Tag Archives: Russia

Centering the Russian Slav by destroying Russian culture

As regular readers will know, I’m not much of a fan of the Soviet Union, but whatever my political biases, as a professional historian I’m above all in favour of historical accuracy. If historical accuracy requires me occasionally to come to the Soviets’ defence, then so be it. So, here goes.

The Washington Post published an op-ed yesterday by Terrell Jermaine Starr which drew parallels between Soviet nationalities policy and alleged attempts by modern-day Russia to stir up racial tensions in America. The message was pretty clear: the Soviets were not just racists, but specifically Russian racists. So you shouldn’t be surprised that modern day Russians are too. Let’s look at this in detail.

Starr begins saying that “The Washington Post reported recently that Russia-backed entities spent at least $100,000 on Facebooks ads designed to pit white, Trump-leaning Americans against Black Lives Matter activists and minorities in general. … We still don’t know exactly how any of these social media efforts informed American voting choices in 2016.” Here we run into an immediate problem: $100,000 is the total allegedly spent on Facebook ads, most of which had nothing to with pitting “white, Trump-leaning Americans against Black Lives Matter activists and minorities in general,” but involved things like a dog lovers site, and one of which – the “Blacktivist” account – supposedly actually complained about white racism against blacks (all part of “sowing divisions”, as is said). And over half the money was spent after the 2016 election, and so can’t have been about influencing the election at all.

But all that is by the by. What really interests me is what Starr gets onto next: a discussion of Soviet nationalities policy. “None of us should be surprised” by Russia’s Facebook shenanigans, Starr says, because:

As a Russian supremacist state, the former USSR understood very well how to weaponize racism. It wielded Russian homogeneity against its own minorities during its 70-plus years of existence.  … [the 15 Soviet republics] were nothing more than colonies of Moscow. One of the first things a colonizer does is center its ethnic superiority over the peoples it rules. During the early 1930s, Joseph Stalin waged “Holodomor” (or Holocaust) against Ukraine … The best numbers  have the death figure ta 4 million people, but some estimates have that figure upwards of 10 million. … Stalin … presided over a USSR that centered Russians as the leading ethnic group. … Soviet childrens books depicted African children in blackface and Africa as an uncivilized continent … In 1927 the Soviet Union engaged in a campaign demanding that women in Uzbekistan unveil. … the real motivation was to homogenize the population, which the Kremlin viewed as primitive and backwards, with Russian values. Soviet propaganda from the time depicts clerics in Uzbekistan as menacing and primitive in a clear case of Islamophobia. … Whether it was killing Ukrainians, “civilizing” Central Asian peoples or disparaging black peoples while pretending to treat them as equals, the USSR always centered the Russian slav. The Russian Federation is no different.

Let’s unpack this.

First, is it true that the USSR “wielded Russian homogeneity” against minority nations and “centered its [Russian] ethnic superiority” over them? Note how Starr’s examples are taken almost entirely from the Stalin era. Nationalities policy did indeed take a Great Russian turn at that time, but it was a relatively short-lived one. In the 1920s, and then from the 1950s onwards, the Soviet policy was one of “indigenization” (korenizatsiia). This encouraged the use of local languages and the development of a local national elite. In fact, the Soviets were responsible for spreading mass education in non-Russian languages, and in various cases of actually standardizing and creating a literary language for local peoples, precisely so that mass education in the local language could become possible. It is generally accepted by scholars of Soviet nationalities policy that the Soviet Union established the conditions for its own eventual collapse by in effect creating nationalities, national institutions, and national elites where none existed before.

Outside of the Stalin period, Great Russian nationalism had some supporters within the party leadership, but was generally frowned upon. In 1970, the Politburo itself stepped in to purge the editorial board of the journal Molodaia Gvardiia because it had overstepped the mark in promoting Russian nationalism. Party ideology chief Mikhail Suslov was a firm opponent of Russian nationalism, as was KGB head and later General Secretary of the Communist Party Yuri Andropov. And while the party purged the Russian nationalists, it provided a degree of protection for Lev Gumilev to publish his Eurasianist tracts which went out of their way to praise the qualities of the steppe peoples of the Soviet Union, such as the Tatars, Kazakhs, and Kyrgyz, tracts which earned Gumilev the insult “Tatar lover” from the nationalists. Soviet policy was far from promoting racism, let alone Russian nationalism.

Second, when it comes to the Holodomor, it’s interesting that Starr, after admitting that most historians assess the number of deaths as about 4 million, throws in the figure of 10 million as well, as if there is some justification for this much higher number. He also fails to mention the many Russians and Kazakhs who died at the same time.  The result is a distorted picture of reality.

Third, Starr may well be quite right about Soviet depictions of black people. It wouldn’t surprise me in the least. But it would hardly have made the Soviets uniquely racist, compared with how blacks were depicted in other countries.

Fourth, it makes no sense to describe the Soviets’ campaigns against Islamic traditions in Uzbekistan as an attempt to homogenize the Central Asian peoples “with Russian values.” The aim was to homogenize them with “Soviet values.” That isn’t the same thing at all. Yes, Soviet propaganda showed Muslim clerics as “menacing and primitive.” And yes, if you like, you can call that “Islamophobia.” But at the same time, Soviet propaganda was every bit as disparaging of Orthodox clerics. In 1916 there were 66,000 priests in Russia. In 1940, only 6,000. In 1916, there were 33,000 Orthodox parishes in Russia. In 1940, just 950. The Soviets practically wiped Orthodoxy out as a formal institution. If they were “Islamophobic”, they were “Orthodoxophobic” too.

That mattered because Orthodoxy was, and is, a central part of Russian national identity. In assaulting the Church, the Soviets assaulted the very core of Russia. They smashed up its historical heritage, tearing down monuments and destroying churches. Starr should look up “village prose” or read some of those Molodaia Gvardiia articles from the late 1960s, to get a sense of what many Russians felt the Soviet Union was doing to their heritage. When sculptor Sergei Konenkov, artist Pavel Korin, and writer Leonid Leonov, penned an article entitled “Guard our sacred objects!” denouncing Khrushchev’s anti-religious campaign and demanding the preservation of Russian historical monuments, they didn’t do it because they felt that Russia was in charge of the Soviet Union and “centering its ethnic superiority over the people it ruled.” They did it because they understood very well that the Soviet regime was a threat to Russian culture. And when Vladimir Soloukhin wrote his “Visit to the Russian Museum,” and complained of the destruction of Russian culture, he wasn’t doing so he thought that the Soviet Union “wielded Russian homogeneity against its own minorities,” but because he realized that traditional Russia was under threat.

The Soviet Union, then, didn’t always “center the Russian slav.” Its objective was the “merging” (sliianie) of the Soviet peoples into one common, Soviet, nationality, an objective which was as threatening to Russian national identity as to the identity of other peoples.

As for Starr’s idea that modern Russia follows a similar, racist, anti-non-Russian policy, it’s worth noting that when one examines the current situation, one finds that Russian nationalists don’t like the policies of the current Russian government at all. They don’t like that the government preaches that Russia is a multinational state, Rossiiskaia not Russkaia; they don’t like the freedom given to national regions within the Russian Federation to educate children in local languages; and they really don’t like the government’s policy of relatively open borders encouraging large scale immigration from Central Asia. From the nationalists’ perspective, the state doesn’t “center the Russian slav” at all.

Starr finishes his article with the following gem:

While I was visiting the western Ukrainian city of Lviv, in 2010, a man who appeared to be at least 80-years-old approached me on a busy downtown street and asked me if I knew the history of Ukraine. It was a broad question, but I welcome his insight. “Ukraine is a colony of Moscow and Russia wants to take it back.”

So this is Starr’s evidence – the word of one old man in Lviv. I guess it must be true then.



Yesterday the Canadian Senate passed the lengthily-titled Act to provide for the taking of restrictive measures in respect of foreign nationals responsible for gross violations of internationally recognized human rights and to make related amendments to the Special Economic Measures Act and the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act, more commonly known by its ‘short title’, Justice for Victims of Corrupt Foreign Officials Act (Sergei Magnitsky Law).

The Act gives the government of Canada the authority to seize, freeze, or sequestrate the property of a foreign national in the event that the said foreign national does any of the following things:

(a) is responsible for, or complicit in, extrajudicial killings, torture or other gross violations of internationally recognized human rights …

(b) … acts as an agent of or on behalf of a foreign state in a matter relating to an activity described in paragraph (a);

(c) … is responsible for, or complicit in, ordering, controlling, or otherwise directing, acts of significant corruption. …; or

(d) … has materially assisted, sponsored, or provided financial, material or technological support for, or goods or services in support of, an activity described in paragraph (c).

On the face of it, this is all very fine. If people are responsible for “extrajudicial killings, torture, or other gross violations of internationally recognized human rights,” or for “acts of significant corruption,” then why should Canadians tolerate them? Aren’t sanctions against them a perfectly reasonable response?

It’s hard to argue against that. If one does, one appears to be saying that “gross human rights violations” and “significant corruption” are perfectly fine, which of course they’re not. So what could possibly be wrong with this Act?

Continue reading Grandstanding

All Russians are spies

A couple of weeks ago, after attending a showing of the Russian TV talk show Vremia pokazhet, British journalist Angus Roxburgh complained that what he saw shocked even as hardened and cynical a Russia-watcher as him. ‘Xenophobia, fear, and intimidation’ were what he witnessed, he said.

I confess to be an occasional Vremia pokazhet watcher. It’s hard to understand what people are saying half the time, as the show tends to descend into a shouting match. But that’s kind of the point. There’s always a vigorous debate. It’s not just somebody spouting the official line, although it has to be said that the official line tends to win out when the dust settles. But let’s engage in a little bit of whataboutism. Would Mr Roxburgh be equally shocked if he spent some time watching American TV? Would he come across ‘xenophobia, fear, and intimidation’ there?

Let’s take a look.

A couple of days ago, CNN interviewed Congressman Mike Quigley. This is what Quigley had to say:

When you meet with any Russians, you’re meeting with Russian intelligence and therefore President Putin.

Continue reading All Russians are spies

Russian world-views

A couple of years ago I was pretty unkind about a report about Russia published by the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS). This report was the product of a workshop CSIS had held on the subject. I wasn’t invited to the workshop, nor was I to another one which CSIS held recently, also on the subject of Russia. But I have been sent a copy of the report, entitled Russian World-Views: Domestic Power Play and Foreign Behaviour. You can read it online here.  It’s better than the last one, but I still have a few issues with it.

The report is a summary of the views expressed at the most recent workshop by four anonymous experts from Europe and North America (though, based on what they wrote, I’m pretty sure who some of them are). Because of this one shouldn’t read this document as representing CSIS’s official opinion, nor as that of the Government of Canada. It’s just what a bunch of people told CSIS. Still, it’s interesting in the sense that it gives one a flavour of the type of analysis that government officials receive.

Continue reading Russian world-views

Threat perceptions

The US Defense Intelligence Agency has issued a report entitled Russia. Military Power: Building a Military to Support Great Power Aspirations, which you can read here. This has the following to say about Russia’s strategic objectives:

Moscow seeks to promote a multi-polar world predicated on the principles of respect for state sovereignty and non-interference in other states’ internal affairs, the primacy of the United Nations, and a careful balance of power preventing one state or group of states from dominating the international order.

You might say that this is a statement of the blindingly obvious, but what is interesting is what it doesn’t say, that is anything on the lines of “Russia is an aggressive, imperialist power bent on invading her neighbours, restoring the Soviet empire, and destroying the existing international system.” The statement that Russia supports the “primacy of the United Nations” and a “balance of power” in order to maintain the “international order” is quite a striking riposte to the often-repeated claim that Russia seeks to overthrow “the rules-based global system.”

Next the report analyzes ‘Russia’s threat perceptions’, and notes that Russia’s actions “belie a deeply entrenched sense of insecurity regarding a United States that Moscow believes is intent on undermining Russia at home and abroad.” Furthermore:

Russia also has a deep and abiding distrust of U.S. efforts to promote democracy around the world and what it perceives as a U.S. campaign to impose a single set of global values. Moscow worries that U.S. attempts to dictate a set of acceptable international norms threatens the foundations of Kremlin power by giving license for foreign meddling in Russia’s internal affairs. … Moscow views the United States as the critical driver behind the crisis in Ukraine and the Arab Spring and believes that the overthrow of former Ukrainian President Yanukovych is the latest move in a long-established pattern of U.S.-orchestrated regime change efforts, including the Kosovo campaign, Iraq, Libya, and the 2003–05 “color revolutions” in Georgia, Ukraine, and Kyrgyzstan.

This is also pretty obvious, and one doesn’t need a $4 billion a year agency to come up with this stuff, but it’s interesting that at least somebody in the American security establishment is willing to admit that people elsewhere in the world don’t all appreciate what the United States is doing. Unfortunately, all intelligence agencies can do is point out the facts. It’s up to politicians to decide what to do about them. If the evidence of the past is anything to go by, they aren’t too interested in hearing the other side’s point of view. This report will no doubt raise alarms in Washington about how Russia is modernizing its armed forces. What the report has to say about why Russia is doing so will probably be ignored.

Murder most foul

Russian agents are running around Britain assassinating people with impunity, claims Buzzfeed in a series of articles published in the past week. The British authorities have ‘deliberately sidelined’ evidence indicating murder and passed off all the cases as death by natural causes. Buzzfeed, however, believes that it knows better, having been informed by ‘high ranking US intelligence officials’ that at least 14 people ‘have been assassinated on British soil by Russia’s security services or mafia groups, two forces that sometimes work in tandem.’

Let’s take a look.

In its first article, Buzzfeed looked at the case of Alexander Perepilichny, who died while out jogging in 2012. Perepilichny had previously helped launder money in the infamous case involving Sergei Magnitsky before fleeing to Britain and becoming a whistleblower. His death is currently the subject of an inquest, at which his wife has said that she does not believed that he was poisoned. Why does Buzzfeed think differently?

First, although the original autopsy revealed nothing suspicious in Perepilichny’s stomach, a later examination by an ‘independent plant expert’ identified traces of the toxin gelsemium. It is speculated that Perepilichny died after ingesting the toxin in a soup he ate just before going running, but that is only speculation. Furthermore, if Perepilichny was murdered, there is nothing in the Buzzfeed report to link that to the Russian state, rather than to crime syndicates, who were allegedly extremely angry at Perepilichny for blowing the whistle on their money laundering schemes. The assumption is just that the Russian state and the Russian mafia are one and the same thing. But nowhere is the connection proven.

Beyond that, though, the only evidence Buzzfeed is able to bring forward to justify the claim of murder is that ‘US spies said they have passed MI6 high-grade intelligence indicating that Perepilichnyy was likely “assassinated on direct orders from Putin or people close to him”.’ In other words, the entire story is based on accusations of anonymous officials in a completely different country, without any reference to the evidence used to justify the accusations. In short, it doesn’t amount to very much, but it sets the pattern for Buzzfeed’s other pieces – no actual evidence, but links between the dead men and organized crime (not, mark you, the Russian state), and unsubstantiated claims from ‘anonymous US officials’.

The second Buzzfeed article focuses on the case of Scot Young, an associate of Boris Berezovsky, who threw himself out of a window in London. Buzzfeed suggests that he was murdered by Russian agents, though just why isn’t very clear. And again, the online magazine doesn’t produce any forensic or other evidence to justify its case. Rather, it just says that ‘Four high-ranking American intelligence sources told BuzzFeed News they suspect Young was assassinated.’ Yet, the information in the article points in an entirely different direction.

Continue reading Murder most foul