Political cartoon by Oleksiy Kustovsky
The Russian-Ukrainian war that entered its hot phase in 2014 has contributed to the erosion and destruction of many relatively stable myths about relations between Russia and Ukraine. It also has jeopardized the continuation of a certain number of pro-Russian illusions, though not all, if one believes opinion polls that indicate that half of Ukrainians still view Russians as “brothers” after what Russia has done to Ukraine. These people say it is Putin who is personally guilty of everything.
Nonetheless, something has changed significantly, including the myth about the Russian intelligentsia — specifically the notion that it is the “conscience of mankind,” not to mention the “conscience of the Russian people.” This myth was created through the efforts of the Russian intelligentsia itself, which has not disdained self-promotion and self-glorification for at least two centuries. The well-known thesis of the writer Fyodor Dostoevsky about the so-called “global responsiveness” of the Russian people belongs here.
Creeping admiration for a dictator
For Russian intellectuals, the aggressive war against Ukraine has served as a kind of test that they have largely failed. The creeping admiration for the actions of a dictator, the joy at the seizure of another’s property, the fear of having an independent opinion (that differs from the mob), the complete spiritual and social dependence on authorities have revealed the true face of the Russian intelligentsia, (which calls for even greater respect for its individual representatives who were not afraid to become modern Russian dissidents).
In fact, even earlier, there were suspicions and revelations in this regard among Russia’s intellectual leaders. This is what Anton Chekhov, a good representative of Russian intelligentsia, wrote about it:
“I don’t believe in our hypocritical, hysterical, rude, lazy intelligentsia. I don’t believe in it even when it suffers and complains, because its own oppressors always emerge from its own midst. The entire intelligentsia is guilty — all of it, my friend. As long as they are still students, these are honest, decent people — our hope, Russia’s future. But as soon as the students go on their own and become adults, then our hope and the Russia’s future vanish like smoke, leaving only dacha-owning doctors, greedy officials, thieving engineers.”
The current educated class in Russia has confirmed Chekhov’s opinion resoundingly. Writers, artists, filmmakers, musicians, scientists, doctors, and professors have written hundreds of letters supporting Kremlin’s aggressive policies. Crimea became the insurmountable test.
The collapse of Russian democracy
This test finally exposed those Russian intellectuals who have cultivated their democratic reputations for decades, although certain chauvinistic-imperialistic manifestations could be detected even earlier. But Crimea forced them to reveal themselves fully because this situation represented an existential choice between good and evil. A few Russian democrats tried and continue to try to “tip-toe on the minefields,” saying that aggression against Ukraine and the seizure of its territory is bad, but that it is still a good thing that Crimea is Russian and that Russia has benefitted.
There is the example of the “registered Russian liberal” Leonid Gozman who writes: ” If processes similar to those that took place in Scotland and Catalonia had been carried out in Crimea, the supporters of independence and even possibly the supporters of union with Russia would have won.” In other words, the taking of the peninsula was right, but not with such brutality. Ukraine should have been wounded less painfully, more aesthetically and intelligently. This summarizes the democratic beliefs of the Russian intelligentsia in their entirety. It goes without saying that processes, in contrast to actions, are not directed by anyone. They happen spontaneously and unconsciously. And no one has any doubt that there are distinct nations such as the Scots and the Catalans with their special cultures history, and mentality. There is no “Crimean people,” as there has not been nor will be a “Donetsk” or Luhansk” people. Thus, the “democratic” Mr. Gozman had demonstrated a completely imperial lust when he failed to mention the only distinct people on the peninsula — the Crimean Tatars, who alone have a legitimate right to national self-determination.
And the “last hope of Russian democracy,” Alexei Navalny, while recognizing the illegality of the Russian annexation of Crimea, nevertheless stated that “Crimea is not a sandwich” to be passed from hand to hand. Therefore, when Russia occupied it, Crimea was this sandwich, and when the problem of returning it to its rightful owner came up, then Crimea suddenly stopped being a “sandwich. In his interview with the Dmytro Gordon publication several days before his assassination, the former Russian State Duma deputy Denis Voronenkov said that Navalny is an FSB agent, who is used to infiltrate the anti-Putin movement. “Don’t be fooled,” he said. “And I really advise Ukrainians not to delude themselves. Crimea will remain part of Russia and in the near future will not become part of Ukraine.”
Yet another Russian democrat, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, spoke in the same vein: “In the democratic system that I would like to see in Russia, it will not be possible to return Crimea to Ukraine,” he said. Thus, the former oligarch and Putin’s prisoner dreams about a ” democratically chauvinistic empire” that must retain everything seized from neighbors at any price — an empire with no regard for international law (nor for the borders of other states). In other words, he, too, is convinced that the general principles of world order do not apply to the new-old Russia.
Yet another Russian “democrat,” Irina Khakamada, exclaimed enthusiastically about the dictator’s “genius”: “Crimea was transferred to Russia peacefully and calmly and Putin professionally managed this blitzkrieg,” she said. Apparently she does not even fear that the last word in her remarks quite clearly places Putin on a par with another politician, who also successfully launched his blitzkriegs, but who finished very poorly.
What can be done?
Despite the anti-Ukrainian declarations of the Russian “democrats,” Ukrainians will regain their lands and will build a powerful and effective state but under one indispensible condition: the complete rejection of all pro-Russian illusions — the naïve and destructive belief in “brotherly Russia,” which never existed, does not exist, and will never exist for Ukrainians, the expectations (typical of some Ukrainian intellectuals) of ” a democratic Russian intelligentsia,” the idea of a “common history” (can a colonizer and the colonized ever share a common history in the best meaning of the term?), the faith in the “good Russian people” who differ fundamentally from their evil government. In short, Ukrainians must dispose of everything that makes up the imperial propagandist junk that has so lavishly polluted the minds of millions of Ukrainians. What other horrors must the Ukrainian people still experience in order to erase the imperial myths from their consciousness forever?
Ihor Losiev, PhD, is a political scientist, journalist, member of the National Union of Journalists of Ukraine, and Associate Professor of Cultural Studies at the National University of Kyiv-Mohyla Academy.