Thursday 24 July 2014

Putin's Frankenstein Monster

In That Line of Darkness: The Gothic from Lenin to bin Laden (Encompass Editions, 2013) I wrote about the Ukrainian famine and Vladimir Putin's goal to refashion Russia and transform himself in a tsar.  In the last year much has happened. The following blog is an update.

“When the general atmosphere is bad, language must suffer….But if thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought.”
George Orwell, "Politics and the English Language," 1946

Crash site of the downed Airlines Flight 17
A Russian-made SA-11 sophisticated missile fired July 17/2014 that destroyed Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 over eastern Ukraine and killed 298 people is a terrible tragedy. But, given the broader historical context and the violence between the Russian-backed rebels and the Ukrainian military in the last three months preceding the attack, including the shooting down of Ukrainian military planes (and the subsequent downing of two Ukrainian military aircraft),  something of this nature was likely to happen. I do not believe that we can fully understand what some, notably Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, describe as a "terrorist attack" while others portray the missile attack as a "calamitous error" until the role of Ukraine in the Russian psyche is explored. 

It is not only their historical relationship that is important but the idea of a mythic “Mother of the Nation” has deep roots in Russian literature, art and religion. From the time of the medieval Muscovites, the Russian Empire and during the Soviet Union, the Ukrainian capital, Kiev, has long been mythologized as the cradle of Russian civilization. Ukrainians were described as “little Russians.” In the late eighteenth century, Catherine the Great annexed Crimea through wars with the Ottoman Empire which was called the "New Russia (an epithet that is currently being revived). In more recent times, Stalin hated and crushed the embryonic Ukrainian nationalist movement and engineered a man-made famine during the early 1930s which historian, Timothy Snyder, (Bloodlands: Europe between Hitler and Stalin London: Bodley Head, 2010) estimates killed 3.3 million people. I will not describe that catastrophe as genocide because there is spirited debate among historians about its applicability and the highly respected Snyder does not use that contentious label.

Vladimir Putin is merely the latest uncrowned tsar to be the embodiment of the pipe dream that all Russian speaking people should live under the auspices of the Russian state. Writing in The New York Times, scholar and journalist, Timothy Garton Ash, alluded to a 1994 conference where he heard Putin, then deputy mayor of St Petersburg, declare that Russia could not simply abandon to their fate those “25 million Russians” who now lived abroad. The world had to respect the interests of the Russian state “and of the Russian people as a great nation.” Ash indicates that the German translation for Putin’s use of Russian people is “volk” and that word carries the same connotations that the Nazis used to describe the German people living not only in Germany but to Germans living outside its borders.

Twenty years later Putin possessed the power to implement his in Ash's words “19th-century Volkisch vision as the policy of a 21stcentury state.” For someone who is deeply committed to the belief that the Russian state has the “responsibility to protect” ethnic Russians everywhere, the very notion that former republics might join the European Union or worse NATO was intolerable. He ordered the invasion of Georgia in 2008 ostensibly to protect Russians in two separatist regions but to undermine Georgian sovereignty and pressure it to return to Russia’s sphere of influence. Russia still occupies one fifth of Georgia. A greater threat to Putin’s vision of a Eurasian Economic Union underpinned by totalitarian impulses and dominated by Russia was the loss of 46 million Ukrainians. The February Maiden revolutionnamed after the central square in Kiev drove the Russian-leaning President, Viktor Yanukovych, from power after he imposed dictatorship decrees and scuttled a deal with the 28-nation European Union in favor of closer ties and a bailout loan from Russia. The Kremlin viewed Yanukovych’s ousting as a fascist putsch.

Putin believed the time was propitious to reclaim the Crimea since in 1964 Nikita Khrushchev transferred the peninsula to the Ukraine. He argued that it had been an unconstitutional gesture though at the time the "gift" did not cause a ripple of controversy since Ukraine was part of the Soviet Union and no one could foresee that the Soviet Union would ever implode. In response to the Maiden revolution, Putin ordered a “black” operation in the Crimea where Russians constituted a majority. Russian troops wore no insignia, to preserve a fig leaf of deniability. Russian officials controlled information flows and coordinated their messaging. With Kiev in post-revolutionary chaos, the Russian media began pumping up the rhetoric about a fascist threat and within weeks it was all over. Crimea was annexed on March 18, the day that Putin delivered to the Duma in a national televised address the official version and two days after the referendum in which “97” percent of voters officially approved of reunification with Russia.

Putin speaking to the Russian Duma March 18, 2014
But Putin’s speech often clashed with reality. A week before the vote just over 40 percent of Crimean residents, despite the majority being Russian, supported reunification in Russia. The peninsula's native population, the minority Crimean Tatars, boycotted the vote wholesale, as did many ethnic Ukrainians. Despite Putin’s assurances that ethnic groups would be treated fairly, Tatars and Ukrainians were deeply fearful given their historical treatmentStalin in 1944 ordered the ethnic cleansing of 200,000 Tatars and the survivors that did return were not welcomedand present circumstances as members of both groups have been maltreated and murdered. Putin downplayed or ignored these details preferring to be vague about historical sufferings and current treatment while noting that ethnic Russians suffered the most. Instead, his upbeat speech underlined the Kremlin’s vision for Russia-speaking peoples: “We are one nation. Ancient Russia has one common root.” To bolster this view, Putin offered a nostalgic look at Russian history in the Crimea. The peninsula was the site of the military heroics of the Crimean war of 1854-6. (Nicholas I, who was responsible for leading Russia into that humiliating war, is Putin’s favourite tsar.) He also alluded to the terrible siege of Sebastopol by the Nazis during the war in which its inhabitants (the ones who stayed) endured Nazi bombardment and for its courage the city was designated as one of the Soviet Union’s “Hero Cities.” To underscore the importance of the Crimea to Russian interests, Putin stressed that it was the main base of the Russian naval fleet where thousands of troops were stationed. Given this historical background and Russia's strategic concerns, he was outraged that the “rights of the ethnic Russians in the Ukraine had been abused” by the new provisional Ukrainian government whom he claimed was illegitimate, driven by radical “nationalists, neo-Nazis, Russophobes and anti-Semites.” In short, Putin described the Ukrainian government as fascists, a message that has persisted in the state-controlled media that blanket the airwaves and press even after the overwhelming victory of  the billionaire Petro Poroshenko as President on May 25 in the Ukrainian national election in large part because he believed that the Ukraine needed to expand its ties with the West and end widespread corruption and abuses of power.
President Petro Poroshenko
Wartime memories of the Ukrainian collaboration with the Nazis blur into the present. It is historically accurate that thousands of partisans fought along Germans against the Red Army before the region brought under Soviet control in 1943. But the Soviet media have provided no context that would explain why partisans fought the Red Army. The murderous repression of nationalists and the famine in the Ukraine are conveniently ignored. There is nothing about how Ukraine was part of the “bloodlands” of 20th century Europe where ethnic violence, political brutalization and paramilitary violence were ferocious during the Second World War. Yet there is a kernel of truth in the Kremlin juggernaut propaganda that is more current: members of the ultra-nationalist Svoboda (Freedom) party, which did hold five cabinet positions in the Provisional government, uttered anti-Semitic and racist statements and demonstrated a capacity for bullying and intimidation though their sentiments were mild in comparison with the other far right political parties in Europe. In the May 25 election, its presidential candidate did very poorly and its members have little influence in current Ukrainian politics. But the fascist label continues to reverberate even though Jews encounter "everyday antisemitism" in Donetsk.

By contrast, the loutish behaviour of Russian security officials, notably Igor Strelkov, who initially claimed responsibility for the downing of the Malaysian aircraft on his website before deleting it, and the local thugs who besieged police stations, government offices, and other symbols of political authority are treated as heroes in the Russian media which constantly malign Ukraine and its “Nazi” government. The feverish nightly television broadcasts from eastern Ukrainein their phantasmagorical worldview they are reporting from "The Peoples Republic of Donetsk" or "The Peoples Republic of Luhansk"that indulge in anti-Western, xenophobic rhetoric are a Kremlin-produced “spectacle” in which the ratings of television news compete with popular sitcoms. According to journalist and author, Anne Applebaum, Russian reports on Ukraine reached a new pitch of hysteria with fake stories about the supposed crucifixion of a childreminiscent of anti-German propaganda during the Great Warand  an extraordinary documentary comparing the Ukrainian army’s defense of its own country with the Rwandan genocide. In another piece, she noted that Russian television—watched by many in eastern Ukraine—continued to denounce nonexistent violence coming from “fascist Kiev” and was even showing politicized weather reports: Dark clouds gather over Donetsk while there is sun in Crimea. She contends that these language games and disinformation campaigns have been far more sophisticated than anything the Soviet Union ever produced. And more fantastical given the media's bizarre explanations to explain the downing of the Malaysian flight that range from corpses in the aircraft before it left Amsterdam to the Ukrainian military mistaking a commercial flight for Putin’s presidential plane. According to Mark Adomanis writing in the Washington Post and who now lives in Moscow, Russians live in a different reality.
An effigy of a Kiev official in the rebel zone

No doubt the Russian media have succeeded in vilifying the Ukrainian government as a fascist junta. The news programs have overheated public opinion through its ramped-up vitriol; its effect has caused its receptive audience to lose any sense of rational perspective. Journalist Tony Judah spoke to a rebel leader who had just been released in a prisoner exchange with the Ukrainians, warning that “Fascism! It is coming for us again!” Another rebel declaimed:  “We want a free Ukraine, but the Banderas want to take control over the whole of Ukraine. We just want justice.” He was using the term taken from the name of Stepan Bandera, the wartime leader who at times collaborated with the Nazis and later fought the Red Army. These attitudes explain why an overwhelming number of ethnic Russians in Russia and the Ukraine are convinced that the Ukrainian military downed the plane to frame Russia.

But the message that has been promulgated through a lapdog media has presented problems for Putin. He has succeeded in whipping up nationalist fervour and stigmatizing any domestic critics as “national traitors,” and "fifth columnists" but should he fail to preserve the unifying myth of “Mother Russia”the underpinning of his propagandaby allowing Ukraine to slip out of his orbit, he could face a powerful backlash. As The New Yorker's David Remnick noted in his column on the crash of MH17, Putin has become prisoner to his own propaganda machine and to the rebels that he has unofficially supported in the Donbass area that compromise the Donetsk and Luhansk regions. In this climate, Putin is under domestic pressure to do more not less for his proxies and the Russian public. Forty percent of them, who are intoxicated by his hysterical brand of anti-Western propaganda, want a real war with the Ukraine, something Putin understands would be a serious mistake. His goal has been to destabilize the eastern Ukraine without any official Russian prints on the operation  by dispatching Russian mercenaries, secret police officials and a covert supply of arms to the separatists. Despite his bravado about the West and their threat of sanctions in his March 18 speech, he knows that they could seriously endanger the Russian economy, particularly if sanctions are intensified after the airline catastrophe, the subject of an upcoming blog.

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