Thursday, 14 April 2022

Russia & Ukraine: the smartened-up story - Chapter I

 Introduction

‘Two Jews – three opinions!’  Jews are often described as opinionated and argumentative.  Our ‘classic’ celebrities – from Abraham to Baal Shem Tov, to Tevie The Milkman – are known to have argued even with The Almighty Himself.  Does the Torah not call us the People of Israel – meaning the people that ‘struggles [even] with God’?  And what is the Talmud – if not a bunch of rabbis arguing with each other and with themselves?  Few things are more Jewish than questioning the ‘obvious’, challenging ‘received wisdom’ and killing sacred cows.

I guess that’s why I feel a bit uneasy these days.  As I write this, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is already well into its second month.  And, no matter what mainstream news outlet you choose to follow – be it European or American – you hear the exact same story: Putin is the Devil Incarnate; the Ukrainians are martyrs and their government nothing short of heroic; they are not just fighting the Russians, but also winning.  As for the West, our oh-so-civilised leaders are all perched on the peak of Moral High Ground, from whence they attempt to selflessly help Ukraine without starting World War III.  To find a different story, one would have to listen to fringe, discredited far-left or far-right conspiracy theorists, or else venture into the realm of controversial, attention-seeking academics.

I abhor both the above categories.  And, as someone who grew up in the long shadow of the Soviet Union, I harbour deep rancour towards anyone who’s ever been a KGB officer – let alone any who wish to once again ride roughshod over their people and over their neighbours.  No, invading Ukraine did not make Putin a criminal – he’s been one all along.  And yes, Russia’s aggression against Ukraine is inexcusable – full stop.

But something else I abhor is groupthink.  And, while I love sand under my bare feet, I hate it when it’s thrown in my eyes.

Because there is a different story – a more complex story – to be told; not to justify Putin (he is, as mentioned, well beyond that), but to point out that nobody comes out of this smelling of roses.  Certainly not our sanctimonious, holier-than-thou leaders.

In this series of articles, I will attempt to do just that: expose the dumbed-down version of reality that is being fed to us; and propose a smartened-up account, complete with nuance and complexity.

Fair disclosure

Historically speaking, Jews have few reasons to feel warmth towards either Russia or Ukraine.  Russian tsars and Ukrainian Cossacks figure prominently even in our oh-so crowded Hall of Infamy.  Pogroms were not just instigated by the leaders, but also enthusiastically pursued by ordinary Russians and Ukrainians – including in the 20th century.  Many Ukrainians collaborated with the Nazis, including in the persecution and murder of Jews.

By the way, the Babi Yar memorial should not be turned into a political football.  It’s good to hear politicians condemning the Russians for bombing in the proximity of the Babi Yar memorial; but their outrage would look a lot more genuine, had they also protested when that same memorial was subjected to Ukrainian vandalism (at least 6 times in 2015 alone!) And, much as I resent the Russian bombs in March 2022, I can’t forget that, in September 1941, it was Ukrainian cudgels that ushered Jews on their way to the Nazi massacre.

And what about the relentless harassment and forced assimilation of Jews in the Soviet Union (which encompassed both Russia and Ukraine)?  That was but a different type of genocide.

No, it’s not just ‘ancient history’.  Modern-day Ukrainian coins and banknotes proudly display the effigy of Bohdan Khmelnytsky, whose hordes perpetrated untold atrocities against the local Jews.  Stepan Bandera (a virulent antisemite and Nazi collaborator) is nowadays celebrated as ‘national hero’ in Ukraine…

The statue of Bohdan Khmelnytsky adorns the centre of Kyiv.
His Cossacks murdered, pillaged and raped a valley of tears through Ukrainian Jewry.

So, I confess: I do not regard either Russia or Ukraine with particular sympathy.  While in the current military conflict Russia is clearly the aggressor and Ukraine the victim – in general neither side is populated by angels…

Frankenstein

Subduing the enemy may end a war; but to bring peace, enmity itself must be vanquished.

World War I victors imposed on Germany terms amounting not just to national humiliation, but also to economic pauperisation.  This short-sighted policy catalysed the Nazi phenomenon.

The Allies did not repeat the same mistake after World War II.  Quite the opposite: the ruined Germany (or more precisely, its Western part) became a major beneficiary of the Marshall Plan, which helped transform it into today’s paragon of economic prosperity and (not unrelatedly) of liberal democracy.  But, of course, it was neither wisdom nor generosity-in-triumph that drove that strategy.  The goal was not to bring peace, but to rebuild Germany as an asset for war – the ensuing Cold War.

A war that the West won – hands down.  The Soviet Union didn't just lose control over the ‘Socialist’ bloc; the Empire of Evil itself broke down into its component ‘republics,’ releasing them to become independent states.  What’s more, all those new nation states immediately shed any ‘socialist’ illusions and sought to embrace capitalism with gusto.  So far, so peachy…  But the transition from pauper Marxism to market economy was never going to be an easy one.  And, rather than instituting a new version of the Marshall Plan aimed at helping their fellow human beings in their hour of need, the (by then much richer, but just as selfish and dumb) West abandoned them to their own devices.  Which ‘devices’ happened to be abject poverty, misery and humiliation.  Generals became taxi drivers; scholars sought to make a living as janitors.  People struggled to achieve that basic dignity of a roof over their head and a loaf of bread on their table.  Russia in the 1990s resembled Germany in the 1920s.

Putin is an awful man – but Hitler he ain’t.  Still, his rise to power was based on some of the same economic and psychological phenomena.  Make no mistake: we stupidly, mindlessly, obliviously midwifed this monster.

Ancient history…

Putin’s claims that there is no Ukraine both sound and are ridiculous.  But it’s important to understand his thinking, based as it is on a twisted historical perspective.  The key to that is his other claim, that [Ukraine’s capital city] Kiev is the mother of Russian cities”.  Historically speaking, there is a kernel of truth in the latter claim: what may be considered a predecessor of the Russian state did start in Kyiv, or in the city that Russians call Kiev.  Even the ethnonym Rus (which gave its name to the modern country) appears to have been born there.

The Kievan Rus, c. 11th century

But what Putin seems to forget is the ‘small detail’ of a whole millennium that passed since then.  If that gives Russia a claim on Ukraine as ‘part of Russia’ – then it is high time for Greece to reclaim most of the territory of modern-day Turkey.  After all, Istanbul (then called Constantinople) was the capital of a Greek-speaking empire, before its conquest by Turks in mid-15th century!

And no, don’t be tempted by facile (but false!) analogies with Jews reclaiming Jerusalem and Eretz Israel: Russians really have no need to ‘return’ to Kiev; far from being stateless and perpetual refugees, they have a state of their own: it happens to be the largest country on earth!  And, unlike Palestine in the 19th and early 20th century, Ukraine is actually a state – recognised as such by all other countries (including Russia, at least initially!) – and home to a people with a well-developed sense of national identity.  Putin’s goal is not the reconstitution of old Kievan Rus; it is Russia’s aggrandizement at the expense of another legitimate nation state.  This is imperialism par excellence – the very opposite of national emancipation.

Ukraine is a state and Ukrainians are a separate nation (with their own national culture, language, etc.).  As such, they are endowed with the natural right to national self-determination.  They have every right to choose (as they did) to exercise that right by establishing, maintaining and developing their own nation state – rather than becoming part of a revived Russian empire or of a pan-Slavic supra-national entity.

… and modern boundaries

But, while the right to self-determination in a separate nation state should nowadays be set in stone, it does not follow that the borders of that state should also be.  One of the things that leads to wars (or to longer and bloodier wars) is the newly found Western insistence that borders are sacrosanct.  That may be true of (some, but not all!) European borders: those that developed 'naturally' through centuries.  But, throughout Africa, Asia and the Middle East, state borders are often artificial contraptions drawn by Europeans on colonial maps.  These may be ‘international’ borders – but inter-national they aren't: empires tend to ignore demography in favour of geography.

The borders of modern-day Ukraine (as recognised by us in the West) are those of the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic – as they were in 1991, when the Soviet Union disintegrated.  But those borders (initially and arbitrarily drawn by the Bolsheviks in 1922) had moved repeatedly.  Both before and after World War II, territories gained by the Soviet Union from Romania, Hungary and Poland were incorporated into the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic – simply because it was convenient to do so.  Crimea (annexed in 1783 by the Russian Empire) was transferred by decree from Russia to Ukraine in 1954 – despite the fact that only about 1 in 5 inhabitants was Ukrainian.

'Immutable' boundaries

Needless to say, the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic was not an independent state.  Nominally an autonomous entity within a federal country, it was in fact nothing more than a province, part and parcel of a hyper-centralised state run from Moscow.  The Soviet leaders paid very little attention to its borders – because in practice they meant little.

Soviet policies (based as they were on the Communist principles of proletariat supremacy), resulted among other things in the forced industrialisation of Ukraine – traditionally a largely agrarian territory.  This was especially true – and for obvious reasons – of the ‘Donbas’ region (Donbas being an abbreviation of ‘Donets River Coal Basin’).  The rapid industrialisation and bespoke government policies attracted large numbers of Russian miners and other workers, who settled in the area (and who, if they happened to do the same in a different part of the world, would have been dubbed “illegal settlers”).

On the other hand, brutal Soviet policies caused an enormous, murderous famine, which killed circa 4 million people (primarily Ukrainian peasants) between 1932 and 1933.

Moscow continued to encourage Russian settlement and acculturation in Ukraine (as they did in all other Soviet ‘republics’) until the rise to power of Gorbachev in 1985.

All these historical developments are relevant to our discussion insofar as they changed the demographic makeup of the population, causing a considerable increase in the proportion of ethnic Russians (while the previous annexations of territory brought in Romanian, Hungarian, Polish and Tatar minorities).

Some may find it tempting to conclude that – since this was done without the consent of the Ukrainian people (and arguably against its national interests) – the trend should now be reversed.  But two wrongs don’t make a right: one does not make up for historic wrongs by visiting injustice upon the heads of innocents.  Whether they descend from ‘settlers’ or from residents of gerrymandered territories, the ethnic Russian inhabitants of Ukraine are in no way responsible for policies (however unjust) enacted before they were even born.

Still: in politics, just like in physics, every action causes a reaction.  Upon gaining its independence in 1991, Ukraine found itself ‘saddled’ with a large Russian minority, plus a significant layer of ‘Russicised’ population.  The reaction was a more-or-less overt policy of Ukrainisation: the preferential promotion of the Ukrainian language and culture – primarily in opposition to their Russian counterparts.  And the process only accelerated with the rise to power of Putin and his policies – which were (not without justification) perceived as an existential threat to Ukrainian peoplehood, let alone self-determination.

An ever-more-restrictive string of laws regulated the use of language, in practice all-but-excluding Russian from education, from the media and from much of the public sphere, despite it being the mother tongue of 1 in 3 Ukrainian citizens.

Imagine, for a moment, that Israel would outlaw Arabic in schools – thus forcing the children of her ethnic Arab citizens to learn Maths, Physics and Geography in Hebrew.  I say ‘imagine’, but in fact the outrage that such measures would generate is hard to fathom.  Yet ‘for some reason’ (ahem!) no such outrage was manifest in the case of Ukraine.  Very few of our politicians and distinguished members of the media profession even cared to comment.  Let alone rage.

But many an ethnic Russian did rage.  If Russian is your mother tongue (even more so, if it was the language of your parents and grandparents) you want your children to be taught in that language; you want them to absorb, cherish and further develop the Russian culture – not the Ukrainian one.  And while those feeling may be pervasive, it’s always easier to act on them in areas where ethnic Russians are a large minority, or even a majority.

This was the case in the Donbas.  A 1994 referendum asked a series of ‘constitutional’ questions.  Should Russian be a second official language in Ukraine?  Should it be the language of administration in the Donbas region?  Should Ukraine be a federal state (i.e., should the Donbas be autonomous)?  Circa 90% of the population of the Donetsk and Lugansk regions voted in favour.  But their vote was ignored by the central government.

Ukraine and the Donbas

Cohabitation of two ethnic groups is somewhat similar to that of two individuals.  It can only be successful through mutual accommodation.  A desideratum that is made no easier by the intervention of one side’s relatives – in this case Russia.  Not even when that intervention is well-meaning – and Russia’s certainly was not.

A reasonable solution to unsuccessful cohabitation is separation.  But that would have meant that (Heaven forfend!) borders would need to change.  That the Donbas inhabitants would be allowed to decide, in a referendum, whether they wished to continue to be part of Ukraine – or go their own separate way.

The Scots, of course, were given just such an opportunity in 2014.  But the Catalans were not – nor are Basques or the Corsicans, to give just a few examples.  It seems that many in the ‘civilised’ West have yet to learn the difference between democracy and tyranny of the majority.

Corsican protesters calling for independence from France

As for Ukraine and its large Russian minority: rather than preaching accommodation or amicable divorce, the West chose to support forced cohabitation – something that, as we know, is never conducive of harmony and happiness.  And, following cues from the West, the Ukrainian government placed the alleged ‘immutability’ of borders above the sanctity of peace.

Not that this provides any sort of justification for Putin’s past and current aggressions.  It’s a naïve person indeed that believes the man is animated by love for his ‘oppressed’ Russian brothers – rather than using them as a convenient excuse.  But, conversely, Putin’s malevolence should not render us blind to the grave errors of judgment committed by both Ukraine and the West.

***

In the next instalment of our story, we will analyse the political repercussions of this ethnic tension.  Or, in other words, how East and West came together to make a bad situation worse.

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