The first two of my cents on Ukraine and Russia…

31 Aug

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Alexander Demianchuk/Reuters (click)

See this story from the Times: Putin Urges Talks on Greater Autonomy for Eastern Ukraine,” which I’m pretty sure was his objective to begin with: force a crisis to get so bad and then negotiate for autonomy.  What repercussions that will have for Ukraine’s future or what patterns it’ll set for other areas (like the Baltic countries — Putin’s most vociferous critics — or Central Asia) of the former Soviet/Russian sphere that contain large Russian minorities has to be seen.

Belgravia Dispatch had an excellent and frighteningly prescient opinion piece on the escalating Ukrainian crisis back in March:  What To Do–And Not Do–About Ukraine — which, unfortunately, the whole world ignored and whose worse case scenarios have now come true, including the annexation of Crimea and what I think it is now safe to call a full-scale invasion of Ukraine by Russian forces and not just a rebel movement of local Russian separatists.

One important point from me, first and up front: the West can rush to get tough on Russia if it wants to; I can guarantee you that Russians are tougher.  This is a point that Gregory Djerejian on Belgravia makes and one that has certainly manifested itself in exactly the way he predicted.  We need to remember that this generation of Russians that has come of age since the momentous changes of the nineties are the first generation in that people’s history, perhaps, to not have been dragged to hell and back at least once in their lifetime.  They’re proud — rightfully, I feel — of their capacity for survival.  This isn’t an expression of support on my part for Putin’s cheap machismo: my loathing for him and his posturing, his whole persona and everything he represents — including the craven adulation of him that is Russians at their most infantile — is something I’ve written on endlessly.  It’s just stating a fact that the West should be aware of: they’re not going to be pushed around.  Think hard before you put them in a position where they have to prove that to you…because they will.  So treating Russia like a pariah will only play into Putin’s hand.  That’s, in fact, what has happened; the whole country has fallen in line behind him and anything like the РОССИЯ БЕЗ ПУТИНА — “Russia without Putin” — protests of two years ago would be considered, in a spontaneous act of socially unanimous censoring, pure treason these days with no one even daring to publicly air such opinions in the current heady climate of nationalist excitement.

The other point is one that Belgravia makes right off the top of his post with the following quotes:

Yet, Kievan Russia, like the golden days of childhood, was never dimmed in the memory of the Russian nation. In the pure fountain of her literary works anyone who wills can quench his religious thirst; in her venerable authors he can find his guide through the complexities of the modern world. Kievan Christianity has the same value for the Russian religious mind as Pushkin for the artistic sense: that of a standard, a golden measure, a royal way.”

–Georgy Fedotov

“The problem of the origin of the first Russian state, that of Kiev, is exceedingly complex and controversial.”

–Nicholas Riasanovksy

“Without Ukraine, Russia can remain an empire, but it cannot remain Russia.”

–Title of a recent article in Russkoye Obozreniye, a Russian periodical.

This was one of the first things you would’ve realized if you were on the ground in Russia this July and August like I was (but despite my suggestions to several industry friends and acquaintances, no Western journalists seemed to think that the “story” was not just in Donetsk or Luhansk, but in living rooms and at kitchen tables in Moscow and Petersburg and countless other places): that is that Russians simply don’t consider Ukraine a foreign country or foreign culture.  I’m not making a judgement call on whether that’s right or wrong or imperialist on their part or not; judging such sentiments “ethically” or putting them through the political-correctness grinder is pointless and counter-productive.  It’s just that their historical experiences have led Russians — and arguably, till a certain point, had led most of the people who now call themselves Ukrainians — to think that way: that they were both intimately and inseparably related, and there’s as much point in calling those feelings “wrong” as there would be in your therapist telling you that your neuroses are “wrong.”  And so Russians were/are, in fact, in shock that the rest of the world thinks it has no role to play in Ukraine or no vital interests in political developments there.  The reason that this doesn’t seem to register in Western consciousness is a result of the fact that the West is so immersed in thinking along an ethnicity-based nation-state model of discrete national units with clear, essentialized, historical trajectories, that it is incapable of seeing nationalism as a construct: flexible, malleable, unclear, even “made-up-as-you-go-along” if you will — so that Russians, and the new Ukrainian nationalists, can have radically opposing views on what their relationship is, without either of them being “wrong.”  As brilliant a historian as Timothy Snyder, author of the devastating Bloodlands: Europe between Hitler and Stalin is capable of writing in The New Republic this past May, in an article called: The Battle in Ukraine Means Everything  the following:

“Ukraine does of course have a history. The territory of today’s Ukraine can very easily be placed within every major epoch of the European past. Kiev’s history of east Slavic statehood begins in Kiev a millennium ago. Its encounter with Moscow came after centuries of rule from places like Vilnius and Warsaw, and the incorporation of Ukrainian lands into the Soviet Union came only after military and political struggles convinced the Bolsheviks themselves that Ukraine had to be treated as a distinct political unit. After Kiev was occupied a dozen times, the Red Army was victorious, and a Soviet Ukraine was established as part of the new Soviet Union in 1922.”

Snyder’s history — “of course” — with its suggestion of a straight, uninterrupted historical lineage of “Ukrainian-ness” from Kievan Rus’ to modern Ukraine is just patent bullsh*t, and is one that simply chooses, in the glossing-over-of-breaks-and-ruptures fashion and in the fabricating of false unities that nationalist narratives always engage in, to ignore several fundamental, historical realities: one, the fact that the Russian principalities that rose up in the northern forests of what we now consider the Russian heartland after Kiev’s demise at the hands of the Mongol-Tatars — Vladimir, Pskov, Novgorod and later Moscow and its unifying power — were more highly conscious of their political descent from early mediaeval Kiev and were, in fundamental ways, far more its true political and cultural and spiritual heirs than any “Ukrainian” polity could even try to claim to be until the twentieth century; two, that most of what is now Ukraine had already been part of Russia for more than two centuries before the Bolshevik revolution; and that, three, before that, the western quarter of it, maybe, was Polish and then Austrian, while much of the rest — through “every major epoch of the European past…” — was just a frontier no-man’s-land, a coming-and-going corridor for nomadic peoples either conquering or fleeing someone else.  (You can find a place for each and every corner of the world in “every major epoch of the European past” if you want to; that doesn’t mean it was central or even remotely important to that past.)  Also, thence, a crucial point: that Ukraine wasn’t so much conquered, but settled by Russia, while Snyder’s quote taken on its own makes it sound like an eternal Ukraine, populated by a people who had always thought of themselves as solidly and eternally Ukrainian, was just subjugated by the Soviet Union in the twenties.*  So it ignores all the ways that “Ukrainian-ness,” a term that did not even come into common usage until the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, was the product of a complex negotiation and mixture of different sub-identities converging from different directions in those fertile flatlands and has always, in that sense, been bound up in a million intricate ways with the history of its larger kin-nation to the north.  But we’re making the same mistake I believe we made in Yugoslavia: seeing the “nation” as something essential and essentialized, first and foremost; and secondly, assuming that the nationalism of the powerful player — in this case Russia, in the Yugoslav case, the Serbs — is pathological, inherently oppressive and dangerous, while ignoring the fact that the nationalism of the “little” — in these cases, Ukraine, and in Yugoslavia, that poor, powerless victim, Croatia — can not only be just as venomous and illiberal and murderous, but is often more so because it has a point to prove or a chip on its shoulder.  But the West is so in love with what by now should be the completely discredited Wilsonian idea of “self-determination” (while simultaneously supporting the “inviolability” of national borders**) that it fails to see that dark truth.  I’ll probably need to get into greater historical detail in another post in order to clarify a bit better.

(And now I’m ready for the barrage of accusations that all I ever do is knee-jerk defend my Orthodox brethren, but that’s cool; it’s just par for the course.)

History, climate, geography have always conspired to isolate Russia.  And, in a sense, the pathos that drives Russian history and is the force behind her brilliant civilizational achievements (and, yes, her imperialism too), is  that of a constant, heroic struggle to break out of that isolation and find her place in the larger world.  Yacking on, like Snyder, about how Ukraine is somehow “essential” and central to the very idea of Europe (when, ironically, it’s very name means “the edge”…the edge of what? of Russia/Poland…the EDGE of Europe…what an elevation of status Snyder grants Podunk…), while treating Russia as dispensable or as a dangerous threat that needs to be hemmed around and contained — isolated again — is criminally unfair to Russians (if not to Putin and his cronies) and will end up backfiring on the West in ways it hasn’t even begun to anticipate.  Russia is not dispensable.  Nor is she to be ignored or patronized.  We think of her in those terms and the results will just get uglier and messier.

bloodlandsweb

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* There’s even a subtle subtext to the narrative of the Revolution and subsequent Civil War that Snyder gives us, which suggests some kind of identity between Ukrainian-ness and White Russian resistance to the Bolsheviks, when, in fact, I think that if the White Russian movement can be said to have had an ethnic or regional “base,” it was among the Russians of eastern Ukraine (the grandfathers of these very separatists of today? I wouldn’t know…) and the neighboring parts of southeastern Russia that stretch to the Caucasus.  The independent “frontiersmen” mentality of the Russians of these areas, a sort of Russian Texas  — among its ethnic Cossack peoples especially — should not be underestimated and should not be disregarded as a possible element in the current conflict.  (See: And Quiet Flows the Don at Amazon and at Wiki.)

** The contradiction between the ideas of self-determination for peoples and the inviolability of borders — a contradiction that can’t be avoided if we keep thinking in terms of the EBNS (ethnicity-based nation-state) — has plagued do-gooder Western policies in all parts of the non-Western world from Wilson and Paris till Helsinki and still does.  And this despite the fact that its randomness and practical inapplicability has been made so obviously clear on so many occasions: if Croatia can secede from Yugoslavia, why can’t Krajina Serbs secede from Croatia?  If Ukraine deserves — has an inalienable right — to be a country independent of Russia, then why doesn’t its overwhelmingly Russian eastern parts have an inalienable right to be independent of Ukraine?

As for where it all started, Crimea, I hate to report to outraged Western observers that of all parts of Ukraine, Crimea was always the area with a practically non-existent Ukrainian element in its population.  Not that the March “referendum” was not a total farce.  But if any people have a right to Crimea and to feeling displaced and dispossessed it’s Crimean Tatars — not Ukrainians.  Hell, just to play Devil’s advocate…the millenia of Greek presence on the northern shores of the Black Sea, and the numerous Greek mercantile communities that existed in Crimea and around the Sea of Azov until the twentieth century (Chekhov attended a Greek elementary school in Taganrog), even give us a technically greater ethnic claim to Crimea than it does to Ukrainians.

In any event, I knew as far back as the early nineties, that sooner or later Russia would find a way to take Crimea back and am actually surprised it took so long.  The drang nach süden impulse that drove Russian imperial policy for hundreds of years — the equivalent of American “Manifest Destiny” — south into Ukraine and on to the Black Sea, with the ultimate objective of a re-Orthodoxed Constantinople and Russia as a Mediterranean and world super-power with access to India and the East, was not a desire for the rich soils of the Dnieper valley.  It was a need for access to warm weather ports.  Crimea thus became a crucial site for the base and deployment of Russian and then Soviet naval power and there was no way that it was just going to be handed over so casually.  Ask the United States to just hand over Camp Pendleton and Twenty-Nine Palms, the naval bases at Coronado and Loma Catalina, along with the whole San Diego metropolitan area, to Mexico.  Or just grant Hawaii its independence.  Or give it to Japan.  Or try, even, just to get the U.S. to close its base in Okinawa!  It’s the same thing.  Is this an apology for imperialism?  No.  It’s just a statement of a historical and political reality that can’t be ignored.  Or one that it’s necessarily the West’s business to “fix.”

Note: The Ukrainian national case or argument may have one key point that is rarely discussed and is surprising to me in that sense.  I’m not certain of it, but it may be that eastern Ukraine acquired its overwhelming Russian ethnic character because it was the region hardest hit and left most depopulated by Lenin and Stalin’s murderous collectivization disaster, and that many Russians were settled there afterwards when the region was turned into one of the industrial heartlands of the Soviet Union.  This is seriously guessing on my part and someone with greater knowledge should be sought out for a definitive answer.

A corollary to that is the hypocrisy of western Ukrainians, the most fanatical nationalists and perhaps the most extreme element on the Ukrainian political stage today (whom Putin uses, of course, to paint all Ukrainian nationalists as fascists and Nazi collaborators), who did not suffer any of the horrors of collectivization and famine because they were under Polish rule at the time — not always so benign either — and only became part of the Soviet Union in 1945.  Yet, they use those events as some of the main tools in their anti-Russian arsenal.  Furthermore, just as many Russians suffered during those violent socioeconomic processes and it’s a slightly cheap appropriation to call them a purely Ukrainian set of humanitarian disasters.

Comment: nikobakos@gmail.com

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