Five years ago, a Ukrainian graduate student in history, Mykola Balaban, came across Tony Judt's monumental "Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945." The book, a breathtaking synthesis of all of Europe-art and war, people and ideas, East and West-in the second half of the twentieth century, is nine hundred and sixty pages long. (Its author, a longtime professor at New York University who never muted his sharp British irony, was a friend of mine.) "I read it almost in one breath," Mykola told me.
Mykola was in the process of conceiving a dissertation proposal: a micro-history of Lviv between June 22nd and July 5th, 1941. These were the first two weeks following Nazi Germany's attack on the Soviet Union; in Lviv, it was a time of anarchy between the retreat of the Red Army and the arrival of the Wehrmacht. Ordinary people looted shops; the N.K.V.D. shot prisoners; nationalists declared Ukrainian independence; Hitler's Einsatzgruppen executed university professors, mostly Poles; Ukrainians murdered Jews. This would not be a popular topic in Ukraine. Mykola was taken with the fearlessness of the author of "Postwar," with Tony's willingness to disregard academic fashion, "to go against the current." Mykola also found in Tony's work a way of understanding Eastern Europe in the context of Europe as a whole, a way of thinking that "precluded the orientalizing of oneself."
Mykola completed part of his graduate studies in Poland, together with his friend Bohdan Solchanyk, another history student from Lviv. In the evenings, they would drink Spanish wine and eat French cheese in the kitchen of the University of Warsaw's student dormitory. They talked about history: about the Soviet Union in comparison to other socialist countries, about the crimes of Stalinism, about the New Left. One night they came up with the idea of organizing a series of discussions about Tony Judt's work.
Then came the Maidan. On November 21, 2013, the Ukrainian president, Viktor Yanukovych, unexpectedly declined to sign an association agreement with the European Union, a reversal of his own stated foreign policy. Around 8 P.M. on that day, a thirty-two-year-old Afghan-Ukrainian journalist, Mustafa Nayyem, posted a note on his Facebook page: "Come on, let's get serious. Who is ready to go out to the Maidan"-Kiev's central square-"by midnight tonight? 'Likes' don't count."
As autumn ended and the winter began, the government's violence against the protesters on the Maidan increased. Yanukovych's riot police were using water cannons in sub-freezing temperatures. Protestors were disappearing, their bodies sometimes found frozen in the forest, signs of torture on the corpses. On Tuesday, February 18, 2014, Yanukovych's riot police started to use live ammunition. Mykola, having spent two weeks on the Maidan, had just then returned home to Lviv to recuperate. In Lviv, he saw Bohdan, who said nothing to him about his intention to go to Kiev that night.
On Thursday, February 20th, another friend found Bohdan's body amidst a pile of corpses in front of a McDonald's. A government sniper had shot the young historian to death. The friend who found Bohdan's body saw that Bohdan's fiancée, Marichka, had called his cell phone seventeen times.
Three months after the massacre on the Maidan, many of Tony Judt's friends and colleagues on both sides of the Atlantic went to Kiev to meet with one another and support the revolution that had begun with Mustafa Nayyem's Facebook post. The effort reflected Tony's insistence on the historian's moral responsibility not only to understand, but also to engage.
The congress was the idea of Leon Wieseltier, whose friendship with Tony ended in 2003, when Tony published "Israel: The Alternative" in The New York Review of Books. In that essay, Tony made a merciless argument: it was contradictory to wish for both a Jewish state and a democracy. His anti-Zionism resembled the anti-communism of Arthur Koestler: a passion that comes from having once been on the inside. After the essay appeared, Leon did not speak to him for years. In August, 2010, Tony died of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis. If Tony were here, Leon told Timothy Snyder, my husband, as they were organizing the Kiev congress, he would have been the first person Leon would have asked to come.
In his opening address in Kiev, Tim evoked "the tradition of Tony Judt, the great historian of Europe of his era, who understood that the West made no sense without the East, and politics no sense without ideas." Tony had come to ideas early, and Eastern Europe much later. Marxism, he once told me, had been the air he had breathed as a child from an Eastern European Jewish immigrant family growing up in postwar Britain. Later, as a Cambridge student, he was among thousands who gathered in Paris in May, 1968, "jump[ing] up and down quite so enthusiastically at the demonstrations as we shouted Ho, Ho, Ho Chi Minh."
Only with time did Tony come to see that, in 1968, history was being made much less in Paris than it was in Warsaw and Prague. He came to understand this through friendships with several of the brightest among his Polish contemporaries, who, precisely at that moment when Tony was jumping up and down shouting "Ho, Ho, Ho Chi Minh," were sitting in communist prison.
"Past Imperfect: French Intellectuals, 1944-1956," an excoriating attack on Jean-Paul Sartre, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, and other French philosophers turned Stalinist apologists, is Tony's settling of accounts with himself in that context. For a long time, Sartre was the closest thing European intellectuals had to God; from Tony's point of view, this was why Sartre bore so much responsibility. Sartre's "notable silence," writes Tony, was his silence in the face of "the blood of others"-those tortured and executed during the postwar Stalinist terror in Eastern Europe. The West, Sartre and his friends believed, could not criticize communism because Western intellectuals were distorted by bourgeois capitalist thinking. "Nothing in Sartre's other achievements comes close to me to compensating for his refusal to intervene or even speak out when faced with the show trials in central Europe," Tony insisted to me, nearly two decades after he had written "Past Imperfect."
"We are unwise to laugh too quickly at those who describe the world as a conflict between good and evil," Tony said, in a lecture in 2003. "If you can't use the word 'evil,' you have a real problem thinking about what happened in the world." In February, 2014, the Polish philosopher Marcin Król told an interviewer that Europeans were facing a serious political crisis and a potentially fatal spiritual crisis: they had ceased asking themselves metaphysical questions, questions like "Where does evil come from?" As Król's friend Adam Michnik, the Polish writer and dissident, once said to Václav Havel, "This is a civilization that needs metaphysics."
The Maidan was the return of metaphysics. It was a precarious moment of moral clarity, an impassioned protest against rule by gangsters, against what in Russian is called proizvol: arbitrariness and tyranny. It united Russian-speakers and Ukrainian-speakers, workers and intellectuals, Ukrainians and Jews, parents and children, left and right. The Ukrainian historian Yaroslav Hrytsak, an adviser to both Mykola and Bohdan, described the Maidan as akin to Noah's Ark: it took "two of every kind." For Yaroslav, the wonder of the Maidan was the creation of a truly civic nation, the overcoming of preoccupations with identity in favor of thinking about values. People came to the Maidan to feel like human beings, Yaroslav explained. The feeling of solidarity, he said-it cannot be described.
Two days after Bohdan Solchanyk was shot to death by a sniper, President Yanukovych fled Ukraine. Yet the victory of the Maidan could barely be celebrated: there was not a moment to take a breath before Vladimir Putin sent the Russian Army and Navy to Ukraine's Crimean peninsula. Mykola, who could not forgive himself for not having gone back to the Maidan on February 19th with Bohdan, volunteered for the Ukrainian Army. He was sent to Debal'tseve in Donetsk oblast; he took with him "Thinking the Twentieth Century," a book of conversations between Tony and my husband, Tim. After some time there, Mykola was selected for military intelligence and transferred to a secret location closer to Kiev. (When the war was over, Mykola said, he would be able to talk to me about where he had been and what he had been doing there. The war is not yet over.)
Mykola had already left for the front when Yaroslav shared with him his idea of organizing a graduate seminar called "Reading Tony Judt." Mykola was enthusiastic; it was the same idea he and Bohdan had had before the revolution. He wanted to take part-even if it had to be from afar.
This past March, Yaroslav's graduate students were assigned "Thinking the Twentieth Century," "Israel: An Alternative," and "Past Imperfect." Yaroslav asked me if I would Skype in for these discussions. And so this spring, from my office at Yale, I saw Mykola in uniform on my computer screen, the unmarked walls of a Soviet-built bunker in the background. He had Skyped in as well, from the undisclosed location, and he appeared on one half of my screen; Yaroslav, together with Mykolas's classmates, appeared on the other half. One of the graduate students was Bohdan Solchanyk's fiancée, Marichka.
Another of the students was Yevhenii Monastyrskyi, from Luhansk, who-Mykola told me-knew Soviet dissident literature extraordinarily well. They had met a few years earlier at a conference on the Holocaust. In Luhansk, Yevhenii had been captured by the separatists. Most likely he was tortured; although Yevhenii says little about his time in captivity-other than that he believes that the Russian soldier felt genuinely sorry afterwards for what he had done, when he understood that his prisoner was only a student, and not a spy. (In Dnipropetrovsk, this June, I spoke to the ecologist Pavlo Khazan, who founded an N.G.O. to support Ukrainian soldiers fighting in the Donbas. Among the organization's main activities is negotiating hostage exchanges with the separatists. Many of the hostages whose return he and his colleagues have negotiated had been tortured, Khazan told me.) After Yevhenii's release, Mykola found him and arranged with Yaroslav for Yevhenii to transfer to the Ukrainian Catholic University, in Lviv.
Yaroslav's students read Tony's books in English and discussed them in Ukrainian. When I joined them, some of them spoke to me in English, some in Polish, some, like Mykola, in both languages. Posing a question in one language and listening to the response in another is quite ordinary in Ukraine, where a casual multilingualism is the norm. Vladyslava Moskalets, who knows Hebrew and Yiddish and Polish and English as well as Ukrainian, is writing a dissertation about Jewish businessmen working in Galician oil fields. For Vladyslava, as for Mykola, Tony's books are a model of how to be provocative without playing games. "I was attracted by his irony, his ability to keep balance, and especially by his honesty and courage," she told me, "which seem to be something rare and even noble in the modern world."
"The materialistic and selfish quality of contemporary life is not inherent in the human condition," Tony insisted in "Ill Fares the Land," the manifesto of social democracy he wrote while he was dying. "We cannot go on living like this." For Mykola, Tony's "Ill Fares the Land" is "a guide for a young person." Such guidance means a great deal to Ukrainians like Vladyslava and Mykola and Oleh Hrynchuk, who are struggling to find a balance between condemning communist crimes and believing in some of the ideals of socialism. Oleh, like Mykola and Bohdan, studied in Warsaw, where he discovered "Past Imperfect" in Polish translation. For him, Tony's work represents "a school of responsibility and solidarity," a "resistan[ce] to the illusions of our daily life," and "the desire to search for truth and not close our eyes to the suffering of those weaker than ourselves." What does it mean to be on the left at a time when God is dead and Marxism has failed and there is-as Tony acknowledged-no longer a place for grand narratives and utopian visions? "If we have learned nothing else from the 20th century," Tony wrote, "we should at least have grasped that the more perfect the answer, the more terrifying its consequences." Yet, he insisted, the impossibility of perfection makes it no less imperative to fight for a better world.
Tony's work helps them, Vladyslava explained, not because of the answers he provides, but because of the way of thinking he shows them. Yevhenii agrees. For him, "Ill Fares the Land" is a guide for "how not to be lost in the world," how to take responsibility for searching for the answers. "We're on a boat," he wrote to me, "and that boat is sinking due to our stupidity and indifference. We're searching for something better without understanding what we really need."
"P.S.," Oleh wrote to me after one seminar. He wanted to tell me that, for him, Tony was the historian who wrote just as the nineteenth-century Polish philosopher Stanisław Brzozowski believed one must write: "with blood, poison and bile, with everything that you have..."
"There are many bad things that can be said about Ukraine," Yaroslav told me. "But there is one undeniable achievement of Ukrainian independence, and this is a new generation. It was born by the time communism collapsed and matured during the zero years. Intellectually, these years were not so inspiring; plus the Ukrainian educational system remains bad and provincial. To put it differently, this is a generation an sich ("in itself") but not für sich ("for itself"). One has to impregnate them with ideas."
Yaroslav's students wanted to know: What did it mean for Tony to choose-and later reject-Zionism? What did it mean to be a Jew in America? Why was the reaction to "Israel: An Alternative" so bitter-recalling the reaction, forty years earlier, to Hannah Arendt's "Eichmann in Jerusalem"? What was Tony's relationship to Arendt? What were the consequences of grappling with Marxism throughout his entire life? How did he come to believe that some good things excluded other good things, that anti-utopianism was a moral imperative?
Above all, could we change the world for the better? Did intellectuals matter-and how could they matter? Are there any more public intellectuals in the world today, Yaroslav's student Ulyana Kyrchiv asked me, who can play a role like that of Sartre? For Iryna Dobrohorska, "Thinking the Twentieth Century" was the book that made her believe that, yes, historians did have a role to play in this tumultuous world. When I spoke to her and Ulyana and Marichka and Yevhenii and Vladyslava and Oleh and Mykola and their classmates, I thought: Tony would have loved this. He would have loved that his work mattered to the bright young man in the bunker-and all these students in Ukraine living through revolution and war and thinking about history, about the possibilities for good and the possibilities for evil.
The questions the Ukrainian students are asking are not radically different from the questions my own students on this side of the Atlantic ask when we read Tony's work. The Ukrainians only ask these questions with a greater urgency-as if their sense of what mattered in the world depended on it, as if the stakes might be life or death. "Here in Ukraine," Mykola wrote to me recently, "we see that there is no 'end of history,' that everything is always possible, that there exists no red line that could not be crossed."
By Marci Shore, The New Yorker