Alexei Bayer: The fake Slavic brotherhood
Late last year, Vladimir Putin made a controversial foray into history accusing Poland of being partly responsible for starting World War II. This was especially amusing because most of the world’s historians agree that the war started when Hitler, and then Stalin, invaded and partitioned Poland as per the secret protocols of the Molotov-Ribbentrop non-aggression pact.
Immediately after Putin’s blatant revision of history, Russia’s official propaganda machine and political establishment began bashing Poland. In the runup to the overblown celebration of the 75th anniversary of victory over Nazi Germany, Poland looks likely to replace Ukraine, which for six years has been the constant theme of the Vladimir Solovyev-Dmitry Kiselev cloaca massima of Russian television “journalism.”
There are many similarities between the two targets of Russia’s wrath. The Soviet Union invaded Poland while Russia invaded Ukraine. Stalin annexed easten Poland while Putin annexed Crimea. Both invasions have been declared purely defensive moves by peace-loving Moscow.
But there is an even deeper connection here. It is the uneasy relationship between Russia and other Slavic nations going back some 200 years.
In the 19th century there were two main schools of thought in Russia on the identity of the country, Westernizers and Slavophiles. Both schools were nationalists, seeing Russia as a great power, but the former envisioned it as part of the European civilization while the latter believed it to be separate and unique.
Thus, Westernizers wanted Russia to learn from more advanced nations in the West, notably Germany, whereas Slavophiles — who in the second half of the 19th century turned toward Pan-Slavism — readied for Russia a leading role in a new Slavic civilization — younger, healthier and more robust that the declining West.
Pan-Slavism played a key role in the 1877-78 war against the Ottomans, which resulted in the creation of the Bulgarian state and in full independence for Serbia and Montenegro. The war also brought Russia into conflict with Austria-Hungary and Germany, the countries that were instrumental in preventing it from occupying and claiming Constantinople. Pan-Slavism also triggered World War I, which began when a Serbian nationalist assassinated the heir to the Austrian throne in Austrian-occupied Bosnia Herzegovina, and Russia came to Serbia’s assistance.
The Bolshevik Revolution was a weird synthesis of two visions of Russia. Marxism was a Western ideology which moreover assigned Russia a back seat in the inevitable historical march toward communism because capitalism was poorly developed in the Russian empire and the proletariat was still in infancy. The Bolsheviks promptly got rid of many vestiges of Russia’s originality — such as an antiquated Julian calendar which kept Russia almost two weeks behind most of the rest of the world. They proclaimed equality for women and nationalities, separation of church and state and a host of other modern Western notions, at least on paper.
At the same time, the new government moved its capital out of westward-looking St. Petersburg and into Moscow, the country’s traditional and deeply pious national heart. More to the point, in the old Slavophile tradition, the Bolshevik revolution catapulted Russia to the vanguard of human history, making it a pioneer of the communist future. Not surprisingly, the Pan-Slavic notes gradually began to re-emerge, getting a huge boost during World War II. After the war, as all of the world’s Slavs ended up in the Moscow orbit, both Russian nationalism and Pan-Slavism — in the form of the Big Russian Brother taking care of smaller siblings — reasserted themselves in earnest.
The problem is that whatever Russia thought about other Slavic nations, other Slavic nations were rarely interested in being dominated by Russia. Poland is the most salient example of this. Being the two most populous Slavic states, one Orthodox and the other Catholic, Russians and Poles were always at loggerheads. Poland was partly incorporated into the Russian Empire after its partition in the final decade of the 18th century, and throughout the 19th century, Poles remained restive, openly rebelling on a number of occasions.
The Bulgarians, far from being grateful after their liberation from the Turks, fought on the side of Russia’s enemies in both World Wars. Serbia, while calling upon Russian protection when it suited Belgrade, nonetheless never wanted to have much to do with its Eastern Orthodox brothers. In fact, after World War II, Josip Broz Tito’s Yugoslavia became the first socialist state to challenge Russia’s preeminence in the communist movement. Today, the Serbs are spurning ties with Russia in favor of EU membership
Czechs and Slovaks may be the most interesting case of how some Slavs actually wanted to have a closer relationship with Russia but eventually turned against it. The first Pan-Slavist Congress was held in Prague in 1848 and it had a distinct anti-Russian flavor — mainly because Russia was helping to crush the revolutionary nationalist fervor in Europe. The congress’ organizers wanted to strengthen the Austrian Empire which they saw as the strongest defenders of Central European Slavs. That was especially true in the case of Hungary, which at the time was fighting for its own independence — so that it could oppress its Slavic subjects.
As their national consciousness grew, the Slavs in the region started to turn toward Russia. During World War I a Czechoslovak Legion comprised mostly of Slavic prisoners of war, fought on the Russian side against Austria-Hungary. The Slav Epic, a monumental Pan-Slavic painting cycle by Czech artist Alphonse Mucha, was created during the first decades of the 20th century.
However, the Czech and Slovak love of the Big Brother dissipated quickly after they came under Soviet domination at the end of World War II and certainly after the Warsaw Pact tanks crushed the Prague Spring in 1968.
The problem with Russia is that its embrace of common Slavic heritage is inseparable from its expansionist empire and efforts at cultural domination. Other Slavs who came under Russian rule were not only subjected to Russification, with the forced introduction of the Russian language and culture, but also to denial of the very existence of separate nations, languages and culture. Ukraine, in particular, has been repeatedly humiliated throughout its recent history. It was termed Malorossiya, or Little Russia and deprived of a separate identity, Russia still claims Kyiv as “the mother of Russian cities” and there is the famous canard about Ukrainian being a southern dialect of Russian, which was artificially transformed into a kind of language in the late 18th century.
Stalin’s collectivization and the Holodomor were genocidal policies directed at Ukrainians. In Eastern and Central Ukraine local population was decimated and in some cases replaced by Russian settlers. Ukrainian intelligentsia was killed off in several rounds of purges.
In the 1990s, Westernizers’ view seemed to have gained an upper hand in Russia, once the hybrid Soviet version of Russian nationalism wedded to Western Marxism went bankrupt. Early in his rule, even Putin talked about adopting the Western democratic model for Russia. However, he and the ex-Soviet political and economic elites promptly realized that Western openness and democracy will keep them from plundering Russian resources and enriching themselves. At first gradually but then with increasing enthusiasm, they abandoned the democratic process, reverting to their own historic path.
However, other Slavic nations have no interest in joining Russia. They want to become part of the West. Even though for many of them it is still a difficult process, they do not see a way back. Ukraine, too, has chosen this path and it may be followed by Belarus once it gets rid of its current leadership. Even its current leader has just spurned Putin’s offer for a closer union.
To be sure, Russia still hopes to be a big fish, but its pond is getting smaller. It is now the leader of a handful of despotats in Central Asia, linked to it by the enduring Soviet legacy. But even there its influence has been greatly eroded by China’s economic and political advances.