For many years I wondered how my uncle must have felt in 1938-1939, when dark clouds were gathering over Europe. My namesake Robert van Voren was then 21 years old, out of secondary school and studying to be an engineer in Delft, The Netherlands. He was a bit of a loner, cycling across Europe on an old-fashioned black Dutch bike and observing how the continent was changing rapidly. One of his trips brought him to Finland, where he watched Soviet planes fly over Vyborg as an omen of the Finish-Soviet War that would soon break out and cost hundreds of thousands of lives. Europe was on the brink of war.
Whatever he felt, he was upset enough to join the Dutch resistance almost immediately after the German invasion in May 1940. For more than three years he would falsify documents for Jews and British pilots, help the first to hide from the Germans and the latter to escape back to Britain via Portugal. He did this under various pseudonyms, until he was arrested in October 1943, incarcerated in the prison in Scheveningen (now the “home” of the defendants of the International Criminal Court), and then sent to camps in Germany and Poland. He lived to see the Americans, but died two weeks later of starvation and a variety of illnesses.
Now, more than 75 years later, I can imagine the inner anxiety and frustration he must have felt, every time when news came in of yet another trick by the German Fuehrer Adolf Hitler. A frustration probably exacerbated by the convalescent attitude of Western European leaders, who every time thought that by remaining diplomatic and lenient they could please Hitler into agreeing to end his conquest of yet more territories and “reuniting” Germans with their homeland. Europeans were concerned, sure, but they were particularly concerned of the economic consequences of direct action, and in the end the whole continent was engulfed in flames and tens of millions of people lost their lives.
Today we see a Russian leader who has brought back to Russia its “pride” and “self-respect”, just like Hitler did in the 1930s. For Russia the shameful “Versailles” treaty was the collapse of the Soviet Empire (in the words of Vladimir Putin “the biggest tragedy of the twentieth century”) and the loss of what many Russians consider to be “nashe”, “ours”. And “ours” can be anything from Ukraine to the Baltic countries, Finland, Poland and even Alaska. The claims in social media or voiced by brazen Russian politicians and diplomats encompass an ever larger part of the world map. One thing is clear; what we see is for many Russians the “Russian spring”, the rebirth of Russia as a power to be reckoned with.
Internally, the same ruler has imposed a militant dictatorial rule in the country. Decisions are passed in the State Duma unanimously, or with only one brave deputee (Ilya Ponomaryov) voting against. Social media is closed the moment “extremist” (read: anti-government) ideas and thoughts are disseminated, and virtually all press has been “gleichgeschaltet” (brought into line), as Hitler used to call it. As a counter-demonstration against the anti-war demonstration on March 16, the Kremlin brought new cohorts to the streets, all dressed in red jackets with the USSR map on their back. It is Putin’s SA, the only difference being the switch in color: of Hitler’s SA one said they were brown outside but red inside (as many of them were former Communists), these guys are red outside and fascist brown inside. Putin’s rule has integrated a neo-fascist style of government into Russian daily reality, including the militarization of the country, a constant barrage of crude propaganda and a distortion of reality, and the wide use of thugs who as “Russian patriots” conquer lost territories and demand “historical justice” to be done.
But aside from the inner workings of the neo-fascist regime in Moscow there is a much more worrying similarity to 1938-1939. This is Western acquiescence, the lack of an adequate and swift response to Putin’s political moves. And it is all about the same: the nature of the regime in Moscow is clear, and widely understood, even though Western media such as the BBC have a unpleasant tendency to copy Putin’s euphemistic wordings such as “self-defense units” when it is clear we are in fact watching Russian military. Yet the necessary consequential steps are avoided out of pure self-interest or fear of economic loss. The United Kingdom is hesitant because it fears losing Russian money in Londongrad. France is hesitant, because it would like to continue selling its arms. Germany is reluctant, because of its economic ties and dependence on Russian gas and many of the other Western states are shunning the debate, hoping that the wind will blow over. Only those who remember the times of Soviet dominance directly and traumatically – particularly the Baltic countries and Poland – are outspoken and clear in their positioning. For the rest it is mainly words, and empty gestures.
During the last years before the war, when my uncle was cycling through Europe and watching the world go berserk, The Netherlands had a Prime-Minister, Hendrik Colijn. In 1935, after the German occupation of the Rhineland, he spoke the famous words at the end of his radio speech: “I request from my listeners that when they soon go to bed they sleep as peacefully as on other nights. There is no reason yet to be really worried.” We now know there was, and that the occupation of the Rhineland was the first of a long series of “reunifications” that in the end led to the Second World War. There is no proof that Hitler would have stopped if he had been confronted earlier and more forcefully, and such proof is impossible to provide. Yet it is clear that Europe was morally unprepared to counter the dictator, and that the moral unpreparedness helped him engulf many more countries in his warmongery and resulted in many more deaths than if he had been stopped in his tracks at an earlier stage.
Yes, Russia is a nuclear power, and that has an important impact on what response one can take. But sure one can do better than posing restrictions on a couple of dozen of Russian crooks from Putin’s entourage as well as a number of other purely symbolic steps. To start with: 449 members of the Duma approved the annexation of the Crimea. Many of them are involved in Putin’s business, all have politically aligned themselves to his deformed patriotism. Surely you can at least make sure that their shopping days in Londongrad are over?
Robert van Voren is Professor of Soviet and Post-Soviet Studies at Vytautas Magnus University in Kaunas and Ilia State University in Tbilisi, and was Permanent Representative of Ukraine in the Benelux for Humanitarian Affairs in 1994-1997.