Edge of Europe, End of Europe

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Dean Conger/Corbis
The Lenin monument in Kharkiv, Ukraine, 1967

The crisis of the European Union has two sides. One is political, about the lack of democracy within European institutions; the other is philosophical, about the erosion of Europe as a source of and home for universal values. The political crisis is on view in Germany and Greece. As we observe today, it never made sense to create a currency union (the Euro zone) without a fiscal union (a substantial common budget). A fiscal union would require more European democracy to legitimate the taxing and spending. When the Euro was established, the hope was that the common currency would create political solidarity that could foster European democracy; this simply has not happened. The Greek crisis has become a clash of multiple European democracies, in which the weak must bend to the strong. Greeks are not getting the policies they voted for; but then again Germans and other Europeans would not have voted, given the chance, to bail out Greece. Without a European budget, crises of this nature are inevitable; without European democracy all solutions will lack political legitimacy.

The philosophical crisis is on display in Russia and the eastern borderlands of Ukraine. Ukrainians in 2013 demonstrated, in their revolution, a strong commitment to the idea of European integration. From the perspective of those who risked their lives on the Maidan, the central square in Kiev that was the center of the uprising, cooperation with Europe was essential for Ukrainian civil society to be able to mend the corrupt Ukrainian state. The essence and explicit purpose of Russia’s war in Ukraine, on the other hand, is the destruction of the European Union as a universalist project that Ukraine could join. In its place, Moscow wants to establish a rival to the EU, known as the Eurasian Union. Rather than universal recognition of the legality of states and rights of citizens, the Eurasian project proposes a Russian hegemony of territories that Russian leaders regard as historically theirs, such as Ukraine. Its moral premise is that members of the European Union have abandoned traditional European culture (by which is meant religious, sexual, and political exclusivism) for “decadence” and that only Russia represents civilization.

Yet the Russian effort to break the Ukrainian state by military occupation and Eurasian propaganda has not, at least thus far, succeeded. Very few people in Europe would actually prefer the Russian model on display in Crimea and the Donbas—millions of refugees, a defunct economy, everyday violence, thousands of deaths, general lawlessness. On the other hand, since a large number of Ukrainians have been willing to take risks, suffer, and die in the name of Europe—even as the EU itself suffers a grave identity crisis—it makes sense to ask what they think they are working toward.

In the long reach of intellectual history, the encounter between Russian disintegration and European integration is something quite familiar to Ukrainians. The Ukrainian city of Kharkiv, less than twenty miles from the Russian border, was home to one of the thinkers who tried to set this long process in perspective. For George Shevelov (1908-2002), one of the great philologists of the twentieth century and a professor at Columbia and Harvard, the whole history of relations between Ukraine and Russia was one of risky (Ukrainian) universalism encountering powerful (Russian) provincialism. His essays, published in Ukrainian in 2013, provide a learned guide to this durable perspective.

In the early eighteenth century, at a time when religion was seen as the essence of culture, Ukrainian churchmen believed that they were bringing universal Christianity to the Russian Empire. From the perspective of Kiev, Christianity was a faith that had been tried by multiple crises, and Orthodox Christianity the proper historical refinement. In Kiev, Orthodoxy was universal in that its thinkers were men of broad culture, and universal in that they expected that their understanding of religion could be extended, for example, to Moscow. The Orthodox Church in Ukraine had a tradition of baroque education in Latin and Polish; its churchmen were aware of all of religious controversies that had riven Europe during the Reformation and Counter-Reformation. The Russia of that era had no such institutions, traditions, or contacts. Moscow accepted the churchmen’s services but reversed their message: the Orthodox Church would be seen as authentic, not because it represented a transcendental alternative to secular states, but only insofar as it enforced Russian political power. It is no accident that the Russian Orthodox Church today is a strong supporter of Russian militarism.

The next great encounter between universal and provincial values in Ukraine and Russia and their borderlands came with the rise of communism in the early twentieth century. In Kharkiv, Shevelov lived through, and was formed by, an attempt to turn communism into a kind of global project of the enlightenment of nations. When the Soviet Union was established, Ukraine was its second-most important republic (after Russia), and Kharkiv was the first capital of Soviet Ukraine. Inspired by the creation of the Soviet Union as a federation of national republics and supported by early Soviet policies of affirmative action for non-Russian nations, many Ukrainian communists took the international character of the revolution seriously, believing that all nations would now undergo transformations of society and culture as they advanced towards socialism. As they saw matters, Ukraine was one of countless nations that would bring about this revolution by fashioning a modernist art and literature appropriate for the new socialist age.

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Ukrainian writer and poet Mykola Khvylovy

In the 1920s, under the leadership of the Ukrainian proletarian writer and poet Mykola Khvylovy, Ukrainian communists established an exemplary set of cultural institutions promoting experimental culture. Khvylovy’s main idea as a critic and sponsor of new literature was that Ukraine could leap forward to what he called a “psychological Europe” by way of a new Ukrainian high culture that offered fearless meditations on the predicaments of modern life. By “Europe” he meant the embrace of Europe but also the attempt to transcend its genres. He saw this as the appropriate task of Ukrainian and Russian literature, separately, and rejected the idea that Russian culture had forms beyond the European and that these should guide Ukrainian writers. Some of the best novels of the period, such as Valerian Pidmohylny’s The City, are about the experience of socialism in Ukraine’s great cities. Khvylovy himself described living in Kharkiv in a way that is hard to experience as romantic: “In a faraway church a fire is burning and forms a poem. I am silent. Maria is silent.”

But then, as Shevelov saw it, came Joseph Stalin and a new ideology of Russian provincialism. Soviet socialism was no longer a universal project that could begin from nations building a new European culture, but rather a highly centralized economic transformation, directed from Moscow, whose failures could be blamed on the satellite nations, above all Ukraine. The collectivization of agriculture, begun in earnest in 1930, was supposed to transform the agrarian population of places like Ukraine into modern proletarian societies. Deprived of their land and of its fruits by collectivization and requisitions, peasants in Soviet Ukraine starved and sent their children to the cities to beg. The Kharkiv police were expected to remove two thousand hungry children from the streets each day in early 1933. Khvylovy and the other Ukrainian writers saw this with their own eyes.

Stalin blamed the failures of collectivization on Ukrainian nationalism and punished the leaders of the new Ukrainian avant garde. In March 1933 Khvylovy killed himself. In 1934 the capital of Soviet Ukraine was moved to Kiev. In 1937 and 1938 Kharkiv became one of the centers of Stalin’s Great Terror. An entire generation of artists and writers (including the novelist Pidmohylnyi) were murdered by the NKVD. After the Soviet Union invaded Poland in 1939, Polish prisoners were transported to Kharkiv to be shot. The idea of communism as international liberation everywhere was replaced by the Stalinist conceit that communism was a specific system of political control directed from Moscow.

From this perspective it is easier to see how many Ukrainians today understand their own most recent revolution in 2013 and 2014. For Ukrainians, the promise of Europe is not only as a common market for Ukrainian goods and a spur to political reform; it also figures as an idea of reciprocal recognition of European states and civil societies that could bring Ukraine out of the shadows of Russian provincialism. But the revolution—though its activists came from throughout the country—was concentrated on the Maidan in Kiev. In the postwar decades, Kiev was the Soviet capital; in the post-Soviet decades, Kiev has become a proudly European metropolis. In the eastern city of Kharkiv, where Sovietization after 1930 meant provincialization, the atmosphere is much more post-colonial. During the revolution, opinions in Kharkiv were very much divided, with a large number of people joining an “Anti-Maidan” against the pro-European movement. This was an encounter between violent and non-violent methods of protest, as the Anti-Maidan specialized in beating and humiliating their political opponents. Serhiy Zhadan, Kharkiv’s best-known poet and novelist, had his skull broken by the anti-Europeans in early 2014.

After the victory of the Maidan and the Russian invasion of spring 2014, the tone in Kharkiv changed somewhat. The city’s Lenin statue was finally brought down in September 2014. A sign hangs proclaiming that the plinth on which it stood is “under construction,” though no actual construction is underway. (The kind of construction that is meant is perhaps of the cultural or political variety.) Kharkiv’s leaders generally opposed the Maidan but also, when the time came, opposed separatism and the Russian invasion. On the streets, right-wing paramilitaries recruit for the defense of Ukraine from Russia, even as much popular opinion is uncertain how to think about the war. In February, residents of Kharkiv marched to celebrate the anniversary of the Maidan; someone laid a bomb on their route, killing four people. The city buses are painted blue and yellow, the national colors, with the hopeful message “one country” written in both Ukrainian and Russian. Recent efforts to commemorate Shevelov himself have revealed the divisions. A plaque mounted in Kharkiv to recall his life and work was promptly destroyed by people who claimed that they were defending Kharkiv from “fascism.”

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Timothy Snyder
The plinth of the former Lenin monument in Kharkiv, Ukraine, 2015

One of the people who has tried to return the memory of Shevelov to Kharkiv was Zhadan, the poet who was attacked last year. The subject for which he is best known is the experience of post-Soviet life in big cities. In a major prose collection, Hymns of Democratic Youth, published a few years before the Maidan, he portrays the beginnings of the latest Kharkiv, the post-Soviet one. The first story in the collection, “The Owner of the Best Gay Club,” is probably not best read as resistance to the official homophobia of the Russian Federation or the anti-gay sentiments that are still dominant in Ukraine. Its message in the end is less about the particularities of the gay experience in Kharkiv or of the tragicomedy of those who seek to make money from it, but rather on the nature of love. In the end we learn that the titular figure, the manager of the best gay club, a former street enforcer, secretly believes that gays must be the ones who understand sex. In the end, even that turns out not to be so simple. The story sublimates the particularities of provincial post-Soviet Kharkiv into a universal question, whether love between two people can be a response to the overwhelming alienation of a society in profound transformation. This is a serious move executed quickly and skillfully against a comic backdrop, leaving the reader wanting more.

Back in 1920s Kharkiv, the communist leader Khvylovy was also writing about the difficulties of passion in the modern city among many other themes that were thought of as part of the new universalist future. It might seem at first, though the conclusion would be too easy, that Zhadan, who was born in 1974, is simply chronicling the long decline of Khvylovy’s city and its mission. What Zhadan actually seems to aspire to—and here his willingness to risk his life for Europe is a clue—is what Khvylovy called “psychological Europe”: the acceptance of conventions, the work to transcend them, and the absolute indispensability of freedom and dignity for the effort. The thugs broke his skull because he refused to bow down. Zhadan’s most recent work, a collection of poetry published earlier this year entitled Lives of Maria, is a book of Ukraine’s war and of Zhadan’s own survival: “you see, I lived through it, I have two hearts/do something with both of them.” Yet as the book proceeds the meditations are increasingly religious, the poems often taking the form of conversations with Maria herself. No one, in eastern Slavic culture or anywhere else, combines the writerly personas of tough guy and holy fool as does Zhadan. He raps hymns.

At points in Lives of Maria, Zhadan sounds like Czesław Miłosz, the twentieth-century Polish poet, who also strove toward Europe through both the local and the universal: “I wanted to give everything a name.” Miłosz was the preeminent poet of a borderland, one to the north of Kharkiv, Lithuanian-Belarusian-Polish (and Jewish) rather than Ukrainian-Russian (and Jewish). His position, not so different from Zhadan’s perhaps, was that Europe can best be recognized on the margins, that uncertainty and risk are more substantial than commonplaces and certainty. And indeed, the last section of Lives of Maria is devoted to Zhadan’s translations of Miłosz. Zhadan begins with two of Miłosz’s poems, “A Song on the End of the World” and a “A Poor Christian Looks at the Ghetto,” that ask the most direct questions about what Europeans did during the twentieth century and what they might and should do instead. The second poem communicates the pain and difficulty of actually seeing and trying to learn from the Holocaust, which was, or at least once was, a central idea of the European project. The first transmits, almost breezily, certainly eerily, what a European catastrophe might feel like. It concludes: “No one believes that it has already begun/Only a wizened old man who might have been a prophet/But is not a prophet, because he has other things to do/Looks up as he binds his tomatoes and says/There will be no other end of the world. There will be no other end of the world.”

Where Miłosz wrote in Polish that the old man had other things to do, Zhadan writes in Ukrainian that there were already so many prophets. Perhaps so. Pro-European Ukrainians are taking a chance, not demanding a future. They watch the Greek crisis too, and their position is often more scathing than anything western critics of the EU could muster. The point then is not certainty but possibility. Zhadan might well have died for an idea of Europe; other Ukrainians already have. Yet the risks he has taken, both physical and literary, are not in the service of any particular politics. Many of his essays and poems are about the attempt to understand people with whom he disagrees. He is an outspoken critic of his own government. Like Miłosz, who described Europe as “familial,” or like Khvylovy, who called Europe “psychological,” Zhadan is pursuing experimentation and enlightenment, a sense of “Europe” that demands engagement with the unmasterable past rather than the production and consumption of historical myth. “Freedom,” writes Zhadan in Lives of Maria, “consists in voluntarily returning to the concentration camp.”

No one can know where this vision of Europe might lead; that is, in some sense, the point. But we do know that for Europe to exist as such it must also exist in broader institutions. Many Ukrainians understand this, which is why they made their revolution about Europe itself. These institutions must be improved, which is why we are all talking about Greece. Europe can fail in both Greece and Ukraine, which is why the Russian media in these weeks abounds in prematurely celebratory visions of a collapsed European Union. The underlying message of Russian propaganda is that working for Europe, whether inside the European Union or beyond it, makes no sense, since democracy and freedom are nothing more than the hypocrisy of a doomed order, and history has no lessons other than those of power. Russian nihilism cheers on European narcissism.

The European Union will no doubt survive both crises, at least for a time, but in neither has it provided much of a response to its existential and democratic problems. Ukraine deserves help but is largely ignored because it is not a member of the European Union; the Greek prompt for institutional reform is going unheeded. As European leaders struggle to define what Europe is, it is more useful, or at least more heartening, to read the grim universalists in Kharkiv than to watch the gleeful provincials in Moscow.