The grey eminence of «liberalism,» guiding pro-Western leaders along their financial backstage course is how Russian propaganda describes this French philosopher. We could not help but ask then how he sees Svetlana Tikhanovskaya. Reform.by journalist Alexander Atroshchenkov spoke with Bernard-Henri Lévy about the Belarusian democratic leader, the dignity of victims, the balance between security and freedom, and the price that Ukraine, Europe, and the rest of the world should pay for the victory over another fascist regime.
Bernard-Henri Lévy is a French journalist, philosopher, writer, and film director. Since 1971, he has been working in many hot spots around the world. He is the author of more than 20 books and creator of feature films and documentaries, including Peshmerga about the Kurdish war against ISIS and Why Ukraine?, which touches on the events of 2013-2014 in Ukraine, during which he was in Kyiv and spoke at the Independence Square. He is known, among other things, for his sharp criticism of radical Islamism, modern Marxism, and any authoritarian regimes. According to Kremlin propaganda, he is the main figure working behind the scenes and has instigated wars and revolutions around the world.
— If you don’t mind, let’s start with a little quiz. I will describe a person and you tell me who I am talking about.
— Of course, why not?
— Catalyst of revolutions, herald of war, the most influential factor of instability, the architect of genocide, the leader of the reptilians… Do you have any idea who this is?
— Is all that really about me?
— Indeed. This is how Russian and pro-Russian propagandists describe you. Do you understand why they chose you as their number one target and claim that you are behind all the instability in the world?
— To be honest, I have no idea why they chose me as a scapegoat and, shall we say, an intellectual target. Honestly, I don’t understand. I don’t know what could be more stupid and pointless. Perhaps it would be better to ask them this question and not me.
— Indeed, it says more about them than about you. You are a war reporter. This is the perfect cover to be in any hotspot. They certainly would not miss the opportunity to use such a person as a spy.
— I think they just don’t know what a writer is. An engaged and enthusiastic writer. Perhaps, of course, they’ve certainly not read Andre Malraux, George Orwell, or Ernest Hemingway. These are legends who have always been extremely concerned about the state of the world, who have sought to be witnesses and testify to those moments when the most terrible things occurred in the world. And the Spanish Civil War was an example of how these people acted as people of good will. They have probably never heard these great names. They compensate for their lack of knowledge with a conspiracy mindset. They see spies everywhere because they were raised in a culture of espionage. Putin was taught and nurtured as a spy. And a very bad spy. That’s why he thinks that the whole world is teeming with spies like himself. Of course, he has no idea who these writers are and the role they play.
— Please say more about this. You have been working as a military reporter since you were young and say that you devote all the time to this, outside of your philosophical work. Which is the most important? Are you looking for ideas in hot spots or looking for confirmation there?
— My most important priority is my philosophical work. From time to time I digress to put my concepts to the test. That’s how it works. Not vice versa. Engagement, confrontation with reality, work in the field – all this would not make sense if I was not first and foremost a philosopher and writer.
— What are the things that have made the biggest impression on you in your fieldwork? Tell us about two things: those which left the most positive and the most negative impression.
— There have been many episodes, but, speaking in general, the worst thing is to be a witness to crimes: murders, beatings, rape, destruction. It always repeats itself – the same thing in different places.
The best is the dignity of the victims and the resistance of the people. This suggests that there is something in humanity that resists the worst, that does not allow it to submit to the butchers. This impresses me the most and never fails to impress me. The last time I saw it was during the filming of a story about the war in Ukraine – the intense courage of the victims from Bucha, Mariupol, Nikolaev… It really fascinates me.
— Belarus is one place where this is happening. Is this positive or negative?
— I have never been to Belarus. I wanted to go there in August 2020 during the protests. I wanted to see them and write about them. My friend Mark Roussel, a wonderful photographer, and I bought tickets to Minsk and went to the airport, but Belavia employees did not let me board. That is how I found out that I was forbidden to enter Belarus. On the one hand, this was not unexpected, because I have been banned from entering Russia since 2014. But sometimes it’s worth checking what you already know to make it even clearer. After it turned out that I had apparently been banned from entering Belarus for 6 years, I flew to Vilnius, because it was the very day when Svetlana Tikhanovskaya left Belarus and went there. I was introduced to her, and she impressed me a great deal. She is truly a great leader! But I still have not gotten to Belarus, so I cannot compare it with the places that I have seen with my own eyes.
— Recently, some people have been criticizing Svetlana Tikhanovskaya. Do you think she could be more effective?
— I think she is doing as well as she can. In general, I really like the story of the path that led her into politics and made her a politician. This is a wonderful mixture of love for her husband and service to her people. She has a charisma that has been hidden until now. And her own fate and the fate of the Belarusian people very organically merge. This is a great story in every way! Can she do better? No. I don’t see where she can do better. She says what is needed and is acting according to the situation. In all meetings, she acts brilliantly, convincingly, dynamically, and truthfully. If anyone could do better, it’s us – France, Europe, and the West. We could do what Lithuania is doing to increase its ability to speak and be heard.
— Pavel Koval, a member of the Polish Sejm, wrote an article in Gazeta Wyborcza in which he called for Belarus to be accepted into the anti-Putin coalition, comparing Belarus with Free France in World War II, and Svetlana Tikhanovskaya with Charles de Gaulle. Is this what the West should do?
— Yes, this is a very good idea. Moreover, it is already being implemented in many areas. In Ukraine, I saw Belarusian volunteers. Belarusians living, acting, and fighting shoulder to shoulder with Ukrainians. This is a Free Belarus. These Belarusian citizens are the cream of their country. These are its best representatives, and they are real Belarusians of a real Belarus. The Belarus that carries the flag of freedom. It fights in Ukraine, organizes in Lithuania, operates in the diaspora in exile. It also operates in Belarus itself, quietly resisting and denying Lukashenka legitimacy.
— And what about comparing Tikhanovskaya with de Gaulle?
— Why not? De Gaulle was a real person, but at the same time is a legend and a paradigm. And in this regard, Belarusians abroad can be compared with him and his followers. Belarusians who resist from within are less visible than two years ago, but they are risking much more. They are comparable to the French resistance under the boot of the German occupation. Of course, Putin cannot be compared with Hitler, but the situations are quite comparable. And the West needs to recognize this situation which already de facto exists. I have made such suggestions, talking one on one with European leaders and French politicians. We need a collective campaign for the recognition of Tikhanovskaya as a legitimate representative of Belarus.
— Like Lithuania is doing?
— Yes, Lithuania has recognized the diplomatic status of Tikhanovskaya’s office in exile. This is a bold move. And it would be logical if it was Lithuania that led the international movement in this direction and offered this to its partners in Europe, the European Parliament, and the UN. For example, I would really like to see a representative of Lithuania speaking at the UN General Assembly about the experience of Lithuania in granting Tikhanovskaya diplomatic status, about why it matters and why this practice can be expanded, how other countries can do it, and how this has changed the balance of power and the rules of the game in the region and beyond.
— During the first Chechen war, you called for the recognition of the leaders of Chechnya as the legitimate leadership of the country. The world did not go for it then. Do you think this could have prevented what happened next: war in Georgia, Syria, and Ukraine?
— Yes, I think we can stop Russia. The logic of regimes like Putin’s is that they only believe in strength. If he sees a weak point, he increases pressure. As soon as he meets the force, he stops. And this is the only way. I’m not talking about giving up diplomacy. Of course, in due time diplomats should speak. But the first step is to show strength. Dictators only understand this language. When they meet someone who clearly says no, they back off. Putin is not crazy. He calculates. If we had said «no» to him in Chechnya, «no» in Georgia, «no» in Syria, what we see in Ukraine would not exist now. Further, what we see in Belarus, where an illegitimate president illegally rules the country, would not have happened.
—You often call for firm decisions. In 2019, you wrote a letter to Europeans with a call to fight for European ideals which was also signed by Svetlana Alexievich. In your opinion, did it have the expected effect?
—You never know what worked and what didn’t, because you do not know what the situation would have been without your actions. I can only evaluate what I know for sure. This appeal was written at a time when Europe was in serious danger. Before the elections to the European Parliament in many countries, populists were very active in attacking European values. The elections were held a few weeks after the letter, and the result was not as bad as many had feared. The pro-European camp more or less won. Did the appeal have an effect? Maybe yes, maybe not. But it was talked about all over Europe. It was attacked, it was defended. It became a milestone. I dare to hope that it has become a small stone in the barricade that we have erected together to stop the huge flow of populist shit.
— When you talk about European values and European ideals, which Europe are you referring to? After all, Europe itself has never been perfect. There is the Europe of freedom and human rights, but fascism and communism were also born in Europe. What historical period is an example for you to follow?
— There is no special period. There is a river that has flowed continuously since the Enlightenment to this day. It flows both in light and in darkness. It is not a period – it is a river. Even when communism and Stalinism were strong in Europe, the undercurrent of this river continued under the surface. Even when Nazism was mainstream in Europe, this underground current, this resistance continued. This current is similar to the river Alpheus from Greek mythology. It flows, then disappears and flows underground. It seems to disappear, but after a hundred kilometers it again makes its way to the surface and spills out. Freedom is the river Alpheus. There was no period in the history of Europe when the ideals of freedom shone and completely dominated, but they never completely disappeared. They have always been there.
— Will this river withstand new challenges? During the Covid-19 epidemic, we saw how many people were ready to sacrifice their rights and freedoms for the sake of security, and states willingly took advantage of this. Now Covid is back. There will be other challenges: an energy crisis, inflation, the threat of a food crisis…
— I hope it holds. But you are right – freedom is under threat. In Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s terms, the new social contract no longer sounds like «you renounce part of your will for me, and we give you the state.» Now it’s like this: «you give up your rights and freedoms, and we give you security.» This is the new social contract, but it is terrible and criminal. In fact, this is not a social contract, but a medical one. That is, the trend is to replace the social contract with a medical contract: we provide a safe, clear life if you renounce your rights. China is the furthest along with such a contract. But we, Western civilization, are more and more inclined to give everything in exchange for false promises of a healthy life.
— The rejection of ideals is also taking place in international politics. At one time, you were an active supporter of a military operation against the Gaddafi regime in Libya. Then your and other voices calling for this were heard. Later, there was no decision on an operation in Syria, and intervention in the events in Ukraine is not even being discussed…
— Worst of all, we did not even try in Syria. There have been so many dead, so many refugees and displaced people, so much human suffering because the methods used in Libya were not used in Syria… Syria has been a failure of democracies because of their lack of action. It is often said that “we failed in Libya.” No! We failed in Syria because we did not act like we did in Libya!
— Is the closing of the sky over Ukraine a continuation of this story?
— Of course, we should have closed the sky over Ukraine. Or given Ukraine the tools to do it on its own. Even before the war, and especially when it started. We could still do it, and I am calling for it. When democratic values are under threat anywhere, and the people who are there are asking for help, reaching out to them is our duty. There are many ways to lend a hand. It can be through humanitarian aid, ideological assistance, providing means of communication, provision of weapons… Closing the sky is one of those ways, as is strong diplomacy with strong sanctions. There is a full range of means. The only thing that is unacceptable and suicidal is to not react to such attacks.
— Well, there has been some kind of reaction, but one can hardly say that it is appropriate, especially considering that Putin does not even pretend that this is a war only against Ukraine. He quite openly states that European countries are the next target. And many non-military tools – like energy blackmail – are already fully involved. It seems that many in Europe are simply paralyzed by their fear of Russia.
— Yes exactly. Dmitro Kuleba spoke about this a few days ago. He said that Putin wants to ruin Europe and bend it to his will. This is the truth. And the reaction of many Europeans to this is simply disgusting. It is disgusting! Thousands of Ukrainians are dying, and we are afraid of getting a little cold in winter. An entire nation is threatened with extermination, and we are debating about the price of oil and gas… This is shameful!
— This situation did not happen in a week or even over a year. There are specific people who can be named – politicians, «journalists,» experts, and lobbyists who are responsible for the fact that Europe is not ready for war, is intimidated, and is dependent on Russia for energy…
— Honestly, I’m not even sure if we can name these names. For example, who made the decision on Nord Stream 2? Who committed this political mistake and moral sin? This is one of the biggest mistakes in Europe in recent decades. And this is certainly the biggest mistake since the fall of the Berlin Wall. From the very beginning, the construction of Nord Stream 2 was senseless and criminal. There was no logic in it, save the depletion of the resources of Ukraine, which will not receive duties from transporting gas through its territory.
The whole history of this project is an enigma for journalists. It will become the same enigma for historians. If I were the editor-in-chief of a large newspaper, I would ask my editorial staff to give all the time and attention necessary to investigate this story and answer these questions: Why Nord Stream 2? Who made this decision? Under what circumstances? What is the whole story? Gerhard Schroeder? Ok, who else? And why?
— Aren’t you complicating things? There seem to be two answers on the surface: Schröderization and the Stasi, whose agents after German reunification became an integral part of German political and social life.
— Of course, if a book were written about this, there should definitely be a huge chapter about the ghost of the Stasi in modern Germany… And not only in Germany…
Today, Putin lovers in Europe have shut their mouths just because it’s unpopular to say the things they usually say. But they are all in their places and biding their time. There are parties that are financially indebted to Putin. For example, there is Marine Le Pen’s National Front. At least one of Le Pen’s presidential campaigns has been funded by Putin. On the opposite side of the political spectrum there are also many people who admire Putin. They are sure that he did everything right in Syria. They believe Russian propaganda about Ukraine. There are some in the moderate parties. They are everywhere.
— You say it’s criminal. Ties with Russia, pushing through decisions that Putin needs and that are fatal for Europe. That this is not only immoral, but also dangerous. Why do voters, law enforcement agencies, and special services tolerate this?
— Someday such things will be acknowledged as criminal. Of course, the crime will need to be proven and the perpetrators legally identified. But it will be recognized as a crime.
— What must happen for this to take place?
— Putin’s defeat. This is what I want. And this is what will change the whole history of Europe. I do not compare Hitler and Putin, because Hitler is incomparable to anyone. But we can compare situations. While Hitler was alive, collaborators all over Europe proudly walked the streets, held demonstrations and so on. When Hitler was defeated, dark times fell on them. And even if they were not punished criminally, they had to quiet down and disperse.
The same will be the case with Russia. If and, as I think, when Putin is defeated on the battlefield by the Ukrainians and then at home by the Russians themselves, life for Putin’s supporters in Europe will become much more difficult, if not impossible. And you’re right: it’s a crime. Here in France, as in the whole civilized world, the praise of crimes against humanity is a crime. Praising racism is a crime. Praising anti-Semitism is a crime. Therefore, I am sure that the praise of Putinism will one day be criminalized. Those who say that Putin has done an excellent job destroying Syria, bombing cities, and killing children will have to answer for this.
— I was impressed by your public debate with Alexander Dugin in 2019. Would you be ready to repeat it after February 24, 2022?
— It would be difficult. Honestly. Even at the time I understood that I was talking to a fascist. But I did not know that he was a fascist not only in words and on paper, that he is the same kind of fascist in practice. Today, having knowledge of all the unthinkable crimes that are committed every day in Ukraine, it would be difficult for me to debate with him. No, really, I don’t think I would be ready. The river of blood between him and me is too wide.
—To be honest, I felt a little sad when I watched these debates. In my opinion, you crushed him. But I had the lingering feeling that you were beating a snake that had already bitten and injected its venom.
— He is still doing it. Now there is a lot of evidence of his influence on the leadership of Russia. And not only the leadership, and not only in Russia. His ideas have supporters. Because, alas, fascism exists.
— How does contemporary fascism differ from fascism of the 20th century?
— It is a variation of yesterday’s fascism. New and old. Different and the same. All over the world there are people who believe in strength, who believe in the right of the strong, who believe that there are correct races and inferior ones. And for them, Putin is a hero. And Stalin was a hero to many in Europe. As was Hitler. It is a fact. The only progress that has been made is that the advocates of freedom in Europe, America, and around the world have opened their eyes. Unfortunately, Ukraine is paying a huge price for this progress. But this is a very important side effect that needs to be mentioned. People all over the world now understand who Putin is. Everyone who was blind a few months ago have opened their eyes. I remember how I have been literally screaming about the threat of war since 2014. I returned from the Maidan in February 2014 and shouted that fascism was coming, that this fascism had the face of Putin. Then I made a film Why Ukraine? to talk about it again and again… Then it was not enough. Now the situation is different. People have opened their eyes and now they see. And they see that Putinists are a kind of fascists. And, of course, Putinists will always remain Putinists. We will never convince a fascist not to be a fascist. Because they never slept. They knew who Putin was. That is why they loved him. And they knew quite well what he wanted to do.
— … and accepted it.
— Yes, they accept it. This is a very old story. Fascists are not blind. They know very well what they admire, for what and why. And they remain fascists even when fascism is defeated. The real struggle takes place only in the opposite camp. In the camp of anti-fascists there can be blind anti-fascists or shrewd anti-fascists, sleeping or awake, lazy or resolute… Therefore, I repeat: at a completely horrendous and unacceptable price of terrible sacrifices and destruction, Ukraine has succeeded in creating more shrewd, awake resolute anti-fascists around the world. This fully applies to your country as well. Despite the difficult situation, today you are closer to Europe than before. And now Belarus is much more different from Russia than it was before 2020 and before 2022. A lot of people woke up and saw the real face of Russian criminals, to whom they are still forced to yield. They saw those on behalf of whom they are being enslaved. They saw the true face of those to whom Lukashenka is selling them. After all, Lukashenka himself is just a slave of Putin. The very sight of these people sitting together is disgusting. If I were Belarusian, I would be extremely offended by the disgusting closeness of these two people. And I think Belarusians feel this. Therefore, I am confident in the European future of Belarus.
—How did it happen that you always saw the true face of Russia? After all, many who claim to be Western intellectuals, especially in France or Germany, sought to romanticize it.
—Maybe it’s because I have always liked Russia. Just a different Russia. The Russia of freedom, an anti-fascist Russia. The Russia, at one time, of dissidents, and today the Russia of Khodorkovsky, Kasparov, and Navalny. And Russia is not unique here. I have always believed that there are two Frances: Pétain’s France and de Gaulle’s France are two very different Frances. The same applies to Russia and Belarus.
— Will Russia be able to exit its current state?
— The war in Ukraine will be for the Putin regime what the war in Afghanistan was for the last leaders of the USSR. It will become the Putin regime’s grave. Even if Ukraine loses (which I do not believe!), Putin will lose anyway. He will lose politically. He has already turned Russia into a giant North Korea. It will be unacceptable for the Russians. Of this, I am sure.
And once again I repeat, I am not an enemy of Russia, no matter what their propaganda says. On the contrary, I spent all my youth defending Russians: Solzhenitsyn, Sakharov, Bukovsky. All these people are heroes to me. I assisted them, brought them to Paris, helped them to be heard and so on. In 1982, 1983, up until 1989. People told me «nothing will change,» «Brezhnev is here forever,» «dissidents are salt…»
— … of the Earth?
— (laughs) Yes, yes, the salt of the Earth. This is what I said, but they told me that dissidents are salt in borscht, which should not be so much as to spoil it. And now quite a bit of time has passed, and who was right? The regime was weak, and it collapsed. The same is true today. When they tell me that Putin is popular in Russia, I am not so sure about this. And the war in Ukraine will expose this.
— We know what price Germany paid to get out from under fascism. Will the cost for Russia be commensurate?
— In Germany, there was President Weizsäcker, who said that the fall of Hitler was not the defeat of Germany, but its deliverance and liberation. One day Russia will be liberated. Whatever the price. But today Ukraine is paying this price. The Belarusians who oppose Lukashenka and Putin are also paying it. But this nightmare will come to an end. The victory of Ukraine and the democratic forces in Belarus will mean a painful awakening for Russia.
This article is written for Reform.by