Editor’s Note: French author and philosopher Bernard-Henri Levy has taken a passionate interest in Ukraine, making frequent visits since the start of the 2013-2014 EuroMaidan Revolution. He will make another trip this week in advance of the Feb. 21-22 anniversary of the overthrow of President Viktor Yanukovych. As part of the commemoration, Levi will perform his play, « Hotel Europe, » on Feb. 21 at 7 p.m. in the National Opera of Ukraine in Kyiv. The event will be free to the public, but details of the distribution of the 1,300 tickets will be announced later in the week. The theater is on 50 Volodymyrska St.
Levy, named by the Jerusalem Post as one of the 50 most influential Jews in the world, says « Hotel Europe » is a play about Ukraine struggles, which he views as part of an epic battle for Europe’s soul.
Levy has written several opinion pieces about Russia’s war against Ukraine and on Feb. 10 went to the war front with President Petro Poroshenko to witness the scene of a bombing by Kremlin-backed fighters that killed civilians.
Also, in November, Levy gave the keynote speech at the 2014 Metropolitan Andrey Sheptysky Award honoring Ukrainian billionaire Victor Pinchuk. He gave the following interview to Kyiv Post chief editor Brian Bonner. It was translated from French into English by Steven B. Kennedy.
Kyiv Post: What do you hope to accomplish by presenting your play, Hotel Europe, here in Kyiv a year after the EuroMaidan Revolution?
Bernard-Henri Levy: « I want to give back to Kyiv what Kyiv has given me. This play is, in a way, a play about Ukraine. I wrote it while events on the Maidan were unfolding, and, naturally, it bears the traces of those events. So there you have it: Return to sender. Or to the one who inspired it. The Maidan inspired me. So I’m simply coming back to perform what the Maidan gave me.
KP: How was the decision made to stage the play at the Kyiv opera?
BHL: « It was a very touching gift to me from President Petro Poroshenko and Kyiv Mayor Vitali Klitschko. I met them both at the height of the revolution. And I invited them to Paris to meet (French) President François Hollande when they were rival candidates for the presidency. And now they’ve gotten together to invite me to present my play. It’s a lovely story. I am very, very moved. »
KP: You’re going to perform it yourself, right?
BHL: « Yes. I performed it in Odesa last summer and will do the same in Kyiv this coming Saturday. The script is so personal, so personally tied to me, to everything I am, to my love for Kyiv, my causes, my autobiography, and my Judaism that there’s real meaning in performing it myself. In Paris, the character was played by a very great actor, Jacques Weber, who owned the role. And for me that was a blessing, because he put his whole self and his colossal talent into it. This is different. This time I’m taking a personal risk. Putting myself in harm’s way, as it were. In a way, I like that. The performance won’t be as good as Weber’s. But it will be me, the real me. My heart and body laid bare. »
KP: Your body?
BHL: « Yes. The script is a monologue. Real theater, but in the form of a monologue. With a single actor alone on the stage—me, this time—doing just about everything it’s possible to do on a stage, including taking a bath. I don’t know if I’ll go that far. But I think so. If I don’t have too bad a case of stage fright. »
KP: « What do you like about being here in Kyiv?
BHL: « I love the city and the people. I love the European insurrection for which the city served as the stage, an insurrection that I witnessed. I’ve visited several times, you know, during the most beautiful moments of the insurrection and in its darkest hours. The play bears the traces of all that. That’s what I’ll try to get across on Saturday. »
KP: Where do you rank « Hotel Europe » among your creative works?
BHL: « Pretty highly. Very highly. Because I put so much of myself into it. It’s a sort of 90-minute autobiography. My love of literature, women, politics, history—all of it’s there, all intertwined. So, by definition, it’s a text that’s very dear to me. Not to mention the passages about love and sex, which are obviously disguised, but the most attentive spectators will probably figure them out anyway. »
KP: You’ve shown a great deal of interest in Ukraine in the past year or two. Is that because of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s aggression, the EuroMaidan Revolution, or a deeper interest?
BHL: « Both. EuroMaidan symbolizes the spiritual renaissance of Europe. And Putin represents the neo-fascism that is threatening Europe. Nothing could be more profound. »
KP: I believe that you, like many, see Putin’s war against Ukraine as a war against the West. If so, why has the West been so slow, so reluctant, so divided, so confused in responding to him?
BHL: « Because that’s the way of the West. It never defends its values. Absolutely never. It didn’t defend them during the Armenian genocide. It didn’t defend them during the Spanish Civil War. It didn’t even defend them when the Iron Curtain fell, cutting Europe in half. It didn’t defend them in Bosnia, when fascism returned to Europe. Ukraine is in that tradition. Europe, in Ukraine, is showing the same pusillanimity as it has everywhere else. It’s disgraceful. But that’s Europe. »
KP: I know the politicians like to tout the sanctions, but they are pretty light.
BHL: « Not so light as all that. But they’ve been slow to take effect, that’s true. And as George Soros and I wrote recently in The New York Times (Jan. 27 -« Save The New Ukraine »), they’re doing almost as much harm to those imposing them as they are to those subjected to them. The drop in the oil price hurt the Russian economy more than anything, and that hasn’t stopped Putin. He acts ruthlessly, quickly and without moral scruples—precisely the opposite of the West. »
KP: What can be done to stop him? Do we need a combination of military and economic means?
BHL: « Something like that, yes. A combination along the lines of what I suggest in the play, in fact. ‘Hotel Europe’ provides step-by-step directions for discrediting and weakening Putin. You’ll see. Come on Saturday. I think it’ll be clear enough. »
KP: Has Putin succeeded in dividing Europe by picking up support from Greek’s new leaders, the Marine Le Pens of Europe, the Czech and Hungarian leaders, and so forth? Is his ultimate goal the breakup of European Union?
BHL: That’s what I believe, yes. I said so in both of the speeches I gave in the Maidan. And I say it again, perhaps more articulately, in theatrical form. Don’t forget that Putin’s idea is that the worst geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century was the fall of the Soviet Union. He holds Europe responsible for that fall. So he’s punishing us. And doing it by relying either on our neo-fascists (Le Pen) or on our populists (Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras). It’s as simple as that. And that’s why Marine Le Pen and Tsipras are essential characters in the play. »
KP: There is some irritation here when French President François Hollande talks about lifting or easing the sanctions on Russia. It plays into the notion of French pacifism.
BHL: For the time being, you have to give him credit: He isn’t delivering the Mistrals. And if you want my opinion, he won’t ever deliver them, period.
KP: This line of thinking, however, leads many in Ukraine to think that France isn’t ready to fight Putin to the end and just wants to sweep things under the rug. How fair is that criticism?
BHL: « It’s not fair. Because if there is a European leader who is a friend of Ukraine, it’s François Hollande. Ask Petro Poroshenko what he thinks of him. Ask him about the personal ties he has formed with Hollande. I say that not out of any particular patriotism or chauvinism. I say it just because it’s true. Moreover, it’s not impossible that Hollande will come see the play again if he’s in Ukraine. You’ll have to ask him. At the moment, there’s one thing I’m sure about: It was a good thing that he was in Minsk to help Poroshenko counter shameless Putin. Glory to Ukraine!