Nearly half of Russians say Stalin’s harsh rule justified, up from 25% in 2012

Forty-five percent of Russians now say that Stalin’s harsh repression was justified by the results he achieved as a result, a figure that is almost twice as high as in 2012, according to a new Levada Center poll. The same survey found that the share of Russians who believe that nothing justifies what Stalin did has fallen significantly.

As a result, only one Russian in four (25 percent) is either fully or partially opposed to the erection of statues and memorials to the Soviet-era dictator on the occasion of what Moscow will mark in May as the 70th anniversary of victory in World War II.

“since the last decade there has been a growth in the share of those Russians who give a positive assessment to what Stalin did”

Aleksey Grazhdankin, the Levada Center’s deputy director, says that “for the majority of respondents, the name of Stalin as before is connected with terror, but since the last decade there has been a growth in the share of those Russians who give a positive assessment to what Stalin did. It reached its highest level ever last year, he adds.

Part of the explanation for the increase in approval for Stalin, Grazhdankin suggests, is to be found in Russians’ assessment of the events in Ukraine. Seeing what instability can lead to, he says, many Russians are now “prepared to sacrifice the interests of a minority in order to preserve the current status quo and stability.”

Five years ago, 32 percent of the Russian sample said that Stalin was a criminal; now, only 25 percent do, and 57 percent say they oppose designating him as one. It isn’t that Russians love him, the Levada Center sociologist says. Rather, they see virtues in a strong leader when as they now think is the case their country is surrounded by enemies.

Stalin is most positively viewed by the least educated, those living in villages and small cities and the elderly

Not surprisingly, Stalin is most positively viewed by the least educated, those living in villages and small cities and the elderly. Young people are largely indifferent to him, while the most antagonistic to Stalin are the middle-aged and the relatively well-off populations of the large cities, such as Muscovites.

Stalin remains a divisive force for many, Ivan Nikitchuk, a KPRF Duma deputy who wants to rename Volgograd Stalingrad, an idea that the Levada Center poll found is supported by 31 percent of its sample, says that when Russians compare their situation now with what it was under Stalin, they draw the “correct” conclusion that it was better then than now.

Nikolay Svanidze, a member of the Presidential Human Rights Council, in contrast, says that “the moral rehabilitation of Stalin which will intensify in advance of Victory Day would be a personal insult for millions of people.”

And Yabloko Party leader Sergey Mitrokhin says that the revival of support for Stalin reflects the failure of the country to undergo any “de-Stalinization” during the first two post-Soviet decades and consequently the Soviet dictator remains “an instrument” for some to resolve political tasks such as promoting a cult of a new leader, in the present case, Vladimir Putin.

Russians’ hatred easy to unleash but difficult to limit, reverse or overcome

Many are taking comfort in the notion that just as Russians appear to have reduced their hatred of immigrants when encouraged by the Kremlin to hate Ukrainians instead so too their hatred against the latter could be ended relatively easily if Moscow changed course — and in any case won’t expand to include others.

But in fact, as a panel discussion organized by Radio Liberty points out, there are two problems with the optimistic vision. On the one hand, it ignores that there was a reservoir of hatred among many Russians ready to be whipped up by the government for its own purposes. Moscow did not create it; it exploited it.

And on the other hand, such a view also downplays the danger that while Moscow may be able to exploit such hatreds, it could quickly lose control over them and not be able either to restrain them once they are unleashed or to prevent them from being extended to other groups that the regime either wants to protect or does not want to offend.

Indeed, to deal with this situation, the panel suggested, the regime will either have to offer new objects of hatred in the hopes of diverting Russians from one enemy to another or employ massive amounts of repression in order to limit the expression of that hatred. In either case, the problems involved with such feelings and their use are not limited or short term.

Thus, for example, any lessening of official anti-Ukrainian hysteria in the absence of any new target group almost immediately threatens to provoke new outburst of hostility toward migrants or toward other groups, including Chinese workers and industrialists in the Russian Far East whom Moscow has every reason to protect lest it offend Beijing.

(Indeed, that issue is so sensitive that the authorities have taken down an entire website after it featured an article showing that xenophobic attitudes and actions against the Chinese are on the rise there.)

Consequently, thanks to Putin’s actions in unleashing and exacerbating Russian hatreds in the current crisis, Russia and the world are entering a Martin Niemöller moment, one in which just because they hate someone else now, there are no guarantees that they will not hate others, including ourselves, later.

Border disputes spreading and intensifying in Eastern Europe, Moscow scholar says

The announcement three weeks ago that Prague is prepared to transfer 360 hectares of territory to Poland in the Těšín Silesia area is the latest indication that the border changes in the former Soviet and Yugoslav spaces are sparking new questions about borders in the northern portion of Eastern Europe, according to Aleksey Fenenko.

On March 6, the Moscow State University international relations specialist notes in an article in NG-Dipkuryer, Czech Prime Minister Bohuslav Subotka announced the transfer, something he said would end a territorial dispute between the two countries that has been going on since 1958.

Because Subotka provided no additional details and because the amount of land involved was so small, his words attracted relatively little attention. But Fenenko argues that border disputes are endemic in the region and that “the wave of de-Stalinization” at the end of the 20th century “has led to the de-legitimization of the borders of the 1940s.”

That is because, he continues, “for public opinion of these countries, references to the fact that the borders were established by ‘Stalin’s USSR’ is sufficient to recognize their illegitimacy.” The EU has been able to quiet “but not stop the process of their review.” And after the Těšín Silesia case, “the process is starting to take on a practical character.”

“Up to the present,” Fenenko says, “border changes have taken place in the Balkans and the territory of the former USSR. In Central Europe, on the contrary, the borders of the 1940s have been preserved.” He suggests that “the disintegration of Czechoslovakia … did not change the situation since it occurred quickly along administrative borders within the country.”

Now, however, “the situation is changing,” the Moscow specialist says, as the Těšín Silesia shows. Warsaw and Prague, under pressure from the Entente agreed to the border in 1920. But both sides had problems with it, and immediately after Munich in 1938, Poland demanded and got a border adjustment in its favor.

In 1947, following the Soviet occupation of the entire area, Poland and Czechoslovakia signed an accord that largely restored the 1920 border; but Poland later tried to make greater changes, something Czechoslovakia rejected. In any case, the small adjustment announced now highlights the reality that “Poland and the Czech Republic have a problem” with borders.

The 1938 Munich agreement between Hitler and Chamberlain is “traditionally viewed in Europe exclusively in a negative way.” Any reference to it, including by Moscow, Fenenko says, represents a kind of “’red line’” that must not be crossed. But Prague’s action this month has the effect of implicitly and partially rehabilitating of part of Munich.

Disputes

Could this prompt other countries in Central Europe, and especially Hungary, to raise similar issues, Fenenko asks. The answer is far from clear. Germany isn’t going to question its borders: the current ones are too much part of that country’s self-definition. But the situation with regard to Lithuania may be different.

The current Polish-Lithuanian border follows a line established by the Soviet-Polish treaty of August 16, 1945, but “problems of the border delimitation between Poland and Lithuania remain,” the Moscow scholar says, with each side having claims to portions now within the borders of the other.

On the one hand, many in Lithuania consider portions of Poland and Russia’s Kaliningrad oblast to be part of Little Lithuania. And many Poles still remember when Vilnius was within Poland, not Lithuania. As a result, Fenenko says, “Warsaw could activate discussions about the principles of the delimitation” of the border.

There is also the possibility of disputes between Poland and Ukraine. According to the 1945 Soviet-Polish treaty, Poland gave up territories to the Ukrainian SSR;” and “officially, Warsaw has refrained from advancing demands on Ukraine.” But that doesn’t end Ukraine’s western border problems: it also has them with Moldova.

The most serious set of border issues involve Hungary and Hungarians. After 1945, some of Hungary’s lands were handed over to Romania, others to Yugoslavia, still others to Czechoslovakia and the USSR. In 1991, Budapest began talking about the formation of “a Greater Hungary” that would reunite all of these.

The US blocked that at the time by promising Hungary eventual NATO membership if it refrained. But, Fenenko points out, “over the last few years,” discussions of this kind in Budapest have “intensified.” Budapest now has problems with Romania, Slovakia and Ukraine, problems it has exacerbated by demanding autonomy and offering dual citizenship to ethnic Hungarians.

Now, given “the precedent of the Polish-Czech negotiations,” the Moscow specialist continues, “Budapest in the future may achieve the establishment of a negotiation framework with Ukraine about the provision of particular rights to Hungarians” in that country.

Conclusions

Fenenko’s article is important for three reasons: First, it is clearly an effort to set the stage for Russian demands for border changes by suggesting that this is not a “Moscow problem.” Second, it suggests that some in the Russian capital are interested in promoting such conflicts as a way of expanding Moscow’s influence over the region.

And third, it is a reminder that the West, having failed to stop Russia’s “territorial” adjustments in Georgia in 2008 or in Ukraine in 2014, has opened the door not only to Vladimir Putin but to other leaders around the world who may decide that the era of fixed borders is over and that they have everything to gain by seeking to expand their own.

Pro-Imperialist think tank details how it helps Putin make decisions

Leonid Reshetnikov, the obscurantist and imperialist former SVR lieutenant general and head of the Russian Institute for Strategic Studies (RISI), says that his organization is “one of leading” organizations providing input to Vladimir Putin as the Kremlin leader formulates his foreign and domestic policies.

In the course of a long survey of his views on the world and Russia, Reshetnikov provides additional details on the way in which RISI is involved in “the development of information-analytic materials, proposals, recommendations and expert assessments for state structures including the Presidential Administration.

According to its president, RISI “is one of the analytic centers [in Russia] which supplies the Presidential Administration with analytic materials. Besides us, I think,” Reshetnikov continues, “the Kremlin above all relies on the reports of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs,on the work of our special services … and on the work of other institutes.”

But “among these other institutes,” he suggests, RISI “occupied one of the leading places.”

Reshetnikov served for several decades in the SVR and ultimately was head of its analytic administration. Consequently, he says, he understands what ordinary people do not – just how reports are prepared for senior officials. Outsiders “think that someone writes something, gives it to Putin, he then reads it as says: ‘Fine! Let’s take this decision now!’”

That is not how things proceed. Instead, there is a constant flow of materials “from various sides,” and this is processed again and again at various levels in what is “an enormous analytic” process which “continues” at each level “right up to the very top,” that is, to Vladimir Putin.

The RISI president tells Lenta.ru that Russia’s foreign intelligence services did not have an analytic shop until “the end of 1943.” That was one of the reasons for the country’s failures in the first months after the Germany invasion. There was plenty of operational information, he says, but “there wasn’t any analysis” that sorted it out.

As a result, the country’s leaders were pushed now in one direction, now in another. Thus, Reshetnikov says, “Zorge wrote that war would begin on June 22, but some agent in Berlin reported that it wouldn’t begin at all, and a third asserted that the war would happen but it would start only in December.”

Now, he continues, the situation is different. There is an enormous analytic apparatus, and one of its strengths is that it contains and reports “alternative points of view” up the line so that the Kremlin will not be blindsided or trapped by a single position.

Asked about RISI’s role in the run-up to the annexation of Crimea, Reshetnikov says that “we of course constantly prepared analytic materials both on Crimea and on Ukraine … but I want to say,” he insisted, “that in the preparation of the reunification of Crimea, no one from Russia took part … it was something unexpected for all.”

Challenged by his interviewer that Putin has said that the Crimea operation was planned, Reshetnikov suggests that it “was planned when already everything had begun,” that the planning “went in parallel with events,” rather than in anticipation of them even though RISI and others had highlighted the attitudes of the Crimean population and Kyiv’s shortcomings.

“But unfortunately,” the RISI president says, “we did not allow for the possibility that these attitudes would move toward a more effective phase, one of action.” When that happened, Moscow, however, was ready to respond.


For background on RISI, Reshetnikov, and its and his recommendations, see “Kremlin Think Tank Confirms Close Links with Kremlin and with New Greek Premier” (February 1, 2015) at windowoneurasia2.blogspot.com/2015/02/kremlin-think-tank-confirms-close-links.html; “Putin’s Personality, Agenda and Nuclear Weapons Make Him ‘Most Dangerous’ Leader in History, Piontkovsky Says” (March 18, 2015); and “Russia Must Stop Relying on Soviet and Western Answers to the Nationality Question and Use Tsarist Ones Instead, RISI Says” (January 14, 2014)

Debunking the “$5B regime change” myth, U.S. spent 400% more on Russia

A common myth disseminated by Russia and its supporters is the idea that the U.S. spent $5 billion to facilitate regime change in Ukraine, a falsehood premised on public statements made by Victoria Nuland in early 2014.

For example – RT, via phony intelligence officer Scott Rickard (who is also a self described “technologist & historian”) seized on Nuland’s remarks and said the U.S. rather “invested $5 billion so far in the uprising,” while conspiracy sites like Global Research state the money was used to directly and insidiously “subvert Ukraine.”

Nuland, for her part, said the money  “has been spent on supporting the aspirations of the Ukrainian people to have a strong, democratic government that represents their interests.”

The truth of the matter is more simply debunked by Politifact, who accurately point out “the money in question was spent over more than 20 years. Yanukovych was elected in 2010. So any connection between the protests and the $5 billion is inaccurate. And Obama was elected in 2008, so any connection between $5 billion and Obama also is inaccurate.”

They conclude: “Contrary to claims, the United States did not spend $5 billion to incite the rebellion in Ukraine.”

Will Stevens, the spokesperson for the U.S. embassy in Russia took to Twitter to hopefully expand and finally debunk this myth with an eye opening graphic. Not only was the money in question used to help remove nuclear arms and spent on humanitarian assistance, but the U.S. has spent 400% more on those same initiatives in Russia:

Politifact, quoting State Department spokeswoman Nicole Thompson, breaks down the ominous $5 billion pictured: “$2.4 billion went to programs promoting peace and security, which could include military assistance, border security, human trafficking issues, international narcotics abatement and law enforcement interdiction […] More money went to categories with the objectives of “governing justly and democratically” ($800 million), “investing in people” ($400 million), economic growth ($1.1 billion), and humanitarian assistance ($300 million).”

 


Update: Russian Chief of Staff Sergei Ivanov claimed that “we have been, in a way, sponsoring the Ukrainian economy for the last 20 years, spending hundreds of billions of dollars.” Russian political scientist Dmitry Oreshkin estimates Russia has invested approximately $200 billion in Ukraine during this time — 40x what the U.S. has spent on Ukraine. (source)

Stop freaking out about Right Sector

People are freaking out about the Right Sector. People have always freaked out about the Right Sector. It’s going to happen again in the future, and it needs to stop.

On March 25 it was widely reported that the Ukrainian Volunteer Corps, a paramilitary wing of Right Sector currently fighting on the front lines in eastern Ukraine had been told to pull out. The reason? Unlike Ukraine’s other volunteer battalions, they are not officially part of the military or national guard, and as armed civilians, need to disarm. An interviewed commander regarded the move by the government as a “betrayal” and insisted his men “fight more effectively than the regular troops.” Indeed, members of the Volunteer Corps have been among some of the bravest on the front lines, fighting in of the bloodiest conflict zones, the most recent being the outskirts of Mariupol.

This dispute was then framed by commentators an attack on all volunteers, but despite this, the press office of the other volunteer battalions serving near Mariupol had one message for them: If you want to fight, join the army like the rest of us.

Despite having a support networking of several thousand, Right Sector’s Volunteer Corps only fields at most 250 soldiers.

Official status would not only bring them in line with Ukraine’s command but also give its troops equipment, intelligence, ammunition, and funding. The counter argument is that Ukraine’s military officers are widely corrupt, and can’t be trusted – especially after disasters in Ilovaisk and Debaltseve.

In the spirit of this debate, the Kyiv Post then ran the headline “Right Sector defies government’s calls to pull out of frontline.” Citing Right Sector’s spokesperson, the article says the group will only pull out on the orders of its leader, Dmytro Yarosh. However, a full quote from Ukraine Today, the spokesperson merely says they are “unlikely” to withdraw “for long.” If you ask the troops themselves, commander Andriy Cherven of the Volunteer Corps had already informed the media that the unit will not be disobeying the order to withdraw. Its chief of staff also confirmed this, saying the unit would be pulling out and heading to their base.

So much ado about nothing.

What happens here is two things: The first is strictly political, playing into the political language of Right Sector’s press office; and the second is the media, who exaggerate that message. The end result is even greater sensationalism in the less informed western media.

Nothing new

The pushback against Right Sector and vigilantism traces to the early days of the post-revolutionary provisional government, where following a shooting, on April 1, 2014, MPs voted in support of Bill #4614 which mandated disarming of “illegal armed formations” and their subordination to official security structures. “If they do not belong to the army, the National Guard or the police, they are saboteurs who are working against Ukraine,” interim-President Turchynov said at the time.

Indeed, the crackdown on ‘illegal armed formations’ further dates back to the agreement signed by Euromaidan opposition leaders during endgame negotiations with Viktor Yanukovych prior to his fight – a stipulation routinely shouted in the Kremlin’s rhetoric preceding Russia’s invasion.

Since both the Yanukovych administration and Kremlin pushed to disarm Right Sector, as well as the toothless post-revolution government, and so it’s easy to see, then, why many are perceiving the disarming of frontline volunteers in an overtly devastating light.

Right Sector has taken on the form of a lightning rod in Ukrainian politics. For Russia, they are presented as a continental fascist, neo-Nazi threat (despite not being fascist nor anti-Semitic). Among western pundits, they are presented in fumblingly inaccurate and sensationalistic fashion. Case in point: Vox recently described the group as ‘anti-democratic hardliners’ despite participating in both presidential and parliamentary elections, and having an official platform that calls for a “comprehensive system of democracy.”

Fear-mongering has led to the group being erroneously labelled by various media sources as ‘far right’, a title more applicable in its formative days than at present, the reality is that Right Sector has become more of a banner for Ukraine’s resistance movement than a coherent, centralized ‘rightist’ organization. Just as the red and black battle flag of the Ukrainian Insurgent Army has taken on a larger than life, and decidedly less historical or ideological significance among Ukrainians (“a sign of the stubborn endurance of the Ukrainian national idea” as described in Foreign Policy), fittingly the near identical symbolism adopted by Right Sector is representative of its decentralized and interpretative nature.

Organizationally, Right Sector is splintered. This is why its political spokesmen and military commanders are speaking out of sync. It’s this do-it-yourself ethic and deregulation among its various chapters and branches that makes it less of a singular corporation and more a group of privately owned franchises.

This decentralized, unpredictable nature, however, that is a problem militarily – where centralized command, cooperation, and security are key. Regulating all Right Sector fighters may be a fools errand, like catching smoke in a bottle, but it’s also necessary.

Moving forward

With the group’s leader Dmytro Yarosh now a parliamentarian, making inroads with the government should in theory be less of an obstacle. Naturally, days after hysteria set in about the great betrayal that had been inflicted on one the nation’s last remaining independent militias, President Poroshenko tabled an offer to Yarosh that would give him a position in the Ministry of Defense.

Interior Ministry advisor Anton Herashchenko is in favor of such a move, suggesting that if Yarosh accepts his promotion he could potentially create and run an entire Volunteer Union in the model of the Estonian Defense League or Finland’s Local Defense Troops. This would be a huge move for Yarosh, because despite having several thousand members in his organization network, Right Sector’s military wing is incredibly small.

This system of controlled chaos is nothing new for the Poroshenko government who last fall incorporated and upgraded the controversial Azov Regiment within the army. For Azov, their historically radical and neo-Nazi founders have softened their stance since taking on newer, respectable jobs.

It remains to be seen if Yarosh, who is currently wounded, will accept the offer and build something successful as part of the armed forces rather than parallel to it. If the Kolomoisky affair (which had far greater potential to escalate and fizzled in record time) is any indication, amicable resolution is likely.

At the end of the day, political posturing echoed by the media has given the Volunteer Corps an edge in negotiations with the government. It has also fed into the fear of chaos among Ukraine’s volunteer ranks – a fabricated threat mostly disseminated in Russian media that ripples westwardly. Russian media needs to stop making Right Sector look larger, cohesive (and ironically, chaotic), and dangerous than they really are – but they won’t – because that’s their objective. Ukrainian media and their supporters need to stop feeding into the political game of leverage Right Sector is playing – but they won’t – because sensationalist news is much more exciting than no news.

Just as their role during the Euromaidan revolution was greatly exaggerated, their role (while brave, and commendable like all Ukrainian soldiers) is also fairly exaggerated in the scope of all of Ukraine’s forces. The sensationalist position benefits all media and especially the group itself, but it is also a disservice to those following the conflict trying to cut to the truth.

So relax.

Russia hosting Europe’s neo-Nazis, nationalists and anti-semites, Putin supporters all

Even as Moscow denounces anything it views as a manifestation of fascism abroad and prepares to mark the anniversary of the victory over Nazi Germany, the Russian authorities are hosting tomorrow a meeting of Europe’s neo-Nazis, extreme nationalists, and anti-Semites who share one thing in common – their unqualified support for Vladimir Putin.

The meeting called the first “Russian International Conservative Forum” and nominally hosted by the Russian National Cultural Center – People’s House is in fact the work of the Rodina Party and says it includes only European rightists who support Putin on Ukraine.

The organizers say that those taking part are “exclusively” from parties officially registered in European countries and that they could not be if they were neo-Nazi because “this is a criminal ideology which is banned in Europe.” What these parties do share is opposition to their governments “which are US puppets.”

Further, Yuri Lyubomirsky, head of the Right to Bear Arms group and one of the organizers says, “all these parties actively defend the interests of Russia regarding Crimea and the events in Ukraine’s South-East.” And he expressed “hope for constructive cooperation” between them and like-minded Russians such as himself.

Not surprisingly, this action has outraged many in Russia from the communists to Yabloko party member Boris Vishnevsky to human rights activists who have called on the government to ban the meeting and say they will picket and possibly disrupt it if the authorities do nothing to stop this assemblage from taking place.

Just how noxious this meeting is and how it underscores just how few people in Europe Putin’s regime can get to openly support it as opposed to the far larger number who are not prepared to do anything to oppose the Kremlin is underscored by the list of those who are scheduled to speak or otherwise take part.

They include:

  • Jared Taylor, an American who calls for white supremacy.
  • Nick Griffin, head of the British National Party and a prominent Holocaust denier.
  • Roberto Fiore, head of the New Force party in Italy which pursues traditionalist and extreme right causes.
  • Udo Voigt. Former head of the rightwing extremist National Democratic Party of Germany and now a deputy in the European Parliament noted for his anti-semitic and xenophobic views and frequently found subject to legal sanctions for them.
  • Georgios Epitidios, a representative of Greece’s Golden Dawn party which is viewed in Athens as neo-fascist and neo-Nazi and whose party’s emblem is a stylized swastika.
  • Stefan Jakobsen, the head of the Party of Swedes and who is widely considered a neo-Nazi.
  • Daniel Karlsen, the head of the Danish People’s Party and one of the founding members of the National Socialist Movement of Denmark.
  • Gonsalo Martin Garcia, a leader of the ultra-right Spanish National Democracy Party.
  • Orazio Maria Gnerre, president of the European Communist Party Millenium which seeks the dissolution of NATO and the end of what he calls “the hegemony of liberalism and the unipolar world.”
  • Aleksandr Kofman, the foreign minister of the self-proclaimed Donetsk Peoples Republic.

And from Russia itself, among others:

  • Aleksey Zhuravlyev, a United Russia Duma deputy who has attracted attention for his calls to strip the rights of those in non-traditional families to have children.
  • Yegor Kholmogorov, a Russian nationalist who has said that “the war for Novorossiya is a national liberation war of the Russian people for its reunification and for the elimination of invented borders.”
  • Stanislav Vorobyev, the coordinator of the Russian Imperial Movement who has called for “Russian men to join the joint struggle for Novorossiya under the imperial flag.”

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Ivan Ovsyannikov of the Russian Socialist Movement notes that “the forum calls itself conservative, but this is a lie. These are not people like the British conservatives; these are parties of the extreme right wing.” And Boris Vishnevsky, a Yabloko deputy in St. Petersburg’s legislative assembly, concurs.

He says that he is horrified by any manifestations of interest in fascism in foreign countries but notes that he is not a citizen of any of them and consequently is “not responsible” for their laws. But he is a Russian citizen, and as such he feels entitled to ask: “Why should such forums take place in my country with the complete silence of state structures?”

“I do not know how any former [Waffen SS] legionnaires remain in Latvia,” he continues, but I consider that they are less dangerous for society that contemporary neo-Nazis who can freely assembly and disseminate their views” as such people plan to do in Russia’s northern capital on Sunday.

“And the views [of those planning to come] are xenophobia, hatred of aliens and dividing people into categories which always gives rise to bloodshed. To the manifestation of fascism in one’s own country one must react with the very same intolerance as to fascism somewhere else,” Vishnevsky concludes.

The Myth of Mazepa

In Russian historiography the Battle of Poltava is seen as a defining moment in Russian state building; a path towards establishing its Empire, and becoming a major player in European political culture. Victory over Charles XII and the Swedish Empire allowed Moscow to expand externally, while internally centralizing and synthesizing the socio-political identity of the Russian people. The Ukrainian historical narrative, however, also views this event as part of its growth towards statehood – but for opposite reasons. The emergence of the Ukrainian nation-state in the 20th century has led to scholarly debate concerning the historical significance of the war, which has become just as much a beacon for the unification of the Ukrainian people as it has persisted in the past for the Russians. The debate’s impasse fixates itself on the events leading up to the Battle of Poltava, and more to the point, the historiographical interpretations of Ivan Mazepa: the 17th century leader of the Cossack polity who achieved notoriety for abruptly rebelling against the Tsar after years of faithful service.

In the shadow of the Russo-Ukrainian war of 2014, the tale of Ivan Mazepa and both Moscow and Ukraine’s perspectives then and now should act as a reminder of the constant cycle of Russian demonization of those who rebel, and Ukraine’s near-religion to rebellious counter culture that continues to this day.

When placing the Russian and Ukrainian narratives side by side, there is a significant overlap in the amount of events discussed. However, by nature of their viewpoints, each interprets the significance and meaning of these events in entirely different ways. At the core of this divide is the Russian belief in an autocratic state that subordinates all of its social groups, while in direct opposition is that of the Ukrainian narrative which is deeply associated with notions of elemental revolt and a vision towards national independence.[1] In regards to Mazepa, the former cemented his legacy with that of treachery, while the latter sees him as a symbol of an eternal national struggle against foreign occupation. This divergence in the way Mazepa is characterized has resulted in two diametrically opposed viewpoints, both of which overemphasize, and omit, relevant historical information. The consequences of this have resulted in the politicizing and flawed biopic historicization of a man who is neither deserving of contemptuous vilification nor overt heroization. By engaging in non-partisan analysis of the events leading up to and including the Battle of Poltava, we can better understand not only the justification for each historical perspective, but also why each does not entirely correspond to the reality of the situation.

Mazepa

Statehood

 

To properly give context to the events used to justify (or repeal) the definition of Mazepa as a traitor, it is important to first understand the relationship of the Hetmanate (Cossack state) to Moscow, and the political climate shift that occurred over the course of their association with one another. Firstly, the Treaty of Pereyaslav (1654) which saw the Cossacks unite with the Russian state can be seen as an exchange of loyalty for legal and religious protection. Though the Hetmanate viewed their rights recognized by Moscow as a de jure recognition of sovereignty, the Tsar interpreted this as de facto annexation rather than cooperation. In reality, the autocratic influence of Moscow did not initially penetrate the Ukrainian lands all too much. The agency of foreign affairs (Malorossiiskii Prikaz) drew distinct legal boundaries between the two regions.[2] Further to the point, the Hetmanate had its own diplomat in Moscow to voice complaints directly to the Tsar, and the taxes collected were minimal and not collected with any regularity (they did not even cover the cost needed to station Russian troops in cities).[3] Although the relationship between the two states was one of alliance and co-existence, scholars agree it was a foregone conclusion that Ukraine would be completely absorbed into the Russian state with time, and that it was the Russian Tsar Peter himself who sought to undermine what autonomy remained.[4]

In Dolbilov and Miller’s book, Zapadnye okrainy Rossiiskoi imperii, they hold that the Cossack political community was “too immature to be considered a genuine state.”[5] Subtelny describes the two requirements of statehood to be the possession of both a standing army and a specialized bureaucracy.[6] While on the periphery they met these requirements, they lacked specialization in either of these distinct areas.[7] So, while the Hetmanate sought out a mutually beneficial alliance or confederation, the reality of the transaction was that Muscovy would further fulfill these functions as well as its own as an absolutist state, while the Hetmanate would recede its autonomy to that of a protectorate or vassal state, bound in obedience. The terms of obedience between vassal and overlord define both the expected conduct between the Hetmanate and Russia, as well as the personal relationship Mazepa would have with Peter.

Moscow’s view

 

Like many other topics that have been vigorously silenced or cast as taboo within the Russian or later Soviet historiography, these narratives maintained a stranglehold over how events were to be interpreted. Prior to the fall of the Soviet Union, the Ukrainian historical narrative existed in unison, and not parallel, with that of Russia’s history. For Russians, textbook definition of Mazepa was that of a “disgraceful traitor who abandoned his allegiance to the Russian Tsar Peter the Great.”[8] During the Soviet era, the name of Mazepa was associated with Ukrainian political leaders such as Mykhailo Hrushevsky and Symon Petliura.[9] This sentiment did not belong to Russians alone. It has been documented that the consensus among Ukrainian authors was that Mazepa’s revolt was “the most vivid example of Cossack antagonism toward Russia.”[10] The Russian state, in order to perpetuate the ‘Petrine myth’, enshrined Mazepa as more than just a military traitor, but rather one who betrayed Orthodox Christianity and the unity of Slavic peoples itself.[11] This condemnation of Mazepa’s “unpardonable sin” has held legacy for more two hundred years since the Battle of Poltava with the Russian Orthodox Church continuing his anathematization on an annual basis.[12] The legend of his actions grew exponentially. As Peter instituted reforms which abolished Ukrainian autonomy, pretext was needed and Mazepa’s regime was cast as a scapegoat. In 1722, he declared the purpose of his new committee (the Kollegiia) to be “for no other purpose than to protect the [Ukrainian] people from the unfairness of their courts and oppression of the [Cossack officers].”[13]

In addition to the political reasons to vilify Mazepa, it need also be noted that the first historiography of Russia, The Sinopsis, appeared in 1670-74. In it, Ukraine is presented as an inseparable part of the Russian nation.[14] A rejection of meta-Russian nationality,[15] and abridging the historical narrative of the two nations, it disinherited the Ukrainian claim to ‘historic statehood.’[16] As a figure who attempted to cede lands from the Russian autocracy and divide the unity acquired by the Orthodox Church, it is easy to understand why such a large number people, Russian and Ukrainian alike, took reproach with Mazepa’s actions.

Mazepa

A game of thrones

 

A matter of contention among historians of either narrative is whether Mazepa desired Ukrainian independence apart from the influence of Muscovy, or if he instead sought political and territorial reunion with the Polish state. These two concepts are at odds as the former cites a need to reacquire the freedoms, which the Treaty of Pereyaslav originally brought, as a cause for divorce with Russia, while the latter implies Mazepa’s intention to undo the treaty entirely. Textbooks of the Soviet period state “Mazepa sought to return Left-bank Ukraine to Polish control” while striking “secret deals with Poland and Sweden against Russia.”[17] While dismissed documentation of the events, such as the Istoria Rusov (1770), state that collusion with Poland was driven by a desire for personal vengeance,[18] Nicholas Kostomarov, an historian and biographer of Mazepa, agrees with this assessment in principle. He describes Mazepa as an “egoist in the trust sense of the word,” who was not only a traitor to Russia, but to Ukrainian society and its democratic structure.[19]

The portrayal of Mazepa as man against all may seem excessive, but there is overt evidence to support it. In September of 1707 Tsar Peter sent instructions to Mazepa in confidence, outlining his intent to not return the city of Bila Tserkva and its environs to Poland in contradiction to a previous agreement between the two.[20] Mazepa proceeded to reveal these plans to the Polish Wojewoda in hopes of playing the sides off one another, revealing to them Peter’s intent on seizing territory beyond Lviv (for more on these discussion’s see Orest Subtelny’s On the eve of Poltava : The letters of Ivan Mazepa to Adam Sieniawski).[21] In another instance of diplomatic backroom dealings, Mazepa refused the Tsar’s request to send 10,000 Cossacks to the aid of Polish noble and military leader Adam Sieniawski, exclaiming that Cossacks would not work under Polish rule.[22] Interestingly enough, secret correspondences inked by Mazepa show that by the summer of 1708 he had actually been plotting alongside Sieniawski in a game of thrones, pressing him to obtain the Polish Crown.[23] In direct contradiction to his previous statements, Mazepa assured Sieniawski that the Cossacks would unquestionably serve him. As Subtelny explains, Mazepa’s correspondence with Sieniawski shows that he wanted to give the impression to Poland that “the Commonwealth had no greater opportunity to regain Ukraine than at [that] moment.”[24] Between the rhetoric that Mazepa intended to “preserve [he and his starshyna] from Muscovite slavery,”[25] and Peter’s residual claims that Mazepa would rather “return the Ukrainians into Polish slavery,”[26] it remains to be seen the ultimate truth behind the intent of these dealings. However, notwithstanding the pretext or goals in mind, it is doubtless that in these instances Mazepa betrayed both his peers and rivals.

Russian aggression

 

Although many have condemned Mazepa’s conduct, a large number of eyewitnesses and historians have since justified Mazepa’s goal of seceding from the Russian state.[27]Following the war, Mazepa may have become the scapegoat for what caused Moscow to tighten its grip on Ukrainian society, but the reality was that this was inevitable. Given the circumstances he was faced with at the time, it is difficult to comprehend how an almost seventy year old, childless (and thus heirless) Hetman could be motivated for selfish reasons. After all, he did maintain good standing with the Tsar who even requested he be granted the title of Prince of the Holy Roman Empire.[28] As English historian L.R. Lewitter observed, the treatment of the civilian population by the Russian army before the war “was more reminiscent of a punitive expedition than of allied troops.”[29] At the time, there were constant protests against the Russian pillaging of homes, stealing provisions, and the rape and battery of women.[30] The conduct of Russian troops reached such critical levels that Peter himself had to threaten death upon any soldier found committing these acts.[31]

While the terror in the countryside may have helped justify the need to revolt against the existing order, what necessitated Mazepa to make a move was much more direct. Rumors in military circles spread that the Tsar intended to annex the Hetmanate outright. This plan would have Mazepa relieved of his position and Count Alexander Menshikov act as reigning Hetman, [32] effectively turning the polity into a puppet regime. In discovering this treachery against him, Mazepa gives evidence that his interests lay with that of his people (threatened with ethnic cleansing) when he explained that “they [the Tsardom] want the officer corps annihilated, our cities turned over to their administration, and their governors appointed. If our people should oppose them, they would send them beyond the Volga, and [Ukraine] will be settled by their own people.”[33] In a report to Peter dated October 17, 1708, Menshikov himself admitted that Mazepa’s actions were “not for the sake of his person, but for the whole of Ukraine.”[34] With Mazepa’s career focused on creating a politically and economically stable state,[35] it is safe to assume his priorities did not change when faced with opposition. Rather than an act of self-motivated treachery, his switch to the side of Sweden has been seen as an act of desperation, as well as a ‘challenge to fate’.[36] In remarking on his newly forged alliance, Mazepa stated, “necessity has forced us to this since we, a free and unconquered nation, seek the means to preserve ourselves.”[37] Given the circumstances surrounding him, and the fate his people awaited should he have relinquished his authority, there is enough evidence to support the heroization of Mazepa as a man seeking the wellbeing of his people. Ultimately, the conduct of the Russian presence in the country along with his impending usurpation by the Tsar left Mazepa and his people without an independent future in the Russian Empire.

Don Cossacks

Vox Populi

 

Considering the praise Mazepa receives from contemporary Ukrainian historiographers and people alike, it is surprising that despite his apparent devotion to the wellbeing of the populace, he received very little popular support in return. It has come to light that when Mazepa presented his intent to withdraw from Russian suzerainty, his colonels were surprised when he “stressed the tyranny and barbarity of the Russians” who had “encroached upon the liberties of the Cossacks” as his reasoning.[38] In truth, many of his men deserted him in favor of the Tsar when faced with the decision, leaving him with no more than a thousand men and three willful officers.[39] It is even said that the Cossack colonels would have taken him prisoner had they enough forces at their disposal.[40] The question in this context is whether they disagreed on ideological grounds, or if they would rather not foolishly test their fate against the Tsar as he would. One theory states that the majority of Cossacks had long been dissatisfied with their leader and that this act against Russia, who they had long been giving their lives in defense of (by his own orders), was the last straw. Lacking internal support, ideological motives would have shifted as his only means of survival (both politically and literally) at this point would be joining with the Swedish forces.[41] It is not surprising that the Cossacks under his command would remain loyal to Peter, for a few years prior in 1706, Mezepa and his men protected him from an uprising of Don Cossacks led by Kindrat Bulavin.[42]

Prior to the Great Northern War, the relationship between Hetman and Tsar were as good as they had ever been.[43] It should not have come as a surprise to Mazepa that Russia would seek to integrate the two lands, as he knew full well the Kolomak Articles obliged him as Hetman to “unite by every method and means the [Ukrainian] people with the [Russian] people.”[44] While Hetmans that preceded him distanced themselves from Moscow, Mazepa sought to bring the two polities closer together. For years he had obeyed the Tsar’s orders, put down anti-Russian movements, and allowed many of his people to die on a massive scale serving the Russian cause.[45] Numerous documents have even caused others to note of his pro-Russian attitude.[46]

The fact that his only act of opposition to the Tsar, in light of all that had blighted his people, had occurred only when his position of power was immediately threatened does little to support the concept of Mazepa as a true hero. In addition to all of the above, it should also be noted that upon allying with the Swedes, their troops proceeded to ravish the countryside as badly as the Russians had.[47] The peasantry held a negative attitude towards these unwelcomed foreigners,[48]and considering the brutality his defection caused to his people, his lost gamble can be considered far from heroic. From this perspective it is hard to fathom how in Ukrainian society would find a place in memory for Mezepa other than as a figure who acted as catalyst for destruction continued destruction and future oppression.

Ivan Mazepa and Charles XII

Verdict

 

By analyzing the depth of events surrounding what would culminate at Poltava, understanding the Myth of Mazepa is far from straightforward. In Russian historiography, Mazepa has encapsulated all of the evils of Ukrainian nationalism, a mantle later inherited by Stepan Bandera and today’s Dmytro Yarosh. While he certainly is no Brutus, he neither is Bohdan Khmelnytsky. In betraying the confidence of Peter in hopes of leveraging the country’s future, Mazepa did act traitorously and is deserving of his title. While his attempt to pit all sides against one another to better position himself, at the very least, is an indication of his cunning as a statesman while at most a political opportunist. The question of whether Mazepa would have ‘made out of Little Russia a little Poland’[49] will have to remain in the annals of history a topic of debate and theorization. True treachery lies in its intent, and in Mazepa’s case, there is convincing evidence for both the argument of him being self-interested, as well as the view that he placed the wellbeing of his people at the forefront.

The German Schwahenspiegel, a source of customary law in East Central Europe, justifies Mazepa’s actions providing that we only owe our sovereigns service as long as they defend us.[50] Every Hetman prior to Mazepa had considered or attempted to break off relations with Russia,[51] so it becomes questionable as to why he has received such damning and praiseworthy depictions over the years. ‘National history belongs to the politics of history,’ and this takes place through the use of the past to mobilize the population for political purposes.[52] As an objective view of the man would see him at neither extreme between villain or saint, the personification of Ivan Mazepa can be summarized as one of applied history at its finest, interpreting his motives beyond what occurred; turning a man into a symbol – a myth.

 


 

[1] Rudnytsky, Ivan L. “A Study of Cossack History.” Slavic Review (The American Association for the Advancement of Slavic Studies, 1972), 875.

[2] Subtelny, Orest. “Russia and the Ukraine: The Difference That Peter I Made.” Russian Review (Blackwell Publishing) 39, no. 1 (Jan 1980) 8.

[3] Subtelny, “Russia and the Ukraine: The Difference That Peter I Made”, 17.

[4] Subtelny, “Russia and the Ukraine: The Difference That Peter I Made”,

[5] Dolbilov, Mikhail Dmitrievich, and Aleksei Ilich Miller. Zapadnye okrainy Rossiiskoi imperii. (Moscow: Novoe literaturnoe obozrenie, 2006), 35.

[6] Subtelny, “Russia and the Ukraine: The Difference That Peter I Made”, 7.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Boyko, Nataliya. “Ukraine: Villain Today, Hero Tomorrow.” Chalkboard. Apr 22, 2009. http://chalkboard.tol.org/ukraine-villain-today-hero-tomorrow

[9] Manning, Clarence A. Hetman of Ukraine: Ivan Mazeppa. (New York: Bookman Associates, 1957), 223

[10] Plokhy, Serhii. “The Ghosts of Pereyaslav: Russo-Ukrainian Historical Debates in the Post-Soviet Era.” Europe-Asia Studies (Taylor & Francis, Ltd., 2001), 491.

[11] Karatnycky, Adrian, and Alexander J. Motyl. “Historical Battle Lines.” Wall Street Journal. July 9, 2009. http://online.wsj.com/article/SB124708161090713405.html

[12] Subtelny, Orest. The Mazepists : Ukrainian separatism in the early eighteenth century (New York: Columbia University Press, 1981), 23,

[13] Subtelny, “Russia and the Ukraine: The Difference That Peter I Made”, 12.

[14] Kohut, Zenon E. Russian centralism and Ukrainian autonomy : imperial absorption in the Hetmanate 1760s-1830s. (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1988), 5.

[15] Kohut, Russian centralism and Ukrainian autonomy : imperial absorption in the Hetmanate 1760s-1830s. 16.

[16] Szporluk, Roman. “From an Imperial Periphery to a Sovereign State.” Daedalus (The MIT Press) 126, no. 3 (Summer 1997), 98.

[17] Boyko, “Ukraine: Villain Today, Hero Tomorrow.”

[18] Grob, Thomas. “‘Mazepa’ as a symbolic figure of Ukrainian autonomy.” In Democracy and myth in Russia and Eastern Europe, edited by Alexander Wöl and Harald Wydra, 87-93. (New York: Routledge, 2007), 87

[19] Grob, “‘Mazepa’ as a symbolic figure of Ukrainian autonomy,” 87.

[20] Subtelny, Orest, ed. On the eve of Poltava : the letters of Ivan Mazepa to Adam Sieniawski, 1704-1708. (Ukrainian Academy of Arts and Sciences in the United States, 1975).

[21] Subtelny, On the eve of Poltava : the letters of Ivan Mazepa to Adam Sieniawski, 1704-1708.

[22] Manning, Hetman of Ukraine: Ivan Mazeppa, 223.

[23] Subtelny, On the eve of Poltava : the letters of Ivan Mazepa to Adam Sieniawski, 1704-1708.

[24] Ibid.

[25] Ibid.

[26] Subtelny, Ukrainian separatism in the early eighteenth century, 28.

[27] Ibid., 13.

[28] Mackiw, Theodore. “Hetman Mazepa in Contemporary Western European Sources, 1687—1709.” ІЗБОРНИК: Історія України IX-XVIII ст. Першоджерела та інтерпретації. n.d. http://www.litopys.org.ua/coss4/mazk16.htm.

[29] Ibid.

[30] Ibid.

[31] Mackiw, Theodore. English reports on Mazepa, Hetman of Ukraine and Prince of the Holy Roman Empire, 1687-1709. New York: Ukrainian Historical Association, 1983), 119.

[32] Mackiw, Theodore. Hetman Mazepa in Contemporary Western European Sources, 1687—1709.

[33] Ibid.

[34] Ibid.

[35] Kappeler, Andreas. “Mazepa.” Jahrbücher für Geschichte Osteuropas (Research Library) 56, no. 3 (2008): 425.

[36] Siundiukov, Ihor, and Nadia Tysiachna. Tatiana Tairova-Yakovleva: “Hetman Mazepa is a remarkable figure that will pique interest for centuries to come” (2008).

[37] Mackiw, Theodore. “Hetman Mazepa in Contemporary Western European Sources, 1687—1709.”

[38] Mackiw, English reports on Mazepa, Hetman of Ukraine and Prince of the Holy Roman Empire, 1687-1709, 72.

[39] Ibid.

[40] Ibid.

[41] Ibid.

[42] Subtelny, (1975) 20

[43] Mackiw, Theodore. “Hetman Mazepa in Contemporary Western European Sources, 1687—1709.”

[44] Kraliuk, Petro. “Mazepa’s many faces: constructive, tragic, tragicomic.” The Day. Jul 7, 2009. http://www.day.kiev.ua/290619?idsource=276443&mainlang=eng

[45] Kraliuk, “Mazepa’s many faces: constructive, tragic, tragicomic.”

[46] Kraliuk, “Mazepa’s many faces: constructive, tragic, tragicomic.”

[47] Mackiw, English reports on Mazepa, Hetman of Ukraine and Prince of the Holy Roman Empire, 1687-1709.

[48] Kraliuk, “Mazepa’s many faces: constructive, tragic, tragicomic.”

[49] Szporluk, “From an Imperial Periphery to a Sovereign State,” 98.

[50] Mackiw, Theodore. “Hetman Mazepa in Contemporary Western European Sources, 1687—1709.”

[51] Subtelny, “Russia and the Ukraine: The Difference That Peter I Made”, 17.

[52] Jilge, Wilfried. “Politics of History and the Second World War,” 104.

 

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Girkin: Putin will be murdered like the Tsar, or die in prison like Milosevic

In the wake of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s widely speculated disappearance from the public eye, retired FSB colonel and terrorist “Defense Minister” Igor “Strelkov” Girkin has reemerged offering his own personal insight, but this time criticism of the Russian leader.

Girkin had recently arrived in Yekaterinberg, Russia’s fourth largest city, to announce the founding of a new cell of his “New Russia” (Novorossiya) movement in the Urals. A day prior, a large rally was held in public view to send off 50 Russian recruits to fight in Ukraine. Local organizers have acknowledged that these “volunteer” mercenaries can earn between $1,500-2,500 to participate in the war against Ukraine.

During a press conference (documented by local news site Znak) held in the Ural Mining University, Girkin touched on a number of subjects, not the least of which brazed the current rumors circulating of a potential palace coup in the Kremlin.

In a culmination of public frustration against the Russian president, Girkin predicts, “not only liberals, but the patriots (nationalists – ed.) will turn against Putin. Then he will repeat the fate of Slobodan Milosevic, who was overthrown [by] liberals & patriots, since he conducted a policy that was neither yours nor ours.” Girkin lays out two conclusions for Putin’s fate following such an overthrow: he can either be executed like Russian Emperor Nicholas II, or die in prison as Milosevic did awaiting his trial in The Hague.

Girkin

Feuding & criticism

Previously Girkin has spoken out about an alleged “fifth column,” vowing to protect Putin from any possible power shift. “The West and the ‘fifth column’ are making no secret of their plans to overthrow Putin. Their path is that of dragging out the war [in Ukraine] as long as possible,” Strelkov told reporters in September. “I support Putin and am against the ‘fifth column.’ Russian people need to completely reject any opposition activity,” he said.

The root of new frustration for Girkin was due in part to Putin’s war policy, as he lambasted the “fifth column” derailing the war effort; personally calling out Putin’s own presidential advisor Vladislav Surkov, known otherwise as the ‘grey cardinal’ and for being the architect of not only Russia’s frozen conflicts but its entire current political system. Surkov is of Chechen descent and is considered a counterweight to FSB-KGB security service hawks dominating Putin’s inner circle. The “fifth column” label, as described by Girkin, applies to all state actors and industrialists who view Russia as a resource base, namely those who live in Russia but keep wealth, property, and family abroad (such a label would apply to Putin and many of those he has enriched during his rule). It has been reported that Surkov was instrumental in pulling Girkin and his associates out of Ukraine as part of an ongoing feud between rival political camps.

He also took effort to criticize Putin’s strategy in the Donbas, saying he could have “freed all of New Russia” with virtually no blood spilled if he had acted more decisively in the spring of 2014. Instead, he blames the “fifth column” for convincing Putin to change course and, as a result, “we have not stopped and the war is more bloody,” while lamenting the ever increasing international sanctions and pressure that have come since.

This indecisive course by Putin was elaborated on, with Girkin incensed with the flip-flopping nature of official advocacy for the “Russian World,” and also the self-declared republics it has created, blasting the Kremlin’s use then disuse of the term ‘New Russia’ (Novorossiya) to describe the conflict region, then its alternating use in media to describe the Donetsk and Luhansk republics as legitimate, then self-declared, or ultimately as regions of Ukraine.

3(498)

On the war

Girkin accuses ‘the West’ of setting its sights on repeating the events of World War I, drawing loose parallels between Russia entering the war on the side of Serbia; and later blaming the current war on instigation by the United States. During WW1, the U.S., Serbia, and Russian Empire were all Allied members.

As a ‘tool’ of the U.S., he continues that even if Russia had not occupied Crimea, and even if war did not take place in the Donbas (which he has fully admitted to igniting himself), then “still the Kyiv government would lead to war with Russia.”

In fact many people are waiting for Russia in Kyiv

However, for the former Donetsk Republic’s minister of defense, the war will soon resume against Ukraine: “We conclude that this year the fighting will resume in the Donbas, and will resume soon enough. The war will unfold even more widespread than it was conducted during the fall and winter campaigns.” Just how widespread he predicts the war will escalate may coincide with his imperialist ambitions of creating ‘New Russia’. For him, Ukraine “is part of Russia” and names Odesa, Kharkiv, Kherson, and Mykolaiv as potential targets. “In fact many people are waiting for Russia in Kyiv.”

 

The Uneasy reality of anti-fascism in Ukraine

For almost twenty years of Ukraine’s independence, the term “anti-fascism” used to have very limited currency in the established political discourse in Ukraine. Until 2010, “anti-fascism” was primarily used as a form of self-identification by an element of Ukraine’s left-wing movement, as well as being employed by the far right groupuscules to refer to their left-wing opponents. Hence, until 2010-2011, “anti-fascism” remained a notion that largely belonged to the subcultural sphere of the physical and symbolical strife between left-wing and far right activists.

Yet when the notion of anti-fascism did enter the mainstream political discourse in Ukraine, it immediately became extremely problematic. The problematic nature of the notion had little to do with what “anti-fascism” essentially implied – that is opposition to fascism – but resulted from the manipulated use of the notion of anti-fascism in the post-Soviet space in general and Ukraine in particular.

The manipulated use of “anti-fascism” has been increasingly prominent in Russia since Vladimir Putin’s second presidential term (2004-2008). During the “Orange revolution” in Ukraine, when hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians protested against the fraudulent “victory” of pro-Russian politician Viktor Yanukovych in the 2004 presidential election, pro-Yanukovych media in Ukraine and pro-Kremlin media in Russia slammed the leaders of the largely pro-European “orange” protest movement as “orange fascists”. To oppose the virtual threat of an “orange revolution” in Russia itself, the Presidential Administration launched the Youth Democratic Anti-Fascist Movement “Ours” (Nashi). The imagery of the movement drew extensively on the legacy of the Soviet Union: the prevalence of the colour red, Soviet-style slogans, and even their official website was registered in a .su domain (.su was originally assigned to the Soviet Union).

Nashi youth group members in Soviet regalia
Nashi youth group members in Soviet regalia

These events reveal the basic argument behind the manipulated use of the notions of both fascism and anti-fascism in Russia. Since it is the Kremlin’s geopolitical belief that particular sovereign post-Soviet states belong to the Russian sphere of influence, Moscow interprets post-Soviet sovereign countries’ attempts to move away from this sphere as anti-Russian actions. As the Kremlin also adopts the political cult of the “Victory in the Great Patriotic War,” seen as the struggle between the Soviets and fascists, as well as drawing on the Soviet legacy of defining fascism as anti-communism and equating it with Anti-Sovietism, Moscow tends to interpret the perceived anti-Russian sentiment as fascist too. Hence, the term “anti-fascism”, in its manipulated interpretation, implies an opposition to the perceived geopolitical threats that Putin’s regime allegedly faces.

It was in a similarly distorted interpretation that the notion of anti-fascism entered the mainstream Ukrainian political discourse in 2010-2011. This development was associated with three major events. First, in the beginning of 2010 Viktor Yanukovych was elected president of Ukraine, adopted pro-Russian foreign policy and started suppressing political opponents. Second, the same year, Russian politician and businessman Boris Spiegel, who had close ties to the Kremlin, founded, in Kyiv, the World Without Nazism organisation (WWN). Third, in 2011, Vadym Kolesnichenko, Yanukovych’s major ally, launched the International Anti-Fascist Front (IAF).

While both organisations, i.e. the WWN and IAF, officially aimed at fighting against xenophobia, racism and glorification of Nazi crimes, their real objectives were different. The WWN promoted the Russian version of history of the twentieth century, advanced Russian foreign policy and tried to influence public opinion in former Soviet republics. The IAF, in its turn, organised protests against the political opposition to Yanukovych. Originally, the IAF attacked the far right Svoboda party that was critical of Yanukovych, but since Svoboda strategically sided with the democratic opposition, the latter was attacked too. Therefore, the protests held by the “anti-fascist” organisation against the entire political opposition to Yanukovych aimed at discrediting it as “fascist”. The IAF adopted this tactic from the Russian Nashi movement that attacked, from the “anti-fascist” position, all the opponents of Putin.

The activities of the WWN and IAF resulted in a conceptual conflict between the original definition of anti-fascism as a struggle against racism and right-wing extremism practiced by Ukrainian left-wing activists and the implicitly manipulated interpretation that implied promotion of Russian interests in Ukraine. The Ukrainian anti-authoritarian left-wing movement, due to its political weakness, failed to defend their interpretation of the notion. Especially after pro-Russian media and commentators started describing the “People’s Republics” in separatist-held areas of Eastern Ukraine as anti-fascist “states” fighting against the “Kyiv fascist junta”, the term “anti-fascism” became completely discredited. Today, Ukrainian left-wing activists have almost abandoned the use of the term in the public discourse and tend to talk about the struggle against racism, intolerance and political terror.

Ukrainian antifascists hold a banner that reads: "Against political terror". Kyiv, 19 January 2015
Ukrainian antifascists hold a banner that reads: “Against political terror”. Kyiv, 19 January 2015

First published in German language in Beton International: Zeitung für Literatur und Gesellschaft (10 March 2015).