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Konstantin Sigov: The Question of Truth on the Threshold of a New Europe (video)

"Putinism is the extreme form of State nihilism. The not-quite-condemned evil seeks impunity and escapes from justice," says Ukrainian philosopher Konstantin Sigov in his lecture, The Question of Truth on the Threshold of a New Europe.

He delivered it on 15 May 2023 at the XXIX General Assembly of the Learned Society of the Czech Republic, which awarded him its honorary medal Numisma honoris Societatis scientiarum Bohemicae.  

The video and the text of the lecture are now available:

Konstantin Sigov heads the European Centre at the Kyiv-Mohyla Academy, and in 1992-1995 he lectured at l'École des hautes études en sciences sociales (EHESS) in Paris. In Kyiv, he has founded and heads the publishing house Duch i litera, which publishes not only domestic works on politics, history and art, but also Ukrainian and Russian translations of great authors of European thought. For his persistent work on the dialogue between cultures, France awarded Konstantin Sigov the Ordre des Palmes académiques.

In 2014, Konstantin Sigov participated in the Maidan revolution, of which he was a leading figure. He also regularly contributes information and reflections from Kyiv during the current war, where he and his son remain. His book Poselství z Kyjeva has been published in Czech (Bourdon 2023), as well as the Letter from Kyiv : A Ukrainian Philosopher Writes from Bombed Kyiv to France and Europe (in: Prokletí impéria a ruská lež, ed. K. Hloušková - F. Mikš, Books & Pipes 2023).

"A country that loses its historical memory is endangered by injustice and unfreedom," says Konstantin Sigov in an interview with Czech Radio. In his lecture, he talks about the Russian attempt at "cliocide" - the murder of historical memory (according to Clio, the Greek muse of history).

Professor Konstantin Sigov is one of the leading figures in contemporary philosophy with a strong professional overlap with other social sciences. In addition to his long-standing teaching activities, he was instrumental in establishing a joint Ukrainian-French institute at his alma mater in Kyiv, focused on interdisciplinary research of social issues, which he has led for over 30 years. In 1992, he also founded the publishing house Duch i litera, which focuses on production in social sciences and humanities. Today, Professor Sigov's name is also associated with opposition to Russian aggression; he has long been one of the leading critics of the Putin regime.

The Question of Truth on the Threshold of a New Europe

Konstantin Sigov, Kyiv 

The Learned Society of the Czech Republic, 15th May 2023


Truth supposes justice: this thought by Emmanuel Levinas is as relevant today as ever and is in tune with the philosophy of Vaclav Havel. Kyiv and Prague are drawing the attention of Europe to this key issue. The word “Pravda”, truth, is connected with justice (“právo”). When Putin and his team reject the truth, they do it because they want to live arbitrarily, without any rules. Ukrainians became physical bodies witnessing the intangible connection between truth and right. Losing the truth, one loses the right to life, to dignity. Ukraine has woken us up - that's the testimony we hear from a lot of cities in Europe. How will European cultural institutions and universities contribute to the victory over Russia's terrorist regime and liberation from Putinism? Over the past year, we have learned quite distinctly that delay being deadly is not just a metaphor; delay is death. How can we lessen the murderous impact of lies on our present and future? What inhibits the realization that the question of truth brings us closer to the threshold of a new Europe?

The Rule of Hospitality as the Principle of Human Legality

Allow me to begin with profound gratitude for your hospitality. You offer it to me today as you have done to so many of my compatriots. The high honour of your Learned Society inscribes your act of hospitality in a concentrated form into the overall history of Europe. Václav Havel noted the striving of totalitarian regimes towards “the destruction of history as such”. It was called “cliocide” (the act of killing the history) by Sergei Krymsky, my teacher and the advisor of my doctoral thesis in the Kyivan Institute of Philosophy at the moment of the collapse of the USSR.

The restoration of the historical connections between Prague and Kyiv reminds us of the names and the colourful pages of our common annals. In 1921, soon after the Bolshevik army overthrew the government of independent Ukraine, Dmytro Chizhevsky, a famous cultural historian, left Kyiv for Prague. Working at the Ukrainian Free University in Prague as well as in Germany (Halle), Chizhevsky found the lost manuscript of De rerum humanarum emendatione consultatio catholica, a philosophical work by Jan Amos Komensky. In his work The Labyrinth of the World of J. A. Komensky: Themes and Sources (1953), Chizhevsky articulates both the Ukrainian response to the hospitality of Prague culture and his warning against the Bolshevik attempt at “cliocide”. 

Lenka Karfíková translated my book into Czech, and it was recently published in Prague (Poselství z Kyjeva o Ukrajině a Evropě) [1].  In it, as in my other two books, published in French in Paris [2],  I develop Chizhevsky’s ideas, which are dear to me, in the context of the present war in Europe. I will list the key points.

1. The crimes of the Russian Federation

On April 27th, 2023, the parliamentary assembly of the Council of the EU recognised the deportation and forcible relocation of Ukrainian children to the territory of the Russian Federation as genocide.  [3]

The deportation of children before our eyes represents the most radical break with the traditional practice of hospitality, as ancient as mankind itself. Kant saw the rule of hospitality as the very basis of human legality. The crimes against humanity that are being committed today by the Russian Federation are a total violation of legality. 

Month after month, the destruction by the aggressor’s rockets of high-rise civic buildings and the murder of children, women, men, and old people enter our consciousness and stand before our eyes. The total destruction of living quarters and of whole towns in Ukraine multiplies the crimes of Putin’s regime, which had begun in Chechnya, in Georgia, and in Syria. This is not a nightmare from which we can awaken tomorrow. This is the “nihilistic matrix” of a criminal regime transformed into a system. Along with the letter Z, its characteristic sign has become an apartment building split open by a rocket. Why? Are we expected to get used to that?

This is our history, an indelible history. No one can erase it now. 

2. The collapse of the foundation of Soviet lawlessness

In my eyes, the image of an annihilated house leads us to the question of the foundation of Putin’s lawlessness, which cannot be seen on television screens. The question of his impunity in his bunker and of the end of his historical term.

Free people challenge the very basis, the foundation of the impunity of the Soviet crimes – the impunity on which Stalin’s regime was built. The collapse of this foundation shakes Putin’s entire regime (and the deep bunker of his fear). The Kremlin people are trying to persuade themselves that this is not the end yet, and they fire rockets at our houses. Fragile houses in which people had been living, with a chance for humanity in every window. 

The key image of Stalin’s regime was described by Vasily Grossman, a Jew from Ukraine, the first author of important books in Russian about the Soviet totalitarian system. The Kremlin tried to destroy his texts, to erase his testimony; Grossman’s books were forbidden to be published in the USSR. After Stalin’s death in 1953, Grossman wrote the first book about the Holodomor of 1933 in Ukraine, Everything Flows [4]. Grossman reminds us that the foundation of a totalitarian state without freedom had been laid by Lenin and Stalin. The whole of Stalin’s “architecture” was defined by violence instead of justice and rights, by terror instead of law. Bolshevik terror cleared the building site of the Soviet state, sweeping away residential buildings, houses and the edifices of the Old Regime. The Cheka terror dug a pit for the foundation of Stalin’s high-rise building and defined its design. The KGB terror hid behind the façade of the Soviet state, when the finished edifice was “put into operation”. The façade was hung with deceitful slogans and ephemeral portraits of the leaders. And the façade itself was the endless propaganda lies led by the most deceitful newspaper of the twentieth century, called Pravda, that is, Truth

The reading of Orwell’s book 1984 today should be complemented by the parallel reading of Everything Flows. Grossman leads us to a historical question:

“The high-rise building is peopled by new tenants. Of course, there is a lot that is unfinished, but there is no need to go on using the destructive methods of the great builder, the old master. The foundation of the building – un-freedom – still holds. What will happen next? Is this foundation so unshakeable?

I underline this question, and I answer it in the negative. Together with Grossman, who said:

“No matter how enormous the buildings and powerful the cannons, no matter how boundless the state power and powerful the empires – all that is merely smoke and fog, which will vanish. What remains, develops, and lives is the only true power – the one thing, which is freedom. For a man to live means to be free. Not all reality is reasonable. Everything that is inhuman is senseless and useless!”

The Kremlin vowed that Grossman’s books would not be published in his country in the next 200 years. Nevertheless, the forbidden book Everything Flows was published in the USSR in 1989. The Kremlin is not capable of any historical guarantees. Its attempts to control history are in vain. Its present-day master is doomed.

3. The order for Putin’s arrest and the landmark events that led to it

The order for Vladimir Putin’s arrest, issued by the International Criminal Court in the Hague on March 17, 2023, makes irreversible the most essential demand of law and justice. The call for the law had been insisted upon from the very beginning by the citizens of Ukraine, by journalists from all over the world, jurists, experts, and other witnesses of Putin’s crimes. The distinctive feature of this war and the main request of the Ukrainian resistance is the leitmotif of law. The digital documentation of every day of this war distinguishes it from all previous conflicts in Europe. The openness of all the data to the process of justice, the unprecedented abundance of documented testimonies, and the existential will toward truth are the essential meaning of our history.

What were the landmark events that led onto the path to the present state of affairs? 

The signing by the USSR and the free countries of the agreements in Helsinki in 1977 changed the role of the criteria of human rights in assessing the states, which did not respect the law. In Prague, the authors of Charter 77 and the Helsinki group in Kyiv became islands of the new archipelago of the future Other Europe. 

The philosopher Jan Patočka in Prague and the poet Vasil Stus in Kyiv paid a high price of their lives for the new meaning of the two words: human rights. Those who trivialise the meaning of these words forget about this price or are afraid of its memory. But what would the history of our dark times turn into without the memory of these people and the meanings that are illuminated by these names?

 Václav Havel understood it well when he spoke about democracy as a political form which would enable human beings to personally define their freedom as responsibility, deriving it from the notion that there exist things worth suffering for. 

4. The stages of the renewal of justice and truth 

In 1991 the hope of freeing themselves from the fear and oppression of the Soviet regime became the leitmotif of the independence of Lithuania, Estonia, Latvia, Ukraine and other former Soviet republics at the moment of the dissolution of the USSR. But overcoming the Soviet inertia of intimidation called for great effort. In his book about the decline and fall of the Soviet Union [5], David Satter reminds us: “When the first demonstrations began, parents begged their children not to take part in them: ‘You’ll be shot, just as our brothers and sisters were once shot.' But, seeing such mass support of people’s striving for independence, people were getting rid of fear.”

After 1989 a public statement of the truth about Stalin’s repression, about the GULAG and Holodomor, became the criterion of freedom of the mass media, a criterion of the quality of cultural politics and programmes of education in schools and universities. The strategy of glasnost, from the first publications of the names of the executioners and victims, led to the demand to fully open the archives of the KGB for historical research. The development of the strategy of glasnost as a historical task (and not only as a slogan of a local political campaign) has remained pertinent for us throughout the whole course of the last thirty years. 

In terms of the history of the development of public consciousness in Ukraine and in Russia after 1991, I distinguish two basic anthropological motives: freedom from fear of violence and the right to tell the truth. It is hard to describe the countless obstacles on the path to their realisation. To analyse them, one needs not a short presentation but a work in many volumes by experts on the questions of justice and international law, culture and politics, economics and ethics, and the history of relations between Church and State considered in the broad context (going far beyond the framework of the opposition “we/they”). The priority of the questions of law is connected with the retrospective insight into the fallacy of the politics that made a capstone of the economic transition from Soviet socialism to “savage capitalism”. It is impossible for Western people to imagine how radically the Communist ideology, up to its collapse, had been eradicating legal awareness.

5. The KGB grabs it all. Criteria of truth and law are no more

There is an essential difference between those parts of the USSR where the Communist regime took power in 1917 and the others that were taken over 22 years later. These two decades marked the experience of generations of citizens of Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, and Western Ukraine, conquered by the Soviet army in 1939 after the agreement between Stalin and Hitler, sealed by the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact. The differences in the structures of historical memory were further consolidated by the experience of many Baltic people and Ukrainians in the Soviet camps, in the solidarity of the dissidents and of the Helsinki group in the 1970s and 1980s. In the 1990s, the leaders of Memorial pointed to particular problems of the rights of inheritance in the greater part of the Soviet territory, where people had been deprived of the rights of property after the Bolshevik revolution in 1917. “The non-restoration of the rights of property,” Professor Andrei Zubov underlined, “and the unlawful redistribution of Soviet property, led to an oligarchic system in Ukraine, while in Russia – it being the main KGB centre – it led to ownership by the government security people. The KGB managed to grab everything. It began during the latter part of Yeltsin’s term, and under Putin, instead of the bandit freedom of the oligarchs, a pyramid of the Stalin-type of power quickly emerged, governed by the former KGB generals.”

Françoise Thom, analysing the Western failure to understand that Putin’s ideas are not connected to any convictions, writes: “It is a great mistake for the West to think that this regime defends, say, traditional values… That is to say, there is no understanding of precisely this Bolshevik notion that ideas are not a reflection of some convictions, but a weapon used to destroy the enemy.” [6]  The philosopher Alexandre Koyré described the totalitarian lie of the Stalinists as having the logic of underground conspirators who got hold of government power. In the narrow circle of “our guys”, the scenario of the special operation and the set of masks is decided upon and is then demonstrated to the outside spectators, misguiding them by gestures of loyalty. In the post-Soviet period, the logic of the agents of the special services, supported by the latest technologies, exceeds the scope of all previous propaganda. Its efficacy was underestimated for a very long time not only in Western countries but, strangely enough, also in Ukraine.

The erosion of the criteria of truth and law undermines the credibility of any politician whatsoever and of the public sphere itself. By the first half of the 1990s, the growing influence on central TV channels, at the elections, and in the Duma, of such totally cynical politicians as Zhirinovsky passed from eccentric brutality to the mainstream. On the eve of the war in Chechnya, the cult of brutal force and imperial militarism could not but raise alarms. Yet this did not stop Ukraine from signing, on December 5, 1994, in Budapest, a memorandum on the renunciation of nuclear arms. The insufficient awareness of the danger of war with Russia continued in Ukraine after the second war in Chechnya, and after the war, Russia waged in Georgia in 2008. 

6. The Orange Revolution and Maidan as decisive events in restoring human dignity

In 2004, following the Orange Revolution, many in Ukraine came to the hasty conclusion that people had got rid of their fears. More perceptive contemporaries realised that the fears had not gone anywhere: it was just that we had a temporary respite from being seriously intimidated. 

The tandem of Putin and Yanukovich made an attempt to revive intimidation. This attempt not only failed but led to the opposite reaction. By the end of 2013, the event of Maidan in Ukraine confused the plans of anti-European politicians and astonished the Europeans. The peaceful Revolution of Dignity in Kyiv began under Ukrainian and European banners. Maidan became the place where people were not afraid to speak the truth and stand up for their rights. 

A vivid account of the Ukrainian revolution, a rare moment when the political became the existential, is given in The Ukrainian Night. An Intimate History of Revolution, by Marci Shore [7] and in many important texts of Timothy Snyder. 

We keep going back to the meaning of the events of Maidan, despite the war that Putin’s regime began in the spring of 2014 after the annexation of Crimea. It is difficult to describe the historical dynamics of our society after Maidan with a simple formula. I define the meaning of our efforts after the Revolution of Dignity as the way from homo sovieticus to homo dignus. The understanding of this path is only the beginning of the process we have to go through. As Anne-Marie Pelletier observed, “Homo dignus is impervious to the distorting vision which perceives the world on the basis of hostility to the other, of infinite self-assertion, violence, and lies.”

The Revolution of Dignity became the decisive event in overcoming the Soviet habit of not taking into account human civil rights, of erasing human dignity. In Kyiv at this historic moment the blind curtain of a scornful and “undignified” view of man was torn down. The inertia of the hundred years of Soviet rule that alienated people from political life in the deep meaning of this word lost its influence. Having gone through the crucible of the Maidan events, people came out as conscious citizens of Ukraine. None of the prevarications of Kremlin propaganda about the people of Maidan being “antisemites” and “fascists” could conceal the truth. The Moscow poet and thinker Olga Sedakova wrote in her article “Russian Society in the Light of Maidan”:

“No final division has been made between ‘Russian’ and ‘Soviet’ here [in Russia]. The people of Maidan have attempted to cut ‘Ukrainian’ and ‘Soviet’ apart. Judging from recent events, such attempts are not being forgiven.” [8]

7. The new universities and their role in cultural and civic life between and after the revolutions

 The new universities of independent Ukraine, such as the State University Kyiv- Mohyla Academy and the Ukrainian Catholic University in Lvov, became “laboratories” for the systemic distinction between “the Ukrainian” and “the Soviet”. The students and teachers at these universities played a marked role in the revolutions of the years 2004 and 2013 and, above all, in the cultural and civic life between and after them . 

 Viacheslav Brukhovetsky, Miroslav Popovich, Sergei Krymsky and other colleagues set high standards in the human sciences, and definitively turned the page with stereotypes about the provincial and ethnographic character of Ukrainian culture. The signature project was the many volumes of Ukrainian and Russian translations of the Vocabulaire européen des philosophies. Dictionnaire des intraduisibles (Paris, 2004) [9],  published by the Kyivan publishing house Дух i Лiтера. In it language hospitality was given to the richest concepts of the ancient and new European languages. In the past two decades this multi-volume project was the most significant philosophical work uniting the scholars of Paris, Kyiv, and Moscow.

8. The two meanings of the word “Pravda”. Putin’s failed attempt to hack ‘’Truth’’ 

In the article “Pravda” for the original French edition of this dictionary, I showed the essential inseparability of the two meanings of this concept – truth and justice. The first code of Kyivan laws of the eleventh century was called Правда (“Truth”). In the course of the 1000 years of legal activity in Kyiv, the word “правда” played a key role. The Soviet regime tried for 70 years to break the semantic connection of the cognate words “правда”, “право” and “справедливость” (truth, law, and justice). But in this task it suffered failure and broke down. Putin is trying to accomplish this task using the new technological resources of the 21st century. The main strategic task of his ‘’cyber attacks’’ is directed at hacking the semantics of the word “truth”. To hack its meaning and supplant it with something unrecognisable – such is his mania of “the Ring of Power”. He needs to manipulate “truth” as the key link of the whole chain of political ideas in order to achieve the total lobotomy of his people. This word is the drop in which the whole historic battle is refracted. Putin attempts to totally pervert the sense of the Russian proverb “God is not in strength, but in truth” (“Bog ne v sile, a v pravde”). However, if we are to reduce Putin’s role to one single word, this word will be not “truth” (pravda), but “crime” (prestuplenie). And this crime of his will have its immanent punishment.

9. Putin’s  criminal discourse and the Kremlin’s crimes. Enough evidence for the international tribunal

The criminal vocabulary of Putin and his surrounding mafiosi determines the discourse of the Kremlin. The inhuman paths of this discourse have been shaped by the century-long work of the Soviet torture chambers, through which millions of tormented people went. Today the torture chambers of the Russian Federation and in the occupied territories overfulfil the state norm of cruelty. The vocabulary of the executioners and the slang of the recidivists lend their tone to the speech of the Russian army, recorded in many phone conversations of the soldiers and officers available on the web. The untranslatability of this discourse into other languages (which lack the linguistic means shaped by a similar experience of cruelty) cannot be conveyed, despite the efforts of the best European translators. 

Still the material amassed, told and critically treated by the jurists is sufficient for the work of a special international tribunal and for the qualified translation of the criminal actions of the aggressor into the language of legal decisions. The French judge and philosopher of law Antoine Garapon arrives at an important conclusion:

“It is possible to surmount national identities by justice – a Europe that Ukraine has already rejoined by its choice for justice. Justice disposes the ones and the others in the same place, which is no longer physical but juridical, which no longer comes from geography but from an ought-to-be but which is not yet, and which will never be totally there, but without which we would not be. That is the meaning the Greeks gave to Dikè, that is, the order of the world.” [10]

10. Towards the space of the new Europe. The new challenges and historical tests. There is no time to waste

Pravda in Kyiv served as a faithful translation of the Greek experience and conception of Dikè. The question of pravda leads us today into the space of the new Europe. 

We, you and I, are all called – in the face of the new challenges of history – to re-think the sources of the courageous thinking of Patočka and Chizhevsky, Grossman and Orwell, Stus and Havel. They laid out the way for the resistance to totalitarianism as the perversion of absolute power. 

We will not be deceived by the changes of the masks worn by absolute evil. Since February 24, 2022 we have been challenged by the absolute perversion of the crimes against humanity in Bucha and Maryupol, accompanied by proud videos showing the deportation of thousands of Ukrainian children by the Kremlin’s forces. Today the vocabulary of European resistance to evil is undergoing its historic test on the battlefields of Ukraine. The necessary condition of a free future for all the countries (without exception) of our continent is the re-enforcement of our real solidarity aiming at the demilitarisation of the aggressor. The historic experience of liberation can help us to find remedies for the sicknesses of our language and our intellectual habits. The quality of our future directly depends on the de-sovietisation of our past and de-putinisation of our present. After Putin the new historic space must be purified by the work of justice and the scrutiny of all the rooms of “the state high-rise building” which, after Stalin, had not even been properly aired out. It is time to throw open all the windows and doors. 

 In Moscow, the sentencing to 25 years of the guiltless Vladimir Kara-Murza as an “enemy of the people” leaves no illusions about the danger of delaying justice for his executioners. Putinism is the extreme form of State nihilism. The not-quite-condemned evil seeks impunity and escape from justice. The world-wide wave of indignation over the pseudo-trial of Vladimir Kara-Murza raises the question of the fate of other political prisoners in Russia, the lion’s share of whom are Ukrainians.

The cost of delaying Ukraine’s integration into Europe is much higher than the cost of speeding up this process. The past cries about it in the voices of countless victims, and the present and the future wait for more solidarity and resolute steps towards unity. The post-imperial future of Russia and Europe depends on the real guarantees of security for Ukraine in the European family.

11. Not only on the battlefield, but on the legal front and in the space of meaning and meaninglessness. Your hospitality is a pledge of freedom – yours and ours 

 Bakhmut is the home town of my teacher, the philosopher Sergei Krymsky. On the threshold of the 21st century Krymsky wrote: “History is filled with noise, bloodshed, the clanging of iron. It resembles both the scrolls of the prophets (with lots of tears, despair, desire for help from the higher powers), and the book of wisdom. History is both the biography of the spirit and the dispensation of judgment over mankind.”

Today the defence of Bakhmut is the battle against cliocide, about the danger of which Krymsky reminded us. The condemnation of Putin’s genocidal actions in the Hague and Strasbourg is the legal front against cliocide. Today the war in Europe is fought not only in the fields of Ukraine, but in the space of meaning or meaninglessness.

Resistance to absolute evil mobilises a special energy in people. Every day my friends colleagues and students in Ukraine testify that hope is not a theory but an everyday practice. The other wing of this practice is your hospitality and solidarity: the pledge of freedom, yours and ours.


[1] Konstantin Sigov, Poselství z Kyjeva o Ukrajině a Evropě, Praha, Bourdon 2023:

[2] Constantin Sigov – Laure Mandeville, Quand l'Ukraine se lève : La naissance d’une nouvelle Europe, Paris, Talen Éditions 2022,; Constantin Sigov, Le courage de l’Ukraine, Paris, Cerf 2023,


[4] Vasily Grossman, Everything Flows, New York Review of Books 2009:

[5] David Satter, Age of Delirium: The Decline and Fall of the Soviet Union (A. Knopf, 1996; Yale University Press, 2001):

[6] Françoise Thom, Comprendre le poutinisme (Desclée De Brouwer 2018):

[7] Marci Shore, The Ukrainian Night: An Intimate History of Revolution, by Marci Shore (Yale University Press, 2018):

[8] Olga Sedakova, „Russian Society in the Light of Maidan“ (Voices of Ukraine 12.3. 2014):

[9] Barbara Cassin (ed.), Vocabulaire européen des philosophies. Dictionnaire des intraduisibles (Paris, Seuil 2004):

[10] Antoine Garapon, «Le choix de l’Ukraine pour la justice  (Desk Russia, 29.4. 2023): «... il est possible de surmonter les identités nationales par la justice — une Europe que l’Ukraine a déjà rejoint par son choix pour la justice. La justice dispose les uns et les autres dans un même lieu qui n’est plus physique mais juridique, qui ne relève plus de la géographie mais d’un devant-être mais qui n’est pas encore, et qui ne sera jamais là totalement, mais sans lequel nous ne serions pas. C’est la signification que les Grecs donnaient à la Dikè, c’est-à-dire à l’ordre du monde.»,