On 22 February 2022 the unthinkable happened: the armed forces of the Russian Federation, known as Russia in the West, march into a sovereign neighbouring country, Ukraine. What is more, they are invading a country whose independence Russia has repeatedly guaranteed in bilateral treaties, first in 1991 in an agreement on the establishment of a Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) together with Belarus, and in 1994 in the so-called Budapest Memorandum, in which Ukraine, in return for the surrender of all its Soviet-era nuclear weapons, received a guarantee of non-violence from Russia, the USA and Great Britain. Since then, the country has been in a position to consider itself free in the sense of democratic self-determination and has been able to make its own decisions on how it orients and aligns itself. A trend emerged early on, over the course of several changes of government, with a majority of Ukrainians wanting their country to join the European Union. Indicative of this was the so-called »Maidan Uprising« (2013 –2014), in which the fightback of pro-Russian forces was revealed in all brutality for the first time, and which culminated in a bloodbath. Three years later, an EU-Ukraine Association Agreement set the course for the process of rapprochement. That the country is ready for this next step is shown by the unprecedented self-discipline with which Ukrainian troops and a determined population are defying the unlawful invasion.
The Russians have been at war for several weeks. They are fighting a war that they cannot even call war, which is wretched. They justify it with pretexts that no one believes, not even themselves, which is absurd. They run their campaign stupidly and with high losses of their own, which is self-destructive. They wage their war, led by miserable military strategists, above all against the defenceless civilian population, and that is a war crime. This is the point that now concerns all those involved, the active as well as the passive, before whose eyes the killing happens every day. Let us not be lulled into believing that this is a pre-emptive war – except, of course, that it cannot be called that ("special operation" is the code word). A pre-emptive war aimed at disarming a sovereign neighbouring country, but one which has never posed a threat to the attacker. Which is why this, too, is only half the story. Closer to the truth is the revelation that this war is being waged against the Western defence alliance, NATO. NATO, and Moscow knows this too, is an alliance designed for protection, defence, a military institution designed purely for insurance purposes, and not an alliance for waging wars of aggression. But the aim is precisely to push this single guarantor of Western democracy, with its nuclear arms, onto the political defensive in the long term. Russia demanded, as no state in the world had previously done, unilateral guarantees that would de facto amount to a weakening of the immune protection provided for the free world by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, which is why there could be no concession or withdrawal in the event of a threat to its own survival. In fact, it is only the free world that has the right to draw red lines through its insistence on a "rules-based order" and not the Russian world of today (Russkiy Mir), an autocratic, neo-imperial system aimed at total rule, even beyond its own territorial borders.
Which brings us to the real reason for this undeclared attack: in reality, this was supposed to be a war for the purpose of regime change, a blitzkrieg to overthrow the elected government, which, according to the proven formula, would have been followed by the installation of a puppet regime and measures to dismantle the population of Ukraine (deportation, re-education, etc.). But since this went wrong and the campaign stalled, the true motives must be concealed. Which, in turn, is not compatible with the callously employed slogan of "denazification", which is now being used to justify the expulsion of Jews and targeting a president who has victims of the Shoah in his own family. They are waging a fratricidal war with a brother who has had enough of such brotherhood, a war that is bound to fail in all its aims. The only thing that is certain is that every day that passes this war is killing people who have nothing to do with the fantasies that obsess the warmongers. A war waged for delusional reasons by a coldly calculating demagogue who has taken his people hostage and pushes his soldiers on before him across the bodies and will stop at nothing. Which brings us back to the starting point, this war is being waged by a single man, the only one who knows why he is waging it – to preserve his power: Vladimir Putin.
Putin, this man made of the purest Soviet metal, already belongs to the line of die-hards that we thought had disappeared after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Socialist Empire. He is the returning spirit belonging to an old doctrine of power which, although now adapted to the new market economy, is still in essence pursuing the same goal: that of preserving Russia as a powerful empire of terror set against all democratic aspirations both internally and externally (of the neighbouring countries). Putin's brand of secret service capitalism stands in sharp contrast to the capitalism based on free enterprise and the state separation of powers familiar in the West. His is a predatory capitalism based on a mafia-like, paternalistic network (viz. Putin's People). Putinism essentially means the annulment of everything that his predecessors – Gorbachev with his restructuring of the Soviet dictatorship (perestroika), Yeltsin with his introduction of an unfettered market economy – set in motion. At the end of this total revolution from above and its journey to state oligarchy, there is now the possibility of purely arbitrary rule, a historical-political turning point with incalculable consequences, among which a war is only one of the many evils. A rule that rejects any form of peaceful cooperation within the framework of globalization and destabilizes the world order by means of lies, political division and disinformation.
What were the last words from free Hungary in 1956, broadcast on the Kossuth radio station shortly before Russian troops invaded the country and strangled the uprising? "... for Moscow imperialism knows no borders."
Like every Soviet dictator in a similar situation before him (Khrushchev in the Hungarian uprising, Brezhnev in the Prague Spring), Putin could not conceive of the Maidan Uprising in Kyiv other than as action fuelled by the West and controlled by the CIA, and never as the spontaneous protest of a population inured against any form of foreign determination. In the world view of the KGB supremo, the will to freedom has no place. In this world view, everything turns on betrayal and conspiracy. That something does not have to have been organized in advance and be centrally controlled, but can arise of itself, boldly go all out and envisage changing everything is unthinkable to this type of eternal apparatchik. The desire for freedom, truth and dignity must be demonized because it endangers power structures that have never been democratically legitimized, i.e., the Putin system itself. Therefore, the Orange Revolution of 2004/2005 triggered a reprogramming of the state in Russia. It paved the way for a comprehensive restoration, which was accompanied by the expansion of the security apparatus (domestic intelligence, military intelligence, police, national guard); the subjugation of the judiciary; the change of electoral law; the abolition of the gubernatorial elections, securing power for life; and finally the forcible co-ordination of the media. It all boils down to a power bloc that has not existed so monolithically since Stalin's time. Nevertheless, the iron hand behind it all could have been for what it was long ago. The West has, however, allowed itself to be deceived by the façade – one that also included the founding of the ruling party »United Russia« – and has fallen for the apparently harmless formula of »guided democracy«. Of course, the contract killings and poison attacks could never be traced directly back to Putin. I know many "Putin sympathizers" for whom this was an impossible leap. They never understood the nature of these intelligence actions, the extent of state corruption, because they were blinded by the diplomatic appearance of presidential power. The man whom the heads of state met for bilateral talks seemed trustworthy to them until the very end. The systematic elimination of the opposition, the murder of liberal politician Boris Nemtsov who carried the hopes of so many – all these things had been troubling but were still not enough to finally wake people up to what was happening. The last move had been a turning point in the politics of historical education, the end of openness about the crimes of Stalinism and the Stalinist system of concentration and Gulag labour camps. At the beginning of his second term, Putin, to the horror of all liberal forces, had reintroduced the old Soviet anthem, so that the very sound of Stalinism was audibly back for all. The only thing missing was rapprochement with the Orthodox Church. But because this also served to consolidate their power, the state security guards became pious in their old age. With the return of a National Bolshevism mark 2, invoking the people and homeland as the ultimate values and basis of a Greater-Russian imperialism, the process was completed. Orthodoxy, autocracy and nationalism were now the three main pillars on which the new order was based. In his determination to no longer bow to legality or morality, Putin is clearly taking his cue from Stalin. Hence also the path towards his military campaigns, which reached their first climax with the illegal occupation of the Crimean Peninsula. The recognition of the so-called "People's Republics" of Donetsk and Luhansk and the subsequent invasion of Ukraine have simply completed the work. Thus, the Russian question has become a problem for the world community, in the same way the German question initiated by Hitler's war of aggression lead to the reorganization of Europe. And just as the German question could only be resolved with the fall of Hitler's Nazi Reich, the Russian question will only cease to preoccupy the world when Putin's system is relegated to the side-lines and collapses.
The Hitler-Stalin Pact was the original sin of the twentieth century, the writing on the wall as regards ethnic national power politics – it is now again in the spotlight. The pact was not, as legend has it, a ruse on Stalin’s part to keep Hitler at bay and gain himself time, but the agreement between two totalitarian leaders as to the provisional division of Eastern Europe and the subsequent defeat of the liberal democracies. There are plenty of reasons to see the two dragons of twentieth-century totalitarianism as hostile allies, partners ready to do violence on their way to a new division of the world. The fact that things turned out differently and that nothing finally came of the Devil's Pact cannot undo the sight of the solar eclipse that took place at that time. Humanity should always remember it. For too long, the masses have allowed themselves to be blinded by communist illusionism as well as fascist technocratism, both of them fixed on the Führer principle, authoritarian rule. That this distorted thinking persists to this day is demonstrated by the fact that a mutated homo sovieticus was able to trigger the public with his sob-story about the fight against "Nazism" – a stone-cold instrumentalization that was intended to conceal his true war goals. The question of whether he himself believes it is as idle as all Kremlin astrology. It is only the paranoid chief who believes that the Cold War has never stopped and can be rekindled at any time with a hot one. The fact that we could not prevent it is due to the historical blindness of many politicians and business partners in the West, who, with the use of all diplomacy, refused to see what had long since become visible.
At the low point of the European crisis at the beginning of the 1940s, a crisis of the intellect and of politics (and by the way also of the arts, of philosophy), Walter Benjamin, in exile committed to paper his Theses on the Concept of History. A philosopher, inspired by Marxism and its historical perspectives, summons his final intellectual powers to interpret his epoch in all its historical facets. The purpose of his exercise was to test the possibility of imagining a redemption of humanity from the nightmares of its past. To understand the state of emergency that was no longer the exception but had now become the rule, the amazement "that the things we are experiencing are 'still' possible in the twentieth century". It was an attempt to revise the conception of history from the bottom up. Historicism (the mere narration of a sequence of confused events) falls by the wayside, as does the conformism of social democracy, the idea of progress as a necessary advance with all new technical achievements. The weapons systems alone (atomic bombs, supersonic missiles, drones), I would add, teach us that nothing entitles us to hope. In the light of his theological exercises, he sees even the class struggle as simply a stage of development in which at best the delicate and spiritual lines can become visible. At the moment of greatest danger, a figure appears before him which, in its fragility, could only be presented to him by an artist, Paul Klee, a social outsider. Along with a number of experts, I suspect that at this moment the thinker Benjamin saw a truth that would only be given painful expression by the Hitler-Stalin Pact. In the tenth of his theses, the trauma is expressed in a sentence that still cannot be completely unravelled to this day. His train of thought intends "at a moment when the politicians in whom the opponents of Fascism had placed their hopes are prostrate and have confirmed their defeat by betraying their own cause, to disentangle the political worldlings from the snares in which they have been ensnared." It is my favourite thesis: one that I follow to this day like the cursor on my computer. That was the shock from which the thinker never recovered. The century, with all its dynamic tendencies, the masses senselessly swirled around and now seized by war and the millions of victims expected (Walter Benjamin was spared knowledge of the Holocaust) had become the abyss into which the political child of the world, a grandson of Goethe, peered. Despairing of the hopeless lack of a way out and the apparent victory of inhumanity, he decided to take his life in a Spanish border town fleeing from the Gestapo when his plan to undertake the passage to America foundered.
Russo-fascism has raised its evil head. Putin has slipped into the role of Hitler. Ghostly recurrence, everything he does now seems like re-enactment, a re-playing of concrete historical events in the most authentic way possible. A fusion of Hitler and Stalin, nuclear fusion. No one is allowed to mention the name of the devil, Hitler; comparisons are forbidden, especially for us, the heirs of Hitler with our unholy past. Ten million Ukrainians have become refugees. Europe has not seen so many people uprooted and displaced in such a short time since the Second World War. I am back there in the cellar. Everything that could happen has gone through my mind before and now it is happening, it is happening – in reality. I have turned to Clausewitz and am reading him for the first time: On War, a book that I had put aside for a time beyond the grave.
Durs Grünbein, 31 March 2022; translation by Karen Leeder
The opinion of the author does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board.
Literature Against Occupation: PEN Georgia and PEN Ukraine
How to Hide an Empire: Naming and Nature of Russo-Ukrainian War
Notes and Diaries From Kyiv (shared from the Instagram profile @asiabazdyrieva)
Ludwika Włodek in conversation with Oksana Zabuzhko
An appeal for the urgent protection of the freedom of expression in Russia and Belarus
Statement by the International PEN