Feb. 3, 2014
Lately I wake up in the middle of the night with a complexity of thoughts about the situation in Ukraine, the effect it has on the former Soviet Union and on relations between Russia and the West. In particular the posts by Russian nationalists, pro-Putin facebook users and facebooks glorifying the deeds of Berkut leave a bad taste and a considerable impression. Some are downright stupid, others are racist or anti-Semitic, some are really abhorrent – but many show a total lack of information on what is actually going on outside Russia. The information block that the Putinshchina imposed really works, and we haven’t seen the end of it: now even livejournals that provide balanced information on Maidan are banned because of ‘extremism’.
A crucial theme is that of ‘foreign interference’ – referring to the idea that Maidan is all the work of Western governments, intelligence agencies and ‘foreign agents’ like myself. A few days ago a wonderful joke was posted, reading “The foreign state of Russia is upset about the foreign interference in the internal affairs of Ukraine by even more foreign States”. Indeed, many in Russia believe that this is the West stirring up trouble in Ukraine’s backyard. They just cannot imagine that so many Ukrainians would NOT want to be in the sphere of influence of Russia. They take it as a personal affront, as if Ukrainians disavow their bond with the Russian people and suddenly started hating them. It is the same misunderstanding that prevailed during the Russia-Georgia war of 2008. Also then Georgians had nothing against Russians, and many if not most love Russians, Russian culture and the Russian language. What they hate is what Russians themselves should hate: a dictatorial regime that runs Russia as a personal fiefdom, plays with human rights as if they are empty slogans and in the mean time steals everything it can find from the people to which this wealth should belong. In other words: they hate what Yanukovych is copying in Ukraine, and they want to get away from it as far as possible.
The interesting aspect is that many Russian nationalists and pro-Putinists glorify the history of the Soviet Union, and if they are not out to restore the borders of the Russian Empire from before WWI, they definitely want to restore the power of the Soviet Union. In that concept they see Ukraine as “ours”, «наша».
But here their thoughts become totally garbled. Because if the Soviet Union is such an ideal to strive for, have they forgotten that the country was founded on one leading concept (apart from the concept of forced labor, of course) – the concept of internationalism, of world revolution, which was supposed to be one endless interference in the internal affairs of states until the Soviet Union would cover the whole globe? Weren’t it the Germans who brought Lenin to Russia to take hold of the Revolution? Wasn’t it a Pole from Vilno (now the Lithuanian capital Vilnius), Feliks Dzherzhinsky, who founded the Cheka, predecessor of the KGB and FSB (and, not to forget, the Ukrainian secret service SBU)? Weren’t foreigners like the German Karl Radek at the top of the political hierarchy in the country? And what about all the Soviets who fought on the side of the Republicans in the Spanish Civil War, including the members of the NKVD who nicely murdered fellow communists behind the front lines because Stalin didn’t like them?
So what is this, do we have two forms of foreign interference – a good one (Soviet, Putinist Russian) and a bad one (Western capitalistic, gay-infiltrated and unbridled Sodom-and-Ghomorrist)? Or are actually all foreign interferences ‘heroic’ and for the good of the cause? In other words, am I as ‘foreign agent’ actually a good guy, a hero, who deserves applause from pro-Putinists?
I sure don’t hope so!
But I can be calm, I am convinced this is not their idea. To them fighting for the glory of the ‘Russian Imperium’, whether it is called Russia or the Soviet Union, is a duty. And for many of them, one of the main weapons is Russian Orthodoxy, the new ideology that replaced Marxism-Leninism and in which they believe as superficially as they did in Communism. Reconquer lost territories, fulfill your missionary duty and turn everybody into good Russian Orthodox believers, that way you will save the world from apocalyptic doom resulting from Western capitalism and immorality. Here we also see a unification of the State and the Church, both ‘coincidentally’ led by a (former?) KGB officer, supported by an army of ‘православные джихадисты’, Russian-Orthodox jihadists. They are waging a holy war – and in holy wars all reason winds up in the wastebasket. And that is where they think we ‘foreign agents’ also belong.
Robert van Voren is Professor of Soviet and Post-Soviet Studies at VytautasMagnusUniversity in Kaunas and IliaStateUniversity in Tbilisi, and was Permanent Representative of Ukraine in the Benelux for Humanitarian Affairs in 1994-1997.