Kyiv, the Polis

As a former citizen of the USSR, born in Kyiv, I am living through a surreal moment. The country my family and I escaped as refugees no longer exists, having collapsed under the pressure of the Cold War, political ineptitude, and inexorable economic deterioration. Yet the memory of my brief, bleak life in my native city has indelibly shaped me. Long before our physical departure in 1978, I had been a stranger in my hometown, ostracized and abused both verbally and physically by anti-Semitic classmates, teachers, school administrators, bureaucrats, and even strangers on the street. By the time we finally escaped, I had come to detest Ukrainians as much as they seemed, completely unprompted, to detest me. So no one is more shocked than I am that today a popular image of “the Ukrainian people” so powerfully represents such democratic ideals as independence, the rule of law, equality, and comradeship. I find myself, almost despite myself, cheering Ukraine on in its fight against the invading Russian army. And I find myself, despite the irreparable trauma of a childhood spent under ceaseless abuse by my fellow Ukrainians, feeling deep empathy for the plight of “the citizens of Kyiv” today.

And though my own vexed relation to the place of my birth is uncommon, I am obviously not alone. The heroic Ukrainian resistance (surprising only to Putin) performs important yet contradictory ideological work in the contemporary American imaginary. On the one hand, Volodymyr Zelensky’s astute rhetorical strategy has helped frame Ukraine’s fight to protect its autonomy as a robust defense of universal democratic principles. On the other hand, the stories and images of the struggles Ukrainians are undergoing depict something quite different from, yet indispensable to, American-style liberal democracy. Here, citizenship appears in the form of collective sacrifice for the common good—an ideal otherwise depicted as degraded or lost amid social and political polarization, elite corruption, neoliberal corrosion, conspiracy mongering, and the like.

To students of American history and culture, however, such sentiments nostalgic must feel strange. After all, the American republic has never been especially republican—that is, it has never truly prized the common good and civic virtue above individual rights and freedoms. Much of America’s civic infrastructure—such as libraries, museums, schools, parks, theaters, stadiums, etc.—was constructed with private funds, often by robber barons seeking to sanitize their reputations. The US military is organized on the corporate model, as a large employer and provider of career training. Even its internal ideology reflects a profoundly liberal orientation: soldiers are encouraged to fight for their unit partners, not for any abstract principle or even the nation; the underlying logic is that of a reciprocal compact among presumptively independent individuals seeking to protect themselves. And in the workaday rough-and-tumble of American politics, the smallest sacrifices asked of ordinary citizens are routinely met with outrage and rejection. Few are willing to pay even slightly higher taxes, even if it is to support overwhelmingly popular priorities, such as public education, public transit or health care. Even the most progressive urban precincts aggressively oppose the construction of subsidized housing, homeless shelters, drug rehab centers, and any sort of zoning changes that might adversely impact local real estate values. More broadly, the surest way to defeat a public policy proposal is to paint it as redistributive, “taking” money from the middle class in order to “give” it to those in need.

As the troubling history of differential wealth accumulation in America amply demonstrates, none of this is new; none of it is the recent product of neoliberalism, globalization, the rise of social media, or any other twist in the American political economy. Yet the impulse to recruit fantasies of republican camaraderie is not novel either. It abounds in popular culture, typically but not exclusively in war narratives. Liberal democracy, it seems, cannot endure without an incongruous admixture of nationalism, which also limits and undermines it. In place of civic virtues, we have individual liberties; in place of the res publica, we have patriotic fantasies in which our daily sense of mutual alienation is salved by an imaginary dose of shared struggle and sacrifice.

This is a key role assigned today to “servant of the people” Volodymyr Zelensky, the relatively ragtag but surprisingly stout Ukrainian military, and the hardy volunteer spirit of ordinary Ukrainian citizens. In their apparent quest to be admitted to the imagined community of Western nation-states, they have had to (re)invent this very community. As one observer astutely put it,

Westernness is a thorny subject…because it has become vague, a disarticulated and somewhat embarrassing category. The idea of the West feels essentially nostalgic; it has not, in several decades, been a concept around which Westerners themselves rally, or a lens through which many of them consciously, at least, see themselves.… These days the term is mostly used by its critics and ostensible adversaries, or by Christian nationalists who see themselves as rising to its defense.…The deterioration of anything like a consensus of values and goals among Western allies has been underway for so long that a new concept, “Westlessness,” has emerged to try to name the way ideological poles are shifting away from the cohesion the West once offered—such that Great Britain voted to leave the EU and Donald Trump reportedly wanted to leave NATO.

By insisting that it hold itself to values in which it has long since lost its faith, Ukraine is recovering for “the West” its own exanimate identity as “the West.” Zelensky believes in “our” democracy more than we ourselves do, even as his belief is dramaturgical, or rhetorical in a way that renders its sincerity immaterial but its power irresistible. The complex of Zelensky/Ukraine/Kyiv has come to figure for us a kind of prelapsarian polis capable of resetting our collective compass on a democratic course.

Conversely, by “attacking democracy,” Vladimir Putin is stoking Western passions for it. We may no longer believe in it, but our enemies do. And the enemy of our enemy is our fondest friend. If Putin fears and loathes democracy, it must be powerful and desirable. If he desperately wants to destroy it, we must passionately defend it. And just as faith follows prayer as its retroactive presupposition, so does love of democracy follows our defense of it. The apparent enemy of democracy is its most jealous friend.