Read Part 1 of this Op Ed here.

Ignorance, Myopia, Pragmatic Self-Interest, or Plain Cowardice?

Even after the Russian bear had used its vicious claws in Ukraine’s Crimea and Donbas and displayed its utter contempt for the UN’s Charter and international law, the leaders of Germany and France, among others, tried to placate and reason with it in the semblance of a negotiating framework known as the Normandy format.

Former British Prime Minister Boris Johnson claimed in an interview for CNN a few days ago that right until the last minute, France was “in denial” about the prospect of a full-fledged Russian invasion of Ukraine, while Germany believed “it would be better for the whole thing to be over quickly, and Ukraine to fold.”

Nine months after Russia attacked, it has been largely isolated in the international community, with over 140 states in the UN General Assembly already having condemned its actions; and, this week, it has been branded a state sponsor of terrorism by the European parliament.

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So why did so many in the West continue to admire Russia, sympathize with it, or appease it, and not confront it for the monster that it is and was?

Because they were dazzled by, on the one hand, Russia’s projection of itself as a military giant and nuclear power, victim and hero, and on the other, as a cultural museum. But mainly because of ignorance, gullibility and complacency: Because they neither knew Russia’s true history and nature, nor for so long distinguished the Russians from the non-Russian peoples of its empire and neighborhood.

WORLD BRIEFING: April 21, 2024
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WORLD BRIEFING: April 21, 2024

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It was all Russia to them, just as the tsarist and communist rulers in St. Petersburg and Moscow wanted it to seem. Moreover, the supposedly profound Russian “soul” and “cultural genius” was presented in a romanticized, shallow, manner in translated literature, concert halls and Western educational establishments.

Sadly, these blinkers and gaps have distorted or obscured more honest and accurate perceptions of Russia as a state and empire which has never thrown off its oriental despotic traditions and stopped treating its people as serfs and, when necessary, cannon fodder.  Nor, as a state that has come to terms with living alongside, if not together with, a western democratic European world, not to mention a broader Euro-Atlantic-Pacific democratic network.

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Culture as a Tool of Russian Imperialism

Even those cultural giants that Russia has promoted so successfully, such as Alexander Pushkin, Fyodor Dostoevsky and others, were not all they seemed. Like the Bolshoi Ballet, they were used by Russia’s rulers and protagonists as a smokescreen and a means of seduction and disarmament.

Pushkin, for example, whatever his undoubted merits as a poet, in his later years was a tsarist sycophant who wrote poems assailing western countries for supporting Poland’s struggle to throw off Russian imperial rule. One can only imagine what he would have written about Ukraine’s fight for freedom today at the court of tsar Vladimir Putin.

Dostoevsky’s conservative and imperialistic conception of Russian nationalism, support for tsarist autocracy and the Russian Orthodox church, combined with his opposition to the West and its values, are largely overlooked in the West but have been used to vindicate Putin’s imperialist aggression.

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The Bolshevik leader Vladimir Lenin, having defeated the Russian imperialist “White“ movement, had to recognize the heterogenous nature of the Russian empire and was forced to woo the non-Russians with a combination of force and concessions. Hence, his compromise in the early 1920s in the form of a supposed federation of equal Soviet republics – the Soviet Union – which Joseph Stalin would have preferred to bluntly name a “Red” unitary state and dispense with the pretense.

And this is why Putin recently ridiculed himself by calling Lenin the real creator of Ukraine. Calculated nonsense aimed at the ignorant!

Russia Über Alles

Nevertheless, Putin could hardly have failed to have noticed that Lenin had warned on his deathbed in December 1922 about the need “defend the non-Russians from the onslaught of that really Russian man, the Great Russian chauvinist, in substance a rascal and a tyrant, such as the typical Russian bureaucrat is.” But then, Putin’s hero, as has emerged, is the leader of the defeated White Army, Anton Denikin, who advocated the slogan of “Russia, One and Indivisible.”

Stalin, an ethnic Georgian who became more Russian than the Russians, subsequently abandoned Lenin’s “tact” and murdered millions of Ukrainians in 1932-33 with a genocidal man-made famine imposed by terror. Believing he had rid himself of the troublesome “Ukrainian problem,” he unashamedly extoled the primacy of the Russians and their language.

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For decades, the Stalinist regime and its successors under Nikita Khrushchev and Leonid Brezhnev promoted the image of the Russians as heroic victims who became victors in the struggle against Nazism.

The horrific losses suffered by the Ukrainians, Belarusians or other “Soviet” nationalities were deliberately obscured. This policy even entailed minimizing the focus on the Jews as the primary targets of the Holocaust.

After the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968, the Czech writer Milan Kundera noted poignantly in his The Book of Laughter and Forgetting: “Over the past five decades, 40 million Ukrainians have been quietly vanishing from the world without the world paying heed.”

In fact, Ukrainians and other non-Russians did resist the Russification and Sovietization Moscow imposed on them. The Soviet Gulag, “modernized” with the use of psychiatric hospitals to “cure” political dissenters, was replete with political prisoners, the majority of them Ukrainians.

Fortunately, in the nineteenth century there had been individual principled and courageous Russian liberals opposing Russian imperialism, such as Aleksander Herzen. And in the latter part of the twentieth century, their place was filled by the likes of Andrei Sakharov and his democratic circle, dissidents and human rights campaigners. Eventually, as the cracks in the Soviet system opened up, some Russian former communist officials, like Boris Yeltsin, broke ranks and came out against the system.

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Insensitivity and Appeasement

Yet, even as the Soviet empire was falling apart in the late 1980s and early 1990s, the British and U.S. leaders Margaret Thatcher and George Bush, made it clear during their visits to Moscow and Kyiv that they preferred to see the Soviet Union preserved under Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev rather than risk non-Russian “nationalists,” and Russian democrats like Sakharov and Yeltsin, assert their claims to genuine democracy and national self-determination.

Regardless of what Western leaders thought, the Soviet Empire collapsed, and Ukraine and many other “Soviet” non-Russian states finally extricated themselves from Russian imperial rule.

But the image of Russia as a mighty military and cultural force to be reckoned with persisted, strengthened by its huge sudden wealth and clout as a result of its energy resources. Meanwhile, the notion of it as a victim of Western pressure and “encroachments,” so painstakingly promoted over the decades and centuries, was gradually revived and re-emphasized.

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Ukraine’s desire to be aligned with the democratic world and to join the EU and NATO was seen as too daring and inconvenient by the likes of Germany and France because of Russia’s “sensitivity” and opposition. Meanwhile, for many others, Russia’s desire to restore its dominance over its former colonies – and “keep out Washington and NATO” – were viewed with sympathy. Ukraine’s voice did not seem to matter.

If Western powers had long come to terms with the end of their empires – British, French, Spanish, Portuguese, Belgian, Dutch and others – how could Russian imperialism in the twenty-first century be so tolerated by them, let alone by African Asian and Latin American countries which were former colonies themselves? Cynical self-interest, over principles?

And then there was still much sympathy, constantly promoted by Moscow, because of the supposed great losses of the Russians (as opposed to those jointly of the various peoples of the USSR which were victims of Nazi aggression, and which formed the backbone of the Red Army). But the crimes and atrocities committed by Russia today in Ukraine, paralleling Nazi methods and atrocities and before that elsewhere (e.g., Syria, Georgia, etc.), were not condemned resolutely until most recently

And yet today, these very same Russians have pulverized and destroyed Ukrainian urban centers, such as Mariupol, and are continuing to bombard Ukraine’s infrastructure to force the country into submission or a humiliating compromise. How cynical are the Russian leadership and the mass of Russians who back it in their criminal affront to humanity and democratic civilization?

They fail to realize that, for Ukraine, these merciless attacks only harden the resolve of the Ukrainian people to defend their land and freedom whatever the price. You can turn the light off with missile attacks, but you cannot extinguish a nation.

Russia is not a sphinx, nor an enigma. It is a consistently deceptive, toxic, Matryoshka with a rotten core that needs to be handled firmly and not with kid gloves.

 

Bohdan Nahaylo, Chief Editor of Kyiv Post, is the author of Soviet Disunion: A History of the Nationalities Problem in the USSR, and The Ukrainian Resurgence.

The views expressed are the author’s and not necessarily of Kyiv Post.

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