Nikita Kadan’s ( born 1982, Kyiv) work is about historical memory and amnesia, focusing particularly on the impotence of Ukrainian contemporary society to deal with its past traumas. For his research on the history of mass violence and the Holocaust in Ukraine 1930-40s, he appeals to existing documentary images in Soviet and Polish archives to register the actual events and bear testimony to contemporary and future society. In the series “Multilated Myth”, which premiered in Kyiv at the contemporary art gallery Naked Room, the artist references documentary photographs of the Lviv Progrom of 1941. In the second part of the series, these images collide with scenes of fetish game from Bruno Schulz’s “Book of Idolatry”. Although created two decades before the Holocaust, Schulz’s images look like a horrifiying anticipation of the historic catastrophe and his own fate as a victim of the Holocaust.
Is this the first populist war?
I don’t think that the concept of populism – at least as I understand it – is helpful at the moment. All populists assert that they – and only they – represent what they also often call “the real people,” and, to be sure, Putin in effect claims that only he represents Russia (and some of his acolytes even announce “No Putin, no Russia”). Plus, Putin pronounces claims about peoplehood, especially others’, for instance by denying it to Ukrainians. But in the end, we are better served by the notion of imperialism to understand what he is doing. Interestingly, observers in the Global South have seen this more clearly than some in Europe.
How do you explain the blindness – in Europe as well as in the US – vis-à-vis Russia’s imperial longings?
I would not describe them as Russia’s longings, as opposed to Putin’s. If I understand it correctly, the regime within Russia is floating all kinds of narratives to justify its conduct, not all necessarily imperialist and some clearly relying on some fantasy of replaying the Great Patriotic War against the Nazis. Also, to be fair, some observers did warn about the very situation we have now – but it was not seen as the most likely, and, to be sure, during years of the pandemic and with a background assumption that China was the dominant long-term threat, these voices did not always get much of a hearing.
Of course, diplomacy has a role – even for realists! – and everyone was aware that Nord Stream 2, for instance, was never just a matter of “economic thinking”.
Is this blindness connected to the state of the liberal project, favoring economic thinking and policy over political reflection?
That is an antiliberal stereotype going back to Carl Schmitt: liberalism supposedly tries to dissolve all conflicts into economic negotiations or moral deliberation; it will fail in the face of genuine political – which is also to say: violent – challenges or it will simply lose its liberal character by becoming violent itself. One should resist this framing. Of course, diplomacy has a role – even for realists! – and everyone was aware that Nord Stream 2, for instance, was never just a matter of “economic thinking.” Individuals may have miscalculated, or exhibited moral failings – the end of Putinverstehen should have come years ago – but none of this amounts to a thorough discrediting of liberalism. Plus, the Schmittian always wins the argument within his own frame: now economics has become clearly politicized with the sanctions, and he would see that as somehow a devious liberal ploy, as opposed to openly – that is to say: violently – fighting.