As the full-scale invasion of Ukraine enters day two, Russian forces are preparing to seize Kiev, and proceed with all likelihood to depose Ukrainian government, by replacing it with a puppet regime. All diplomatic and intellectual efforts to avoid such nightmare scenario – including, for their small part, our recent dedicated debate and Dossier – proved useless.
The thoughts and concerns of Ukrainian people and intellectuals at this darkest hour are best reflected in this conversation with Constantin Sigov, professor of philosophy and religious studies at the National University of Kyiv-Mohyla Academy in Kyiv and director of the Center of European Humanities Research, first published in French in Médiapart.
Prof. Sigov, how did you experience this day of February 24, when the Russian invasion in Ukraine began? How did you wake up?
It’s the first time in my life that I’ve woken up like this. Kyiv woke up at five o’clock in the morning under the bombardments. The strikes were so strong that it was obvious that the war had escalated in a virulent manner. Yet the day before I thought the invasion was just a nightmare.
One of the photos of Kyiv that has reached us shows the escape of the inhabitants of the capital by road. You who are still in Kyiv, how do you see the civilian population?
There are more Ukrainians in Kyiv queuing to donate blood in hospitals than Ukrainians queuing to refuel or stock up on food. There is a determination to be together, to enter into resistance, not to give in to invasion and this barbarism. Many civilians, like me or fellow teachers, have lately – and today even more strongly – entered local defense.
And then, despite certain forecasts to the contrary, the army is strong. Several Russian tanks were destroyed. Earlier, a Russian helicopter was shot down at the Kyiv reservoir. There is a real commitment to freedom, much more than a feeling of hatred.
I don’t see any hysteria around me, neither in my surroundings, nor in the media, nor on social networks. It’s hard to find the right words. I don’t want to be pathetic or elated. It’s not calmness or serenity, but we have put aside quarrels and passing emotions. We know that every gesture must help the one in front of us.
You were very present during the “Maidan revolution” in 2014. Do you find the same spirit of resistance that politicized the population at that time?
It’s true, what we are going through reminds me of 2014, this moment when people suddenly become much more attentive to the other. Somehow, we are still in the “revolution of dignity”. We are standing up to hold on, as we held the barricades of Maidan, but on a completely different scale, in a different format: that of an immense front, from Crimea to northern Ukraine.
We understand that it is a matter of life or death. There is a simplicity of gestures and words. I saw the tanks driving past me to go to the front. On the faces of the people who were there, there was certainly emotion, but not in the sense of exaltation. We just have to stop the fire. This is the most accurate metaphor. And we look for water everywhere to do so.
Even more than in 2014, is Ukraine at a turning point in its history?
I would say it’s the hardest day of our lives, ahead of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster in 1986. The difference is that at the time, the regime lied to the people, and only revelation of truth brought millions of people into dissent. Today we already know the truth. Those who govern us are not under the influence of an ideology. The Maidan revolution brought down this empire of lies inherited from the Soviet Union. And yet this monstrous corpse still comes to life.
In this, the situation today is worse than Chernobyl, because it is obvious to everyone that this dictator, Putin, is completely beside himself. He is like the emperor Nero who burns his own country, his own people, and the neighboring people. Ukrainian soldiers, on the contrary, never crossed the border. We strictly avoided provocations, while several times the Russian secret services tried to fabricate incidents from scratch. There is no pretext for this invasion.
Is Europe’s reaction up to the situation?
It’s not for me to say. Everyone must work to the best of capabilities. Me as a researcher in Kyiv, political leaders in Paris and Brussels. But I think the time has come to do much more than has already been committed. European decision-makers must understand that they must act more decisively. France and Europe must make the choice of real solidarity, and real resistance to the madness of the Kremlin.
What could this mean?
In terms of defense, the skies of Ukraine are the most vulnerable space. Just now, warplanes passed in front of my window, I cannot tell whether they were Russian or Ukrainian. If on ground we have a long experience of armament to deter Russian tanks, the sky is quite another matter. By defending the skies of Ukraine, you will defend the skies of Europe.
And then there is the economic lever. We must go further in the sanctions. Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s suspension of certification of the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline was significant. But we must personally punish Putin and his entourage. The masks have fallen: we know that he is a criminal.
He has stored his wealth in European banks. The time has come to put an end to this infernal luxury. The entire Russian political class that supports him must be banished. They must understand that they will eventually be judged for this, and that the trial begins today. And once Putin faces charges in The Hague, sanctions can end.
Putin’s mask has fallen, you say. Does this mean that for too long Europe has been complacent towards him?
Yes, that is obvious. Last week, Putin lied Macron in the face during an hours-long conversation. He treated the European leaders as incompetents. Until the last minute, I don’t think these leaders understood that they were dealing with a gangster. Or they thought he just behaved like in the former USSR. Well, no, he is like that.
What this invasion reveals, therefore, is a more general threat. Do you have the feeling that we are on the eve of a world conflict?
That cannot be excluded, because once again, we are witnessing the actions of a madman. If he was able to bomb the center of Kiev, like today, after he has spoken for years of this city as the “cradle” of Russia, that means he can go further. He has no limits. Nor scruples.
In Ukraine, apart from Chernobyl, we have other nuclear power plants. If a bomb hits one of these new Chernobyls, the cloud will not stop at the Ukraine’s borders. Directly or indirectly, Putin can do damage to all of Europe. We must stop him now.
When I warned of these dangers in Paris in 2015, people thought I was excessive. But no. What has happened since the annexation of Crimea proves me right. Putin wants to break with the international human rights regime and the international system created since Yalta. Only a politics of the ostrich, a politics that buries the head in the ground, can think that this will stop at the borders of Ukraine. Just like the cloud of Chernobyl did not stop at the borders. We cannot just contain this aggression at some border. We must put out the fire at its source. We know what actions need to be taken. All European leaders must show solidarity and they must go all the way.
Monday, February 21, before his Security Council, Putin affirmed that Ukraine was a “creation of Vladimir Ilyich Lenin”. Are you afraid that he will go to the end of his historical revisionism?
Yes, because Putin’s reading grid is the Soviet Union. And at the end of December this year, there will be the centenary of the Soviet Union, created by the Bolsheviks in December 1922. Putin’s dream is to create a second Soviet Union – everything else is literature.
It doesn’t hold up historically, but it does match up with the plot, like in the cinema, in particular with Lenin and Stalin. He feels he is the successor of the architects of the Soviet Union. Everything he does, however, amounts to killing the last illusions of that time, since he shows that it was the KGB that was the backbone of this regime. I hope we are witnessing his agony.
Cover Photo: A Ukrainian serviceman seen in the window of a damaged building at Koshytsa Street, a suburb of Kyiv – February 25, 2022 (Daniel Leal / AFP).
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