Thursday, May 8, 2014

Ukraine: Calling It What It Is

In a very interesting scoop, a New York Times reporter talked to members of a pro-Russian militia in Ukraine. A soldier named Aleksey commented, “In western Ukraine, they showed their faces: Nazis, fascist. They destroyed monuments to Lenin, attacked our history. Living on one land with them is senseless for us.”

Fascists? Lenin? Is socialism still alive in Russia? In a word, no.

The basic  internal conflict in Russia, since at least the 19th century, has been between the Westernizers and the Slavophiles.  The Slavophiles believe that Russians, and the Slavs in general, have unique spiritual strengths that the West lacks. In the article, another soldier "speaks of what he sees as unbreakable cultural, economic and religious ties to Russia and his ideal of a greater Slavic world, which he says is threatened from outside." Somehow, though, these brother Slavs always end up being dominated by Russia. My impression is that Russians are much more enthusiastic about the whole idea than other Slavs are.

The Bolsheviks, like other socialists, were Westernizers: they were followers of German revolutionaries and hostile to traditional institutions like the Tsar or the Russian Orthodox Church. But when Stalin perceived a threat from Germany, he revived traditional Slavophilia. See, for example, the famous 1938 film Aleksandr Nevsky, in which the simple, virtuous Slavs defeat the baby-killing Teutonic knights.  World War II is referred to in Russian as the Great Patriotic War, that is, a war for the Fatherland, not for socialism.

What's a bit weird is how completely Slavophiles have now assimilated the Soviet past. Lenin the Westernizer is now, as Aleksey noted, a symbol of Russian history. May Day  (originally celebrated as International Workers' Day) is now a patriotic holiday, apparently with no mention of socialism. The Soviet Union becomes the latest iteration of the Russian Empire, one whose sphere of influence once extended all the way to Berlin.

In this story, one of the great triumphs of the Soviet empire was the defeat of fascist Germany. As indeed it was; the cost to Russians in terms of suffering was enormous. Note that in the story, the war was fought against the fascists, which is simply the Russian term for Nazis, and not against the Germans, some of whom became allies of the Soviet Union, and therefore good guys. Smilarly, there were fascist Ukrainians, who helped the Nazis, but the good Ukrainians, the allies of Russia, triumphed. Now it appears to Russians that the good Ukrainians are out; therefore the bad Ukrainians must be back.

Of course, it looks quite different to the Ukrainians. True, Ukrainians had a long history of violent antisemitism, and some of them were notably brutal concentration camp guards. But Aleksey may not be aware that somewhere between 2.4 and 7.5 million Ukrainians starved to death as a result of deliberate policy decisions by Stalin in the 1930s, and that some consider it one of history's great genocides. So it's not hard to understand why a lot of Ukrainians are not fans of Lenin,

Putin has clearly placed all his chips on the Slavophiles. We are better than these Westerners, he says, with their chaotic "democracy" and their decadent tolerance of homosexuality. In effect, Putin has assumed the mantle of Tsarism, with the Russian Orthodox Church as his strong supporter. (It was no accident that Pussy Riot staged their anti-Putin protest in a Russian Orthodox cathedral.)

And Putin's goal is pretty clearly the restoration of the Russian/Soviet empire. It is absurd to say, as some have, that this is all happening because Putin felt threatened by the enlargement of NATO. Putin knows perfectly well that Latvian or Bulgarian membership in NATO is not a threat to Russia. But it is a threat to Russian dominance of Latvia or Bulgaria. That's the whole point.

It's time to call this what it is, and what no one is calling it: Russian imperialism.

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