Special Reports / Toying with nationalism

We need to challenge Putin’s propaganda

Timothy Snyder in conversation with Jarosław Kuisz · 13 May 2014
On the initiative of professor Timothy Snyder (Yale University, IWM) and Leon Wieseltier (“The New Republic”) a conference “Ukraine: Thinking Together” will be held in Kiev from 16th May to 19th May. Before it begins we ask prof. Snyder to briefly explain the idea and aim of the meeting.

Jarosław Kuisz: Why do you organize the conference „Ukraine: Thinking Together” in Kiev just before the presidential elections which are due on 25th May? Do you intend to directly influence politicians and diplomats?

Timothy Snyder: First, let me emphasize, that our meeting does not have any direct political dimension. The major goal is to meet with our colleagues from Ukraine, to show our solidarity with current transitions and to express our support for people who demand freedom and respect for human rights. There are different kinds of diplomacy. There is a “high” diplomacy connected with foreign policy, but there is also a “bottom-up”, social diplomacy. In this case scientists, journalists and artists go to Kiev to bear witness that an event like an international conference, a conversation between people engaged in public life, can just now take place in Ukraine. We would also like to collect experiences of Ukrainians and to listen to their voices. Ukrainians themselves know the situation in their country best, in contrast to the Western societies which are not so well informed about these issues. It is important that participants of our conference meet in Ukraine at this time. We want to show that we can talk in Kiev about issues of fundamental importance for us – like peaceful fight for human rights, history and collective memory, or the meaning of pluralism and democracy in the 21st century.

Is it an efficient way to overcome the Kremlin’s narrative, which have already won over some Western intellectuals?

I admit that Putin’s narrative has a great appeal, because he doesn’t have to stick to the facts. People who are responsible for this narrative can freely create and spread fake news by using their own media. However, I would cautiously say that we can see changes in Western attitude towards news coming from Kremlin. Russian-Ukrainian conflict has been going on long enough for more and more people to understand that there is an obvious clash of two narratives. This means we are witnessing an ideological confrontation.

Putin’s narrative has a great appeal, because he doesn’t have to stick to the facts. However, I would cautiously say that we can seen slow changes in Western attitude towards news coming from Kremlin.

Timothy Snyder

In “Kultura Liberalna” we have published an article “Affluent Poles looking at Ukraine”, but we believe similar expression could be used not only in regard to Poles, but to all Western societies. How can we avoid the risk of paternalism, a situation when Western intellectuals come to Kiev to tell Ukrainians what they should do?

Fortunately, this way of thinking is now behind us. Today intellectuals from the West don’t have any right to teach somebody. On the contrary, they can learn a lot in Ukraine, because the most important current events are taking place just there. For the conference we have invited people from all around the world, not only Western intellectuals. What is more, we have also excluded any “symbolical” domination, because there is no official language of conference. Panel debates will be conducted not only in English, but also in Ukrainian, Russian, Polish, French and German. All participants will share this experience of expressing themselves in a foreign language – just like Ukrainians are forced to do it. It is important to show the mutual respect also in this symbolic way.

Today intellectuals from the West don’t have any right to teach somebody. On the contrary, they can learn a lot in Ukraine, because the most important current events are taking place just there.

Timothy Snyder

Talking about learning from one another – we need to find an answer to a very concrete challenge: how can Ukrainians manage their own state?

I would reverse this question. Through the whole 19th and 20th century the state in Europe constituted a problem. It was the national state that fought against natural, anarchical tendencies aimed against it that sprang up all over the continent. Today we know how important it is to convince citizens that the state can give them something, solve some concrete problems. In the West the problem is that the state benefits seem to be natural. People don’t even notice them anymore, and in a consequence they do not appreciate their own state. In a meantime for Ukrainians Western states are still a source of hope.

So there is a hope for Ukraine.

Definitely there is.

See you in Kiev, then.

See you in Kiev!