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Meet the French Philosopher’s Son Manning the Intellectual Barricades in Kiev

Raphael Glucksmann should be with his family in Paris, but he’s too busy defending the nascent liberal democracy in Ukraine

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(FRANCOIS GUILLOT/AFP/Getty Images)
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When he was 7 years old, Raphaël Glucksmann wrote a poem titled “Apparatchik Commando.” He doesn’t remember the verses, but he recalls that the theme concerned a group of Muslims and Americans who, taking the Quran and U.S. Constitution as inspiration, team up to kill the Soviet Politburo. At the time—this was the mid 1980s—the Afghan insurgency against the Soviet Union was raging, and Raphaël, son of the renowned French philosopher André Glucksmann, was thrilled to have discovered his first revolution. He went to school donning a pakol, the woolen Afghan cap worn by Ahmad Shah Massoud, leader of the Tajik faction of the anti-Soviet resistance.

Recalling this childhood memory for me at a café just steps away from Kiev’s Maidan, the central square where protests last November crescendoed into a full-fledged revolution that ousted a corrupt and autocratic pro-Russian president, Glucksmann acknowledges that Massoud was something of a lost cause. Now 34, Glucksmann no longer watches revolutions from afar; he participates in them. Earlier this year, he co-founded the Center for European Democracy, a small think tank funded by Ukraine’s new government, whose purpose is to devise the sort of radical reforms he helped implement as a senior adviser to Mikheil Saakashvili, the brash, pro-Western former president of Georgia.

In standing up to Vladimir Putin after Moscow invaded his territory in 2008, Saakashvili won the hearts of many across the former Soviet Union and has since become a rock star for the young, pro-Western Maidan set. Glucksmann recounts with glee the moment in February when Saakashvili, who attended university in Kiev and speaks Ukrainian, addressed the protesters just a little over a week before former President Viktor Yanukovych fled the country. The Georgian earned more applause than any Ukrainian politician, Glucksmann recounts, when he promised the crowd “historians will write that the Russian Empire ceased to exist on the Maidan!”

Today, in the Ukrainian capital, Glucksmann says his mission is nothing less than to “make Kiev West Berlin”—a beachhead of freedom at the very heart of the newfangled Russian empire Putin is trying to establish. Just as in the Cold War, the West will need to engage in ideological warfare as well as conventional armed deterrence. While some Western observers, even those strongly critical of Putin and his revanchist agenda, have tended to downplay the appeal of his ideology—that is, if they even acknowledge he has one—Glucksmann considers Putinism to be even “more dangerous” in its appeal than Soviet Communism. He describes the Russian regime’s worldview thusly: “You think mankind is really equipped for freedom? Fuck you.”

In the last three months, Russia has overturned the liberal world order with the first armed annexation of territory on the European continent since the Second World War—a move justified with the announcement of a new foreign-policy doctrine of ethnic comradeship eerily similar to the one Adolf Hitler deployed to launch his Anschluss in 1938. Putin utilizes a sophisticated propaganda apparatus to declare the Western conception of democracy a sham; as far as Glucksmann is concerned, the only way to respond is in kind.

***

Glucksmann grew up in a committed political household. André Glucksmann was one of the nouveaux philosophes, the group of formerly Communist French intellectuals who broke with their rigid leftism in the early 1970s after the publication of Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago, which irrefutably detailed the depravities of the Soviet system. André Glucksmann would soon emerge as one of the most trenchant Western critics of Communist ideology and opened up his home to democratic dissidents from around the world.

It was in this way that Glucksmann fils earned his political education. “Raphaël Glucksmann is the son of his father,” Le Monde declared three years ago. In his eyes, the paper observed, “one finds the same sincerity, the same candor. And no trace of cynicism.” Indeed, if there’s one word that best encapsulates Glucksmann and his worldview, it is “romantic.”

He places himself firmly in the radically democratic tradition of French republicanism. “I feel French strongly—I always fight with my Anglo-Saxon friends over the conception of the Enlightenment and freedom,” he says, noting that he is “more Robespierre-ist,” and not a “Lockean-Hume liberal.” Glucksmann studied at the prestigious Sciences Po, the finishing school of the French political elite. There he bristled against what he describes as the school’s “endogamy,” which has successfully produced a succession of uninspired managers of the bureaucratic state, not the bold political thinkers he admires. The school’s social exclusivity and administrative dogmatism annoyed him; at 20 years old, he says, the students there, “become so much like the bureaucrats they interact with and hate.” He naturally drifted to outsiders; his “cabal” at university, he recalls, were all Jews like him or Arabs, including two Tunisian feminists who were supporters of George W. Bush. A last-minute conversation with a Nigerian friend convinced him to abandon a semester abroad at Columbia University in favor of working at a French-language newspaper in Algeria. He ended up staying for an entire year, and it set him on the path to becoming a journalist.

In August 2008, Glucksmann was at the airport in Moscow on his way back from Azerbaijan, where he had been gathering string for a three-part documentary about Russia’s international resurgence under Putin. He got a call from a Georgian national security official named Giga Bokeria, warning that the Russians were about to invade. Bokeria was overreacting, Glucksmann thought—the usual “Caucasian hysterics.” When Glucksmann landed in Paris, Georgian refugees had already starting pouring out of South Ossetia, one of the Russia-friendly provinces where Moscow already had “peacekeepers” deployed. Five days later Glucksmann found himself in the Russian-occupied city of Gori, the birthplace of Josef Stalin, some 50 miles west of Tbilisi, alongside a Libération photojournalist and a reporter from French Radio. Russian soldiers were holding the group captive; at one point, pro-Moscow paramilitaries with microwaves and other stolen items heaped on their flatbed truck drove by and threatened to kill the Libération photographer for taking their picture. It was “like a scene from Mad Max,” Glucksmann recalls with a smile, “like an invasion of Mongols in the 13th century.” Eventually the Russian general in charge came by and ordered the French journalists released, but not before instructing them, “Go back to your country and fuck your niggers, you goluboi”—Russian slang for “faggot.” (The general also yelled at the trio for being in Gori without a Russian visa, an ominous if “weird understanding of Russian borders,” Glucksmann recalls.)

Upon returning to Tbilisi, Glucksmann marched straight to Saakashvili’s office and told the president, “I want to work for your government.” For Glucksmann, the move from journalism to politics was a mere formality; although he had spent his professional life as a TV news producer, his work was always ideological, crusading even, beginning with his first documentary in 2004, Tuez-les tous! or Kill Them All, an indictment of French complicity in the Rwandan genocide. His activist impulse was also evident in his role in founding Études Sans Frontières, or Studies Without Borders, an organization modeled on the medical NGO that provides scholarships for students from war-torn countries to attend Western universities.

After five years at Saakashvili’s side, Glucksmann intended to settle back in Paris to work on domestic political causes when the events in Ukraine thrust him back into the region’s politics. Last November, just weeks after Saakasvhili stepped down following the end of his second term, Glucksmann traveled to Vilnius, Lithuania, for a summit held under the auspices of the Eastern Partnership, an initiative aimed at strengthening relations between the European Union and six post-Soviet states. The program had been founded in 2009 partly in response to the Russian invasion of Georgia, and it was in the Lithuanian capital that Yanukovych had been widely expected to sign a large trade and aid package with the E.U. Just before the summit, however, Yanukovych pulled a volte face, ditching better relations with the West in favor of a deal with Russia’s nascent Eurasian Customs Union.

In response, pro-Western Ukrainians poured into Kiev’s Independence Square, or Maidan, to protest. The former Ukrainian boxing champ-turned political figure Vitali Klitschko invited Glucksmann to return with him to Kiev from Lithuania; Glucksmann told his wife, former Georgian Interior Minister Eka Zguladze, he’d be gone for no more than three days. When he arrived in Kiev, the differences between the 2004 Orange Revolution—which he had covered for France’s Channel 2 and where he first met Saakashvili—and the emerging protest movement on the Maidan, were startlingly obvious. The former was “friendly” and had “no sense of tragedy”—like a mélange of the “French Revolution and Woodstock.” Part of this was due to the fact that the Orange Revolution tied itself to the fortunes of specific political leaders—namely, Viktor Yushchenko and Yulia Tymoshenko, who would emerge to become president and prime minister, respectively–and had concrete political goals, namely, reversing the results of a stolen election. There was also no violence; the outgoing President Leonid Kuchma detested his Party of Regions successor, Yanukovych, and had no desire “to risk becoming the butcher of Europe” just to secure his heir’s ascendance.

Maidan, meanwhile, was inspired more by an idea—opposing a return to Moscow’s orbit—than a concrete set of political demands. Glucksmann worked with the revolution from its headquarters, the Trades Union Building right on the square, easily recognizable today for its burned out frame, destroyed during clashes with security forces. He spent most of his time on the second floor, in the only smoking room. Ukraine had recently passed stringent anti-smoking legislation, and the activists, committed to obeying the law especially in a time of revolution, were adamant that people not infringe upon it. Glucksmann fondly recalls that, when he threw a cigarette butt out the window, a student came up and admonished him not to do so again because they’d be accused of dirtying the street.

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Meet the French Philosopher’s Son Manning the Intellectual Barricades in Kiev

Raphael Glucksmann should be with his family in Paris, but he’s too busy defending the nascent liberal democracy in Ukraine