Tag Archives: Soviet Union

Institutionalizing the West

On Saturday I took part in an online conference organized by the Canadian Foreign Policy Institute on the topic “Why Canada Should Leave NATO,” which you can watch on Facebook here . Note that the conference title was not phrased as a question! To be honest, I was a bit of a fish out of water, ideologically speaking, in this group, but it gave me a chance to develop my ideas on the topic of NATO in light of some recent reading I’ve been doing.

I mentioned a few posts ago that I was in the process of reading some works on late Soviet thought and the origins of perestroika, for instance Robert English’s book “Russia and the Idea of the West.” What I got out of all that is that among dissidents and what one might call “enlightened bureaucrats” of the late Soviet era, there was a strong desire to “return to the West” as it were. A certain element within the Soviet intelligentsia, some of whom were to strongly influence the last Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, wished to end what they considered to be their country’s isolation from the West, and to reintegrate with it, so that Russia could again become a “European” country.

In another book I read last week, Daniel Thomas’ “The Helsinki Effect,” Thomas shows how this desire then collided with the fact that the Soviet Union had agreed in 1975 to include human rights in the Helsinki Final Act. With this, human rights became a norm of international relations, leading to a situation in which Soviet reformers who wanted to “return to Europe” concluded that such a return was impossible without a liberalization of the Soviet Union, to bring the country into conformity with these new international standards.

Thomas thus concludes that Western pressure on human rights did have an effect on the Soviet leadership. But I think that one needs to go one step further. It had this effect only because there was an influential element within the Soviet leadership that yearned to be part of the West and believed that if it did the West wanted it would be appropriately rewarded. This situation, I think, is not the case to day.

Sadly for the Soviet reformers, it didn’t work out the way they wanted. The Soviet Union reformed, then collapsed, but it never became part of the West. In fact, something else happened.

Historically speaking, the West has never been a real thing, in the sense of actually existing anywhere other than in peoples’ minds. The West – and more narrowly, Europe – has been more of an idea than anything else. As such it was always possible for Russia to be part of it, if it so chose.

Moreover, politically Europe was always divided. Alliances came and went in ever changing combinations, and Russia could be part of the European network of international relations as one of the members of this continually fluctuating system. When the Iron Curtain came down across Europe in the late 1940s, the situation changed, with Europe divided into two rigid blocs. But the collapse of communism seemed to provide an opportunity for Russia to once again join in the wider European system.

What actually happened, though, was something different. The institutions of Western Europe – the EU and NATO – spread eastwards up to Russia’s borders, in effect dividing Europe into two pieces – “Europe” and Russia. In the process, the West, which had previously only been an idea, became institutionalized, and institutionalized in such a way as to permanently exclude Russia.

We are therefore now in an entirely new historical situation – something that I don’t think that most people understand. The problem with EU and NATO expansion is not that they threaten Russia, but that they have institutionalized the dichotomy between Russia and the West. This has serious implications.

There is no point in modern-day Russian reformers arguing like their Soviet forebears that that they need to change the way that the Russian government operates in order to facilitate Russia’s “return to Europe”. Such a return is now impossible. For the same reason, it’s naïve of people in the West to imagine that the human rights agenda today can have the same impact that it did in the 1970s and 1980s. Beyond that, the institutionalizing of the West can in the long term only weaken Russians’ sense that they are Western, and so weaken also their desire to seek the West’s approval.

This is, of course, not an irreversible process. For now, Russia for the most part still looks West. But the more the institutionalized West seeks to exclude Russia, and the more that the new Iron Curtain solidifies, the harder it will be to convince Russians that they have a European future. In this context, it’s difficult to see how a new generation of Westernizing reformers could come to power in the way of the enlightened bureaucrats of Gorbachev’s era.

Of course, few people saw Gorbachev and co. coming, so you never know. It could yet happen. But I wouldn’t bet the house on it. The situation now is very different, and in some respects not for the better.

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.

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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.

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

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False equivalencies

The 80th anniversary of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact a few days ago had the Canadian press energized into one of its regular frenzies of Russia-bashing. These tend to be rather repetitive and unoriginal, and as such best ignored. But this time round it took a particular form which I think is worth some examination.

First out was former Conservative minister Chris Alexander in an article in the Globe and Mail. In this he told readers that Vladimir Putin’s goal was to ‘discredit democracy … [and] bolster dictatorship as an alternative’, adding that ‘no country has embraced this kind of trespass – warfare, really – with greater abandon than Vladimir Putin’s Russia’. What inspires Putin, claims Alexander, is ‘Stalinist nostalgia’. The Russian president and his acolytes look to a ‘world in which Stalin is a model … today’s Kremlin refuses to accept any criticism of either Stalin or Mr Putin. That’s because their actions have been so similar’.

Alexander continues that ‘Free historical inquiry into the Second World War has been all but shut down in Russia’. He then links this to the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, claiming that this provides the model for Russia’s ‘invasions’ of Georgia and Ukraine. Thus,

Far from absorbing the lessons of Stalin’s deadly embrace of Hitler, today’s Kremlin is reprising it by illegally annexing territory, aggressively undermining democracy and vaingloriously touting a toxic cult of personality as a model for the world. The ‘end of history’ … has given way to the ‘end of logic’, with Stalin’s dark role now inspiring a widening tragedy under Mr. Putin.

Following in Chris Alexander’s wake, Canadian-Estonian activist Marcus Kolga had much the same to say in the Toronto Sun. Kolga has a real chip on his shoulder about the way that Russians misrepresent the Second World War, in particular their weird belief that the Soviet Union ‘liberated’ eastern Europe from the Nazis. Kolga wishes to disabuse us of this fiction, and to this end tell us, like Alexander, that ‘Putin has overseen an aggressive rehabilitation of Stalin’s bloody legacy, and the rewriting of history to officially erase dangerously inconvenient historical facts, such as the Nazi-Soviet Pact.’ To Kolga, fascism and communism were really one and the same thing. As he writes:

In a September 1939 editorial, The New York Times reacted to the signing of what’s become known as the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, suggesting that ideologically, the Nazis and Soviets were not that far apart stating that ‘Hitlerism is brown communism, Stalinism is red fascism.’ Italian fascist leader Benito Mussolini shared that view, believing that Stalin had shifted the Soviet Union away from Bolshevism to a form of fascism in October 1939.

It’s not often that one reads someone quoting Mussolini approvingly, but there you have it. The Soviets didn’t liberate eastern Europe. They merely replaced one form of fascism with another. By claiming otherwise, ‘Vladimir Putin’ and others ‘distort history and truth’.

Canadian-Ukrainian professor Lubomyr Luciuk agrees. Writing in the Vancouver Sun, he informs us that not just Putin but also,

Moscow shills and their fellow travellers are more than duplicitous. They are dangerous. For they are trying to rewrite the history of the Second World War, to obfuscate not just the dates on which the war began, and ended, but to confound us about who the villains were. They are spreading fake news here, today, across Canada.

Most of those who died in the Soviet Union during World War Two ‘were not Russian’, says Luciuk. The greatest losses were in Ukraine and Belarus. More importantly, though,

We must not forget that the Soviet Union was not our ally when the Second World War began. On that date, Stalin stood with Hitler … we must never forget that Moscow’s men not only fuelled the Second World War but joined our side only after the holocaust they had stoked began to burn their empire down. Let us not forget that, at least not today.

As I see it, there are two things going on in these articles. The first is an effort to equate contemporary Russia with the Soviet Union, in particular the Soviet Union under Stalin, by means of claims that Putin is ‘rehabilitating’ Stalin. The second is an attempt to equate communism and Nazism. Put together, the net effect is to equate contemporary Russia with Nazi Germany, and Putin with Hitler.

The problem with this approach is that it’s based on falsehood. As I’ve pointed out on numerous occasions, the idea that Putin is rehabilitating Stalin is entirely untrue. (There is more than enough evidence to prove this point, but rather than repeat it all here, I refer you instead to my recent post on the issue). More broadly, equating contemporary Russia with the Soviet Union, let alone the Soviet Union under Stalin, is absurd. Attempts to claim otherwise can be the result only of either willful ignorance or deliberate deceit.

What then of the effort to equate communism and Nazism? Superficially, one can see the attraction. After all, both the Soviets and the Nazis engaged in acts of conquest in Eastern Europe, and their conquests were accompanied by widespread repression. But once you start looking at the matter more closely, you see that the comparison is devoid of merit. The Nazis came intending genocide; the Soviets did not. The Nazis sought to eliminate all the signs and institutions of statehood of the conquered peoples; the Soviets did not – while they absorbed the Baltic states and parts of Belarus and Ukraine, they preserved those states as autonomous entities within their Union, and likewise when they overran countries like Poland, Romania, and Hungary they maintained them as independent states. This was far removed from Nazi practice.

Furthermore, the Nazis came as colonizers. Not only did they aim to displace the existing population, but they were interested in their captured territories only in terms of extracting resources. By contrast, the Soviets invested heavily in developing the lands they occupied, creating industry, educating the population, and supporting cultural endeavours. It could well be argued that they didn’t do a very good job of it, but the difference in intent was enormous – the one overtly destructive; the other, at least in theory, constructive.

Alexander, Kolga and Luciuk all make reference to historical truth, which they contrast with Russian ‘disinformation’. In reality, though, they peddle a simplistic, propagandistic, and untrue story designed to inflame international tensions. Those who rewrite the past are ‘dangerous’, Luciuk tells us. On that at least, I have to agree with him.

A Tale of Two Museums

Back in June, my students and I had the good fortune to receive a guided tour of the Russian State Duma. The highlight for many of the students was a meeting with hockey legend (and Duma deputy) Vladislav Tretyak, but far more of our time was spent participating rather unexpectedly in an opening ceremony for a new institution – the Soviet Lifestyle Museum.

soviet life
Display case for Soviet Lifestyle Museum

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We’ll keep the red flag flying here

So, we’re watching the latest episode of Shadowhunters last night and when the action moves to Siberia we’re surprised to see a red flag flying. My first thought is ‘Don’t the Americans realize that Russia isn’t the Soviet Union anymore?’ And then my second thought is, ‘And, anyway, the flag’s flying back to front’. But then I look closer and see that it’s not quite the Soviet flag, as there’s a yellow circle around the hammer and sickle, which I think is meant to depict two sheaves of wheat. The only reference to such a flag I’ve been able to find is on a website called ‘incorrect depictions of the Soviet flag’. Would anybody care to tell me if there is such a flag, why the director of Shadowhunters might imagine it to be flying in modern day Siberia, and why it’s flying back to front? Is it a clever way of indicating to those in the know that the action isn’t taking place in our version of reality?  Or is it just what some people like to call an ‘epic fail’? Let know what you think.

red flag

Never-ending obsession

I don’t often read the Lawyers, Guns, and Money blog, but today one of its commentators inadvertently pointed me in the direction of something quite striking. In a discussion of gun control, a comment provided a link to a 1981 article in the Finger Lake Times (a local newspaper in upstate New York) by the historian Paul Fussell (who wrote a very interesting book entitled The Great War and Modern Memory). As it happens, on the same page there is also an article by former Under-Secretary of State George W. Ball, famous for having been almost the only person in the administration of Lyndon B. Johnson to have opposed escalating the war in Vietnam. Ball’s article bears the headline, ‘The obsession with Soviet Communism’, and it’s well worth a read. Substitute ‘Soviet Union’ with ‘Russia’ and you’ll understand why. Here are some highlights from what Ball wrote:

John Foster Dulles is alive and well and living in the White House. Once again we hear his passionate charge that the Soviet Union is the anti-Christ threatening civilization with a pernicious doctrine. The Soviets, we are told … are responsible for all our international troubles … Detente … is a deceit … Our only hope is to scar the desert with the MX and mobilize our allies for Armageddon.

So now once more, we shiver in the icy winds of the Cold War. Diplomacy is for sissies, a resolute America must build more and bigger weapons, while meanwhile arming any regime – no matter how corrupt or oppressive – that shouts anti-Communist slogans.

… Such an attitude is not a policy but an obsession. … Our incessant and quite gratuitous hectoring of Moscow is alienating our Western allies and encouraging the emergence of an ominous neutralism.

… The administration seems bent on persuading the Soviet Union that it foresees an unlimited arms race and has lost interest in peaceful working relations. … In its total effect, the administration’s current position denies all hope of a better future. … We have been lucky so far that we have not yet blown up the world but it is statistically absurd to think that such luck can last forever.

Some things never change, it seems!