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The price that Ukraine is paying to join Europe is unbelievably high

A conversation with Bernard Henri-Lévy, French philosopher and public intellectual. Interviewer: Arkadiusz Szczepański

July 4, 2023 - Arkadiusz Szczepański Bernard-Henri Lévy - Hot TopicsInterviewsIssue 3-4 2023Magazine

Photo (CC) Mauro Rico / Ministry of Culture of Argentina

ARKADIUSZ SZCZEPAŃSKI: I remember the debate you had with Aleksandr Dugin which took place in 2019 in the Nexus Institute and which, from today’s perspective, looks prophetic indeed. It was a discussion between two thinkers who are at two extreme ends. On the one side there was a believer in humanism, while on the other was a fascist and proponent of Eurasian imperialism. You described Dugin’s philosophy as being saturated with sick nihilism and collectivism. Dugin’s ideas, which are now seen as representative of almost the entire Russian political elite, reject the idea of human rights, individualism and liberal democracy. That is why they can only lead, as you said, to war, death and destruction. I assume that after February 24th 2022 you must have returned in your thoughts to this discussion…

BERNARD HENRI-LÉVY: I often think about it. However, at that time it was an unusual experience. I accepted the rules of this discussion not fully knowing who was my interlocutor. At that time not much was known about Dugin. In France his books were published solely by niche publication houses of the extreme right. Hence, I unexpectedly realised that I was faced with a real fascist. One who has no complexes but who is also not an ordinary thing. And he was exactly like that, without any complexes. It was the first such experience for me to talk to a person like that! I could feel it almost physically. Instinctively, I was appalled by everything this man represents. But what was more important is that I realised that I was sitting across from a person who impersonates political Putinism.

How did you react to that?

People in whom I confided at that time kept repeating: “No… not entirely… additionally, this guy is not as important as you are saying, the role he is assigned to in Putin’s circles is largely overestimated.” But that was not the point. I realised that I possibly met somebody that Giuliano da Empoli would, a few years later, call the “Kremlin’s magician”. But let us say it one more time; something else was important. Not the people, but the ideas. And for the entire hour I could see the whole panorama of fascism that was developing in Russia at that time. I left this debate convinced, more than ever before, that Putin will implement the ideas and thoughts that I heard then – be it in Ukraine or somewhere else. I knew it already then. I was talking about this starting with the 2014 Revolution of Dignity. In that year I gave two speeches on the Maidan in Kyiv: one in February, and one in March. I said then that Putin is the name of an ideological and political monster that will attack Ukraine and Europe. But when listening to Dugin I heard something more than only slogans, I was given the rhetoric, the programme, everything. 

Did you have any other encounters with Dugin after the debate?

No, of course not. I made no gestures on my part. He, on the other hand, did something incredible. It was either in March or April 2022, in the early weeks of the war. I was on my way back from Odesa where a price was offered for my head by a group of self-proclaimed “Russian patriots”. At the same time, a French magazine Causeur published an interview with Dugin in which he literally said this: “This war is not a war with Ukraine, but with Bernard Henri-Lévy.”  I do not agree with the viewpoint of the magazine, but this is a serious magazine. Evidently, I was still haunting him…

The anti-liberal atmosphere in Russia and geopolitical dreams of people like Dugin have, in the end, led to the full-scale war. We are now witnessing a return to the times when the destruction of a whole culture is a real threat. What in your view does this war mean to Ukraine? And what does it mean to Europe?

I think that in the last year Putin has made the most incredible political mistake that a state leader can make. I think, and I have kept saying it since the first days of the war, that he cannot win this war! The only open question that remains is how long it will take until he understands that. Looking from this perspective, we can also say that the war has definitely contributed to a greater solidarity between Ukraine and Europe, while it drove Europe to an unprecedented level of unity. As Europe is faced with a common enemy, all our other internal disputes seem secondary.

Just like in the case of other earlier conflicts, you were also on the ground and spent a lot of time in Ukraine. Your new, already second, documentary film about this war has been released. What was the reaction to it in Kyiv when it was first shown to the public?

I have to admit, the premiere in Kyiv was extraordinary. It was incredible to see so many of my protagonists in one place: the families of those whom I met and who later died on the front line; the commanders and soldiers as well as the ordinary people, women and men, the defenders of Azovstal; officers from the Charles de Gaulle battalion, etc. My film talks about this battalion and how and why it was created in Zaporizhzhia. This of course is a documentary which presents real events. I am, on the other hand, first and foremost a writer and for the writer this is not an ordinary experience to see a gathering of the protagonists that you presented in one of your works. But what did the Ukrainians think about it? I think they were touched. This picture by a French writer who travelled along the front line and who shared time with the defenders, risking his own life, to provide a testimony and convince the world not to forget about them but to help them more. I think they were moved by that.

What do you remember the most from your time filming?

I cannot answer that. Everything. And everyone. Making this movie was from the very beginning both a painful and passionate experience. One that was not deprived of – do I dare say – moments of intense happiness.

Such as?

There were moments of real brotherhood, when I felt that the people that I was talking to were literally ready to sacrifice their lives for European values, which in our Western European countries seem so pale and exhausted. I experienced something similar in 1990, when for the first time I came to Poland. Then I also felt this fascination. With the difference that Poland had left communism without a war, without bloodshed. This was a certain political miracle. In Kraków or Warsaw there was a democratic euphoria. In Ukraine this is not the case. There, the moment of euphoria took place ten years ago, but it was quickly covered in blood. The price that Ukraine is paying to join Europe is unbelievably high…

Indeed, Ukraine is not only fighting now for its sovereignty but also for its political and cultural belonging to Europe. At the time of the 2014 Revolution of Dignity not many people in the West wanted to accept this dimension. What are the expectations of the people you met during your travels in Ukraine? When they talk about Europe, what do you tell them?

The values that we believe in so little and so feebly, get their real power and sense there! Since the Maidan in 2014, I keep telling Ukrainians the same thing: it is them who are the real Europeans. That they are more European than the majority of French politicians. The day when they join the European Union will be a special day for us – it will not be the EU that will give them a present, but it will be them who will provide a gift to us – it will be a blessing and an opportunity. Thirty-five years ago I said the same to the Poles, the Czechs, East Germans, Bulgarians and Hungarians. At that time, I was tasked by President François Mitterand to investigate the conditions needed to transform Central and Eastern Europe towards democracy. I was also asked to see what France could do to help. I was saying then the exact same thing I am saying now. Yes, Ukraine today is in a similar situation, with the exception that it is paying the highest price for its European aspirations.

You are one of the few intellectuals who actually risks their life to go to the warzone and show what is happening, to morally appeal to those who live in the free world. How do you assess the support that Europe offers to Ukraine?

Of course we should do more. Much more. I also do not think it is a normal situation where the Baltic states or Poland provide Ukraine with greater assistance than states such as France or Italy. I know that the real support for Ukraine is not when we say in Kyiv: “We will give you the time that you need,” but “We will support you to such an extent that things go faster and the time of war is reduced”. The point is to quickly end this nightmare. The real obligation on our part is to collectively enter this economy of war. And turn Putin’s aggression into Putin’s failure.

Large and sustained US military assistance has allowed Ukraine to avoid “the black scenario”, it did not find itself at Russia’s mercy. Surprisingly the military assistance was criticised by some parts of western societies. The disputes taking place in Germany still show us how strong anti-Americanism is, which is deeply rooted in both the extreme right and extreme left. Russia is thus presented as NATO’s victim, especially regarding “American interests”, while Ukraine is seen as an “instrument” used by the West. This results in a reversal of facts in which an aggressor is presented as a victim. How can we explain this phenomenon?

Here we have two classic cases of defamation. First, there is the reversing of roles: that of the hangman and that of the victim (this is for example one of the sources of today’s antisemitism). Second, there is anti-Americanism, this new policy of fools, which has become the opium of the masses and the foundation of two totalitarianisms. In France this was a shared programme of both the fascists and the communists in the 1930s. In Germany the communists did not want to take part in the war which, as it was then said, was “being pushed by Wall Street and the City”. This was, in this or a similar spirit, one of the motives for Heidegger’s grand political visions, which saw America as an English-speaking Russia and Russia as a Slavic America. The fact that today we are seeing a similar thing is indeed depressing. The return of anti-Americanism is proof that Europe has not freed itself from the phantoms of the 20th century.

This special pacifism is not only naïve but also morally inappropriate, especially when we are facing Russian aggression and brutality, when we are witnessing crimes against humanity that Russia is committing in Ukraine…

Pacifism is more than being naïve. Bear in mind what took place in the 1930s, important also in this context, that it was in the ranks of the pacifists where the Nazi regime found so many “useful idiots”. Today we are seeing the same. I do not understand why after Bucha, Mariupol, and Izyum that there are still calls for peace, and peace that would take place immediately and without any conditions.

Many people in the West, also influential politicians and intellectuals, are often promoting an image of Russia that is highly idealised. In the famous exchange of letters that you had with Michel Houellebecq (Ennemis Publics, 2008) this was one of the most interesting points of disagreement. Houellebecq’s pessimistic diagnosis was shared by many critics of liberal democracy and is based on the assumption that the liberal West has reached its final stage. It has lost its life powers, while the Russian society is full of vitality. You, on the other hand, had no illusions and responded to Houellebecq, stating that “Putinism was and probably still is a training ground for our future.” How do you explain these and other false perceptions about Russia that persist, despite the fact that Putin’s real face has been well known since the Chechen wars, the assassination and poisoning of political opponents, the war in Georgia, the annexation of Crimea or, finally, the war in Donbas?

I explain these by the fact that people today have a peculiar idea of “vitality”. Does the destruction of Grozny have any vitality in it? What about the gassing of Syrian children? Would anybody dare say that the Russian soldiers, or the Wagner Group, are “full of vitality”?  These are rapists, paedophiles and murderers. These are people who live by desiring death. People who have no values and no norms. People for whom ideals such as morality or patriotism or even politics are completely foreign. If this is to be the vitality admired in western civilisation, then I would call those who believe in it senseless fools.

The interview was first published in a Polish opinion journal Przegląd Polityczny, no. 178/2023.

Bernard-Henri Lévy is a philosopher, public intellectual and nonfiction writer. He is also a novelist, filmmaker and playwright.

Arkadiusz Szczepański is the editor of Forum Dialogu, a bilingual Polish-German portal dealing with issues related to the political and cultural dimensions of Europe.


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