No surprise

It comes as no surprise to me that Yulia Navalnaya took no time at all to become a prominent and courageous dissenting voice following her husband’s death. Back in June of last year, I noted the central role of women in fighting for liberal democracy against the Putin regime, both on the front lines and on the home front.

I also want to note the arrest earlier today of a female U.S. citizen in Yekaterinburg for donating $50.00 to Razom, the Russian government charging her with “treason for sending just over $50 to Razom for Ukraine, a New York-based nonprofit organization that sends assistance to the country,” according to this New York Times report. You know what to do — but I wouldn’t travel to Russia anytime soon.

Making the recent rounds of social media is the below TED presentation about Ukraine and democracy from Ukrainian historian Olesya Khromeychuk, who last November succinctly (in classic TED Talk form) “[shared] three lessons anybody can use to join the global fight for democracy.” Dr. Khromeychuk is currently the Director of the Ukrainian Institute London and the author of the fine wartime memoir The Death of a Soldier Told by His Sister, about which Simon Sebag Montefiore said: “Heartbreaking, agonizing, poetical and unforgettable. An immediate history of a cruel war and a personal chronicle of unbearable loss, beautifully and vividly told by a superb historian and elegant writer in a work that brings every death in Ukraine alive with transcendent grief and love.” No argument from me; you should read it yourself.



In the wake of a murder

I’m not given to audible gasps of shock, but I gasped when I read the news last Friday morning about Alexei Navalny’s death. The news should not have come as a surprise given the terrors of the Putin regime and its reaction to Navalny’s role as a dissident, but I was not emotionally or intellectually prepared for it. Until then, Navalny had seemed almost indestructible, a symbol of the human capacity to fight for justice and liberty. Of course he was never indestructible. None of us are. But such deaths can undermine the hope for meaningful political change, a hope that he and his supporters personified. And so I was stunned. (So was my daughter, who had written a report on Navalny as a middle-school assignment; she was devastated by the news when she saw it on social media.)

Navalny was murdered at a time in which the West’s attitude towards Putin’s Russia and the War in Ukraine had become profoundly ambivalent. The Kremlin’s increasing hostility to the needs and integrity of its own people had come to seem an internal matter; Tucker Carlson’s interview with Putin of only a few weeks ago generated little news or attention, and Donald Trump’s facile refusal to commit American support to NATO in the aftermath of hypothetical Russian invasions of other independent European countries appeared to reflect the sympathies of his isolationist base. Similarly, the second anniversary of Russia’s redoubled incursion into Ukrainian territory approached with American aid stalled in Congress and setbacks on the military front. Words like “fatigue” began to appear more frequently in the media — combat fatigue, compassion fatigue. The War in Gaza, because it’s more recent and has led to more controversial and violent protests domestically, received more attention. Military strategists often consider the difficulty of fighting a war on two or more fronts, or fighting two wars at the same time. It seems that American public discourse when it comes to foreign wars finds it difficult to focus on even one.

Both the internal crisis of Russia and the War in Ukraine have generated similar ambivalence; for some time it has seemed difficult to consider them together as part of the same threat to the West. There are good reasons for this. Historically, Central Europe was the home to the Holocaust, the Holodomor, and often virulent antisemitism, a history that still remains within the living experience of its victims, and those who participated in those horrors, and their children, still live and work in the region. Navalny’s early career as a Russian opposition leader flirted with racist nationalism and Islamophobia, trying to find common ground with far-right parties in an attempt to create a larger opposition coalition. Many have not forgotten nor forgiven him for this despite the evolution of his views towards a more liberal, inclusionist philosophy in recent years, especially after the 2022 invasion of Ukraine (incidentally the homeland of Navalny’s father; Navalny spent many summers there as a child). And despite Zelensky’s Jewish background and the contemporary status of Ukraine as a multiethnic and polyglot culture, the collaboration of a significant number of Ukrainians with the Nazi regime in the Second World War has similarly left many Americans cautious of support. This is not to mention continuing significant corruption in both countries, rendering international financial support an endeavor of dubious wisdom to some.

These are ugly facts, and they are facts — there’s no denying any of them. But to respond to them with bad-faith cynicism about the ability of individuals and cultures to meaningfully come to terms with their pasts and develop into more humanist, inclusive societies is a grotesque abandonment of our responsibilities as world citizens. Responsible individuals and governments acknowledge and condemn the missteps and evils of their pasts; authoritarian nationalists do not. (Indeed, Vienna’s Burgtheater has just revived Thomas Bernhard’s play Heldenplatz — a far more searing look at the history of the Holocaust and its contemporary significance than Tom Stoppard’s Leopoldstadt — which does exactly that.)

In the past few weeks I’ve written here quite a bit about civilization, specifically European civilization, and this civilization eventually developed into the background against which Western liberalism emerged. It is this Western liberalism that is at risk from the encroachment of nationalist authoritarians like Putin, Orban, Netanyahu, and Donald Trump (nationalist authoritarianism being the ugly flip side of genuine patriotism). Despite the beliefs of “Hey hey ho ho, Western culture’s got to go” progressives in the West, Western culture and liberalism — a liberalism based in 19th-century conceptions of the integrity of the individual conscience and the obligation to ameliorate the worst of a society’s ills as a primary responsibility of the government — did not invent racism or slavery; indeed that liberalism has led us to recognize them as the evils they are, and to do something about them. That it did not completely do so, and that it may never be finished doing so — that Western liberalism has not been able to entirely eradicate racism, slavery, antisemitism, or poverty — is only to confirm the observation of Immanuel Kant, one of the fathers of Western liberalism, that “Out of the crooked timber of humanity no straight thing was ever made.” Paradise is for the dead; we among the living are not granted citizenship in it.

So what does all of this have to do with Navalny and Ukraine? Well, everything, really. Western culture is situated in Europe, and it is this Europe that Putin seeks to destroy, that Trump and MAGA Republicans seek to abandon — and whether we like it or not, like the woman getting a manicure in the old Palmolive ads, American culture has been soaking in European culture from the beginning.

This morning, Alexei Navalny’s wife, Yulia, released the below video (with English subtitles), urging that with Navalny’s death we must redouble our efforts to defend those things that are most important to us; that the cause that Ukraine and Navalny represent is the noblest of causes, and that we must do the best we can to silence the bad-faith cynicism within ourselves that might be an understandable response to such crushing events as Navalny’s murder and Ukraine’s dire military predicament. As a first step you might consider a donation to Razom, the US-based Ukraine support group, or to Navalny’s own Anti-Corruption Foundation. As I say, only a first step. But as the road seems to be getting longer with every day, the journey doesn’t begin until that step is taken.


Back home

A few weeks ago I returned from my first visit to Vienna in about 15 years, and I returned feeling my connection with Eastern Europe more strongly than ever. (For the sake of argument, and I admit it’s arguable, I’ll posit the Rhine as the division point between Eastern and Western Europe; once one admits a Central Europe, things get even thornier.) Of course I was born in the United States, as were both my parents, but for generations before that, my ancestors were Eastern European — which may explain my comfort there and my discomfort here. I can’t call Eastern Europe home — home is where my family is, and they are here. But my affinity is for that culture more than for this one. As Timothy Garton Ash wrote, and whom I quoted in the short essay below:

Our identities are given but also made. We can’t choose our parents, but we can choose who we become. “Basically I’m Chinese,” Franz Kafka wrote in a postcard to his fiancée. If I say “basically I’m a central European” I’m not literally claiming descent from the central European Yiddish writer [Scholem] Asch, but declaring an elective affinity.

There are a few ways to declare that affinity; for example, I return from Austria more determined than before to enter the world of the German language more fully, and I’m taking lessons to that end. I’ve fired up Radio Klassik Stephansdom regularly since my return. And I’m revisiting the writers that Marjorie Perloff explored in her fine book Edge of Irony.

In a BBC documentary of a few years ago, historian Simon Sebag Montefiore called Vienna “the capital of the empire of the mind,” noting its location as the easternmost point of the West, first built as a military outpost to defend against barbarian attacks from the East. If we admit Germany to our definition of Eastern Europe, we find the highest achievements of the human spirit born in these lands: in architecture and design, the Stephansdom itself to the Wiener Werkstätte; in philosophy from Kant and Schopenhauer to Kraus and Wittgenstein; in literature from the printing press and the Nibelungenlied and Goethe to Musil and Paul Celan; in music from Bach and Beethoven to Schönberg; in science from Kepler and Leibniz to Freud and Einstein. We also find perhaps the height of discerning elegance and civility (not to mention a lively eros!). And even as Eastern European thinking and culture reached its apogee in the early twentieth century, it all came crashing down in a hysterical, militaristic, nationalism-fueled, and antisemitic apocalypse in the years between 1914 and 1945 that still beggars rational explanation, proof if any were needed that civilization is a very thin veneer. It’s getting thinner all the time. Nonetheless, it is this part of the world where my own affinities lie (you couldn’t pay me, for example, to set foot in the Middle East).

This is all to follow up, I suppose, with what I wrote back in June 2023, and which is reposted below.

The verdict is in. According to 23andme, “[my] DNA suggests that 98.1% of [my] ancestry is Eastern European.” The 23andme findings more specifically identify “places where you have DNA in common with more people who report ancestry from that particular region.” The specific regions are identified from “highly likely” to “possible match”; for me, Lithuania and Poland are “highly likely” matches; the Czech Republic (specifically Prague), Ukraine, and Russia “likely” matches; and Hungary and Slovakia “possible.” This more or less coincides with what I already knew for certain about my family’s background: on my father’s side Ukrainian and Slovak, on my mother’s Lithuanian and Polish. There were no real surprises. The remaining 1.9% of my ancestry appears to be comprised of Scandanavian (0.7%), Ashkenazi Jewish (0.2%), and somewhat amusingly Chinese (0.7%, which may explain my delight in spicy Szechwan cooking) fore-fathers and -mothers.

Of course, these identifications are based on present-day national borders — geopolitical fictions, as the history of the region proves over and over again. When my father’s father emigrated from Europe in 1914, he emigrated not from Ukraine, which did not then exist as a state, but from the state of Austria, which was where the town of Ternopil was located before World War I. Similarly, the borders of both Poland and Lithuania shifted almost maniacally through the twentieth century, not to mention the centuries before. The only thing that is most certain is that my family’s origins, from the Baltics to the Black Sea, were located in the Bloodlands: Timothy Snyder’s name for the region most heavily devastated by the twentieth century’s Thirty Years’ War between 1914 and 1945.

Born in 1962, I am a second-generation American: for the dozens of generations before that, my family was Eastern European. As I’ve tried to piece together my more recent familial genealogy, I’ve found too many voids in the record to be more certain than this. But my cultural genealogy — ah, that’s a different matter. In his excellent new book Homelands: A Personal History of Europe, Timothy Garton Ash notes: “Our identities are given but also made. We can’t choose our parents, but we can choose who we become. ‘Basically I’m Chinese,’ Franz Kafka wrote in a postcard to his fiancée. If I say ‘basically I’m a central European’ I’m not literally claiming descent from the central European Yiddish writer [Scholem] Asch, but declaring an elective affinity.” The similarities in their names — Asch and Ash — aside, there is that which draws Ash to the region not via intellect or emotion exclusively, but via a sympathetic temperament and disposition (I wrote a little about mine here) that combines these two characteristics with others. When I first visited the region in 1990 on a whirlwind six-week tour through Austria, Germany, Hungary, and what was then Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia (those pesky borders again), I had an uncanny feeling of comfort, of belonging. My Jewish friends have described to me a similar feeling when they first travel to Israel, and I imagine it’s much the same. It feels like home.

It certainly did so when in August of 1990 I joined thousands of others for a Rolling Stones concert in Prague. As Czech journalist and musician Ondřej Hejma, who was also there somewhere in the crowd near me, described it:

This was a confirmation that we are entering the world of free market, democracy, and free speech, and that we will see it with our own eyes. And that’s exactly what happened. … The [Rolling Stones] concert at Strahov was a social event, a philosophical event and something like a milestone in history.

In his book, Ash also introduces a generational concept that defines age groups according to their formative political experiences in their early adult lives. He defined this in a recent Substack post: “Today’s Europe has been shaped by four key political generations: the 14ers (with their life-changing youthful experience of the first world war), the 39ers (the second world war), the 68ers (1968, in all its different manifestations) and the 89ers (influenced by then Czechoslovakia’s Velvet Revolution and the end of the cold war).” I am myself an 89er, as are two historians whose writing I find sympathetic to my own cares and interests, Anne Applebaum (born 1964) and Timothy Snyder (born 1969). Blessed it was to live in that time, as the saying has it.

And, from the perspective of 2022, perhaps damned as well. The deep hope and life-changing experience that Hejma describes couldn’t last, but one would have hoped that it wouldn’t have deteriorated so rapidly. Even a few years after 1990 I noted a distinct difference in the eastern European zeitgeist when I returned to teach English to high school students in Moravia: the students’ interests turned more to Germany and Austria than to the United States, primarily for economic reasons, and the hostility directed towards the Romani population was palpable even among those Czechs who were otherwise most politically liberal in the Western sense of the word. Americans were not welcomed as warmly has they had been in 1990. Last year, when the Russo-Ukrainian War began, it seemed as if the promise of all those color revolutions had been cruelly dissipated. In Europe there was also Brexit and the immigrant crisis, but here there was Trump and an immigrant crisis too, not to mention an upswing in threats of political violence and to the sanctity of the individual conscience — sexual, religious, racial, cultural. My own two children are likely 22ers, as Ash would define them. I can only wonder what’s next.

There is still a war in Ukraine to be fought and a Presidential election here in the United States next year that threaten to remind us that, as some wag once put it, history may not repeat itself but it does rhyme on occasion. As I recall my experiences in Eastern Europe (as 23andme calls it), and look back with some more atomic attention to my ancestry, I hope not to succumb to nostalgia or sentiment but to shore up those personal ideals that were so profoundly represented in the culture of the 89ers: that of freedom, of validation of the individual conscience, of the right to determine one’s own integrity as countries like Ukraine defend the right of geopolitical self-determination. That it remains clearly an uphill battle is not in dispute. But if I don’t fight that battle, I and my family will clearly lose. Slava Ukraini, and the rest of us, too.

Women and the Russo-Ukrainian War

Victoria Amelina. Photo: The Kyiv Independent.

When the time comes for the histories of the Russo-Ukrainian War to be written, historians will find a great many of the first-person accounts of the war to have been composed by women. The prose generated by these writers reveals a tough-as-nails approach to the violence of the war; perhaps the first drafts of these accounts can be found today on Twitter, on feeds by the likes of Olesya Khromeychuk and Dr. Olha Poliukhovych. Both of these women are academics, but both provide meditations on the war that reach deep into personal experience — both their own and ours, if we read deeply enough. (I also note that the best reporting to come out of Kyiv during the early days of the war was from the BBC’s Lyse Doucet.)

The courage of these women is beyond dispute. Over the weekend Victoria Amelina, a writer who abandoned her interest in fiction at the start of the war to document war crimes and the lives of children in the war, was killed by the Russians in a Kramatorsk  missile attack on a restaurant, dying in Dnipro. She is far from the only artist to be killed in the conflict. It is only fitting that you take ten minutes to read her essay “Nothing Bad Has Ever Happened,” an undated meditation published by Arrowsmith Press. She writes:

We still need to talk about the past. A lot. We can help each other mourn our dead, as Raphael Lemkin and Hersch Lauterpacht helped me and millions of others around the world, regardless of nationality.

How can I return the favor? As a citizen of Lviv, I want to accept responsibility for the city’s past — with all its stories, beautiful and ugly, with all its guilt. As a writer what I can do is to listen to the silences rising from the city’s ground, and do my best to translate them into a tongue the living understand.

To honor her memory and return the favor Amelina bestowed on us, we should listen to those silences too.

On the periphery

I want to start the month off by recommending Marjorie Perloff’s Edge of Irony: Modernism in the Shadow of the Habsburg Empire, published by the University of Chicago Press. The book defines what Perloff calls “Austro-Modernism,” a form of modernist thinking engendered in the years 1914 through 1933, when the Habsburg Empire collapsed and its territories became awash in a bewildering brew of nationalism, anti-Semitism, exile, and blood. Perloff differentiates Austro-Modernism from its German cousin, forged in the political cauldron of the Weimar Republic. As she writes:

Weimar was the workshop for radical ideas, from Marxist theory to Heidegger’s ontological exploration of being-in-the-world to the film theory of Krakauer, Rudolf Arnheim, and [Walter] Benjamin himself. But this is not to say that Austro-Modernism, from Freud to Wittgenstein and Kraus, to Musil and Roth, to Celan and Bachmann, is to be understood as a weaker version of the strong intellectual formation of the Weimar Republic. It was merely different. Given the particular situation of the Habsburg Empire and its dissolution, given the eastern (and largely Jewish) origin of its writers, it developed in another direction, its hallmark being a profound skepticism about the power of government — any government or, for that matter, economic system — to reform human life. In Austro-Modernist fiction and poetry, irony — an irony less linked to satire (which posits the possibility for reform) than to a sense of the absurd — is thus the dominant mode. The writer’s situation is perceived not as a mandate for change — change that is always, for the Austrians, under suspicion — but as an urgent opportunity for probing analysis of fundamental desires and principles. (13; final emphasis my own)

Perloff’s analysis stretches from the “probing analysis” and documentary social satire of Kraus’s The Last Days of Mankind to the “probing analysis” and socio-erotic frisson of Celan’s later lyric poetry, with an excellent coda that muses upon Wittgenstein’s obsession with the Christian gospels towards the end of his life. Ironic satire is a dominant mode in the fiction of both Musil and Roth, but it’s a satire that, as Perloff notes, doesn’t lead to political action, but instead to contemplative action. “In the face of war, in the face of the twin evils of Fascism and Communism and of the corruption that seemed to threaten democracy at every turn, one could expose the follies and evils of one’s world, but meaningful change could only be personal,” Perloff writes. “The aim, as Wittgenstein put it — and Musil and Roth concurred — could only be ‘to become a different person.'” (15)

Although all of Perloff’s subjects were German-speakers, many didn’t start off that way. They were born not in the Empire’s capital Vienna — though Vienna remained a shining beacon of ambition for each of them — but rather on its periphery, and in many cases its easternmost periphery, speaking languages other than German. Karl Kraus was born and raised in the town of Jičín (then a part of the Austrian Empire, now a part of the Czech Republic); Joseph Roth was born and raised in the town of Brody, a small town near Lemberg, now Lviv, in East Galicia (then a part of the Austrian Empire, now a part of Ukraine); Elias Canetti was born in Ruse, Bulgaria (an independent nation then, but with close ties to the Empire);  Paul Celan in the Romanian town of Czernowitz (then a part of the Austrian Empire, now also a part of Ukraine). That they can be considered various facets of that common experience that led to Perloff’s “Austro-Modernism” points to the role that the Empire played in their upbringing.

The Habsburg Empire in 1914 was a mess. Franz Josef I was considered a weak and vacillating leader; its polyglot culture made it all but impossible to administer effectively (especially by a somewhat corrupt and inept central bureaucracy); what we now call its “multiculturalism” was just as bewildering. But it was a mess that somehow functioned, and for much the same reasons. The same Empire gave rise to a Central European form of Modernism that produced composers like Arnold Schoenberg, philosophers like Freud and Wittgenstein, writers like Arthur Schnitzler, painters like Klimt and Schiele. Austrian Jews enjoyed particularly broad freedoms following the 1782 Edict of Tolerance issued by Joseph II, and in 1867 Franz Josef I formally bestowed equal rights on the Jewish population of the Empire. Indeed, in recent years revisionist historians like Pieter M. Judson have emphasized its strengths (even if, ultimately, its weaknesses led to its dissolution in 1918), suggesting that its tolerance  could be something of a model for the polyglot multicultural societies of the 21st century.

The cataclysmic collapse of the Empire in 1918 left Austria a rump state. The Habsburgs were gone; in its place an unstable republic, an easy target for neighboring fascists, that would last for only 16 years (the monarchy ruled for nearly 400 years). This left Perloff’s writers, working in the years between the two world wars, with a sense of loss — that they’d been cut adrift from the land and culture of their youth. Kraus and the others weren’t sentimental about what was gone, but they recognized its strengths and opportunities as well, giving rise to what might be called an ironic conservatism in their outlook. Ultimately, the collapse was a collapse of cultural identity as well. Despite the almost unimaginable size of the empire’s territories, Musil, Celan, Roth, and the others shared a historical culture, which inevitably led to a common recognition — a recognition reflected in habits of thought, social conventions, mind, language — of their tragic situation. They harbored no optimism for the restoration of the monarchy in the years after 1918. Indeed, they harbored no optimism at all — except for the possibilities inherent in what a “probing analysis of fundamental desires and principles” might reveal about us as individuals and how we live. For this reason alone, Edge of Irony is worth a look.

I happen to be a child (or, at least, a grandchild) of the periphery of the Austrian Empire myself. My paternal grandfather Maxsym Hunka arrived at Ellis Island in 1914 from Ukraine (probably from Berezhany, Ternopil, then a part of the Austrian Empire, now a part of western Ukraine); he too was an exile from a collapsing world, perhaps sharing (in the peculiar ways of his own situation) in the habits of thought, social conventions, mind, and language of the subjects of Edge of Irony. He was far from an intellectual, receiving only a fifth-grade-level education according to US Census reports from later years. But if there can be said to be a cultural DNA just as influential upon us as our biological DNA, passed down in the form of these habits through the generations, they might generate in us an affinity for characteristics of our ancestral cultures, its origins barely recognized in our individual histories unless we look for them.