On February 25th, Vladislav Davidzon burned his Russian passport on live TV to protest Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. War makes us do extreme things, Davidzon says, in this episode of “What Is X?” It sharpens national identities, intensifies feelings and social relations, and upends daily life. It makes civilization-upholding taboos fall away. Davidzon is a Russian-Ukrainian writer, editor and policy expert who has spent the past fourteen years writing on Eastern Europe and reporting from numerous conflict zones, including—most recently—the war in Ukraine (from which he helped his family flee in March). Together with Justin, Vlad discusses the art and philosophy of war, the nature of martial virtue, the ambitions and lapses in the post-Cold War political order, and whether war can ever be eradicated from the human condition. They also cover: the movement to cancel Pushkin, whether we’re now seeing a return to nineteenth-century modes of being and what happens when hipsters head to the front.
Justin E.H. Smith 00:10
Hello and welcome to "What Is X?" I'm your regular host, Justin E.H. Smith. As regular listeners will know, on each episode, we investigate some given X, where it is a general concept that we all talk about a lot, but that is often rather hard to define. Today we're going to be talking about an ever-timely concept, but one that seems particularly timely in 2022—namely, war. What is war? Our guest today is someone who knows a lot about war. His name is Vladislav Davidzon. Rather than trying to sum up his various exploits, I think I'm going to allow Vlad to tell us who he is and what he's all about. Oh, but before I do that, I do want also to mention that Vladislav is the author recently of a lovely book called From Odessa with Love: Political and Literary Essays from Post-Soviet Ukraine. And I strongly recommend that everyone rush out and get that book. Vlad, tell us about yourself. What's your whole deal?
Vladislav Davidzon 01:31
Justin, thank you so much. This is great. A great honor. We've been friends for, I think, more than a decade. But we don't see each other as often—because you work a lot, and I work a lot—as we would like, and I'm very peripatetic. In fact, you are also. We are both wanderers and travelers.
Justin E.H. Smith 01:47
I'm also a reclusive misanthrope.
Vladislav Davidzon 01:50
And while I on the other hand, an extremely sociable misanthrope. Which, you know, sometimes that works and our vibe shifts work, sometimes they don't. I spend a lot of time with politicians and spies and businessmen and parliamentarians and evil people, while you are clean and your soul is unbesmirched with the sort of filth that I have to cover myself with from morning till night, in order to bring the good people the information that they need about the way that the world in Eastern Europe actually functions.
Justin E.H. Smith 02:27
All right, now we're getting right into the thick of it: Eastern Europe. You are what you might call a Ukraine hand. Tell us about your experience and your authority in that part of the world.
Vladislav Davidzon 02:42
I am an American citizen and a European. And also I had a Russian passport until I recently burned it on the night of the 25th. My wife, who's Ukrainian, asked me to burn my Russian passport. I did that live on CNN. So I am deeply from the Belarus Russian, Ukrainian lands. I am 10,000, maybe 50,000, percent an Eastern European in my head, and in my affect, and in my culture, and in my values, and in my everything. I was born in Central Asia to Ukrainians who had fled Hitler—Ukrainian Jews—and to a Russian from Georgia and to a Belarusian Jew from Bobruisk. I was educated in the States. And I spent a lot of time in the diaspora. I grew up in a fairly hardcore diaspora situation. And then, as happens, I really wanted to go back and, you know, I have a very strong relationship to my ancestral lands and to the culture and I studied Russian literature at university. I was a philosopher, like you, as an undergrad. But I ultimately became a man of action as opposed to a man of thought, but I treasure my philosophical training, which was quite rigorous, at CUNY.
Justin E.H. Smith 03:57
You're like Alexander the Great to Simon Critchley's Aristotle.
Vladislav Davidzon 04:01
In fact, I studied Heidegger with Critchley in New York as a 23-year-old. In fact, I ran into him in a bar in London two days ago, and he remembered me, of those many thousands of students.
Justin E.H. Smith 04:14
Vladislav Davidzon 04:15
And he told me that, you know, he confirmed that he told me when we were studying Heidegger together that I should just go off and become a international man of mystery and a spy Heideggerian in Eastern Europe, and I did exactly that. And he says, "See, I was right all those years ago, basically."
Justin E.H. Smith 04:32
Vladislav Davidzon 04:33
So, I've been writing about Eastern Europe, from both a political and aesthetic vantage point for about fourteen years. I started out as a literary critic, then I actually moved to Ukraine. I married a Franco-Ukrainian lady. We speak Russian at home, but we're both very patriotic. And we are involved in Ukrainian life, cultural life. We had a magazine there. We had a film company there—my wife produces films there. We're activists. We taught there for a long time, we lived there for a long time. We're very deeply involved in the intellectual life of this country, which, in many ways, has one of most interesting intellectual lives in development in Europe now. I would say that Kyiv is the most alive city, in terms of living, breathing culture, in the way that something remarkable and transformative is happening in a healthy and generative and revolutionary fashion in the way that you haven't seen since like St. Petersburg in 1924, or Berlin since the 1920s. Kyiv is in many ways the most generative place in Eastern Europe now. You're creating a national culture in real time, while you're fighting a war, and while you're creating a final collapse of a post-Soviet empire, and while all the forces of good and bad and forward and backward and revolution and conservatism and revanche and avant gardism are embedded in the same city. So it has all the chaotic generative character traits of a city and a country and a nation at war. So, that's me, I studied political philosophy. Then I studied art history. Then I moved to Venice. I did a human rights master's degree. I actually wrote my thesis on a universal skepticism of the universalist foundations of human rights, which is to say, I did a troll thesis on being against this. Six months later, I was running guns to the Ukrainian army. From theory right to practice. [Laughs.] Quite a leap. Yeah. When you say that Kyiv is in the midst of generating a national culture that makes me think of an initial question that has to be asked about Ukrainian identity. The national identity is something that's still in the process of being formed, I suppose. That's absolutely—it's a pressure cooker. And Ukraine is a polyglot, multiethnic, multicultural, multiracial, multireligious state with all sorts of different people living together, mostly in a productive and generative and, most of the time, nice way. You know, a Ukrainian is someone who's born in Ukraine; it doesn't matter if you're Crimean Tatar or a Jew or a Bulgarian from Odesa region, or a Pole on the Lviv border, or someone who is from the Donbass who speaks Russian at home or an ethnic Hungarian of the Transcarpathian mountains, who goes to college in Budapest and sends his daughter abroad. Doesn't matter. You are a Ukrainian citizen. It's a wonderful, polyglot, very tolerant society. And in many ways, its anarchic, chaotic, democratic thing is the opposite of the way that the Russians run their tremendously multiracial, multicultural, multilingual, multi-identity state with centralized autarkic, authoritarian power—you know, they really represent the future and the past, centralization against chaos, you know, all sorts of these happy binaries, right? So, yes, you are in the midst of constructing a culture from a people were basically stateless for seven, eight hundred years living in between someone's German, Russian or Lithuanian Catholic political project. Basically, Ukrainians were always in between Russians and Germans. I mean, they had an aristocracy, but for the most part, they were not seen aristocratic by their German and Russian overlords—although they had the, you know, secondary relationship to the Russians within the Russian imperial and communist political project, where they were seen as equals. You can become a Russian general in the tsar's army as a Ukrainian, you can become a member of the aristocracy, you can become secretary-general of a communist party. So, Ukrainians are to the Russians as Scots are to the English within the British colonial problem.
Justin E.H. Smith 09:40
Interesting comparison. Yeah. So what is the likely outcome, in your view, with respect to national identity for Ukrainians, five to ten years down the line of this war? I mean, nobody knows for sure—
Vladislav Davidzon 09:59
Nobody knows for sure.
Justin E.H. Smith 10:00
And you might want to give your best-case and worst-case scenario.
Vladislav Davidzon 10:03
Yeah, this is great. Yeah. So, my prediction is this: that the Ukrainian state will survive in one way or another. It will be a rump state, it will have access to ports. Will Putin just croak and the Russian political elite go back to normal with the West? No one knows. I mean, they fought well enough that it's seems most probable that some amount of Ukrainian land, maybe 60 percent, 50 percent, 70 percent of what we had on February 24th, will be in a Ukrainian political project if the Russians are brought back to the boundaries on February 24th. I do believe that the Russians are fighting badly and that the Ukrainians are getting more and more weaponry. It's been a grim time and I've had some grim conversations and it's going to be a tough fight, and the Ukrainians are holding on by a string in many places including Mykolaiv. The Russians may very well take more places like Kharkiv, they may very well take places like Zaporizhzhia, they may have another go at Kyiv—you never know. So it could really go either way. Total victory now of Ukraine is between 5 and 15 percent, survival as a economically viable sovereign nation-state fifty-fifty at this point, unless other things change, which—a lot can happen. So that's that. Let's say there is something there to salvage. It depends on how badly or well they do in the war. It's entirely possible that the Russians do succeed in partitioning the state. There'll be tens of millions of very angry, unhappy refugees into western Lviv area, and it will be very, very, very nasty in terms of its bitterness, for obvious and completely understandable reasons. Polity full of traumatized people who will transform it into a militarized, autarchic, really nationalist state with the kinds of relationships with its with its outer border that Israel has—actually that's changing very quickly. But the example of Israel is something that—
Justin E.H. Smith 12:14
Zelensky has brought this comparison up, with the Israelization of Ukraine.
Vladislav Davidzon 12:19
That's right. So that's, you know, obviously, that's an interesting comparison. I don't think that's going to happen. I don't think the Russians are going to take Kyiv, they just don't have the capacity. I don't think they're going to partition the state. I do think that the Ukrainians are going to be successful retaking Kherson and not Mariupol for various reasons—the Russians won't give that up. Including the fact that there's too many bodies there. They need to keep evidence from The Hague. They're going to fight very hard to keep Mariupol. So that's the military stuff. What will happen with identity is that—I don't believe that Pushkin will be canceled all across southern Ukraine in a way that lots of people want. In fact, I'm personally, I'm not into canceling Pushkin. Pushkin's just another bohemian guy like me, you know, who drank and ran around and had a good time. You know, Pushkin's is not responsible for any of this. And there will be a lot of people who want to become really, really, really patriotic Ukrainians, but still want to speak Russian at home. Obviously, 90 percent of the population now are really, really patriotic. Nothing builds social cohesion like getting your house blown up in the middle of night for no reason. So, it'll be a new, fused binary culture. It will be a lot more Ukrainization and it will happen quickly. But I still think that the south and the southeast will still be really Russophone, although a lot of young people will switch to Ukrainian for patriotic reasons. So there's my there's my very, very, very tacit and very light prediction.
Justin E.H. Smith 13:57
That seems plausible. Now, you've seen over the past few months, you've seen a lot of the work close up, haven't you? What's been most striking or perhaps difficult to process that you want to disclose?
Vladislav Davidzon 14:15
So, I will not be disclosing some things that are very personal or very private, or that I signed NDAs, or where I broke laws in multiple countries in order to help people—I did, and I don't feel bad about it whatsoever. I did all sorts of things. I had all sorts of experiences, all sorts of very interesting experiences. And, I mean, war is catastrophic. When you're just running around with men and guns on the front line, it's, you know, tremendously interesting. When you see young women arriving in Poland and asking for abortion pills for, you know, pills because they got raped by the Russian soldiers who let them out of the checkpoint that morning. They arrive and the first thing they get to Poland and there's no abortion rights in Poland. That's not pretty. You see people with everything that they own in the back of our car, the car's shut up. They have kids written on Scotch Tape on the back of their trunk, so the Russians won't shoot at them. They have all their worldly possessions in this beat up little Volkswagen on the Polish border, and you give them fifty dollars and they start weeping. I've had experiences that, you know, traumatic experiences, and watched the most horrific things. The thing about war, if we're gonna get to the philosophy of war, is that it it unbundles the taboos of ordinary social life. It's simply unbundles taboos. Civilized life is based on all sorts of taboos and wartime they're either disregarded, inverted, or they're humorous. I can give you an example of a philosophical example of a taboo. If I come to Justin Smith's apartment, and I move his stuff around—I don't steal anything, but I just move his stuff around while looking for food, or looking at his computer or something—that is absolutely ridiculous from Justin Smith's own boundaries…
Justin E.H. Smith 16:25
Never happens in peacetime.
Vladislav Davidzon 16:26
Never happens in peacetime. But if everything outside the house is being blown up, it doesn't matter if anymore if I just go into your bedroom and look at your stuff, or look for some food, or look for some papers to bring you. So that is that is a taboo that is unbundled. It doesn't matter anymore. Taboos fall away. That's what war does. It intensifies relations and emotional states to their maximal level, and it unbundles all the various things that we use to live in civilized ways. Except the very worst stuff like genocide and rape, mass rape, you know, we still keep as a taboo, but war does the most horrific things to societies and to people's minds. It basically melts people's brains, you know?
Justin E.H. Smith 17:14
Yeah. What about the inversion, though, because obviously, people still have morality and loyalty and so on. But it's more focused on specific people, on our own people rather than the other people, right. So it's not as if war is simply all against all, or a completely animalistic degeneration, it's more a reshuffling of our conception of who we owe something to.
Vladislav Davidzon 17:46
You think so, and I would think so. But then you see so many random acts of complete, tremendously unexplainable kindness and generosity, and the same kinds of unexplainable acts of cruelty. So, in the midst of war, you see, the things that you as a misanthrope expect to see having read, having read your Foucault and your misanthropic philosophers. You expect to see the worst things about human nature, and you do. People making fortunes under the cover of night. You see people stealing their friends' stuff, you see people sending people that they lived with to to get shot—you see the most horrible things. But also you see people randomly picking up kids of dead neighbors and taking them, adopting them on the spot and taking them across the country. You see people giving away all their cash for random people. You see people engaging in completely random or randomized, seemingly randomized, acts of extraordinary generosity. So what war does—it kind of parses human capacity to its maximal state. Your emotional state is at its maximal. You either collapse from exhaustion, or some people rise, the heroic. Some people have intense internal reservoirs of virtue, of bravery that no one knew about. Some people who announce that they're going to be tough guys run away. I was drinking with a very tough guy, Georgian officer, the head of one of the volunteer battalions, two days before the war, and he was a tough guy with a big beard and huge muscles. And he's screaming how he's going to eat the Russians with with his own bare hands, and he's going to eat them and rip them rip their intestines out. And he's been training from us for ten years. A month later, I was getting a ride from Dnipro to the Battle of Severodonetsk by a reconnaissance officer who was with him at the Battle of Hostomel. He's like, yeah, that guy, he ran away. He just, like—the car behind him got blown up and the car behind that car got blown up, and he freaked out and he drove away. So, you never you never know. Some little kids, young people, young women stand up and they're full of tremendous bravery. And some tough guy, Caucasian—not Caucasian in the white sense— Real Caucasians, bearded guys from the Caucuses who have been fighting their entire life, run away from the Battle of Hostomel. And you don't know what's going to happen, it's completely randomized.
Justin E.H. Smith 20:21
Real Caucasions. [Laughs.] Yeah. So you obviously have read widely literary representations of war and you know history and all of that. Is there anything about the nature of war that you could not have understood until you were on the frontlines in Ukraine?
Vladislav Davidzon 20:54
Yes, I'd spent a lot of time in places like Iran and Iraq and other places like that. Africa, Gaza, Palestinian situation, you know. But in this situation I have skin in the game. I had to take my own relatives out, I took five of my own relatives out with my own money. Being treated as a refugee on the border as opposed to a journalist is completely different.
Justin E.H. Smith 21:19
That was in Moldova?
Vladislav Davidzon 21:20
Once in Moldova and once in Romania. And once in Poland. I've gone in and out three or four countries, but not Hungary, though. On the Romanian border I was treated as a refugee. And the Red Cross was like, "Sir, do you want some tea?" I said, "No, no, I'm a London council." "Sir, would you like some tea?" I said yes. [Laughs.] After six hours in the snow in March on the Romanian border, "You want some tea?"—it doesn't matter who you are. So wars—one, absolutely exhilarating. Two, it's absolutely exhausting and destructive to any capacity to live a normal life. Three, no one explains to you just how bad an explosion near your head is for mixing up your brain. It's still reverberating in my head months later. PTSD is real, post traumatic stress disorder is absolutely real. Anyone who is in a war zone will have one degree or another. I am very resilient. I've been trained for this. I get off on this. I enjoy this. But doesn't mean that the damage to whatever parts of the sensitive parts of my brain isn't real. And I have no compunction about playing the tough guy about that. There will be tremendous trauma to all of us, that will be intergenerational, that this maniac Putin has caused. There will be generations of traumatized kids, there'll be generations of Ukrainian soldiers running around with post traumatic stress disorder committing crimes, committing suicide, acting out in public spaces. I've seen a lot of it already. I mean, how many times have I flown into Kyiv and some guy from the from the frontline will just start screaming when a woman touched his bag in the overhead compartment, starts screaming. And, you know, you've already seen a lot of PTSD in society, but then the trauma and the pain that this has brought to the society will compound the preexisting trauma, and it's very bad. So that's what they never teach you about: how exhilarating it is, in literature, how exhausting and deafening and demoralizing it is, and how much a Russian Grad missile landing five hundred meters from you does to disorient you and your senses.
Justin E.H. Smith 23:52
Now, so Putin is a maniac. That is, among other things, a judgment that suggests that you think he could have done differently, that suggests in turn, perhaps, that human beings don't really need war. War is not an actual part—a necessary, ineliminable part of human life, right? If we just could somehow get the maniacs out of leadership roles, then we could live in peace. Do you think that's true, or do you think there's something, so to speak, unavoidable about war in human history?
Vladislav Davidzon 24:41
I do not believe that war can ever be eradicated from the human condition. I believe that war is part of the human condition. I believe that scarcity of resources is part of the human condition. I believe that there are levels of emotional, psychological, social development. This is a very nineteenth-century ways of being for societies as well as individuals, where a tribe or nation or family is on the rise, and then it's going to become strong and then civilized and decadent. We can't talk about this way now, in our post-temporal space. But war is something that is bred into us. And its evolutionary structures are inside of us, because we're absolutely monkeys, we're apes, right? I mean, speak for yourself, are you a risen ape, or a fallen angel? I'm no fucking angel, my friend.
Justin E.H. Smith 25:37
Well, look, I mean, we are indeed apes. But you might also think that war, as we understand it today, is a consequence of the formation of empires, of complex societies with territorial interests, and that this might represent a certain stage of humanity that comes, say, between hunting and gathering, and whatever in the distant future we might have without—
Vladislav Davidzon 26:16
AI cyborg worlds.
Justin E.H. Smith 26:19
Right, right, right. But yeah, on the other hand, there is a curious sense in which I feel like we've been thrust back into the late nineteenth century all of a sudden.
Vladislav Davidzon 26:34
In all the best ways.
Justin E.H. Smith 26:35
Well, in some good ways, but in some bad ways, right? I did not—up until February 2022, I myself was at least somewhat convinced that great power conflict was coming to an end in favor of, you know, kind of low-level things like hacking and cyberterrorism, things like this that made dispute over territory, buffer zones, and things like that seem really old fashioned. And so, when the invasion actually happened, it seemed to me like a throwback. Putin seemed like he was doing something that belonged in 1914.
Vladislav Davidzon 27:23
Justin E.H. Smith 27:24
And that didn't really have a place in the world anymore. Is that just because I've been living in a bubble, whereas Putin has not been?
Vladislav Davidzon 27:32
No. And yes, actually. I mean, we're returning to whatever you want to call the interregnum after the after the dissolution of the Soviet Union, whatever you want to call that post Cold War consensus, that twenty, 25 years of peace that the Americans bought for the world and also squandered immediately, immensely. This is our own fault. I mean, twenty years, a generation of American policymakers, squandering that twenty-year peace, to create something good financially. I mean, we're not going to go into all the many problems of America. But the West squandered an opportunity after the dissolution of the Soviet Union. It was possible that perhaps we'd go with enough power off into the future where we'd have Pax Americana for another hundred, two hundred years. That didn't happen. We had 25 good years. And now we in Eastern Europe have ruptured post-historical, post-violent, post-hunter-gatherer, post-whatever consensus that the neoliberals had said was going to hold for all time. I mean, the Russians, if it wasn't literal enough, they literally sanctioned and deported Francis Fukuyama from Moscow like a month ago. They literally said, we're sanctioning Francis Fukuyama. The end of history is over, our friend.
Justin E.H. Smith 28:57
That is really the end of history. The end of the end of his—
Vladislav Davidzon 29:00
The end of the end of history is when the Russian government literally sanctions Francis Fukuyama. What else do you need to know? That's, that's it. I do believe that Western Europe and Canada and America were living in a bubble. And that they did not understand the way that real power dynamics work in the real world, in Eastern Europe and in the rest of the world. For a long time they had so much prosperity and so much economic and political power and such a strong army that they were able for a generation to protect themselves from the real world and the way things work. That was not the case in Eastern Europe. In Eastern Europe for twenty years we ate the—I have a friend who refers to it, can I use some curse words?
Justin E.H. Smith 29:46
Of course you can.
Vladislav Davidzon 29:47
Thank you. I have a friend who refers to it as the Holodomor Holocaust Communist shit sandwich. So we in Eastern Europe—all of us, the Hungarians, the Poles, the Russians, the Ukrainians, the Belarusian state in their own weirdo, epistemic bubble, they prefer to stay in their own little world—but all of us, the Russians, the Ukrainians, the Hungarians, the Poles, the Czechs, all of us who had gone through the Holodomor, the Holocaust, Communism, Russian imperialism, Red Army imperialism, we spent twenty years sorting ourselves out economically and politically. Some of us did that right. Most of us didn't do it right. And we spent twenty years sorting out the consequences of the collapse of the Soviet Union. To some extent that time is over, and we've returned, now that no one is any longer forcing us to behave ourselves, that the Hungarians and the Poles and the Czechs have eaten their incentives to behave themselves by becoming members of the European Union and NATO, and the Russians went back to autarkic fascism of whatever sort, toxic nostalgia, and Ukrainians were caught between two worlds or unable to join either one completely for various structural reasons. We're going back to history. We're literally injecting Francis Fukuyama from our capitals. We're literally rearming, we're literally going back to, like, really conservative nationalist values of a kind that win wars, right? All our hipsters in Ukraine fight—the entire hipster class, from the writers, to the filmmakers, to the poets, to the translators—all the hipster men that I know with beards, who are in publishing or in media, or writing poetry or writing bad novels, they all join the Ukrainian army or the territorial defense units, right? It's almost as if though, that that's as much as to say that they're not hipsters anymore, right? Because the whole hipster affect—this is just a tangent, by the way—was, to my mind, a symptom of the illusion of the end of history and the West. And once you're thrust back into history, you can't live your life in, so to speak, scare quotes anymore. Correct. Look, I still go to museums and wear black glasses and funny bespoke suits. And I also go to war, it's okay. [inaudible] rights. I mean, I literally grew up in in Brooklyn, avoiding my—because my family had an apartment in Moscow and literally, from the time I was eighteen to the time I was 28, thankfully no longer young enough to be conscripted to the Russian army, every year at induction time the army guys would come to my father's apartment, and say, where's young Vladislav? He has to serve in the army.
Justin E.H. Smith 32:47
Vladislav Davidzon 32:48
At the time I was living in Williamsburg, the hipster life, and reading books and going to CUNY and studying philosophy with Marshall Berman and Simon Critchley. In this very personal encapsulation of—you know, [inaudible] famously said, against the construct of—better to be a member of the Red Army than a hipster. He said, better to serve. I don't remember the exact phrase, but better to serve wearing the steel helmet of the Red Army than to eat cheeseburgers in Brooklyn. Now, I I had the choice and I actually went for cheeseburgers and Brooklyn. It's much better, I have to tell you. [Laughs.] So [inaudible] was entirely wrong in the conjecture, that it is better to be a member of the Red Army meant to be hipster. It's not, clearly not. But our hipsters in Ukraine who are strong, and they're liberal nationalists, and they're healthy, and there's nothing unhealthy about them whatsoever—they're not decadent at all, they're strong. They still have beards, and they still drink fun beers.
Justin E.H. Smith 34:03
But they're not like the Caucasian guy's beard. [Laughs.]
Vladislav Davidzon 34:06
Justin E.H. Smith 34:09
I remember when I was in Beirut at some point in a bar, there was some kind of graphic poster over the bar on how to distinguish an Islamist beard from a hipster beard. In case you were worried.
Vladislav Davidzon 34:27
That's about right.
Justin E.H. Smith 34:28
Yeah. But no, look, we're not talking about—Well, no, I mean, this is irrelevant, it's not that it's not that this question is irrelevant because it does raise an important issue about liberalism in the post-Soviet sphere, right. And I can think back to the 1990s with, you know, Jeffrey Sachs shock therapy type stuff.
Vladislav Davidzon 34:51
Justin E.H. Smith 34:52
Where it was as if the Americans who were parachuting in to fix the place just could not get it through their heads that this region had a history at all, and that the people who were living there were living out their histories, and you couldn't just kind of immediately plant the seed of this kind of contextless history-less liberal free market and expect it to thrive, right. But now, in the present moment, we understand that hopefully somewhat better, but we still do place some hope in the forces of liberalism in Ukraine, right? We think that's a real kind of indigenous spirit that is going to in the future be a success story, and maybe even a kind of a beacon for the rest of Eastern Europe.
Vladislav Davidzon 35:55
Oh, yeah. I mean, I'm only quasi-trolling when I tweet things like, we Eastern Europeans, we Ukrainians will save Western civilization from its decadent torpor. I'm only quasi-joking. Russians and Ukrainians say: yest dolya shutki v kazhdoy shutki, there's a portion of a joke in every joke.
Justin E.H. Smith 36:20
Vladislav Davidzon 36:23
That's funny, right? But I love that thing. When I learned it I was so happy, even as a Russian Ukrainian I was so happy when I learned that saying. There is absolutely a rupture in post-historical time. It's over. We were stupid, where we pretended that the time was over. I mean, this was something that was completely normative in certain sectors of society, in America, in academia, in the West amongst advanced social classes in the UK and Canada, in France—we were playing games. History is never over. It's only over if you build enough imperial force in order to keep the forces of contrapuntal violence at bay. I sound rather conservative, don't I?
Justin E.H. Smith 37:19
Ah, well, difficult to classify as usual.
Vladislav Davidzon 37:24
Thank you so much. Thank you so much. I'm all for LGBT rights in Ukraine. I mean, I'm all for all that. And, you know—
Justin E.H. Smith 37:32
But that's actually an interesting, I mean, maybe another issue but the way I read somewhere recently that support for LGBT rights has spiked in Ukraine over the past months, almost as if this is kind of a shibboleth of Western belonging.
Vladislav Davidzon 37:51
This is something that's pushed on them from externally. And the classes in Ukraine—which are, let's say, the intelligentsia and the opinion-making classes or the activist classes—they're more formally integrated, assimilated into, let's say, those kinds of Western dialogues. All my friends amongst intelligentsia and art classes and filmmakers, and the writers in Kyiv and Odesa and Kharkiv—none of them are against gay marriage. No one is, you know. Trans rights is nowhere near our universe, that has nothing to do with politics there. And there's no real left to right politics in Ukraine. There's no workers and bosses, there's no left and right. There's no—everyone's basically like center, right, conservative. It's a heavily agrarian culture. Most people are farmers outside of these towns where I hang out with intelligentsia people. There's a lot less caste hierarchy and class hierarchy, because almost everyone is poor. And the middle class is so small compared to a country on the same developmental trajectory like North Korea or Poland—South Korea, sorry.
Justin E.H. Smith 39:02
[Laughs.] It's not that bad.
Vladislav Davidzon 39:03
Not that bad. It's South Korea and Poland. There's a very, very, very small middle class, a huge, huge amount of people who are struggling and a very, very, very small, oligarchic elite which controls vast swathes of the economy. So the caste politics is a lot less of it. It's a much more coherent society. I could be friends with a bus driver, or I could be friends with an oligarch, or an oligarch will be friends with his high school bus driver friend, because they still love each other in a way that you would not see in Paris or New York or London or Brisbane or Paris or wherever. That's good, that's a coherent society. Even though income inequality is something you can basically not even comprehend by Western standards. You know, the politicians will be—if people from a political or hipster class—will be much more assimilated. They have the same values as the normies, let's say, and they're still religious, it's not a post-religious society. And, you know, in the West, the people who rule basically have a different civilizational set of values than the people they rule.
Justin E.H. Smith 40:16
Vladislav Davidzon 40:17
That's the case in France, that's the case in the U.K., that's the case in America. I haven't studied enough late Roman imperial stuff in order to understand what the secret laws of history are for that, there probably are. There are people who study them. I do have books on my bookshelf, people who send me them, like, where's this I have a—
Justin E.H. Smith 40:37
Vladislav is currently looking at his bookshelf for some reason. [Laughs.] It's not ideal for the audio.
Vladislav Davidzon 40:50
Not ideal for the audio. I went to my bookshelf to look for all these books that I have on the on the cyclical collapse of civilizations. So, you know, the West is in trouble in the way that Ukraine is not. Ukraine has a lot of problems, but they're not spiritual problems, you know.
Justin E.H. Smith 41:07
Can you imagine any plausible scenario in which the Americans or the Western Europeans rediscover what you might call—I'm more hesitant—but what you might call martial virtues?
Vladislav Davidzon 41:28
I would call them martial virtues. I would absolutely call them martial virtues. Yeah, look, that's a great question. And the reason that, obviously, the reason that the entire West held its breath for the first two, three months. Obviously, there's a lot of Ukraine fatigue setting in. But the reason everyone pitched in to help and the entire world raised Ukrainian flags everywhere, and everyone watched with tremendous trepidation and tremendous reverence is that no one has seen these virtues on display in the West for several generations. You—by you, I mean, I'm American citizen, I grew up in Brooklyn eating cheeseburgers, as Khrennikov said—we, the West felt some amount of shame. Because they know very well that if Russians start bombing their cities, they're not going to react like this, they're not going to all fight, they're not going to stand up with tremendous reverence and piety and martial virtue and strength. You're not going to have everyone banding together to get women and kids out, you're not going to have women with machine guns. But I've seen women on the frontlines with machine guns and sniper rifles that are tougher than 40 percent of the male population of France, or Spain, or Portugal, or Canada, or some other post-historical nation. Now, you know, not to make any judgments. [Laughs.]
Justin E.H. Smith 42:57
None at all. [Laughs.] Just a few more thoughts on the United States, though, the United States is really a peculiar case, though, because there are more guns in that country than citizens. There are like 400 million firearms.
Vladislav Davidzon 43:14
Justin E.H. Smith 43:15
But as far as I can tell, no one actually believes that they're going to be using them except perhaps to shoot up elementary schools and things like that. And so it's a very, very deviant place with respect to violence because it's still got the violence but no martial virtue, right. And if you just put it in the abstract and contrast it like that, I would say, well, there is something to be said for martial virtue if it means fighting a really perfidious enemy rather than, say, fighting innocent elementary school kids.
Vladislav Davidzon 43:54
Yeah. So, okay, but you know, 40 percent of America—let's call them real America, red, red team America, red America, they're really different. And they're evolving in two different directions, right? The same way that Eastern Europe is evolving away from Western Europe and Poland and Brussels are only now in a symbiotic relationship because of this war because the traditional enemy of the Pole is the Russian. The Bucharest and Budapest and Warsaw have been—more Warsaw and Budapest—have been sundered from each other because of events on the ground. Whereas the Hungarians are playing a double game and they're continuously integrating with the Russian economy, and they're not fighting, although they're helping refugees. And they still hate Brussels. The Poles now hate Brussels because their Brussels isn't doing enough. The Poles are carrying the burden on their back militarily and refugee wise. But you had for the last ten years, in the same way that half of America going in one direction and the other half of America is going another direction in terms of internal evolution of values. And this isn't to say that one is better than the other, they both have values. And any value has good traits to it and bad traits, good outcomes, bad outcomes. One man's carefulness is another man's, you know, Berlinian cowardice. You know, one man's honorable bravery is another man's foolhardy ridiculousness, as you wrote about—meanwhile, your essays, my dear friend.
Justin E.H. Smith 45:30
Vladislav Davidzon 45:33
So, you know, you have this same internal process happening in America and inside of Europe, where you have a distinction between Western Europe and Eastern Europe, or Eastern Europe has not exited history. And red-state America has not exited whatever you want to call it—the economic system, the political economic system that it had where blue-state America is now services and financialization and banking, whatever, post-industrial. The same thing is happening internally within the UK, within France. This is a crisis of meaning, and a crisis of, of political economy, and a crisis of coherent nation-building within the West, universal. It's just happening within the European Union at the level of the Poles, the Hungarians, to some extent the Slovenians, to some extent the Czechs and maybe a little bit the Romanians against the Western European. But the war, because Russia is, of course, an existential threat to the Poles for historical reasons, has cut the Poles away from that—let's call it an alliance, right? So now for the next year or two Warsaw and Budapest are no longer going to be bound. Warsaw is going to be bound to Brussels. So you have a massive schism in values, right? Again, neither good nor bad, as outside observers of philosophical processes, neither good nor bad. You have different values, you'll need different values to do different kinds of things, to run different kinds of economies, to run different kinds of societies. And there's a multiplicity of values in the world. And if you have peace, it's probably better to invest in peaceful values. And if you have war, you should invest in martial virtues. And we're at war right now.
Justin E.H. Smith 47:18
Right, right. It's a very peculiar thing with Western Europe, though. When I looked, for example, at the charts showing the relative amount of contributions to the war effort in Ukraine, the United States, compared to all of the rest of Western Europe combined—the United States is massively more present. And it seems to me that Western Europe is in a very different bubble than the United States, in that it still relies on the postwar order that the victorious U.S. set up, but is also able to kind of go on pretending that it is civilizationally beyond all that military.
Vladislav Davidzon 48:17
10,000 percent, yeah. This is the American in me talking. I like it.
Justin E.H. Smith 48:22
Yeah. I don't know how to resolve this. I mean, it's—
Vladislav Davidzon 48:24
It's absolutely true. You don't need to resolve it. That's an empirical statement of fact. But also okay, you have to break that down, let's say like 75 percent or 80 percent of NATO's budget is American. Well, that's not a bug, it's a feature. We wanted to keep the Europeans from killing each other. I mean, we created a little little zoo for them to develop after killing each other for two wars, keep them from communists on one hand, keep them from fascists on the other one. This was a kill zone. In between Nazis and and Communists. And we created for them a little garden, a little zoo in which they could live for three generations. And slough off their martial virtues. They did that, the Germans especially did a very good job of that. And this was American policy. So on the one hand as a Jew, and as someone who, you know—my great grandparents were killed by Nazis and my my grandfathers fought in the Red Army against this—this was state policy. We all did this together, we needed to neuter the Germans, and now we neutered them and they're useless. Not only are they useless, they actually spent twenty years coupling their energy market to the Russians to the point where decoupling means that they lose basically 45 percent of our gas, and they're going to have a recession. They know it very well. They have no economy without Russian energy. They stupidly shut off all their nuclear power plant because again, for these very same delusional reasons. The French have nuclear power, which is why they're independent, they cannot be delusional. The Germans embraced green ideas, which are great if you live in, I don't know, somewhere in New Zealand, and you have no natural predators around you. But they shut off their their nuclear gas and their nuclear stations, and they, they coupled their entire industrial behemoth to Russian gas and oil, and they can't uncouple it. And if they do, and which is going to happen one way or another anyway, you're going to have a gas crisis. In the autumn, you're going to have enough for consumers not to freeze to death, but you're going to have German industry working three days, four days, a week maximum. You're going to have a massive recession and the Germans are going to have to take it. This is what's going to happen again, to move from philosophy to futurology and geopolitics and history and gas prices. Anyone who's watching what the Russians were doing at the level of manipulating European gas markets over the last year knew. You only had to see what they were doing in terms of processing contracts through through Ukrainian pipelines. We knew for a year, anyone who's watching, that the Ukrainians were not getting their transit fees because the Russians were were pumping up the price of gas in order to have reserves, in order to have artificial shortfalls in order to create artificial high prices, gases up 700 percent in six months, you know that?
Justin E.H. Smith 51:32
Vladislav Davidzon 51:33
It's incredible. And this was straight up preparation for war. A lot of what the Russians were doing over the last two years, weird things like blowing up ammo depots in in the Czech Republic and buying up old Soviet shells from African states and Central European states, Warsaw Pact states, a lot of it was them preparing for war. The Germans had ample time to at least make some sort of effort to uncouple themselves. They didn't do that. That is a question of political philosophy and psychology as much as it is geopolitics and economic dependence. And the things that you're saying about them living in a dreamland, paid for by the American, the Canadian taxpayer? That's completely correct. And should we should we respect this? I don't know.
Justin E.H. Smith 52:23
Well, you can certainly understand where it comes from, and see the beneficent reasons behind the transformation of German society without denying that it had some long-term consequences that are less desirable.
Vladislav Davidzon 52:40
Correct. I mean, look—my family did this, your family did this. We all pitched in to neuter the Germans. It had to be done after what they did, you know. But, but now they're not just a problem, they're a liability.
Justin E.H. Smith 52:55
And I suppose France because of its deep-seated, long historical pride in its refusal to give up its place among the muscle-flexing nations is—
Vladislav Davidzon 53:09
Is ironically well placed to do things.
Justin E.H. Smith 53:11
Yeah, yeah, it's very strange. So, are you going back soon?
Vladislav Davidzon 53:18
Oh, yeah. I'm flying to New York to see some people tomorrow. After that I arrive back and I'm going to Moldova. I'm accompanying the head of the British parliamentary defense committee to Odesa. I'm actually going to shepherd around the head of the British parliament defense committee around the southern Ukraine for three, four days. We're gonna go see some army guys, some governors, some spooks, it'll be a lot of fun. I'll write a piece of that'll be on the open sphere. After that I'm gonna go to Mykolaiv, deliver some supplies and aid, then go to Kyiv to see some political people, see what's going on, and then probably exit through Warsaw, or Moldova, and then I'm going to go to Greece and sit there for two weeks and write a novel.
Justin E.H. Smith 54:12
Vladislav Davidzon 54:13
As one does.
Justin E.H. Smith 54:15
I guess we're supposed to kind of try to come to a definition. That's what we usually do, though, here. I mean, maybe one way of framing the question is about the transhistorical nature of war, right. I said that up until February, I was convinced that, or I was inclined to think that war as we used to understand it, you know, trench war between great powers over territory, was fizzling out, was on its way out in world history. And now I think I'm wrong about that. It shows no obvious sign of going away.
Vladislav Davidzon 55:03
Justin E.H. Smith 55:04
But it could, you know, we could shift more to, you know, war by, like I said, things like cyberterrorism, drones and so on. But is there something constant and transhistorical that underlies all of that, that goes back to battering rams and catapults and all of that? Or is there something that at some point becomes so different that it no longer makes sense to call it by the same name? That's what I've been wondering. recently.
Vladislav Davidzon 55:38
I want to split the point. I'm going to split in two directions, I want to complicate it a little bit. It was obvious to us already in 2014 that the post-historical world order was done. The Americans did nothing when—or very little, for various important and complex reasons we're not going to go into—about Crimea being stolen. The European map was rewritten by the Russians. That was basically the first order challenge to the postwar consensus, the liberal consensus, the old American liberal worldview, World Order, whatever you want to call it, you know, different people call different things—American world domination, liberal world order, or post Soviet consensus, post Cold War consensus, postwar consensus, different people call it different things. But it was obvious that the only reason that the Russian soldiers didn't march all the way to Kyiv eight years ago—it's just that they weren't ready for it and the Ukrainians fault well, they fought them to a standstill. This war of territory has already been going on for eight years, just was launched in a completely radical way in February of this year. Relaunched, revitalized, whatever you want to call it. So in a way, I want to back you up on your deep skepticism of the collapse of that kind of post-historical order. This isn't just about land. This is an ideological war that Moscow is is fighting against the idea of a liberal Russian state, post Cold War Russian liberal state against the collapse of the final disillusion. Serhii Plokhii says this is the collapse of the last empire collapsing, the dissolution of the Soviet Union thirty years onwards still taking place. Against that dissolution, against Ukrainian nationhood as a liberal democratic state, pluckily living and pluckily moving into the future right next to them and giving a bad example to Russian voters. Against NATO as a world-spanning, continent-spanning military alliance that keeps this kind of thing from happening, like a proper IR theory, revisionist power thing, right? Just a proper, not very complex idea in IR theory. Like IR theory 101, revisionist powers see declining powers and they take a stab at increasing their resources and territory and prestige. Basic stuff, IR theory that they teach grad students in their first year at Columbia SIPA or whatever, or even third-year student in political philosophy or political theory or international relations somewhere else undergrad. But this was an ideological war. This was an attack by the post liberals on the liberal consensus.
Justin E.H. Smith 58:39
Vladislav Davidzon 58:40
I mean, it's very difficult to actually understand what Putin believes because he's such a troll. He's hilarious.
Justin E.H. Smith 58:47
You said that war is traumatizing. And it's exhilarating.
Vladislav Davidzon 58:53
Justin E.H. Smith 58:53
This is a maybe a personal question. But I have to know: Do you feel like the two of those go together naturally? Are you drawn, are you exhilarated by precisely that which is traumatizing? In other words, are you being driven back to Ukraine by the death drive?
Vladislav Davidzon 59:20
Well, this is a deep psychoanalysis here. I'm about to see my shrink to discuss this very same thing at six o'clock. So let's begin the process here. Look, parsing out what your desires are, and what your values are, what your deep needs are from your pathologies is always difficult. These are my people. These are my people, and literally my people, my family members who I got out, people who I broke laws to help get out, men of military age who are not allowed out of Ukraine. I'm not gonna say exactly what I did, but I helped various men who needed to get out who were on the kill lists. There were a lot of men who didn't need to be in places like Kharkiv, or Kherson, or Mariupol anymore, I got those out. I feel immensely proud of myself. I was bred for this, I was absolutely bred for this. I spent a lot of time in South Brooklyn with men with guns as a teenager, around very tough guys, I went to tough schools, I was given training by various security services—I was bred for this, these are my people. I feel a responsibility for them. I would not be able to respect myself if I did not go back and spend eighty, ninety days there doing what I needed to do. And obviously, I needed to rest after that, and that's okay. But these are, these are, these are my ancestral lands. These are my people. I'm deeply tribal. I'm deeply tribal with my friends with my family, the people I love, the artists that are around me, I'm extraordinarily tribal. I am a Ukrainian Jew who's born in Central Asia, I am deeply tribal. And I was incredibly happy to meet so many Ukrainian servicemen on the Eastern Front, who are like, "I'm a liberal nationalist." You know, I see no contradiction between my being a nationalist, my being a cosmopolitan, my being a kind of reactionary, apologist for the Western canon, Western civilization, and being a liberal. I just see no, I see no contradictions.
Justin E.H. Smith 1:01:33
It's a very special cocktail.
Vladislav Davidzon 1:01:37
Thank you. I like to think I'm a special guy. And you as well. [Laughs.]
Justin E.H. Smith 1:01:41
Listen, be careful when you're back in Ukraine.
Vladislav Davidzon 1:01:44
Thank you, sir.
Justin E.H. Smith 1:01:45
Whatever the necessity of war and strife in human existence. We still want you to be alive and well.
Vladislav Davidzon 1:01:56
Thank you. Yeah, we need to do this again.
Justin E.H. Smith 1:01:58
Yeah. Once again, this has been Vladislav Davidson, speaking with me about war and what it is. Let me mention his book just one more time. His most recent book, From Odessa with Love: Political and Literary Essays from Post-Soviet Ukraine. Vladislav, it's always a pleasure to talk to you.
Vladislav Davidzon 1:02:19
Thank you so much.