Alexandre Gilbert

Dialogue with Volodymyr Yermolenko

Volodymyr Yermolenko (@Valentyn Kuzan)
Volodymyr Yermolenko (@Valentyn Kuzan)

Volodymyr Yermolenko, ukrainian philosopher and journalist and the editor in chief of, published Ukraine in Histories and Stories in 2022, from Holodomor to Maidan and Russian aggression to diversity.


Is Grigori Skovoroda the Ukrainian Descartes?

Volodymyr Yermolenko: I don’t think we can call Hryhoriy Skovoroda a «Ukrainian Descartes». Any such formulas are misleading – whether we call Skovoroda a «Ukrainian Descartes» or Descartes a «French Skovoroda» – these comparisons hide more than they reveal.

There is general cliché in Ukraine to call Skovoroda a «Ukrainian Socrates». There are some parallels: in the informality, even counter-cultural nature of their existence, not only teaching; their preference for conversations, rather than monologues; the topos and even kinetics of their philosofizing: walking, rather than sitting in a room or teaching ex cathedra. Much bigger fusion of thinking and living than, say, in someone like Hegel.

I do think that Skovoroda is important for a big philosophical tradition of humanity, not only for Ukraine. And here are several reasons.

First, his diachrony. It is difficult to «localise» Skovoroda in any specific epoch. He belongs to the «Baroque» – but this Baroque is late (not 17th century, but 18th century) – and here rather we see parallels in the Baroque in music, especially German music, like Bach. But in many aspects he already one leg in the Romanticism – before the Romanticism (as his contemporary, a mysterious sculptor and architect from Galicia, Pinsel).

Second, Skovoroda did a huge work to balance and harmonise Antiquity and Christianity. For both 17th and 18th century it was unusual. 17th century Baroque was an attempt to oppose to the Renaissance adoration of Antiquity with a new Christian mysticism. 18th century Enlightenment, on the contrary, was opposing to Christianity, using the themes of Ancient Greece and Rome. Skovoroda stays away from both these dychotomies. He tries to reconcile Ancient philosophy (stoics and epicureans) with the Christian religion. This makes him very interesting. He is not a philosopher of combat, he is a philosopher of reconciliation between big traditions.

Third, Skovoroda is extremely helpful today. His major idea, which I would call an idea of personalised nature – opposed to the idea of a uniform nature from Descartes to the Enlightenment – has existential importance today. «Become oneself»: an old Pindarian proverb can be an accumulation of Skovoroda thinking and practice. He advises everyone to strive for one’s own nature and not to imitate others. Maybe, this approaches him to Leibniz and his «monadology». The world is an infinite collection of «natures» (essences), and our task is to find the unique, peculiar, very personal nature we are willing to fulfil in our lives. This is an injection of essentialism into 20th century existentialism: it agrees with existentialism, that we are free in our lives, and we need to constantly choose, but it says that there is something inside us, our pre-dispositions, are values, our mission, which directs us in our choosing – which makes our choosing right or wrong. This is why Skovoroda is important today.

Were Ukrainian philosophers massively murdered by the Bolsheviks?

Volodymyr Yermolenko: Not only philosophers but also (and primarily) artists and writers. Some were killed in early 1920s, as Mykola Leontovych, the composer of Shchedryk – known worldwide as Carol of the Bells. Some were trialed as early as 1930s, during the fake process against «The Union for Liberation of Ukraine» (SVU) – directed against intelligentsia supporting the Ukrainian independence of 1917-1920. Others, the Ukrainian communist writers and artists, were arrested in 1933-1934, and then assassinated mostly in 1937, in Karelia. We called that period, 1920-1930s, the period of the «Executed Renaissance» – an epoch in our culture created by remarkable people, who were later executed, assassinated, arrested or silenced.

What place do Heidegger and Derrida have in Russian and Ukrainian universities?

Volodymyr Yermolenko: I wrote my bachelor thesis about Heidegger and Kant. I was interested by his thinking, primarily by his work with the language. His «Nazi» story is disgusting – and today, during the Russian occupation of Ukrainian lands, I see this even more clearly than before. It is very easy to become a collaborator, and very difficult to resist. And Heidegger even believed in Nazi ideas in 1933, that’s disgusting.

I think he can be given big credit for rethinking the approach to language and thinking. But I think that Heidegger had a wrong vision of history. He saw history as a story of degradation – opposed to the idea of history as progress given by modernity, mostly in the 18th and 19th centuries. I think his vision of history as the process of forgetting is wrong. We are not in regress, and not in progress – we are in the process of forgetting and remembrance, as on the waves of an ocean. I think we can think about history of philosophy in the way how Proust was looking at personal memory: as the work of Penelope. I think Heidegger’s contemporary Benjamin was right in trying to look at history through the Proustian eyes.

I tend to look at time in history much more closer to the ancient vision of history – as essentially cyclical process, kyklos. There is progress in some important aspects; in others there is regress – but in many things we are going through the same periods of achievements, losses, emotions, which makes it so interesting to read classics again. I do think we can have horizontal relations with classics.

As for Derrida, I liked the way how he «de-totalitarianized» Heidegger, as he took the best things from him (attention to tiny nuances of the language, micro-history of thinking etc) but he rejected a totalitarian vision of history as a degradation that Heidegger suggested. Derrida was a person from the borderlands trying to conquer the imagination of the centre – and in many aspect he succeeded. In many aspects Ukrainians are now doing the same. And our historical experience – as a society living in the borderlands, where so many cultures and values meet, talk, clash, fight, reconcile etc – is extremely interesting – but also extremely tragic. Derrida didn’t see this tension between the centre and the borderland as a key driving force of history – he saw it rather as a key driving force of creativity, of the way how we think and how we write texts. The «deconstruction» which followed Derrida, all those writers and scholars who tried to imitate him, failed to see this profound tension between the borderland and the centre, between the colony and the metropole – they took «deconstruction» as a new «methodology» or «approach» – and that, of course, killed everything, as with attempts to apply Freud’s psychoanalysis to literary texts on every possible occasion, turning them into a new dogma.

But I do think Derrida was wrong in placing so much attention on the «borders», on marges i.e. what escapes the author’s control, what escapes the magnet of the center etc. I think philosophy needs to be looking for «centres» – plural centres, of course, – but «centres» in a sense of something that defines the existence of a person, of an epoch, of a nation, an «eidos» of them. If we don’t do that, we don’t understand the internal forces that drive our lives (personal or collective), we only see ourselves as rebels against «power», as people defining ourselves only with relation to something stronger than us, as people always saying «no», always trying to escape the roads imposed on us – instead of trying to search for our own roads. I do think we need to come back to the Niezschean drive of «yes» (or even double «yes»), the «yes» of a child in Zarathustra, rather than the rebellion spirit of «no».

I am saying this because I belong to a nation which is very strong at saying «no». In Ukrainians the spirit of protest is extremely strong, and it is something that in many aspects defines us. It is the basis of our existence, and our key strength – but we understand, here in Ukraine, that this is never enough. You should search for a «freedom to», as Erich Fromm said, not only for a «freedom from». You should search for your «centre» not only endless efforts to escape or «deconstruct» the centres of others.

Is the concept of homada (Community) understandable in the light of the thought of Jean-Luc Nancy who had made it the heart of his philosophy?

Volodymyr Yermolenko:I would rather make the parallel with Aristotle and his philosophy of polis. Mykhaylo Drahomanov, one of the key Ukrainian 19th century philosophers and historians, was teaching ancient history in Saint Volodymyr University in Kyiv, and this is not by chance that he stressed the idea of «hromada» so much. It is also not by chance that when he emigrated from the Russian empire after draconian anti-Ukrainian laws of 1876, he did not stay in the Habsburg empire in Lviv / Lemberg or Vienna, but preferred going to Geneva, one of the rare European republics of that time. Hromada was, of course, a republican concept, anti-imperial concept. It implied that politics starts not from the sovereign, but from the self-organisation of people. It implied that politics is, in a way, a natural thing, it is a product of people’s desire to live with each other, to communicate, and to exchange. I refer to Aristotle because in a battle between Hobbes and Aristotle – perhaps, one of the key battles of the European political philosophy – Drahomanov (and Ukrainians with him) would rather take the side of Aristotle. Meaning that politics is a result of nature, of our natural communication, of a gradual organic bottom-up process, rather than of the «artificial man», a «Leviathan» as invented by Hobbes. (By the way, Locke’s concept of «civil society» is in this way much closer to Aristotle than to Hobbes). And I do think we need to rethink the concept of nature, after over a century of various «constructivisms»: nature is something that is here before our inventions and constructions, and will stay after them. 20th century constructivisms were criticising the idea of nature for its totalitarianism – implying that humans are free to construct whatever they want, and the society is indeed an amalgam of human constructions, i.e. acts of freedom. This is a good idea – but it is a bit blind to a «totalitarian» aspect of constructivism itself, and this is what our Ukrainian experience can help us to understand. Stalinism, with its massive industrialisation, violence over nature, killing of millions for a certain idea, was a totalitarian version of «constructivism». «Constructivism» of Hobbes’ Leviathan legitimised a return of authoritarianism into modern Europe – with an idea that there are no grassroots communities, on which you can build a state, that humans are enemies to each other in nature, and therefore only a hierarchical, pyramidal political power of the sovereign, «constructed» from above, can help us overcome this intrinsic hostility.

But I think Hobbes was wrong. If initially, inside a society, there is a war of all against all, as Hobbes believed, no Leviathan will fix this. We can see it on Russian society – which is built precisely upon an idea of profound internal violence. Instead, if you do have the spontaneous organic forms of solidarity inside small communities, which then project themselves onto a larger society, you have a chance that your society will be healthy. And yes, Ukrainian experience shows that these organic forms of solidarity are also being created, – in a way, they are all «constructed», but in a profound sense of the term, which actually removes the dilemma between «organicism» and «constructivism». They are created by history, by joint action through history, by common suffering or common joy, by common experience. «Organic» forms of solidarity not necessarily belong to the past – they can also belong to the future.

Was the Cold War a philosophical conflict between capitalist hedonism and Soviet asceticism?

Volodymyr Yermolenko: I think it was primarily a conflict between the free world and the unfree world – and we see the continuation of this conflict today. Russia’s war against Ukraine is, among others, a consequence of its desperate desire to take a revenge for the loss in the Cold War. As democracies are now weaker than they were a few decades ago, Russia believes it can succeed.

But I do think that the question of suffering and pleasure played an important role in the 20th century too. 19th century was focused primarily on the concept of suffering, the sense of suffering, suffering as redemption etc. Even Marxism was heavily invested with this romantic idea of suffering as redemption: what Marx says is that only those who suffer (proletariat, exploited workers) have the access to truth, and it is only them who can become a messianic class.

But from late 19th-early 20th century we have a real hedonistic revolution in Europe. It is connected with the aesthetics of fin de siècle, of avant-garde, etc. They tried to break with the 19th century metaphysics of suffering. They opposed a new hedonism to the 19th century asceticism and masochism.

In 1920-1930s fascism and Nazism were, among others, counter-revolutions against this hedonistic revolution. They tried to delay it – and by establishing a new cult of asceticism, suffering, war and death, by crossing the moral red lines and justifying the mass violence, they led to the crimes of the Holocaust and the World War II. But after fascism and Nazism were defeated, the hedonistic ideas and practices, already started in the early 20th century, exploded with a new force in Europe and America. Connected with mass society, they created industrialised hedonism and consumerism. Happiness in the West became linked to things, to belongings, to ownership etc. These are of course flaws of capitalism – but it also was its strength compared to the Soviet Union.

The Soviet Union had initially a completely different vision of modernisation compared to the Western world. It did not accept the hedonistic revolution of the early 20th century. It tried to reestablish the primary role of asceticism, of self-negation – and this also opened the box for sado-masochism: Soviet system was much more tolerant to violence than the Western democracies. The Soviet ideology did not accept the link between modernisation and happiness / hedonism; it said, on the contrary, that happiness is a remote goal, the «bright future», and people should suffer, voluntarily or not, to approach to this «bright future». Soviet incapacity to value pleasure, to give people freedom to seek pleasure and happiness, was one of its weaknesses. Facing the powerful hedonistic revolution from the West – rock music, emancipation of sexuality, aesthetics of fashion and design, quality of goods and services, – the Soviet Union was losing attractiveness for its own citizens, starting already from the 1970s. So I do think that one of the reasons of its collapse was that it banned pleasure for its own citizens.

Today Russia, led by the old governors like Putin and his entourage, is trying to repeat this new «asceticism» – and it is repeating the Soviet Union’s mistake.

Are post-terrorism and post-totalitarianism the post-modern form, in the sense of Jean-François Lyotard, of terrorism and totalitarianism?

Volodymyr Yermolenko: I don’t like all these concepts of «post-something». I think it reveals a poverty of thought. «Post-modernity» is in many aspects depending on modernity it tries to overcome or deny.

I think that we are entering a new epoch, which will seek, in various ways, a fusion between tradition and modernity. This can have different forms. It can have forms of a new fundamentalism with modern technologies, as with ISIS – or putinist Russia. It can have a form of a natural harmonisation between religion and modernity, as we (perhaps) see in India or Israel. It can also have very productive forms, which would combine modern technologies and modern reasoning with the traditionalist focus on the fact that nature is a subject and agent, and not only object for domination – which we see in the eco-thinking in the West. So I do think that the future will not be «post-modern» or «hyper-modern», but that it will be something different – for example, a future of eco-urbanism, botanic cities, solar economy etc etc.

As for terrorism, I do think that putinist Russia was a big surprise for the Western countries who were used to the fact that their major enemy was anti-systemic actors, who acted through subversion, terrorist acts, small groups etc. Russia is using these tactics of terrorism (Ukrainians were saying about this already since 2014): hitting civilian targets to produce panic, fear, anxiety etc. To kill some in order to frighten all – this is their tactics. Tetyana Ogarkova called it «sur-terrorism», as this tactics implies the attempt to make the virtual world win over the real world, to ensure that the image and imagination wins over the reality.

As for totalitarianism, Russia indeed tries to become totalitarian, its «golden age» is stalinism (victory in the World War II), and therefore it tries to imitate it. But the problem is that totalitarianisms (fascism, Nazism, stalinism) are usually created by relatively young people. Putin and his entourage are not young. They want to be stalinists or fascists, but they can’t – they only can be brezhnevists. In a sense, Russia is now going through a Brezhnevism 2.0, and its invasion of Ukraine is somehow parallel to the USSR’s invasion of Afghanistan. That was a war which led to collapse of the Soviet Union – this war will eventually lead to a collapse of the Russian Federation.

What is the difference between Biopolitics in the sense of Michel Foucault, or Giorgio Agamben, and the concept of Zoopolitics?

Volodymyr Yermolenko: By «zoopolitics» I mean an attempt to see the human world in analogy of the darwinist vision of nature. This implies certain interpretation of nature, of course – much more cynical and cruel, than, let’s say, Christian, Platonic or stoic interpretation of nature like a big living organism created according to a plan. Darwin put conflict, not harmony, into the core of his vision of nature – and therefore he saw the battle for survival as the key driving force in it. Social darwinists of the late 19th century transferred this vision onto human society, saying that human society is structured in the same way as the world of animals: as pitiless fight for survival.

I think Russian ideology today has a lot in common with Europe’s social darwinism 100 years ago. My concept of «zoopolitics» implies that, according to this ideology, win-win game is impossible in the human society. And even win-lose game is hard to achieve. The real thing, the real battle, is the «lose-lose» game, when you are in a battle with another animal, and you will certainly lose (get wounded, suffer from blows etc), but your task is to lose less than the other. The goal of the «lose-lose game» is to lose less blood than the other. I think this is the force driving Russian politics and Russian society today. Their pleasure is to ensure that they suffer less than the other. This explains why, for example, Russian soldiers when they live Ukrainian villages, destroy everything they see, in the houses, equipment, cars, without any visible reason. They do want Ukrainians to suffer more than they suffer themselves.

Do sado-Putinism and Western masochism form a contract in the Deleuzian sense?

Volodymyr Yermolenko: The «Western masochism» is a concept of Pascal Bruckner in his book La tyrannie de la penitence – and I think he is right pointing out that the Western self-criticism and self-flagellation went too far. Ideas widely present among some of the Western intellectuals, that the West is the key evil, that all the wars and sufferings on the planet are caused by the West’s colonialism and expansionism, are strange mutation of the 19th century idea that the West is the key good on the planet. It is also a reverse version of colonialism: 19th century imperial sadism turns into the 21st century post-imperial masochism; the West’s primacy as the key good turns into the West’s primacy as the key evil. I think both conceptions are wrong. And today the Western masochism is not only wrong, but also immoral, because it implies two things: a) saying that the cruelty of Russian genocidal war against Ukraine is actually the West’s fault b) saying, alternatively, that although Russia bad, and Ukrainians are brave – but the West is weak and Ukrainians will not be able to withstand Russian aggression, so it’s better to surrender and talk. So I do think that not only the West should be healed from its imperial past – it should also be healed from the wrong sides of its post-imperial present. Because this political masochism, through the constant self-criticism of the past violence, becomes blind and helpless with regard to the actual violence. It becomes too weak to be able to stop it. But we need to act now and stop violence today.

As for «sado-putinism»: as I explained earlier, I think we should be very attentively looking at the attitude to pleasure, suffering, happiness, violence in Eastern Europe. These markers, rather than economy or politics, define where the societies are moving. The Russian society is built upon the normalisation of violence. Violence is seen as a norm, non-violence as exception. The Russian cultural figures who represented «non-violence» – prince Myshkin in Dostoyevsky’s Idiot, or Tolstoy with his non-violent ethics – are so radical in their thinking because they are completely utopian and marginal in the Russian cultural history. Non-violence is a rare exception in the Russian culture and history, violence is a norm. When violence is a norm, you can only accept two roles: sadist or masochist. No horizontality, only a vertical, where you are a dominant or a submissive. And when you are a masochist, you are trying to find the way of being a sadist too. Either by exporting violence, applying it on others. Or by imagining that you are a part of a big sadist body, a «Russia» which can apply violence to others without any visible consequences and accountability. This explains why so many Russians are supporting Putin’s war on Ukraine. So, when I say «sado-putinism», I am not saying that Putin has invented this ideology. I think the roots are in this culture of violence, in the normalisation of violence in the Russian society itself. Putin is only an expression of this. A symptom of a much deeper disease.

How can Alexander Dugin advocate eurasism while wanting to “break free” from the western world ?

Volodymyr Yermolenko: I don’t think we should take Dugin seriously. His ideas are mad fusion between German early 20th century conservatives (including Nazis), Russian eurasianists of 1920s and some classics of geopolitics and philosophies of «plurality of civilisations». He is, perhaps, one of the most open symptoms of the Russian 21st century fascism, as he draws directly from the intellectual sources of fascism and nazism, from people like Carl Schmitt etc. He gives putinist ideology a certain language (like, Russia is a «separate civilisation»), but otherwise, Dugin is another symptom of the Russian disease.

How do you analyze Orthodox Pope Cyril’s concept of metaphysical warfare?

Volodymyr Yermolenko: Russian church has no autonomy from the Russian state at least since Peter I, i.e. from the early 18th century, for already three centuries. It is an ideological instrument of the Russian empire, with intellectual enslavement as a key tool. It says to its believers that the West is the key evil, therefore they should fight against the West. That humans do not decide anything, that they are helpless, and therefore they should accept what is going on – if they are beaten, sent to the frontline or killed. Russian orthodoxy kills individual responsibility and creates the sentiment of fatalism which is very comfortable for any authortarian state. Seeing the failure of the Russian «military operation» in Ukraine, Russians are trying to increase the «degree» of this war, calling it a «spiritual», «metaphysical», «sacred» war etc. This is all needed only to mobilise the already enslaved population and send them to the frontline. Russian orthodox church has become fundamentalist, it’s approaching in its rhetorics the worst forms of islamist fundamentalism, and therefore in Ukraine we are something calling it «orthodox jihad» and «orthodox umma». Kadyrov, with his open islamist fundamentalism, is now considered as key military hero by the Russian propaganda. There is no spirituality, no love, no empathy, no brotherhood in all this – they are just ideological instruments of the Russian violence.

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About the Author
Alexandre Gilbert is the director of the Chappe gallery.