The Use and Abuse of History   /   Summer 2022   /    Thematic: The Use and Abuse of History

Vladimir and Volodymyr: A Pivotal Moment in History

Who is the real nihilist in this struggle?

Martha Bayles

Two presidents, photography Shutterstock and Alamy Stock Photos; THR illustration.

Curio · The Hedgehog Review | Vladimir and Volodymyr: A Pivotal Moment in History

Published in 1953, The Captive Mind remains possibly the best book ever written about the lure and trap of totalitarian ideology. In his riveting collection of linked essays, the great poet Czesław Miłosz probed the motivations of Polish writers and intellectuals (Miłosz, at one time, included) who joined the Communist regime after World War II. The rewards of the book begin with its epigraph, which Miłosz attributes to “An Old Jew of Galicia”:

When someone is honestly 55 percent right, that’s very good and there’s no use wrangling. And if someone is 60 percent right, it’s wonderful, it’s great luck, and let him thank God. But what’s to be said about 75 percent right? Wise people say this is suspicious. Well, and what about 100 percent right? Whoever says he’s 100 percent right is a fanatic, a thug, and the worst kind of rascal.11xCzesław Miłosz, epigram, The Captive Mind (New York, NY: Vintage, 1959).

Where Miłosz found this epigraph, I cannot say. But it resonates today, in large part because the old Jew he quotes is from Galicia, the medieval name for a region stretching from eastern Poland to western Ukraine, whose principal city, Lviv, is now overflowing with refugees fleeing a scorched-earth invasion ordered by a twenty-first-century fanatic claiming to be 100 percent right.

Until recently, it might have been thought a bit harsh to call Vladimir Putin a fanatic, so skilled is he in the art of soft-pedaling. For example, his now famous 2017 treatise “On the Historical Unity of Russians and Ukrainians” begins on a seemingly conciliatory note: “The wall that has emerged in recent years between…the parts of what is essentially the same historical and spiritual space, to my mind is our great common misfortune and tragedy. These are, first and foremost, the consequences of our own mistakes.” Read on, however, and you will see that the “mistakes” being referred to are those of the Ukrainians, who by aligning with “those forces that have always sought to undermine our unity” are causing “misfortune and tragedy” for the Russians.22xVladimir Putin, “On the Historical Unity of Russians and Ukrainians,” President of Russia website, July 12, 2021,

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