I regret to inform the readership that due to a family tragedy, posts here will be less frequent as my whole life is up in the air at the moment. Still, I feel that this blog must continue in its original mission and while I won’t be going into deep details on today’s piece, I will contribute some commentary because while I think it has some serious flaws, it also contains some important truths.
The piece is by Andrew O’Hehir of Salon, and is entitled “Strange Bedfellows.” First the good. O’Hehir touches upon something that has been annoying me in recent months, and that is the knee-jerk tendency for leftists to take a very naive stance on international conflicts based on a very misguided notion of “anti-imperialism.” Basically the way this works is any country the US or Europe rails against must be worthy of our support. This goes beyond simple anti-war activism, especially because in many of these conflicts war has been on the table.
The idea in the case of Ukraine is that because Europe and the US supported Euromaidan and Russia is against it, Russia must be standing in the way of some horrible Euro-American plan for world domination. Therefore supporting Russia and the rebels in Eastern Ukraine, no matter how reactionary they may be or how little they differ from Maidan’s radical nationalists, is a categorical imperative for leftists the world over. To many people this sounds perfectly logical on its face, but dig into it just a little deeper and you see how absurd it actually is. Allow me to enumerate the ways.
-The influence of the EU and the US will not diminish if Ukraine isn’t wholly controlled by a friendly government. This happened before from 2005-2010. The idea that the Crimea being in Russian hands or Eastern Ukraine being outside of Kyiv’s orbit will somehow weaken the US or the EU is simply laughable. If anything it will be to their advantage. NATO will use this as justification for its continued existence. Smaller neighbors of Russia will openly call for NATO bases on their territory. The defense industry will flourish.
-Russia was essentially trying to do the same thing the EU was doing to Ukraine, i.e. trying to secure a favorable free trade agreement. This dispels any myth that Russia had Ukraine’s best interests at heart.
-Something like Maidan didn’t need the support of the West to develop. Corruption in Ukraine had reached a breaking point. The violent overthrow seems unnecessary, given that Ukraine has had free and fair elections in the past and Yanukovych wouldn’t dare try to rig the early elections he proposed. Nonetheless, he made his bed. If the US or EU could really affect revolution anywhere they want by paying people, there are literally dozens of governments they could have overthrown a long time ago via that method.
-Russia is not an obstacle to imperialism. It has its own imperial designs and much of the hostility we’ve seen lately is in response to constant snubbing from the West in the past. Had the West not acted this way, it is very likely that Russia would happily reprise its role as a gendarme of Europe, providing conscripts for various NATO missions in the area. More importantly, Russia is a weak country militarily, economically, and socially. This is because rather than continue trying to solve the problems of the 90’s, Russia’s new oligarchs under Putin decided to steal more money instead of investing it in Russia’s future. Now the chickens are coming home to roost and all that’s left is this patriotic bullshit which only brings short-term gains. Because the problems of the 90’s were never solved, they will return with a vengeance sooner or later. So even if you are convinced that there needs to be some military power opposed to the US, Russia just isn’t it. Sorry.
I could go on. I could point out, for example, how in Syria the government was defending itself against a foreign-backed militant movement as opposed to attacking or annexing part of another country, but I think it should be clear by now.
While I don’t like the author’s obvious liberal slant when describing the topic of the article, I do think he certainly hits upon an issue which real leftists need to deal with. Basically, we need a movement which puts forth our own ideas rather than just taking the side of whoever the US seems to be vilifying at the moment. This doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t reject lazy, black and white narratives in the Western press, for example, but what it does mean is that we have to stop countering them solely with the products of what we consider to be the “anti-Western press.” In other words, claims should be judged on their merit alone, and not because they came from a source which is supposedly the polar opposite of our “mainstream media.”
The idea that unqualified “anti-imperialism” actually weakens imperialism is highly dubious. If anything we could do more to weaken imperialism by organizing in our own countries and advancing the left’s cause at home. Obviously this is a very extreme example, but nothing would do more to destroy American imperialism than a socialist revolution in the United States. Far-fetched as that scenario might seem, the logic is unassailable. Of course the left is going to have a hard time doing that if so much time is spent on rallies in favor of various foreign countries, especially when they have no effect on American policies towards them.
I could go on and on about this topic but I have to get to the bad side of the article now. As is typically the case, the author cannot move beyond the Cold War paradigm, and that means that Putin is continually compared to Stalin, with one exception near the end. While the author does mention Russian imperialism and “tsarism,” this is continually mixed with references to Stalinism and Stalinism is blamed for Putin’s nationalist ideology.
I don’t know about the author’s credentials when it comes to Russia but I’m hoping he can be excused for his ignorance by the possibility that he has never spent any serious amount of time here. I’m saying that because I honestly don’t understand how many “imperial tricolors”(black yellow white), portraits of tsars, religious icons, anti-Soviet pronouncements from people like Patriarch Kirill, and open references to the Russian empire from Putin himself are necessary to wake people up to the fact that we are not dealing with a neo-Soviet Union but rather a neo-Russian imperialist worldview, and that is actually much worse. Putin himself noted in an interview that the Russian Empire was bigger than the USSR.
When we look at nationalism in Ukraine, we see a myth, often supported by the West, whereby the “real” Ukrainian state was founded in 1917 and then later occupied by the USSR. This idea that modern Soviet Socialist Republics were heirs to “real” national states founded after 1917 was and is quite popular. But what of the Russian Federation? What was its “legitimate” state, overthrown by the dastardly Bolsheviks? That would of course be the Russian Empire. And even Russians who publicly decry the smashing of Lenin statues in Ukraine will often express hatred of Lenin for breaking up “their” empire. And most important of all, throughout the entire Cold War and even afterwards the idea that the revolution and subsequent USSR was totally illegitimate has been supported by Western intellectuals and authors.
This is a problem because the Russian Empire was an autocratic, absolutist monarchy which was, contrary to the revisionist history popular in Russia today, most unhealthy for Russian people. But of course the neo-liberal establishment fears Communism more than anything, therefore Putin’s antics must be compared to those of Stalin and the imperial designs he supposedly has must involve restoring the USSR. Nothing could be further from the truth. The state appropriates the history and trappings of the USSR mainly because it has no accomplishments to speak of and therefore is compelled to bastardize those of a much greater society. There are too many people who were raised in the USSR to accept a full repudiation of it, but as older people and especially WWII veterans die off expect to see a political shift towards demonization of the USSR and perhaps even a rehabilitation of “Russian patriots” like the collaborator general Andrei Vlassov.
This is a problem also because say what you want about the USSR, at the very least it stood for ideas like equality, social justice, internationalism, etc. Remember that the Bolshevik revolution was in one way a massive uprising of armed workers standing up and refusing to fight a war against other workers in spite of nationality. In that sense it was a shining moment for the Russian people. That is something totally ignored and even derided in Russia today. Modern-day Russia promotes racism, xenophobia, and scapegoating. It’s economics are by no means neo-liberal, but the effect is basically the same. In fact Russia’s wealth inequality far eclipses that of nations which do espouse neo-liberal economics like the United States. So yeah, the USSR fell far short of its lofty, progressive goals, but can we really not think of a few other nations which set positive goals yet falls far short of them? While results are of course much more important than intentions, at least the Soviet Union was conceived in the hopes of building a better world. And to be fair, the reception it received from the get-go wasn’t exactly conducive to an open, democratic, society which could develop on its own path.
I’m afraid that the inability to get beyond the Cold War narrative will continue to dog any meaningful opposition movement in Russia. The Western intellectuals they imitate aren’t teaching them how important the question of social justice and economics are, and thus millions of Russian workers feel ignored by what is seen as a small coterie of Moscow-based elitists who just want more opportunities for themselves. Also this unhelpful narrative perpetuates that ever-so-annoying habit of boiling all of Russian politics down to one guy, in this case Putin. Whatever his past sins, Putin did make overtures to the West for many years and was constantly rebuffed or ignored. He may have actually felt isolated quite some time ago, and thus sought council from some delusional pseudo-intellectuals like those he apparently gets his information from today. The cold hard fact is that for the moment, Putin is the guy. If Russia is to transition to a freer, more democratic society, he’s the one man that can facilitate that change. That is why he needs to be offered a way out and there needs to be a real dialog between these sides.
Obviously journalists don’t make policy, but sometimes I can’t help but wonder if the conmen who currently hold Putin’s ear aren’t showing him translated articles like this and saying, “See? They’ll never leave you alone! You can’t negotiate with them.” Accuse me of Putin apologetics if you will, but I for the time being have to live here, and that means I’m subject to his policies. I don’t think the author, Mr. O’Hehir, can say the same.