Kazimir Malevich was born in Kyiv in 1879 – and in a period of war, he started an artistic revolution: “In the year 1913,” he wrote, “trying desperately to free art from the dead weight of the real world, I took refuge in the form of the square.” His painting “Black square” was unveiled in 1915 as World War One was raging. Up until today, it’s a radical symbol of a new age that can hardly be described in words.
When I met the two young women in the basement of a bookstore in central Moscow, both wearing woolen masks in bright colors, I found them engaging and energetic. It was the strikingly cold winter of early 2012, I was in town to report on the revolt against Putin, and the encounter with the two women, members of a Punk band, did not make it into the piece. A few weeks later, on February 21, 2012, their band Pussy Riot staged a performance to protest Putin in the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour in central Moscow. They instantly became world-famous. That summer, three of the band members were convicted of “hooliganism motivated by religious hatred.” They were sentenced to prison for two years.
I was wrong about the context of this meeting, I did not see what was coming. I was wrong about other things as well, the optimism of the moment in Moscow, the belief that civil society could really change the face of the Russian authoritarian state. And I was in good company. A lot of people were wrong, all these years. And honestly, I don’t trust anybody at the moment, seeing the terrible war in Ukraine unfold, who does not acknowledge this fact, who does not look back and question his or her position, does not do fundamental soul-searching before advancing a position and coming to a conclusion.
There is a need to look beyond the present moment and to do this now, in the middle of everything.
This war, as distressing as it is, as it leaves thousands dead and millions stranded abroad, is also confusing in a major way, for policy makers as well as for opinion leaders. This is a time for doubt and questions: it seems clear that we are witnessing the fallout of a massive failure in policy and strategy, that the “West” was not prepared, did not see what was coming, and believed in its own story of peace and prosperity for too long. It seems clear that what is now called “naivety” was actually a sort of “sleepwalking,” the portentous phrase Christopher Clarke used to describe the beginning of World War One. It seems clear that the post-Cold War order has come to an end – but it does not seem clear what will replace it.
We will dedicate this space to exploring some of these questions with our Fellows and with other members of our network. This will be a daily newsletter, for the time being, on matters pertaining to the war – but also beyond the war. There is a lot of great reporting on the plight of the refugees, on the cruelties of the bombings, on the immediate consequences of the war. But there is also the need to look beyond the present moment and to do this now, in the middle of everything – to learn, to understand, to avoid the mistakes of the past, to come up with ideas and concepts of how to rebuild what was destroyed, to see the connections between ecology, economy, democracy.
This war is in a lot of ways a war of the 20th century on the 21st century – a fossil war in a post-fossil century, a war of empire in a time of climate emergency, a war of different concepts of world order at a time when the power balance is shifting towards China. The “West” – if there really is such a thing beyond the necessary rhetoric to support a certain political agenda – is refusing to engage in a military war and instead takes recourse in an economic war against Russia, consistent with the premises of the 90s and beyond, when economic thinking and the logic of the market trumped almost everything else. If we want to understand how we got to this point, I am convinced, we must investigate this period, the misconceptions, and the mistakes.
When I visited Kyiv in 2014, it was a city in rebellion. Kyiv was defiant back then; Kyiv, I am convinced, will remain defiant.
We will look back in this newsletter, we will also look ahead, try to be constructive. We will always feature a work of art to inspire you, to surprise you – because we believe art often opens up a new perspective. Art does not heal directly, but it can foster vulnerability; art offers a way to access the world in a way that is otherwise blocked. This is what Pussy Riot did back in 2012, shining a spotlight on a regime that was tightening its grip to the point of choking people, freedom, democracy (if it ever existed). The Future is History is the title of the fantastic book I’m reading at the moment, which explores the totalitarian roots of the present crisis in Russia. When I met the author, Masha Gessen, in that same winter of 2012, she was hesitantly optimistic. And yet she left the country shortly after.
“Homo Sovieticus was not indoctrinated,” she writes in this pre-history of the present crisis. “In fact, Homo Sovieticus did not seem to hold particularly strong opinions of any sort. His inner world consisted of antinomies, his objective was survival, and his strategy was constant negotiation – the endless circulation of games of doublethink.”
I wonder if this was at some point true of Ukraine as well. When I visited Kyiv in 2014, shortly after the Maidan uprising protesting the country’s turn towards Russia, it felt different from Moscow two years before. Kyiv was a city in rebellion. The young were energized, confused, hurt, proud of their resistance. This is what they built on, reaching out, reaching beyond. Some people thought it was Europe they were trying to connect to, but Europe, back then, failed to deliver. Some of the artists, thinkers, writers I met back then are still there, and at least one of them, the writer Serhiy Zhadan, is fighting the aggressors. It makes me angry and sad and also afraid to think of him, to think of all of this.
Kyiv was a defiant city back then; Kyiv, I am convinced, will remain defiant. The last thing I heard from Serhiy was that he was in Kharkiv, defending his hometown.
Georg Diez is the Editor-in-Chief at THE NEW INSTITUTE.