The Wars of Vladimir Putin

Pozdrowienia z Noworosji [Greetings from Novorossiya]

by Paweł Pieniążek
Warsaw: Krytyka Polityczna, 240 pp., zł34.90

Entscheidung in Kiew. Ukrainische Lektionen [Decision in Kiev: Ukrainian Lessons]

by Karl Schlögel
Munich: Carl Hanser, 352 pp., €21.90
Vladimir Putin at an ice-skating event in Sochi, Russia, before the Olympics, April 2013
Thomas Dworzak/Magnum Photos
Vladimir Putin at an ice-skating event in Sochi, Russia, before the Olympics, April 2013

1989, the year that the Polish war reporter Paweł Pieniążek was born, was understood by some in the West as an end to history. After the peaceful revolutions in Eastern Europe, what alternative was there to liberal democracy? The rule of law had won the day. European integration would help the weaker states reform and support the sovereignty of all. Peter Pomerantsev, the son of Soviet dissidents who emigrated to Britain in 1978, could “return” to Russia to work as an artist. Karl Schlögel, a distinguished German historian of Russian émigrés, could go straight to the sources in Moscow.

But was the West coming to the East, or the East to the West? By 2014, a quarter-century after the revolutions of 1989, Russia proposed a coherent alternative: faked elections, institutionalized oligarchy, national populism, and European disintegration. When Ukrainians that year made a revolution in the name of Europe, Russian media proclaimed the “decadence” of the EU, and Russian forces invaded Ukraine in the name of a “Eurasian” alternative.

When Pieniążek arrived in Kiev in November 2013 as a young man of twenty-four, he was observing the latest, and perhaps the last, attempt to mobilize the idea of “Europe” in order to reform a state. Ukrainians had been led to expect that their government would sign an association agreement with the European Union. Frustrated by endemic corruption, many Ukrainians saw the accord as an instrument to strengthen the rule of law. Moscow, meanwhile, was demanding that Ukraine not sign the agreement with the EU but instead become a part of its new “Eurasian” trade zone of authoritarian regimes.

At the last moment, Russian President Vladimir Putin dissuaded the Ukrainian president, Viktor Yanukovych, from signing the EU association agreement. The Russian media exulted. Ukrainian students, who had the most to lose from endless corruption, gathered on November 21 on Kiev’s central square, the Maidan, to demand that the agreement with the EU be signed. Pieniążek arrived a few days later. After police beat the students on the night of November 30, the young men and women were joined by hundreds of thousands of others, people who would brave the cold, and worse, for the next three months.

The “Euromaidan,” as the protests were called at first, was multicultural and anti-oligarchical. Ukrainians were taking risks for a local goal that is hard to understand beyond the post-Soviet setting: Europeanization as a means to undo corruption and oligarchy. By enriching a small clique, writes Pieniążek in his collection of reportage from Ukraine, “Yanukovych brought the state to the brink of actual collapse.” In December 2013 Russian leaders made financial aid to Yanukovych’s government contingent upon clearing the streets of protesters. The…

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