In case you haven’t heard the news, Ukraine’s new president is basically an oligarch equivalent to Willy Wonka, who was instrumental in founding Yanukovych’s Party of Regions and who also greatly assisted the party bloc of his opponent, Viktor “Orange Revolution” Yushchenko. Great job, Maidan! You fucking nailed it. The topic of today’s article, however, is not the utter failure of the Maidan movement on every conceivable level, but rather a Russian article I recently read in response to Maidan’s victory over Yanukovych. I just saw the article today, but it is still timely and it illustrates a very important topic I’d like to tackle. It is called “Letter to an Orange friend,” “orange” being a reference to the Ukrainian opposition, which apparently some still associate with the 2004 Orange Revolution, AKA “The Revolution that didn’t do Shit.” Obviously I’m not going to translate the entire article, but I will present some key parts in English to illustrate the point I want to make.
I was first intrigued by the article, because I thought it was going to be an honest, constructive letter to a hypothetical Maidan supporter who is not necessarily a raving right-wing nationalist, but just that ordinary person who was pissed off at Yanukovych and who wanted to see him go no matter the cost. As I read through the first few paragraphs, however, it was clear that it was going to be one of those articles, or better said one of those rants. Now if you don’t know Russian and you don’t have experience discussing politics here, you don’t know what “those” refers to, so allow me to explain.
It goes something like this. Russian wants to rant against some former Soviet nationality. It doesn’t matter if its their “Slavic brothers” like the Ukrainians or non-Slavic nationalities like Uzbeks, Tajiks, or Georgians. With the most condescending and patronizing tone, they remind the target of their rant how great they had it under the USSR, or in the case of this article, the Russian Empire. Typically no distinction is made between the two. The story is that Muscovite Russians selflessly endeavored and bled to give these people various “gifts” for which they were ungrateful in 1991. Basically it’s the equivalent of a right-wing American telling black Americans that they should be grateful for slavery, or better said a British person lecturing India, Bangladesh, and Pakistan about how great they had it when they were the jewel of the British empire. The difference being, however, that in the US or UK views like this are often met with sharp criticism, often all across the political spectrum. In Russia they are mainstream and encouraged.
Aside from the utter lack of empathy with other peoples, this kind of attitude is never directed inward, at Russia. Russians are never to blame for throwing away everything they accomplished under the USSR, whose advances and accomplishments far outstripped those of the Russian Empire. No that was all just Gorbachev’s fault. Every time I read one of these rants, my automatic reaction is, “You see? This is why nobody likes you.” This explains the gap between perceptions of Russia in the decades after 1917 and post-Soviet Russia. After 1917, red “Russia” was an inspiration to workers, colonized peoples, anti-fascists, and left-leaning intellectuals the world over. However naive the reader thinks those people might have been, the undeniable fact is that it gave the Soviet Union major currency in world affairs for roughly five to six decades, and it did inspire progressive political change during that era. There were times when “Russian” was associated with progress, equality, anti-racism, etc. Post-Soviet Russia, on the other hand, advocates none of those values or at least does so in the most superficial, hypocritical ways. Hence today Russia’s only friends in the diplomatic arena are countries which have some kind of beef with the US or EU. These are alliances of necessity and little more. As far as foreign support, post-Soviet Russia tends to attract religious fanatics and a handful angry, bitter alienated Westerners.
This kind of rant is particularly irksome to me, not just because of my theoretical Ukrainian heritage but because it always lumps any Ukrainian who fails to fall to the floor in praise of Moscow as a worshiper of Bandera who wants nothing to do with Russia. In reality, there are many Ukrainians who are proud of their heritage yet did not support the Orange Revolution or Maidan. Some, perhaps a majority of those in Eastern Ukraine actually prefer to remain as part of Ukraine and identify as ethnic Ukrainians. The idea that the Ukrainian identity must be tied to the West Ukrainian nationalist mythology which draws a sharp, arbitrary line between Russians and Ukrainians, and which considers the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic an “illegal occupation” while the non-existent state declared by Bandera’s followers is considered legitimate, is ultimately an idea owned by Ukraine’s nationalists. They want this to be the case, and no doubt they are angered by the idea that many people self-identify as Ukrainian while simultaneously rejecting nationalist delusions. Unfortunately, however, events in Ukraine have shown that there are many Russians are more than happy to cede the Ukrainian identity to the nationalists, because they hate the idea of an independent Ukraine and Ukrainians as a separate people and culture. This kind of attitude and the propaganda associated with it largely explains the increase in nationalist popularity over the past few years.
Getting back to the article, here is the translated line which set off alarm bells.
“In principle, after the fall of the Soviet Union Ukrainians broke off one of the best parts of the Russian Empire.”
Okay couple problems there, buddy. First, it says “Ukrainians” broke off that part of the “Russian Empire.” Indeed, there was a movement for independence in Ukraine like in many other Soviet Republics, but this ignores the role Russians played in the break-up of the USSR. I guess that’s totally fine though, because Russians are never responsible for their own actions. Yeltsin. Gorbachev. Those two guys wrecked everything. The second obvious mistake is that he writes “Russian Empire” when in fact Ukraine was known as the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic and was a part of the USSR. These days many Russians have a huge problem understanding the difference between the Russian Empire and the Soviet Union. At this point, many people on both sides of this issue might scream, in an annoying and shrill voice, “But the Soviet Union was like a Russian empire!” No, not initially. Not until WWII. The Bolshevik movement was anti-imperialist and anti-Great Russian chauvinist. This is one reason why it won the civil war in spite of the extreme odds arrayed against it. This is why, though it might seem unbelievable today, there was a time when Poles and Balts looked upon the Communist movement with great sympathy, because it was the Bolsheviks who renounced all territorial claims of the Tsarist government. It was only due to political reality and the ongoing wars which later set these people at odds with each other. It is often claimed, hilariously by both modern Trotskyites and Russians with Eurasianist leanings, that Stalin reversed this internationalist policy and favored Great Russians, but the facts just don’t support this. At best you could make that argument after WWII, but it’s hard to pin that entirely on Stalin as opposed to an organic response to more “patriotic” propaganda during the war, plus many of Stalin’s speeches during the war continually make references to the multinational character of the USSR and how this multinational character was a source of strength for the USSR. Here’s an excellent example, taken from Stalin’s radio address of 3 July 1941, in response to the German invasion of 22 June.
“The enemy is cruel and implacable. He is out to seize our lands watered by the sweat of our brows, to seize our grain and oil secured by the labour of our hands. He is out to restore the rule of the landlords, to restore tsarism, to destroy the national culture and the national existence as states of the Russians, Ukrainians, Byelorussians, Lithuanians, Latvians, Esthonians, Uzbeks, Tatars, Moldavians, Georgians, Armenians, Azerbaijanians and the other free peoples of the Soviet Union, to Germanize them, to turn them into the slaves of German princes and barons. Thus the issue is one of life and death for the Soviet State, of life and death for the peoples of the U.S.S.R.; the issue is whether the peoples of the Soviet Union shall be free or fall into slavery. The Soviet people must realize this and abandon all complacency; they must mobilize themselves and reorganize all their work on a new, war-time footing, where there can be no mercy to the enemy.”
Note that he names the Baltic peoples right after the three major Slavic nationalities, and also he mentions Tatars, which never had a union republic of their own.
Also there’s another aspect of claiming Ukrainians broke off the best part of the empire. Russians today will complain about what Ukrainians allegedly got from them, yet if you look at ethnic maps from 1918 you will see that the Ukrainian population expands well over the borders of the Ukrainian SSR, both north to the area around Kursk, Belgorod, and Voronezh, and also east toward the North Caucasus. This was not forgotten during the Soviet time, as the government of the Ukrainian SSR actually requested the transfer of much of that land from the RSFSR(now the Russian Federation) to their own republic. It’s also worth noting that in the 19th century Ukrainians spread eastward into the Russian empire so that in the Soviet era they made up the largest minority in the RSFSR. The Ukrainian SSR actually claimed that it represented all Ukrainians everywhere, and therefore sent out Ukrainian teachers to majority Ukrainian communities as far flung as Siberia and Kazakhstan. You might ask what those Ukrainians who migrated east were doing for all that time. Well they were building things and developing the country, of course. But none of that matters to today’s Russian flag-wavers.
Back to the article, the author then goes on to list some of the industry and development the generous Russians bestowed upon Ukraine. This includes industrial development such as the Antonov aviation factory and nuclear power stations, none of which were built by the Russian Empire. It also includes resources like coal, metal, and even the Black Sea coastline, also not put there by the Russian Empire. Moreover, the actual work of Ukrainians in these mines, these development projects, in re-settling areas formerly belonging to Tatars after the destruction of the Crimean Khanate is utterly ignored. The selfless Muscovites just lavished “presents” on these lucky people. How dare they not appreciate them!
The author then goes on to say(again, translated):
Ukraine has historically been the most inhabited and developed part of the empire. As mentioned in the famous film, “And forge, and Granary, and Health resort.”
First of all, the line he is quoting was about the Caucasus, not Ukraine. Furthermore its source is a Soviet comedy film. Let that sink in for a second. He claims that Ukraine was the most inhabited and developed part of the “empire,” though we don’t know what he is referring to because like many Russians he doesn’t distinguish between the Russian Empire and the USSR. The population claim may be true, but I don’t see how that is relevant seeing as how contrary to popular Russian opinion, more people doesn’t necessarily mean “better” in terms of development. India’s always had far more people yet it still suffers from crushing poverty today. As for most developed, if he’s referring to the empire I’m calling bullshit. Most of Ukraine at the time was rural and not very developed at all. Outside of maybe Moscow and St. Petersburg, I should think the empire’s Baltic(including Finland) and Polish possessions were probably the most developed. Ukraine was certainly one of the most developed union republics, but that’s another story, and one largely written by Ukrainians as much as Russians.
I want to include one more line which demonstrates how condescending and ridiculous this kind of rant is.
In short, when 23 years ago Ukrainians broke off from the best part of the USSR (including donated Crimea), all the nations of the former empire with black envy thought, “That’s a lucky Khokhol, so lucky!”
See the “donated” Crimea part? This is exactly the shit that drives me up the wall. Today’s confused “patriots” love to pick and choose what parts of their history they want to glorify. When it comes to winning the Second World War, they’ll defend the USSR against the slightest criticism, even those which are valid. When it comes to the internationalist policies of the USSR or those policies which favored non-Russian citizens, they curse the Marxist state. Had the Crimean Tatars not been deported, the Crimean ASSR(Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic) wouldn’t have been abolished. Had this been the case, even if Khruschev hadn’t transferred this ASSR to the Ukrainian SSR, it still would not have been part of the state which became the Russian Federation, i.e. it wouldn’t have become part of “Russia.” And in that alternative scenario, the Crimea probably would not have acquired such a large Russian majority, if even a majority at all, as many of those people came in post-deportation. Lastly I should point out that the occasion for the transfer of the Crimea to the Ukrainian SSR was the 300 year anniversary of the Treaty of Pereyaslav, seen as a gesture of friendship and brotherhood between Ukrainians and Great Russians. Yeah, so much for that brotherhood today.
There is also the very important issue of the Second World War. Contrary to common myth, far more Ukrainians sided with the Soviet Union than the nationalist collaborators. If they weren’t fighting in the Red Army, they fought as partisans. In other cases they were slaughtered en masse by the Nazis or their collaborator auxiliaries, and it’s safe to say that people executed by the Nazis en masse were not complying with their demands. The majority of Ukraine, in fact I will go one step further and just say Ukraine, fought for the USSR. And for that reason it lost 16% of its population due to the war. That’s 3% higher than the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic(today’s Russian Federation). Only 3% more, you say? Well keep in mind that because Ukraine was practically the main battleground for most of the German-Soviet War, it also suffered due to the destruction of resources and infrastructure. The country had to be entirely rebuilt after 1945, and the people of Ukraine did it. And one more thing. Belarus lost over 25% of its population in the war, and its collaborationist movement was far smaller than that of Ukraine. Any Belorussian has more than enough justification to lecture a Russian about sacrifice. And finally, on the matter of collaboration, Great Russians were by no means excluded from its ranks. Among the various Russian fascist collaborator formations were Cossacks and White emigres who longingly dreamed of the restoration of the Russian empire, much like Russia’s “modern patriots.” One wonders which side the latter might choose had the Germans rolled into their village circa 1941. Would they continue to fight for the internationalist, socialist, and multi-ethnic USSR? Or would they, holding their current views, willingly take up arms on the side of the German “liberators?”
You see a person like me has no problem acknowledging that the Ukrainian SSR was probably the greatest Ukrainian state to date in terms of standards of living and other important indicators such as “not having thousands of your women forced into literal slavery as prostitutes.” Where I differ from these Russian imperialists is that I acknowledge that this republic wasn’t some present handed down by enlightened Russians in Moscow. In fact it was really the work of Lenin, basing his nationalities policy on Stalin’s theories. Lenin could claim heritage from between five and six nationalities, and of course Stalin was a Georgian. One wonders how our Russian letter writer would react to a Georgian berating the Russians for destroying the country that Stalin built, and demanding thanks for providing them with their greatest modern leader. No doubt that’s when we’d see people like the author don the liberal mask and start crying crocodile tears for all the Russians that bad Georgian repressed. Wouldn’t you know, his grandfather was in a gulag too! I don’t doubt this because I see it all the time in Russia, in the media, or in public statements by politicians. When Stalin “won WWII,” something he never suggested, by the way, he’s Russian. When it comes to mass repression, he’s not Russian, and by the way my grandfather suffered in a Siberian labor camp. Nobody ever says their grandfather was a barely literate NKVD official in a far-flung province who possibly sent people to their deaths on the flimsiest of evidence. Ever the victim, never the perpetrator.
To be fair, some of this attitude is a natural reaction to the naive, delusional, and sometimes violent nationalism of the late 1980’s and early 90’s. Sometimes Western liberals set my teeth on edge when they praise Gorbachev, Perestroika, and the fall of the USSR as a “bloodless” democratic revolution. It was not bloodless and it wasn’t democratic either. In some cases, union republic nationalism could be seen as a reaction, however naive, to a Soviet Union which seemed to best serve Muscovite Russians better than anyone else. It’s not entirely incomprehensible that some of these states figured there might be some advantage in going it alone, and in some less viable republics that no doubt made the population vulnerable to con men making unrealistic promises. It’s also true that in many union republics, the population spurred on by nationalism persecuted their Russian neighbors. The problem is that Russians who write rants like this act as if all Uzbeks or Tajiks are responsible for what some of their people did back in the last days of the USSR.
Another factor motivating this reaction may be the tendency of pro-independence nationalities to pick and choose what parts of the Soviet legacy they wish to keep. Some of them refer to the USSR as an illegal, illegitimate “occupation” of their state, whether that state really ever existed or not post-1917. At the same time, they wish to claim certain things from the USSR as their rightful inheritance. Georgia provides a good example, in the sense that in the last days of the USSR the Soviet Union was said to be an occupying power, and the only valid constitution was considered to be the last constitution of an independent Georgian state from the time of the Russian civil war. Yet it seems that the Georgian government is happy to invoke Soviet law when it lays claim to Abkhazia and South Ossetia and when it tried to deny them the right to secede. In the Soviet system, union republics like Georgia were to have the right to secede while autonomous republics like Abkhazia were not. One would think that declaring Soviet law and borders invalid should apply to all parties, but of course some people want to have their cake and eat it too. The “occupation” theme was also invoked by many Ukrainian nationalists, and this can be seen in the program for the far-right party Svoboda but also from more “liberal” figures like Yushchenko. The want to declare the Ukrainian SSR an invalid occupation, yet truly doing that would mean ceding large parts of the country to Russia and Poland. Putin has actually made references to this in recent times.
Of course, as I alluded before, Russians can also be guilty of playing this game. They want to celebrate Victory Day, a victory of the Soviet Union, but they also want the territories of the old empire. They want to celebrate Gagarin, the first man in space, but they also want to turn their current state into a practical theocracy where religion has the weight of state power behind it. And while many Soviet nationalities wrecked their republics by demanding independence without first considering the full consequences, Russians let their own country fall into chaos for blue jeans, cosmetics, and brand name products. The Ukrainian “patriot” needs to take a good hard look at what Ukrainian, or more accurately West Ukrainian nationalism has actually given Ukraine since 1917 and decide if it’s really a good idea to let those failed ideologues dominate and monopolize the Ukrainian identity. But the Russian also needs to look inward as well, to ask whether 23 years of right-wing “patriotism” has actually gained anything for Russia.
There are a few more points I’d like to cover after everything I’ve written here today. First, when it comes to the popular tide of Russian nationalism and imperialism, I think Putin’s recent reminiscing about the Russian empire should send a message to Western liberals who see the USSR as evil incarnate on par with Nazi Germany or at least something very close to it. Putin is often accused of trying to rebuild the Soviet Union, but his comments serve as a reminder that the Soviet Union was a very different state, and incidentally one which was much smaller by comparison. Throughout the Cold War and even to this day, many Westerners have either romanticized the Russian Empire or at least viewed the Bolshevik revolution and the Soviet Union as some kind of illegitimate state. Putin still garners ridiculous amounts of criticism merely because one time he remarked that the fall of the USSR was a tragedy. Having seen how the West reacts to the USSR, and how it tacitly accepts the idea that it was in fact, a different type of Russian empire, Putin must surely think that it is better to idealize the Russian empire instead. This of course, does not mean to suggest that Putin is actually going to try to restore the empire. Even if he wanted to he can’t even come close. But the problem is the continued promotion of imperialist ideas and how it affects life between Russia’s many nationalities. Poor national cohesion weakens a nation, and Russia has serious problems with inter-ethnic strife. Problems which the government does little to combat, unfortunately. In a similar vein, it would be nice if, when ethnic Russians in former Soviet republics do suffer actual discrimination, the media could do more to acknowledge it instead of pretending as though their persecutors are really underdogs just because Russia is a far larger state. The fact that Russia is a big country doesn’t mean that Russian living abroad automatically benefit from this in any way.
Next, I know some people are going to bring up American or European imperialism in our modern world as a type of counter to what I’ve said about Russian imperialism. Let me just smack that down by pointing out two things. First, America and Europe clearly don’t give a fuck what a country’s government does so long as it keeps trade barriers low and accedes to their economic demands. The fact that both factions gave their approval of a protest movement with such a big fascist element is proof positive of this. America historically has denied being an empire, because particularly from the 20th century onward, being an empire is not seen as a good thing. Throughout the Cold War the USA and USSR routinely accused each other of being empires, each denying their opponent’s claim that they were an empire. Post-Soviet Russia doesn’t do that anymore. All kinds of fairy tales are promoted, claiming that the Russian Empire was just on the verge of overtaking Britain, the US, and Germany when that damned First World War started. Ukrainians, Uzbeks, Chechens, and other nationalities are reminded how much the Muscovites gave them. The American empire does not lecture its client states as to what they should believe about their history or identity. Implement the neo-liberal economic policies, open your markets, and you can teach your schoolchildren that your people are descended from magic elves if you want.
That difference is very important because you can see the effects with Euromaidan. No non-nationalist anti-Yanukovych coalition with a more realistic view of the European Union was able to form. Russians helped ensure that because as soon as the protests started, a bunch of morons started screaming, “You want to go to the EU? Fuck you then! Go to Gayropa! Gay gay gay gay gay gay!” This is coming from the same people who say that you’re their “brothers.” Right. In this sense, we can imagine Russia as that socially-awkward neckbeard who falls in love with every woman who smiles at him. “She’s beautiful! Everything about her is perfect! I love her voice! Her eyes! I’d treat her like a princess! What’s that? She has a boyfriend? That slut! She probably thinks I’m too nice. She prefers dating douchebags who will just abuse her and cheat on her!” In some cases Russia goes through this scenario several times, each time there is a chance that these people like the author will learn from their mistakes and try a different approach, but thus far I haven’t seen it.
A more effective approach, international pickup artistry, if you will, would be to say to these republics, “Look, we realize that things didn’t work out between us. But if we’re honest, we did accomplish a lot of great things together, and those are the things we should focus on instead of tallying up historical wounds and defining ourselves by what we are not. We recognize and respect your independence, and acknowledging our common roots isn’t a threat to that. You should really leave that early 20th century nationalism where it belongs, in the dustbin of the early 20th century. And we should do the same with our own nationalism. We are separate, but we need each other, so it is in our interest not to perpetuate idiotic rivalries which serve nobody.”* And for fuck’s sake- learn some empathy! When someone of a former Soviet nationality talks about discrimination they might have suffered, sometimes personally, due to their nationality, don’t start screaming about how many hydroelectric dams “you” built in their republic. Think about those Russians in Latvia or other former Soviet republics and imagine what it is like for them. Don’t like nationalists abusing you or denigrating your language? Don’t do the same. Golden, fucking, rule.
Lastly I realize there will be some readers who read this and who will claim this is “anti-Russian.” First let me advise you to fuck yourself. That goes doubly for those of you who are not even Russian. And while you are in the process of fucking yourself, peep this. My views on this topic can be directly traced to some people who created this thing you might have heard of called the Soviet Union. If you don’t like them, you don’t get to claim any of the accomplishments of that state. No 1 May, no Victory Day, no Gagarin. Stick with your tricolor and go dig potatoes or something to help you experience what life was like for people like you in the Russian empire. If you’re a real stickler for realism, smack your head against a hard object until you forget how to read and write. Yes, my views seem very contrary to what is dishonestly peddled as “patriotism” in today’s Russia but you know what? That shit has been promoted for 23 years now and what has it got this country? There’s a reason why the main answer to this question is “spiritual values” and not something like “state of the art infrastructure,” “some of the best standards of living in the industrialized world,” or “a technological powerhouse.” And the main reason why this imperialist, “patriotic” bullshit is actually harmful to Russia is because it is so damned predictable. I knew from a few lines in exactly what this “letter” was going to be. Russia keeps playing the same card and the West is on to it. They’ve been onto it for decades now, stretching back into the Cold War. If the Russian government tried something radically different it would throw all those Western Russia experts into a panic. They wouldn’t know what to expect. No, readers, I am pro-Russian, much more so than many so-called Russophiles. I am pro-Russian because I care about the welfare of all peoples of Russia, the majority, the working people. I’m pro-Russian because I believe in the abilities and mental facilities of these people and I don’t think they need some father figure or a troupe of pseudo-intellectuals telling them what to believe. So that’s my message to the detractors. Oh right, don’t forget to fuck yourselves.
To the everyday reader I apologize for the length of this rant. It can be difficult for the uninitiated to understand, as you need to spend a lot of time on Russian social networks and other sites to familiarize yourself with the sentiments expressed in that letter. For the Western reader, keep in mind that yes, we still have these condescending types in our own countries and we need to call them on their bullshit. Also, Westerners should lobby their representatives about the growing problem of nationalism in Eastern Europe, especially Ukraine. There is nothing your politicians can do about this particular problem in Russia, but now they can influence Ukraine. Furthermore, whatever your feelings about politics in Russia, it does not excuse or negate fascism in another country. Fight as you can. Nationalism in one country just breeds nationalism in its neighbors. And Russians, again, I realize hearing some nationalist sentiments provokes serious emotions but think before you react instead of lashing out like an angry teenage girl. Russia needs more friends among nations, real friends, not those who flock to her side because they have nowhere else to go. Take off the fedora, shave the neckbeard, improve your image, and get confidence. Go get’em, tiger! I mean bear. I mean, two-headed eagle. No, bear. People like bears. Go with the bear.
*This pitch applies to countries you used to be in a union with only. Do not attempt this speech when talking to a woman. I am not responsible for you getting pepper-sprayed.