicultural consumerist liberal democracy for whichtoday's western Europe stands. Orbán has already expressed hissympathy for "capitalism with Asian values"; if the Europeanpressure on Orbán continues, we can easily imagine him sending amessage to the east: 'We are defending Asia here!'
Today's anti-immigrant populism has replaced direct barbarism witha barbarism that has a human face. It enacts a regression from theChristian ethic of "love thy neighbour" back to the paganprivileging of the tribe over the barbarian Other. Even as itrepresents itself as a defence of Christian values, it is in factthe greatest threat to the Christian legacy.
"Men who begin to fight the Church for the sake of freedom andhumanity," GK Chesterton wrote 100 years ago, "end by flinging awayfreedom and humanity if only they may fight the Church … Thesecularists have not wrecked divine things; but the secularistshave wrecked secular things, if that is any comfort to them."
Doesn't the same hold for the advocates of religion too? Fanaticaldefenders of religion start out attacking contemporary secularculture; it's no surprise when they end up forsaking any meaningfulreligious experience. In a similar way, many liberal warriors areso eager to fight anti-democratic fundamentalism that they end upflinging away freedom and democracy if only they may fightterror.
The "terrorists" may be ready to wreck this world for love ofanother, but the warriors on terror are just as ready to wrecktheir own democratic world out of hatred for the Muslim other. Someof them love human dignity so much that they are ready to legalisetorture to defend it. The defenders of Europe against the immigrantthreat are doing much the same. In their zeal to protect theJudeo-Christian legacy, they are ready to forsake what is mostimportant in that legacy. The anti-immigrant defenders of Europe,not the notional crowds of immigrants waiting to invade it, are thetrue threat to Europe.
One of the signs of this regression is a request often heard on thenew European right for a more "balanced" view of the two"extremisms", the right and the left. We are repeatedly told thatone should treat the extreme left (communism) the same way thatEurope after the second world war treated the extreme right (thedefeated fascists).
But in reality there is no balance here: the equation of fascismand communism secretly privileges fascism. Thus the right are heardto argue that fascism copied communism: before becoming a fascist,Mussolini was a socialist; Hitler, too, was a National Socialist;concentration camps and genocidal violence were features of theSoviet Union a decade before Nazis resorted to them; theannihilation of the Jews has a clear precedent in the annihilationof the class enemy, etc.
The point of these arguments is to assert that a moderate fascismwas a justified response to the communist threat (a point made longago by Ernst Nolte in his defence of Heidegger's involvement withNazism). In Slovenia, the right is advocating the rehabilitation ofthe anti-communist Home Guard which fought the partisans during thesecond world war: they made the difficult choice to collaboratewith the Nazis in order to thwart the much greater evil ofcommunism.
Mainstream liberals tell us that when basic democratic values areunder threat from ethnic or religious fundamentalists we shouldunite behind the liberal-democratic agenda, save what can be savedand put aside dreams of more radical social transformation.
But there is a fatal flaw in this call for solidarity: it ignoresthe way in which liberalism and fundamentalism are caught in avicious cycle. It is the aggressive attempt to export liberalpermissiveness that causes fundamentalism to fight back vehementlyand assert itself.
When we hear today's politicians offering us a choice betweenliberal freedom and fundamentalist oppression, and triumphantlyasking the rhetorical question, "Do you want women to be excludedfrom public life and deprived of their rights? Do you want everycritic of religion to be put to death?", what should make ussuspicious is the very self-evidence of the answer: who would wantthat?
The problem is that liberal universalism has long since lost itsinnocence. What Max Horkheimer said about capitalism and fascism inthe 1930s applies in a different context today: those who don'twant to criticise liberal democracy should also keep quiet aboutreligious fundamentalism.
What of the fate of the liberal-democratic capitalist Europeandream in Ukraine? It isn't clear what awaits Ukraine within the EU.I've often mentioned a well-known joke from the last decade of theSoviet Union, but it couldn't be more apposite:
"Rabinovitch, a Jew, wants to emigrate. The bureaucrat at theemigration office asks him why, and Rabinovitch answers: 'Tworeasons. The first is that I'm afraid the Communists will losepower in the Soviet Union, and the new power will put all the blamefor the Communists' crimes on us, the Jews.' 'But this is purenonsense,' the bureaucrat interrupts, 'nothing can change in theSoviet Union, the power of the Communists will last for ever!''Well,' Rabinovitch replies, 'that's my second reason."
Imagine the equivalent exchange between a Ukrainian and an EUadministrator. The Ukrainian complains: "There are two reasons weare panicking here in Ukraine. First, we're afraid that underRussian pressure the EU will abandon us and let our economycollapse." The EU administrator interrupts: "But you can trust us,we won't abandon you. In fact, we'll make sure we take charge ofyour country and tell you what to do!" "Well," the Ukrainianreplies, "that's my second reason."
The issue isn't whether Ukraine is worthy of Europe, and goodenough to enter the EU, but whether today's Europe can meet theaspirations of the Ukrainians. If Ukraine ends up with a mixture ofethnic fundamentalism and liberal capitalism, with oligarchspulling the strings, it will be as European as Russia (or Hungary)is today. (Too little attention is drawn to the role played by thevarious groups of oligarchs - the "pro-Russian" ones and the"pro-western" ones - in the events in Ukraine.)
Some political commentators claim that the EU hasn't given Ukraineenough support in its conflict with Russia, that the EU response tothe Russian occupation and annexation of Crimea was half-hearted.But there is another kind of support which has been even moreconspicuously absent: the proposal of any feasible strategy forbreaking the deadlock.
Europe will be in no position to offer such a strategy until itrenews its pledge to the emancipatory core of its history. Only byleaving behind the decaying corpse of the old Europe can we keepthe European legacy of égaliberté alive. It is not the Ukrainianswho should learn from Europe: Europe has to learn to live up to thedream that motivated the protesters on the Maidan. The lesson thatfrightened liberals should learn is that only a more radical leftcan save what is worth saving in the liberal legacy today.
The Maidan protesters were heroes, but the true fight - the fightfor what the new Ukraine will be - is happening now, and it will bemuch tougher than the fight against Putin's intervention. A new andriskier heroism will be needed. It has been shown already by thoseRussians who oppose the nationalist passion of their own countryand denounce it as a tool of power. It's time for the basicsolidarity of Ukrainians and Russians to be asserted, and the veryterms of the conflict rejected.
The next step is a public display of fraternity, withorganisational networks established between Ukrainian politicalactivists and the Russian opposition to Putin's regime. This maysound utopian, but it is only such thinking that can confer on theprotests a truly emancipatory dimension. Otherwise, we will be leftwith a conflict of nationalist passions manipulated by oligarchs.Such geopolitical games are of no interest whatever to authenticemancipatory politics.
Slavoj Žižek, The Guardian