Philosophers are expected to understand events and phenomena from a rather detached perspective, keeping in mind useful theoretical patterns and precedents. But the situation in Ukraine made the secondment difficult for me. Not only are more than half of my family from Ukraine, but I have also long been concerned – philosophically and personally – with the issue of nuclear and radioactive threats, centering on the Chernobyl power plant and the use of nuclear weapons.
Nevertheless, today’s circumstances demand clear thinking. As I argued in my 2021 book Sense of upheaval, in a chapter titled “The Unfinished Collapse of the Soviet Union,” we must develop “a solid philosophy of history” capable of accounting for “historical gaps, protracted underground processes, and time lags between causes and the effects “. The urgency of this task has now become painfully evident. We are witnessing the result of the time lag between the official end of the USSR in 1991 and its unresolved legacies. These legacies are responsible not only for the war in Ukraine, but also for the simmering conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan in Nagorno-Karabakh, and for the tragic fate of Belarus. And the Soviet nuclear arsenal, which Ukraine agreed to transfer to Russia shortly after becoming an independent state, constantly looms in the background.
The Ukrainian War and Its Significance for History
But the historical implications of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s war in Ukraine are even more complex than the still undetermined legacy of the Soviet collapse. For European observers, the invasion of Russia is reminiscent of the behavior of Nazi Germany in 1939. For Ukrainians themselves, it is invariably reminiscent of previous national disasters, of the Holodomor of 1932-33 and World War II. world to the nightmare of the Chernobyl disaster in 1986. And for the Russians, stricter censorship and other internal repressive measures have awakened the memory of Stalinism. But this is not a case where history just repeats itself.
What we are witnessing in Ukraine, then, is a collapse of events – the convergence of different timelines into a single destructive phenomenon.
Repetition involves definite cyclicity and temporal rhythms, not to mention the completion of whatever is repeated. Yet many of the problems underlying Putin’s war are the comet-tails of incomplete earlier events – from the dissolution of the Soviet Union to the lingering effects of radioactive fallout. What we are witnessing in Ukraine, then, is a collapse of events – the convergence of different timelines into a single destructive phenomenon. The invasion of Russia has its roots in the Soviet collapse, the Chernobyl disaster, and both World Wars, as well as the Ukrainian genocide and Stalinist repression of the 1930s. All of this history is concentrated and condensed into the current war, much like the fissile material of an atomic bomb “is suddenly compressed into a smaller size and therefore a greater density”. The eruption of hostilities is basically a historical implosion.
The three classic models for explaining the movement of history included the conservative fall, lamenting the loss of past greatness; Liberal Progress, celebrating the upward trajectory of living standards and human freedom; and Cyclical repetition (sometimes combined with the first or second spiral pattern) of destruction and rejuvenation “by water or fire”, as in Plato. Timaeus. But implosion presents a fourth option, which also borrows from physics to describe how history gives way under the weight of unresolved legacies. In a sense, the fourth model combines elements of the other three, pitting conservative versus liberal views and presenting aspects of repetition, due to centripetal forces being released in an implosion. This is why we simultaneously hear the echoes of the “restoration” of Russia’s glorious imperial past; the “unstoppable” march towards free markets and democracy in Ukraine; and the tirelessly repeated mantra “History repeats itself”.
The absence of temporal and spatial constraints
The implosion of history is also palpable in today’s environmental crises. The sixth mass extinction that is underway is not simply a repeat of the previous five. It also signals the historic collapse of the human species (along with countless other species). In the era of the Anthropocene, this collapse is self-induced and therefore bears all the marks of an implosion. Both the climate crisis and Putin’s regime stem from our own reliance on fossil fuels, suggesting that they belong to the same larger historical paradigm.
A characteristic of the implosion of history is that it drags everything and everyone into its whirlwind.
The eternal question of political action – “What to do? – cannot be posed seriously without at least a rough understanding of the historical context. Is the war in Ukraine a temporary setback for the continued march of freedom around the world? Is this a temporary obstacle to the atavistic restoration of Imperial Russia? Does this reverse the Second World War, with the defenders of the fatherland now in the position of occupiers? Or is something else brewing on Ukrainian soil in 2022? A characteristic of the implosion of history is that it drags everything and everyone into its whirlwind. If the war in Ukraine is a telltale sign of this implosion, it is naïve to think that the hostilities taking place on Ukrainian soil are confined to this territory – even if it is still too early to talk about World War III.
The presence of the nuclear threat in the conflict – including power plants and weapons – is symptomatic of the conflict’s lack of temporal and spatial constraints. Just as Europe and the United States initially viewed Covid19 as a regional health issue in China, NATO’s “defensive” stance now neglects the transnational threat of nuclear fallout or the use of biological or chemical weapons. . The sooner the logic (or illogical) of historical implosion is grasped, the better we can understand what needs to be done. We are at the end of an era defined by a strong sense that we have reached the “end of history”. For now, all we can be sure of, as Bertolt Brecht said, is that “because things are as they are, things will not stay as they are”.
(C) Project Syndicate