Five years ago, a friend visiting Kyiv sent me a photograph from Maidan Nezalezhnosti (Independence Square) in Ukraine. “Freedom is Our Religion,” read the bold banner covering the city’s House Trade Unions building, which was damaged by fire during the 2014 Revolution of Dignity: the mass protests that overthrew the pro-Russia president, Viktor Yanukovych.
It’s an arresting and puzzling banner. I cherish freedom more than (almost?) anything else. Making a reflective choice, acting upon it, taking responsibility for it — what’s more human than this? In my classes on human nature, I can talk with my students about freedom ad nausea. Yet I have never professed freedom as my religion. Can religion — with its leaders, rites, tradition and institutions — foster our sense of choice? How so? If freedom is religion, does it have a god? Is it man? What worship — indeed, sacrifice — would such religious freedom demand? What are its articles of faith? And, of course, what happens when this freedom is put to its utmost test: that of “bad faith” — the doctrine of “no choice?” Unfortunately, we are about to find out.
“Practice makes perfect” and “might makes right”: the twin adages could hardly find a more insidious agent than Russian President Vladimir Putin. After decades of practice, Putin brought his rhetoric of “no choice” to near perfection — and on the perfect occasion: Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. In his address to the nation on Feb. 24, Putin effectively described his foreign policy as completely reactive, mechanically caused by external forces that always leave him — and Russia — with only one course of action.
Invading Georgia? Annexing Crimea? Intervening in Syria? In his address, Putin grumbled, “We had no other choice. The same is happening today. They did not leave us any other option for defending Russia and our people, other than the one we are forced to use today.” This was no in-passing comment, but a leitmotif that became yet more apparent when Putin later gave a speech to Russian businesspeople, asserting, “We were not given any other chances to act otherwise… we couldn’t react any other way… we had to do it because the very existence of our country is at stake.” The top Russian bear, bare torsos and all, turns out to be a perpetual victim, devoid of any real agency.
Politics is often like that: the more existential, the less existentialist; the more that matters are framed in terms of life and death, the less these decisions and actions are presented as volitional. We have seen it throughout the pandemic: politicians told us that because life is on the line, we must do this and that, and we have often followed suit. The politics of bad faith prospers because it is effective: if there is “no choice,” there is no need for justification, let alone the need for taking responsibility. But it need not be so: even if — indeed, especially if — it’s a matter of survival, there is always a choice (and to state the obvious, Ukrainian independence hardly risks Russia’s existence).
Now that it is war, now that it is a matter of life and death, the question turns to the people of Ukraine and to the West. Do they too have “no choice” but…?
Looking again at the revolutionary banner, the ruptured shackle beneath the wording, I realize that the Ukrainians meant something else by “freedom,” something I rather call “liberty.” We typically conflate the two, but for me, they are different. Freedom is about daring to choose, and no one can force you to cowardly flee freedom into “bad faith.” Liberty is about who controls what, and it’s always, also, up to others. That’s what the Ukrainians wanted, and still do: control, getting rid of Russian rule. They are doing what they can, and the West should do its best to help them.
Yet fighting too is a choice; surrender to save lives is another. If the liberal West values life so much, it should revisit that age-old question, which may have been abandoned in the past generation: what’s worth killing and dying for? If the Dignity Revolution turned freedom into religion, what will the 2022 Russian invasion of Ukraine make of it? If the Ukrainian people are about to lose their sovereignty, again, what will they make of their freedom?
Uriel Abulof is a visiting professor of government at Cornell University, teaching the summer course Government 3686: What Makes Us Human. Comments can be sent to [email protected]. Guest Room runs periodically this semester.