Emory Professor of Russian Literature Elena Glazov-Corrigan corresponded with her colleague Constantin Sigov, who was in Kyiv during the Russian invasion of Ukraine on Feb. 24.
Sigov is a professor of Philosophy and Religious Studies at the National University of Kyiv-Mohyla Academy in Kyiv and Director of the Center of European Humanities Research.
Glazov-Corrigan translated the correspondence, which has been edited by the Wheel for clarity.
Elena Glazov-Corrigan: How is life in Ukraine at present?
Constantin Sigov: This is the anxious question which friends from other countries of the world are putting to me more and more frequently. Perhaps not all three million inhabitants of Kyiv, but a majority of us, began this year by discussing what we would put in our “emergency suitcase” when finding ourselves on the verge of war. We listed personal documents, medicines, something to eat — a bare minimum of essential things in case we were bombed and an emergency evacuation was needed. This very topic is something that we’ve discussed among families, at work and on social networks. From time to time we break the tension of these days and nights by cracking jokes. My favorite one: Scientists spent a great deal of money inventing a pen that will never stop writing while in space. But would it not be safer to take several pencils and a pencil sharpener?
Children too have been taking an active part in these discussions, correcting the adults about the content of these “emergency suitcases.” If we’re to find ourselves in forests without paths, then a backpack would of course be far better than a suitcase. We’ve wondered what weight adults could carry and what weight children could manage.
Within just one month, more than a thousand schools in Kyiv and elsewhere have received anonymous threats about buildings being mined, and mass evacuations of hundreds of thousands of children were taking place. And there was the desperate anxiety of parents who were urgently summoned to turn up and be there for their children in what could become a life-threatening situation.
In Kyiv, false threats of subway mines have been increasing exponentially. These forms of hybrid warfare were intensified by the reports of those killed and wounded in the active war in Eastern Ukraine.
EG: Have you felt understood by the Western media and political commentators?
CS: For eight whole years, many people have not called this war by its real name; instead they have kept referring to “the Ukrainian crisis.” But now it’s no longer a secret for anyone that it is “a Russian crisis,” [President of Russia Vladimir] Putin’s regime being its culprit. The annexation of Crimea in 2014 and the seizure of cities and villages in the east of Ukraine led to the occupation by Russia of territory greater in extent than the territory of the whole of Switzerland or Belgium. Thousands of Ukrainians have been killed, and millions have become refugees, forced to flee the occupied territories.
We have lived with this sense of national woe, shared by every one of us, adults and children. On one high-rise building in the city of Mariupol it has long been possible to see, from afar, the portrait of a small girl named Melania. In 2015, she lost a leg due to a bomb blast, and she survived only because, under fire from Russian artillery, Melania’s mother leant across her and perished. Not long ago, Melania turned ten years old. For seven of those years she’s been living in Kyiv, at her grandmother Olga’s place. They’ve been helped by the organization “Children of Hope” (Deti nadezhdy). Today I talked with Olga by phone, and she spoke anxiously about news that she was receiving from family and friends back in Mariupol. There is already a war taking place on the outskirts of the city, and no one knows when it will hit the city itself.
EG: This confrontation with this ever present irremediable injustice — can there be any new discoveries in all of this?
CS: Everyday we confront questions of human dignity: namely, how not to lose one’s humanity and how to remain calm and steadfast. Recently, I recorded a conversation with the religious scholar Igor Kozlovsky, who spent 700 days and nights as a prisoner in the basements of Donetsk. Igor has endured numerous interrogations and also torture, which went beyond inflicting just physical and psychological harm. His tormentors attempted to do two things: to deprive him of the right to remain a person and also to get him to betray his own sense of human dignity. I was struck by the form of resistance which Igor chose in response. When subjected to torture, he held to the words of Viktor Frankl: “conscience is our internal God.” Such witness — even under torture — gives one the possibility of looking at what’s happening “from the outside,” as it were. “You’ve been beaten up and covered in blood, but all of a sudden you’re smiling … and mentally you tell yourself that you no longer fear death. They can’t break you any longer; you’re beyond their power. You’ve crossed a line and you no longer feel fear. You have seen your real self.”
Today it’s very important to hear the words of my interlocutor, because, really, the people occupying our city want to bring it into the same state that has been inflicted on Donetsk for the past eight years. Putin makes no secret of his wish to place a Russian flag above the Mayor of Kyiv’s office, and other Russian flags on Kyiv’s main street, the Kreschatik, and on Maidan Square. In neighbouring buildings, the cellars of which recall where the KGB used to operate, members of today’s FSB [Federal Security Service] will begin dragging in citizens of Kyiv for interrogations and torture sessions. Nobody in the West speaks of this threat of the Stalinist past returning to Ukraine. Western diplomats aren’t themselves under threat, yet they’re leaving the city, just in case.
A 150,000-strong Russian army, with its technical apparatus, is working day and night to instill fear and, by manipulating that fear, to remove people’s fundamental legal norms and ethical rules. The Kremlin wants to get to a point where Europe gradually foregoes all principles, anything “to prevent a war”.
EG: Why is it that Kyiv specifically has become such a major issue for the Kremlin? What is the underlying impulse here?
CS: Putin’s pseudo-historical fantasies seek to camouflage the pitfalls of his regime. The banning of the international [Memorial Human Rights Center in Moscow] is in reality directly connected to the escalation of the aggression against Kyiv. The ban imposed on the organisation called “Memorial” within Russia is fundamentally linked with an escalation in aggression towards Kyiv. This is not often mentioned in the West; nevertheless, it’s a crucial matter.
EG: Are you sure that those darkest pages of history — the Stalinist purges — play a major role here?
CS: The Kremlin is curbing free access to information about crimes perpetrated by Stalin’s regime and preventing any examination of the Gulag and of state-imposed starvation (Holodomor) as crimes against humanity. Denial of the truth regarding places of mass annihilation such as Sandarmokh has already led to repressive measures taken against Yuri Dmitriev and other staff at Memorial.
Putin’s regime is trying to convince the West that judging Stalin’s crimes is a purely “internal” matter, one for Russia alone to decide upon. In short, we are no longer speaking of crimes against humanity as a whole, but about a purely local event. Whatever the number of victims, it was simply a local event in foreign countries — to be simply viewed by ‘their own’ citizens. Therefore Putin considers that they should be regarded as outside the jurisdiction of humanity as a whole. Curtailment of the condemnation of state crimes of the USSR in effect also vindicates and unties the hands of those who killed Politkovskaya and Nemtsov in Moscow.
Denying the truth about places of mass extermination such as Sandarmoh has turned into a reprisal against Dmitriev and other Memorial workers. We all know the Russian proverb: “garbage should not be taken out of the hut for all to see.” Speaking the truth about the crimes of the regime is not seen as an act of courage, but rather a betrayal of the fatherland. And impunity for state criminals is directly linked to amnesia in the realm of politics.
EG: Are you convinced that fear of an international trial — similar to that of Nuremberg — consciously and unconsciously determines the momentum of the criminal regime?
CS: The Kremlin’s manic rhetoric about NATO remains absurd until we discern “the shadow of Nuremberg” behind the word “NATO.
How will the case of dictator Lukashenko reach the international court in the Hague if his crimes are purely an “internal” matter for Belarus’? The isolationism of this neo-Soviet regime entails an insistence on the exclusive right to perpetrate evil on its own territory – and to do so with complete impunity. A cover for such evil is provided by the ignorance of those foreign commentators who close their eyes to what’s going on ‘over there’, as if it didn’t affect “us” here. According to the theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, ignorance can actually be more dangerous than outright evil. Unlike evil, ignorance or stupidity can be completely self-satisfied and, therefore, less inclined to destroy itself.
What model of relations is being offered to Ukraine by those who are, even now, preparing to celebrate the centenary of the creation of the USSR in December this year? The violence of the Putin regime, which is prepared to use the Lukashenko regime, demonstrates the essence of this model.
EG: International Trials for the Crimes against Humanity — are these not simply legal procedures, creating more international bureaucracy?
CS: For the Ukranians, the infringements of international law are a matter of life and death, and the integrity and sovereignty of the country are linked in a very fundamental way with the question of each person’s dignity. The “Memorial affair” cannot simply be removed from the agenda while there’s a struggle going on for a free Ukraine. Today, when the international Memorial Human Rights Center was banned in Moscow as an organization run by foreign agents, millions of citizens of Ukraine constitute the significant political body that is “Memorial.”
Ukraine is bringing “local” Soviet crimes out into the light of universal judgment. On account of precisely this, they’re attempting to annihilate it and bury it in some no-man’s-land. Ukraine is trying to remind humankind of the fate of those who were destined to live on blood-soaked earth. Thereby, Ukraine is expanding the field of responsibility for what has happened here and for what is happening now. They can’t forgive Ukraine for this. They’re trying to turn it into a hostage and they’re accusing it of all kinds of impossible sins. In Russia and Belarus, the archives of the Committee for State Security (KGB) have long been closed, but in Kyiv they’re open to all researchers.
Feb. 24: Beginning of the Invasion. Early morning.
EG: Please, tell us anything… How are you all?
CS: Just one day earlier, I thought that the threat of invasion was simply a distant but threatening nightmare. It was the first time in my life that I woke up like that. Kyiv also woke up at five o’clock in the morning under bombardment. The strikes were very loud; it was obvious that the war had intensified in a virulent way.
EG: One of the photos of Kyiv that we received shows the inhabitants of the capital fleeing by road. Are you still in Kyiv? What do you observe among the civilian population?
CS: There are, of course, people lining up to fill their gas tanks or stock up on food, but there are more Ukrainians in Kyiv lining up to donate blood in hospitals. There is a determination to be together, to enter into resistance, not to give in to the invasion, not to succumb to this barbarism. Many civilians, fellow educators like me, have recently — and today even more strongly — joined the local defense.
Despite some prognoses, the army is strong and it is fighting. Several Russian tanks have been taken out of service. Earlier, in a basin of the “Kyiv Sea,” a Russian helicopter was also shot down.
There is a real commitment to freedom, much more than a feeling of hatred. I see no hysteria around me, neither in my entourage, nor in the media, nor on social networks. It is hard to find the right words. I want to be precise. It is not exactly calm or serene, but we have put aside every desire to quarrel and lose ourselves in passing emotions. We know that every move we make must either help a human being or the people who stand next to us.
EG: You were a major force during the “Maidan revolution” in 2014. Do you find in your compatriots the same spirit of resistance?
CS: It’s true that our experience today reminds me of that moment in 2014 when people suddenly addressed any stranger in friendship -with a simplicity of gesture. It was then the “revolution of dignity,” and we are still part of this revolution. We must want to stand firm as we once held the barricades of Maidan, but this is happening on a completely different scale, in a different format: that of a huge front, from Crimea to the north of Ukraine.
EG: Tell us what you mean by simplicity of gesture.
CS: There must be now this simplicity of gesture and word. I saw the tanks five meters away from me going to the front. On the faces of those soldiers one certainly saw emotion, but not of intoxication or exaltation. The emotion was simple: to stop the fire. That’s the most accurate metaphor. To stop the fire, one needs water, and each one of us is looking for water — so that we can extinguish these deathly fires.
EG: Where are you now? Where is your mother who was in Kyiv during Hitler’s invasion?
CS: My family — my wife, my younger children and my mother — are now in the basement. We sleep on the floor, but it is warm. I cannot disclose the place through social media. It is forbidden.
EG: Is Europe’s reaction equal to the situation?
CS: It is not for me to say. Everyone has to do their best in the position in which we find ourselves. I, as a scholar in Kyiv, have my task; the political leaders in Paris and Brussels — theirs. But I think the time has come for each of us to do much more than what has already been done. European decision-makers must understand that firmer action is now needed. If they aim to resist the Kremlin’s madness, France and Europe must choose real solidarity.
In terms of defense, the sky over Ukraine is the most vulnerable place. Just now, warplanes flew past my window, and I am not sure whether they were Russian or Ukrainian. On the ground, we have had long experience of how to arm in order to deter Russian tanks, but the sky is a different matter. By defending the sky over Ukraine, Europe will be defending its own skies as well.
And then there is the economic lever. There must be serious sanctions. The suspension of the certification of Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline by Chancellor Olaf Scholz was very important, but it seems to me that Putin and his entourage must be personally sanctioned. The masks have come off: these are criminal acts.
Putin has a lot of wallets in European banks. The time has come to stop this infernal luxury. The entire Russian political class that supports Putin’s unlawfulness must be banished. These people must feel that they will be judged, and that the trial begins now. Sanctions must be imposed before Putin goes to the Hague. The lives of men, women, children should not be endangered by money that enriches Putin and pacifies him for a short while.
EG: Is Ukraine at a tipping point in its history, even more so than in 2014?
CS: I would say this is the hardest day of our lives, worse even than the Chernobyl nuclear disaster of 1986. The difference is that at that time the lies of the Soviet regime were blatant, and when the truth was uncovered, millions of people dissented. Today, we know the truth. Now we are not in the grip of an ideology with its constant falsehoods. The Maidan revolution brought down this empire inherited from the Soviet Union, but its monstrous corpse is still alive.
For this reason, the events today are much worse than Chernobyl. Now the dictator like Nero in Rome burns his own country, his own people and the people next door. Ukraine attacked no one; no Ukrainian soldier has ever crossed the border. While time and time again the Russian secret services have tried to fabricate incidents, provocations from the Ukrainian forces have been strictly avoided with absolute precision. There cannot be any pretext for this invasion, for millions of lives uprooted, for countless deaths, and for unleashing so much suffering.
EG: Do you have the impression that we are on the eve of a global conflict?
CS: This scenario is not excluded, because, once again, we are witnessing the action of a madman. If he was able to shoot, as he did today, in the center of Kyiv, a city which he called for years the “cradle” of Russia, this means that he can go further — with no limits, no scruples. In Ukraine, apart from Chernobyl, we have other nuclear power plants. If a bomb hits one of these new Chernobyls, the cloud will not stop at Ukraine’s borders. Directly or indirectly, Putin can do damage to the whole of Europe. This needs to be stopped now.