While Ukraine’s allies and supporters have been rallying to its defense in the face of possible new aggression from Russia, the Kremlin’s strongman Vladimir Putin has once again revealed his true colors as a classical Russian imperialist determined to restore the might of the former Russian tsarist and Soviet empires.
Even as the Russian President attempts to deceive those who are gullible in the outside world that he is merely protecting his country from the supposed “expansionism” of the NATO alliance and is drawing “red-lines” in his country’s self-defense, at home his message chimes a more explicit and unapologetically chauvinistic chord. And, revisionist, too.
Putin is not out to defend “Russian-speakers” in eastern Ukraine, Crimea, or elsewhere, as he initially claimed. Nor to simply block NATO and the EU from integrating Ukraine, Georgia, Moldova, and perhaps eventually Belarus, if they want to join them. This is merely a pretense and smokescreen for the Kremlin’s rekindled imperial goals which the Russian president has actively revived and transformed into his strategic aim.
Putin has previously described the dissolution of the USSR, 30 years ago, as the “greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century.” Now he has gone further and not minced his words, acknowledging that the supposedly internationalist Soviet Union controlled from Moscow was in reality a Russian empire in another guise.
According to TASS, Putin stressed in an interview for a documentary entitled “Russia: Its Recent History” aired on Rossiya-1 TV on Dec. 12 that the “disintegration” of the USSR was “the collapse of historical Russia called the Soviet Union.”
Given that Putin is very selective and biased in his use of historical facts, it’s worthwhile to briefly remind those unfamiliar with the historic record of what the current Russian would-be latter-day tsar (originating from the name Caesar) hopes has been forgotten.
For one, Lenin, the founder of the Soviet totalitarian system is probably turning in his grave, or rather his mausoleum on Red Square, after hearing Putin’s claim.
After re-conquering with the Red Army those peoples who had wanted to create independent states, Lenin had promoted the idea of reassembling the former Russian tsarist empire as a theoretically “free” union, in a “federation” of Soviet republics with the proclaimed right to “free secession.”
In his so-called Testament dictated on his deathbed in December 1922, the Bolshevik leader warned: “The need to rally against the imperialists of the West… is one thing… It is another thing when we ourselves lapse, even if only in trifles, into imperialist attitudes towards oppressed nationalities thus undermining all our principled sincerity, all our principled defense of the struggle against imperialism.
Lenin stressed: “’Freedom to secede from the union’ by which we justify ourselves will be a mere scrap of paper, unable to 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.”
In other words, for the sake of political tact and pragmatism, Lenin wanted to present the reconstituted Russian empire in a Soviet form as a break with the tsarist imperialist past when Russia had been dubbed the “prison of nations.”
Putin, as a product of the Soviet system with its obligatory Marxist-Leninist ideology, is surely aware of how Marx and Engels viewed the Russian tsarist empire. The latter, for example considered that imperial Russia “could only be mentioned as the detainer of an immense amount of stolen property, which would have to be disgorged on the day of reckoning.”
That day of reckoning came 30 years ago this month when Putin’s predecessor, Boris Yeltsin, and the Ukrainian leader Leonid Kravchuk and his Belarusian counterpart Stanislav Shushkevich agreed on Dec. 8, 1991, to dissolve the Soviet Union. Yeltsin, the Russian president who brought the virtually unknown KGB officer Putin into prominence and made him his successor, later acknowledged: “I was convinced that Russia needed to get rid of its imperial mission.”
Putin has no qualms any longer in challenging in one breath both Lenin and Yeltsin. He is consciously and methodically restoring the idea that the Russian empire was a source of pride because of its greatness and might and needs to be reconstituted. Moreover, he is reasserting the notion that had caught on so effectively in the outside world and largely persists that Russia and the Soviet Union were in effect one and the same thing.
All this is done primarily at the expense of Ukraine. Putin openly declares that the Russians and Ukrainians are one people, appropriates the history of the Ukrainians, and distorts or dismisses their struggle for freedom and modern European self-identification. It seems that Ukraine’s only purpose in his eyes, and that of Belarus too, is to serve as a docile appendage of Russia.
Putin told his Russian audience that with the collapse of the USSR, “the country” lost “40% of its territory, about the same production capacity and population.” There was also a huge “humanitarian catastrophe,” for 25 million Russians found themselves “against their will” in the new independent non-Russian states.
Needless to say, Putin did not address the question of how the Russians had ended up in the non-Russian republics and why they were perceived as colonizers. He did not mention the millions of non-Russians killed, deported, imprisoned or exiled during tsarist and Soviet rule while ethnic Russians were settled in their homelands, nor the policies of Russification, political regimentation and isolation from the outside world that Russian rule brought.
Instead, Putin said that the break-up of the Soviet empire meant “we have turned into a completely different country, for “what has been accumulated over a thousand years” was “largely lost.” Here again, he implicitly claimed for Russia the patrimony of Kyivan Rus, the medieval state centered on today’s Ukrainian capital, which existed centuries before Muscovy, the precursor of Russia, emerged.
The day before making these statements, Putin had let slip on Russian TV what clearly is at the back of his mind, indicating the source of his imperialistic obsession.
During a rare televised frank exchange with a staunch critic of his policies, the celebrated Russian film-maker Aleksandr Sokurov, the Russian president reacted angrily when told that many of Russia’s non-Russian nations, especially their young people, are unhappy with Russian rule; that “the Russian federation is becoming more and more unpopular,” especially among the nationalities in the North Caucasus; and that those “who no longer wish to live with us in one state” should be allowed to go their own way.
“You want to turn us into Muscovy,” Putin fumed, referring to the name that Russia was known under before Peter the Great assumed the title of Emperor of “the Russian Empire” in 1721. Is the Russian nation interested in this, he asked rhetorically? “But in NATO they want to do this.”
Putin, it should be recalled, has been identified as a great fan of the military leader of the anti-Bolshevik Russian White movement, General Anton Denikin. A staunch enemy of the Ukrainian independence, and an anti-Semite, he was one of the leading proponents of the imperialist slogan – “Russia, one and indivisible.”
As the Kyiv Post reported in 2009 (https://www.kyivpost.com/…/putin-you-certainly-should…), when Putin visited Denikin’s grave in May of that year at the Donsky Monastery in Russia, he urged journalists to read Denikin’s diary, specifically the part which refers to Ukraine.
“You certainly should read Anton Denikin’s diary, specifically the part about ‘Great and Little Russia, Ukraine.’ He says nobody should be allowed to interfere between us. This is only Russia’s right.”
According to the head of the monastery, Putin had changed his personal view of “Denikin’s place in history,” apparently because of Denikin’s position on Ukraine. “One of the main ideas in Denikin’s works and political activity was not to allow the divorce of Russia and its Little Russian lands – Ukraine,” he explained.
“It is a crime if someone starts to talk about the division of Russia and Ukraine,” Putin said at the time citing Denikin’s memoirs.
All this provides the critical perspective for understanding Putin’s aggression towards Ukraine. As the Polish American diplomat and political scientist Zbigniew Brzezinski famously observed: “Without Ukraine, Russia ceases to be an empire, but with Ukraine suborned and then subordinated, Russia automatically becomes an empire.”
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