Criminalizing History

This past week, historical interpretations of the Second World War have again been making headlines in Russia. Parliamentary deputy Elena Yampolskaya demanded legislation to prohibit writings which claim that Nazism and Soviet communism were morally equivalent. President Vladimir Putin agreed. Russia, he said, should have laws like those in other countries which prohibit denial of the Armenian genocide. Meanwhile, a regional Russian court declared the murder by German troops of 2,000 Russians in north-west Russia during the war to have been genocide. This was a first. The ‘g’ word had never previously been applied to Russian victims.

All this is a reaction to efforts by some in Europe and North America to paint the Soviet Union as equally guilty for the Second World War as Nazi Germany, in the hope thereby of discrediting modern Russia. I discuss all this in my latest article on RT, which you can read here. I won’t therefore repeat everything I said there, but I feel that it’s worth expanding on my conclusion, to explain my position more fully.

At the end of my RT article, I note that Russians are rightly sensitive about the memory of the Second World War, but that legal prohibition of certain historical interpretations is not the right way of dealing with the problem. Let me explain this a bit more.

A good place to start is the example Putin used – laws prohibiting genocide denial. I’m against such laws. If the law is specific – i.e. it prohibits denial of a specific genocide – then one has to ask why this particular historical event has been singled out and others have not been included. As I have argued before, the answer is inevitably political. Such legislation is often not really interested in historical truth, but in targeting a given nation whom a particular group wants targeted. When Ukrainian-Canadians, for instance, request that the Canadian parliament recognize the Soviet deportation of the Crimean Tatars as genocide, it’s obviously a political act, designed to worsen Russian-Canadian relations. It’s got nothing to do with history. I don’t see that this is productive.

The second problem is one of definition. What is genocide? And who determines whether a given case fits the definition? Many Ukrainians claim that the famine which struck Ukraine (and other parts of the Soviet Union, notably Kazakhstan) in 1932-33 was an act of genocide. Should we therefore ban Holodomor genocide denial?? I’d say not. The use of the term genocide in that instance is highly debated. Some historians agree with the label, but others insist that it is inappropriate. Do we really want to leave it to politicians to adjudicate historical disputes, determine which cases are genocide and which are not, and then punish those who disagree with them? As a historian, my answer is quite categorically ‘no’.

Do I think that Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union were equally guilty for the Second World War, and committed equally reprehensible crimes? As I’ve said before, no, I don’t. But does that mean that the Soviet Union was guilt free? No, also. Were Nazism and communism morally equivalent? Overall, I’d say not, but I do think that there is some value in considering similarities (as well as differences) and putting them both within some common context of a collapse of liberal institutions, an era of radical extremism, and so on. Legislation of the sort proposed by Putin and Yampolskaya would put a stop to quite legitimate historical discussion.

As usual, there is a domestic political element to all this. On Wednesday night, the Russian political talk show ‘Evening with Vladimir Solovyov’ devoted a considerable amount of time to this issue, with one of the guests being Ms Yampolskaya herself. After she had reiterated her reasons for legislation to regulate historical discussion, the political analyst Sergei Mikheev had his say. Mikheev has joined Zakhar Prilepin’s new nationalist ‘For Truth’ party, and his comments give a bit of a flavour of how the Russian right thinks.

The problem, said Mikheev, was that the people who say this stuff equating communism and Nazism have a ‘roof’ – i.e. somebody in power is protecting them and allowing them to get away with it. A certain radio station was mentioned, without being named, but it’s pretty obvious that Mikheev had in mind the liberal Ekho Moskvy radio. Something needs to be done, Mikheev implied.

Host Vladimir Solovyov then named some names – Dmitry Bykov, for instance. Bykov praised Soviet general Andrei Vlasov, who joined the Germans and raised an anti-Soviet army. Yet newspapers still publish him. Why? Who’s protecting him? Film director Karen Shakhnazarov had an idea – it was the ‘comprador intelligentsia’ who were to blame.

This is where one begins to get a little worried. For legislation liked that proposed by Yampoloskaya could end up being used to reckon with political enemies, especially among Russia’s few remaining liberals. You can see how this could play out. Somebody on Ekho Moskvy says something which somebody interprets as contrary to the new law on historical interpretation. Ekho Moskvy then gets slapped with a big fine or closed down (unless of course, its ‘roof’ somehow protects it). And so, the room for debate in Russia gets even smaller than before. And that, perhaps, is the purpose. The legislation isn’t really about history. It’s about grinding Russian liberals even further into the dust.

You might say that the liberals deserve it, for adopting an idiotic and, it must be said, incredibly unpopular position on the topic of historical memory. But I say, let them suffer for it at the ballot box, as they surely will. There’s no reason to chuck the law book at them.

Basically, when it comes down to it, as a historian I think that these matters are best left to historians and to readers of history to decide. It’s not for politicians to provide cast-iron interpretations of historical events which all must legally accept, in fear of punishment if they do not. I guess that you could accuse me of narrow professional self-interest, seeking as I do to protect my profession from state interference. Well, so be it. I don’t want the state telling me what I can and cannot write. And I don’t think anybody else should want that either.

Struggle for recognition

‘Every state’, said Hegel, ‘is sovereign and autonomous against its neighbours’. But, he continued, ‘A state is as little an actual individual without relations to other states as an individual is actually a person without rapport with other persons’. What makes a state a state, therefore, is its relations with other states, which in turn means that what makes a state is its recognition as a state by other states. ‘When wars and disputes arise,’ Hegel concluded, ‘the trait which gives them a significance for world history is that they are struggles for recognition’.

One can view the history of Russian foreign policy as one long struggle for recognition, driven by the desire of Russian rulers to be recognized as an equal by their European ‘partners’ (or during the Cold War by the United States). Tsars, General Secretaries, and Presidents have longed for this recognition from the West, have yearned to be accepted as an equal by it, only to find themselves rejected time after time. As long as this struggle for recognition continues, conflicts between East and West will continue also.

There are only two ways out of this situation: either the West finally recognizes Russia as an equal, or Russia stops looking for recognition from the West. To be quite honest, the first isn’t likely, at least not in my lifetime. So what about the second?

Much has been written about Russia’s ‘pivot to Asia’. Rebuffed by Western institutions, suffering from economic sanctions, and observing the shifting balance of global economic power to Asia (most notably to China), the Russian state has in recent years begun to shift its attention eastwards, expanding its economic and military ties both to China and to other Asian states.

In this context, Vladimir Putin’s comments to the Valdai Club this week about a possible military alliance with China are bound to excite interest. Asked about the possibility of such an alliance, Putin remarked that, ‘we don’t need it, but, theoretically it’s possible to imagine it.’ Putin pointed to recent joint Russian-Chinese military exercises as evidence of the two countries’ growing cooperation, and noted that Russia has provided China with modern technology to enhance its military power. Speaking of a possible alliance, Putin concluded that, ‘Time will show how it will develop’, adding that, ‘we won’t exclude it.’

The pivot to Asia is an inevitable product not only of the rise of China but also of the fact that Europe is governed by international institutions established during the Cold War, most notably the European Union and NATO. These are by their very natures incapable of including the Russian Federation. Russia can push and push as much as it likes, but the aspiration for a Europe ‘from Lisbon to Vladivostok’ is not going to come about.

There is, it seems, a growing realization in Russia that this is the case. In essence, it is increasingly understood that the struggle for recognition with the West is pointless, as the West is incapable of providing the recognition that Russia desires.

This at least was the sentiment behind Vladislav Surkov’s 2018 article ‘The Loneliness of the Half-Breed’ which argued that the time had come to admit ‘the completion of Russia’s epic journey to the West, the end of numerous fruitless attempts to become part of Western civilization, to join the “good family” of European peoples.’ Russia should give up the effort, Surkov said, and go its own way.

Surkov has always been a bit of an oddball, so one could hardly view his article as proof of a fundamental shift in thinking by the mass of Russia’s ruling class. But this month we have seen somewhat similar ideas coming out of the mouth of Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. In response to the threat of more EU sanctions, Lavrov commented:

People who are responsible for the Western foreign policy and do not understand the need for mutually respectful dialogue, we probably have to suspend dialogue with them for a while. Especially since [President of the European Commission] Ursula von der Leyen is saying that geopolitical cooperation with the current Russian authorities is not working. So let it be if that’s what they want.

The talk of ‘mutually respectful dialogue’ is straight out of the politics of struggle for recognition. What’s new is the willingness to walk away, to say ‘you won’t recognize us, well in that case “screw you”.’ The question then is whether this is just a tactic to try and force recognition, or whether it constitutes a truly new way of viewing the world, in which the struggle for recognition from the West has been abandoned.

Certainly there are some Russians, especially among Eurasianists and what I call ‘isolationist’ conservatives, who would like it to be the latter. But I feel that in reality it is the former. Not for a moment do I think that Russia is ever likely to forge a formal military alliance with China, not only because the Russians surely understand that they would be by far the junior partner in such a marriage, but also because there exists a huge cultural divide between China and Russia. Rather I suspect that the spectre of a Russo-Chinese alliance is a tool used to scare the Americans to try and knock some sense into them.

More generally, it seems to me that for all the frustration with the West, it remains the essential ‘other’ to which Russian elites look. Watch TV talk shows, for instance. They complain about the West all the time, but in the process of complaining about it, they talk about it. By contrast, they hardly talk about China at all. For all the sense of injured pride, they look West. It’s Courchevel they go to for vacation, not Chongquing.

In short, while it’s obvious that for pragmatic economic and geopolitical reasons, Russia will inevitably focus more on the East in decades to come, I still feel that it will never abandon the desire for recognition from what the Slavophile Aleksei Khomiakov called ‘the land of holy wonders’ – the West. And the West in turn will continue to deny it. I hope I’m wrong (and I often am!), but if I’m right, the struggle for recognition will continue unresolved for a long time to come.

Press comments on Russia and Nagorno-Karabakh

Despite agreeing to a ceasefire in his country’s war with Armenia over the disputed province of Nagorno-Karabakh, Azerbaijani  president Ilham Aliyev was in a belligerent mood this weekend. ‘When [Armenian Prime Minister Nikol] Pashinyan gave us an ultimatum … he deserved to have been punished for it’, said Aliyev, ‘He should thank [Russian president Vladimir] Putin for the fact that once again, Russia came to save Armenia’.

The ceasefire agreement [signed in Moscow after the Russian government brought the warring parties together] was something of victory for Russian diplomacy. At present, though, its prospects look rather bleak, with both sides accusing the other of multiple violations. But even if it doesn’t last, the very fact that the Russians were able to get the two sides to sign it reveals the important role the Russian Federation continues to play in the politics of the Caucasus. And yet, you wouldn’t know any of this from recent media coverage of the Azeri-Armenian conflict. For commentary on the matter has invariably taken the line that, on top of the political crises in Belarus and Kyrgyzstan, events in the Caucasus are proof of Russia’s continuing international decline.

Take, for instance, Reuters which slapped the headline, ‘Russia confronts waning influence over Karabakh foes’, on top of a piece written by Mark Trevelyan and my one-time student Gabrielle Tetrault-Farber (who I’m happy to see has moved on to higher things after a spell as sports correspondent for the Moscow Times). The Economist meanwhile continued its consistent run of rotten foreign policy analysis with a piece which laughably claimed that the Azeri-Armenian war was a product of America’s disengagement. ‘Past American presidents might have put time, brainpower and muscle into preventing war in the Caucasus,’ said the magazine, ‘but Mr Trump showed no interest even before he fell sick with covid-19’. Ah yes, it’s Trump’s fault. Isn’t it always?

Perhaps the silliest comment, however, came as always in The Guardian, in an article by Thomas de Waal (author of a book on Nagorno-Karabakh). De Waal remarked that when the time for peace arrives,

Presidents Erdogan and Putin may try to impose a new settlement on Armenians and Azerbaijanis that suits their own interests but is careless of humanitarian principles and the claims of both countries to be part of Europe. … Or else Europeans, and perhaps a post-Trump United States, may try to convene a multilateral peace conference, first mooted in 1992, to resolve the conflict, seeking to respect people’s needs and the differing claims of international law.

It’s funny. I never realized that Azerbaijanis want to be ‘part of Europe’. And I was obviously asleep, or I would have seen that the Russian government’s efforts to get Azerbaijan and Armenia to stop fighting each other was ‘careless of humanitarian principles’. I must pay more attention in future, and wake up to the fact that America and Europe are the keys to peace.

One of the remarkable features of foreign policy thinking in the past 20 years is how this attitude has persisted despite repeated failure. No matter how often Western peacemaking efforts (which sometimes rather paradoxically take the form of war) collapse, the myth persists that giving up and going home is not the answer – what is needed is more of the same, only better. Withdrawal will allow malign powers to fill the void, and anarchy will follow. More America; more Europe – is always the only solution on offer.

In reality, though, both the USA and Europe have little ability to control events in most of the former Soviet Union, whether it be Belarus, Kyrgyzstan, Nagorno-Karabakh, or anywhere else. In all of these cases, and others (such as Ukraine), any eventual peace settlement will almost inevitably involve Russia in some way or another. In the specific case of Armenia and Azerbaijan, Russia is probably the only state able to influence the warring parties to bring the fighting to an end. We must hope that it succeeds.

Three conversations

Imagine that you don’t really know anything about Russia, but you keep seeing it in the news. You think you would like to learn at least the vague outlines of its history, but you also don’t have a lot of time. You’re not inclined to slog through some thick academic textbook suitable for HIS2200 Introduction to Russian History. You want something short and easy. Where do you turn? Fortunately, three brief studies of Russia have recently come my way, so I thought it would be useful to do a comparison – three conversations about Russia, as it were.

First off is Mark Galeotti’s A Short History of Russia: How the World’s Largest Country Invented Itself, from the Pagans to Putin. Galeotti promises to provide not only a brief summary of Russia’s past, but also an analysis of the myths which Russian tell each other about that past. The book is very clearly written. Non-specialists looking for a short, easy read will find this very much to their tastes. In that sense, it’s a job well done.

Continue reading Three conversations