Bohdan Nahaylo: ‘History’ according to Putin and his scribes
Not so long ago, the ill-famed president of Ukraine, Viktor Yanukovych, sought to switch from being a bandit thug into a “politician,” but also a “professor,” for which, before he was kicked out in 2014, he was ridiculed.
Now another thug, a far more dangerous and determined one in Russia, Vladimir Putin, has claimed the mantle of a historian.
“He” has just published an article on his presidential site in Russian, English, and even Ukrainian, expressing “his” views on Ukraine and its history. More specifically on how he wants Ukrainians to think and act so as to return to Russia’s “fraternal” bosom.
It may be Russian imperialist garbage, but because it comes from Putin’s “ideologists” it is worth noting to see what the current prescriptive line that Moscow wants to impose is.
Certainly, it fits into a long tradition of Russian imperialist thinking and methodology.
Almost exactly 158 years ago, on July 18, 1863, the Interior Ministry of the Russian Empire Piotr Valuev, issued a circular banning the use of the Ukrainian language. It appeared at a time when, fired up by the irrepressible national Taras Shevchenko and his colleagues, the Ukrainian movement was spreading.
The circular stated that “a separate Little Russian language never existed, does not exist, and shall not exist, and their [Little Russians] tongue used by commoners is nothing but Russian corrupted by the influence of Poland”.
And what was the model the tsarist empire offered its subject peoples at that time and which Putin glosses over?
According to the great Russian democratic revolutionary Alexander Herzen writing in those years: “The Russian system of justice and police is so haphazard, so inhuman, so arbitrary and corrupt, that a poor malefactor has more reason to fear his trial than his sentence. He is impatient for the time when he will be sent to Siberia; for his martyrdom comes to an end when his punishment begins.”
Last time something like the Valuev circular occurred was in 1954 when, on the Tercentenary of the Treaty of Pereiaslav, the Central Committee of the Soviet Communist party issued “theses” defining how Ukraine’s history was to be approached. It was presented as an age-old longing for a “reunion” with the Russian elder brother.
To sweeten the pill, Soviet Ukraine was handed administrative control over Crimea and left to grapple with the very real problems on the peninsulavat the time.
Today, Russia, shorn of its communist masquerade as an internationalist rather than a purely expansionist chauvinist entity, as under the tsars, remains a threat to its neighbors, Europe, and the democratic world generally.
And Putin and his Russian great-power chauvinist (as Vladimir Lenin would have dubbed them) opinion-makers are at it again.
They are reminding Ukrainians that the only place fit for them is as in effect “Little Russians,” that is would-be Russians whom foreign influence has confused, perverted, and alienated from their true home in the “Russian world”.
In other words, moving on from the Valuev Circular, and disregarding everything that came before it and has followed, “Putin” is again denying the existence of the Ukrainians as a distinctly separate nation, with its own history and right to self-determination, read statehood.
At least he seems to have acknowledged Ukrainian is different from Russian.
Putin, it should be recalled, has been identified as a great fan of the military leader of the anti-Bolshevik Russian White movement, General Anton Denikin. A staunch enemy of the Ukrainian national movement, and an anti-Semite, he was one of the leading proponents of the imperialist slogan – “Russia, one and indivisible.”.
As the Kyiv Post reported in 2009 ( https://www.kyivpost.com/article/content/ukraine-politics/putin-you-certainly-should-read-anton-denikins-dia-42032.html), when Putin visited Denikin’s grave in May of that year at the Donsky Monastery in Russia, he urged journalists to read Denikin’s diary, specifically the part which refers to Ukraine.
“You certainly should read” Anton Denikin’s diary, specifically the part about “Great and Little Russia, Ukraine. He says nobody should be allowed to interfere between us. This is only Russia’s right.”
According to the head of the monastery, Putin had recently changed his personal view of “Denikin’s place in history,” apparently because of Denikin’s position on Ukraine. “One of the main ideas in Denikin’s works and political activity was not to allow the divorce of Russia and its Little Russian lands – Ukraine,” he explained.
“It is a crime if someone starts to talk about the division of Russia and Ukraine,” Putin said citing Denikin’s memoirs.
OK, Ukrainians have gotten used to this predatory intolerance from their eastern neighbor, and unlike in 1918 when the first modern attempt to establish an independent Ukraine was made but was not strong enough to succeed, today’s Ukraine has proudly affirmed its independence for 30 years.
For more than seven years, Ukraine has also managed to hold back on the battlefield the military might of a resurgent imperialist Russia, even at the cost of temporarily losing control of Crimea and part of eastern Ukraine.
For there is another crucial element that Putin and his imperialist gurus seem to miss entirely, and which exposes how obsolete their thinking is.
We are not living in the 19th century. Today’s democratic European Ukraine has since the defining programmatic contribution of its initial champions, the Rukh democratic coalition which emerged in the late 1980s, been built around the idea of a Ukrainian political nation, not ethnocentrism.
Russia, therefore, represents a different, hostile, civilizational model of an autocratic self-extolling system resting on its totalitarian foundations. Its selective rewriting and interpretation of history as dictated from the top is but one of the hallmarks.
That’s why ethnic Russians, Jews, Poles, and others who support what modern post-Soviet Ukraine represents, be they Ukrainian or Russia-speakers, are patriots and defend Ukraine’s independence, and support those who genuinely want the freedom to reach Russia and Belarus as well.
And that’s why, so many Russian speakers, ethnic Russian, and members of Ukraine’s national minorities were present at the Maidan and since then have been on the eastern front defending Ukraine against Russian aggression.
For Ukrainians, in this contemporary, inclusive, sense as loyal citizens, are simultaneously opposing Russian military aggression, and at the same time defending their civilizational choice – to be with the free world, not the autocratic Eurasian one.
The problem perpetuated by Putin’s chauvinist stance is course, deeper than any possible impact on Ukraine and Ukrainians, which will be largely negligible. It also says nothing new to his domestic audience steeped in this cheap Russian egocentrism, bullying and bravado – read political complacency, corruption and implicit warmongering.
It’s the impact that such traditional Russian narratives, built on disinformation, continue to have on the ignorant, naïve or Russophiles in the Western World, that is more disconcerting.
On those ever ready to swallow the Russo-centric presentation of Russia’s history, culture and today’s realities, and to appease or walk away leaving Ukraine, Belarus, Moldova and Georgia to deal with a nineteenth-century holdover of an imperialist predator masking itself as a misunderstood, and victimized military colossus. One which, in any case, we should do business with.
Let’s recall what that great Russian democrat Andrei Sakharov warned us about in 1973, in terms that are applicable to today’s situation with Putin’s Russia.
Speaking in 1973, Sakharov rejected “rapprochement without democratization, rapprochement in which the West in effect accepts the Soviet Union rules of the game.” To avoid the issue of repression, he said, “would mean simply capitulating in the face of real or exaggerated Soviet power.” It would “contaminate the whole world with the antidemocratic peculiarities of Soviet society …”
Soviet then and tsarist before it, Putin’s Russia today wants us to forget real history (just look at its revisionist treatment of Stalin, World War II, etc.) and accept the version that its current ideological custodians offer as a substitute for the truth. It’s up to all of us to ensure that this crude tactic inherited from the tsars, and refined in the Soviet era, is seen for what it is and returned to the sender with a boomerang effect.