The conduct of Russian president Vladimir Putin has been generating international opprobrium for many months, ever since his forcible annexation of Crimea and egregious attempts to destabilize eastern Ukraine.
As I pointed out in Blundering in Ukraine: Putin’s strategic debacle, even viewed from the Kremlin’s own perspective:
“Putin’s short-term tactical successes … are virtually irrelevant in light of short- and long-term strategic blunders that have not only undone much of what Putin hoped to achieve with his Ukrainian gambit, but have actually significantly eroded Putin’s political support and harmed Russia’s position. Indeed, that the whole venture appears to be a top-to-bottom [disaster].
“The results of Putin’s “Ukrainian campaign” have ranged from calamitous to disastrous. Almost every salient aspect of the Putin doctrine has been substantially undermined by what can already be seen as a Ukrainian debacle.”
Not apparently, that this has changed Putin’s determination to forge ahead with this tragic approach that is shredding Russia’s credibility and reputation throughout the world.
Russian extremists: From über-fascists to neo-Stalinists
One might assume that Putin’s folly is a shared characteristic of Russians who are consumed with an imperialistic thirst to swallow their neighbours and return to a Czarist-era authoritarian, totalitarian, imperialistic, and monotheistic Orthodox state — and indeed there are some who aspire to precisely that. In Ukrainian aspirations: Material, moral, and spiritual dignity I highlighted extreme ultra-fascists such as Alexander Dugin with his National Bolshevik Front, and neo-Stalinists like Sergei Kurginian and his paramilitary Kurginian Army. There are no shortage of others. There is even the profoundly shocking Russian Orthodox Fascist movement. The documentary, Orthodox Fascism in Russia by Mikhail Baranov is in Russian with no subtitles, but even for those who do not speak the language, the message is crystal clear. “Orthodoxy or Death” is one of their slogans.
Russians march for peace
However, there are many Russians who do not share these convictions or this vision. In Faces of war and peace on Moscow streets, my collaborative article with Russian photojournalist, Ilya Varlamov, we profiled some of these with striking images taken by Varlamov at a massive “March for Peace” in Moscow in which more than 50,000 people participated. These were Muscovites, who in an atmosphere of increasing tension and intimidation, took to the streets to demonstrate solidarity with their Ukrainian friends, relatives, and neighbours. “No to Intervention! Yes to Revolution!”, “The Occupation of Crimea is a Disgrace for Russia!”, and “Freedom to the People! Death to Imperialism!” were some of the banners they marched under.
Russian intellectuals: Defying the propaganda on Ukraine
During the height of the annexation of Crimea, an Anti-war Congress of Russian writers, thinkers, artists, politicians, historians, political scientists, and human rights activists was convened in Moscow. The Congress issued an appeal that said [translations by C.G. Majka]:
“Our country has been plunged into a dangerous adventure. Under the slogan “Protect Russians in Crimea, as well as Ukrainians from the illegitimate fascist Government in Ukraine!” the de facto annexation of the Crimea has already come about. This is a gross violation of international law, and a destruction of the principles of European security and stability. Russia is rapidly sliding to a new Cold War with the West, the terrible consequences of which cannot be predicted.”
The statement issued by the Congress [moderated by Irina Prohorova, a writer, literary critic, and co-founder of the philanthropic Mikhail Prohorov Foundation] noted that all state-owned media in Russia, “are creating a turbulent stream of lies and misinformation, and a deafening propaganda campaign against anyone who tries to question the legality of the actions of the authorities.” They point out the devastating consequences of this for the country and for the people saying
“All dissenting beliefs are indiscriminately called “fifth columnist and fascist.” And there are many who do not agree. Just read the uncensored reports through SMI [a website networking service] or numerous evaluations on social networks, to see what political scientists, economists, foreign policy experts, and simply ordinary people with a social conscience are saying. They are warning that disaster is looming for Russia — economically, politically, and from a humanitarian perspective.”
Those who signed the statement included many leading Russian intellectuals including human rights activists Lyudmila Alekseeva, Svetlana Gannushkina and Sergei Kovalev, writers Boris Akunin, Andrey Bitov, Vladimir Voynovich and Viktor Yerofeyev, actors Liya Ahedzhakova, Mikhail Efremov, Lev Prygunov and Aleksandr Filippenko, singer and rock musician Andrei Makarevich, directors Pavel Bardin and Eldar Ryazanov, mathematician Viktor Vasilyev and more than 90 others.
Do not cave-in. Do not yield to lies
At the same time the Russian Center of PEN issued a declaration signed by 850 leading Russian writers, journalists, philologists, publishers, directors, jurists, doctors, poets, teachers, musicians, engineers, pastors, translators, psychologists, geographers, painters, photographers, mathematicians, curators, bankers, critics, economists, sociologists, aviation engineers, ecologists, archeologists, physicists, biologists, teachers … the list goes on and on and on … entitled Do not cave-in. Do not yield to lies. I’ve taken the liberty of translating the manifesto.
The anti-war statement of the Russian intelligentsia
Not for the first time in the history of the Russian people, those who don’t agree with an aggressive imperial policy, are labeled defeatists and enemies of the people. Not for the first time is loyalty valued above civic responsibility. Events in Crimea are rapidly evolving and are fraught with the serious possibility of bloodshed, shame for Russia, and misery for the people of the two countries. Hopes to stop this by reason are diminishing. But it is shameful to stay silent and passively stand by. We are not calling ourselves “leaders” in culture or science, but simply Russian intellectuals, each working in their respective fields, and we declare:
• We are against the invasion of the territory of another state;
• We are against the war with Ukraine and enmity with the world community;
• We stand in solidarity with all those who do not bow down to lies.
Losing Crimea or losing your soul?
In understanding Russia what’s vitally important to bear in mind is, as the placard carried by the young woman marching in Moscow says, “We are Russia – Not Putin.”
The ever-perceptive Doug Saunders in his excellent article Putin’s war of ideas cuts to the heart of Europe in the Globe and Mail writes:
“Mr. Putin’s assault on the idea of Europe is three-pronged. First, as he told his country’s parliament in a March speech justifying the takeover of Crimea, he is waging this war in the name of ethnic nationalism — he is doing so, he said, in order to “defend the interests” of “millions of [ethnic] Russians and Russian-speaking people.”
“Second, Mr. Putin is doing this in the name of something very similar to imperialism, albeit without the means or ability to really carry it out: An expressed desire to control any territories where Russian is spoken and secession can be engineered (including not just Crimea and eastern Ukraine but also the periphery of Georgia). And third, as a leader who has effectively ended democracy in his own country, he is attacking Ukraine in opposition to the democratic desires expressed freely and fairly by its people.
“In other words, Mr. Putin is challenging the three core ideas of the postwar peace. The Brussels-based institutions of modern Europe were built in order to prevent authoritarianism, imperialism and ethnic nationalism from ever again taking root in the continent and leading it to war. It has worked well.”
The “new war” unleashed by Vladimir Putin is not about ethnicity, nor language, nor even territory. It is a war on the very concept of contemporary liberal democracy. A war on the idea of a modern democratic state. A war on pluralism, tolerance, secularism, the rule of law, and of negotiated solutions to disputes. A war on freedom of expression, freedom of the press, democratic institutions, meaningful elections, and an independent judiciary.
This is what the conspiracy theorists Putin-apologists and useful idiots utterly fail to grasp. All the silly pretexts, the purported defense of “Russian-speakers”, the longing and destiny of Crimea to return to the fold of “Mother Russia,” the Ukrainian “fascist” government; the behind-the-scenes CIA manipulation of the Euromaidan movement, the absurd “false flag” operation theories (Nudge, nudge – hint, hint: It was really the Ukrainian army who shot down the Malaysia Airlines plane masquerading as Russian insurgents. Clever, eh what?), the claims that MH-17 was lured to site or was already filled with dead bodies (In order to then blame the Russian-backed insurgents for killing the passengers. Fiendishly clever!) — all the increasingly absurd and flimsy propaganda and disinformation — all these are completely beside the point.
They are, as Saunders points out, part of Vladimir Putin’s, “attempt to manufacture a civilizational showdown.” Threatened by democracy, pluralism, tolerance, and modernism, it is an attempt to substitute an autocratic, authoritarian, totalitarian, and imperialistic vision instead. However, as Saunders points out, “Russia is not acting out of projected strength, as it did in Soviet times, but out of internal political and economic weakness of a profound degree.”
It’s a great credit that a wide swath of educated Russians recognize this for exactly what it is — an attempt to return to an “aggressive imperial policy” with dissidents labeled as “fifth columnists, defeatists, and fascists.”
Lead by courageous visionaries such as Andrei Sakharov, Russian dissidents struggled for decades to rid the country of such reactionary attitudes and governments. When Mikhail Gorbachev’s policies of perestroika and glasnost finally took root, it seemed like a new page in Russian history was being turned. Vladimir Putin is attempting to lead Russia back to a future combining some of the worst elements of Czarism and Bolshevism.
How is it that Putin’s forcible annexation of Crimea (purportedly to defend the rights of Russian speakers) differs from Hitler’s annexation of the Sudetenland (purportedly to defend the rights of German speakers)? How are Putin’s imperial designs over Ukraine different from Stalin’s imperial designs over all of Eastern Europe? As a society we need to be able to recognize authoritarianism, imperialism, and neo-fascism when they “whack us upside the head.” Like the many courageous Russian citizens who write, speak, and march (at far greater risk than us) we must not stay silent and stand passively by.
Russia has as much at stake in this conflict as does Ukraine — perhaps more. Ukraine may have lost Crimea, but Russia is in danger of losing its soul.
This is Part VII of a series on the political situation of Ukraine. Part VI is Ukrainian aspirations: Material, moral, and spiritual dignity. Part VIII is Dunces on the Don: A Russian farce.
Christopher Majka is an ecologist, environmentalist, policy analyst, and writer. He has a Russian Studies degree from Dalhousie University and the Pushkin Institute in Moscow. He is the director of Natural History Resources and Democracy: Vox Populi.