faith in action

Eyewitness to the Russian Invasion: Interview with Ukrainian Scholar Constantin Sigov

Dignity and The Courage of Resistance

Dr. Constantin Sigov, Professor of Philosophy and Religious Studies at the National University of Kyiv-Mohyla Academy in Kyiv and Director of the Center of European Humanities Research responds to questions while in Ukraine during the Russian invasion last week.

This interview was conducted by Elena Glazov–Corrigan over several days and was translated with the help of Jonathan Sutton.

February 23: Hours before the invasion

Have you felt understood by the Western media and political commentators?

For eight whole years many people have not called this war by its real name; instead they have kept referring to ‘the Ukrainian crisis’. But now it’s no longer a secret for anyone that it is ‘a Russian crisis,’ Putin’s regime being its culprit. The annexation of Crimea in 2014 and the seizure of cities and villages in the east of Ukraine led to the occupation by Russia of territory greater in extent than the territory of the whole of Switzerland or Belgium. Thousands of Ukrainians have been killed, and millions have become refugees, forced to flee the occupied territories.

This confrontation with this ever-present irremediable injustice – can there be any new discoveries in all of this?

Everyday we confront questions of human dignity: namely, how not to lose one’s humanity and how to remain calm and steadfast. Recently I recorded a conversation with the religious scholar Igor Kozlovsky, who spent 700 days and nights as a prisoner in the basements of Donetsk. Igor has endured numerous interrogations and also torture, which went beyond inflicting just physical and psychological harm. His tormentors attempted to do two things: to deprive him of the right to remain a person and also to get him to betray his own sense of human dignity. I was struck by the form of resistance which Igor chose in response. “You’ve been beaten up and covered in blood, but all of a sudden you’re smiling…. And mentally you tell yourself that you no longer fear death. They can’t break you any longer; you’re beyond their power. You’ve crossed a line and you no longer feel fear. You have seen your real self.”

Today it’s very important to hear the words of my interlocutor, because, really, the people occupying our city want to bring it into the same state that has been inflicted on Donetsk for the past eight years. Putin makes no secret of his wish to place a Russian flag above the Mayor of Kyiv’s office, and other Russian flags on Kyiv’s main street, the Kreshchatik, and on Maidan Square. In neighbouring buildings, the cellars of which recall where the KGB used to operate, members of today’s FSB [Federal Security Service] will begin dragging in citizens of Kyiv for interrogations and torture sessions. Nobody in the West speaks of this threat of the Stalinist past returning to Ukraine. Western diplomats aren’t themselves under threat, yet they’re leaving the city, just in case.

Why is it that Kyiv specifically has become such a major issue for the Kremlin? What is the underlying impulse here?

Putin’s pseudo-historical fantasies seek to camouflage the pitfalls of his regime. The banning of the international “Memorial” [Memorial Human Rights Center in Moscow] is in reality directly connected to the escalation of the aggression against Kyiv. The ban imposed on the organization called ‘Memorial’ within Russia is fundamentally linked with an escalation in aggression towards Kyiv. This is not often mentioned in the West; nevertheless, it’s a crucial matter.

Are you sure that those darkest pages of history –the Stalinist purges – play here a major role?

The Kremlin is curbing free access to information about crimes perpetrated by Stalin’s regime and preventing any examination of the Gulag and of state-imposed starvation (Holodomor) as crimes against humanity.

Putin’s regime is trying to convince the West that judging Stalin’s crimes is a purely ‘internal’ matter, one for Russia alone to decide upon. In short, we are no longer speaking of crimes against humanity as a whole, but about a purely local event. Whatever the number of victims, it was simply a local event in foreign countries– to be simply viewed by ‘their own’ citizens. Therefore, Putin considers that they should be regarded as outside the jurisdiction of humanity as a whole. Curtailment of the condemnation of state crimes of the USSR in effect also vindicates and unties the hands of those who killed Politkovskaya and Nemtsov in Moscow.

Denying the truth about places of mass extermination such as Sandarmoh has turned into a reprisal against Dmitriev and other Memorial workers. We all know the Russian proverb: “garbage should not be taken out of the hut for all to see.” Speaking the truth about the crimes of the regime is not seen as an act of courage, but rather a betrayal of the fatherland. And impunity for state criminals is directly linked to amnesia in the realm of politics.

Are you convinced that fear of an international trial – similar to that of Nuremberg – consciously and unconsciously determines the momentum of the criminal regime?

The Kremlin’s manic rhetoric about NATO remains absurd until we discern “the shadow of Nuremberg” behind the word “NATO”. How will the case of dictator Lukashenko reach the international {criminal} court in the Hague if his crimes are purely an ‘internal’ matter for Belarus’? The isolationism of this neo-Soviet regime entails an insistence on the exclusive right to perpetrate evil on its own territory - and to do so with complete impunity. A cover for such evil is provided by the ignorance of those foreign commentators who close their eyes to what’s going on ‘over there’, as if it didn’t affect ‘us’ here. According to the theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, ignorance can actually be more dangerous than outright evil. Unlike evil, ignorance or stupidity can be completely self-satisfied and, therefore, less inclined to destroy itself.

International Trials for the Crimes against Humanity – are these not simply legal procedures, creating more international bureaucracy?

For the Ukrainians the infringements of international law are a matter of life and death, and the integrity and sovereignty of the country are linked in a very fundamental way with the question of each person’s dignity. The ‘Memorial affair’ cannot simply be removed from the agenda while there’s a struggle going on for a free Ukraine. Today when the international Memorial Human Rights Center that was banned in Moscow as an organization run by foreign agents, millions of citizens of Ukraine constitute the significant political body that is ‘Memorial.’

Ukraine is bringing ‘local’ Soviet crimes out into the light of universal judgment. On account of precisely this, they’re attempting to annihilate it and bury it in some no-man’s-land. Ukraine is trying to remind humankind of the fate of those who were destined to live on blood-soaked earth. Thereby Ukraine is expanding the field of responsibility for what has happened here and for what is happening now. They can’t forgive Ukraine for this. They’re trying to turn it into a hostage and they’re accusing it of all kinds of impossible sins. In Russia and Belarus, the archives of the KGB have long been closed, but in Kyiv they’re open to all researchers.

February 24: Beginning of the Invasion. Early morning

Please, say anything… How are you all?

Just one day earlier I thought that the threat of invasion was simply a distant but threatening nightmare. It was the first time in my life that I woke up like that. Kyiv also woke up at five o'clock in the morning under bombardment. The strikes were very loud; it was obvious that the war had intensified in a virulent way.

Photos of Kyiv shows the inhabitants of the capital fleeing by road. Are you still in Kyiv? What do you observe among the civilian population?

There are, of course, people lining up to fill their gas tanks or stock up on food, but there are more Ukrainians in Kyiv lining up to donate blood in hospitals. There is a determination to be together, to enter into resistance, not to give in to the invasion, not to succumb to this barbarism. Many civilians, fellow educators like me, have recently - and today even more strongly - joined the local defense.

There is a real commitment to freedom, much more than a feeling of hatred. I see no hysteria around me, neither in my entourage, nor in the media, nor on social networks. It is hard to find the right words. I want to be precise. It is not exactly calm or serene, but we have put aside every desire to quarrel and lose ourselves in passing emotions. We know that every move we make must either help a human being or the people who stand next to us.

February 26:

Where are you now? Where is your mother who was in Kyiv during Hitler’s invasion?

My family –– my wife, my younger children and my mother – are now in the basement. We sleep on the floor, but it is warm. I cannot disclose the place through social media. It is forbidden.

Is Europe’s reaction equal to the situation?

It is not for me to say. Everyone has to do their best in the position in which we find ourselves. I, as a scholar in Kyiv, have my task; the political leaders in Paris and Brussels – theirs. But I think the time has come for each of us to do much more than what has already been done. European decision-makers must understand that firmer action is now needed. If they aim to resist the Kremlin’s madness, France and Europe must choose real solidarity.

In terms of defense, the sky over Ukraine is the most vulnerable place. Just now, warplanes flew past my window, and I am not sure whether they were Russian or Ukrainian. On the ground we have had long experience of how to arm in order to deter Russian tanks, but the sky is a different matter. By defending the sky over Ukraine, Europe will be defending its own skies as well.

And then there is the economic lever. There must be serious sanctions. The suspension of the certification of Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline by Chancellor Olaf Scholz was very important, but it seems to me that Putin and his entourage must be personally sanctioned. The masks have come off: these are criminal acts.

Putin has a lot of wallets in European banks. The time has come to stop this infernal luxury. The entire Russian political class that supports Putin’s unlawfulness must be banished. These people must feel that they will be judged, and that the trial begins now. Sanctions must be imposed before Putin goes to the Hague. The lives of men, women, children should not be endangered by money that enriches Putin and pacifies him for a short while.

Is Ukraine at a tipping point in its history, even more so than in 2014?

I would say this is the hardest day of our lives, worse even than the Chernobyl nuclear disaster of 1986. The difference is that at that time the lies of the Soviet regime were blatant, and when the truth was uncovered, millions of people dissented. Today we know the truth. Now we are not in the grip of an ideology with its constant falsehoods. The Maidan revolution brought down this empire inherited from the Soviet Union, but its monstrous corpse is still alive.


Elena Glazov-Corrigan is Professor, Russian and East Asian Languages and Cultures and Director of Russian, Eastern European, & Eurasian Studies Program at Emory University, Atlanta, GA. For her full faculty biography, please click here.

Jonathan Sutton, now retired, was a Senior lecturer in the Department of Russian and Slavonic Studies at Leeds, UK.