My Debt To Russia, My Letter To Putin: A Very Personal Plea To End The War
Polish-born French writer Marek Halter, who fled the Nazis to the USSR, has known Vladimir Putin for 30 years. Halter sent the Russian president a long letter on May 18, and later shared a copy of it with Les Echos. In the letter, he lays out the path for Putin to renounce the war without undermining Russia's standing.
We have known each other for more than 30 years. Our first encounter dates back to the inauguration of the French University College of Saint Petersburg in 1992. This second French university in post-Communist Russia, the brainchild of Nobel Peace Prize laureate Andrei Sakharov, opened a year after the one in Moscow. And it was commissioned to me by Anatoly Sobchak, then mayor of the “city of Tsars” of which you were the deputy mayor, through the intermediary of his counterpart, Jacques Chirac, who was then mayor of Paris before becoming President of France.
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You probably remember that day because we unexpectedly brought up your relation with the Jewish people. Because when I, as a Jew, was condemned by the Nazis to be turned into soap, it was the Russians who saved my life. This certainly explains my attachment to your country. We also mentioned my love for Russian literature and its characters who have undoubtedly marked those of my books: Natasha, Prince Bolkonsky, the Karamazov brothers, uncle Vanya…
For your part, you told me, not without a certain pride, you used to be a “Russian James Bond” for six years. This secret made me smile, as I was blacklisted by the KGB for years for having fought against the Gulag and taken part in the liberation of Russian dissidents!
Didn’t our support to the Afghan resistance fighters against Soviet occupation earn my friend Bernard-Henri Lévy and myself a ban from Russian territory? I had to wait for perestroika to rediscover the sounds of the language and the melodies of my childhood.
I was wrong about the war
Then, of course, you became president of the Russian Federation. We have met again several times since: I've published interviews with you, both in France and abroad.
Just three months ago, I celebrated my 86th birthday in Russia, on the initiative of Moscow State University which has been hosting our French University College for thirty years. Your advisor Mikhail Shvydkoy publicly conveyed your congratulations to me. One of your phrases particularly caught my attention: “He who does not regret the disappearance of the Soviet Union, which managed to reunite 73 ethnic groups around a single dream, has no heart. But he who wishes to reestablish it has no brain.”
I was convinced of the peaceful outcome of this crisis. I was wrong.
Therefore, convinced of the peaceful outcome of this crisis, I told the media that the war between Russia and Ukraine would not take place. I was wrong.
What happened in the meantime, Mr. President?
Marek Halter and Emmanuel Macron meet Vladimir Putin, and Halter declares on his Facebook page on Feb. 6: "No, there will be no war."
Do you remember the Cuban Missile Crisis?
French philosopher Montesquieu wrote in his famous 1748 treatise The Spirit of the Laws that war is the responsibility of the one who starts it, but also that of the one who makes it unavoidable. What prompted you to act? Was it the installation on your borders of NATO bases, an organization created in 1949 to stand against the Soviet Union? The preparations for a Ukrainian aggression against the Donbas with U.S. support? In that case, your war would in fact be a preventive war. Under these conditions, why not say so?
Do you remember, Mr. President, the famous Soviet nuclear launchers pointed at Florida that Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev installed in Cuba in October 1962? As soon as he was informed, the then U.S. President John F. Kennedy threatened Russia with a third world war and put all his forces in alert mode, leaving Khrushchev no choice but to give in. Why did you not follow this example?
In the future, you will have to explain to the world, and especially to your friends, the reasons that led you, against all expectations, to send your tanks — rather than your diplomats — into Ukraine.
Encouraged by your silence, the answer is conveyed by television commentators who react to the news on the spot, as well as from your enemies, who are clearly not favorable to Russia. Yes, one day it will be your role, as well as President (Volodymyr) Zelensky’s, to provide historians with the documents and information required to understand and write this part of our history.
I once looked like this young Russian soldier on trial
As for me, I wish we would one day analyze the true reasons of anti-Russian hate that is spreading in Western countries. Don’t we hold as a principle to distinguish populations and their politicians? In France, notably, we have always supported, and still support, people engaged in conflicts that they did not choose. During the U.S. war in Vietnam, for instance, or those of George Bush, father and son, in Iraq.
Yet today, those who defended popular sovereignty call Russians “pariahs,” a people embodying pure evil, a people to be banished.
The role of the intellectual is not to condemn but to demand.
Can my position be compared to others? Does the role that Russia has played in my life influence my reactions? Does the fact that we know each other distort my judgments? Three centuries ago, Denis Diderot, who was fond of Russia just like me — he was a friend and regular guest of Catherine the Great in Saint Petersburg — asked himself the same question.
But we know from the time of the prophets of Israel that the role of the intellectual is not to condemn but to demand. Without averting our eyes. In the name of justice, which is the same for the powerful and their subjects. Which is what Cicero did in the time of Caesar or, closer to us, Vasily Grossman and Ilya Ehrenburg in Russia, Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus in France, Stefan Zweig and Thomas Mann in Germany …
Yes, Mr. President, this conflict, on the edge of changing the face of the world, troubles me. Can you imagine that even this young Russian soldier, who is being flaunted by Ukrainians and who has been sentenced to life imprisonment for war crimes, who should have horrified me, actually only arouses my pity. For my memory is not innocent, nor is any man’s. At the end of World War II, in Kokand, in far-off Uzbekistan, I looked like him. Skeletal, with a shaved head, I was a lawless young man, a “hooligan” who attacked strangers to save my parents and to express the rage in which the power had trapped me.
I remember 1946 on Red Square
I know history just like you do, Mr. President, and I know that small groups of Ukrainians offered their support to Nazis during the massacre of 33,771 Jews in Babi Yar, in the outskirts of Kyiv. This does not make all Ukrainians a Nazi people. And yesterday’s actions do not justify the bombs dropped on their cities today.
I remember the anniversary of the victory over Nazism celebrated on Red Square in 1946, and the Pravda newspapers handed out for free for this special occasion. The front page put side by side the famous shot by Yevgeny Khaldei — a Donetsk Jew — representing a Soviet soldier raising a red flag over the Reichstag, and the list of Soviet war heroes classified according to their ethnic group: The first were Russians, followed closely by Ukrainians and by Jews!
Things are simple for those who sign petitions, but they are not for History. It is good to remind, in the fashion of Edgar Morin, that between black and white there is a whole palette of shades of gray. This is the reason why the Talmud — which you are said to know, Mr. President, from your roommates in Leningrad where you grew up — asks us, “Do you want the wicked to die or to acknowledge his faults and live?”
I know, Mr. President, that you believe just like me in the power of words. Otherwise why would you have spent two hours on February 21, to enumerate all the humiliations inflicted on Russia by Western countries in recent years? Was it a justification for the war you were about to trigger? As the quote sometimes attributed to Freud eloquently says, the man who first hurled a word of abuse at his enemy instead of a spear was “the founder of civilization.”
Isn’t it about time to stop that war?
Yes, Mr. President, history tells us that it is easier to start a war than to end it. Especially since World War II, which you call “The Great Patriotic War,” because times have changed. Today, with globalization, economic and media pressures, it is no longer possible to win with weapons alone. The outcomes of the recent American interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan have proven this. As Clausewitz predicted, “War is not an independent phenomenon, but the continuation of politics by other means.” Yet politics is done by talking.
Three months after the beginning of the conflict, isn’t it about time to find a way to put an end to it? Why not by suggesting, like General Charles de Gaulle did in 1958 in the context of the Algerian War, “the peace of the brave” to his opponents? The enlightened man that you are has certainly realized that the war in Ukraine, as it is called, has gone far beyond the battleground you had envisioned. It has flooded television screens all over the world, to such an extent that we wonder what journalists will talk about when the war is over. And those who follow the news through their windows have neither your knowledge of history nor your references.
Misunderstanding of the events is to blame on a dual reading: The one made by a minority of people who try to attach each event like one of the lost links to the long chain forming the history of humanity; And the one made by conflation enthusiasts, like Stendhal’s character Fabrice, who might have mistaken the Waterloo battleground they were witnessing for the one in Stalingrad, and who might compare it to Mariupol.
Halter, from the archives
Do not fall into the trap set by Washington
Mr President, do not fall into the trap the Americans are trying to set for you. Because today, they are the ones controlling the course of the events and preventing President Zelensky to consider, as he used to be willing to, a solution for this conflict other than the continuation of this war which only the United States are benefitting from now. For their economy.
By destroying or quite simply liquidating Europe as an independent political and economic force, by acting as a “mentor” and protector, as the one and only model opposed to the authoritarian systems who reign over 40% of the global population.
It is not a matter of winning this war, but of stopping it.
General de Gaulle and Chancellor Konrad Adenauer rose up against this danger, laying the foundations for this other model that is Europe: An alliance between free countries, without domination from one over the others, and which, according to them, Russia should have joined. This Europe, the dream of Victor Hugo (whom you have read), is dying in the Ukrainian plains. It will soon be replaced by a military alliance, NATO, which only exists in the perspective of more wars.
Mr. President, in order to escape this new division of the world, which relegates Russia to the East and risks to definitely distance it from its historical and cultural sources, it is not a matter of winning this war, but of stopping it. As a matter of urgency. This will spare thousands of lives and will give you and President Zelensky the opportunity to get out of the mess in which the reading of your respective memories has trapped you, without too much damage to your national pride.
I asked myself, Mr. President, how a man like me, a man who has only his pen and the experience of violence and hatred at his disposal, a man who never ceased to push his fellow human beings to dialogue and who is lucky enough to be able to talk to presidents, may help find a solution.
A caravan to Moscow and Kyiv
A few years ago, like my elders, I would have launched a movement for peace, organized marches, issued anathemas signed by hundreds of celebrities, organized conferences that would have brought together Russian and Ukrainian intellectuals under the cheers of a crowd of men and women of good will. Except that today, there are no more dissidents, no more “charismatic” opponents — as sociologist Max Weber would call them — who forced people to listen. People surf on the ephemeral.
What nonetheless remains, and I am sure that you will agree with me, Mr. President, is religion. It is true that to each their own, but all share the same hope for a better world and address those claiming this hope.
This is why, Mr. President, I plan to take a Caravan for Peace to Moscow and then Kyiv alongside Catholic, Orthodox, Protestant, Muslim, Jewish and Buddhist religious officials. Imagine this caravan arriving on Red Square, after having traveled thousands of kilometers, and stopping in front of St. Basil's Cathedral to say a prayer for peace, perhaps even in the presence of a Vatican delegation.
Will you take this opportunity to join us in declaring an end to hostilities? "To save one human life," the Scriptures say, "is to save all of humanity.”
With this simple gesture, you would surprise the world and inaugurate an unexpected political pathway, a diplomatic revival. The Russian people and History would be forever grateful to you.
*Marek Halter is a naturalized French writer and activist, born in Warsaw, Poland in 1936.
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