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Ukrainian Corruption Is Trump’s Native Language
The U.S. president has imported prodazhnist’, Ukraine’s distinctive culture of crookedness, where everyone has a price and politics has no value.
A whistleblower’s report of a July phone call between two television personalities who became heads of state could be the provocation for impeachment that the Mueller report failed to be. The context is this: Ukraine has been fighting a war against Russian-sponsored separatist rebels in the Donbass for over five years. The war has killed about 13,000 people and displaced over a million and a half. A largely impoverished country, Ukraine has been on life support from the West. President Donald Trump froze U.S. aid. He might, perhaps, unfreeze it. In the meantime, surely Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky would do him the favor of investigating a rival clan, the Bidens?
Zelensky is a politically inexperienced comedian who played a schoolteacher-inadvertently-turned-president on a popular television series. This spring, he won the real Ukrainian presidential elections with an extraordinary 73 percent of the vote. He is a wild card, and despite that—or, rather, just for that reason—he is the hope of a country desperate to extricate itself from oligarchy. His election comes five years after a revolution whose slogans included “away with the gangsters.”
The Revolution of Dignity is the name given by Ukrainians to the events of 2013 and 2014 that culminated in a massacre in Kyiv’s central square, the Maidan. Here the full meaning of “dignity” emerges only in opposition to two other words: proizvol and prodazhnost’ in Russian, svavillia and prodazhnist’ in Ukrainian. (Ukraine is a bilingual country.) Proizvol means arbitrariness, in the sense of arbitrary will, caprice, abuse of power. It is the antonym of “rule of law”; it suggests an absence of all legal boundaries.
Prodazhnost’ means the quality of being for sale. It is a second word for “corruption” (the first being the cognate korruptsiia), although the two are not precisely synonymous. Prodazhnost’ is larger than corruption, akin to an existential state. It speaks to a way of being as opposed to a particular crime. In general, prodazhnost’ suggests a situation in which anything—more particularly, anyone—can be bought or sold. In other words, it evokes a situation in which everyone has a price.
A long Central European tradition has held that, when times turn dark, philosophers begin calling, “Back to Kant!” This is such a moment. The relationship between price and dignity was the point of departure for Immanuel Kant’s moral philosophy: “Whatever has a price can be replaced by something else as its equivalent; on the other hand, whatever is above all price, and therefore admits of no equivalent, has a dignity.” For Kant, to be a person is to have no price; it is to be neither replaceable nor exchangeable. To be a person is to have dignity.
The Revolution of Dignity is perhaps best understood in this Kantian sense: a revolt against prodazhnost’ and proizvol, the essence of which is being treated as a thing and not a person. In the years since the Maidan, the struggle of the Ukrainian political reformers has been this: How can they make that moment of transcending price and asserting dignity last?
On the other side of the Atlantic, in the United States, the trend in the past years has been in the opposite direction: away from dignity, toward prodazhnost’ and proizvol.
In 2004, a decade before the Revolution of Dignity, Ukrainian presidential candidate Viktor Yanukovych and his team were found to have committed widespread election fraud. They were also widely believed to have poisoned Yanukovych’s opponent, Viktor Yushchenko, with dioxin. At that time, mass protests on the Maidan succeeded in forcing a second election; this time Yushchenko was declared the winner. Afterward it seemed impossible that Yanukovych, so thoroughly discredited, could ever come back. Yet Yushchenko proved a disappointment. And Yanukovych hired a slick American consultant whose boutique industry provided high-level PR for gangster types with presidential ambitions. In 2010, Yanukovych reemerged to win, this time legitimately, the Ukrainian presidential elections. The consultant’s name was Paul Manafort.
Following his victory in the 2010 elections, Yanukovych gave Manafort a thank-you gift: a jar of black caviar worth over $30,000. As president, Yanukovych embodied the free reign of proizvol and the culture of prodazhnost’. The latter had begun long before Yanukovych’s presidency and enveloped everything from parking meters and billboards to university exams, construction permits, and medical care, extending to the court system and ministerial posts. “Everyone’s used to it,” explained the Ukrainian poet and novelist Serhiy Zhadan. “It’s become as if a norm, and it doesn’t appear anomalous to just go pay off the teacher so that the kid doesn’t have any problems.”
Many Ukrainians looked to eventual European Union membership as a distant hope of the rule of law. This is why an association agreement with the EU was so popular, especially among young people. On Nov. 21, 2013, Yanukovych’s eleventh-hour decision not to sign the association agreement provoked the Euromaidan protests. Nine days later, Yanukovych’s decision to send his riot police to the Maidan to beat up the student protesters provoked a revolution. The riot police were paid officially. Others—many anti-Maidan demonstrators, for instance—were paid unofficially, or threatened with the loss of their jobs. Also paid unofficially were the titushki, “thugs for hire,” recruited to instigate violence.
The Maidan culminated in a sniper massacre, leaving over a hundred dead. In the days afterward, “little green men” in unmarked camouflage—in fact, Russian soldiers—appeared on the Crimean peninsula, and supposed Russian tourists came across the border into eastern Ukraine to take part in anti-Maidan demonstrations. In Kharkiv, the poet Zhadan’s head was bashed in. Russian President Vladimir Putin illegally annexed Crimea. Kremlin-encouraged separatist rebels began a war in the Donbass. In the beginning, it was difficult to know who was acting on their own convictions and who was a hired mercenary—and who therefore might switch sides or disappear, depending on the flow of money.
In Kyiv in December 2014, I met two young men who had joined a self-defense unit during the Maidan. Later they joined the far-right group Right Sector’s volunteer battalion and were sent to the front; they fought against the separatists in the battle for the Donetsk airport.
“You weren’t afraid of the titushki?” I asked them.
“Why be afraid of them?” one of the young men, Ruslan, answered. “We’re tough, too.”
In any case, titushki were just guys hired for money, he said, whereas he and his friend, Zhenia, were fighting for an idea.
“What does Right Sector mean to you?” I asked them.
“What it means for me?” Ruslan said. “It’s the only structure in Ukraine that’s not for money, but truly for Ukraine. Patriots. We will not sell out our homeland.”
“For us Right Sector is the only structure that has not sold out and will not sell out,” Zhenia agreed. “We’re in it, and we’ve seen that the people who created Right Sector, who do everything for it, oni ne prodazhnye.” “Тhey can’t be bought.”
Ruslan and Zhenia did not trust the Ukrainian army, with which they were fighting side by side; they believed that prodazhnost’ flourished there. “Oni vse prodaiutsia,” they said of the military officers of the country on whose behalf they were fighting. “They all sell out.” They believed (rightly or wrongly) that in Right Sector this did not happen. They themselves were looking for a space, a group that they could be certain “ne prodastsa,” “would not sell out.” And they kept repeating, “nas ne kupish’.” You cannot buy us.
Ruslan and Zhenia’s search for a place where their comrades in battle were not prodazhnye points to a connection between post-truth politics and prodazhnost’: All that is solid melts into air when everyone has a price. No one has a real identity. All can be manipulated.
For Putin’s spin doctor Vladislav Surkov, the difference between Russia and the West is that Russia is simply more candid about this. “Our system, as in general everything of ours, does not appear more elegant, of course, but in return is more honest,” he writes. “The most brutal structures of its power scaffolding run straight along the façade, not concealed by whatever kind of architectural excesses. The bureaucracy, even when it practices deceit, does so not terribly thoroughly, as if working from the assumption that ‘everyone understands everything anyway.'”
The laying bare of prodazhnost’ and proizvol is a large part of Trump’s appeal to so much of the U.S. electorate: He is perceived as not more refined, but more honest. There is no longer a pretense of being civilized. The brutality and corruption are laid out in the open.
Perhaps this is in part capitalism taken to its logical conclusion: Everything is for sale. Privately contracted armies fight wars in which their only personal stake is profit. For-profit prisons have a market incentive to create more criminals. Harvey Weinstein can privately hire former state security officers to blackmail women he has assaulted. Since the 2010 Citizens United Supreme Court ruling, U.S. elections can legally be bought.
The failure to grasp the implications of this laying bare contributed to the disappointment with special counsel Robert Mueller’s report on Russia’s 2016 election interference: There is little point in waiting for the revelation of a secret. What matters is not what is concealed but rather what has been normalized.
“Lying for Mr. Trump was normalized,” Trump’s former attorney Michael Cohen told the House Committee on Oversight and Reform in February. Cohen made the hush money payments on Trump’s behalf to the pornographic film star Stormy Daniels. “The president repaid him!” Rudy Giuliani, another Trump lawyer, assured the public on television. During Betsy DeVos’s confirmation hearings for the position of secretary of education, Sen. Bernie Sanders put to DeVos this question: “I don’t want to be rude, but do you think if you were not a multibillionaire, if your family had not made hundreds of millions of dollars of contributions to the Republican Party, that you would be sitting here today?” This was no longer the moment of the exposure of a crime, but rather a description of a self-evident state of affairs.
In February 2014, a day after then-Polish Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski helped to negotiate a cease-fire in Kyiv, Yanukovych fled across the border to Russia. So Paul Manafort found himself out of a job. He soon found another: leading the Trump presidential campaign. In April 2016, Franklin Foer, who two years previously as then-editor of The New Republic had followed the events on the Maidan with great attention, published in Slate a piece titled “The Quiet American.” Foer’s message was this: To all of you who do not think Trump can win—you don’t know Paul Manafort.
Foer, alas, was right. By the time his piece was published, the FBI already knew something about malicious Russian cyberactivity targeting the Democratic National Committee. By that July, the FBI knew that the Trump campaign knew about the Russian cyberattacks aimed at collecting information on Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton. That summer, the FBI opened four cases connected to Russian interference. One of them was on Manafort.
The FBI established that, while choreographing the Trump campaign, Manafort kept his Russian employee Konstantin Kilimnik, who had previously run Manafort’s Kyiv office, briefed on internal polling data and information concerning battleground states. The FBI also “assesse[d] that Kilimnik has ties to Russian intelligence,” according to the Mueller report. In August 2016, Kilimnik met with Manafort in New York City to convey a message from Yanukovych. The message concerned a “peace plan for Ukraine.”
Manafort has since acknowledged [that the plan] was a “backdoor” means for Russia to control eastern Ukraine. Several months later, after the presidential election, Kilimnik wrote an email to Manafort expressing the view—which Manafort later said he shared—that the plan’s success would require U.S. support to succeed: “all that is required to start the process is a very minor ‘wink’ (or slight push) from [Donald Trump].”
This is the kind of thing that we learn from the Mueller report. Much of it is banal, in the way that Yanukovych himself was banal: Notwithstanding his cosmetic makeover by Manafort, Yanukovych remained unapologetically a gangster. “Every character in this story was hustling every other character,” wrote the journalist Masha Gessen when she had finished reading the report released in April.
Manafort was indicted on charges of conspiracy and fraud—for instance, he failed to report millions of dollars in payments made to him by Yanukovych and his associates. The Mueller report also noted that Manafort had repeatedly lied to the Special Counsel’s Office and the grand jury. The money that Manafort received from Yanukovych had been stolen once from Ukrainians, then hidden in offshore accounts to facilitate tax evasion—that is, some of it was stolen again from Americans. The U.S. courts took this lightly. In March, Judge T.S. Ellis III lowered sentencing guidelines and sentenced Manafort to only 47 months in prison. “He’s lived an otherwise blameless life,” Ellis said—though this raises the question of what “blameless” means.
In a piece titled “Paul Manafort, American Hustler,” Foer argues that Manafort’s personal corruption is less significant than his role as a corrupter of the U.S. system. This extends from the United States to the global system: Trump tried to buy Zelensky with foreign aid to Ukraine in exchange for gathering damaging information about his presidential campaign rival Joe Biden and his family. Trump’s assumption was that of course Zelensky could be bought—after all, Ukraine could hardly afford a principled refusal. Zelensky had no innocent space in which to maneuver. According to Trump, the phone conversation with Zelensky was “perfect.” And from his point of view, why would it not be, if all relationships are a priori understood to be transactional?
Americans have something to learn from Russia and Ukraine—and the expressive vocabulary of these Slavic languages. The United States still lacks the word prodazhnost’, as it does the word proizvol—but it no longer lacks the phenomena themselves.