Review: Rediscovering Milan Kundera’s European tragedy

The Czech writer’s 40-year-old essay on the roots of Russia’s empire-building, ‘A Kidnapped West’, reads all too presciently, writes Stefan Auer.

The World Today
Published 31 March 2023 Updated 22 November 2023 3 minute READ

Stefan Auer

Associate Professor of European Studies, Hong Kong University

A Kidnapped West: The Tragedy of Central Europe
Milan Kundera, Faber, £10

‘In November 1956, the director of the Hungarian News Agency, shortly before his office was flattened by artillery fire, sent a telex to the entire world with a desperate message announcing that the Russian attack against Budapest had begun. The dispatch ended with these words: “We are going to die for Hungary and for Europe.”’ Thus, Milan Kundera began his 1983 essay for the French journal Le Débat, reflecting on the 1956 Hungarian Uprising.

A seminal essay

The Czech author might well have written a near-identical passage about the fraught hours immediately after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in 2022. In the event, Russian tanks failed to occupy Kyiv, unlike Budapest in 1956. Nevertheless, Faber has chosen this moment, 40 years later, to republish Kundera’s seminal essay on Europe and Russian aggression in its original translation for the New York Review of Books by Edmund White. How salient are its observations today?

Thanks to the Cold War, the countries of Central Europe were denied their true destiny, Kundera thought, in the democratic West

The essay’s original French title, ‘Un Occident kidnappé ou la tragédie de l’Europe centrale’ (The Kidnapped West, or the Tragedy of Central Europe), described the fate of Hungary, Czechoslovakia in 1968 and, to an extent, Poland in 1980-81 at the hands of the Soviet Union. Owing to the Cold War division of Europe, the countries of Central Europe were denied their true destiny, Kundera thought, to be an integral part of the liberal, democratic West. Kundera himself fled Czechoslovakia for France in 1975.

The author of The Unbearable Lightness of Being might no longer be as well-known as he was at the height of his fame in the 1980s, but his novels and essays still deserve attention. So, it is pleasing to see Kundera’s masterpiece republished, even as it is awful to witness the enduring relevance of the questions it raises.

What did the Hungarian journalist mean when he declared his willingness to die for Europe, Kundera asked? That ‘Russians, in attacking Hungary, were attacking Europe itself. He was ready to die so that Hungary might remain Hungary and European’. The journalist did indeed die in the uprising.

It is a line that President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and his supporters abroad have echoed time and again: that Ukrainian soldiers are not just dying for their country, they are dying for Europe at large.

Kundera’s suspicion of Russia has been validated. His frustration about the indifference of the West less so

The ‘tragedy’ in Kundera’s essay was that the West didn’t care. ‘Europe hasn’t noticed the disappearance of its cultural home,’ Kundera wrote, ‘because Europe no longer perceives its unity as a cultural unity.’

In other words, as the cultural sphere in Central Europe continued to defy the political restrictions imposed by the Soviet empire, it embodied the western values of freedom and democracy more than the West itself did. The extent to which this analysis remains relevant today will prove decisive for Europe’s future.

As timely as ever

Kundera’s essay is as timely as ever but in ways that both vindicate and challenge his key arguments. His suspicion of Russia has been validated. His frustration about the indifference of the West less so. But the true tragedy of Ukraine would be if the West has not changed sufficiently. So far, the West appears to be doing enough to enable Ukraine to defend itself, but not enough to defeat the aggressor.

[A small nation] is one whose very existence can be put in question at any moment; a small nation can disappear and it knows it

Milan Kundera

Faber has made an excellent decision in combining The Tragedy of Central Europe with a lesser-known text by Kundera: his 1967 speech to the Czech Writers’ Congress given the year before the ill-fated Prague Spring. In it, Kundera addressed what was to become a lifelong preoccupation: the fate of small nations. ‘For Czechs’, Kundera wrote, ‘nothing has ever constituted an indisputable possession – neither their language nor their belonging to Europe.’

Rather than reflecting the size of its territory or population, a small nation ‘is one whose very existence can be put in question at any moment; a small nation can disappear, and it knows it.’ In this way Ukraine, Europe’s largest country, apart from Russia, is fighting to avoid the fate of Kundera’s ‘small nation’.

Historically, the ‘small’ nations of Central Europe were threatened by both Germany and Russia. But after the Second World War, the threat was from the Soviet Union, which for Kundera was indistinguishable from Russia (tacitly including Ukraine). In its expansiveness, Russia was the opposite of Central Europe. While the latter was based on the principle of ‘the greatest variety within the smallest space’, the former represented ‘the smallest variety within the greatest space’.

Kundera was criticized for observations that smack of civilizational racism, yet his bleak view of Russia remains prescient

In this sense, authoritarian communism was the fulfilment of Russian history, Kundera argued, writing that ‘Russian communism vigorously reawakened Russia’s old anti-western obsessions and turned it brutally against Europe’. Vladimir Putin’s Russia appears to build on these same pernicious impulses.

Kundera was widely criticized for observations in his essay that smack of civilizational racism (including by me) describing Russians as fundamentally different from us: ‘Russia knows another (greater) dimension of disaster, another image of space (a space so immense that entire nations are swallowed up in it), another sense of time (slow and patient), another way of laughing, living, and dying’.

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Yet this bleak view of Russia remains prescient. Far too many Russian citizens appear indifferent towards, or even supportive of, the war against Ukraine.

Where is Central Europe now? That uncertain region between the West and the East moved to Ukraine, just as Russia remains as far from Europe as it ever was. The pressing question is whether Russia was condemned to stay outside Europe even after the demise of its last empire, the much-dreaded Soviet Union? Did Kundera’s pessimistic assessment of Russia turn into a self-fulfilling prophecy?

I do not think so. After all, it was not Central Europeans who shaped western policies towards Russia. And it would be hard to accuse the likes of Gerhard Schröder, Germany’s chancellor from 1998 to 2005, and his successor Angela Merkel of anti-Russian sentiments.

Yet, we have to remain hopeful that Kundera’s view of Russia will be proved wrong at least in the longer term. In other words, we must wish that were Faber to republish A Kidnapped West in 2063, the essay would be merely of historic interest.