Bernard-Henri Lévy and the Heroes of Ukraine
A new documentary opens with familiar but still gripping footage: aerial shots of a column of Russian tanks being pounded by Ukrainian artillery fire—a moment that has become symbolic of Russia’s military ineptitude in a conflict in which Ukraine at first seemed hopelessly outmatched. Then we see Kyiv, “holding its breath” as the invasion begins, hauntingly beautiful and deserted; and then we go back eight years to where it all began: the “Euromaidan” protests of 2014.
The film is Why Ukraine?, and the filmmaker, the French philosopher, author, and public activist Bernard-Henri Lévy, is explicit about his goal: to make the case to Western audiences for a full and unflinching commitment to backing Ukraine in its battle for freedom and survival. Whether Why Ukraine?, cowritten by Gilles Herzog and codirected by Marc Roussel, will win new hearts and minds to the Ukrainian cause is hard to say. Its primary audience will surely be those who—like the attendees at last week’s American premiere at the U.N. Building in New York—already support that cause. Yet even those already familiar with the last eight months’ events in Ukraine will find the hour-long film engrossing and often shattering.
The Euromaidan and the “Revolution of Dignity”—which resulted in Ukraine’s pro-Russian president, the Putin pal Victor Yanukovych, fleeing the country after being impeached by the parliament—occupy a prominent role in Lévy’s narrative of Ukraine’s struggle; he compares that historical moment to “the taking of the Bastille” in 1789. The inspiring images from 2014 are a compelling rebuttal to claims that Yanukovych was ousted by a “U.S.-led coup.” But it’s the scenes from the present-day war—sometimes heroic, sometimes harrowing—that make a truly indelible impression.
We see a medic tending to a crying wounded child; we see families in shelters, and children at play who set up pretend checkpoints. We see the horrifying aftermath of Russian occupation near Kyiv: a destroyed village; charred and wrecked buildings in the town of Borodyanka, and rescuers with little hope of finding survivors under the rubble; and Bucha, “just inscribed in the black book of horror and of crimes against humanity.” Corpses litter the ground: an ashen hand with a wedding ring; a dead man’s decomposing face, his mouth open in a final grimace; a soldier carefully laying a cloth over the face of another dead man, this one with a gaping and bloodied hole where an eye should be. “An army of cowards exacted vengeance for the resistance of the Ukrainian army by massacring civilian hostages,” sums up Lévy. We see the survivors: an elderly woman who spent six weeks hiding inside a container while Russian soldiers used her apartment as a command center (and looted it before they left). Another woman shows Lévy and his crew where a neighbor was shot dead in the garage, and where his body lies buried under a mound in the back yard of the house; a younger woman, presumably the victim’s widow, wails softly, repeating, “I can’t take this,” while neighbors comfort her and tell her that the film crew must see. “Putin lost the battle for Kyiv, but at what a price!” comments Lévy.
One memorable image from Lévy’s post-apocalyptic tour does not involve violence toward humans or the destructions of homes, but it still shocks and evokes a different kind of barbarism: a bullet-ravaged bust of the great nineteenth-century Ukrainian Romantic poet Taras Shevchenko, the father of Ukrainian-language literature who chafed at his country’s oppression by Tsarist Russia. As Lévy puts it: “Even Taras Shevchenko, the Victor Hugo of Ukraine, has been executed with a bullet to the back of the neck.” The sculpture’s stern face, hewn from grey stone, looks fierce and defiant, as if the poet could see his symbolic execution by Russian invaders across two centuries.
Putin is the film’s main villain—the dictator who, as Lévy sees it, took the Maidan revolution and its desire for “democracy and Europe on his doorstep” as an affront and decided to strike back. Yet the West also comes in for some harsh criticism for making nice with Putin and failing to prevent the war and destruction in Ukraine despite years of low-level warfare in Donbas (where we see Lévy visiting in 2020) and many signs that Russia was preparing to escalate to full-fledged war. “What sadness,” says Lévy. “What shame.”
Yet more than villains or their passive accomplices, Lévy is interested in heroes—first and foremost the Churchillian Volodymyr Zelensky, the comedian-turned-president who goes fearlessly into danger zones and rejects a U.S. offer of evacuation at the start of the war with the famous line, “I need ammunition, not a taxi.” ( “A sublime reply worthy of Plutarch’s legendary figures,” enthuses Lévy.) There are some fascinating, eerily prescient tidbits from a 2019 conversation between Lévy and then-presidential candidate Zelensky at a Kyiv restaurant. Could Zelensky hold his own against “the other Vladimir”? “Yes, I think so,” Zelensky replies. “A strong person seeks a peaceful resolution; a weak person takes risks and gets into a war.” (At the time, it is worth noting, Zelensky positioned himself as a peacemaker who would be flexible and work hard to resolve the five-year-old conflict with Russia.) Zelensky also offers a striking assessment of the Kremlin strongman: “I don’t love people without eyes.”
Yet for all his obvious admiration for Zelensky, Lévy notes that “there is no hero without a heroic people.” And it’s ordinary Ukrainians who are the film’s true heroes: not only the soldiers—“people who know why they are fighting, facing an army . . . that can only bomb and destroy”—but the men and women making Molotov cocktails or weaving camouflage nets (even children pitch in). In a particularly affecting scene, a female soldier trapped with her comrades in the Azovstal steel plant in Mariupol sings in a dimly lit catacomb, the men around her softly singing along. The lyrics speak of fighting without asking for glory or reward: “We would rather die in battle than live as slaves.”
The section dealing with the siege of Azovstal is titled “In the mouth of hell”; it includes Lévy’s tense conversation by video chat with one of the Mariupol defenders, Ilya Samoilenko, in an attempt to arrange an evacuation. Instead, hours later, Ukrainian command ordered the soldiers to surrender in order to save lives, and Samoilenko and his fellow soldiers became prisoners; in his narration, Lévy says he has had no news of Samoilenko since. The film, first released in France in late June, was completed before Samoilenko was freed in a prisoner exchange in September; in an email interview after the screening, Lévy told me that he has since met Samoilenko and that their “long conversation” will be featured in his upcoming second film on Ukraine (more on which in a moment). “It was so moving to see him again, in good shape and in high spirits,” Lévy told me. “Desiring nothing more than to go back to the frontlines, as far as possible. And, in spite of his wounds, to fight again.”
The account of the battle of Mariupol includes a discussion of the controversy surrounding the Azov Battalion—to which the Azovstal defenders belonged—and its alleged neo-Nazi ties, as well as the more general question of antisemitism in Ukraine. The Azov discussion is unlikely to pacify critics: The film deals briefly with the group’s radical origins in 2014 and asserts that it has purged itself of that toxic legacy. (There are, in fact, lingering questions on whether Azov has fully distanced itself from far-right extremists.) However, Lévy’s treatment of the bigger issue coincides with what I have heard from Ukrainian Jewish activists: that antisemitism has been made politically and culturally unpalatable in mainstream public life in post-Euromaidan Ukraine. As Lévy points out, Holocaust memorials such as the one at Babyn Yar—which was shelled by Russian troops after the invasion—abound. One rabbi tells Lévy that many Ukrainians can now relate to Israel as a country “under aggression in many wars.” “People look [to] Jewish people as an example—an example for survival,” he explains. “Jewish people are seen as heroes.” In any case, it is certainly difficult to disagree when Lévy says that “it’s Putin who needs to be denazified.”
Ukraine’s ethnic Russians, whom Putin has used as props to justify his aggression, get considerably less attention. But there is a remarkable clip from an interview with a middle-aged woman from Chernihiv who speaks proudly of living “at the intersection of three countries: Ukraine, Russia, and Belarus” and effortlessly switches between Russian and Ukrainian. “Yes, we are Russian-speaking, Belarusian-speaking,” the woman says. “Chernihiv is a city of Surzhyk” (a mixed Russian-Ukrainian dialect). “But we are here, we will be here, and we are strong.” Her battered city, Lévy notes, is one that “Russians thought they had won, and that Ukrainians liberated.” We know where the woman’s loyalty lies.
The war chronicle in Why Ukraine? ends with the surrender of Mariupol in May. Since then, the tide has turned to a stunning extent. The counteroffensive will be at the center of Lévy’s upcoming second documentary, Slava Ukraini! (“Glory to Ukraine”), which is now in the works; at the time of last week’s screening, Lévy had recently returned from his latest visit to Ukraine, a six-week trip that took him to newly liberated Lyman and other villages recaptured in the Ukrainian counteroffensive, as well as the Kherson region where the looming battle for the city of Kherson may become this war’s Stalingrad.
Why Ukraine? is certainly not an objective or comprehensive documentary about the war; it is, like Lévy’s earlier films about the siege of Sarajevo and the Iraqi Kurdish fighters’ battle against ISIS, very much his personal vision. One could criticize it for having too much of the author in it: We see several clips of Lévy addressing the crowd at the Euromaidan protests, speaking to a Ukrainian audience about the Holocaust, and meeting with various Ukrainian politicians. But that’s an explicit part of his approach: “My films are like diaries,” he told me by email. Lévy’s account of his personal Ukrainian journey does not detract from his portrayal of the Ukrainians and their struggle, and it allows him to articulate the ideas that animate his film.
One of those ideas is that Ukraine’s battle is a battle for democracy and for Europe—the Europe of “Goethe, Dante, and Schumann,” but also a universalist liberal civilization. “You are the guardians of democracy. You are the guardians of Europe,” Lévy tells the crowd on the Maidan in 2014. “You are the civilized people. There is more love of civilization here . . . than in the master of Sochi [i.e. the Sochi Olympics]—that is, Putin.” The crowd roars its approval.
In Lévy’s hands, Ukraine’s fight for freedom is seamlessly integrated into a mythos that includes everything from Leonidas and his 300 Spartans to the medieval knights of the Song of Roland to the French Revolution to Charles de Gaulle. (In the post-screening discussion, Lévy told a fascinating anecdote: At one point, he talked to a group of Ukrainian soldiers about de Gaulle and his fight against the Nazi occupation of France; apparently, this inspired the soldiers to petition for a name change for their battalion to the Charles de Gaulle Battalion.)
Here, one could argue with Lévy and Why Ukraine? on many levels. One could say that Lévy ignores the illiberal and ethnonationalist elements in Ukraine’s historical quest for statehood; one could also say that he ignores the darker and illiberal elements of the European legacy he celebrates. (Leonidas and his Spartans were part of a ruthlessly militaristic slave-owning elite; Roland’s knights were Christian crusaders, not liberals; we all know how the French Revolution turned out; and even de Gaulle was not exactly a liberal universalist.) But a mythos is what it is: a selective version of history that exists in the service of an ideal. And the ideal Lévy champions is the one toward which, to paraphrase Martin Luther King Jr., history’s long moral arc ultimately bends: freedom, justice, the worth and dignity of the individual.
In our interview, Lévy acknowledged that nationalism and universalism, liberalism and traditionalism coexist in Ukraine and in its battle, which is to a large extent about “a fatherland.” Yet, he insisted, it is also clearly about “an idea—and an idea that transcends political, ethnic and linguistic identities.” In that sense, he said, “universalism prevails,” as does liberalism: “And, in confronting Putin’s fascism, it’s a bright, shining and vibrant [force] for European values.”
Is this an overly idealistic view? I don’t think so. Whatever its flaws, there is no question that post-Euromaidan Ukraine represents a unique (at least for the modern era) integration of civic nationalism and liberal universalism. Which direction it will take after the war remains to be seen; for now, the priority is victory. “Their war is our war, their defeat is our defeat,” Lévy says of the Ukrainians near the end of the film: Putin must withdraw and capitulate, and Ukraine must be given the help it needs to win. There are, according to Lévy, no alternatives.
Why Ukraine? will soon be available to general audiences in the United States. The sequel, Slava Ukraini, will cover the counteroffensive and much more—from liberated Ukrainian prisoners to “Russian soldiers using the ‘I want to live’ hotline set up by Zelensky in order to surrender.” “My dream,” Lévy told me by email, “would be to have it released when the victory is upon us. Who knows?”
One can always hope.