Being in the centre of a clash between civilizations of the East and the West, Ukraine is both a detonator and an object of that clash. In many aspects, its choice is crucial to itself - and Europe's future
In Aeuschylus' tragedy The Persians the possessor of the Eastern world is Atossa, the second wife of Darius and the mother of Xerxes. Wonderingly she asks the chorus about the Greek world, after Xerxes' fleet had been lost in a crushing defeat at Salamis to a combined fleet of the Hellenic policies. “Who led those armies?” questioned Atossa. “They follow no one, my Lady. They don’t think themselves as slaves, belonging to someone therefore, they were victorious in the attack of a larger army.”
Unaccountable to her people Atossa – the Queen Mother, and “ruler of everything" – her cosmocratic authority had neither earthly nor cosmic boundaries. It was in 480 BC, half a millennium until the birth of Christ, when culture fixated the clash between East and West, a world of absolute authority, and a world where its citizens developed due to their will.
Man as a measure of being
Geographically Europe is a continent, however, as a cultural category it is a civilization with constantly shifting borders. From antiquarian Greece to the EU it was formed as a whole, not as a territory or a polity, but first and foremost as a culture, founded on a certain system of values. Europe vs Asia, West vs East, Civilization vs Barbarianism – this antithesis of the world of freedom and the world of slavery and unlawfulness can be traced as far back as Hellenic times. According to Herodotus, the Greeks are free – though servants of the policy. “For amongst the barbarians, all are slaves but one,” Euripides writes in Helen. "Laws needed to be defended as though they were city walls,” Heraclitus claims.
For centuries the category of Asia, the East was put in opposition to the values of Europe. The latter (in general the democratic world as the legacy of Ancient Greece) is a horizontal reality, based on the idea of the free man, for whom the nation and laws worked for. Beyond the borders of democracy lies the vertical world, where identity is fated to be the servant of uncontrollable authorities.
Of course it is not so simple. Europe also produced slavery and colonialism, destroyed nations and self-destructed in local and world wars. Still, it is the brain of humanity, out of which both brilliant insight and monsters are born. Most importantly, though, it had a colossal potential for critical thinking right from the start. For a long time, this potential allowed it to analyze and recreate itself, without ever turning its back on its foundations.
During different periods from Ancient Greece to Romanticism – the early days of nation states - each country in Europe made its contribution to the building of a single civilization. Modern democracy is rooted in the ancient Greek philosophy of polis. The legal foundations of contemporary Europe lie in ancient Rome which added the idea of laws as a universal regulator of the relationship between the government and society on one side, and between different peoples on the other, to the concept of freedom and citizens accountable to their homeland.
Until the Middle Ages the heart of Europe was the Mediterranean. Later its cultural boundaries expanded, coinciding with the geographical boundaries of Christianity. This started a gradual synthesis of the Latin and Germanic worlds, accompanied by a growing contrast between western and eastern Christianity, and Islam. By the way, Latin Europe had long looked at the Nordic countries with respect, honouring their freedom loving spirit and social organization, in which the king was primus inter pares (the first among equals) similar to the princes of Kyivan Rus.
The split of the Roman Empire into Western and Eastern in 395 changed the geocultural coordinates of this part of the continent. Constantinople as the New Rome, opposes the original one, at then the Greek culture identified itself as an eastern one in relationship to Roman, the western one. This opposition continued for a few centuries, until it reformed in 1054 with the Great Schism of the Christian Church. By this point, Kyivan Rus had already become a part of this historical diatribe.
In the epoch of Humanism and the Renaissance, the next key periods for the continent, Italy made a maximal contribution to the intellectual formation of Europe. Born in Florence in the early 14th century, this new culture spread throughout the entire Old World practically by the end of the 16th century.
It was then that European culture demonstrated one of its basic properties: the ability to stratify the cultural periods, to incorporate the past into the present and to modernize it. The renaissance of antiquity made the rich intellectual legacy of the Greek and Roman worlds relevant again, allowing them to live in the new time.
The first thing you see when flying into Rome is its airport, named in the honour of Leonardo da Vinci, - and his drawing Vitruvian Man. This is a denotational image of the Renaissance, a symbol of anthropocentric culture: a body, with ideal proportions (placed within a square and a circle) symbolizes divine harmony, seen through human eyes.
Before Leonardo, Giotto had revealed perspective. This was not only a new artistic method – this was a change in how the world was perceived. Earlier art depicted the world from a divine perspective. With Giotto, the sacred perspective merged with the profane, making culture more worldly. The separation of religious and secular authority followed.
No less important was the birth of political Europe of institutions -- to a considerable extent thanks to Machiavelli.
A great achievement of this refined Florentine mind was political realism, a rational view of the functions and strategies of nations, called upon to serve the prosperity of its citizens. Machiavelli stood by the source of English and American political thought of the 17th-18th centuries, the French Enlightenment and modern political philosophy in general.
Humanist and Renaissance culture was a strong structuring factor in Europe. A certain type of erudition contributed to this. It solidified the intellectuals of the day, creating the idea of res publica letterarum, a literary republic of thinkers of various nations, united in humanistic ideals and complex natural human knowledge.
Concurrently during this period three great events took place, which changed the geocultural parameters of Europe, filling it with the new concept of moral thought. In terms of politics – it was the appearance of the “eastern factor” due to the fall of Constantinople to the onslaught of the Ottoman Turks in 1453. Now the former Byzantium was seen first and foremost as a lost part of the West, and the Christian world found itself before a new eastern threat. In terms of social economics – it was the sailing to America in 1492, which began an epoch of large geographic discoveries.
After this, Europe felt itself to be part of a large world where more ancient civilizations existed with their own system of values: Indian, Chinese and Persian. Its self-perception grew more critical: “the others” were no longer “barbarians” compared to the West, and the latter was slowly abandoning its idea of superiority and uniqueness. It is from this point that the anti-colonial tradition in the writing of European thinkers began – from Montaigne and Erasmus to the French enlighteners. They promoted the values which were still relevant in the 20th century: tolerance, respect for differences, freedom of thought, the necessity to fight against religious fanaticism and despotic rule.
Finally, there was one other event – it was to take place in the sphere of religion: the Protestant Reformation. In 1517 the split in western Christianity began along with a deep rethinking of its foundations that continues to this day. It had its impact on the economy: subsequently, the protestant countries with their strong sense of individual citizen responsibility that boosted modernization and institutional efficiency came to dominate it.
In the 17th century, Thomas Hobbs and John Locke who were antagonists in many aspects transformed the island of England into the centre of political philosophy and theory of the state. Hobbe's Leviathan is a considerable memorial to European rationalism and English imperialism. A precursor of Enlightenment, Locke is also the father of classic liberalism and one of the most important representatives of so called contractualism – the theory of the social contract later outlined in the Declaration of Independence of the United States and completed by Rousseau and Kant.
German classical philosophy of the late 18th century and early 19th century was another pan-European phenomenon, which cemented the identity of Europe. It critically systematized and synthesized all of western European tradition, creating the basis for a modern Western philosophy.
The French Revolution changed the face of Europe by modernizing the concept of democracy. Its core values were freedom and equality. Montesquieu in his The Spirit of the Laws (1748), a prominent memorial to liberal thought, proposed the theory of the separation of three branches of government and laid the foundations of social and economic sciences. With their Encyclopaediaor a Systematic Dictionary of the Sciences, Arts and Crafts (1751–1780) Diderot and d'Alembert disseminated the principles of the Enlightenment throughout Europe.
The Declaration of the rights of man and the citizen (1789) has many similarities to the Declaration of Independence of the United States of America penned thirteen years earlier because both were highly influenced by the period of Enlightenment. These two Declarations set forth fundamental rights, including the electoral ones, and finally established that people are the sole source of any authority in law. During this same period the theory of deterring imperial ambitions and the peaceful coexistence of nations was formulated. While Voltaire and Diderot still supported an Imperial Russia, Rousseau defended change in Poland in his essay Considerations on the Government of Poland, albeit only published after his death. Monarchical Europe was still reeling under the pressure of the Spring of Nations – with the people of Europe struggling against a Europe of monarchies and empires.
The great achievements of liberal thought of the Old World experienced a crisis in the 20th century. After the First World War three empires which dominated Europe and held in their shadow all the Slavic peoples collapsed: the Russian, Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman empires. However, the hopes of nations to become free did not materialize: during the period that French historian Alain Besançon labelled the “century of evil” Europe experienced a human catastrophe and a dramatic division into antagonistic blocs. At the Yalta European Summit of 1945 the old opposition of the West as a democracy and the East as tyranny was revived and activated.
The fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the collapse of the USSR in 1991 once again confirmed that cultural paradigms are the basic matrices of political transformation. The Slavic world itself is divided by two sets of values: Italian linguist and Slavist Riccardo Picchio describes them as Slavia Romana and Slavia Orthodoxa. The countries of western Christianity integrated into Europe easily. The countries of the east have seen the revival of a totalitarian system. Bulgaria, which broke free of that paradigm, and Serbia, which after the Balkan slaughter all the same is striving towards the West, nevertheless, are still seen as a Trojan Horse of the Kremlin. Russia is definitively in a contra-position to Europe and an antagonist towards the values of European civilization.
Ukraine has found itself in the centre of this landmark battle of civilizations, being both its detonator, and the object being fought for. The final border of Europe is dependent on its choice.
The latest geopolitical theories by Samuel Huntington and Zbigniew Brzezinski, Ralf Darhrendorf and Milan Kundera, Jerzy Giedroyc and André Glucksmann – treat Ukraine as a fatal limit of this clash between civilizations.
Medieval Rus-Ukraine borrowed its cultural model from Byzantium and exported its political model to Moscovy-Russia. Along with eastern Christianity Ukraine inherited its cultural constraints: slow secularization, traditionalism, an obscured identity and stifled initiative of its citizens.
However, Ukraine was an exception in the system of byzantine orthodoxy. This was partly caused by its evolution as a single state with Poland in the 16th-18th centuries when the fundamentals of the modern nation were established. Despite military conflicts with Poland, a cultural dialogue with it drove the exchange of European-oriented legal and political texts. A particular democratic type of Ukrainian education spread throughout the country in Slavic Greek-Latin schools. Finally, the Greek-Catholic church arose as a grandiose cultural synthesis of Christianity. Thus, European civil consciousness took root slowly and steadily in the depths of Ukrainian culture.
At times Ukraine was even a forerunner of events in Europe. Ukrainian Cossack hetman in exile and diplomat Pylyp Orlyk penned his Constitution in Latin in 1710. While less articulate than the American, Polish and French constitutions, it appeared almost 80 years before any of them. It defined Ukraine as a state with a strong concept of contractualism, the idea of limiting government and a vision of a state obligated to care for its citizens. The tradition of defending freedom as a natural right, even if not as well structured as in the West, was rooted in Ukraine deeply enough to survive to this day. This is the basic resource of civil consciousness.
The theories of the 19th- century Ukraine, too, reveal some super contemporary geopolitical projects. Historian and activist Mykhailo Drahomanov had then foreseen the creation of a United Europe. The generation of Rozstilyanne Vidrozhennia, the Executed Renaissance in 1917-1933, and the Sixtiers – Ukrainian and Soviet intellectuals active in the culture and politics in the 1950-60s – included many intellectuals who had a completely European mentality. Writer Mykola Khvylovy noted the presence of Ukraine in the “psychology of Europe” in Faust; poet Mykola Zerov talked about the return to Ad fontes, to European sources, and writer Dmytro Dontsov spoke of the inevitable conflict between Europe and Russia. The Ukrainian culture resented the imperial model, finding itself in the stream of European liberal thought.
These intellectuals provided the next generation the keys to unlocking the Bastille, though that later generation failed to snatch them. The paradoxes of the Ukrainian mentality became more acute: Ukrainians have a zeal for freedom but no desire to struggle for it consistently. They have a desire to be part of Europe but lack discipline to build a civil society. They can criticize the government without being passionate and creative in designing alternative projects.
Still, Europe is the only historical fate for Ukraine. It is not a mirage on the horizon, but consistent hard work for the sake of final return to its genuine philosophical and moral roots.