Public debate

"In the face of war – European dialogue" : Constantin Sigov claims the importance of European solidarity for Ukraine

To remain free, Europe must show much more solidarity.

Director of the European Centre at Kyiv's Mohyla University and founder of the Duh i litera (Spirit and Letter) publishing house, which aims to provide access to European thought in Ukrainian, philosopher Constantin Sigov has been building intellectual bridges between Ukraine and France for many years. He is one of the personalities invited to take part in the In the face of war – European dialogue series of debates, organised by the Institut français, which will take place on 11 and 12 March in Warsaw. In this interview, he talks about the importance of strengthening intellectual exchanges in Europe to support Ukraine against the Russian aggression. 

Updated on 24/02/2024

10 min

Constantin Sigov
Constantin Sigov à Vilnius, lors de "Face à la guerre – dialogues européens" le 1er décembre 2023
© DR

On 24 February 2024, the war began by Russia in Ukraine will enter in its third year. What is your state of mind, both as a Ukrainian citizen and as an intellectual whose voice reaches beyond your country's borders?

Our country has put up strong resistance to Russian aggression. It would be no exaggeration to say that this is a new stage of resistance. After 1945, Europe lived in a post-war paradigm for several decades, but we are now in the paradigm of resistance. This involves all the countries of free Europe and implies a form of solidarity between the free zones and the occupied zones, such as part of Ukraine, where resistance fighters are arrested, persecuted and tortured.

I regret that when we talk about the history of Europe, we think to the post-war period. The Resistance is sent back to the archives. It is not the root of European history, while it is precisely resistance that brings Ukrainians closer to France today. For example, I'm currently reading La Résistance et ses poètes by Pierre Seghers. It is very interesting to notice that this book was published in the 1970s, thirty years after the Second World War, because some people had the courage, the will and the intelligence to understand that the efforts of authors and intellectuals like Albert Camus, Paul Éluard and Aragon had been decisive. The re-publication of the book in 2022 tells us that resistance is still relevant right now. 

I also think that accepting that Europe is now in the paradigm of resistance means that we can get out of the debate about whether we are co-belligerent or not. Some people understand perfectly well what is happening in Ukraine. Others prefer to say that it doesn't concern them. This is a way of avoiding getting directly involved in the resistance. In Promise at Dawn, Romain Gary, a member of the French Resistance during the Second World War, wrote: "I understand those who refused to follow de Gaulle. They were too settled in their furnitures, which they called the human condition." Some people today are too settled in their furnitures and don't want to join the Resistance, while others take the risk of getting involved.

Resistance is what describes best the state of mind of Ukrainians in Ukraine, but also throughout Europe, where millions of them live. As long as the aggression continues, we will resist. This state of mind is shared by the true friends of Ukraine. They are creating remarkable initiatives, such as the Institut français with the In the face of war – European dialogue project. 


You have a long-standing interest for translation and access to books written in other languages. You run the Ukrainian publishing house "Duh i litera", which proposes numerous translations in Ukrainian. How would you describe exchanges in the field of books and, more broadly, in the field of thought between Ukraine and France? Would you say that the context of war has tragically strengthened these links?

Yes, that is sure. Among the links that are most resistant to war, those with French authors and intellectuals are in a very good position. For example, of Barbara Cassin, with whom I worked on her Vocabulaire européen des philosophies, with 150 other intellectuals from all over Europe, was one to call me after the bombings on 24 February 2022. She told me that she had contacts to get me out of Kyiv. I told her: "Thank you Barbara, but I'm staying in Kyiv. We don't need to leave, we need to be heard and supported in our resistance". I can tell you that this support is real. As early as March 2022, she organised a support event with "Les rencontres philosophiques de Monaco", in which I took part, online from Kyiv, alongside the best French thinkers live from Paris. 

For us in Ukraine, solidarity is the key value of the European spirit.

It is very important to understand that, for us in Ukraine, solidarity is the key value of the European spirit. The Czech philosopher Jan Patočka spoke of the "solidarity of the Shaken". I would say that right now we are talking about the "solidarity of the interpelés". In other words, this war is bringing us out of an ordinary period and is putting us in front of a challenge: to be or not to be? If the Ukrainians have chosen to answer "to be", it is also a question to all Europeans.

In French, "interpelés" means "to be shocked" but I can also be used as a synonym of "arrested". Jan Patočka himself has been arrested by the Czech Communist authorities and then interrogated for so long that he died. There is also the exemple of Ihor Kozlovskyi, a Ukrainian thinker who has been a great inspiration to me. In 2016, he was arrested in Donetsk by the Russian, then interrogated and tortured. He has been released only two years later, during a prisoner exchange. Sadly, he is now dead.

We are living with the issues raised by the experiences of the people I have mentioned. If we want to understand what solidarity we have with the "interpelés, if we want to remain free, Europe must show much more solidarity and not be distracted by those who try to divide us. The In the face of war – European dialogue project of the Institut français, in which I will take part again in March in Warsaw, is the representation of this new wave of solidarity between people who are shocked (interpelés) humanly, historically and philosophically. The recent launch of the Ukrainian Institute in Paris is also another step towards closer collaboration between Ukrainian and French cultural players. 

In the background of the questions asked by the experiences of Jan Patočka, Ihor Kozlovskyi and so many others, there is also gratitude for those who have gone before us. That's why I'm particularly committed to translation, to make European thought known in Ukraine. We have translated many works, notably with the support of the Institut français, including those by Paul Ricoeur, Blaise Pascal, Montaigne, Régis Debré, François Furet, Levinas, Mauriac and Alexis de Tocqueville. We have also translated Robert Badinter and his major work L'abolition, and we are currently working on his book Vladimir Poutine, l'accusation, published in 2023, as well as Histoire de la conscience européenne, edited by Antoine Arjakovsky. For 30 years, the publishing house "Duh I litera" tries to give access to foreign authors to Ukraine. 

In my book Quand l’Ukraine se lève (When Ukraine stands up), published in 2022, I explain on page 195 that I was delighted to be involved in the search of offices for the French Institute in Kyiv in 1991. It was the first Western cultural institution to set up in Ukraine after the fall of the Soviet empire. And it was with a former employee of the French Institute, Yves Mabin, that we founded the Skovoroda programme, that made possible many translations from French into Ukrainian. 

How can Europe claim to know itself if she only knows half of itself?

This is also time now to make Ukrainian thought better known in France. My two books, Quand l’Ukraine se lève (When Ukraine stands up) and Le courage de l'Ukraine (The courage of Ukraine), make a modest contribution to this. As well as the book Entretiens avec Valentin Silvestrov, composition et âme ukrainienne, about probably the greatest Ukrainian composer. I believe that we will be, and already can, be proud of what we are doing to express Ukrainian resistance in the cultural and intellectual fields. 

This effort to make Ukrainian thought better known is essential to strengthening our solidarity, finding the right words, images and symbols that are uniting us. It also has to help us save time, because we have already lost too much of it. Lives could have been spared ! To act faster and more effectively, we need to understand each other better: we need to step up our exchanges in every possible way. That's what will bring us closer to our shared victory! 


How do you see Europe as part of the great narrative challenge? 

I notice that there is ignorance, even among the most educated, for what Czesław Miłosz called 'another Europe'. The Iron Curtain obviously has a lot to do with this, but we need to fix it.  How can Europe claim to know itself if she only knows half of itself? Our continent has one lung in the West and another in the East. Breathing with both is essential if to have a clear idea of who we are. If it is possible to live with only one lung, everyone would agree that this is not a sign of good health.

Resistance is the watchword in the three Baltic countries. We all saw in Vilnius (Constantin Sigov is speaking about the In the Face the War - European Dialogue debates held in Vilnius on 30 November and 1 December 2023, editor's note) that the whole Lithuania is in resistance, including and above all civil society. We would like to see something similar happen in France and widely in the West. Perhaps this will come by explaining again and again that protecting our friends and colleagues in the East is essential if we want to be contemporary. So, the future of European research is being played out in the East. Not just research on Eastern Europe, but research on Europe's understanding of itself.

It is a powerful concept to say that between Paris and Kyiv there are great cities of European culture that can help to explain European issues.(...) the "in the face of war - European dialogue" must not remain isolated.

There is a great amnesia about Soviet totalitarianism. Europe needs to reconsider its own history and change its mental map. There is a huge amount of work that has to be done to fill the gaps in Europeans' knowledge of their own culture. France can be play a key player in this battle, because of its cultural project, its influence. Everyone must also take personal responsibilities, because access to information is very easy these days. 


The In the face of war - European dialogue project, in which you are associated alongside the Institut français, aimed to support the circulation of ideas in Europe. What can achieve this project ? 

It is a powerful concept to say that between Paris and Kyiv there are great cities of European culture that can help to explain European issues. For thirty years, Kyiv is a cultural bridge between East and West. In the face of war, the idea is to say that cities like Prague, Vilnius, Warsaw or Helsinki can continue this work and help to a deeper understanding of our continent. This concept shows why solidarity between us is necessary.

I don't know many projects of this quality. In the face of war - European dialogue can have a real impact. A bigger media coverage will help the project to survive and attract other personalities to take part in it. This project must not remain isolated. I hope that it will continue to involve countries such as Italy, Belgium, Spain, Portugal and many others. Speeches and debates could transcribed in a series of short publications. This would reach a wider audience and could lead to translations into other European languages. 

For me, France was an open door after the Cold War, and it is still an open door today in response to the challenges caused by the Russian aggression. 

You are one of the Ukrainian voices that we hear and follow in France, through your media appearances, for example, and of course, through your books. You know the French intellectual scene for a long time. What ties you to France in particular? 

During my 3 years teaching at the École des hautes études en sciences sociales (EHESS), from 1992 to 1995, I really fell in love with French culture and language. Unlike some of my Ukrainian colleagues who left for London or prestigious American universities after their time in Paris, my wife and I decided to take an original path: to return to Kyiv and launch a publishing house to translate the treasures we had discovered in France. 

After the re-creation of Kyiv's Mohyla University, which was closed during the Soviet Union, I invited the greatest French thinkers to Ukraine. In 1993, I welcomed Paul Ricoeur. Later, Pierre Hassner, André Glucksmann, Barbara Cassin, Anne-Marie Pelletier and many others.

Although I have never returned to live in France, I still consider this country as my second intellectual home. For me, France was an open door after the Cold War, and it is still an open door today in response to the challenges caused by the Russian aggression. 

L'institut français, LAB