Western intellectuals have long had a soft spot for Russia. Voltaire, the French teacher of tolerance and a great friend of Catherine the Great, said that he would gladly move to Russia, though only if its capital were Kiev, not icy St. Petersburg. Johann Gottfried von Herder, the German philosopher of enlightened nationalism, dreamed that he would obtain earthly glory as the “new Luther and Solon” for an as-yet-unspoiled Ukraine, which he would transform into a “new Greece” within the Russian empire.
And in the last century intellectuals like André Gide, Pablo Neruda and Jean-Paul Sartre all stumped for the Soviet Union as what Lenin allegedly called “useful idiots,” apologizing for its monstrosities long after the rest of the world recognized them.
To those in the Eastern Europe left — myself included — who know Russia better than most, such naïveté has long been a source of chagrin. And yet it continues, even today, as many American and Western European intellectuals do all they can to minimize the dangerous aggression by Vladimir V. Putin.
Writing in The Nation, the Russia scholar Stephen F. Cohen argued that Mr. Putin was largely blameless for the conflict in Ukraine, that he had tried to avoid it but that the West had forced his hand. In Mr. Cohen’s eyes, the West has unnecessarily humiliated Russia by inviting countries like Poland, the Czech Republic and Hungary to join NATO.
Ukraine, he wrote, is part of Russia’s sphere of influence, so why can’t we just accept Mr. Putin’s proposal that Ukraine be federalized, with neutrality guaranteed in a new constitution?
Mr. Cohen’s defense of Russia’s sphere of influence overlooks the question of whether the countries that fall within it are there by choice or coercion. Ukraine is willing to be in the Western sphere of influence because it receives support for civil society, the economy and national defense — and Russia does nothing of the kind.
Mr. Cohen and others don’t just defend Russia; they attack the pro-democracy activists in Ukraine. Another American pundit, Max Blumenthal, described the Euromaidan movement as “filled with far-right street-fighting men pledging to defend their country’s ethnic purity.”
True, such people were present at the square, but they were marginal figures, and slogans about ethnic purity never gained popularity. Yes, generally speaking, Ukraine has its skinheads and its anti-Semites and even serial killers, pedophiles and Satanists. They are not present in smaller or larger numbers than in any other country, even in the most mature European state.
In one particularly egregious passage, Mr. Blumenthal writes about how the “openly pro-Nazi politics” of the Ukrainian political party Svoboda and its leader, Oleg Tyagnibok, “have not deterred Senator John McCain from addressing a Euromaidan rally,” nor did it “prevent Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland from enjoying a friendly meeting with the Svoboda leader this February.”
That distorts how these things work. A whole range of Western political leaders traveled to Euromaidan, and virtually all of them were photographed with Mr. Tyagnibok. For better or worse, Svoboda was part of the coalition of parties behind the Euromaidan movement, and they had agreed to support one another. Americans would behave exactly the same way in a similar situation.
Strangely, Western intellectuals seem unbothered by anyone who notes the similarity between their pronouncements and Russian propaganda. Indeed, they dismiss such charges out of hand. Zoltan Grossman, who teaches at Evergreen State in Olympia, Wash., writes that it is “wrong and irresponsible to assert that the presence of fascists and Nazis in the new government is merely Russian propaganda.”
For Dr. Grossman, inconvenient details are less important than the fact that Dmytro Yarosh, the leader of the far-right organization Right Sector, had been appointed deputy secretary of the National Security and Defense Council.
That sounds ominous, until you realize that Mr. Yarosh is not formally a member of the government, and that in February he met with Israel’s ambassador to Ukraine and gave public assurances that Right Sector intended to fight all instances of anti-Semitism, xenophobia and chauvinism.
What naïve American intellectuals say free of charge, the canny Gerhard Schröder, the former German chancellor, says for 250,000 euros a year as a board member of Gazprom, the Russian oil giant. Mr. Schröder, the German father of “Gazprom socialism” — a new subspecies of limousine liberalism — has repeatedly embarrassed Berlin by supporting Russia’s annexation of Crimea.
He isn’t alone — another former chancellor, Helmut Schmidt, has likewise sung Russia’s praises of late, as has Günter Verheugen, a prominent former European Union commissioner.
What drives these men? Is it a case of poorly conceived pacifism? An eruption of remorse for war crimes carried out against Russians, so many years ago? Or the Stockholm syndrome of a victim fascinated by his executioner?
Obviously, they are entitled to their opinions. But in speaking out this way they are doing great damage to Germany’s postwar government, built on a commitment to democracy and national self-determination, everything that is currently under attack by Mr. Putin.
The irony is that by standing beside Russia and pointing fingers at fascist phantoms in Ukraine, Western intellectuals are aligning themselves not just with the autocrat in the Kremlin, but the legions of far-right parties across Europe that have come to Russia’s defense, among them Hungary’s Jobbik, Vlaams Belang in Belgium, Austria’s Freedom Party, Italy’s Lega Nord and the French Front National. Who says Russia needs propaganda? It already has its useful idiots.
Sławomir Sierakowski is founder of the Krytyka Polityczna movement, director of the Institute of Advanced Studies in Warsaw and a visiting fellow at Harvard University.
Translated by Marysia Blackwood
First published in The New York Times, April 28, 2014.
© Author / The New York Times