Timothy Snyder: Democracy Is Action, Not Something to Be Taken for Granted

Kyiv, 20 May 2014 – Ukraine has proven that it is a pluralistic and democratic country, but the struggle for democratic values continues. This was the general sentiment expressed at the Ukrainian Crisis Media Center during the closing press briefing of the conference “Ukraine: Thinking Together, which brought together over 30 leading intellectuals from Ukraine, Russia, the United States, France, Germany, Poland, and elsewhere. The speakers at the briefing expressed a shared view that what is happening in Ukraine is a struggle in which intellectuals around the world also have to participate.

The press briefing began with conference organizers expressing their satisfaction with the results of the five-day symposium, which drew enormous public and media interest.

Professor Timothy Snyder of Yale said: “We came here to express solidarity with our Ukrainian colleagues, but we’ve been touched by the ways they have expressed solidarity with us. We have been touched and impressed not only by the way Ukrainians took part as our equals, and very often our superiors, in our discussions of human rights, of Europe, of culture after the Maidan, of geo-politics, of totalitarianism, of history and memory. We have been touched by the ways they usually know more about us than we know about them.”

“It is clear that the Maidan is one of the primary sites in the history of democracy,” said Leon Wieseltier, literary editor of the magazine The New Republic. “When the history of democracy comes to be written, what happened there, in that place, will be one of the ‘sacred’ sites… a secular ‘sacred’ site.”

Wieseltier said he was moved “by the diversity of opinion and by the fortitude of the participants”. Going beyond the conference, he also remarked: “Before I came here, one had the impression that democracy and pluralism in Kyiv and in Ukraine, but in Kyiv especially, was a project, was a hypothesis, was an experiment, was a dream. Then I came to Kyiv, and I saw that it’s not at all a dream, it’s a reality. It already exists.”

Addressing the upcoming presidential elections in Ukraine, the speakers underscored the significance of elections in the democratic process. “We have a country, Ukraine, where elections are generally meaningful, and neighbors in a country, Russia, where they are a kind of theater,” said Snyder. “These elections must happen so that the idea of elections as a personal act can continue.”

Snyder went on to add: “Because these elections are so important, because elections are something that have to be fought for, because democracy is a kind of action, it’s not something you can take for granted, what we are going to observe are acts of real courage. … We are going to see courageous grandmothers voting, we are going to see courageous young people voting, even though there’s resistance to voting. We are going to see the way voting is an act of courage.

Professor Karl Schlögel, one of Germany’s leading experts on Russian history and German-Russian relations, echoed Snyder’s point, saying, “I can’t imagine how people in a week will go to the polling stations to hand in their ballots. It seems to me that this will really require great courage.”

The speakers at the briefing rejected assertions made in Russian media that the Maidan was dominated by fascists. Schlögel remarked: “What I could learn from this conference is that [the Russian claim of fascism in Ukraine] is first of all a propaganda lie. Everybody knows that on Maidan and at other meetings there were some segments that were radical and may even have had fascist or nationalistic elements, but everybody knows who has been reporting on this since November that this was not a fascist or a nationalistic movement, but a democratic movement.” 

Wieseltier went even further, adding: “It’s obvious that the authors of the charge that Ukrainians are fascists are themselves fascists, and that it’s to disguise the fascist nature of the regime in Moscow that the regime in Moscow would like people to think there are fascists here.”

In response to a question regarding German perceptions of fascism in Ukraine, Snyder suggested three sources for what he called a “moral crisis” in German perceptions towards Ukraine and susceptibility to the Russian line. “One of them is the very powerful desire to do nothing,” he said. “If there are ‘fascists’ on the Maidan, then it is okay to do nothing. There is a certain amount of shame if one honestly looks at the people who are actually willing to take risks and die for the very things that we take for granted every day. ‘Fascism’ is a label that allows Germans to do nothing.”

The perception of Ukraine as a colony also persists, Snyder said: “This territory, according to Hitler, was populated by sub-humans. It is a terrifying thing to observe how former chancellors discuss Ukraine as though it were not a real state and claim Ukrainians as a people are not a real people as others. That’s the continuation of precisely the colonial way of seeing the world that Germany was supposed to have overcome.”

“As soon as you accept that Germany is to do nothing, as soon as you accept that Ukraine is not a real state and Ukrainians are not real people, then you have moved very close to this Russian geo-political position, then you say the Russians have ‘legitimate interests’, that Russia is not a country like other countries. As soon as you accept that, you are in a world of geo-politics and power, as opposed to a world of European norms and law,” Snyder noted.

“I think we will have a long battle,” said Schlögel. “And there will be battles that will take place in the capitals of other countries and North America.” He was, however, optimistic how Ukraine’s struggle would end: “The chance of winning this battle is good. I’m convinced and I have a feeling that your struggle here will find support not only from states and heads of state, but from the people. We intellectuals have to discuss what means we have and how to support your struggle.”

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Briefing Speakers:

Timothy Snyder is the Bird White Housum Professor of History at Yale University and permanent fellow at the Institute for Human Sciences in Vienna.

Leon Wieseltier has been the literary editor of The New Republic magazine since 1983. He is the author of Kaddish and numerous articles on culture and politics, foreign policy and human rights, Israel and Jewish history.

Karl Schlögel is a German historian. From 1990 until 1994, he taught East European history at Konstanz University and, from 1994 until his retirement in April 2013, at the European University Viadrina in Frankfurt on the Oder.

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The conference “Ukraine: Thinking Together” was held in Kyiv from 15-19 May 2014. It brought together over 25 leading figures from the worlds of art, literature, and scholarship from around the globe for a series of public discussions with their Ukrainian colleagues about the meaning of Ukrainian pluralism for the future of Europe, Russia, and the world. This unprecedented encounter between international and Ukrainian intellectuals was initiated by Leon Wieseltier of The New Republic and Timothy Snyder of Yale University. Among the conference were Bernard-Henri Lévy, Adam Michnik, Ivan Krastev, Bernard Kouchner, Wolf Biermann, Viktor Erofeyev, Agnieszka Holland, Slavenka Drakulić, and Karel Schwarzenberg.

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The Ukraine Crisis Media Center was founded in March 2014 by leading Ukrainian experts in international relations, communications, and public relations. The center was launched to provide the international community with objective information about events in Ukraine and threats to national security, particularly in the military, political, economic, energy and humanitarian spheres. The center, on a 24/7 basis, provides support to all the media who cover events in Ukraine. It is located in Hotel Ukraina (4 Instytutska Street, Kyiv), 3rd floor. The hotline is +38050 157 8159 or +38050 157 8423; fax: +38044 593 7407, e-mail: [email protected]. For more information please visit or www.uacrisis.org or follow us on www.twitter.com/uacrisis; www.facebook.com/uacrisis, or www.youtube.com/user/UACrisisMediaCenter.