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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

James Kirchick
May 29, 2014

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.

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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James Kirchick, a visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution, is a columnist at Tablet magazine and the author of The End of Europe: Dictators, Demagogues and the Coming Dark Age. He is writing a history of gay Washington, D.C. His Twitter feed is @jkirchick.

James Kirchick is a Tablet columnist and the author of Secret City: The Hidden History of Gay Washington (Henry Holt, 2022). He tweets @jkirchick.