In 1960, Vasily Grossman submitted the manuscript of his masterwork Life and Fate to the review Znamya. The editor-in-chief, Vadim Kojevnikov, read it but, appalled, passed it to KGB headquarters in Moscow’s Lubyanka building. The work was immediately confiscated, one might even say kidnapped. The lesson of this massive book (1,200 pages) was unbearable for Soviet power: Grossman, who had been at Stalingrad, explains that Nazism and Communism are two warring brothers, who fight so much because they converge on the essential. Their rivalry is essentially mimetic; today, we know of Stalin’s fascination with Hitler—his admired as much as abhorred double—and that, later, Stalin also fascinated the Führer, as the Red Army pushed back the Wehrmacht and invaded eastern Prussia. The fanaticism of race was fully the equal of the fanaticism of class, each a source of mass murder. This was proven by the German-Soviet Pact of 1939, which included, among its secret clauses, the dividing up of Poland and the Baltic States, as well as the USSR’s massive delivery of petroleum, grains, and minerals to Nazi Germany. As Grossman spelled out in his last novel, Everything Flows, those who saw themselves as enemies were indeed twins, but the crushing of the Third Reich by the USSR, and especially by the Allies, has long dissimulated this terrible truth. “Anti-fascism” became a leitmotif of all Moscow leaders: any enemy of Russia must be fascist.
Another illusion was born after the fall of the Soviet Union: Russia would follow the Western way, as time narrowed the divergences born of the monstrous Communist parenthesis. But the war in Ukraine and Vladimir Putin’s despotism, which stifles all dissent and muzzles the press and orders the assassination of opponents, is rehabilitating Stalin in the name of the Great Patriotic War, thus revealing the farce that is “democratic Russia.” Russian democracy will have lasted at most 15 years, and most of that under the rule of a consummate drunkard, Boris Yeltsin, who led the nation into anarchy and misery under the domination of an extravagant, corrupt elite that settled conflicts with Kalashnikovs. Violence, prostitution, alcohol, torture, poisonings—these, along with natural gas and oil, have been the Russian Empire’s main exports since the beginning of the century.
Here again, Grossman had understood one of the laws of his empire: while the history of the West is that of the progressive expansion of freedom, Russian history tells the opposite story, that of the progressive expansion of bondage: “Russian progress and Russian slavery were shackled together by a thousand-year-long chain. Every move forward toward the light only deepened the black pit of serfdom.” Demands for freedom always ended with the curse of barbed wire. Already in 1839, the Marquis de Custine, who is for Russia what Alexis de Tocqueville is for the United States, wrote: “Russians, small or great, are drunk on bondage.” And he added: “As large as the empire might be, it is nothing but a great prison, and the emperor who holds its keys is the prison guard, but the guards do not live much better than the prisoners.”
And so here we are! After more than 20 years of autocratic power, Vladimir Putin and his team of oligarchs, crackpots, and lackeys (marvelously described in Giuliano da Empoli’s new novel, Le mage du Kremlin), all thirsty for vengeance against Europe and the West, launched the war in Ukraine—certain that in a few days, they would crush President Volodymyr Zelensky and his circle of “Nazis.” The military reverses of Putin’s poorly trained and poorly led troops, and the awakening of NATO, resurrected like Lazarus by Russia’s attack, prove that tyranny has no future except when democracies sleep. We overestimated the power of the ex-Red Army and underestimated the state of profound barbarism in which “Eternal Russia” lives, queen of the official lie, expert in the art of constructed reality and disguising its crimes by attributing them to its victims.
Another text of Russian literature should be referenced here, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s Harvard address of 1978, “A World Split Apart.” This speech provoked a scandal: far from thanking the United States for providing him refuge as a dissident, Solzhenitsyn delivered an indictment of the West as guilty of extreme materialism, abyssal mediocrity, a frenetic quest for well-being, and, its greatest crime, the loss of religious feeling. Solzhenitsyn explained that the violence suffered by the peoples of Greater Russia had forged exceptional qualities of character no longer found in the West. His account carried weight, since he was himself the example of what he was talking about, a stricken man who became a giant. But must a whole society sink into savagery to forge a few great souls? Solzhenitsyn was persuaded that, once Communism was gone, Russia would again become what it is according to Slavophile doctrine: the spiritual guide of Christianity, the Christ of nations, the savior of the world—in other words, the true West, whereas the West that prevailed in Europe and in the United States had sunk into consumerism and the oblivion of traditions. Though Solzhenitsyn was not himself a partisan of Russian imperialism, it is an understatement to say that this hope has been dampened, since Putin’s Russia, by its cruelty and abuses, is becoming the equivalent, in the world’s eyes, of the National Socialist regime, racism and anti-Semitism included.
We have seen recent evidence of this in Russian foreign affairs minister Sergei Lavrov’s speech last spring explaining that Hitler was a little bit Jewish and in the fact that Putin has prohibited Russian Jews from emigrating to Israel, under penalty of sanctions. As was already evident in The Protocols of the Elders of Zion (1903), the fake text written by the czar’s secret police, and in the Black Hundreds, who killed Jews in villages early in the twentieth century, anti-Semitism runs through Russian history. (Pogrom is a Russian word, after all.) Bolshevism would remain true to this tradition, especially in the case of Stalin, who, after World War II, launched a vast program of arrests against the Jews, especially doctors—the famous “Doctors’ Plot” that breaks out in January 1953, when physicians were accused of intending to assassinate Soviet leaders, including Andrei Zhdanov, the presumed successor to the Supreme Leader, who died in 1948. Stalin declared that every “Jew is a potential enemy in the pay of the United States,” and seemed to wish to prepare public opinion for a “final solution,” Russian version, prudently masked under the slogan of an “anti-cosmopolitan campaign.” The mere fact of being Jewish made one a potential criminal.
At the same time, the government was building towns of barracks in eastern Siberia to receive massive numbers of deported Jews, just as it had deported Kalmyks, Crimean Tatars, Bulgars, Greeks, Volga Germans, and Chechens. Only death prevented Stalin from sowing terror one last time against the Jews, and perhaps equaling Hitler in his genocidal will.
The authorities then recognized that the accusations against the Jewish doctors were lies, and the USSR began a slow process of de-Stalinization that would culminate in the Twentieth Congress of the Communist Party in 1956 and the revelation by Nikita Khrushchev of countless crimes committed by the “little father of peoples.” According to historians, Stalin, worried about the influence of the nomenklatura, seems to have been personally involved in the death of Zhdanov, head of the Cominform and great controller of socialist culture, and then to have framed others for the crime. This obviously brings to mind the elimination of Russian dissidents and journalists under Putin.
The critique of Soviet totalitarianism, in itself important, has distracted us from the absolutist character of Old Russia from its beginnings. All the evils that Solzhenitsyn attributed to the West can now be attributed to Russia, with the addition of the cult of violence and messianic nihilism, theorized already in the nineteenth century by Turgenev and Dostoevsky. “Russia is not a nationality, but a sickness”—so said an observer of the Russian invasion to journalist Florence Aubenas, reporting for Le Monde from the Donbas region of Ukraine.
The Kremlin speaks of Ukrainian “Nazis” the way the Nazis spoke of Jews, Gypsies, and Slavs: as vermin to eliminate, beginning with the elites in each city. “Cockroaches,” “gnats”: this is how the official television in Russia now expresses itself, recalling the rhetoric of Hutu extremists in Rwanda just before the genocide. Dmitry Medvedev, for his part, qualifies Europeans as “degenerates,” a nice wink in the direction of National Socialist propaganda, which abhorred degenerate art, that is, modernism, cubism, expressionism. The more Kremlin leaders castigate Nazism, the closer they are to it, by strange slips. Ukraine has never existed, they claim; thus it can and must disappear by absorption, and its language must be prohibited. It is striking, more generally, how on all sides the words Nazi and fascist are used to designate evil. This is our semantic pathology since 1945. We hurl invective and call one another fascists, demonstrating a cognitive impasse. We think of barbarism in terms that go back to the Second World War.
Between Kiev and Moscow there is a problem of inverted filiation, namely, that Russia is the daughter of Ukraine, but one who now sees herself as the protective mother, forced to chastise her wanton offspring if the daughter demands independence. Here we see what the Anglo-Ukrainian scholar Peter Pomerantsev has called “the intimacy of family dynamics.” The older party is no longer worthy of the younger, who must bring her forcibly back into the imperial fold. Kiev was the seat of a Ukrainian Russia as early as the ninth century; it existed well before Moscow, and the Kiev Monastery of the Caves was a preeminent sacred place of Eastern Orthodoxy before the Empire annexed it at the end of the eighteenth century.
Since then, the Ukrainian nationalist movement arose with vigor, and it has been contested by Poland as well as, later, by the USSR. In Ukraine, the influence of serfdom, established by Catherine II, was of shorter duration than in Russia and the resonance of Enlightenment ideas stronger. Many times dead and then resurrected, victim of a genocidal famine—the Holodomor that Stalin ordered in 1932—Ukraine, which is indispensable to Europe’s security (as a buffer and a rampart between Moscow and the West), now fights for its survival in a war that is nothing other than a war of decolonization.
Putin’s rhetoric regarding the eternal fraternity between Russia and Ukraine, a rhetoric that Emmanuel Macron himself took up in May, is fearfully ambiguous. We have just left behind those bloody regimes that sought to make “friendship” among peoples the supreme bond, and thereby thrust millions into terror. To bring human beings together, it was first necessary to exclude certain ones—the miscreants, the schismatics, the “Nazis.” Fraternity or death: the success of this formula during the French Revolution in 1793 is well known. It began with an invocation of the Gospel: “the first disciples of the Savior were also brothers, equal and free,” said the well-named abbot Antoine-Adrien Lamourette in 1791; the result was sending a good number to the scaffold for treason. If you refuse to be my brother, if you reject my outreached hand, I must kill you, for you are refusing to enter into the great human family. And since you are my brother, I also have the right to kill you on the altar of the great patrie, to spill your blood for the salvation of future generations, as you have the right to kill me.
Communism in its Soviet, Maoist, and Castroite versions practiced the elimination of comrades and fellow travelers who would swear right up to the gallows, especially in the USSR, their fidelity to the Revolution and to the Great Leader. To offer one’s life to one’s executioner—is there any better example of consenting slavery? The executioner is benevolent, and one must bless the blows with which he strikes us.
All the symbols of Communism remain present in Russia, beginning with the hammer and sickle found on the flags of the army. We were wrong to declare that Communism had disappeared in 1989; it survives in its symbols, its style, and its architecture. The geographical, historical, and cultural proximity between Ukraine and Russia must not mislead us. The two countries are no more brothers than France and Italy, or France and Spain—Latin sisters but quite distinct. A superficial resemblance must not mask a fundamental difference: Ukraine has expressed its wish to enter into Europe; Moscow will never reach that point, any more than Turkey will.
Russia may still win this war, cut off Kiev from its eastern and southern resources, deprive it of access to the Black Sea, and smother it by surrounding it. For the Ukrainians, moved by a patriotic resolve lacking in their aggressors, three kinds of victory are possible. The first is to resist their invaders for as long as possible; this aim has already been achieved. The second would be to push them back to the borders of February 22, 2022. (The total reconquest of the Donbass region and Crimea now seems unrealistic.) The third and decisive victory would be to bring about the fall of the tyrant and a regime crisis.
What will become of Russia if it fails to meet its military objectives is a matter of conjecture: will the bloody Czar be overturned? Will the peripheral republics, especially in the Caucasus and Central Asia, secede? Will the country be reduced to one of 50 million inhabitants, as suggested by Lech Walesa, who advocates for the dismantling of the Russian Federation? The democratic option seems excluded for at least a generation or two, despite a courageous Russian opposition.
However this may be, the border between the West and the Muscovite Empire is not only territorial; it divides civilization from barbarism and will continue to do so for a long time. We have no other choice but to contain this aggressive power that threatens us, that sends killers out all over the world, and that claims to instruct us in the name of God and orthodoxy. For the singularity of Putin’s barbarism is that it is a moralizing barbarism. He would subjugate us for our own good.
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