The publication of Karl Schlögel’s updated “Dilemma in Kyiv” is an important charity
Some books are planned for years. Others are more urgent interventions; written out of necessity in a particular context. The German historian Karl Schlögels The dilemma in Kyiv is an outstanding example of the latter.
When the book first came out in 2015, it was directly prompted by the developments in Ukraine during the year before that. When Russia annexed Crimea, tore up the European post-war order where violent border shifts had been taboo and unleashed “the brutality of free corps and mercenaries”, Schlögel refused to stand idly by. Especially as he found that far too many people in the outside world were downcast, or downright apologetic, in the face of the Russian escalation.
He immersed himself intensively in the history of Ukraine, returned to the notes of previous trips, revisited the country and put all this together into a book that is both elusive and self-evident. Russia’s invasion on February 24, 2022 – the start of a war “with the stated goal of annihilating the Ukrainian state, subduing the Ukrainian people and wiping out its culture” – has made Schlögel’s work even more current and urgent. That there is now, through Bokförlaget Stolpe’s care, an updated and expanded edition in Swedish is therefore an important charity.
Schlögel believes that the relatively lenient reactions to the Russian aggression in 2014 – and which in today’s Germany are still visible in late arms deliveries and intellectual charades – are connected to the fact that since independence in 1991, Ukraine has rarely been seen as a state in its own right. Instead, the country has been constantly placed in Russia’s shadow politically, historically and culturally.
When the eyes of the world drawn to the drama of Ukraine a decade ago, the historical ignorance was so extensive that many commentators had little more to offer than the hateful image of anti-Semitic Cossacks. Some simply imagined that ignorance contained something progressive. Significant sections of the Western left were, unfortunately also on these pages, more preoccupied with suspecting the Euromaidan demonstrations than recognizing the breadth and civil courage of the uprising.
He carefully notes where people have lived, dreamed, lived and died
It is to avoid a devastating intellectual betrayal that Schlögel implores us, and himself, to see at least some of the “despair and power of a country that holds its ground.” To know Ukraine, one must first know Ukraine. It is an argument that is strengthened by Schlögel’s ability to study himself. Strictly, but without grand gestures, he believes that the fascination for Russia’s endless expanses, angular friendliness and peculiar intelligentsia has also caused him, one of our time’s leading experts on Eastern Europe, to sometimes ignore Ukraine.
It is therefore an enlightening and encouraging journey that Schlögel takes the reader on to explore the “historical topographies” of ten Ukrainian cities. Concretely, this means that he walks, comments on architecture, reads the works of the great sons of the cities, studies maps and exposes traces of the culture and politics of different empires. He carefully notes where people have lived, dreamed, lived and died.
The image of Kiev’s domes and cloisters turns into a story both about the city’s function as a medieval trading post and the demolition hysteria of the 1930s. In Chernivtsi, he is impressed by the German-speaking Jewish intellectual infrastructure and vital opinion culture that existed here around 1900, hundreds of kilometers outside the main language space. The long lines of history are drawn from the small.
At the same time, Schlögel has contemporary for the eyes. The walk through Odessa, where he is accompanied by both Mark Twain and Sergei Eisensteinis preceded by an account of how 48 pro-Russian activists were burned inside the union building where they took refuge during the unrest in May 2014. No embellishing simplifications are allowed here.
Museums and monuments are visited in every city. They are sources of history, but above all of the moods of the present. The dignified seriousness with which the memory of Babij Yar – the ravine on the outskirts of Kiev where 33,371 Jews were shot to death on September 29–30, 1941 – is now cherished in Ukraine, Schlögel uses to dismiss the branding of Ukrainians as perpetual anti-Semites.
Schlögel wants to draw the reader’s attention to the versatility of the historical borderland that is Ukraine. Nevertheless, it is the shared experience of monstrous waves of violence that leaves the deepest mark. Kharkiv, Lviv, Donetsk. Everywhere an unbroken chain of anti-Semitic pogroms, ideologically impregnated civil war, the hunger terror Holodomor, population movements, Nazi German extermination war and real socialist repression. It is a historical darkness that makes today’s Russian atrocities if possible even more difficult to endure. This country has endured enough.
History only becomes explosive when someone makes malicious use of it
The ambition to read the time in the room, placing importance also on things that may at first seem unimportant, connects to Schlögel’s masterpiece Terror and dream (the only one of his books that has so far been published in Swedish). It is a brick-thick collage depiction of Moscow and the Stalinist purges of 1937 – a kind of total history of the moment and place – where theater tableaus, telephone directories, factory shifts, and everything in between, are used to make the ramped-up rage palpable.
IN The dilemma in Kyiv the method is not as consistent and the urban portraits have different success. Some parts resemble pure literature reports. Interspersed, Schlögel analyses Putin’s aggressive “Eurasian” imperialism as an attempt to gloss over Russia’s failed modernization, facilitated by the fact that many Russians have not fully accepted Ukraine and other post-Soviet state formations. On the other hand, Schlögel disputes that Crimea would have had a special meaning for the general population before Putin’s propaganda campaigns were launched. History only becomes explosive when someone makes malicious use of it.
The reasoning is reasonable, but not groundbreaking. So there are marginal remarks to be made, but none that detract from either the book’s or the author’s lasting value. The glowing matter-of-factness of the language in particular contributes to that impression, which Joachim Retzlaff tonally transferred into Swedish.
Schlögel’s entire production – impressively varied in both form and content – shows what a great stylist he is. This is most clearly seen in the elegant and serious lightness that carries the essay Planet der Nomaden about migration as a historical and contemporary phenomenon. It is also another example of Schlögel choosing his subjects intuitively based on concrete impressions rather than with in-scientific considerations. Nor has he ever been interested in developing historical theories.
Schlögel tries to understand the past with proximity and without abstractions. In the same way, he navigates the present. The dilemma in Kyiv concludes with some of the many essays and articles he has written since the outbreak of war. He attacks general geopolitics, the sociologist Jürgen Habermas and other intellectuals who advocate understanding Putin and the idea that the Holocaust prevents Germany from taking a clear stand. The criticism can be read as the condensed consequences of Schlögel’s entire approach.
It is not analytical, ideological or moral models that will guide us right. Instead, we must accept that we—to use the formulation Schlögel borrows from the German philosopher Ernst Bloch – we are in the “obscurity of the lived moment”. A situation so open and tumultuous that it requires attention and the trained ear of experience to maintain composure and direction, but where each of us still has to decide anew.
“Ukrainians have decided to fight for their independence and their freedom, for their dignity – in a position that was believed to be hopeless. We too can choose, we can decide to stay out or to intervene.”
Footnote: The transcription of place names are the same as used in the book.