‘The Issue of Ukraine and Crimea Is Complex’

Joseph Pearce, the Catholic biographer of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, addresses some important and often overlooked aspects of the current crisis.

Joseph Pearce
Joseph Pearce (photo: EWTN)

A host of competing ideas have been circulated about the numerous complexities associated with the most significant international flashpoint of early 2014: the overthrow of the previous Russian-oriented government in Ukraine and Russian President Vladimir Putin’s subsequent bid to assume control of the Ukrainian territory of Crimea.

For example, David Remnick wrote a piece in The New Yorker that suggested great Christian thinker and Nobel-prize winner Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn thought Russia should control Ukraine.

Register correspondent Victor Gaetan discussed this issue with Catholic writer and commentator Joseph Pearce, author of Solzhenitsyn: A Soul in Exile and a memoir of his conversion to Catholicism, Race With the Devil: My Journey From Racial Hatred to Rational Love, as well as books about G.K. Chesterton, C.S. Lewis, Hilaire Belloc and J.R.R. Tolkien. The discussion with Pearce, who currently is writer in residence and professor of humanities at Thomas More College of Liberal Arts in Merrimack, N.H., widened beyond Solzhenitsyn to a consideration of the conflict in general.

Pearce’s opinions are his own and not those of the Register or the interviewer.


What would Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn say about the current conflict between Russia and Ukraine, in your view?

First, Solzhenitsyn is admired in Russia, as he should be, and admired by President Vladimir Putin, as he should be. The Gulag Archipelago and Solzhenitsyn’s short stories are compulsory reading for all high-school students. But Solzhenitsyn always advocated national self-determination. He was against a pan-Slavic empire under Russian domination. The most important thing regarding Solzhenitsyn is that he was opposed to imperialism, meaning one nation imposing its will on other nations.


What did Solzhenitsyn think constituted the Russian nation?

He considered Russia a multiethnic society. So Solzhenitsyn’s understanding of national identity was not a racial understanding; it was a cultural identity.

The other thing we need to understand is that the borders of Russia are not set in stone. For example, the Crimea, which has become the catalyst for recent problems, became part of Ukraine only about 50 years ago, when it was given to Ukraine on a whim. Yet the majority of the people in Crimea feel themselves to be Russian. I don’t think anyone doubts that.

Americans sometimes find this difficult to understand, because, since the American Revolution, no one has really argued about what the U.S. is, geographically. But in Europe, especially a country such as Ukraine, borders have been fluid.

Because Solzhenitsyn is an anti-imperialist, he would not have been in favor of Russia invading any country against the will of that country. So that idea of Russia invading Ukraine, especially the western part of the country, would be an act of imperialism, and Solzhenitsyn would not have tolerated that.


Let’s look back to the Paris Peace Conference and the Treaty of Versailles, which concluded World War I. President Woodrow Wilson wanted Ukraine to be part of a greater Russian nation, among other reasons, to strengthen anti-communist sentiment within Russia to defeat the Bolsheviks. On the other hand, Pope Benedict XV recognized Ukrainian independence. In the end, the Treaty of Versailles ignored Ukraine, and it fell into communist hands soon after.

I think the Treaty of Versailles was a work of realpolitik, which is more in accordance of the ethos of Machiavelli than Christ. Realpolitik concerns itself with what is going to work from a pragmatic perspective at that point in time. In fact, the Treaty of Versailles was disastrous and contributed to World War II.

The principle that matters is not what a powerful person such as Woodrow Wilson wants, but what the people of Ukraine want for themselves — that is what the ethical position is, which was ignored.


What do you think is the core issue in dispute today?

The issue of Ukraine and Crimea is complex. Crimea is majority Russian. The president of Ukraine, Viktor Yanukovych, was indeed elected [in 2010], so we witnessed a coup d'état, that’s true, but none of us can embrace shooting civilians. That’s unacceptable. We can’t support the pro-Russian government that attacked demonstrators in Kiev last month, but it is correct to say it was a coup d'état in Ukraine.

With regard to Putin, he is concerned with NATO and the European Union’s expansion into neighboring countries. I see a parallel with Kennedy’s unease about having the Soviet Union on the U.S. doorstep in Cuba in 1963.

The European Union, which I consider to be a tyranny, because it is very bureaucratic and undemocratic, has its own axe to grind. Meanwhile, the U.S. is trying to push NATO right up to Russia’s borders, which is obviously going to be provocative.

Many Western elites already despise Putin, and I’m afraid they are demonizing Putin for reasons not directly tied to Crimea.


Like what?

Putin is despised by the left because he has spoken out against homosexuality. Meanwhile, there are some neo-conservatives who want to resurrect the Cold War. So we are hearing a lot of anti-Russian rhetoric.

Then there’s this: Globalism, meaning multinational corporations working in league with the super powers, are trying to carve up the world. Those with huge political and economic power are working together to tighten their grip on the global economy against small government, small business, ordinary people and families. This force has no room for rival visions. I’m referring to globalism in league with mammon. Russia is a thorn in the side of that vision of the world.

The sort of world preferred and promoted by the globalist vision does not have anything to do with a Christian understanding of the cosmos.


What do you think motivates Putin?

Don’t forget, after the Soviet collapse, when Russia was completely weak, anarchy prevailed. The country was being picked apart by thieves. Putin has restored an element of order and civilization. He’s also governed during a period of astonishing growth in the Russian economy. Yet it doesn’t matter if you watch CNN or Fox News. Putin is worse than Stalin and Hitler combined. That’s nonsense.

In Russia, he has 60%-80% approval in opinion polls for the last 10 years, based on economic success and his image of being a strong man. My personal sympathies are with the Ukrainian people, but let us be true to the facts: Russia today does not equal the Soviet Union of yesterday.


You’ve written about Catholic social teaching. What aspect of the Church’s teaching can help us inform our opinion of the situation in Ukraine and Crimea?

The Catholic teaching of subsidiarity suggests small sovereign nations are more capable of representing the people’s will. Citizens should be able to participate in national life — that’s democracy, but it’s also the Church’s idea that local self-determination is better than intervention from an outside force.

I would say that the answer to the global crisis has been given in a series of papal encyclicals. If people would listen to what the popes say, we would be so much better off.

The Catholic Church has been a broker for common sense on the global stage. For example, Blessed John Paul was certainly right to oppose U.S. intervention in Iraq, as Pope Francis opposed intervention in Syria.


Where do you see this conflict in Russia and Ukraine going?

I don’t think Putin wants to rule Ukraine. He wants stability. One reason I don’t think Putin is interested in trying to take over Ukraine is because, if he did, even the pro-Russian world would turn on him.

I don’t see Putin blinking. Crimea will become part of Russia again. It was historically part of Russia, and most people there want to be part of Russia. The real question is what emerges in Ukraine.

Victor Gaetan writes from Washington. He is a contributor to Foreign Affairs magazine.