Lessons from the Maidan

by George Weigel
The West can’t stand idly by while Putin has his way with Ukraine — and with his own people.

While the inauguration of President Petro Poroshenko on June 7 drew the curtain on the first act of Ukraine’s national self-renewal, the end of the drama of the Maidan is nowhere in sight, and Ukraine’s future is by no means secure. Some speculate about a “Chechnya scenario” for Ukraine: low-grade civil war, occasionally erupting into mass violence. Others imagine that what Vladimir Putin has in mind for parts of Ukraine is slow-motion absorption preceded by de facto Russian control, as has been Moscow’s strategy of choice in the Transnistria region of Moldova. President Poroshenko is faced with building a government, jump-starting a crippled economy, pacifying areas where the rule of law has ceased (thanks to Russian-armed “separatists”), and negotiating with a Russian government that continues to mount a brazen campaign of lies and propaganda (the latest being Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov’s June 6 attempt to wrap Russian aggression in Ukraine in the mantle of a defense of Russian Orthodoxy) – and doing these things all at once.

So Ukraine remains, today, a country in deep distress, politically and economically. But that was true in October 2013. What is different, today, is that Ukraine has undergone something like a revolution of conscience: what Greek Catholic archbishop Sviatoslav Shevchuk recently described as “an extended, inspired pilgrimage from fear and fraud to dignity and integrity.” What began as a movement of resistance to a corrupt government that was, in effect, selling Ukraine’s national future to Putin’s Russia quickly evolved into a broad-based movement in defense of the elementary decencies of public life — a movement determined to rebuild civil society in Ukraine as the essential foundation for 21st-century Ukrainian democracy. As one Ukrainian activist described the feeling on the Maidan in Kyiv the day then-president Viktor Yanukovych fled to Russia, “We came to the Maidan looking for Europe, and instead found Ukraine.”

That discovery remains to be secured. But even as the drama continues, there are important lessons that the West can, indeed must, learn from the Maidan: lessons that touch the lives and destinies of all the peoples of the North Atlantic alliance.

The first lesson: History continues.

It may be true, as Francis Fukuyama provocatively argued toward the end of the Cold War, that democracy and the free economy have proven themselves the victors in the debate over the future of politics and economics under the conditions of modernity. No sane person today argues that state ownership of the means of production is the path to justice, abundance, solidarity, or freedom. And even the enemies of democracy-rightly-understood use the language of democracy to describe what are essentially authoritarian systems: “managed democracy,” “guided democracy,” and so forth — names that summon up memories of those bogus “People’s Democratic Republics” of the Cold War era, or the equally bogus “People’s Republics” of the Arab Middle East.

Yet notwithstanding the kernel of truth in Fukuyama’s argument, “history” manifestly continues. It continues because democracy and the free economy are not machines that can run by themselves. History continues because the essential complement to democratic politics and free economics is a vibrant public moral culture, capable of forming the citizens who can make free politics and the free economy work, so that the net result of these remarkable systems is liberty, justice, abundance, solidarity, and the other public elements of human flourishing. History continues because the great challenge within history is not the creation of the machinery of democracy and the free economy; difficult as that task may be in some circumstances, the even greater challenge is to nurture the public moral culture, embodied in the institutions of civil society, that ennobles political and economic freedom and prevents the machinery of democracy and the free economy from freezing up — or worse, from corrupting the very men and women, the citizenry, on whom the future of freedom ultimately depends.

The second lesson: “Europe” is — indeed “Europe” must be — more than a cornucopia.

The Maidan movement erupted in Kyiv and elsewhere in a spontaneous societal rejection of the Yanukovych regime’s refusal to take the steps necessary to accelerate Ukraine’s accession to the European Union, as the regime turned instead toward Putin’s Russia. But as the Maidan evolved, it quickly became something different, something deeper and nobler, something more morally serious. As tensions mounted in Ukraine in the aftermath of Yanukovych’s scuttle, my friend Bishop Borys Gudziak of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church called me late one night to reflect on what had happened on the streets of Kyiv in recent days. “Blood is serious,” he said. “Blood makes people think. [And] there are very few people in Ukraine tonight who are thinking of Lady Gaga.”

The Maidan is thus a powerful reminder to Europe of what Europe intended to be, in the founding days of what has become the European Union. Yes, what is now the EU began with a series of mutually beneficial economic arrangements, in the European Coal and Steel Community and the European Common Market. And, yes, the political intention behind those economic arrangements was to bind together the East Franks and the West Franks — otherwise known as the Germans and the French — so that their millennium-long struggle for continental hegemony would dissolve in a larger political formation. But beneath all of that was a cultural vision: the vision of men like Robert Schuman, Alcide De Gasperi, and Konrad Adenauer, who saw in European integration a chance to recover something from beneath the rubble of two catastrophic world wars, something that could properly be called European civilization — a Europe living once again from its deepest cultural taproots, which run to Jerusalem, Athens, and Rome; a Europe being formed and reformed by Biblical faith, reason, and law.

It would be difficult — indeed it would be fanciful — to suggest that that vision is the guiding inspiration in the institutions of the European Union today. But unless that vision is recovered and “Europe” becomes something more than an open labor market and a vast network of social-welfare systems, led by clotted bureaucracies determined to impose lifestyle libertinism on the entire continent in the name of a false idea of freedom and tolerance, “Europe” will continue to find it impossible to summon itself to meet the challenges posed to peace, order, and elementary decency in world affairs by Putin’s Russia, Assad’s Syria, post-Qaddafi Libya, China’s imperial ambitions, and global jihadism.

Thus the Maidan is a sharp reminder that the answer to Putin’s “Western decadence” story line is the cultural renewal of the West, not the West’s further descent into moral incoherence and what has rightly been called the “dictatorship of relativism.”

The third lesson: Putin is running a criminal regime that is unsafe for the world and humanly self-destructive in Russia.

At one point a few months ago, having absorbed the latest blasts of propaganda and prevarication from the Russian foreign ministry (amplified, alas, by dupes and fools in the Western media), I said to my wife, “This is what 1938 must have felt like.” It was all there: the Big Lie, shamelessly repeated; warped imperial ambition masked by the call to ethnic solidarity; criminality on the home front, by which the regime of lies maintained itself in power; the summons to a false ideal of national greatness; the provocations, sometimes lethal, in the near-abroad; the contempt for the “world community.”

Putin’s Russia is bad for Russia. The average Russian 15-year-old today has a life expectancy three years shorter than the average Haitian 15-year-old. Indeed, Russia is the only case in modern history of a developed nation experiencing declining life expectancy absent wars, natural disasters, or plagues. Russia is not a “managed democracy”: Russia is an authoritarian state run by an oligarchic mafia with deep roots in the old Soviet security services, a state in which a small minority with control over most of the levers of power has gotten extremely rich while society rots out underneath it. The brave hopes of the brave Russians who looked to a better future in 1991 have been dashed; Putin restores the old Soviet anthem, which is sung with gusto and no discernible cringing at the Sochi Winter Olympics; a vast internal propaganda machine dupes a disturbing number of Russians into believing that Putin’s mafia is leading a great national restoration; and, most sadly of all, the leadership of the Russian Orthodox Church gives its blessing to this campaign of falsehoods. The Maidan has made unmistakably clear that there is no better future for the people of Russia under the Putin regime.

Putin’s Russia is also unsafe for the world. The genocidal Assad remains in power in Syria because of Putin; the apocalyptic mullahs in Iran have been given time to advance their nuclear ambitions by Putin; now the post–Cold War security order in Europe has been challenged by Putin — and up to this point, at least, he has won his gamble. All of this suggests that the next “reset” of Western policy toward Russia must be a “reset” of containment, but with a difference. What the Maidan teaches us is that the West’s strategy toward Russia should be “containment-plus”: containment plus transformation.

The phrase “regime change” makes many European and American politicians break out into hives these days. But it is not easy to see how Russia can become safe for its people and safe for the world unless Russia is governed in a fundamentally different way from the way it is being governed by Vladimir Putin. Thus, in the first instance, Putin’s Russia must be contained: which means strengthening NATO land, air, and sea capabilities in and around the front-line NATO states through more troop emplacements and training exercises; negating the Russian nuclear threat by a rapid and robust deployment of ballistic-missile defenses; giving the Poroshenko government in Ukraine the defensive means to secure its national territory; and having ready to hand further, and far more serious, economic sanctions if Russia does not cease its attempt to destabilize various regions of Ukraine through the use of Russian-trained and Russian-supported criminal gangs masquerading as “separatists.” The countries of the North Atlantic alliance must also redevelop their broadcasting capabilities and accelerate their use of new media to counter, within Russia, and in that country’s many languages, the fog of lies that pours out of the Putin-controlled media. Western political and military leaders should be regular visitors to the Baltic states and Poland in the months ahead. And the hard but essential work of breaking Europe’s dependence on Russian oil and gas must begin — now.

As for transformation, it is no accident, as the Marxists used to say, that Putin has bent every effort to crush the nascent flowering of Russian civil society. Thus the West must strengthen its own efforts to support Russian civil-society and democracy activists. And here, I might suggest, there is an important role to play for European and American Christian communities, which ought to bring to their theological dialogue and their social-service work with Russian Orthodox churches and leaders a commitment to challenging the pro–“managed democracy” rhetoric and action of the current Russian Orthodox leadership, which has played an unfortunate role in underwriting Putin’s new ideology of a “Russian space” for which Moscow bears special responsibility.

If the Maidan is something that Vladimir Putin fears because of the possibility that it could be replicated in Russia, then the Maidan must be embraced and defended by the West precisely in the hope that something similar to what has happened in Kyiv and throughout Ukraine could happen in Moscow and throughout Russia.

The fourth lesson: The future of freedom requires the West to recover both its faith and its nerve.

If the past seven months have suggested what 1938 must have been like in Central Europe, they have also suggested what the 1920s and 1930s must have been like in Western Europe and the United States. These were the 20th century’s version of what the Old Testament called “the years the locusts have eaten” (Joel 2:25): the years in which Edmund Burke’s 18th-century warning, that “the only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing,” was borne out, as Europe and America watched, in detachment or helplessness, the consolidation of Soviet power, the Ukrainian terror famine, the rise of the Third Reich, and the erection of the Gulag camps and the concentration camps — human charnel houses that were integral to the economies of the evil political systems that created them. The price paid then for not paying attention was the greatest bloodletting in human history, followed by four and a half decades of Cold War, during which the fate of the planet rested on a nuclear razor’s edge.

Some very intelligent American and European analysts have argued that the people of the Western democracies have become too enamored of their own comforts and pleasures to take the lead in shaping the world politics of the 21st century. That view seems to be shared in the Kremlin. The Maidan calls all of us in the West to reject that story line of Western decadence.

That rejection begins with reclamation: a reclamation of the West’s faith in freedom. Not freedom as sheer willfulness, as mere “choice,” as in “I did it my way,” but freedom tethered to the moral truths we can know by reason, freedom ordered to goodness. Perhaps the greatest obstacle to the West’s relearning the truth about itself from the Maidan is the contemporary tendency in Western high culture to reduce the human person to a twitching bundle of desires, as if reason and moral judgment were not the defining characteristics of human beings. The Maidan, where men and women of conscience and conviction literally put their lives on the line in witness to moral truth, has issued a summons to the West. That summons is to nothing less than a recovery of moral coherence, not only in our individual lives, but in public life. And that recovery begins with a rediscovery that there are givens in the human condition; that not everything is plastic, malleable, and subject to human willfulness; and that the key question for a civilized society is “Choose what?” Freedom without a foundation in moral truth and an aspiration to goodness is not freedom, but license: and license destroys freedom over the long haul.

While recovering its moral bearings in a renewal of faith in freedom rightly understood, the West must also regain its nerve. This will require far more assertive political leadership than most of the major Western countries have managed to summon up these past seven months; and that leadership will emerge, it seems, only when the people of the Western democracies demand it. It makes little sense to denounce the cravenness of Western politicians who govern and conduct foreign policy by means of polls and focus groups when citizens of the Western democracies have not done everything they can to persuade their friends and neighbors that history continues, that there is no substitute for Western leadership in the cause of freedom, and that the world will become far nastier — and far less prosperous — absent that leadership.

Thus the Maidan offers a challenge, not simply to Western governments and Western foreign-policy establishments, but to the peoples of the Western democracies. And that challenge is to nothing less than a great moral and cultural renewal based on those truths, embedded in the world and in us, to which the American Founders once pledged their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honor.

— George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of Washington’s Ethics and Public Policy Center, where he holds the William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies. This article is adapted from remarks he delivered on June 11 at the Lithuanian Embassy in Washington, D.C., where he was awarded the Lithuanian Diplomacy Star by the Foreign Ministry of Lithuania. 

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