Lessons from the Maidan
The West can’t stand idly by while Putin has his way with Ukraine — and with his own people.

(Getty Images)


George Weigel

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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