Reconciliation after Putin

Karolina Wigura · 8 April 2014
Questions regarding forgiveness following the bloodshed in Maidan are for Ukraine just as vital as those of its economy or politics. But what points of reference can it make use of today?

Just a few days ago, standing in the richly decorated St George Hall in the Kremlin, talking about the successful annexation of Crimea, Vladimir Putin sounded like a victor, one in a long line of such figures in the annals of Russian imperial politics. And yet, the groundbreaking aspect of his speech was hidden elsewhere. It was not the opportunistic, populistic politicians of the EU, nor the generational shift on the Old Continent, but the Crimean criss which finally put an end to Europe’s story of critical remembrance of the 20th century and the age of reconciliation.

Some might disagree with this statement. It has been years since words like “Yalta”, “Hitler” and “annexation” were used with such sorrowful connotations as they are being used today. Perhaps then fear of a repeat of history is more alive now than at any other time in the past few decades? Nothing could be further from the truth. Vladimir Putin knocks down the house of cards Europe had erected around the politics of reconciliation, proving that such words, just as concepts such as “human rights” or “people’s will”, can be used in ways totally unconnected with conventional European practice. More than that, because Europe, hearing Moscow’s arguments about the annexation of Crimea being no different than issues around Kosovo, instead of standing by its own version of events, humbly hangs its head, while more and more of its prominent politicians make reckless comparisons between Putin and Hitler. European narrations of remembrance have become nothing more than a picture puzzle, made up of ever more meaningless rhetoric – its pieces assembled and reassembled at random.

The breaking of politics

In a piece written for Liberal Culture [1], Lech M. Nijakowski turns our attention to the problems inherent in a politic of reconciliation. Its “drive becomes a moral and political imperative, which criminalises the actions of those who have been saved, and who demand instant justice”, Nijakowski argues. And yet, forgiveness following mass killings is a utopian ideal, since those crimes are based on a “hard to reconstruct configuration of perpetrators, victims and witnesses”. There is much wisdom in this claim, and yet without reconciliation, post-WWII European politics cannot be said to exist.


Timothy Garton Ash once wrote that if one had to choose a photograph to represent the history of the Old Continent’s 20th century, it would be the image of Willy Brandt kneeling before Warsaw’s monument to the Heroes of the Ghetto Uprising. Post-WWII politics of reconciliation, initiated originally around a Germany trying to account for its Nazi crimes, contributed substantially to the development of a narrative which then dominated Europe over the coming decades. It was a narrative of criticism of its own past, of caution around any sort of ideological blindness, of deep reflection regarding how it conducted its own governance. The fact that reconciliation was also a form of strategy – its spectacular declarations became, after all, something of an expected add-on to diplomatic developments intended to improve mutual relations – does not have to mean that it was only a way of expressing political cynicism and lack of respect to the feelings of the victims.

A new political correctness

And yet, at the same time as experts at conferences were conducting heated debates about memory, while grant giving institutions signed off tens of thousands of Euros for such gatherings, in the political and social spheres grand changes were taking place. As memory of two totalitarian states, previously functioning as the basis for all critical thinking about the past, faded, new narrations began to colonise the space previously occupied by a unified European ideology.

The catalyst for this change was partly a simple swapping of generations, and partly the financial crisis and a wider weakening of political leadership. Politicians unable to deal with the fallout from the financial crash began to blame groups which, due to their marginalised position in social hierarchies, were essentially unable to defend themselves: the Roma, North African refugees and Europe’s Muslim minority. Evidently, the loudest voice of all in this discourse belonged to the German economist Thilo Sarrazin, who published volumes denouncing Turks as being biologically less intelligent and Europe’s self-defeating virus of universal tolerance, essentially helping define the age we are living in. Hundreds of thousands of Europeans, though raised in a climate of tolerance for minorities and aware of how aggressive tyrannies can pan out, still went out and bought copies of Sarrazin’s books.

And hence European political correctness, related to memory, began to mean something very different to what it had meant previously. Vladimir Putin, unleashing a propaganda machine with which to transform the culture of remembrance, suddenly became a man of his time.

Ukraine: forgiveness or hryvnias for all?

At the Leipzig Book Fair in 2014, I took part in a programme called Transit – a cycle of debates about Poland, Ukraine and Belarus. At one point, right by the Ukrainian book stand, I met two young men, let’s call them “citizens of European Union”. They were attaching sky blue and yellow ribbons to each other’s lapels, as a show of solidarity with Euromaidan. One of them happened to prick the other with the securing pin. “No matter,” said he, “I can take the pain, in the name of Ukraine.”

How inappropriate this joke sounds became clear soon enough. Not only that, but it also became clear just how much Europe, secure within its Unionised borders, was unable to understand what happened at the start of that year in Kiev. It was Ukrainians who were shooting other Ukrainians, on orders given by Ukrainian authorities. The hundred-plus victims claimed by “bloody Maidan” demand we ask questions about the possibility, or else impossibility, of forgiveness.

In the case of other European states, the transformation of political systems often brought on such tidal waves of change. Centres for memory were constructed (e.g. Gauck Institute/Stasi Records Agency), while individuals made symbolic – if controversial – acts of contrition (e.g. Aleksander Kwaśniewski apologising for communism in Poland). Today, Ukraine has the opportunity to change its political system from a corrupt oligarchy to a decently organised liberal democracy. The question of whether the Ukrainian nation itself will, simultaneously, be able to come to some sort of peace accord with itself, might be just as important to its future as economic reforms or its presidential elections.

One the one hand, the recent example of Rwanda [2], along with a tremendous political tradition of so-called transformative justice and declarations of forgiveness in politics, could provide Ukraine with a number of useful templates. In addition, the challenge facing Ukrainian reconciliation is the only potential solution thanks to which the average European can, in an engaged fashion, think of the (now distant in time as well as space) Rwandan genocide – and other such tragedies. On the other hand, the European era of reconciliation, if not the concept of reconciliation as a whole, now belongs to the past.

Lyudmyla Denisova, Ukraine’s Minister of Labor and Social Policy, recently promised compensation for all victims of Euromaidan. These payments will also be available to families of agents of the state who died in the line of their duties. Is this a new episode in the age of reconciliation? Is a one-off payment enough to unite a divided society? Though the decision made by the Ukrainian government seems interesting, I would be wary of coming to such conclusions. For now, we are left with more questions than answers. Such as: what if it turns out that their sense of trauma is so fresh that Ukrainians are as yet unable to create a “normal”, democratic society? And what if this is unlikely to change for a decade or two?


Translated by Marek Kazmierczak


[1] Lech M. Nijakowski „Pułapki pojednania”, Liberal Culture, no. 274, 8th of April 2014.

[2] Liberal Culture’s Theme of the Week, which featured the above text (no. 274, 8th of April 2014), was devoted to the tenth anniversary of the genocide in Uganda.