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15 September, 2014

Poor Russia

After the USSR collapsed, Russia delved into amnesia, then into rehabilitation of the Soviet past which turned grotesque through guilty conscience and lack of culture

Unpredictable tactics is the Kremlin’s worst weapons. From day one of the Maidan, it has been unnerving Ukrainians and all those in the world who realized that Ukraine is the place where the future of Europe is being decided. Everyone is still going to sleep at night wondering what he will read in the news tomorrow. Ukrainian philosopher Kostiantyn Sihov claims rightly that Russia’s tyranny of spontaneity should be resisted, while further thoughts should focus on the revival of Ukraine and the Donbas in the long run (this appeal is addressed not only to Ukrainians, but their foreign friends as well). Yet, Russian unpredictability is not only tactical weapons in the “unconventional war” against its neighbour, but a proof of deep weakness undermining Russia since 1991.  

The biggest country in the world has no idea what it is and what it wants to be. Putin certainly has limited intellect and confuses the real world with an image created by reports of his secret services. Yet, he has constructed his own interpretation of Russia’s existential problem and encouraged his people to believe that he would solve it, turning into a blend of Russian nationalism (Slavophile and Stalinist at the same time) and Eurasian imperialism, lamenting of a victim (“we have a bad life and nobody likes us”) and imperialistic aggressiveness (“our missiles are a decade ahead of America’s”).

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This ideological cocktail is a mix of opposites: tsarism and Bolshevism, Russian Orthodoxy and Slavic-Aryan neo-paganism, moral conservatism and obscure preaching of Aleksandr Dugin known as the father of Eurasianism; and peculiar modern fascism. The only consistent activity in this ideology, as ever in the totalitarian past, is the construction of an image of the West and its “fifth column” as a mortal foe blamed for all bad things that happen to Russia. This looks like a parody of the USSR, but a USSR-2 is not comparable to the original with its power. It is an outcast on the global international arena (described as rogue state in English), obsessed with an ambition to become powerful – a ridiculous yet scary one, as reminded to us by the blood of Ukrainians spilled in this non-linear war since February. How has Russia get there?

The answer is both simple, and complex. The simple answer is that Russia is sick as a result of no self-analysis of Communism. The Soviet regime was criminal. In 1991, it faced a defeat from its Western rival not only politically, but morally too, ruined by dissidents or, in other words, a European ideal of civilization. Germany, on its part, revived after 1945, and turned into a normal country exactly because it conducted its portion of self-analysis (even if it was imposed by its bitter defeat in the war). The Nuremberg Trial was the most important aspect of it, followed by German trials over Nazi crimes. Germany worked on history and memory of its entire society non-stop. There may be some facts, monuments or aspects on school programs that it missed, but Germany has generally rescued itself. Russia, by contrast, delved into amnesia, then into rehabilitation of the Soviet past which turned grotesque through guilty conscience and lack of culture. Russia failed to conduct its trial over Communism. Lost in this amnesia and rejection of reality, this country will remain miserable and dangerous. This will not be Russia, but a zombie of the Soviet Union.

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In 1991, protesters tried to knock down the status of Felix Dzerzhinsky, the founder of Cheka whose bust now rests in Vladimir Putin’s office, the government asked them to not ruin the 11-ton sculpture because it could damage the surrounding objects if it fell down. The protesters waited patiently for the construction crane to lift the monument and put it in a Moscow park. Today, it is scheduled for restoration (worth over EUR 500mn) and could be installed at Lubianska Square again. Restoration is too weak of a word to describe the sinking of Russia in the Soviet past. Times of dissidents are back now; Russian culture, freedom and grandeur have found shelter in the noble souls of few persecuted writers and artists, as well as historians and guards of memory who continue their work despite obstacles and intimidation from the government. Not all have yet become lackeys like Valeriy Gergiev (Soviet and Russian conductor, born into an Ossetian family. In 2012, he was registered as Vladimir Putin’s trusted person in his presidential campaign – Ed.).

Why does Russia refuse to analyze its Soviet tragedy? To remain this way is not a choice in favour of homo sovieticus, nor is it fatality. It is fear. Fear of a country that does not know what it is and what it wants to be. Whatever the options of Russian identity (i.e. its limits, rights and mission), they are all wrong. Do the Russians want to be an ethnically uniform nation, or a multinational empire built as a prison of nations or as a temple of “friendship between nations” (the wording is different, the sense is identical)? Do they want to join the community of European nations, or do they prefer to create an alternative civilization, a response to the crisis of liberal democracy?

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Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, a chauvinist, a supporter of the Great Russia, and a genius writer, aptly described this anguish of mind in his last works where he promoted aggressive installment of the empire (including in Ukraine) and rejection of imperialistic ambitions that were always damaging to his country (adding “unnecessary external objects”), self-isolation to revive Russian culture by protecting it from the flow of international events and “building of a moral Russia” by turning its back both to the Soviet disaster and the Western decline, all at the same time. “To be or not to be – for our nation?”, will the word “Russian” still be in dictionaries a century from now? Like Thomas Mann in his pan-Germanic period, Solzhenitsyn has some prophecy in glorifying the “Union of East Slavic nations”: he sees in this the controversies of the Russian project, its ambivalence between a normal nation and a religious superpower (“the goal of the great empire and moral health of the nation are incompatible… we should strive not to expand, but to preserve our national spirit and the territories that are left for us”). Solzhenitsyn realized how dangerously naïve the phony slogans of Russian kindness and public sentiments, and was still affected by them. Ukraine is certainly the blindest spot in his prophesy. Solzhenitsyn was blinded so it is sometimes hard to read his works. But we should overcome anger and disappointment and read them over and over again. This will allow us to finally understand the Russian sickness, to find a way to break the spell that keeps Russia bound in its aggressive delusions today, and to return it to the community of nations. 

Putin’s strength is not only his arrogance and cynicism of a spy. It is also the result of his ability to be the voice of the existential and geopolitical sickness of his nation, and to encourage the Russians with his powerful nonsense to hope that they will find some kind of a way out. Yet, this sickness reveals weakness in the heart of Russian aggressiveness, the weak spots on which we, Europeans, have to start a dialogue with the Russians who actually want de-Sovietization. Unlike Ukrainians, these are not the whole nation, but a few individuals – who hold the future. Political and economic sanctions are necessary; they will prove their effectiveness if they are wide- and far-reaching enough. Yet, we have to keep in mind another tool: trial over Soviet Communism.


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