There is nothing friendly to liberty or to Western values about the government of Petro Poroshenko and Arseniy Yatseniuk in Ukraine – a regime completely incapable of understanding the principle of individual rights or the freedoms of speech, property, and conviction that this principle entails. The Ukrainian government has just enacted a law prohibiting the private expression of Communist symbols and ideology, while elevating to “national hero” status the Ukrainian Insurgent Army of Stepan Bandera, who collaborated with the Nazi army during World War II and committed systematic acts of genocide against Russian, Belarusian, Polish, and Jewish civilians. Bandera serves as an explicit inspiration for the neo-Nazi Right Sector paramilitary organization, whose fighters have been documented by Amnesty International to have committed extensive war crimes against civilians in the Donbass region, and whose leader Dmytro Yarosh now holds a prominent position as advisor to the Ukrainian Commander-in-Chief.
Criticism of Bandera and his Ukrainian Insurgent Army is now illegal in Ukraine. According to UaPosition, a Ukrainian website aimed at informing non-Ukrainians about Ukraine, the text of the law legitimizing Bandera’s thugs reads as follows: “Public denial of the legitimacy of the struggle for the independence of Ukraine in the twentieth century [is] recognized [as an] insult to the memory of fighters for independence of Ukraine in the XX century [and as] disparagement of the Ukrainian people and is illegal.”
As David Boaz put it, “One difference between libertarianism and socialism is that a socialist society can’t tolerate groups of people practicing freedom, but a libertarian society can comfortably allow people to choose voluntary socialism.” No libertarian or even remotely quasi-libertarian society would censor the expression of even the most strident socialist or communist viewpoints. On the other hand, legal censorship of opposing viewpoints was indeed a hallmark of the former Soviet Union. A government that attempts to censor the ideas that, at least ostensibly, animated Soviet policies, becomes just a mirror image of the Soviet regime by adopting the very same policies in essence. In addition, the Ukrainian regime has prohibited films alleged to “glorify” the Russian military and has imprisoned journalists and activists who criticized military conscription, such as Ruslan Kotsaba.
The Poroshenko/Yatseniuk government has assumed the worst characteristics of the former USSR regime without any of its few decent attributes. By validating both historical genocidal ethnic nationalism and its neo-Nazi successor movements, the Ukrainian regime has departed from one of the most important admirable aspects of the post-1941 USSR: its adamant opposition to Nazism and to the plethora of ethnically tinged fascist movements that arose in the wake of Hitler’s invasions of Eastern Europe. Indeed, one of the reasons why so many Soviet subjects of diverse ethnicities acquiesced to the tyranny of Stalin and his successors was the fact that the Soviet regime did act to protect them against the worse threat of genocide by Hitler and his petty nationalist allies. The prohibition on criticism of the Banderites is, in the eyes of many Ukrainians, Russians, and Belarusians, a prohibition on criticism of the armed gangs who murdered or tried to murder their grandparents.
Even more troubling, however, is that the zeal of “pro-Ukrainian” activists in the West is creating a chilling effect on speech and criticism of the Ukrainian regime even in Canada. Valentina Lisitsa, a world-renowned pianist born in Ukraine who became a US citizen and is currently residing in Paris, has become the latest victim of the campaign to silence those who disagree with militant Ukrainian nationalism. Lisitsa’s performances of classical compositions (see and hear examples here, here, here, and here) are completely apolitical and have attracted tens of millions of views on her YouTube channel. She was due to play Rachmaninoff’s Concerto #2 (earlier recordings are here, here, and here) at the Toronto Symphony Orchestra, before her appearance was cancelled at the behest of anonymous Ukrainian nationalist activists, who also fueled a social-media outcry against Lisitsa. The reason? Lisitsa posted on her Twitter account satirical, often scathing criticism of the Ukrainian government and its war against separatists in the Donbass – specifically condemning the neo-Nazi and genocidal strains among the Ukrainian government’s paramilitary supporters. She has remained steadfast in defending her posts as free expression – and rightfully so, as her liberty to express her views does not require those views or the manner of their expression to be inoffensive or universally agreeable to all. Furthermore, any manner of words or imagery she used pales in comparison to the real deaths of over 6,000 civilians (and likely many more) in the Donbass, many at the hands of the Ukrainian army and its allied “volunteer” paramilitary battalions. Lisitsa was outraged at the people and policies that brought about the deaths of these innocents, and she was right to proclaim her outrage.
But whether or not one agrees with Lisitsa or with the manner in which she expressed her views, her performance of Rachmaninoff had no relationship to any of her political activities – and none of her other classical performances over the course of many years had even the remotest political aspect. By successfully pressuring the Toronto Symphony Orchestra to cancel Lisitsa’s appearance, the Ukrainian nationalist activists recreated in Canada the same politicization of classical music for which Stalin’s Soviet Union was infamous. Some of the most innovative 20th-century composers – including Sergei Prokofiev, Dmitri Shostakovich, and Aram Khachaturian – were often victims of Stalin’s denunciations and sometimes came perilously close to imprisonment or worse. In a free society, it is generally recognized that a person’s artistic prowess and political positions are separate matters unless the artist wishes to intentionally combine the two – as, for instance, in a work of explicitly politically motivated art. Preventing the performance of art that is inherently apolitical, on the grounds of the artist’s outside political activities, creates a chilling effect on both art and peaceful political activism. Artists, fearing that their livelihoods would be denied to them if they became too vocal about current events and ran afoul of one pressure group or another, would be incentivized to stick only to bland, uncontroversial statements or avoid discussing any subjects where significant disagreements might arise. Art would suffer, as works of technical and esthetic merit would become more difficult for audiences to access, given that anybody with controversial political views would be shut out of the talent pool.
The cultural reign of political correctness in the West further exacerbates the threat of the chilling effect on art and speech. The political repression of art in the contemporary West would come not from a top-down decree by a government, but rather due to any sufficiently vocal special interest claiming to be “offended” – not just by an idea contrary to its own agenda, but by the whole person expressing that idea. It then becomes the case that no Stalin is necessary – but the effect is the same: ideologically motivated threats cowing artists into acquiescence to the popular political agenda of the day. A person can become widely denounced, blacklisted, and shut out from opportunities that should be determined by artistic merit alone – not due to any conspiracy, but rather because the typical, middle-of-the-road decision makers in private as well as public institutions become fearful of the special interests’ ire. Political correctness is not primarily a problem of governments, but rather a problem of a deeply broken societal and intellectual culture, where not giving offense is prioritized over the pursuit of truth and justice. In the case of Lisitsa, as usual, the politically correct prohibition on offense results in the most offensive possible ideologies having a free hand to shut down dissenting views. What “offended” fundamentalist Islam has been able to perpetrate in shutting down debate in Europe for over a decade, “offended” Ukrainian nationalism is beginning to inflict in Canada now, often with the vociferous support of media commentators crusading against “hate speech” – a phrase which can mean anything they want it to mean.
The Ukrainian nationalists are able to export their agenda of censorship and intimidation to the West as parasites taking advantage of a weakened host. Political correctness is the disease that renders Western public discourse vulnerable to their arguments, while endangering the vital critical voices who need to be heard in order to prevent a tragic Western-led escalation of the Ukrainian civil war. It seems that the only way the Ukrainian regime and its nationalist allies will be able to render Ukraine more Western is to render the West more like Ukraine. We in the West need to strengthen our defenses and develop an immunity against this incursion of illiberalism by reaffirming the values of individual rights, open discourse and debate on controversial ideas, free expression of dissenting views, and resistance to the dependence of art on political orthodoxy.