‘Weakness Always Emboldens’: An Interview with Adam Michnik

“Nations, just like women, experience brief moments of intoxication. But those moments pass soon enough.”. Adam Michnik talks to Leszek Jażdżewski, editor-in-chief of Polish liberal quarterly magazine Liberté!, about how a brief moment of European weakness will affect Russia in the end and what can go wrong in the meantime.

Is Russia becoming, just like in the 19th century, the “gendarme of Europe”?

Well, it definitely wants to become the gendarme of the so-called near abroad. Russia has switched gears when it comes to its foreign policy. Putin is no longer predictable, he is driven mostly by the fear of triggering a Russian Maidan. After the annexation of Crimea, the Russian president became extremely popular but at the same time he was already trapped by the tendencies he awoke. It’s just like a Russian rebellion of black-hundredists in the 20th century. And Russian rebellions – as once wrote Pushkin – can be horrifying, senseless, brutal and ruthless.

Many reasonable – or so would one think – Russians started to support Putin after the annexation of Crimea. Isn’t the fact that the Kremlin’s aggressive foreign policy is designed to suit its internal needs one of its most dangerous aspects?

Yes, indeed, it is dangerous. However, I think this will not last long. Nations, just like women, experience brief moments of intoxication. But those moments pass soon enough. It seems that we are facing something that during the perestroika was called “altering the flow of the river”. The only way to survive the current commotions is for Russia the restoration of Stalin’s terror – what now isn’t very likely.

Ivan Krastev once wrote that the simple democracy-authoritarianism dichotomy doesn’t explain much. Despite the current situation, in Russia still operate some free media – at least on the internet. Russian authoritarianism – although it may seem passé – is still extremely flexible. It may change according to current economic situation. Sometimes it takes the form of Medvedev’s modernisation, some other time of the aggressive neo-imperialism. What makes Russian authoritarianism so easily adaptable? Some personal qualities of Mr Putin?

Initially, Putin’s Russia was standing at the crossroads. There was no classical authoritarianism then, it evolved later on. Just as Bolshevist Russia wasn’t a country of Stalin’s terror from the very start, also this evolution took some time and it wasn’t so certain what route will it take. After all, many people took the fact that Medvedev, with his modernisation project and liberal gestures, became president very seriously. There have always been different options among Russian elites but in the end Putin without hesitation placed his bet on imperialistic-authoritarian option. He assumed that, after the Arab Spring and Maidan, the only way to keep his power is doing exactly what he has been doing and a constant activisation of the masses. I have no doubts that adopting such a route must end badly. Nobody knows, however, how long this journey will last and what will it entail.

So only weak and non-imperial Russia can be, in your opinion, democratic?

Russia doesn’t have to be weak or non-imperial. It has always had a tendency to build its power on external expansion. It seemed that the age of Gorbachev and Yeltsin will put an end to it. But Putin tries to reinstate this tendency, to rebuild the post-Soviet empire, which he calls the Eurasian Union.

Why did the Russian experiments with democracy fail?

From a historical point of view we may perceive it as a movement of a pendulum. Even Great Britain didn’t have a perfect parliamentary system from the very start, the same applies to France. The entire 19th century was a time of alternate periods of progress and regression. Russia is therefore not an exception. It is simply going through the period of regression.

So what can we expect after this stage? What will the Russia after Putin look like?

I’m not a prophet so I don’t know what will happen. But there is one thing I’m sure of – nobody expected that after Chernenko some politician from Stavropol Krai will change Russia to such an extent. That the communist party will be dissolved and that the Soviet Union will fall. Russia has a strong democratic potential. Democracy seems inconceivable in Afghanistan, where there are no democrats. There are, however, democrats in Russia.

So in your opinion the Russian political culture is not in contrast with liberal democracy?

Russia’s predicament regards the problematic existence of democratic circumstances. 19th century wasn’t only the age of autocracy but also the age of change. Then the hardships of Bolshevism came, what ended tragically, although it could have been averted. The same applies to Putin’s policy. Obviously, the problems of Russia will not get solved easily, but didn’t any other country (let’s look at Hungary, Slovakia, Romania or Poland) have to face such difficulties? Polish Catholic Church – even including Polish Pope and “Tygodnik Powszechny” – experiences regression. The response to the German economic crisis was Hitler.

Czesław Miłosz in an interesting way wrote about how certain national personality traits were developing long before the modern nations were formed. In this sense, the main characteristic features of Russians are manicheism and some kind of fatalism: pursuing some ideal but only in some distant future or in the afterlife, complete separation of the Earthly life from the ideal world, disbelief in the purpose of trying to influence reality as it is already doomed, strong belief that the world is Satan’s creation. Does this cultural gene really has such a great influence?

Such elements are indeed rooted in Russian culture. However, they do not determine it once and for all. If they did, extensive historical studies showing that Hitler was in fact the result of the values already encoded in German culture would have arisen. But Hitler was defeated and his country has changed eventually.

Russian identity and collective memory are based on the victory in the Great Patriotic War. Is it possible that Russian memory would acknowledge the victims of communism? Or maybe first they would have to lose a war, just like the Germans and the Japanese?

Russians are still divided. Every nation prefers to remember the good moments and in Russia the cult of the victory in World War II is still alive. But there are also Russian businessmen who want to modernize. There are people who maintain relations with the West and sympathize with Western values. There is, of course, the issue of brainwashing people, especially in the countryside. I don’t agree, however, that Russians have such a servile gene, it’s nonsense. We could apply a theory that the historical course of events of a state depends on the genome of its nation to every country possible. Tradition matters but it does not determine the future once and for all and it is definitely not the only aspect that this future influences.

Is it possible that a change of the policy to a more pro-democratic will come from the anti-Kremlin opposition? Or will it originate in the ruling camp?

Both solutions are possible. But changes initiated by the pragmatic wing of the ruling camp seem more probable.

Why in your opinion Russia still tries to keep up the appearances? Is it just the masquerade for the sake of the West? Or maybe Russia would like to have a strong position and be respected but it is simply capable of causing only fear?

I wouldn’t say that about Russia itself, rather about Putin. Many different people live in Russia, there are many different voices, which at the moment have been silenced. Now, an atmosphere of pessimism and depression prevails. Those people feel that authoritarian-imperial-nationalistic discourse have dominated the public sphere.

You wrote in “We, the Traitors” that you object to modern pacifists. Do you see now among the Western advocates of Russia only useful idiots or maybe also people who are simply not able to open their eyes and see the things as they really are?

Both. The theories that we should not support Ukraine are now absurd. Russia keeps sending there regular army troops. Putin keeps repeating that separatists have bought armoured carriers and tanks at the shop. It’s pure nonsense. There seems to be some Munich-like logic behind these actions – this is how people were yielding to Hitler and there was some logic behind it as well, or so it would seem. Remembering all that and the consequences that followed, we can no longer surrender in such cases.

Isn’t European culture pacifistic in manner? Incapable of self-defence? We seem to be so accustomed to living under the umbrella of the USA and NATO that we are not able to deal with a real danger.

It looks like that’s really the case. However, it is also not the result of some genes. If European Union intends to act as a sovereign agent, European army must be created. We could observe that in case of the Balkan conflict – Europe would not be capable of dealing with the situation if it wasn’t for the Americans.

But do you think that it’s possible that the French would be willing to die for, let’s say, Białystok1?

If it isn’t possible, the North Atlantic Treaty is pointless.

It is said that when asked how many soldiers are needed to protect Europe, Churchill replied that only one, preferably the dead one. At this point the United States are withdrawing their troops from Europe. Can we really count on American involvement in our continent? I can’t see the involvement as in the times of the Cold War. America is not ready for a global confrontation with Russia.

One thing we know for sure. American politics was filled with confidence that there is peace in Europe, that there are no dangers here. That’s why the US turned its eyes towards Asia. It seems, however, that now the US’ way of thinking is undergoing reorientation.

From this point of view the fact that confrontation with Russia is not as open as in case of Soviet Union still remains a problem. Now the front line is getting more blurry.

Before Maidan I would agree with such a statement. Now I don’t. We should not make predictions for the future on the basis of last year’s situation because it has already changed.

But do you think that we should make the discourse more explicit? Strive for standards that were present during the Cold War? After all, Putin’s actions didn’t indicate any global ambitions until recently.

Neither did Hitler! No one has ever said so many beautiful words about peace as the dictator of the Third Reich. Peace for generations…

The problem with Putin is that he poses a non-symmetrical threat. He is far more dangerous for Poland and other Baltic states than for the Western Europe. At the same time our mobilisation capacity is relatively small. The only consolation is in the fact that we are on the right side of the Iron Curtain.

Let’s do what we have to do and we’ll see how it goes.

Miłosz wrote that Poles have the complex of an unheard Cassandra. Do you think that we are going through that again?

I agree with Czesław Miłosz when it comes to the critique of some elements of Polish collective mentality. However, the fact that it is often degenerated and leads to nonsense doesn’t imply that it is absurd . Of course, Poles were often right when they tried to warn the West . But at the same time they were also as often wrong. In their claims towards the West, Poles did never bit off more than they could chew but they believed every word they heard, what was obviously naïve. Nonetheless, suggesting a certain code of conduct as regards Ukraine, we try to protect also European interests. Nobody knows what can be expected from Putin or the next person who takes over the reign after him if Europe employs a submissive attitude and shows its helplessness now. Weakness always emboldens.

Do you think that Europe is not ready to treat Putin seriously because of its interests? After all, he announced his plans the day before the Munich Conference. So he actually did warn us.

We regarded his remarks as pure rhetoric and that was our mistake. It was, however, the mistake of all of us, not of just one individual politician. Except for Russophobes, we all believed that it is possible to reason with Putin. Now it is obvious that it is not and so we must defend ourselves.

You’ve mentioned that when Poles were trying to warn the West they were often right in doing so. The thing is that that’s often not enough in politics. Warnings should be supported by power. Do you think that from this point of view it would be better if Poles had strongly criticised Russia or rather sought a wider European consensus and stay in line so we wouldn’t be labelled as Russophobes?

The latter.

So more like the politics of Radosław Sikorski rather than of Jarosław Kaczyński?

Sikorski is right. But I’m not him. Different things are expected from me than from him. He is expected to be a successful politician. And he is. I’m expected to always tell the truth.

Taking into consideration current dangers, should we aim at creating pan-European media and thus a European public opinion?

This is not going to happen overnight. Of course, we should go in this direction but such process will take a long time. Moreover, it’s neither organic, nor administrative in manner.

Do you think that launching a European “Gazeta Wyborcza”, a popular European web portal or a successful European institution would be impossible? Our European magazine is a variation of The New York Times.

I see your point and you’re right. Europe should follow this direction and it is bound to do so if we want the European framework to continue in its form. Although we must remember that it is a process and such changes are often introduced gradually, and sometimes they even go unnoticed. I see how in Poland the degree of awareness of European dilemmas changes in comparison to how it was shaped twenty-something years ago. We have different people with different mindset.

What tools do Poles now posses that could change Russia – as Giedroych has advised us before?

We are influencing Russia via cultural, academic, intellectual proximity. Undoubtedly, Russia needs change but that doesn’t mean employing a submissive policy towards the aggressive, imperialistic, feeding on the spirit of annexation policy of Putin. Some aspects of Russian mentality are already changing. Russians are slowly becoming aware of the fact that for some actions there is a high price to be paid.

The original article was published in Polish in the 19th issue of Liberté! quarterly magazine.

Translation: Olga Łabendowicz

1The largest city in northeastern Poland and the capital of the Podlaskie Voivodeship.

Olga Labendowicz