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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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In the initial weeks leading up to Yanukovych’s departure from office, Glucksmann imagined Klitschko—a man who could have been Ukraine’s answer to Arnold Schwarzenegger, in terms of combining international star power with political charisma—would be the natural choice for Ukraine’s post-Maidan future. But the boxer lost credibility with the movement after he agreed to a deal brokered by the French, German, and Polish foreign ministers that would have allowed Yanukovych to stay in power until the end of the year. Yanukovych ultimately fled the country after refusing to sign the agreement, but Klitschko’s standing as a political interlocutor for Maidan was already shot. At his last appearance on the square, Klitschko was booed, and a student eventually took his microphone away. In March, knowing he had no chance in a race against the money of billionaire chocolate tycoon Petro Poroshenko, who won last weekend’s election, Klitschko bowed out, opting instead to run, successfully, for mayor of Kiev.

Glucksmann meantime set about creating his foundation with Giorgi Arveladze, Saakashvili’s former chief of staff. They are an odd couple—a, tall, frizzle-haired French Jew whose grandparents were Soviet communists, and a short, bullet-headed Georgian bureaucrat—but are committed to bringing about long-term change. Both are also idealists. “I still can’t get rid of the naiveté of believing in freedom, justice, and the inevitability of the triumph of liberty,” Arveladze says. Their first objectives include cultivating support for reform among young Ukrainians and networking civil society activists in Ukraine with their counterparts in Belarus and Russia. They have drafted laws inspired by measures successfully adopted in other post-communist societies—namely Georgia, Poland, and Estonia. One such reform, based upon a Polish law from the 1990’s, allows citizens not only to record any interaction they have with an official body—say, a police officer—but also to use it as evidence in court. At the time of the law’s original enactment some 20 years ago, it was irrelevant in the daily lives of most Poles. Now, in an age where everyone has a smart phone, it has the power to dissuade corrupt officials.

But as much as Glucksmann and Arveladze hope to change Ukraine from within and orient it toward the West, their ultimate goal is much more ambitious: threaten Vladimir Putin’s hold on power and put a stop to the advance of the new Russian empire. And the central battleground now is Ukraine. Putin’s message to his own subjects and those throughout the former Soviet space—recently illustrated all too graphically in Crimea—is that any move toward reform or openness will be met with war and chaos. Speaking about this challenge, Glucksmann sounds like a character out of Victor Hugo. “Imagine a Russian-speaking democracy in Ukraine,” Glucksmann says. “It’s a nightmare for Putin’s regime.”

To resist this authoritarian power on Europe’s door, Glucksmann has deposited his hopes in an unlikely institution: the European Union. Glucksmann is an unapologetic European federalist—that is, someone who believes in a United States of Europe with a single president, army, and legislative institutions. The current French government’s decision to move forward with the sale of two warships to Russia infuriates him, as it is an example of a state putting its selfish, narrowly defined national interests above pan-European unity. He is in a minority—last weekend’s European Union elections saw victories for nationalist, anti-E.U. parties across Western Europe —but Glucksmann insists greater alignment among countries of similar values is the only way to counter the growing threat to liberal democracy. As far as he’s concerned, the fad for “post-ideology” in the West has prompted a vast underestimation of the challenge posed by Putin. “Our elites convinced themselves in 1991 that history is over and now we can go to rest,” Glucksmann says. “We won the most ideological war and then we said we don’t believe in ideology.”

Glucksmann’s Panglossian view of the E.U. contrasts with that of his father, who has spoken of the European project as a decidedly utilitarian one, a mere bulwark against the revival of the continent’s dark forces. “A civilization isn’t necessarily based on a common desire to achieve the best but, rather, on excluding and making the evil taboo,” the elder Glucksmann told Der Spiegel in 2012. “In historical terms, the European Union is a defensive reaction to horror.” His son, however, thinks that tendency to pragmatism—which seemingly afflicts everyone from his father to President Obama—breeds politicians who are mere “arrangers of society,” not bold actors who think and act big. He says that when his hero Saakashvili met German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who grew up in the Communist German Democratic Republic, Saakashvili enthused about how fantastic it was to have “a former dissident from East Germany as chancellor.” Merkel, Glucksmann says, curtly replied that she was never, nor is, a dissident, but a political leader.

Glucksmann plans to return home soon to France where his family awaits him. He has plenty to do there combating Marine Le Pen’s National Front, whose fanatical anti-Europeanism is having a deleterious effect on mainstream politics by moving the political debate closer to the extremes. But to him, it’s all of a piece: Le Pen, like many nationalist leaders across the continent, is a vocal ally of Putin, and the French domestic political debate—fought over issues like gay marriage, immigration, and the country’s general openness to the world—looks a lot like Putin’s ideological battle with the West in miniature. Today’s combatants can in some sense be seen as the intellectual inheritors of the French Revolution and counter-revolution, with Glucksmann firmly in the former, cosmopolitan camp. If Glucksmann has his way, then Ukraine’s second attempt at democratic revolution will not, like Ahmad Shah Massoud’s fight in Afghanistan three decades ago, be remembered as a lost cause.

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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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