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Ukrainians are the best experts on Russia — philosopher Vakhtang Kebuladze

An interview with Vakhtang Kebuladze. Picture by Oleksandr Shatov

An interview with Vakhtang Kebuladze. Picture by Oleksandr Shatov

On the eve of the tenth anniversary of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, we talked about its causes and consequences with Vakhtang Kebuladze — a Ukrainian philosopher, essayist, translator, professor of Taras Shevchenko National University of Kyiv, and volunteer.

He explained to The Page why he considers Russia to be a shadow of civilization and emphasized that the concept of the Russian world that has been the ideological centerpiece of the Russian invasion entails only death and violence and equals necrophilia and the devaluing of human life. The philosopher also muses on what Ukraine can give to the world and how it has been showing the civilized world that it is time to change the rules.

Russia is an enemy to humankind, not just Ukraine

We Ukrainians have grown somewhat philosophical, trying to find the balance that would bring us back to normal. Still, we lack understanding of where and how we should move. It’s obviously "away from Moscow" and as far from Russian aggression as possible. But how possible was it to avoid the war with Russia?

The thing is, there are no Ifs in history, and therefore talking about what could have happened would be unscientific. We have to consider history descriptively. That is, we need to describe what happened and try to explain it so that we can understand the direction we’re going and our likely future.

Asking about whether we could have prevented the war is a bit dangerous, I believe, since it wasn’t we who started it. We have been attacked by a terrible empire, which, I hope, is living towards the end of its final era — the Russian empire, which has always been waging aggressive wars. So, asking whether we could have avoided the war means, to some extent, blaming the victims.

QuoteIt has been continually likened to rape, when they say, yes, it’s a terrible crime, but also, might the victim have provoked the rapist? I wouldn’t like to talk about it at all, for the situation is obvious.

I recall my friend who studied with me in the philosophy department. He's a political scientist and an ethnic German, and he eventually emigrated to Germany. Last year, he returned to Ukraine and went to the war, explaining that he got a chance to be on the right side — a rare occasion in life where the right and the wrong are so obvious.

So, the other side is obviously the wrong side here.

QuoteRussia is an enemy to humankind and not just Ukraine, and that’s why it’s Russia’s war against us and the criminal is on the other side.

It wasn’t up to us to prevent it, not up to the citizens of Ukraine, but up to Putin’s criminal Russian regime and, ultimately, to the people of Russia who endorse this war.

What is the Russian world? Philosopher Vakhtang Kebuladze explains (video)

If we consider Russia to be an absolute and imminent evil, what would our mental strategy regarding this dangerous neighbor be?

It already exists, and it’s quite obvious. "Away from Moscow" is a slogan attributed to writer Mykola Khvyliovyi, although he didn’t coin it, it was already a trend. But it’s not only "away from Moscow". It’s a negative strategy that cannot be unequivocally successful. But in fact, I see no problem. We have an answer about where we are going: Ukraine is an organic part of Europe.

QuoteIt becomes increasingly clear that not only is Ukraine impossible without Europe, but Europe is also impossible without Ukraine.

In fact, we have already articulated this during the Maidan Revolution, which was, hopefully, the last time blood was shed on Maidan Square. When speaking with both our audience and foreign colleagues, I never get tired of saying: Don’t forget that we dubbed these events the Revolution of Dignity, and one of its mottos was Freedom is Our Religion.

Freedom and dignity are core values of our Western European civilization, and they are absolutely incomprehensible in the Russian realm of death. For them, freedom is a threat associated with chaos, and dignity is a conception they struggle to grasp.

How much do these principles resonate with the Western world? Are they ready to make sacrifices for the sake of these values?

The problem is that the Western world is not homogeneous, and it’s very diverse. All democratic values are existent in the countries of the Western world: freedom, dignity, natural human rights, and the right to the pursuit of happiness, which, by the way, has been written into the U.S. Constitution.

However, depending on which foreign audience we are communicating with, which country, which language, and in which cultural and historical context, we need to choose appropriate emphases. We should not assume that there is a homogenous culture in the West. And it’s this diversity that makes it attractive.

How do you feel about the idea that Russia can act as some kind of "necessary evil", a catalyst for the awakening of Europe?

What comes to mind is Faust asking Mephistopheles, "Who are you, then?" Mephistopheles answers that he is a part of that power which eternally wills evil and eternally works good. But is Russia able to at least provoke something good? It seems to me that it is evil that creates evil throughout its whole history. This is hell, an absolute abyss of evil.

QuoteLooking for Russians who are somehow "good" is a wasted effort.

But knowing and learning about evil is important. I have a metaphor: Russia is a shadow of civilization. It means that Russia is not some other civilization or anti-civilization. We have our Western European civilization, and they are its shadow, which mirrors all the forms of our civilization but in a shadowy, dark, and devilish manner. We need to understand this and learn to live beside it. However, it’s preferable to transform this shadow gradually and at least separate it from us so that it doesn’t swallow us.

Extreme danger comes from their manipulating the freedom of speech, which they turn into the freedom to say anything at all. Peter Pomerantsev, who has extensive working experience within Russian media, has demonstrated this in his book, which was brilliantly translated by Ukrainian poet, writer, and translator Andrii Bondar. The name of the book, Nothing Is True and Everything Is Possible, is itself a diagnosis.

While journalists in today’s civilized world fight for the right to say the truth, in Russia’s realm of death, it turns into the right to lie. And not just lie, but create the illusion that everybody lies.

QuoteWhat does their rhetoric claim? "Yes, we lie, and we are deceitful creatures, but then everybody lies, so there’s no truth in this world."

According to Peter Pomerantsev, Russian propaganda aims not to prove itself right but to muddle the information space to the extent that it becomes impossible to tell the truth from lies.

That’s why it cannot be considered propaganda. Propaganda itself is neither good nor bad. It’s just a tool to promote certain ideas, advertisement of a kind. Propaganda promoting the ideas of dignity, freedom, human rights, and equality isn’t bad at all. But when it promotes Communism or Nazism, it’s bad. But there’s no propaganda in Russia. I agree with Peter that this is not propaganda. The Communists or the Nazis had their inhumane ideologies whose metastases still persist in our society; that said, these were ideologies.

Vakhtang Kebuladze: The Russians create the hellish, horrible illusion that everyone in this world lies

Vakhtang Kebuladze: The Russians create the hellish, horrible illusion that everyone in this world lies

Today’s Russia is so degraded that it doesn’t even have any ideology. What is the Russian world? It has no ideology. They have nothing to promote. They create the hellish, horrible illusion that everyone in this world lies and that there’s no universal human values. They believe life to be overrated and not a universal value — if we are all to die, it doesn’t matter who and how dies, and life shouldn’t be valued.

QuoteIt’s an absolute necrophilia and enchantment with death. That’s why I call this monster the Russian realm of death. Their only ideology is spreading death and violence. These are intrinsic features of this realm.

What Ukraine can give the world

So, speaking about our war, it’s life fighting death. What development ideas can Ukraine offer the world, and is it important to have our own project?

We’re coming back to the values of European civilization and addressing the Western world: what they hear, what they want to hear, and what is relevant to them. In our fight against Russia, our fundamental values, such as freedom, human dignity, human rights, and the right to happiness, are important to us. You will hardly find any sane person in Europe, the United States, or any other country belonging to our civilization who would question these values.

But the problem, which is also a downside of their advantage, is that they have these values granted to them from birth. When you are born in a liberal democratic country, you are granted fundamental things: freedom, dignity, the right to self-fulfillment, and the right to pursue happiness, which doesn’t mean you will be happy, but you have the right and tools to pursue it. And therefore, they consider it self-evident. If you have been born and are human, you have all these rights.

QuoteAnd it’s a confusing situation for them where you have to fight for these rights, to die, and to kill other people to whom these values and rights mean nothing.

What can Ukraine give the world? First, the understanding that these values aren’t granted to us from birth, from God, or from nature. These values are our human reality and, therefore, our continuous creative work. Values are to be fought for, and, sadly, sometimes the most decent people give their lives for them.

A year ago, I spoke in Sorbonne with [human rights activist and Nobel Prize winner] Oleksandra Matviichuk at a Ukrainian conference on February 24, the date of the invasion. Our speech was about freedom. Oleksandra spoke about political and legal aspects, and I focused more on the existential and ethical choice of freedom.

There was a discussion, and many French participants took part in it. Quite often, their remarks on Russia were, in my opinion, hopelessly inept.

QuoteSo I couldn’t help challenging them and saying, If you want to know anything about Russia, we Ukrainians are the best experts on Russia.

Why? Because we lived in this grim world called the Soviet Union, although it was just another reincarnation of the Russian empire. We know what it’s like to be locked in this "prison of nations". We know it from the inside, unlike you.

We are fluent in the Russian language and thus need no translation to read Tolstoyevsky or Lermopushkin and understand what they actually wrote. We know not the illusions that have been created in European and American cultures about this horror but the reality of this horror, this Russian hell. But we have a distance and a kind of vaccine against it, which makes us able to resist it.

I recently returned from the southeast. I won't give the specific location because it is a combat zone. I spoke with the military, in particular with a military doctor who enlisted voluntarily during the first days of the invasion. He told us many things that I cannot tell and things that I would like to forget but will never forget.

QuoteI will share one of his phrases about the threat of losing humanity: "War is a terrible threat to humanity. But we can't give in to dehumanization. Because when you face such dehumanization, such an experience of the degradation of human traits in human beings, you understand that we cannot become like that."

He spoke with the Russian prisoners whom he treated and concluded that their absolute degradation shows us what we must avoid. Not only are human dignity and human rights not granted to us from birth, but even being Human is not just something that is granted to us from birth. This is what we have to prove, first of all to ourselves, every day. When we face the dehumanization of a person, it is a very powerful antidote. We understand the degree of degradation a person can reach when we see Russians.

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