After a career in academic philosophy in the 1970s and 1980s, Slavoj Zizek began to write widely in English, publishing what many consider to be his masterpiece work, The Sublime Object Of Ideology. Once referred to as a "celebrity philosopher" by Foreign Policy magazine, Zizek is known for his chaotic delivery, stream of consciousness speech, and controversial rhetoric. Although he has previously identified as a communist, he said he would vote for Donald Trump in the 2016 U.S. presidential election.
Zizek is currently the international director of the Birkbeck Institute for Humanities at the University of London. He spoke to Vazha Tavberidze from RFE/RL's Georgian Service.
RFE/RL: Before we talk about Ukraine and the war, I would like to ask you about Russia itself. Is Russia still an empire? Or a remnant of one? Or a country that would like to be one?
The Tavberidize Interviews
Since the beginning of Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, Vazha Tavberidze of RFE/RL's Georgian Service has been interviewing diplomats, military experts, and academics who hold a wide spectrum of opinions about the war's course, causes, and effects. To read all of his interviews, click here.
Slavoj Zizek: It's a very interesting question. I think it would like to be one, but I think, as it were, the "origin of evil" is also the way the West reacted to the disintegration of the Soviet Union. [By the way], I am totally anti-Putin. What I mean is that, in the 1990s, in the era of [Russian President Boris] Yeltsin…the implicit silent pact between Russia and the West was that Russia is formally recognized as a superpower on the condition that it doesn't really act as one. Like, we treat you as a great power, but let's face it, you are not one, and Putin then broke this rule.
I also think that the way the West influenced the Russian economy in the 1990s wasn't very constructive in [the midst of the] economic decay in the Yeltsin years. Economic decay, distrust in democracy, corruption -- [all] created the conditions for Putin. But to avoid any doubt, Putin is a global catastrophe. But we [the West] are not blameless there.
RFE/RL: Where do Russian imperial ambitions end? And what do they include? Is it the Soviet Union? Is it Russia from the time of Peter the Great? Where do we draw the line and the boundaries?
Zizek: As it is with all imperial powers, they probably themselves don't have a precise plan. They just try to push it on and on and on. In the case of Ukraine, they mentioned the Russian minority, but do you remember the short war in Georgia?
RFE/RL: I am Georgian, so I have to.
Zizek: Russia took the southern part of Ossetia [in the war]. But Ossetians are not a Russian minority.… Some people claim that all this big imperial rhetoric and all this idea of a Russian third way, all these fantasies of [Kremlin-connected far-right ideologue Aleksandr] Dugin, are just rhetoric and, in reality, Russia just wants to grab some land in Ukraine. I unfortunately don't believe in this. As a kind of leftist Marxist, I think that rhetoric is never just words. Ideology is a terrible material force; don’t underestimate it…. Oh, they are just talking…[but] what they are talking about is horrible. You know that Putin in one of his speeches included not just the Baltic states, but even Finland and, with some hints, even Sweden….
In Russia, they are dangerously approaching a new version of Nazism.
What worries me also is the situation in [Bosnia-Herzegovina] and northern Kosovo. As I pointed out in some of my texts, some Serbian politicians already talk Putin's language, claiming that Kosovo should also be denazified. And now the ideology is approaching madness. Did you notice that now they don't only talk about denazification, but already about de-Satanization? Putin was proclaimed chief exorcist not only of Ukraine but basically the entire Western Europe. And here things get really worrying for me.
Did you notice during the last visit of [Ukrainian President Volodymyr] Zelenskiy to Washington, but already before, a strong resistance from the extreme right, some Trump supporters, and so on…. This deep solidarity of the Western new populist right with Putin. We should never forget -- although I am against any racist Eurocentrism -- that Europe is something unique today. And I'm saying this as a leftist, my God! A vision of a corporation of states in a global emergency situation based on basic social democratic values, even if there are conservatives in power, global health care, solidarity, free education, and so on. That's why, did you notice how Europe annoys everybody today? From Latin American leftists to the American right, to Russians, to third-world fake anti-colonizers and so on….
Now I will try to be as open as possible understanding the Russian view. Yes, there are some neofascist tendencies in Europe here and there. I know the situation in Ukraine very well and [neo-Nazism], it's marginal and so on. But I will draw a distinction here between fascism and Nazism. Fascism is horrible. But remember, regimes like [Italian dictator Benito] Mussolini till 1938, [Portuguese dictator Antonio de Oliveira] Salazar, and [Spanish dictator Francisco] Franco. They were not this explosive, expensive fascism. They just tried to maintain order in their own land, while Nazism was something different. Hitler needed that war, constant tension and so on. So, I agree with the goal of denazification, but I think it should begin at home, in Russia. In Russia, they are dangerously approaching a new version of Nazism.
RFE/RL: Speaking of ideology, let me ask you this. When we talk about the imperial mindset, is it just Putin? Or is empire something ingrained in the Russian subconscious?
Zizek: It's a very interesting question. Many friends of Russia and admirers of Russian culture like to say, "Oh, this is just the present elite, Putin and so on. One shouldn't confuse this with Russian culture." I think it's always [been] more complex. One strand, one direction of Russian culture has this imperial ambition built in. For example -- and I know what I'm saying here because I think his danger is vastly underestimated but he's overestimated as a writer – [Fyodor] Dostoyevsky. Dostoevsky was, as far as I know, the first who formulated this idea of Russia as the eternal victim of Europe. Russia saved Europe from Napoleon first and so on.
Well, if we may engage in some crazy retroactive speculation, I think that if Napoleon were to win, with a miracle, and control Europe, maybe it would have been a much better Europe, incidentally…. OK, [it would be] absolutism, but more enlightened absolutism, based, nonetheless, on the values of the French Revolution, freedoms and so on.
I think there is no ethnic cleansing and violence without poetry.
So, we have this idea, which was the ultimate idea of the fascist third way. This idea [where] the Far East, Asia is totalitarian, the West is individualist, and Russia, Russian Orthodoxy, is the right way in the middle…. Only a united Eurasia can save us. I think that Eurasia is the Russian term for neofascism and it can even be empirically proven. The father of all of this is, as we all know but is not emphasized enough, Ivan Ilyn, a Russian political philosopher thrown out by Lenin.
Already then, in the 1920s, [when Ilyn] emigrated to Italy, then to Germany, he was sympathetic to fascism. But, very interestingly, he claimed that Western Europeans, they are already too marked by Western dynamics: industrial, individualist, even Nazism, fascism. [He thought that] only Russian Orthodoxy, with its unity of secular and spiritual power, can provide the original Russian fascism. I think that line is returning today….
RFE/RL: Russian exceptionalism?
Zizek: Yeah. But exceptionalism…in the sense that we are the exception that can provide the right balance between individualism and collectivism. This is an old fascist idea. Almost every power tries to present itself as somewhere in the middle. [According to] the idea of fascism, "we have communist totalitarianism, no private property, no freedom, and then we have Western liberalism [with] too much individualism. [But] we are in the middle, [we] fascists, [we] are the only real balanced power." I take these things very seriously….
What [is happening] today in the United States with Trumpian neoconservatives is that they are now also moving into this revolutionary phase. It will remain, I hope, a cultural civil war. But did you notice that recently Trump said in an interview that to return to true trust, democracy, [the cancellation of the] Biden election and so on, we are allowed even to violate the constitution, [to] delegitimize the entire system.
So, I think that the nightmare that I see, is a silent pact between Western alt-right neoconservatives, aggressive populists from France to England to Germany, [and] the United States and Russia. They have, they say, a vision of new sovereign state multiculturalism…. You remember when the Taliban won in Afghanistan (as the United States completed its troop withdrawal in 2021), the Taliban and China immediately made a pact, which brutally made sense: "We leave you alone to do whatever you want, terrorizing women, and so on. You leave us alone to do what we want with our own Muslims, Uyghurs, and so on."
This is the new world vision, and they even call it the new decentralization, multiculturalism, which means you can cut women's clitorises, be against LGBT, whatever you want. You do it there. We do it here, whatever we want. This is the new vision of sovereign neofascist states and the whole world is at least on one level moving in this direction….
Now, I will say something to provoke our listeners. Maybe even you. I think there is no ethnic cleansing and violence without poetry. I don't dismiss all poetry. But a certain poetry was always ready to justify a nationalist, racist, totalitarian regime. Let's look at [American poet] Ezra Pound, a great modernist. [He] was in Italy working for fascism during World War II. T.S. Eliot was also on the edge, not to mention my own country, Yugoslavia. It is deeply significant that Radovan Karadzic, the leader of the Bosnian Serbs, was a poet. But wait a minute, I'm not dismissing poetry. Poetry can be an authentic voice, but nonetheless, we should take now from today's experience with Russia a deeper look into the past and analyze the root of it all.
You know where I see one of the ideological roots?... Already in the late 1970s, [the KGB] clearly saw something: that Russia is losing [a] serious ideological war. That was the explosion of Western popular culture, rock music, and so on. So how to counter it?.... I remember they consciously began to build links with the Orthodox Church and Russian conservatives, which were, of course, till that point, oppressed. Because they knew that the only thing [that] could really oppose the…individualist, hedonist West was traditional Russian culture. This link, it's not just Putin and the patriarch, who is now the boss of the Russian Orthodox Church. This link has a deeper meaning. There is a pact between the darkest forces of the ex-KGB and a certain strand, again, in Russian Orthodox tradition.
RFE/RL: With all the points you have made, professor, I think the central point, the gist of the question, still remains unanswered. Because what I asked was, is it an ideology that is imposed by the Kremlin leadership? Or is it an ideology that is embraced by the nation? Because that leads us then to another question of collective guilt and the question of whose war is it that is now happening in Ukraine? Is it Russia's war or Putin's war?
Zizek: Maybe I'm even too optimistic here. I would like to find, maybe…a middle way. First, don't underestimate, even among ordinary Russians, this idea that we were a great power, with the Soviet [Union] and all that. This is a popular trend. But I nonetheless think that…Russia is deeply divided. The majority is neutral, but neutral in a cynical way. It will happen in the same [way] as with Milosevic in Serbia. He lost power, not because of his terrible politics of ethnic cleansing, but because he lost the war. If Putin will succeed, this will make him genuinely more popular. If not, then of course, he will be proclaimed a dictator who misused Russia and so on.
So, I am not ready…to blame Russian people as such, to brand them totalitarian, fascist and so on. They are somewhere in between, as most people are, but their tradition, the Orthodox Church, is, I claim, dangerous.
There are tremendous achievements of Russian culture. For example, if you ask me, the three greatest writers of the 20th century, I think they are [Irish novelist and playwright] Samuel Beckett, not [Irish writer James] Joyce -- he's pretentious, Finnegans Wake? Who wants to read that? -- [German-speaking Bohemian novelist] Franz Kafka, and [Soviet writer] Andrei Platonov. [Platonov was] a faithful communist -- he was fighting for the Red Army. But in his[novel], The Foundation Pit, they dig a big hole for a new socialist building, [and] all that remains is a hole. It's so fascinating [that] even before Stalinism, he saw the nihilistic dimension of the Bolshevik project.
So, as every culture, Russian culture is deeply divided. The struggle is going on, which is where I don't agree with my Ukrainian friends when they say let's boycott Russian culture as such, and so on and so on. Aren't we leaving them to Putin, by allowing him to present himself as the inheritor of Russian culture?…. So, Russia is in deep conflict with itself. That would be my answer…. We simply cannot say [whether] they are terrorizing the majority or [if it] has some roots also in the broad mass of people.
RFE/RL: You did say that the relationship of the Russian people with Putin will depend on whether he wins this war or not. And there's another particular interesting quote of yours. You swipe against those who advocate that the West should not support Ukraine, and they should put more pressure to negotiate -- their reasoning is that Ukraine simply cannot win a war against Russia. And then to my surprise, when you write about this, you do agree with that assessment. You say: "true, but I see this exactly as the greatness of the Ukrainian resistance. They risked the impossible, defying pragmatic calculations, and the least we owe them is full support." Now if you don't think Ukraine can win this, then how far does this assistance and support go?
Zizek: No, I wasn't precise enough there. [Ukraine] cannot win without very strong Western help. That's what I meant. My pessimistic assessment. Do you remember the beginning of the war? Although we nominally supported Ukraine, secretly, so many people from the left and the right admitted to me that the bad surprise was that Ukraine defended itself. They wanted the war to be over quickly. Because then, yeah, we will condemn Russia. After a couple of years of playing this boycott game, we will accept a new reality and so on and so on.
I think that at the deepest subconscious level, this was the bad surprise for us -- not the attack, but the Ukrainian will to resist…. Instead of being afraid of this -- my God, will they push Russia too far? -- shouldn't we, especially the leftists, be glad of this? This is one of the few examples [of] authentic popular resistance -- they did the impossible, every leftist should be glad. And I don't get my leftist friends who nonetheless perceive Russia as some kind of successor of the Soviet Union.
RFE/RL: That was exactly the question I was going to ask you next. What's the root of this fascination with Russia, or let's call it obsession, of the leftists in the West, including very prominent thinkers like Noam Chomsky or Jeffrey Sachs. What's the root of this fascination with Russia, even Putin's Russia?
Zizek: I read a recent statement by Sahra Wagenknecht, the German leftist [parliamentary deputy] of Die Linke (The Left party), and she quite openly says: Why should we lose energy, money, and so on, putting ourselves in danger, fighting for some war far away…endangering our welfare, the welfare, as she puts it, of our working people?
So here, her idea is basically: Let Ukraine perish so that we don't have to pay higher prices for electricity or whatever. And this is pure egotism. Beneath there is still deep distrust of -- more than the United States – NATO. The dogma of the left is, whoever you are, no matter how brutal the dictatorship, if NATO is against you, there must be ultimately something not totally bad in you. NATO is the automatic opponent. And I find all this reasoning so stupid….
This is exactly the abstract pacifism that German propaganda was playing on in Europe just before World War II -- they [called] it…anti-imperialism. French, English, American imperialism tries to dominate Europe, we will provide Europe [with] autonomy, we will save Europe and so on and so on. And the paradox is that Chomsky, who proclaims himself politically an anarchist, ended up not supporting Russia. The popular term today is "understanding Russia."
And what de facto happens is…while still helping Ukraine hopefully, we are putting pressure on Ukraine, [saying] don't provoke Russia too much. What I find so sad here is that the pacifists are not even ready to admit one thing – now, the pacificists say, the front is more or less stabilized, let's push for peace negotiations, give Russia part of Ukraine. But are these pacifists aware that we arrived at this stage of relative stabilization of the front precisely because of the immense Western help in Ukraine?....
That's the paradox that they are not ready to accept, that the Western intervention [has] opened up the chance for peace. Without Western intervention helping Ukraine, [the country] would probably be occupied and then you can probably go on, to Moldova, the Baltic states, pressure on Finland and so on and so on.