Tag Archives: Kiev

See “Родные” — “Close Relations” — at the MMI in Astoria

23 Sep

Bad translation.  “Pодные”…”rodnye” means intimate, familiar, related; by extension born-beloved, dear one, cared for, same root in Russian as parents, birth, homeland, Christmas…wouldn’t be surprised if it has the same Indo-European roots as “root”.

Rodnye Vitaly Mansky

Vitaly Mansky‘s documentary is being screened this coming weekend and the next at the Museum of the Moving Image in Astoria, Queens.  (See schedule. It’s two train stops into Queens, guys.  Then you can have a nice dinner for half of what you pay in Manhttan at a good friend and koumbaro‘s place: Mar’s.)

“In this follow-up to his award-winning documentary Under the Sun, filmmaker Vitaly Mansky examines Ukrainian society amidst the 2014 national election, a period rife with political chaos and growing uncertainty over national identity and integration. As both a Russian citizen and native Ukrainian, Mansky deftly underscores personal and political complexities as he visits with relatives living in Lvov, Odessa, the Crimean peninsula, and the Donbass region, and in the process discovers a wide and disorienting spectrum of outlooks and affiliations, including his own sense of ongoing exile and unease. Close Relations is at once an intimate family portrait and a graceful journalistic endeavor, a movie of the intense present that illuminates a place caught between a troubled past and an anxious future.”

Watch the trailer below.

Lots of moving, “disorienting” footage.  Also, lots of humor, which reminds us that so much of a certain ironic, sardonic take on the world — a viewpoint “from a certain angle”, as E.M. Forster said of Cavafy — that we in the United States think is particularly Jewish, is really just a trait common to all eastern Europe, even Greece, or perhaps just a trait common to the powerless everywhere:

“Crimea was a pity, but the Donbass…they can have it.” *

But I think the most important moment in terms of geopolitics comes at 1:15:

“So Ukraine decided to join NATO.  Isn’t that its own business?”

“Nyyyyyet!”

…comes the reply without a moment’s hesitation.

“Nyet” with its palatized “n” and final “t” is one of humanity’s great no-words.  Like “yok” in Turkish, it literally means “there isn’t” or “Il n’y a pas”.  But while “yok” has a kind of know-nothing passivity about it, “nyet” is an active “Halt!  No way you’re going further down this road.  There’s no access.” **

That moment in Mansky’s doc is why, despite widespread support for a Putin I find repulsive, I can’t get as angry at Russians as I get at Trump Americans and Türk-doğans; because Russians aren’t stupid.  They’re not as smart as they used to be in the old days, при коммунизме, when everybody knew not to believe any-thing.  They now believe all kinds of nonsense.  And they went and got religion on me too, which is one of my life’s greatest watch-what-you-wish-fors.  But they’re still pretty intelligent about the world.

I can’t get inside Putin’s head, like Ben Judah convincingly does in what’s still the best book on the Путинщина, the “Putin-ness” or the “Putin thang.”  Judah’s thesis is that Putin is really just a nebech apparatchik who others put in his place and who now — having trampled over so many people on his way up — is terrified of stepping down and that the macho persona he so tiringly projects masks mega insecurity.  It almost makes you feel sorry for him.

But this relative of Mansky’s and her coldly realpolitik “nyet” tell you why he has so many Russians’ support.  Because it means: nyet, you can’t tell me that the U.S. and NATO suddenly developed a major crush on Estonia and Georgia; nyet, you can’t suddenly tell me you’re interested in Ukraine too, because this was already starting to feel like a corporate raid on all the old girlfriends who dumped me, but Ukraine, especially, is like hitting on my sister; nyet, you can’t moan and groan about how we’re violating a basic credo of the European Union by changing borders, when neither Russia or Ukraine are part of the European Union and you wouldn’t even have considered Ukraine — with its resources, access to the Black Sea and huge Russian population —  a candidate if it weren’t a way to totally encircle Russia; and, nyet, you can’t tell us that you’re not still treating us with a Cold War mentality that you inherited from an Anglo tradition of Great Game power struggle that doesn’t apply anymore and is now completely counter-productive.

At least talk some truth and maybe we can get somewhere.  And then I’ll reconsider breaking up with Putin.

In the meantime, we can try to think of everyone as “close relations.”

For more on these issues see: The first two of my cents on Ukraine and Russia… from a couple of years ago, and more on the imperative to engage Russia in Syria, Russia, ISIS and what to do about everything“.

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************************************************************************************* * The Donbass, the river Don basin is part of southeast Russia and the Russian-speaking parts of eastern Ukraine where the current conflict is centered.  From The first two of my cents on Ukraine and Russia“:

“Also, thence, a crucial point: that Ukraine wasn’t so much conquered, but settled by Russia…

“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.)”

“Новая Россия,” (Novaya Rossiya), New Russia, is not a Putinism.  It’s a name for these lands that goes back to Catherine the Great and the first serious subduing of Cossack rebelliousness and settling of Russians in the region in the 18th century.  It was part of the Russian empire’s most fertile grain-producing regions and then the scene of crazy industrialization under the Bolsheviks; maybe it was once a sort of “Russian Texas” but now it’s more like a sort of Russian Rust-Belt.  Hence, the “they can have it” comment.  The Soviet Army, decapitated by Stalin’s purges of its most talented and experienced, and ill-prepared and ill-equipped, only made the Nazi sweep through Ukraine grind to a halt once the Germans had made it this far east and after hundreds of thousands of Russian men had already been sent to a meaningless death and the Nazis had swept the old lands of the Pale clean of Jews through massive massacring and mass executions which were an integral part of the military strategy of the eastern front; many military historians believe that if the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union hadn’t been slowed by German troops stopping every other community to round up and shoot its Jews (a method/process that killed more Jews than the gas chambers did), they might have been successful in beating the coming of winter and more successful in their campaign long-term.  The region then became the scene of brutal attrition warfare, culminating in the siege of Stalingrad (now reverted back to its original name, Волгоград / Volgograd on map below).  This left the region seriously trashed and so huge numbers of Russian workers were settled there post-WWII, Russianizing the Ukrainian far east even further and setting the stage for today’s conflict.

Map of the Don Basin.  The grey line shows the border between Russia (РОССИЯ) and Ukraine (УКРАИНА) and the broken grey lines in Ukrainian east indicate the Lugansk (Луганск) and Donetsk (Донетск)

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** “У меня денег нет” (“U menya deneg nyet”) in Russian is the same structure as the Turkish “Benim param yok” — “I don’t have any money.”  Though Russian has a verb for “to have” like other Slavic languages, these structures both mean, literally: “By me there’s no money” or “My money isn’t there/isn’t by me.”  Wondering whether it’s a construction Russian acquired through contact with Tatar.  There is apparently a phenomenon where languages effect each other and transmit certain properties between them, though there’s no large bilingual population to bring them together and though they’re not genetically related, at least not closely.  The absence of an infinitive, for example, in modern Greek, Albanian, Bulgarian and Romanian/Vlach, though each are from different Indo-European families and more closely related languages have an infinitive, is one good example.  Also, Yiddish “by mir” (as in “By mir bist du shayn”) which is like the Russian по-моему (“according to me”) — for me, in my opinion.  Though German uses “bei mir” also to mean same thing.

Comment: nikobakos@gmail.com

Belgrade: Random notes from July 2014

7 Sep

beograd-1910Belgrade 1905 (click)

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“Post”-something. Not post-apocalyptic or Blade Runner-ish or all the nonsense that people used to write about the city in the nineties or after the war (when, maybe, I don’t know, it did feel like that), but definitely the sense that something is over and no one has any real idea of what this is now or what’s coming next. A certain optimism about the future though, which is probably just an inherent trait of its inhabitants, both leavened and sobered by the kind of biting black humor that’s not the only thing that reminds me of Russians.

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You’re already one foot out of, or may have already left the Balkans here. This was particularly striking to me after seeing so much of the southern Balkans just a month or so ago. Where I have come from, I mean, to compare to? Argyrocastro is an Ottoman jewel in stone; Ochrid a truly archontiko little city. The rest: Tirana, Podgorica, Tetovo, Skopje, the garish hideousness of Priština; were all obviously Ottoman wood-and-plaster hovels until the communist cement blocks went up.

Here you’re in Mitteleuropa already, in a city in that never was — except for temporary occupations — but could’ve been, a handsome Hapsburg town. It’s most beautiful from the opposite shores of the rivers that hem it in all around, with the city high on the bluffs overlooking its entire region. It reminded me of Kiev a little in this sense, though a much more recent city in terms of basic architectural stock and without Kiev’s glut of spectacular Baroque churches; in fact, until the first Serbian uprisings of the early nineteenth century, the population was predominantly Muslim. (Actually there’s hardly any religious architecture of any quality or beauty at all. There’s the small, pretty Baroque cathedral of the city just outside the walls, in what was probably the suburb where Christians were allowed to live in Ottoman times and that’s about it. All the city’s other churches that I saw are these genuinely grotesque Neo-Serbo-Mediaeval monstrosities of Orthodox nationalism; the kind they’re building all over Greece now too.)

Knez Mihailova and Kralja Petra Streets — the main pedestrianized drags — and the Cathedral spire at bottom.  (Click on all)

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But you understand a great deal about Serbian history just by standing up on the peak of the Kalemegdan fortress, the sprawling castle that covers the highest, northernmost peak of the peninsula and you realize that you’re standing on the last, frontline hill of Balkan rock, where the Danube meets a whole huge complex of river networks from north and south and that the expanse of green mixed with suburb spreading out in front of you is the beginning of the vast Pannonian plain that stretches out to the Carpathians in one direction and eventually the northern European flatlands that flow all the way to the Baltic in the other. (See map at top.) Apparently and according to Misha Glenny, the Ottomans called Belgrade the “darul-al-jihad,” the House of War (though why this wouldn’t apply to so many other places, I don’t know) and you can see how easily defensible but also temptingly assailabale the site is; it’s the one place you have to control to continue your drive either north or south.

Belgrade-Kalemegdan-at-dawnThe Kalemegdan (click)

Kalemegdan from across Sava(click)

You also realize just how far north – when you think that Stefan Dušan’s empire stretched as far south as the Gulf of Corinth and he often held court east of Salonica at Serres – the center of gravity of the Serbian nation has shifted over the centuries, to lands so completely different, even ecologically, the flora and fauna, that it becomes easier to isolate a glorious mediaeval past in some mythic compartment in the nation’s head – the two sides of the Aegean, in our case, for example, were never so different – and that that can have all sorts of psychological consequences. I’m, of course, thinking of Kosovo mostly, but more on that later…

DusanTerritory_14cStefan Dušan’s empire at its height (click)

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Lots of leafy attractive streets, at least in the neighborhoods that stretch immediately south and east of the Kalemegdan. Funky sidewalk cafes and bars. Only a couple of very late nineteenth-century neo-classical structures. Most of the city seems to be a twentieth-century creation: attractive Art Nouveau and Art Deco apartment houses; some later stuff that could kind of be described as late Bauhaus-y even, like some neighborhoods of Tel Aviv; more proof that Yugoslavia was far cooler than any other communist country and more reason to be pissed off that things ended they way they did. A certain shabbiness, that I thought only added to its charm, but that made me wonder what’s going on economically. There’s way too much high quality housing stock in potentially high quality neighborhoods sitting there looking empty and uncared for and under the right circumstances the whole place seems primed to launch into a massive gentrification and real estate boom. If I had any extra cash lying around I’d buy something now. In any event, for a city that’s been beaten up badly three times in less than a century – maybe not as bad the third time but in a manner just as morally reprehensible – it’s looking ok.

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IMG_0828The Rakia Bar, my favorite spot in all of Belgrade, delicious rakia made from anything imaginable, quince was my favorite, lugged three bottles of it with me, supposedly to share with friends in New York, but they all got swilled down in Russia.  The Rakia Bar is the site of the famous: …rakia with M., and what’s with me and all the Djoković… post from July.  (I think whether you say ‘rakia” or rakija” is a regional dialect difference, with the palatization that the “j” represents more common in “south-western” dialects: — western Bosnian, Herzegovinan, Montenegrin. — but not sure.  I know that “river” is “reka” in some regions and “rjeka” in others.)

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And some of the city’s few remaining Ottoman-era, or at least Ottoman-style, buildings.  The top being the residence of some saint or something — the bottom the royal residence of some Obrenović mistress I think.  Very uncharacteristically of me, I just wasn’t into too much historical research while there.  The city is just too much fun.

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The food is great; predictable but always competent and consistently delicious. A bodybuilder’s paradise: every plate comes piled so high with a mountain of grilled protein that no normal-sized person can be expected to pack it away, but appetites here, in every sense, are big. A vegetarian’s nightmare: and if you persist in your adherence to that silly creed, expect to eat a lot of very good tomatoes – in the summer at least – with huge grated piles of a great cheese they have that’s somewhere in the middle of the spectrum between feta and brindza. If you’re a vegan…and/or have gluten issues too so you can’t eat the great bread either or even try the börek, then maybe arrange for sessions to be fed intravenously at a local hospital or just don’t come at all.

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On the sign and menu of an otherwise sedate, old-fashioned feeling Bosnian restaurant with great ćevapi, the ubiquitous little köfte, a homey cellar place that feels like an old Moscow traktir or something… If anyone can explain the symbolic intention behind it, they get my Umberto Eco semiotics award for 2014.  Really, can anyone tell whether this is supposed to be a joke or not?

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Much more in keeping with Serbs’ smart, cerebral, black humor: this t-shirt, marking the hundredth anniversary of the start of WWI, which I thought was priceless: “It’s a matter of Princip.” Fantastic…

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The language is – excuse my language – a total hard-on. I’ve already got my affinity for Slavic phonemes from my Russian days — though sometimes it seems they came out of the womb with me – and on top of it it’s tonal, too, with rising and falling stress and long and short vowels like classical Greek. The combination is magically sexy and something I could listen to for hours dumbly without understanding barely a word. It also makes it, unless you’ve dedicated some serious study to it phonetically, almost impossible to pronounce correctly. The street I lived on was called “Dobračina,” for example, in Dorćol (from the Turkish “dört yol” — “four roads.”)  And taking my cues from my Russian, which is really no great help since it has free stress and constantly surprises you also, I would say: “Do-bra-či-na.” But whenever it was repeated back to me it sounded like “Do-bra-či-na” or Do-bra-či-na” or even some combination of both, but never like what I had said; the lack of dynamic stress makes it sound like emphasis comes scattered in varying degrees of strength all over a word and not just on one syllable. Tempting to take it up. But I have to resist NikoBako tendencies to scatter my energies all over the place at once and never quite acquire full mastery of anything. Maybe later.

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The place’s greatest pleasure is its people. They have a quality that I’ve always struggled to express in English but is nearly impossible and makes me constantly have to resort to other languages. The somewhat dated Spanish “altanero” works – “alto” is your cue there – as does the more popular term still in use in Spain, the complex of traits referred to as “majo,” which I’ve tried to describe several times elsewhere (such as in this post: Un Verano en Nueva York).  “Αγέρωχη” works, the word Cavafy uses to describe Anna Comnene, which Keeley and others, I think, mistakenly translate as “arrogant” or “haughty,” but which for me means something like “breezily confident” and again could almost be a cognate for the Spanish “airoso.” But it’s a type of confidence that isn’t entirely about your ego, but one that obliges you to be open and generous and welcoming with others as well. The media and its pundits have fed us so much crap since the nineties about Serbs’ pathological and self-aggrandizing sense of their own heroism, that it’s impossible to even tell what’s true or not. But if they are that conscious of their heroic mantle, they certainly wear it lightly, like a people who have nothing to prove to you or really could give a shit about what you think of them. This means almost none of the tough guy, hyper-butchness we might be conditioned to expect. In fact, despite the borderline cockiness, women and men are almost always polite and unfailingly warm; sweet and tender even, like Russians when they get in their Russian moods. And with Serbs you don’t have to pry off the cast-iron mug first to get to the sweet part like you have to do with Russians.

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One great thing about Serbian women, aside from leggy and sexy and gorgeous and everything else you’ve heard: they’re real pals. This is going to sound totally sexist to some, but I didn’t mind the first time I was called sexist in my life and it certainly won’t be the last. They have this uncanny ability to hang out comfortably with guys. They’re not cloyingly clingy. They don’t demand attention through passive-aggressive silence or sulking and they speak freely but without forcing themselves into the center of the conversation. It’s not an attempt to ingratiate themselves with their man or his friends. It’s simply this extremely attractive capacity to go along with the rhythms and patterns of male camaraderie without sacrificing any of their femininity. Serbian men should consider themselves extremely lucky.

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And on a related and final note: it’s not a myth; it’s a fact that I’m sorry to report is true. One out of three people you pass on the street deserves a head-turn and a second looking-over; you simply can’t stop yourself. One out of…I dunno, I’m just stupidly throwing out numbers here…six or seven…or at least one person in every kompaniya/parea let’s say, are simply knock-outs: tall, long-and-strong-limbed, great noses, good jaws and a higher percentage of crazy green-hazel eyes than I’ve seen in any other country. It’s dizzying. And they know it too and there’s no false humility about it either and of course that only concentrates the effect.

Sorry, only the one pic below, which isn’t even mine.  I’m still too shy to photograph people without having a press i.d. round my neck.

Anyway, there are places you go to and say: “That was nice…” and then they go into your travel archives.  And then there are places that you know, as you’re leaving, you’re not finished with.  Belgrade I’m not finished with.

Belgrade street scene(click)

Comment: nikobakos@gmail.com

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.

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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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