Today Easter is celebrated by western Christians; a week from now it will be celebrated by the Orthodox and Greek Catholics in Ukraine, and by the Orthodox in Russia. By then, Russian troops will be engaged in their Easter Offensive, a new Russian attack on Ukraine in the Donbas.
The coincidence of the most important holiday in the Christian tradition with a war of atrocity gives an occasion to think about what Easter means, and how the life and death of Jesus has been interpreted.
One way of thinking about the life and death of Jesus is to connect them. Jesus of Nazareth took risks in life. He had things he needed to say about love and truth, but he did not deliberately provoke the state. That he died for his convictions adds an unforgettable dimension to them.
On such an interpretation of Easter, Jesus would be exemplary as an ethicist and truthteller who understood that commitments involve risks. His example would not be one of seeking death, or seeking meaning in death. The instruction would be to accept that some risk of death follows, in certain circumstances, from commitments to values such as love and truth.
“Love and truth.” Once, after a debate in 2009 in Bratislava, I looked over at the notes that the Czech thinker (and by then former president) Václav Havel had been keeping for himself. He had written "love and truth" on a sheet of paper, and then doodled flowers around it.
Havel was the author of a famous secular east European statement about risk in politics. He wrote "Power of the Powerless" in communist Czechoslovakia, three decades before that debate, under the shadow of the death of the philosopher Jan Patocka, who had died after police interrogation. In that essay, Havel maintained that one takes risks for one's own truths, not because punishment brings some meaning, but because risk inheres in truth. To "live in truth" means accepting a measure of existential danger.
The Soviet Ukrainian dissident Myroslav Marynovych, who admired Havel, said something similar. The risks that he and others took as human rights activists in the Soviet Ukraine of the 1970s were not a deliberate provocation of the state. They were just an inseparable element of what Myronovych called a "normal Ukrainian life." In the Soviet Union, one could be punished for singing Ukrainian songs or speaking of Ukrainian history. One should do such normal things not to court punishment, but rather because not doing so would compromise the self.
Both Havel (who was secular) and Marynovych (who experienced an epiphany under interrogation) were part of an international human rights movement that saw its main activity as the chronicle. A prominent form of resistance to communism was the attempt to record arrests, trials, deportations, sentences, and abuses. "Human rights" meant telling the truth about a moment when a life was interrupted. This tradition was continued after the end of the Soviet Union by investigative reporters who took risks to write about post-communist oligarchy and war.
I was reminded of that truthtelling tradition this Easter week when I read Nataliya Gumenyuk's reporting from Ukrainian territories from which Russian troops have withdrawn. Gumenyuk is one of an admirable group of Ukrainian reporters who have taken their share of risks reporting the inequality and conflict of the twenty-first century. (Russian reporters, such as those working for Novaya Gazeta and Ekho Moskvy belong to this tradition as well. These media have been forced to shut down by the Russian government.)
During the war in Ukraine, Russian occupation practice has been to execute Ukrainian local elites. Russian soldiers shoot Ukrainian civilians in the head for having taken some responsibility for local affairs. In the telling of survivors, these local elites were not seeking some heroic end. They simply could not bring themselves to collaborate with a Russian occupation regime. "They were killed for us," says a Ukrainian survivor to Gumenyuk, in an article published on western-rite Good Friday. What is meant is that they died because of how they lived, as servants of their communities. The point, though, was not that their death was redemptive. The murder was a horror.
I also hear something of an older east European tradition in the way that Volodymyr Zelens'kyi addresses Ukrainian losses. In an interview also published on Good Friday, Zelens'kyi speaks of suffering and death involved in resistance to invasion as a result of a risk that had to be taken to preserve the life of a society. Zelens'kyi does not glamorize combat or death. He gave a speech the other day which recalled Havel: he defined living in a lie as the source of Putin's aggression, and spoke of truth as a form of courage.
That is one broad way of thinking about politics suggested by Easter: the values of life are affirmed by a risk of death. Life is full of values, but attached to each one is risk. The risk is attendant upon the value. If the risk is realized in death, the value is affirmed. But death is not the point.
In a rival interpretation of the death of Jesus, to which Christians are vulnerable, death is the point. It is the suffering and the dying, rather that the acting and the living, that creates the meaning.
In such thinking about Easter, the significance of the dying can crowd out the living message of love and truth. The Polish Romanticism of the nineteenth century veered in this direction. The vision of Poland as a "Christ of Nations" was less about Christian comportment and more about the willingness to die for a cause. A century later, Romanian fascists identified strongly with Christianity (Eastern Orthodoxy), and had an exuberant cult of death and martyrdom.
A certain kind of focus on the death of Jesus has a way, in politics at least, of dissolving responsibility for action. One convenient interpretation of Jesus dying for our sins is that we are innocent. And then the question arises as to who "we" are. Those within our group can be seen as free of sin, regardless of what we do, whereas the others can be seen as sinners, regardless of what they do.
The Russian thinker Ivan Ilyin, a Christian (Orthodox) fascist, advanced such a doctrine of national innocence. Ilyin's view was that Christ's teachings about truth and love were to be understood in a particular way, with respect to a particular nation. The world was broken, and could only be healed by Russians, and in particular by a fascist Russian leader. That was the truth that mattered. Only Russia had the chance to become a Christian nation, and that was by way of a totalitarianism that eliminated the differences between people and ruler. A restored Russia that could lead humanity would be without national minorities and without Ukraine, which Ilyin claimed did not exist. Christ commanded the love of God and the love of neighbor, but this meant for Ilyin the hatred of the Godless, which is to say those who did not understand Russia’s destiny.
On Ilyin's view, anything a Russian leader did to create a fascist, imperial Russia was by definition innocent of sin, since it was a step towards the redemption of the entire world. There is nothing wrong with lying and killing in a flawed world. Indeed, lying and killing are good when done by a Russian leader on a crusade to restore wholeness to the world.
The last time Russia invaded Ukraine, in 2014, Putin was in the habit of citing Ilyin to legitimate Russian empire. And to justify that war, a living Russian fascist, Alexander Dugin, supplied the image of Russia as a crucified boy (in “news” about an event that never took place).
Putin’s rhetoric about this war make sense within such a framework. In a rally, Putin quoted the Bible to celebrate the death of Russians in battle. He said that their death had made the nation more unified than ever before.
The murder of local Ukrainian elites is part of a Russian policy of “de-Ukrainization,” which Putin calls “denazification” in order to demarcate which country is always innocent and which one is always guilty. In this conceptual world, Ukrainians are always guilty because of who they are, and Russians are always innocent no matter what they do. A genocidal campaign absolves itself of guilt by reference to a claim of permanent national innocence.
May 9th, Putin’s deadline for victory in the Easter Offensive, is itself a kind of secular Easter: it is the day of commemoration of the Soviet victory in the Second World War, in which the death of millions of Soviet soldiers in the 1940s is presented as a permanent redemption of Russia — and a justification of Putin’s wars. When death supplies the meaning, more death supplies more meaning.
Russians can behave like fascists while calling others “fascists.” Putin can express perplexity as to why he should feel guilty. He has said, after all, that it is God’s will that Russia and Ukraine be “united.” Dead Russians prove the sanctity of his goal, and dead Ukrainians are its realization.
And so Russia’s Easter Offensive will come. Russian Orthodox clerics, tied to the Russian state, will find ways to justify the bloodshed. Official Russia will protect itself from moral tension with extravagant claims of victimhood.
And all Christians will have something to ponder: how to think about the life and death of Jesus in our own times of war.
PS This coming Tuesday is the release date of my new audiobook on Ukraine, in which I address as best I can, in eight hours of new lectures, the major issues raised by the Russian invasion. It takes the form of a (much-) extended audiobook of On Tyranny.
PPS The Tuesday after that is the release date of a new edition of my book Bloodlands, which is a history of Nazi and Soviet atrocity in the 1940s, especially in Ukraine. In its conclusion and in a new afterword I consider the relationship between the memory of mass killing and present policy.