French philosopher changed his stance on Russian culture and aids Ukraine

Paul Vaseau is a doctoral candidate in philosophy in Strasbourg, a theologian and a volunteer. Before Russian full-scale invasion of Ukraine, he studied Russian literature and political systems, and in the spring of 2022, he came to Ukraine for the first time. 

The consequences of Russian aggression have impacted Paul, and now he delivers ambulances to Ukraine and provides medical care to the victims of the war. Vaseau told his story to RFI’s Ukrainian team.

Image credit: Paul’s photo on Facebook

From a passion for Russian literature to a shock by Russia’s war

Paul Vaseau’s parents were missionaries in Africa, where he spent his childhood. At 16, Paul became interested in religion for the first time. He went to seminary and then spent four more years in a monastery. Although he did not eventually take eternal vows, his faith in God remained strong.

“I devoted several years to my master’s degree, studying philosophy and theology. Then I worked as a philosophy teacher at a lyceum. When Covid started, I founded the charity organisation LesVélosduCoeur in Strasbourg. Its goal is to deliver food to people by bike. At the end of 2020, I received a rare scholarship to write my doctoral thesis at the University of Strasbourg. I decided to work on the topic of the religious perception of totalitarianism. The first part of my dissertation is devoted to Russian communism, and the second to Nazism”, Paul said.

But my supervisor advised me to change and narrow the topic a bit because it was too broad. I decided to focus more on what was specific to Russia. Paul explains how he discovered Russian literature during his stay in the monastery.

“I was particularly impressed by Vasily Grossman’s novel Life and Fate. I was also interested in Russian dissidents of the twentieth century, such as Solzhenitsyn. Then I became interested in the nineteenth century: Tolstoy, Gogol, and Dostoevsky. Now I realise that some of them, like Gogol or Grossman, are of Ukrainian origin”, Paul said.

The French volunteer explains that before Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, French intellectuals were fascinated by Russian culture and everything related to it. In Paul’s opinion, this created a barrier to access to Ukrainian culture. There was very little information about it in France at the time:

“In February 2022, I was working on my dissertation in a monastery in the Alps. I wrote about Russian totalitarianism and communism. At the same time, I was following the events that had already begun to unfold in Ukraine. At the time when the full-scale invasion of Russia began, I read Milan Kundera’s novel about the events in Czechoslovakia in the last century. I was particularly shocked to see the same thing happening in the present when those Russian tanks entered Ukraine and moved towards Kyiv.”

How Russia uses religion for propaganda 

Paul Vaseau was shocked to learn what Russian Patriarch Kirill preached:

“I realised how the Orthodox religion in Russia is used to call for war. I realised that Ukraine is a victim. For me now, this regime (Russian – Ed.) is postmodern fascism from an intellectual point of view. For me, the ideological question is one of the most important for understanding what is happening. After all, if we speak from a Christian point of view and what the commandments, for example, call for, this is entirely at odds with the sermons of this Patriarch Kirill and the ideology that has now been established in Russia. And unfortunately, this is precisely what the French intelligentsia ignores, does not understand that this is the basis of these events and the origin of this propaganda that is unfolding so rapidly, particularly in Europe.”

The French philosopher says that the impact of Russian propaganda on French society is still noticeable: 

“For example, Catholics in France also support the right-wing party led by politician Marie Le Pen. They are more inclined to believe in the values that Putin promotes because he talks about traditional and family values and opposes the Western approach to LGBT people, gender reassignment, etc. And they say: “Yes, he’s right, and perhaps salvation comes from Russia. After all, we are fighting for these values.” But they completely ignore the contradiction between this ideology and Christian values.”

Paul says that in discussions with his ex-Catholic friends, he tries to convey to them the true face of Russian ideology.

“One of the arguments is that Russia attacked France, if we can imagine. Then they should be “grateful” to Russia for being freed from a policy that supports these unconventional values.”

Helping Ukrainian refugees and his first trip to Ukraine

After 24 February 2022, Paul began to look for ways to help Ukraine, particularly refugees. At first, he turned to large French charities, but they turned him down. The volunteer was also discouraged from travelling to Ukraine and advised to support Ukrainians only with money. Later, Paul received calls from priests from Kyiv and Lutsk asking for support. After that, the volunteer started sending aid to Ukraine and organising the process.

“I realised that if I were on the ground, it would be easier to manage and coordinate these actions. I sent a bus to the border to pick up the refugees, and I drove to Kyiv with the humanitarian aid in a small van. It was the beginning of April 2022. I made this journey almost non-stop and then returned to Strasbourg without stopping. It was still the moment when everything was obvious (the consequences of Russia’s aggression against Ukraine – Ed.). The Kyiv region was all scorched, including the fields. I saw it. And when the information about Bucha came out, it made a powerful impression on me.”

Since then, the volunteer has decided to focus on helping Ukrainians. Since the beginning of the full-scale Russian invasion, he has travelled to Donbas more than 5 times. He brought humanitarian aid trucks and medical resuscitation vehicles to Ukraine. At the same time, he had a kind of epiphany.

“What I was looking for through literature and in my scientific and theological research, I found not in Russia at all, but in Ukraine. Through Ukraine, I fell in love with Slavic culture, Ukrainian architecture, mentality, people, atmosphere, etc. It was a great discovery for me. Since then (after my first trip to Ukraine – Ed.), I have been very active. At first, I focused on refugees, but then I met Ukrainians who had already been in Europe for some time. They told me that, besides supporting refugees, there was a huge need for ambulances to evacuate the wounded. My Ukrainian friends and I raised 25,000 euros and bought several pick-up trucks for the Ukrainian army.”

Last year, in late summer, Paul met another Frenchman named Arthur. Together they founded the organisation “Ukraine is Europe” in France to provide humanitarian aid to Ukrainian civilians. According to the volunteer, one of the main areas of their activity is medical care in the liberated territories:

“We have many areas of activity. In particular, reintegration for internally displaced persons in Ukraine who are in Dnipro, assistance with recreation for children, humanitarian aid and much more. But the area we are actively developing now is assistance with mobile medical clinics in the de-occupied territories, where there is the least access to medical support for people who stayed there. That’s why we chose Donbas, the de-occupied territories and the de-occupied Kharkiv region. That is, everything closer to the border or closer to the frontline. We go there in teams in ambulances and visit people who live there. As a rule, these are elderly people who need home consultations.”

Search for medical staff in Ukraine 

Before starting a humanitarian mission to provide medical care to Ukrainian civilians, Paul Vaseau spent some time at the frontline. He says he was impressed by the courage of Ukrainian defenders and their sense of humour.

“There were moments there that did not look like war. For example, they (Ukrainian soldiers – Ed.) could swim in an icy lake. All of this was a discovery for me, as well as the fact that our psyche can adapt to any condition. If it’s good teamwork, where you find a common language, then such moments are experienced completely differently. When you return home to France, you can understand what you have experienced. Even during fireworks, you associate these sounds with explosions rather than with a holiday.”

The philosopher is convinced that Ukraine needs to continue to be helped because Russia’s full-scale invasion has a more significant impact on the world than Europeans realise.

“This is not a local conflict and not a small war. We can say that after the Second World War, this is one of the largest military conflicts involving the use of artillery over very long distances. This war cannot be confined to a small area and the countries involved. And secondly, in my opinion, there are moments of genocide. Even if it cannot be generalised and said that it is genocide because there are many opinions on this. But these moments exist, and we should not ignore them because this is a global problem. The main motive for supporting Ukraine is a reaction to crimes against humanity.”

Currently, Paul is looking for specialists to join his volunteer organisation, including therapists, nurses, paramedics and surgeons, who will help civilians in Ukraine with him.

“We are also looking for drivers and interpreters for the autumn, people who can work together in a team with the medics. To continue our mission, we have a rotation of people. This is so that they do not develop post-traumatic effects. The maximum period is currently two months for a person. This is on a volunteer basis, with all necessary expenses covered. We also provide all the required ammunition. We only send people to a close distance from the frontline. All our volunteers choose the place and area where they are willing to work”, Paul concluded.

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