Volodymyr Yermolenko: “Russia is not just at war with Ukraine, but with Europe”

  • Conversation with the Ukrainian philosopher and journalist, who provides a very interesting perspective on Russia, linguistic imperialism, and the manipulations of history.

Vicent Partal
28.06.2024 - 23:37
Actualització: 28.06.2024 - 23:41

Volodymyr Yermolenko is a Ukrainian philosopher, president of his country’s PEN Club, and journalist who deeply reflects on Russia and the Russian worldview. He speaks very calmly, carefully considering his words, yet with strong and clear ideas. His insights are not only of interest to his compatriots but also to Europeans in general and sometimes particularly to Catalans.

—Statistics indicate that, in general, the population of Europe is tired of the war in Ukraine, as if it has lost the interest it had in the first months of the war. What is happening? How do you explain this?
—Statistics also show that people support Ukraine in abstract terms, but do not want to get emotionally involved. Everyone wants to live a normal life. “Yes, okay, the Ukrainians are right, maybe we should do something, but now there’s a football match on TV, so let’s sit and watch it.” This is normal.

—However, I don’t know if you agree with me, today the danger is greater than two years ago. And not only for Ukraine but for all of Europe.
—In Europe, there is a syndrome of “sympathy without intervention.” Oh, yes, Ukrainians are very good people. We all agree on that. But no one ever says: Ukraine is ours, we are the same. And you are right in the sense that the danger today is greater. Russia was much weaker two years ago than it is now. It has learned from its mistakes and adapted, so the problem is growing.

—How have they done this?
—They have it relatively easy: They do not respect any rights, there is no effective opposition to the war within Russia, which is becoming more militarized every day. If someone speaks out, they are killed or imprisoned, we have all seen this. The West still lives under the illusion that Russia is weak and that there is no need to be more afraid than necessary. But the reality is that Russia is advancing significantly in terms of war technology and has found a perfectly viable alternative to maintain its economy despite sanctions, in India, China, and others.

—But at the same time, there is another movement: Europe is becoming more and more involved in the conflict, even militarily.
—That’s true. It may seem contradictory, but it is not so much because the reality is that Russia is not at war with Ukraine but with Europe, with the way we Europeans understand society. It is at war against what they believe is the West and against societies that think freedom should be at the center of social life.

—Alright, but there is also a geopolitical design, isn’t?
—Yes, but it is very simple. Russia thinks we are going back to the past and moving towards a world marked again by the existence of various imperialisms. They know the largest empire will be Chinese, but they are okay with being the second. And in this sense, they are convinced that, like in the past, Europe will be divide, and they are destined to take part of it.

-Well, Russia has always defended that it has no borders. The famous phrase that Russia’s borders breathe…

—When they have problems and have to retreat into their territory, the border is the Rostov-Saint Petersburg line, but when they are strong, the border is in Berlin…
—That’s it. Russia has never been a nation-state with clear borders. It has always been an empire and an expansionist one, aspiring to be the only one. This is the entire history of Russia. At the beginning of Moscow’s power, Russia wanted to be the empire of Orthodox Christians – that is, of Christians, because they did not consider others to be Christians. In the 18th century, under Catherine the Great, Russia considered itself the only enlightened empire – there was Prussia next door, but they said it couldn’t compare… In the 19th century, they concocted that they were the only Slavic empire and had to liberate the rest of the Slavs and started fighting with the Turks. In the 20th century, as we all know, they were the only communist empire in the world. Now, for the first time, they do not have a clear global idea of what they want their empire to be; they say they are the new “conservative empire”, in the authoritarian sense, but the point is that they want to continue being an empire. They are clear about that.

—The Russian world, as they call it.
—They have this concept of русский мир – the Russian world, the Russian civilization– which by definition means it cannot have borders because political barriers do not matter when the concept is that you are a civilization. [Alexander] Dugin, [Vladimir] Medinsky, and all these people whom Putin listens, insist repeatedly that Russia is not a nation. That it is not a nation, that it is much more than that, and they say it over and over again.

—So, they assume the idea of empire.
—Russian imperialism forms an empire, but a continental empire. And this makes it different from maritime empires, such as Great Britain in the past, for example. Because continental empires do not colonize nations far away – as was the case with India for the British – but those right next door. Therefore, the idea justifying their colonialism cannot be that they are very different people but that they are the same. This is important to understand. The British told the Indians they were different and would never be like them. That’s why they invented the concept of “race”, which, as we all know, is false. In the case of Russia, they do not tell the colonized peoples that they are different and will never be like the Russians, but quite the opposite, they say they will never be different from the Russians. That they will never have their own life. Therefore, they will be Russians.

—So, they turn it around.
—Simply, the instrument of domination is different. It is no longer the idea that you are different, implicitly inferior, but the idea that you are the same. That is why they have to convince everyone that Ukraine is an invention and does not exist.

—From the ethnic point of view?
—The idea that you are the same as them, and this is another interesting characteristic, is not necessarily ethnic. It can be religious, for example. This is what they do with Georgians, who cannot be identified ethnically with Russians but are absorbed through religion and confrontation with neighboring religions. And with others, they use the instrument of the Russian language – with Buryats or Tuvans, for example. They say that since they speak the same language, a language that they imposed on them, then they are the same.

—This is a very interesting perspective in our country: the imperialist use of language.
—Yes, I know that this topic is of interest to Catalans. I think there would be an analogy to be established between racism and, I don’t know how to call it, linguism, as a totalitarian ideology. This, I think, should be studied in depth, it would be a very interesting line of study.

Linguism is indeed an interesting concept.
—It happens to us just like it does to you with the Spaniards. You resemble each other. The only difference that is immediately noticeable is that you speak differently. Therefore, if the language is gone, the difference is gone, and the nation is gone. This is an essential dynamic of continental imperialism, not just in Ukraine, but everywhere in Europe.

—And what is the role of history? Traditionally, it has always been a privileged instrument for building any idea of a nation.
—Russia has invested a lot in trying to build a history according to which there is a continuous and uninterrupted Russian state through time that would justify its current policies. But to be able to prove this, they had to search somewhere for a medieval Russian state that never existed because Russia in its current form, the Russian state, is an invention of Peter I at the beginning of the 18th century. So they concocted that this state was Kyiv, because the state of Kyiv was called “Kievan Rus”. But “Rus” does not mean Russia. In fact, at that time Russia did not even exist, let alone was called Russia! It’s like the French arguing today that, since Charlemagne once called the German territories of the empire “Western France,” Germany today is French. Please! It sounds similar, but it is not the same at all.

—The history of Kievan Rus is very important for Russian nationalism, to the point that it has been one of the arguments to justify the invasion.
—Of course, because if Ukraine is independent, the Russians lose this history they have concocted, in the sense that they are a continuous and uninterrupted state through time. That is why they need to erase Ukraine. The mere existence of Ukraine undoes their lie and leaves them without arguments.

—Hence the attempt at annexation?
—A friend of mine explains that before occupying a territory, you must annex its time. Before annexing Crimea, you must annex Crimea’s past, for example. I think it is a very clarifying concept.

—We have talked a lot about Russian identity, but I have to say that I have the feeling that, from the Russian point of view, the invasion has been a mistake. Because it has awakened a sense of belonging to Ukraine that was not visible before. Somehow, the reaction to the invasion is building a much stronger Ukrainian nation than ever before.
—If we start from the premise that Ukraine will continue to be an independent state in the future, it is evident that they have made a mistake. It is true that the reaction is impressive and that today in Ukraine there is a national consciousness far superior to what we ever had. I remember being very impressed, at the beginning of the invasion, seeing how the population, even in Russian-speaking cities, took to the streets with Ukrainian flags to stop the Russians. It cannot be denied that, indeed, the Russian invasion and occupation have awakened the national sentiment of Ukraine.

—But, if this were not the case, if Russia ended up subjugating Ukraine and occupying it, then this idea that the war has awakened Ukrainian society would cease to be relevant and, from the Russian point of view, the invasion would have been a great success. Simply, Russia would have done everything possible to fulfill its imperialist agenda and carry it out in the most difficult phase, which is the war. Then they would do what they know how to do so well, and what they have done over the centuries: kill anyone who opposes their power, deport people if necessary, annihilate, in short. And this is not theory. It is what is happening right now in the occupied Ukrainian territories.

—It seems incredible that we are talking in these terms in the 21st century.
—Look, I am concerned about this thing we often hear, and which you just said, about how such a thing can happen in the 21st century? I think it does not help at all to understand reality.

—Tell me, then.
—Russia is building an idea of how the 21st century should be, and in this idea, the use of violence is the essential factor, the key piece. They consider that we have returned to the moment when only strength matters and how strong those around you are. And to what extent you are capable of being violent to achieve your interests. It is true that we do not know how this will end because in the end everything will depend on us – on the Ukrainians and Europeans in general – and on whether we know how to resist and defeat them. But it is better not to have illusions and look reality in the face. This is a war, a very tough fight. And it is happening now.


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