What It Means When The 'Wolf Cries Wolf': Fascism In Ukraine?

What It Means When The 'Wolf Cries Wolf': Fascism In Ukraine

February 21, 2014 4:00 PM

Robert Siegel speaks with Timothy Snyder, a professor of history at Yale and author of Bloodlands: Europe between Hitler and Stalin, about his recent article on fascism, Russia and Ukraine.

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish.


I'm Robert Siegel. What does it mean when the wolf cries wolf? Timothy
Snyder poses that question, referring to leaders and propagandists in
Ukraine and Russia, who denounced the protestors in Kiev's Independence
Square as fascists. Snyder is a Yale historian who writes about Ukraine
in a forthcoming issue of the New York Review of Books, and he joins us
now from Vienna. Welcome to the program. TIMOTHY SNYDER: Very glad to talk to you.

We commonly say that Ukraine is torn between people who want their
country inside the European Union and those who favor closer ties with
Russia. I gather closer ties with Russia would mean membership in
something that you write about and that I'd like you describe: the
Eurasian Union. SNYDER: Yeah, I mean, first of all, I mean,
before we get into all the geopolitics, I would just want to stress that
Ukrainians are people like you and me, and the first thing they're
concerned about is their daily life and the predictability of their life
and their schools and in their jobs. And when they say they're in favor
of joining the European Union, what they really mean is they want to
have the rule of law in their lives. They want a government
that's less corrupt. They want to know what's going to happen from day
to day. That's what the European Union means to them. It's a little bit
naive, but maybe it's basically right. In their neighborhood,
on the other side to the east, is Russia. And here's where things get a
little bit interesting and complicated because Russia under Vladimir
Putin has this idea of building up a rival to the European Union. This
rival is going to be called the Eurasian Union, and it's going to be
based upon a completely different set of values. Rather than
rejecting the worst of the 20th century, as people in Western Europe see
it, rather than rejecting fascism and communism, the idea is to draw
elements of fascism and communism, what seems to be most useful. Rather
than being liberal and democratic, the idea is to oppose liberal
democracy. And for Putin personally, the Eurasian Union, which
is at the moment his pet project and his idea of a legacy, will only be
meaningful if it includes Ukraine. And for it to include Ukraine,
Ukraine has to be some kind of authoritarian regime that seems to be
sufficiently under his control. SIEGEL: But when you say elements of fascism and communism in the Eurasian Union, what are you referring to exactly?

Yeah, it's a bit vague. I mean, what happens with the breakup of the
Soviet Union is that there's a natural nostalgia among leaders in Russia
to be a great power and to be a superpower. And what that often means
is an attempt to rescue some part of the history of Stalinism. So
perhaps not to say that the terror or the starvations of Stalinism were a
good thing but to stress that Stalin was a victor in the Second World
War or to stress that Stalin was some kind of good manager. When
it comes to fascism, here things get a little bit interesting because
of course the identity of Russia has to do with beating the Nazis. So it
generally means something like the purification of communism from its
cosmopolitan elements, to making the history of communism something
which is really about the Russians. SIEGEL: Well, now this
accusation that the anti-government protestors in Kiev are fascist, you
write about how that kind of language resonates in Ukraine given the
history of World War II there. Much of the war actually transpired in
Ukraine, as you write. SNYDER: Yeah, I mean calling them
fascists is obviously a way to appeal to Russian national sentiment,
calling them Nazis in particular. But it's also a play towards America
and the European Union because we know, I mean if we have any core
belief about history, it's that national socialism, that Nazism, was a
bad thing. So they're called Nazis and terrorists as a way to
rally Russians against them but also as a way to prevent us from
thinking straight. We're not to see this as a movement of citizens who
want the normal rights of citizens. We're to understand that these
people can just be reduced to this despicable category of national
socialism. That's the way this ideology is supposed to work. SIEGEL:
You cite a Russian who is obviously against the Ukrainian protests as
claiming that if Ukraine joined the European Union, they would then have
to recognize same-sex marriage, that's part of the package of being
European. That's the kind of argument that's being used on the Russian
side here, you say. SNYDER: Yeah, and this is really
interesting and really important, I think. What's happened is that
Russian society has become a little more conservative over the years.
President Putin has recognized an opportunity there and has geared his
domestic policy towards what some might see a far right social
conservative agenda, where the discrimination of gays is front and
center. He's using that now not just in domestic policy but in
foreign policy. So he's defining - Russian propaganda strangely enough
also defines the opposition in Ukraine as either gay or subordinate to a
European Union that is gay. The idea is that Western Europe, is
decadent, and decadence includes sexual freedoms, which of course can't
be allowed in Russia because they would destroy Russia's Christian
civilization. This is a kind of interesting global turn in
Russian policy. It draws directly on American anti-gay Christians, who
in fact have gone to Moscow to consult with President Putin about these
issues. It's an attempt to create a kind of new ideology whereby Russia
can have some moral standing in the world. And it reaches out
to far right groups in the U.S., and in Europe as well, and in
particular it gives Eurasianism a kind of ideological backbone. What
they're trying to say is that you Europeans have betrayed civilization.
We Eurasians are the real Europeans because we stand for religion, and
we stand for the discrimination of people who behave in a way which we
don't regard as conventional. SIEGEL: You also write that while
Ukrainian authorities say the protestors are led by, or they are Nazis,
they tell their own police that the Jews are actually running the
protests in Kiev. SNYDER: Yeah, I mean, this reveals the extent
to which propagandists in Kiev and Moscow assume that we don't really
pay attention. They think that if they tell us the protestors are Nazis,
we'll be all confused, we'll scuttle around, we won't be able to
formulate policy. And I think in some measure they're right. I
think we are quite - because of our perfectly legitimate convictions
about the second world war, it's easy to manipulate us by referring to
these things. At the same time, one of the ways to motivate violence
against the protestors is to claim that they are associated with some
outside force, whether those outsiders are gays or whether they're Jews. And
so in internal propaganda, the riot police are being told that the
leaders of the opposition are Jews. So the same people are being defined
as Nazis or as Jews depending on the circumstances. SIEGEL: So if people of, as you would say, a fascist bent themselves cry fascist, what does it mean when the wolf cries wolf?

It means that we have to be very careful about our own moral symbols.
If we care about the Holocaust, as we should, if we care about the
Second World War as we should, this means that we have to be very
careful about the kinds of people who are urging us to act on the basis
of these memories. Calling an entire nation or calling an
opposition group Nazis is a very cynical move, and it's a cynical move
that one has to resist, or else one gets drawn down into it oneself. And
then the next time around, one finds that one no longer has anything to
hold on to morally or symbolically. SIEGEL: Timothy Snyder, thank you very much for talking with us today.

SNYDER: It's been my pleasure.

Timothy Snyder article in the coming March 20th issue of the New York
Review of Books is called "Fascism: Russia and Ukraine." The Yale
professor is also author of "Bloodlands: Europe between Hitler and
Stalin." This is NPR News.