Nobel Laureate Orhan Pamuk on Russia’s War of Aggression
In an interview, Nobel laureate Orhan Pamuk says that autocrats like Vladimir Putin will ultimately lose in the long run. He argues that the Russian leader is stuck in the Middle Ages. He also explains why Turkey is on the side of the West in this conflict, even if Recep Tayyip Erdoğan isn’t vocal about it.
Interview Conducted By Şebnem Arsu und Maximilian Popp
DER SPIEGEL: Mr. Pamuk, we would prefer to only talk to you about literature.
Pamuk: Me too! I’ve never considered myself an explicitly political writer, but at a time like this, in a country like mine, it would seem dishonest, even immoral, not to talk about politics.
Orhan Pamuk, 69, is Turkey’s best-known writer internationally and a leading political thinker. He has been awarded the Nobel Prize for literature, among other honors, for his work. His latest novel “Nights of Plague” is to be published this autumn by Knopf in the United States and Faber & Faber in Britain.
DER SPIEGEL: More than almost any other author, you campaigned for understanding between cultures, for rapprochement between East and West …
Pamuk: … let me say one thing first: I’m a novelist. And it’s a novelist’s job to put your mind into all sorts of characters, which doesn’t mean I agree with them.
DER SPIEGEL: Do you understand a figure like Erdoğan or Putin?
Pamuk: To a certain extent, yes. But again, that doesn’t mean I share their attitudes.
DER SPIEGEL: Did your vision of universalism collapse with the war in Ukraine?
Pamuk: I just wrote “Nights of Plague,” a book about the plague. And before we met for the interview, I asked myself, what does the subject of my book have to do with current events? The answer is: Both are medieval phenomena. The plague is medieval. And Putin is medieval. This brings me to Umberto Eco’s essays on the return of the Middle Ages. We should read them to understand concepts like “domains” or “spheres of influence.” Putin sees his domain violated by NATO. Do I understand? Yes, partially. Do I approve? Of course, not.
DER SPIEGEL: You say the Middle Ages are returning. Others are reminded more of the 20th century, which was characterized by conflicts between great powers.
Pamuk: Yes, in the past few days, I often had to think about Munich in 1938, when Great Britain ceded a large part of Czechoslovakia to Hitler’s Germany in the hope of securing peace in this way. In fact, Obama made exactly the same mistake by looking the other way in 2014 when Putin grabbed Crimea.
“The Soviet Union collapsed and most states and nations have voluntarily joined the democratic Western order. In truth, that is also the reason why Putin is now attacking Ukraine: He is losing.”
DER SPIEGEL: What lessons does the 20th century hold for the present?
Pamuk: I think it’s about understanding what motivates “others,” be it Putin or Erdoğan. And then still defending your own values, values such as freedom of expression, democracy, human rights.
DER SPIEGEL: After the collapse of the Soviet Union, observers saw the “end of history” coming. Liberal democracies seemed to be on the rise. Has this trend now reversed?
Pamuk: The Middle Ages began when the Roman Empire fell. And it fell apart not from an attack from outside, but from problems inside. That’s probably what many mean when they talk about the end of the democratic age. This concern was already voiced when Trump came to power in the United States in 2016. But I’m not so sure about that. You see, the Soviet Union collapsed and most states and nations have voluntarily joined the democratic western order. In truth, that is also the reason why Putin is now attacking Ukraine: He is losing.
Women protesting in Istanbul: “Clearly on the side of the West” Foto: ERDEM SAHIN / EPA
DER SPIEGEL: In “Nights of Plague,” you describe how rulers act more and more repressively the more they come under pressure. Is something similar to be feared in Russia?
Pamuk: Putin is currently testing how far he can go. Westerners have a standard of living they don’t want to lose. If you have nothing or little to lose, you can take a higher risk. But I want to reiterate that I’m not as pessimistic as many of my friends in the West. I believe that in the end, people choose freedom on all occasions. Only one message irritated me.
DER SPIEGEL: Which ones?
Pamuk: The New York Times reported that the Chinese people were happy that Russia was challenging the Western order.
DER SPIEGEL: In your 2005 collection of essays, “The View from My Window,” you stated that citizens in the Global North could not understand the anger of people in less privileged parts of the world.
“Not everyone benefits from the western, liberal order. But that doesn’t justify dropping bombs on other nations and cities.”
Pamuk: And in “Snow,” I let my protagonist say: We are poor, but not stupid. There are almost always good reasons for the so-called “nationalistic insult” that many people feel. Not everyone benefits from the Western, liberal order. But that doesn’t justify dropping bombs on other nations and cities. I’m convinced that, in the end, almost nobody welcomes Putin’s war. Even Victor Orbán could not side with the West quickly enough, knowing that after Ukraine, Hungary would be the next country to be swallowed up by Putin.
DER SPIEGEL: Turkey is a NATO member, but it also maintains close ties with Russia. Where does your country stand in the new East-West conflict?
Pamuk: Clearly on the side of the West, despite the government’s anti-Western populism. For Erdoğan, the war in Ukraine is a good opportunity to prove to NATO and West that he is a good NATO follower. Although he doesn’t say that loud enough in Turkish newspapers because he may lose some of his core Islamist, anti-Western voters.
DER SPIEGEL: Erdoğan and Putin seem to be quite close personally …
Pamuk: … and yet two years ago, Putin had 34 Turkish soldiers nefariously bombed in Idlib.
DER SPIEGEL: In the same way that Putin conjures up a Greater Russian Empire, Erdoğan also glorifies the Ottoman past.
Pamuk: Indeed. And I also understand why. In many developing countries, people like to hear that at least their ancestors were great. The Turkish Republic broke with the Ottomans in its early years. Atatürk wanted to create his own republican and secular national identity. And now, 100 years later, Erdoğan and his party are reversing this development.
DER SPIEGEL: Sultan Abülhamid II is at the center of your book “Nights of Plague.”
Pamuk: A fascinating character. He spoke French, loved opera, and had a theater built in his palace. Ultimately, he appeared much more Western than Erdoğan today.
DER SPIEGEL: And he was an Islamist at the same time.
Pamuk: Abülhamid II used Islam for his political goals. He threatened the West that if you take my empire, I will turn the Muslims of the world against you. He was cynical about religion. Erdoğan, on the other hand, is a sincere and staunch Islamist.
DER SPIEGEL: You tell “Nights of Plague” from a woman’s perspective. Was that a conscious decision?
Pamuk: Yes. As a novelist, I force myself to see the world through a woman’s eyes. There are also ethical reasons for this. After all, I carry all the prejudices of Middle Eastern men within me.
DER SPIEGEL: You started working on the book back in 2016. What consequences did the outbreak of the coronavirus have for your writing?
Pamuk: I had a similar experience with “Snow.” I was about to finish the book when 9/11 happened. I then deleted whole passages from the manuscript, about two appearances by Osama bin Laden. I haven’t cut anything this time, but I have scaled back the quarantine descriptions a bit. I didn’t want readers to get the impression that I was intentionally referring to corona. And yet the parallels in how people deal with epidemics, be it the plague back then or corona today, are amazing.
DER SPIEGEL: What parallels did you see?
Pamuk: People initially deny the danger. And then they ask their governments to do two things that are mutually exclusive. They say: Protect us from the disease! And in the same breath: Leave my business open!
DER SPIEGEL: Does religiosity play a role in dealing with epidemics?
Pamuk: Not necessarily. During the first days of the pandemic Donald Trump left everything open in the U.S. Erdoğan, on the other hand, closed the mosques like a radical secularist. Later, that was reversed.
“If the presidential elections next year are fair, Erdoğan won’t win them again.”
DER SPIEGEL: What interested you about the plague?
Pamuk: I’ve been carrying this topic around with me for 40 years, and it kept flashing up in my earlier works. It was primarily the concept of fatalism that fascinated me. To what extent do people surrender to fate? And when do they rebel? It is noteworthy that pandemics have almost always been accompanied by violent protests.
DER SPIEGEL: In Turkey, the citizens have largely accepted the corona restrictions imposed by the government without complaint.
Pamuk: And yet I am sure that the pandemic has contributed to Erdoğan’s downfall in the polls.
DER SPIEGEL: Erdoğan is more unpopular than ever during his tenure. How much longer can he stay in power?
Pamuk: I always told my friends in the West that Erdoğan has a future because the opposition parties hated each other more than they hated Erdoğan. That is currently changing as Erdoğan’s popularity in polls dramatically go down.
DER SPIEGEL: Six opposition parties have signed a joint declaration agreeing to restore parliamentary democracy in Turkey.
Pamuk: And that’s why I believe that if the presidential elections next year are fair, Erdoğan won’t win them again.
DER SPIEGEL: As with earlier works, you were also attacked by nationalists in Turkey for “Nights of Plague.” Do you now take into account the outrage of parts of the public at work?
Pamuk: When I found out about the investigation against me (Eds: for allegedly insulting Atatürk), I went to my lawyer. His first question was, do you want this thing to be big or small? I said small, of course. So, we went to the prosecutor without alerting the public.
Orhan Pamuk during his interview with DER SPIEGEL editor Maximilian Popp and reporter Sebnem Arsu Foto: Magnum Photos / DER SPIEGEL
DER SPIEGEL: How much freedom of expression is left in Turkey?
Pamuk: There is almost no free speech in Turkey. All the major newspapers and media are controlled by Erdoğan. In my reply to the Public Prosecutor’s Office, my lawyer emphasized the right to freedom of opinion – as a principle. But most of the time, it is not a good way of defending yourself because usually the prosecutors think that it is an admission of your guilt. In Turkey, thousands of people have been accused of allegedly insulting the president in recent years. And hardly anyone defended himself or herself referring to the idea of freedom of speech, because that means, “Yes, I criticized our president.” You have to say that I did not mean him. Most of the time, that does not help either. Turkish courts and prisons are full of people who criticized Erdoğan.