Volodymyr Yermolenko, from Kyiv to Gaza Strip

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

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

Constantin Sigov said the only way « to fight barbarism is to be even more human », do you think the same ?

Volodymyr Yermolenko: In a broad sense yes. For me, the concept of barbarism still makes sense. I think people threw it away in the 20th century when various intellectuals criticized the concept of «civilization», «civilized», as they saw a big part of imperialism and colonialism behind it. I mean people like Edward Said etc. They were partially right – but very partially. The idea of «civilization» can indeed serve imperialism, when it declares «barbaric» everything which is different. But if we remove the distinction between civilization and barbarism, we lose the moral distinction – and then we can say that all possible atrocities are just another form of «civilization».

So I do think that «barbarism» – like current Russian barbarism – is the increase of the destruction in the world, is the dissemination of destruction for the sake of destruction. In this sense, civilization is about caring about life, about strengthening the forces of creation. Of course, civilization can turn into barbarism, and it has happened many times in history. It can be civilization in one place, and barbarism in the other. 

But by criticizing its hypocrisy we should not forget about the very meaning of the term «cvilization». If you look at the philosophers of the Enlightenment like Buffon or Mirabeau, you will see that for the civilization meant domestication of nature – and in a way an attempt to soften the «bestiality» in humans. I think this is the task very valid today, when we see that «bestiality» has become a fashion again. 

As for being human – I do think that the defensive war, as one experienced now by Ukraine, creates an increased feeling of humanity, of solidarity, of brotherhood and sisterhood. As if, on the edge of life, at its meeting with death, people embrace life even more. 

You said in December 2022, Russian Orthodox church, was an Orthodox jihad and an Orthodox umma. How did you react to the war in Gaza ?

Volodymyr Yermolenko: I am very careful about judging the other wars without experience of living through them and experiencing them. There are a lot of people who have their «judgment» about the Russian invasion of Ukraine without ever in their lives being in Ukraine, without understanding the language and history. I found it extremely stupid. 

As a Ukrainian, I feel the biggest empathy with victims. Both with the victims of the Hamas’ terrorist attacks in Israel, and with the victims of Israeli bombings in Gaza. Because we, Ukrainians, have lived through both of these experiences. Our people were also brutally killed by Russian soldiers in the occupied villages or towns; they were raped, tortured by electricity currents, and put to underground without air to breath; but they were also bombed by Russian aviation or missiles in their bedrooms, or were looking for the bodies of their dead family members under the rubble. So, for us, these are not abstract words. We know what it is, we have gone through the same. Many of our friends died. Therefore, I cannot escape from being on the side of victims. I think it is an important moral stance. 

Yet, there is a link between Hamas and Iran (and perhaps Russia), and I do think that this religious fundamentalism, which cuts human freedom and requires only obedience, can lead us to very dark times. And I find it naive when in Western democracies people often overlook this link; they overlook a new authoritarian «international» which is being born, and which is a huge challenge for our democracies. Russia, Iran, Northern Korea, form this network; and China seems to support it. This is all very dangerous. 

So I think morally we need to be on the side of victims, both Israeli and Palestinians. But politically, for me Hamas is a proxy of this new authoritarian international which is trying to undermine the very values of freedom-loving societies. And I do make a distinction between Hamas and Palestinians, between Israelis and Netanyahu. Radicals and fanatics need each other, and we need to understand how these enmities are constructed. 

As for a connection between Russian orthodox fundamentalism and Islamic fundamentalism: I see a clear connection. Look at pro-Moscow Chechen battalions in Ukraine, and you will see Islamist fundamentalists fighting a war for orthodox fundamentalism. They have common traits: control of the big human masses through a certain religious ideology which demands obedience and interprets humans as essentially little beings incapable of nothing compared to the almighty God / Allah / leader. And I do think that if this ideology wins in the 21st century, this will be the end of many achievements of human freedoms and dignity that humanity has made in the 2nd half of the 20th century. 

I quote you again : « 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. » Do you still think the same ?

Volodymyr Yermolenko: I do think that the clash between religious traditionalism and modernity is a wrong clash. Religious traditionalism sees the non-human world as a subject, which humans have to deal with through ritual, prayer, and communication with gods and spirits. Modernity turned the non-human world («nature») into an object, which it wanted to study and conquer. Modern science was born out of this, which is one of the biggest achievements of humanity. But what kind of achievement it is? It helped us extend our knowledge, verify it, put it into practice into technological development. It also helped us develop critical thinking of ourselves and others. But its subject-object relationship is wrong. We need to rediscover «subjectivity» of the non-human world. Nature, environment, ecosystems need to become subjects again. We should not only study them and conquer them, we should co-live with them, co-work with them, co-feel them. Here’s where religious traditions – if they accept moderate worldview and practice – can help. But we can be very careful with them: they have both healthy and poisonous elements in them. As modern science does. 

Religions can help us see more miracle around us; but it should not teach us fanaticism and dogmatism. Science can help us be more curious, verifying and critical; but it should not teach us that the world around us is just an object to study, with no life in it. 

During our last interview, you said « 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 Martin Heidegger’s contemporary Walter Benjamin was right in trying to look at history through the Proustian eyes. » Would you say the same today ?

Volodymyr Yermolenko: Yes, in many ways. We are going again and again through the past mistakes. We improve technologically, but morally we go on circles – and therefore, atrocities of the past can repeat, and we need to be ready for this – and we need to combine efforts to stop this. They can also repeat in different ways, in which victims become perpetrators, or vice versa.

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