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The Russian abyss and a collective amnesia

The Russian abyss and a collective amnesia
Article by: Pierre Scordia


Pierre Scordia is a lecturer at University College London (London, UK)


At the beginning of 2015, the 70th anniversary ceremony marking the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkernau death camp reminded us of the barbarity that our continent experienced. When we visit this place of horror, cruelty and dehumanisation, we are stunned: the only possible response is silence. The ruthless effectiveness of the extermination process only sinks in a few days later. This death factory employed not only sadistic, but also “hardworking and decent” everyday folk.

Germany, with her collective memory, giving an awareness of the risks of extreme nationalism, has evolved as a beacon of Western democracy and her leaders have used caution in foreign policy since the defeat of 1945. The Germans, seen as wise by some, cowards by others, prefer to use soft power, remaining neutral when it comes to conflicts by promoting peace and reconciliation and then following up by consolidating economic ties. In this context, they tried to westernise Russia, but the Bear does not identify itself within this democratic and Atlantic European world. It sees itself as a great power and an alternative to American hegemony. Since 2012, Moscow has laboriously sought to become the centre of a new Eurasian bloc. To achieve this goal, Russia urgently needs to incorporate Kazakhstan in Asia and Ukraine in Europe as part of her grand plan. But Kiev does not see her future in the same way.

The 2004 Orange Revolution has completely reoriented Ukrainian foreign policy and has moved the country closer to the West and in particular to the European Union. Despite the failures, setbacks and disappointments it has caused, the Orange Revolution brought progress in human rights, political transparency and freedom of the press. It was the first significant gap between the Ukrainian and Russian worlds and also served as a warning to the Donetsk business clan who had tried to control the country. More importantly, it shaped the collective memory of the Ukrainian people, giving them a sense that they could be masters of their own destiny. Between 2005 and 2009 Russo-Ukrainian relations notably deteriorated prompted by numerous gas delivery suspensions and tariff increases. This gas conflict and the lack of reforms, particularly in the fight against corruption, led to the victory of the Donetsk clan in the presidential elections of 2010. Viktor Yanukovych, backed by Rinat Akhmetov, the richest man in the country, was elected with 48.95% of the vote.

The partnership with the European Union established in 2009 and the project of economic and political association signed in 2012, gave Ukrainians a glimpse of possibility for reform and an end to corruption. On the other hand, drawing closer to NATO was rather frowned upon by a population that did not want to break up cultural and family ties with Russia. Yanukovych had very well understood this, but was not skilled enough to navigate between these two currents. He treated Russia as gently as he could but continued to negotiate political and economic association with the European Union. He was caught between a desire for power and Russian money and the promise of a European future for the Nation.

It was during this time that I arrived in Ukraine to follow an intensive course in Russian language at the Polytechnic University of Odesa. Contrary to popular belief, the common language in Odesa and Kiev is still Russian and not Ukrainian; the linguistic war is but a ruse from Moscow. In that summer of 2013, the country’s media spoke only of the new economic sanctions imposed by Russia against the importation of many Ukrainian products, including meat, cheese and chocolate[1]. Everyone knew it was to put pressure on the President to reject the association with the EU. One became aware that Moscow was prepared to do anything to derail the rapprochement between Kyiv and Brussels. When Yanukovych gave into Russian pressure by not signing the Association Agreement in Vilnius on November 29th, 2013 many Ukrainians, even within his own Party of Regions, perceived this as a betrayal. The President thus sealed the future of Ukraine with an authoritarian and corrupt regime. He took away from his country the opportunity to reform, grow and prosper; in other words, to follow the Polish example.

Ironically, by this gesture Yanukovych signed his political death warrant because he underestimated the strength of the collective memory left behind by the Orange Revolution. The media and social networks were well-organised and led massive protest campaigns. This new revolution could not have come at a better time, during the Olympic Games in Sochi, politically paralysing Putin. The new authoritarian policies of Yanukovych and the use of force in Kyiv only hastened his downfall and triggered the decline of the Donetsk clan. It accelerated the rise of a reformist and pro-Western government.

Putin humiliated, could not take the hit. Ukraine plays a central role in his Eurasian project. A Russian empire without Ukraine would be inconceivable for his nationalist backers and the Orthodox Church. Indeed, in the Russian collective memory, Kyiv is the cradle of Russian Christianity. In addition, the unification of the two countries, chosen by the Ukrainian Rada in 1654, profoundly transformed the Russian elite. In the seventeenth century Ukraine, by virtue of her former ties with Poland, was more westernised and modern than Russia with her capital Kyiv being, according to the historian Hélène Carrère d’Encausse: a great theological centre whose mind was open to all the great intellectual and spiritual movements of the West[2]. With Ukraine, the Russian Empire took shape, was modernised and finally lost its Mongolian character. The Ukraine, meaning “border”, was coveted by Poland, the Ottoman Empire, and then Austria, making the Russian Empire by its new western flank vulnerable and porous to outside influences.

It would not be an exaggeration to state that a profound democratic change in Ukrainian society today could affect Russia in the long-term. The Ukrainian revolution of February actually constituted a substantial threat to Putin’s regime, which explains the exceptional measures taken by the Kremlin since that date: media propaganda associating the new regime in Kyiv with the Nazis, lies concerning the languages actually spoken in Ukraine, false propaganda of an “oppressed” Russian minority, repression against opponents within Russia, political assassinations, restrictions of individual freedoms, media control, ban for officials to leave the territory of the Russian Federation, outright annexation of Crimea (in just one month), creation of a new entity in the southeast of Ukraine called New Russia, sending massive arms and Russian soldiers to rise up the Donbas region, planning and logistical support to terrorist groups throughout Ukraine in order to destroy infrastructure[3] (bridges, railways, airports, offices, banks).

The great danger for Europe, according to the French philosopher, Bernard-Henry Lévy, is posed by the hardliners of Putin’s war machine[4]. The vile propaganda of the Kremlin has awakened the old demons of Russian nationalism. The President has become a prisoner of his own semantics. Let us remember that he said in 2000: we will gun them down to their toilets, speaking of the Chechens [5]. With this strong man in the Kremlin, there is a conviction that the country has become more stable, prosperous and strong and has finally tamed Chechnya. In addition, Putin uses mystical images; we all remember the picture of President Putin shirtless on a horse in Siberia, armed to the teeth, emerging from the forest as the providential man. Recently, we have seen the Egyptian General Sisi being offered a Kalashnikov, made in Russia. Force and violence are now unquestionably associated with the Russian state.

Unfortunately, the Russian collective memory is far removed from the German one. Russia does not feel responsible in her legal framework for the massacres and genocides orchestrated by the Bolshevik and Stalinist regimes.  One thinks here of Holodomor, the great famine planned by the Kremlin in Western and Central Ukraine that caused the loss of at least 5 million lives between 1932 and 1933. The deportation of civilians and opponents in cattle cars to Siberia and Kazakhstan between 1941 and 1945 is not emphasised enough in the Russian historiography. Who remembers the 400,000 Volga Germans deported in the space of three nights? 30% were brutally killed during the deportation. Few Russians talk about the ethnic cleansing that happened to the Chechens, Crimean Tatars, Ingush, and Finns from Ingria. The horrors of the Stalinist regime were forgiven and forgotten thanks to the victory over Nazism. The dissolution of the Russian-speaking Soviet Union in 1991 accelerated this process of amnesia in the Russian collective memory.

Behind the Russian-Ukrainian conflict hides another clash, the schism within the Orthodox Church. Indeed, the Orthodox Church of Kyiv, born from the ashes of the Soviet Union, kept her distance from the one in Moscow and played a key role in the Maidan Revolution of 2013 and 2014. Last summer, when the new Metropolitan of the Moscow Orthodox Church in Ukraine was appointed, the Kyiv Church denounced the nationalist ideology of the new leader Onuphrius and his bishops: “the aggressive doctrine of the Russian world which has become an ideological basis for the current Kremlin aggression against Ukraine, the occupation of the Crimea and terror in the Donbas[6]. It goes without saying that the Metropolitan of Moscow has never recognised the Kyiv Orthodox Church thus the increasing number of faithfuls joining the Kyiv Church may theoretically risk excommunication. Putin can now count on unconditional support from the Patriarch of Moscow for his war in Ukraine. Indeed, Putin has been courting the Church for over a decade. For example, homophobic laws adopted in 2013, Crimea becoming the “Temple Mount in Jerusalem” according to President Putin in his address to the nation on December 4th, 2014, Donetsk “the new Jerusalem” for the radical nationalists – all factors contributing to bringing the Orthodox church on board.

It is time for us to be realistic and become aware of the dangers that recall a recent past: Russia has very bad memories of her democratic experience, which she associates with decline and crisis. Russia wants to protect and support all Russian minorities. Russian people applaud their “Anschluss” with Crimea. Russia supports most of the reactionary forces in Europe. Russia links Western civilisation with decadence. Russian hopes lie in a providential man who feels threatened by other nations. Russia ignores international treaties.

The challenge is how to bring some light to the Russian populace. Firstly, the Russian Orthodox Church would need to reconcile itself with the message of love and peace in the Christian faith by condemning violence and terror caused by Russian nationalists in Ukraine. It is also important that we, the West, continue to put pressure on Russia in all areas and that we invest in communication by funding new international television channels in the Russian language based in Riga and Kyiv[7]. Finally, there is an urgent need of a Marshall Plan for a democratic Ukraine, as Georges Soros has already suggested[8]. We should also fund the construction of an iron curtain along the Ukrainian border with Donbas, Crimea, Russia and Transnistria. Once the wall has been constructed, Ukraine should forgo her former Autonomous Republic of Crimea and her two oblasts occupied by Russian troops in order to better ensure her economic development. Moreover, the Kyiv authorities should impose visas on Russian citizens to prevent any coups in Odesa[9] and Kharkiv, because as long as Putin is in power, the destruction of the pro-European Ukrainian state is his political priority.

We will never have peace whilst power in Russia falls into the hands of a clique comprised of dubious businessmen, nationalists, criminals and religious zealots; a clique backed by a nostalgic nation dreaming of a glorious past which has not always been.

We must however be wary as any collapse of the mafia regime set by Putin and the Rotenbergs (the Rotenberg brothers have taken over some lucrative businesses in the country[10]) could lead to the emergence of a powerful extreme religious right with anti-western and anti-Semitic views[11]. The country of the Protocol of the Elders of Zion is much more anti-Semitic than democratic Ukraine[12].

Only a few Russians support the democratic opposition led by Boris Nemtsov and Alexei Navalny. Since the war in Ukraine, 68% of Russian people have a negative image of these leaders who seem to them too unpatriotic[13].  The murder of Nemtsov just a few metres from the heavily protected Kremlin walls on February 28th has plunged the country into a climate of political hatred. The demons of the past threaten us once again.

[hr][1] Russia steps up trade war with Ukraine, BusinessNewEurope, August 15th, 2013.

Roshen chocolates (Roshen empire is still owned by the current president, Petro Poroshenko) were the first Ukrainian products banned in Russia. Moscow wanted to punish Poroshenko for his pro-European political lobby. KyivPost, August 9th, 2013.

[2] Hélène Carrère d’Encausse, La Russie inachevée, Fayard, 2000, pages 122-127.

[3] There is a terrorist organisation calling itself Kharkiv Partisans whose main goal is to overthrow the “Junta” in Kiev. Allison Quinn, Experts See Dark Plot in Spate of Mystery Bombings in Ukraine, The Moscow Times, February 26th, 2015.

Ukrainian investigations led to the Russian Secret services (FBS) connection. The FBS would be behind the terrorist attacks in Ukraine. Maxim Turner, Experts see more Russian-backed terrorist attacks ahead in Ukraine, Kyivpost, February 26th, 2015.

[4] Bernard-Henry Lévy, Pourquoi Poutine est un danger pour l’Europe, Le Point, February 13th, 2015.

[5] Alexandre Adler & Vladimir Fédorovski, Quand Poutine voulait ‘buter les Tchétchènes jusque dans leurs chiottes’, Atlantico, February 26th, 2012.

[6] La Croix, July 15th, 2014.

[7] An idea proposed by the Polish Minister of Foreign Affairs. Poland: Europe Seeks to Counter Russian Media Propaganda, The New York Times, February 20th, 2015.

[8] Some analysts believe that a $50 billion Marshall Plan to Ukraine would be more effective than economic sanctions against Russia, which indirectly hit the Ukrainian economy. However, one doubts that Germany with her strict budget policy would be ready to spend so much money for Kiev. Mark Adomanis, George Soros’ Plan to Rescue Ukraine Isn’t Going to Work. Forbes, December 1st, 2014.

[9] Many Russian speakers of Bulgarian, Moldavian and Gagauz origins living in Bessarabia (38% of the population) are strongly influenced by the Russian media and could become the next target of the Kremlin whose main aim is the destabilisation of Ukraine. In Moldova, the Gagauz people (Turks converted early to Orthodoxy who speak Russian), enjoy a degree of autonomy (especially in the cultural field). Some people fear that the Moldovan Gagauz and the Russian speakers from Bessarabia (part of Odesa Oblast) could join forces in order to create a People’s Republic of Bessarabia. Katya Kumkova, Can Southwestern Ukraine Become a Trouble Spot? The Moscow Times, February 25th, 2015.

[10] In London, there is an on-going case involving several oligarchs. Sergei Polonsky says he was allegedly forced to sell his real estate empire. This case highlights the dubious process for company acquisitions in Russia. Jim Armitage, Abramovich dragged into fugitive billionaire’s court battle. The Independent, May 31st, 2014.

The contract for the last big infrastructure project, the bridge linking Russia to the Crimea peninsula, was given to Stroigazmontazh, a company belonging to Arkady Rotenberg. Putin Ally Arkady Rotenberg to Build Crimea’s Kerch Bridge, The Moscow Times, January 30th, 2015.

[11] Jean-Jacques Marie, L’antisémitisme en Russie de Catherine II à Poutine. Tallandier. 2009.

[12] Last April, some tracts were found in the People’s Republic of Donetsk, asking Jews to identify themselves to the authorities of the newentity. There are doubts about the authenticity of this document. Anti-Jewish measures in eastern Ukraine city ‘grotesque’: Kerry, i24, April 17th, 2014.

The fact is that the Jewish community is very concerned and many prefer to take refuge in the territory controlled by the Ukrainian army. Moreover, Jews from Mariupol have decided to leave the city since it is threatened by rebels and Russian troops. Sam Sokol, Ukrainian Jews look to evacuate city as Jewish woman reportedly killed by shelling, Jerusalem Post, January 25th, 2015.

[13] Ivan Nechepurenk. Analysts Blame Nemtsov’s Death on Russia’s Legitimized Hate, The Moscow Times, February 28th, 2015.

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