What is the spectre conjured up from our memories and past political experiences by Russia’s ongoing war against Ukraine? What does this war revive?
First of all, the shock of coming face to face with naked brutality, violence and aggression coupled with a rhetoric of extermination expressed without mask or filter.
Not that wars of predation, wars of conquest and imperialist aggression had ever ceased in reality. But Europe – geographical Europe, deep Europe, so to speak, not just institutional Europe, but Europe as a “spirit” – had seemed preserved from all the senseless violence of the world, of other people and other worlds. The sham of this ontological “egoism” was laid bare in one fell swoop on the morning of 24 February 2022.
In Ukraine, the spectre of total war is now haunting our consciences. Total war in the sense that it aims at the complete conquest of a territory, of a sovereign country, the annihilation of a people, a tradition, a language – the erasure of a population and a space considered as sub-Russian. To me, this last point seems to define the current conflict.
Sub-Russian means sub-human, of course. It is, first and foremost, the basis for the countless crimes perpetrated by the occupying army on Ukrainian territory. But sub-Russian also means having a natural vocation to join and merge with the superior Russian entity. Hence the astoundingly clear conscience displayed by Putin’s propagandists – and hence, of course, their complete blindness. Annexation, they believed, was a natural process of metabolization and would pose no more problem than digesting a slightly rough meal. It is entirely at odds with the wrenching dislocation and desolation endured by the Ukrainian people, who have learned the lessons of history, including the Holodomor.
It should be emphasised that the Russian war against “sub-Russian” Ukraine is a kind of colonialism. For a long time, ever since the Tsarist era, the Russians, like others – the Germans in particular – have been trying to carve out of the flesh of Europe an empire to match their own grandeur, imagined or dreamt. This phenomenon of intra-European colonialism, of the unbridled conquest of Lebensraum, is widely underestimated and under-analysed. And yet it has been extremely murderous, as is once again being proven. Putin’s Russia is determined to build a new empire on its western doorstep, in the very heart of Europe, by means of iron and blood, pillage and death. Boris Nadezhdin, a former member of Russia’s State Duma who has a certain following in Russia today, speaks openly of colonial methods when referring to the war being waged against Ukraine.
This twofold reason – colony plus hierarchy – is enough to explain why the Russian invasion constitutes a point of irreversible estrangement between the two peoples. For the Russians, the issue is not political, in the strict Arendtian sense of appearing in a public debating arena; it is quasi-“ethnic”, or ethno-cultural. It invokes the vague but widespread idea of a return to a natural, ancient, primordial situation – in opposition to the unwarranted artificial politicisation pursued by the West. For the Ukrainians, it is understandable that the question is eminently political, fed by historical conflicts and based on choices – first and foremost, that of democracy. Looked at like this, it is a question of political survival.
The war exacerbated this deep and irreconcilable divide.
As Primo Levi explained, when the deportees used the words “hunger, fatigue, fear and pain, winter”, they were saying something quite different from when those same words were “free, created by and for free men living in their homes and experiencing joy and pain”. When one person’s words say something different from another’s, when a war is also in the words, then there is something irremediable, something that makes impossible the “negotiation” so earnestly championed by kind souls. There will be no lasting peace until the Russians speak with “free words”.
The Russian “metabolization” of Ukraine is the result of a gigantic lie in which the liars themselves have become caught up, forced to convince themselves of the truth of their false claims. This is the function of war propaganda, which uses the old recipes of tyranny – denial, concealment, the substitution of invented scenarios for atrocious crimes – so as to force the truth into a narrative, to transform it by “fictionalising” it. These linguistic tricks – sometimes crude, sometimes sophisticated – are designed to blot out reality and replace it with its counterfeit.
For the “metabolised”, the price of this substitution and of this appalling lie is the transformation of the whole of Ukraine into a “camp”. The Ukrainians have had an authentic concentration-camp experience in those parts of their territory that were conquered, occupied and annexed by the invading army. Open calls for extermination; deportation of Ukrainian children, and adults too, who have disappeared, been swallowed up; torture chambers and killings.
This generic “concentration camp” dimension is a hallmark of how war and politics are represented in history. In Ukraine it now runs through all the analyses – as sober and objective as they may be – that we are called upon to make.
Professor Emeritus of Philosophy at the Marc-Bloch University in Strasbourg