Žižek on Ukraine

I was asked to comment on an article that Slavoj Žižek wrote on the events in Ukraine. Unsurprisingly, the article is intellectually light-weight and very superficial. Here is why.

Žižek begins with discussing the enthusiasm with which Ukrainians toppled the statues of Lenin at the beginning of the Ukrainian revolution in the winter of 2013. He points out that Lenin was a lot less anti-Ukrainian than Stalin:

There was nonetheless a historical irony in watching Ukrainians tearing down Lenin’s statues as a sign of their will to break with Soviet domination and assert their national sovereignty. For the golden era of Ukrainian national identity was not tsarist Russia – where Ukrainian national self-assertion was thwarted – but the first decade of the Soviet Union, when Soviet policy in a Ukraine exhausted by war and famine was “indigenisation”. Ukrainian culture and language were revived.

This is the way things look like to people whose familiarity with the history of Ukraine is superficial in the extreme. When the Soviets defeated the independent Republic of Ukraine (which was the real golden era of Ukrainian identity), Lenin did put in place an ingenious plan to make all things Ukrainian hateful to Ukrainians. The Soviets conducted a policy of forced and obnoxious “Ukrainization” that had nothing to do with the actual Ukrainian culture. The great Ukrainian playwright Mikola Kulish (whose plays were banned in the Soviet Ukraine and who was murdered by Stalin in 1937) dedicated one of his most famous plays to this hypocritical and damaging policy.

Žižek’s English-speaking readers are unlikely to be very familiar with the history of the USSR, so they won’t notice the egregious statements like the following:

In 1939 the three Baltic states asked to join the Soviet Union – which granted their wish.

It’s not that this statement isn’t true. Rather, it’s a half-truth that is often worse than an outright lie. Here is another example:

This internal dissent was a natural part of the Communist movement, in clear contrast to fascism.

The reality, of course, is that the Communist movement has always suffered from extreme rigidity. The great Spanish writer Juan Goytisolo describes in his powerful two-volume autobiography the painful (for him) decision to leave the Communist Party of Spain because it did not tolerate even the slightest deviation from the dogma dictated from Moscow. Goytisolo was persecuted by his fellow Communists for something as politically innocent as experimenting with a writing style that as not strictly social realist in his novels. If that sounds like toleration of dissent, then I don’t know what we can call intolerant.

Žižek continues to be coy with his discussion of history:

Precisely because of this tension at the heart of the Communist movement, the most dangerous place to be at the time of the 1930s purges was at the top of the nomenklatura: in the space of a couple of years, 80% of the Central Committee and the Red Army leadership was shot.

As anybody who is curious about the history of Stalinism knows, Stalin’s purges eliminated the most passionate Stalinists at the same clip as anybody who might have disagreed with the dictator.

Žižek tries to convince his readers that he is supportive of Ukraine, yet he resuscitates one of the most boring Putinoid canards that not even Putin is claiming to be true any longer:

The Ukrainian nationalist right is one instance of what is going on today from the Balkans to Scandinavia, from the US to Israel, from central Africa to India: ethnic and religious passions are exploding, and Enlightenment values receding.

The Russians have been moving heaven and earth in search of “the Ukrainian nationalist right” to support their original justification of the invasion of Ukraine as a fight against “Ukrainian neo-Nazism.” Of course, as in every European country, there are some neo-Nazis in Ukraine. But they are so few in number and so lacking in any significance that not even the most passionate Putinoids continue to pretend that there is any need to send troops against this non-existent political force. Žižek obviously can’t provide any examples of Ukraine’s move to the fascist extreme right, so he switches to Hungary instead, as if the existence of neo-Nazism in Hungary automatically meant it also were present in Ukraine.

The Slovenian philosopher ends his article with a saccharine call for solidarity between Ukrainians and Russians:

It’s time for the basic solidarity of Ukrainians and Russians to be asserted, and the very terms of the conflict rejected.

I talked to my mother yesterday. She is Ukrainian but used to always refer to herself as Russian and was the most passionate admirer of the Russian culture in our entire family. And there was no word more hateful to her than “nationalism.” All that is gone today, of course.

“I have seen the graves of my parents defiled by the Russian invaders,” she said. “I have seen the village where I grew up razed to the ground. I have seen the ruins of the Donetsk Airport. How can this be forgiven? What can I feel for these people but hatred?”

Now is not the time for pretty words like solidarity, brotherhood, and shared humanity. The people of Russia chose not to defeat the animal that is devouring each of them from within. They chose, instead, to feed their neighbors to the beast. I don’t think there is any chance that Ukrainians will forgive what is being done to them within this generation, and probably the next one as well. And nobody who has a functioning brain and a beating heart will condemn them for that.

4 thoughts on “Žižek on Ukraine

  1. Is there a problem with “rock star”philosophers? I think Zizek skates along the surface of certain populist opinions and tries to give them a startling new twist. But he doesn’t really challenge the very lazy consumerist mode that most people find normal. Then again, one can’t really challenge it at this historical juncture. It’s very difficult to get people thinking in a mode other than a desire to be entertained.


    1. This is a good article, thank you! I would love to share this optimistic vision but, unfortunately, I can. This author judges Russia on the basis of constant analogies with the Western world. But this is an entirely different mentality. The poor classes will support Putin more, not less, as their well-being erodes.

      And anything that happens to Putin is extremely minor. He’s simply a representative, a front of the system. If ge goes away or dies or whatever, the people who brought him to power remain. Their ideology remains. This is not really about Putin at all. This is about a 140 million country of people who have been so mangled by modernity that now they are reacting violently to it. Putin ‘ s disappearance will not heal that wound.


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