In Putin’s world, everything goes back to Stalin. Stalin was the one who made the West “respect”, that is, fear, Russia after the chaos of the Russian Revolution. Stalin was the one who won World War II.
Unfortunately, Stalin was certifiably paranoid. Although he was not Russian himself (he was a Georgian raised in Armenia, then part of the Russian Empire), he absorbed historical Russian xenophobia – in spades.
Putin has yearned for a return to the state of affairs under Stalin ever since he took office, lamenting the breakup of the Soviet Union as the greatest tragedy of the twentieth century.
Yearning for a lost empire can affect a person’s version of history. So the Crimea, taken over by Russia upon her victory in the Crimean War (think Florence Nightingale) in 1783, was “always” Russian – never mind those pesky Crimean Tatars who lived there for many centuries prior to the war. Georgia, Azerbaijan, much of the Caucasus, were conquered by Russia in the early nineteenth century…And soon became “historically Russian.”
Ukraine, Poland, the Baltic States all have the misfortune of being located between two aggressive, expansionist countries, Germany and Russia. The borders of these and other Eastern European countries have moved constantly over centuries, with Ukraine and Poland closer culturally to Russia and the Baltic States to Germany. Not to mention Prussia, birthplace of Immanuel Kant and E.T.A. Hoffman, who gave the world The Nutcracker and Tales of Hoffman, now just a faint memory – the USSR annexed that Germanic country after World War II and renamed it “Kaliningrad.”
But to get back to Stalin. He was on a roll throughout the 1930s, executing his own citizens left and right, with a cabinet full of enablers inventing enemies to be punished – including all the military top brass. Stalin famously pursued friendship and partnership with his kindred spirit Hitler, and when Hitler invaded the USSR in 1941, Stalin had made no preparations other than executing any informant who tried to warn him of the coming invasion. The greatest pitfall of absolute power is surrounding yourself with yes men.
Starting to see a parallel here?
Ukraine and Bielorus took the first hit during World War II, being the closest to Germany. The Red Army, under-equipped and outnumbered, retreated rapidly in order to regroup and protect Russian territory, abandoning the local populations to Nazi occupation
For about two years there was no sign of Red Army resistance to Nazi occupation in Ukraine and Bielorus. Local populations quickly realized that the Germans were not there to liberate them from Stalin’s repressive regime, but to impose a Nazi repressive regime. Some guerrilla fighters in these countries made the occupiers’ lives miserable but made little headway.
The legacy is both distorted and unfortunate. Scratch any Russian and you will find that he believes that the Ukrainians are Nazi collaborators. Ukrainian nationalists initially, like Stalin but for the opposite reason, thought the Nazis might be their allies – not in dividing Europe between Germany and the USSR, but in giving them independence. They were quickly disabused of these illusions and many were arrested by the Gestapo, leaving them little opportunity for collaboration. But Russia never forgot, as President Vladimir Putin reminded us this week in his speech declaring war on Ukraine.
“What I think is important to emphasise further is that the leading NATO countries, in order to achieve their own goals, support extreme nationalists and Neo-Nazis in Ukraine, who, in turn, will never forgive the Crimeans and Sevastopol residents for choosing reunification with Russia.
“They, of course, will crawl into the Crimea, just like in the Donbas, in order to kill, just as the gangs of Ukrainian nationalists, Hitler’s accomplices, killed defenceless people during the Great Patriotic War."
Grudges left over from the Great Patriotic War are the least of it. Scratch again and our Russian will express disdain for Ukrainian culture, national character, as in – they have made no contribution to world culture, and they are selfish, anti-Semitic, treacherous peasants. But they’re our peasants. We may despise them but will not let them go. How dare they want to live separately from us??
Russians love tit-for-tat reckonings. The US expels a Russian diplomat, the Russians expel a U.S, diplomat. The U.S. decries the taking of political prisoners, the Russians howl about lynchings.
Ukrainians can say, we gave Russia Gogol, bread, and coal – Russia gave us a famine in the 1930s that killed millions of our people and the gulags. Usually empires are expected to defend their subordinates in exchange for the use of their resources. In 1941 things didn’t work out that way.
As for the idea that Ukraine has no right to be a separate country, an odd idea in itself: Russia had its start in Ukrainian territory. In the ninth century the Russian capital was Kyiv. In the thirteenth century the Mongol invasion pushed the center of power to Moscow, so Ukrainians can consider that Moscow is their offspring, which they let go back then.
Does history matter? It certainly does to Putin, who is willing to bankrupt Russia's citizens to go down in history as the man who restored glory to Russia. And Putin, as has been widely noted, is just as eager to rewrite history. It is in the writing of a false narrative that autocrats find their real power.
Mikola Krivonog is the nom de plume of a Ukrainian restaurant manager based in St. Petersburg, Russia. This essay has been translated.