Ideas Letters on democracy | 4

Dear Arnon, remember: war in my dear Ukraine is Europe’s defining moment

Responding to Dutch writer Arnon Grunberg's letter about democracy in Europe and how fragile it is, Ukrainian author Oksana Zabuzhko expresses nostalgia for the era of political naivety and belief in the end of history. She argues that the continent is still divided, and that the current war in Ukraine reveals the flaws in European memory and cultural memorialisation.

Published on 1 June 2023 at 16:50

Dear Arnon,

Thank you for your sincere letter. Perhaps it is because back in the very same year of 1995 you and I travelled the same airway in opposite directions (we could have even been travelling at the same time, and might have even crossed paths, not knowing it, somewhere over coffee in Schiphol): you were going from Europe to New York, while I returned from New York (after spending almost two years in the US) to Europe with the firm conviction, tempered and tested over the previous two years, that despite all my love of travel and thirst for undiscovered lands, I would not be able and did not want to live anywhere else – that your letter stirred up in me a nostalgia for the world that no longer exists.

For my own youth, for the euphoria, still hot in the air, of the Berlin wall coming down and the Soviet Union collapsing, for the all-conquering faith we held that the renewed Europe would finally show the world “the end of history” Francis Fukuyama had promised, that even age-old tyrannies, like Russia and China, were about to achieve liberal democracy having seen that it was good, that the wolf would lie down with the lamb, and those who wanted to kill you would agree instead to have dinner with you, won over by the great gesture of your invitation…

Never again, as long as I can remember, was the world ruled by such sweet – sweet as the cotton candy at a children’s fair with merry-go-rounds – political naivete, and now the memory of it brings up in me something akin to a wave of maternal tenderness: it was a wonderful time; pity it was so short.

Where’s the war in Ukraine?

I had to read your letter three times, most recently this morning. Last night, Kyiv survived the eleventh Russian air assault this May, this time with thirty “Kalibr” rockets which were, happily, shot down by our air defence forces, but a month of ruined sleep (because, I’m here to tell you, this stuff is loud as all hell when it explodes!) has its undeniable effects, and I wanted to make sure I did not miss something in my foggy state: whether it was really possible in your imagined Europe, the one you are constructing from the other side of the Atlantic [Grunberg lives in New York, Editor’s note] these very same spring days of 2023, to pretend that none of this is happening – that the most terrifying war since WWII (and comparable to it now in the volume of armaments and the length of the front), a war to annihilate forty million people, is not being fought, right now, on this continent – and simply omit it as something irrelevant to the theme of Europe’s future? And for the third time I confirmed that no, I didn’t miss anything: you really refuse to see today’s Europe as a product of two world wars – the only European war you mention is the collapse of Yugoslavia thirty years ago.

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I know how easily, on the other side of the Atlantic, wars are moved into the online format: there have been none in the living memory of those lands, and that changes the cultural optics. When you arrived in New York, street musicians at the metro stations were still singing “Help Bosnia now” – I remember them. They have changed their repertoire since then, and you confidently write that that war “has largely disappeared from the collective unconscious, at least outside Yugoslavia.”

I wish to be more careful with apodictic statements and intend to prove that that war has not, in fact, disappeared from the European consciousness, not to mention, the unconscious (given anyone knows how to scan this!): the flood of Balkan migrants that has forever changed the lives of hundreds of Italian, Swiss and German towns will not let it be forgotten – just as the eight-million-strong avalanche of Ukrainian women refugees is now changing the lives of Czech, Baltic, and Polish towns – and neither will it let be forgotten (since we are talking about the unconsciousness) the swallowed, like a stone in one’s stomach, and so deeply European sense of guilt for the first serious betrayal of the post-Yalta legal system: the first fiasco of the UN peacekeeping troops who turned out to be just as impotent when facing the raging Ratko Mladić in Srebrenica as the entire European diplomatic edifice when facing Vladimir Putin in 2008 and 2014 [the Russian invasions respectively of Georgia and Ukraine, Editor's note].

What you are calling a crisis of liberal democracy – and I identify as the crisis of international democratic institutions – began back in the same 1990s, and in this regard, the war in the Balkans is not only not forgotten – it is not even finished.

The Yugoslav “war generation”

This last point, by the way, is easily borne out if you read the Balkan novels that emerged from the war – one of the most interesting phenomena in European literature of the 21st century, as far as I’m concerned. I could not agree with you more when you write that a writer must not do the work of evangelising (unless they are forced to do so by historical circumstances toxic to humanity, such as war, tyranny, etc.), but our societal obligations do include, whether we like it or not, the duty to leave a portrait of our time for future generations; this is one of the skills we get paid for, and, from this perspective, “the war generation” of the Balkan authors has earned their fees with honest work.

When faced with a collective existential threat, it turns out, people find it essential to know that “someone has been here before us” – someone who survived to tell the story

As proof of this I can offer the observation of the great urgency with which contemporary Croatian, Serbian and Bosnian literature began to be translated and read in Ukraine with the onset of the Russian aggression, i.e. since 2014: when faced with a collective existential threat, it turns out, people find it essential to know that “someone has been here before us” – someone who survived to tell the story. Literature exists in order to create such “trans-generational” communities as well – to signal to an individual, across time and space, that they are not alone, and to a great extent, it is precisely such communities that have been holding Europe together as a cultural continuum for the last five thousand years.

The Diary of Anne Frank

The diary of Ann Frank turns out to be a letter to a girl from the town of Yahidne in Chernihiv region, who, in the spring of 2022, was kept for a month, along with four hundred other residents, as a “human shield” in a basement without water, ventilation, or light: all through that month she kept the tally of days and the dead on the wall with a marker, because she had the language for it, the ready forms of behaviour she had absorbed from the air of the same culture that eighty years earlier guided the pen of her German peer.

All these are fairly obvious things and I feel a little stupid bringing them up with you, the son of a German Jewish woman who had survived the Holocaust, and, on top of that, a man who has the experience of military service, which I lack. Instead, I have a different experience, and it is making me write these lines right now: in the year of the Russian-Ukrainian war, I have, if Google is to be trusted, made presentations in 21 of Europe’s countries and 93 of its cities (which means not only the capitals, such as Strasbourg, but a fairly representative sample, from Poland to the United Kingdom) in an attempt to, as my Italian publisher put it, “explain to the West everything about this war that we had missed in the last eight years”.

I have seen how quickly and decisively, literally, in front of our very eyes, this war (which before February 24, 2022 seemed, to many, unthinkable, and more nonsense has been said in an effort to rationalise it than is appropriate for the culture of millennia-old universities) is changing Europe. And how differently it does so.

One could write an entire book about this: how the wounds of several generations that had been pushed into oblivion open and bleed again, in different ways in different countries, how mental constructions, built over decades and sometimes centuries to hide inconvenient truths crack and shatter, how the grandchildren find themselves turning to the behavioural patterns (and fears, and traumas) of their grandparents and great-grandparents – and how Europe, unexpectedly for many, turns out to be still divided along the line of the Berlin wall, except it is not divided into “old” and “new” democracies as had been optimistically believed up till now, but into countries of different formative experience of the First World War and the Second World War respectively, or, to simplify it further (and leaving aside the exception that is Britain), into former empires and former colonies.

Unpaid historical bills

Closets have opened, and the skeletons are falling out. All our unlearned lessons and unpaid historical bills have been set loose and are flying into our faces like the deck of cards into Alice’s in the Wonderland court. [Finnish writer] Sofi Oksanen told of worried seniors all across Finland, who, on 24 February 2022, rushed to call their grandchildren with instructions on how to pack go-bags and how, in case the Russian army entered Finland, to bribe Russians “the right way” (later it turned out that such knowledge increased one’s chances of survival even in Bucha and Izyum).

At the same time, on the other end of the continent, a Belgian diplomat was earnestly trying to convince my friend (a Ukrainian) that Ukrainians were better off surrendering to Russians and living on in peace, like Belgium under the German occupation. “But what about the Belgian Jews?” my friend, a rather caustic person, inquired. “Did they also get to live in peace?” When his interlocutor, understandably, could not respond, my friend added, “The thing about this war, my friend, is that we’re all Jews in it” – a statement whose accuracy was not appreciated in the Europe that never paid much attention to the history of “the Bloodlands” (Timothy Snyder’s term), the Europe of “the Trizone and the Marshall Plan” (my own term), until after a year of careful observation of mass Ukrainian Srebrenicas which the Kremlin had put on an industrial scale.

“The thing about this war, my friend, is that we’re all Jews in it”

In this manner – at the cost of another European genocide – the previously devalued experience is being re-evaluated. Do you truly believe this does not merit your attention?

I want to make this clear: I am not after some “renewal of historical justice” for the so-called (note that this term is still in use!) “Eastern Bloc” – God save me from believing in historical justice, I’m a big girl (although, I can’t deny it gives me great pleasure to see those Lithuanian European MPs who for years had been quite rudely told by those from “the old democracies”, in response to their warnings against Wandel durch Handel [“Change through trade”, Editor's note] with Moscow, that it was their “phantom pains” speaking, all but stroll around the halls of the European Parliament wearing T-shirts that say “We told you so!”– an intellectual is always happy to see competence win a victory over ignorance, whatever the context).

A new fascist empire at the doorstep

On the contrary, I am invested in something else: in the collective memory and collective experience without which no literature is possible. The current genocidal war in Europe’s East has proven that everything is not as well as we had believed with the European memory and the entire European culture of memorialisation, since thousands of books and films about the Nazis and the Holocaust did nothing to help Europe recognize a thirty-year-long swelling of a new fascist empire on its doorstep, and did not prevent it from engaging, as if spell-bound, in all the same appeasement measures it had made in the Thirties toward the Third Reich – right up until the moment this new empire was ready to drive its tank into the house of Europe (and would have done so had Ukraine not stopped it!).

What good, one could ask then, were all those books and films if we learned nothing from them, not about the past but about the future? (Because literature, if it’s worth anything at all, is always about the future even when it tells of Homeric times).

I am not the first to pose this question. The first person I know to have asked it was – back in 1994, when you and I were both busy with, as Czeslaw Milosz put it, “the adventure of America” – Marek Edelman, one of the moral compasses of the Polish intelligentsia of his generation and a leader of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising: when journalists came to interview him on an anniversary of the uprising, he berated them for writing about the past instead of talking about Bosnia – “We must stop this war, otherwise everything we had fought for back then loses its meaning” (sic!).

Do you not think this is brilliantly put? A year before Srebrenica, Edelman, who had dedicated half a century to the memory of the Polish victims of the Holocaust, sensed unerringly that the new war had already chosen “its Jews”– and that, for him, put into question the historic victory won by the Ghetto heroes. Hamlet would certainly recognize such setting right out of joint times! (1).

Cultures differ, among other things, in their ways of experiencing time, and in this sense, Marek Edelman’s formulation is, for me, the essence of Europeanness. Do you remember how William Faulkner put it in Requiem for a Nun  – “The past is never dead. It is not even past”? You would dismiss history, just like war, with a rapid-fire evasion and a smile, at an appropriate moment, for the universal, in your opinion, human inclination to idealise the past (which, by the way, is not nearly as universal as we’ve been taught, and not every European country has its own myth of the Golden Age – it’s also an attribute of former empires).

For me, this corresponds to what you write about escape: I, too, know this method of saving yourself from trauma, be it hereditary, familial, or collective (literature, after all, is another method of doing the same, at least until you get persecuted for what you write!) – I, too, have it in my psychological repertoire, up to and including a forced escape in 2014 (fortunately, not for long, a few months) from hired hitmen (spoiler: people who want to kill you will not dine with you, Arnon, and I urge you not to sit down with them if they suddenly invite you!). But, since that same 2014 I’ve absorbed another lesson: this method no longer works.

In order for escape to work, the escapee must first and foremost have somewhere to escape to, must have a mental map of the “safety zones” guaranteed to him or her within a reliable civilizational order, maintained and defended by someone else. And in this century, humanity is starting to run out of such “safety zones”, at least in the part of the global village that has law, police, electricity and running water: both Europe and the United States are ceasing, before our own eyes, to be safe places (when we meet, I could tell you of how in Germany, Poland and some other EU countries groups of pro-Russian neo-Nazis grow bolder in terrorising the Ukrainian refugee women while the local police does not know how to stop them). I’m afraid only Australia and Western Canada remain unspoiled, but given the predicted number of climate refugees by 2050…

We have no way out, Arnon. That’s the thing. We have nowhere else on this planet to run away from those who want to kill something or someone. And that is why my country is fighting as ferociously as the Warsaw Ghetto eighty years ago: we were just the first to realise this.

This letter has already grown to indecent length, and with regret I must leave out of it the subject I find most painful in the fate of Europe, and one on which (had the 24 February 2022 Russian invasion not disrupted everything) I would now be finishing a new novel I’ve been carrying lovingly for many years: namely, the end of the book culture, or, more generally, of the entire Enlightenment project.

Some time, after we win this war, I will definitely finish that novel. Unfortunately, for the moment, the escape into it is not accessible to me – until our victory, the very language in which I write remains at risk: on the territories occupied by Russia, people get killed for speaking it, and everything written in it is being expunged from libraries and archives – an unambiguous message of what awaits me and my culture should we lose. This is why so many writers, musicians, actors, and scientists have volunteered to go to the front: before we can recover the escape option for ourselves, we have to equip the “safety zone” to escape to with our own hands. And to do this, we need to win this war – and repel the assault on ourselves and Europe.

So the last thing I’ll ask you to do – since you are not certain if Europe “is more than mere geography” (I’m lost here: the geography of what? The European plain? Without the British Isles, but including the Urals and Kazakhstan, the Great Steppe? Where exactly do the geographical borders of your Europe lie – and where, after the twentieth century, can there still be found a geography independent of the cartographer’s hand? Did the 1985 Soviet maps Russia used to enter Ukraine in firm belief that nothing could have changed in our country over thirty years of independence, not prove the final demise of the thinking born of the era of geographic discoveries?) – yes, the last thing, is to remember a few geographical names.

Actually, I should start with the ones that constitute the symbolic markers of my Europe, and are familiar to everyone, if not in this very capacity: Rome-Paris-Canossa-Magdeburg. Rome in this quartet signifies the rule of law, Paris – human rights (the first Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen!), Canossa – the separation of ecclesiastical and secular authority (thanks, Henry IV, that we are not obliged, like Russians, to deify our rulers!), and Magdeburg – local self-governance (city-polises are, of course, an Ancient Greek invention, but for the sake of continuity, let's start our count from the Magdeburg rights of Otto the Great).

The very language in which I write remains at risk: on the territories occupied by Russia, people get killed for speaking it, and everything written in it is being expunged from libraries and archives – an unambiguous message of what awaits me and my culture should we lose

This quartet compactly encapsulates for me everything most valuable that humanity owes to Europe, and the reason, despite the crusades, ethnic cleansings and other countless manifestations of barbarity present in its CV, to love, cherish, and defend Europe, till the end, at the cost, if necessary, of one’s own life.

Let me return to geography and borders. In her most recent column in The Atlantic (“Incompetence and Torture in Occupied Ukraine”), Anne Applebaum makes an important observation: the Russian occupiers found it unexpected and utterly incomprehensible that in Ukraine the mayors of cities and heads of rural communities are, in fact, elected by their peers and not appointed “from above”, and they remain accountable to their electorate even when they lose communication with Kyiv, meaning (in Russian terms), their “bosses”. (Unfortunately, when Russians don’t understand something, they destroy it, so these individuals constitute, under occupation, the top risk group – the greatest percentage of arrests, deaths, and disappearances is registered among them).

I read Anne Applebaum’s text as a requiem for Fukuyama’s writings from the 1990s: it makes it very clear democracy cannot be exported like potatoes. I was reminded that the Magdeburg right lasted for almost 600 years in Ukraine: it began being used in the thirteenth century, during the Galicia-Volhynia dynasty, and was liquidated by the Russian Empire in the eighteenth century along with the autonomous Cossack Hetmanate’s other institutions.

If you look at the map of this war, a few especially dramatic, multi-episode, already legendary battles stand out: Hostomel, where on 24 February 2022, the Russian paratroopers failed to take control of the airport and retreated, unaware that the only force opposing them was the local territorial defence; Chernihiv – the city of millennia-old churches on the UNESCO list of global cultural heritage, which the Russians razed to the ground from 24 February 24 to 1st of April, as they would later raze Mariupol and Bakhmut, but never managed to take; Nizhyn that held out under siege, as if back in the Middle Ages, for a month, (when food started to run out, the local farmers snuck milk and flour into the city by roundabout routes and distributed them to the residents) but did not allow the invaders in – I cannot fail to mention that these have for centuries been cities of free citizens: Hostomel since 1614, Chernihiv since 1622, Nizhyn since 1625. It’s a good thing they had defended their right to be free.

The border of Europe now lies – and not metaphorically at all – here, along the old eastern reach of the Magdeburg right: every Eastern-Ukrainian city (town, village) that faces the enemy is a fortress on the frontier. And the future of Europe depends directly on whether they will stand their ground or fall.

I don’t know if this is “more than mere geography” because I don’t know what “mere geography” is. I just repeat the names of the cities to myself from time to time, as one repeats the names of beloved people – to enjoy the sound of them, the physical materiality of them, the reliable elasticity and softness of their consonants, the hollows of the vowels: Hostomel. Chernihiv. Nizhyn. I’m weak with gratitude every time.

It would make me very happy if you remembered these names as well.

With kindest regards,

Oksana Zabuzhko

1) “The time is out of joint! O cursed spite,/ That ever I was born to set it right!” Hamlet, Act I, scene V

This letter is one of the “Letters on Democracy”, a project of the 4th Forum on European Culture taking place in June 2023 in Amsterdam. Organised by De Balie, the Forum focuses on the meaning and future of democracy in Europe, bringing together artists, activists and intellectuals to explore democracy as a cultural rather than a political expression.
For the Letters on Democracy, five writers envision the future of Europe in a chain of five letters initiated by Arnon Grunberg. The writers – Arnon Grunberg, Drago Jančar, Lana Bastašić, Oksana Zabuzhko and Kamel Daoud – come together during the Forum, in a conversation about the Europe that lies ahead of us and the role of the writer in it.

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