Category Archives: History

The Politics of Commemoration

The politics of commemoration is back in the Russian news this week with the unveiling of a number of new monuments.

Most controversial were two new monuments to the founder of the Soviet secret police, Felix Dzherskinsky, one in the Crimea capital of Simferopol and one in the southern Russian city of Krasnodar, the latter outside a school that was renamed after the famous Chekist in 2017. Meduza reports that there are 40 monuments to Dzerzhinsky across Russia, so why another one is needed, I can’t imagine. The head of the Federal Security Service (FSB) in Simferopol provided an explanation, and said that “‘Iron Felix’ not only fought against counter-revolutionaries, but also raised the country out of ruin and poverty.” Under Dzerzhinsky, “two thousands bridges were restored, [and] nearly three thousand steam locomotives and more than 10 thousand kilometers of railway track were repaired.”

The secret police as as engineers! Whoever knew?

Bust of ‘Iron Felix’ in Krasnodar

It’s quite common to portray the ‘Putin regime’ in Russia as a blend of Chekists (siloviki) and Orthodox conservatives, but the truth is that the two don’t always get along very well. The Orthodox Church hasn’t taken too kindly to the Dzherzhinsky revival, As Meduza reports, ‘Archpriest Leonid Kalinin, a member of the Russian Orthodox Church’s Patriarchal Council for Culture, condemned the new monument. “Personally, I’m categorically against the appearance of such monuments in any public spaces in Russia. This insults the memory of millions of innocent victims of terror, famine, cold, torment, torture, prison, camps, and the devastation of the Fatherland”,’ he said.

The Church, meanwhile, has been organizing monuments of its own, a grandiose example of which was unveiled over the weekend near Pskov on the Russian-Estonian border. This was a large, 50-tonne memorial to the thirteenth century Prince of Novgorod Alexander Nevsky, built on the initiative of Archimandrite Tikhon Shevkunov, believed by some to be the personal confessor of Vladimir Putin.

Patriarch Kirill blesses the monument to Alexander Nevsky

I discuss the Alexander Nevsky monument in an article published today in RT (here). As I note, it’s actually the second Nevsky memorial unveiled in less than 2 weeks. On 1 September, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov attended the opening of another one, on the grounds of the Moscow State Institute of International Relations (MGIMO – the breeding ground of the Russian diplomatic corps).

One statue to Nevsky could just be a blip. Two in two weeks, both attended by top state officials, is telling us something.

As I mention in my article, the thing about Alexander Nevsky is that though he fought the West (in the form of the Livonian knights), he made peace with the East (the Mongols). The reason is that the East merely sought tribute; the West sought to convert Russia to another religion and so destroy its independent culture. Sergei Lavrov noted in an article a few years ago that, “I am confident that this wise and forward-looking policy is in our genes.”

The location of the Pskov monument is particularly symbolic: right on NATO’s border, looking westward. It isn’t just history. It’s a mark of defiance. So too, in their own way, are the Dzerzhinsky statues, Dzerzhinsky fought the internal enemy; Nevsky the external one. And there perhaps is a common theme: enemies abound, and we will crush them. As such, for better or worse, these monuments are perhaps fitting symbols of the current zeitgeist.

WAs the USSR a Russian Empire?

In my latest piece for RT, I discuss whether it’s correct to view the USSR as the Russian Empire 2.0. I note a common effort by pro-Western East European intellectuals to portray the Soviet Union as not ‘Soviet’ but rather an exercise in ‘Russian’ colonialism. The aim thereby is to distance their own countries from Russia and justify a pro-Western vector. However, as I point out in the article, it’s not very good history.

You can read the article here. As always, constructive feedback is welcome.

Who Destroyed the USSR?

In my latest article for RT (that you can read here), I discuss the issue of who was responsible for the collapse of the USSR. Was it Gorbachev? Was it the hardliners who opposed him and mounted a coup in August 1991? Or was it Yeltsin and his liberal allies?

A bit of all the above, I conclude, before adding that the Soviet Union was in any case founded on a fundamentally flawed social-economic model that was ultimately unsustainable. So, if you’re going to blame anybody, blame the Bolsheviks!

I could have added that you can also blame Stalin for adding the Baltic states and Galicia to the Soviet Union. If they’d not been part of the Union, separatist tendencies would have been substantially less, and it might have been possible for the communist system to collapse and the country not split into 15 different parts at the same time. Maybe. On balance, I’d conclude that the territorial gains of 1945 were a huge mistake.

I am sure that there are other factors as well. As always, your thoughts on the issue are welcome.

Some Musings on Soviet Philosophy

The last few days have been one of those periods when three no. 57 buses have just gone past and you’re waiting and waiting for another one to come along – i.e. a bit of a drought in suitable blogging stories. So I thought I’d muse a little about what I’m reading, and about to read, at the moment.

As I progress in studying the subject of Russian liberalism, I have finally more or less completed my research into the Imperial period, and so have moved into the Soviet era, a time that was not at all conducive to liberal thinking. But something that one could call liberalism did appear in the USSR in the 1980s under Gorbachev. So where it did it come from? I don’t think that it makes sense to imagine that it just appeared out of nowhere fully formed some time around 1987. Clearly, some intellectual shifts had been going on for a while that then got a major boost by Gorbachev’s perestroika and glasnost. Which makes me wonder whether is something that could rightfully be called ‘Soviet liberalism’.

It’s with that in mind that I got hold of Mikhail Epstein’s recent book The Phoenix of Philosophy: Russian Thought of the Late Soviet Period, 1953-1991. I’ve got as far as reading about a guy with the name of Vladimir Lefebvre, who I’d have guessed was a Frenchman if Epstein didn’t tell me that he’s actually Russian.

Continue reading Some Musings on Soviet Philosophy

White ARmy, Black Baron

This weekend marks the one hundredth anniversary of the evacuation of Crimea by the White Russian Army of General Pyotr Wrangel. Although some sporadic fighting continued elsewhere in Russia for a few months thereafter, the evacuation marked the defeat of the last substantial White military force and so brought an effective end to the Russian Civil War.

Resistance to communist rule began almost immediately after Lenin’s Bolshevik Party seized power in the Russian capital Petrograd in November 1917, although it took a while for the resistance to gather strength. The initial centre of opposition was in southern Russia in the region of the Don and Kuban Cossacks, where Cossack forces allied with former Imperial army officers who formed the Volunteer Army. Together in due course, the Volunteers and Cossacks created the Armed Forces of Southern Russia (AFSR), led by General Anton Denikin. This was one of three main formations in the ‘White’ armies (so-called to distinguish them from the revolutionary ‘Reds’), the others being led by Admiral Kolchak in Siberia and General Iudenich in the Baltic region.

Denikin resigned as commander of the AFSR in early 1920 following a decisive defeat at the hands of the Red Army. He was succeeded by General Wrangel, who renamed the AFSR as the ‘Russian Army’. All that remained under the control of the Russian Army was, however, the peninsula of Crimea. After Poland invaded Russia in 1920, Wrangel was able to slightly expand his territory into southern Ukraine, but his position remained precarious.

General Pyotr Nikolaevich Wrangel

Wrangel had a reputation as a reactionary, being known in Bolshevik propaganda as the ‘Black Baron’. Belying this reputation, as ruler of Crimea Wrangel pursued what were called ‘leftist policies in rightist hands’. Denikin had largely ignored administrative, social, and economic issues, focusing on fighting the war. Historians have much criticized him for this, as this neglect is said to have contributed to chaos behind the White lines, which fatally weakened their cause.

Wrangel learnt from this and set about establishing a sound administration in the Crimea and enacting economic reforms, particularly in terms of giving peasants ownership of the land they tilled. In this he was helped by his Prime Minister, Alexander Krivoshein, who previously as Minister of Agriculture had been considered the most liberal of all the ministers in the pre-war Tsarist government. Other liberals also came to Wrangel’s assistance, an example being the philosopher and economist Pyotr Struve, who in his youth had been on quite chummy terms with Lenin and other Marxists and had even drafted the first manifesto of the Russian Social Democratic Party (which later morphed into the Communist Party). In 1920 he became Wrangel’s foreign minister.

None of this was sufficient to save the Whites. Once Poland and the Bolsheviks made peace, the latter were able to transfer their forces to the south to crush the Whites.  By 4 November 1920, they were ready to attack.

Wrangel was relying on the fact that Crimea is separated from southern Ukraine by only a very narrow strip of land (known as the Perekop) to compensate for his relative military weakness, as it would be difficult for the Red Army to amass many forces in such a confined space. Unfortunately for the Whites, an early onset of winter froze the shallow water of the Sea of Azov on the northeastern side of Crimea, allowing the Red cavalry to penetrate into the rear of the Whites. Within a few days of the start of the Red offensive, the position of the Whites in the Crimea had become untenable. On 13 November Wrangel ordered his troops to start embarking on the vessels of the Russian navy and to abandon Crimea. Over the next five days, nearly the entire army was successfully evacuated, and made sail for Constantinople and a life in exile. The Whites were defeated.

Nikolai Turoverov, an officer in the Life Guards Ataman Regiment, who had served in the White Army throughout the entire length of the civil war, described the final moments before evacuation in his poem ‘Crimea’:

Уходили мы из Крыма
Среди дыма и огня,
Я с кормы все время мимо
В своего стрелял коня.
А он плыл, изнемогая,
За высокою кормой,
Все не веря, все не зная,
Что прощается со мной.
Сколько раз одной могилы
Ожидали мы в бою.
Конь все плыл, теряя силы,
Веря в преданность мою.
Мой денщик стрелял не мимо,
Покраснела чуть вода…
Уходящий берег Крыма
Я запомнил навсегда.

——–

We left Crimea,

Amidst smoke and fire.

From the stern I shot my horse

But missed.

And he swam, exhausted,

Behind the high stern,

Not believing, not knowing,

That he was saying goodbye to me.

How many times in battle

We expected to share a single grave.

The horse kept on swimming, losing strength,

Believing in my devotion.

My batman didn’t miss.

The water turned red …

I’ll remember forever

Crimea’s departing shore.

Nikolai Turoverov

They need great upheavals – we need a great Russia!

As I continue my research into Russian liberalism, today I took another look at a famous speech to the Russian parliament by Prime Minister Pyotr Stolypin in May 1907. In contrast to the ‘street’ and ‘opposition’ liberals noted by Boris Chicherin in a piece I translated earlier on this blog, Stolypin was an exemplar of what Chicherin called okhranitel’nyi liberalism – supporting liberal measures and a strong state. Thus, he sought to restore stability to Russia following the troubles of the 1905 revolution by a combination of tough law and order on the one hand and liberal reform on the other.

Stolypin’s program included legislation to expand civil rights and an agrarian reform designed to turn peasants into individual property owners. Unfortunately, Stolypin’s program ran into opposition both from the reactionary right and the liberals and radicals on the left. Stolypin argued for giving peasants the right to exit the communes to which they belonged and turn the land they tilled into their own private property. The left instead insisted on keeping the commune, expropriating private and state land, and redistributing that land to peasants, but not as their private property. It was against this opposition that Stolypin delivered his speech of May 1907 in support of his agrarian reforms. I thought it worth publishing excerpts of it (the whole is too long), since, as far I can tell, it isn’t available online in English. So here it is.

Although the speech is more than 100 years old, if you want to understand the mentality of modern Russia’s ruling class, it’s not a bad place to start. Indeed, it is noticeable that Russian president Vladimir Putin has both quoted this speech and said that Stolypin is among the historical leaders that he most admires. Beyond that, it is, I think, an excellent speech for its statesmanlike qualities.

Excerpts from a speech by Pyotr Stolypin to the 2nd Duma, 10 May 1907 (From Thomas Riha ed., ‘Readings in Russian Civilization’)

Members of the State Duma … I think that all Russians who long for peace in their land desire a speedy solution to the problem which undoubtedly contributes to the growth of sedition and rebellion. Thus I will ignore all those insults and accusations which have been made here against the Government. Nor will I stop to discuss attacks which resembled hostile pressure on the regime. Nor will I discuss the principle of class revenge … which some here have advanced. Rather, I will try to take a statesman-like point of view, and will try to handle this question completely objectively, and even dispassionately.

Continue reading They need great upheavals – we need a great Russia!

No enemies to the left

‘Only when a genuine, complete un-freedom arrived – absolute and deadly – only then did we understand how free we had really been in Imperial Russia.’ (Ivan Ilyin)

Before 1917, Russian liberals believed that they were not free, and that they lived in an oppressive state which needed sweeping away. To this end, they adopted the slogan ‘No enemies to the left!’ While not engaging in political violence themselves, they refused ever to condemn it, except when carried out by the state or the political right. Regular readers will remember that I recently wrote a piece in which I mentioned the refusal of the leading liberal party of late Imperial Russia (the Kadets) to cooperate with the Tsarist government, a refusal which arguably led to their own destruction. I got a bit of pushback on this from a very eminent scholar, who with some justification noted that the Kadets were in a difficult position and that the primary reason for the disaster which eventually struck Russia was the reactionary stubbornness of the Tsarist authorities. That’s fair enough – there was blame enough all around. But as I continue reading about the era, I’m struck by the liberals’ attitude to revolutionary violence and so, having read an academic article today which touches on the subject, it is to that topic that I now turn.

The article in question, by Israeli scholar Shmuel Galai, calls the liberals’ refusal to condemn revolutionary violence ‘neither a very logical nor a defensible position.’ As Galai notes, the Kadets argued that ‘while they themselves did not subscribe to violence as a means of struggle, it was not the business of a political party to pass moral judgement on the actions of other parties or movements. They also argued that the savage policies of the government were responsible for the revolutionary violence.’ This was, of course, nonsensical – passing moral judgements on other political parties and movements is very much politicians’ business. Furthermore, the idea that you can criticize the government, but not revolutionary mobs, is simply preposterous. So what led to this absurd, and ultimately self-destructive, proposition (which the Kadets in any case didn’t respect, since they were more than happy to morally condemn the violence of right wing groups)?

Roughly speaking, one can divide the reasons into two categories: tactical/political and ideological. Let’s look at each in turn.

The liberals’ primary aim was to coerce the state into making sweeping political concessions. Peaceful measures having failed to get the government to compromise, the political violence of the revolutionaries was seen as useful, even necessary. As one leading liberal philosopher and political activist, Pyotr Struve, wrote: ‘when it comes to national liberation, both the revolutionary struggle and peaceful and moderate opposition cannot do without one another’. The Kadets’ leader Pavel Miliukov was equally clear, declaring that ‘Until political freedom comes [all the opposition] will make common front against the common enemy [i.e. the state]’. ‘We must act,’ he said, ‘each as he can and according to his own political convictions. Do as you like, but act! All means are now legitimate against the terrible threat latent in the very fact of the continued existence of the present government.’

‘We are for revolution as long as it serves the aims of political liberation and social reform, but we are against those who support permanent revolution,’ Miliukov said. In other words, the liberals hoped to use to revolutionary violence to force concessions from the state, at which point they imagined that they could jettison the revolutionaries as having served their purpose. This was, of course, extraordinarily naïve. The revolutionaries had absolutely no intention of being so jettisoned. And while the liberals felt that they needed the radicals, the reverse was far from being true.

Still, the liberals felt that to condemn revolutionary terror would not only weaken the struggle against the state but also undermine their own electoral prospects. Simply put, liberals and revolutionaries were competing for the same constituency. As historian William Rosenberg notes, the Kadets had to maintain their own internal cohesion and ‘maintain their electoral following and cater to popular militance.’ According to Rosenberg, therefore, ‘politics superseded ideology’ in determining the Kadets’ position.

This does not mean, however, that ideology played no role. Russian liberals were, by European standards, rather left-wing. Leftist revolutionaries might have been seen as mistaken in their choice of tactics, but they were regarded as wanting more or less the same things at the end of the day. In other words, their methods might have been wrong, but their hearts were in the right place. By contrast, the heart of the government was viewed as entirely rotten. For Russian liberals, therefore, the revolutionaries were not the enemy. The state was.

Few liberals had any doubts that Russia’s troubles were the government’s fault. Revolutionary violence was a symptom not a cause. Eliminate the cause (the government) and the symptom (the violence) would vanish also. What had to be condemned, therefore, was not the violence of the mob, but the violence of the state. Thus in a debate in the Russian parliament (the State Duma), Kadet deputy Vasily Maklakov argued that terror from above was more dangerous than terror from below, while another Kadet, Sergei Bulgakov, pronounced ‘that he abhorred violence from whichever side it came, but on the issue of terror, the government was mainly to blame. The moment it stopped wielding terror from above, the revolutionaries would cease their terror campaign from below.’

With hindsight, one shudders at the foolishness of Bulgakov’s words (to be fair to Bulgakov, like Struve, he later repented). In 1917, the liberals got their wish. The hated autocracy was overthrown. The ‘terror from above’ ceased. Civil liberties were granted. The prisons were emptied. The gendarmerie and other repressive organs of the state were abolished. And did the ‘terror campaign from below’ come to an end? No, not a bit – once the constraints were relaxed, the revolutionaries proved to have a will of their own, and rather than giving up and going home pressed forever onward. At that point, many liberals suddenly changed direction and swung to the right, looking for a strong man, such as General Kornilov, who could save them. But it was too late. Law and order, once hated and undermined, proved impossible to restore when its value became obvious, and the liberals and all they cherished were swept away, as Trotsky said, into the ‘dustbin of history’.

Joint Statement on the 75th Anniversary of the End of the Second World War

Co-signed by the foreign ministers of a bunch of Eastern European states, including Hitler’s one-time allies Hungary, Bulgaria, and Romania, the following statement of US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo appeared on the website of the US State Department yesterday, to mark the 75th anniversary of the end of the Second World War. Nazi Germany gets one brief mention. Thereafter, as you will see, it’s all ‘The Soviets were evil, the Soviets were evil’. To say the least it’s a very odd way of commemorating WW2. Just who does the State Department think was the enemy?

Best of all, stuffed in the middle is a complaint about ‘a regrettable effort to falsify history’. Go figure!

 

The following is a joint statement by the U. S. Secretary of State and the Foreign Ministers of Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Romania, and Slovakia.

Begin text:

Marking the 75th anniversary of the end of the Second World War in 2020, we pay tribute to the victims and to all soldiers who fought to defeat Nazi Germany and put an end to the Holocaust.

While May 1945 brought the end of the Second World War in Europe, it did not bring freedom to all of Europe. The central and eastern part of the continent remained under the rule of communist regimes for almost 50 years. The Baltic States were illegally occupied and annexed and the iron grip over the other captive nations was enforced by the Soviet Union using overwhelming military force, repression, and ideological control.

For many decades, numerous Europeans from the central and eastern part of the continent sacrificed their lives striving for freedom, as millions were deprived of their rights and fundamental freedoms, subjected to torture and forced displacement. Societies behind the Iron Curtain desperately sought a path to democracy and independence.

The events of 1956, creation and activities of the Charter 77, the Solidarity movement, the Baltic Way, the Autumn of Nations of 1989, and the collapse of the Berlin Wall were important milestones which contributed decisively to the recreation of freedom and democracy in Europe.

Today, we are working together toward a strong and free Europe, where human rights, democracy and the rule of law prevail. The future should be based on the facts of history and justice for the victims of totalitarian regimes. We are ready for dialogue with all those interested in pursuing these principles. Manipulating the historical events that led to the Second World War and to the division of Europe in the aftermath of the war constitutes a regrettable effort to falsify history.

We would like to remind all members of the international community that lasting international security, stability and peace requires genuine and continuous adherence to international law and norms, including the sovereignty and territorial integrity of all states.  By learning the cruel lessons of the Second World War, we call on the international community to join us in firmly rejecting the concept of spheres of influence and insisting on equality of all sovereign nations.

End text.

Book Review: Soviet Russians Under Nazi Occupation

For good reasons, the Second World War (or, as Russians call it, the Great Patriotic War) has become an important element in the mythology of Russian national identity. The combination of enormous human suffering, a decidedly evil enemy, and final absolute victory makes for a compelling story which allows Russians to take pride in the achievements of their predecessors. At the heart of the story lies a myth of the Russian people united as one against a common enemy. But as Johannes Due Enstad shows in his book Soviet Russians Under Nazi Occupation, reality was a little more complicated.

Enstad

Continue reading Book Review: Soviet Russians Under Nazi Occupation

Visualizing Russian conservatism

I’ve just finished doing the index for my book on Russian conservatism, and in the process I noticed that I had mentioned some names and terms much more often than I thought I had. Peter the Great, for instance, is the second most mentioned person in the book (Nicholas I is the most), and that’s odd because I don’t discuss him or his reign at all. In fact the book starts in the early 1800s, about 100 years after Peter. But it seems that the shadow he cast had such a powerful effect on nineteenth century Russian conservatives (who to a large degree were reacting against the process of Westernization that Peter set in motion) that his name kept cropping up regardless.

That got me thinking. It turns out that the index provides quite a useful tool in determining what persons and subjects my book addresses, and thus determining who and what are really important. So, with that thought in mind, I set about quantifying Russian conservatism by totalling the number of mentions people and ideas get in the book, and then producing some word clouds. The results provide a visual rendition of Russian conservatism past and present.

The first world cloud shows the persons and institutions which were most often mentioned in the book. The first thing which strikes one is the centrality of the Russian Orthodox Church. Beyond that, though, this word cloud is perhaps rather misleading as the most prominent names aren’t those of conservative philosophers but of Russian tsars, e.g. Peter the Great, Nicholas I, Alexander I, I, and III, and of the Communist Party and Vladimir Putin. In short, the dominant figures are Russia’s rulers. Yet, except for Nicholas I and Putin, I say very little about any of them. They get a lot of mentions, but they’re mostly in passing, as a way of providing context.

But that itself reveals something. An ideology like liberalism can be seen as abstract and absolute, that is to say that it embodies certain absolute, abstract ideas which are considered valid regardless of time and place. Conservatism by contrast is relative; it is what is called a ‘positional’ or ‘situational’ ideology – i.e. it depends on the given situation. Another way of looking at it is as a ‘reactive’ ideology – i.e. it’s a reaction to whatever is happening in the time in question. In short, with conservatism, context matters.

Word Art1a

Continue reading Visualizing Russian conservatism