I am often accused of equating modern Russia with the USSR. (For evidence, just look at the comments on some recent posts.) That’s bull. Like Stephen Blank, and Richard Hellie, I think that Putin’s Russia is much more a return to the traditions of Muscovy, and Imperial Tsarism, than the USSR. Most of the similarities between modern Russia and the USSR arise from the fact that the latter also inherited some Muscovite/Tsarist traits.
The words in the post title are Faulkner’s, written about the South. But it’s not really true of the US South any more. It is, however, very, very, true in Putin’s Russia. The latest evidence–and evidence of the historical continuity with Imperialist traditions–comes from Putin’s quite amazing performance at the Donsky Cemetery on 24 May, 2009:
Prime Minister Vladimir Putin yesterday laid flowers on the Moscow grave of General Anton Denikin, a White Russian leader whose opposition to the aspirations of non-Russian nations in the Russian Empire and unqualified commitment to the “indivisibility” of Russia opened the way for the victory of Vladimir Lenin and the Bolsheviks.
Indeed, it was Denikin’s unwillingness to make any concessions to non-Russian groups, combined with Lenin’s false promises of respect for national self-determination that led to the collapse of the anti-Bolshevik cause and allowed the communists to triumph, first at the expense of the Russians and then of the non-Russians among and around them.
And consequently, as several commentators have already pointed out, Putin’s latest remarks, including in particular his denigration of the separateness of Ukraine, are certain to drive many non-Russians away from Moscow, even if they appeal to Russians as “the [latest] end of the [Russian] civil war” and a reaffirmation of the continuity of Russian history.
Yesterday, Putin laid flowers on the graves of anti-Bolshevik generals Anton Denikin and Vladimir Kappel, Ã©migrÃ© nationalist philosophers Ivan Il’in and Ivan Shmelyev, and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn at Moscow’s Donskoy Cemetery. Accompanying him and relaying some of his words was Archimandrite Tikhon.
After laying flowers on the leader of the South Russia government, Putin quoted Denikin’s suggestion that “no one must be allowed to interfere in relations between us, big and little Russia, Ukraine. This was always an affair of Russia itself!” And he added that Denikin considered that any movement toward disunity was “impermissible.”
According to Tikhon, Putin “recalled how he had read the memoirs of Denikin in which the latter said that despite his hostility to Soviet power, even to think about the dismemberment of Russia was a crime, â€¦ especially when one is talking about the Little Russian land – Ukraine” (grani.ru/Politics/Russia/Cabinet/m.151488.html).
And the Russian Orthodox churchman added that Putin had given the money from his personal account for the restoration of the graves of Denikin, Il’in and Shmelyev. Several months ago, Tikhon said, Putin had seen pictures of the graves and decided that he had to intervene to support the preparation of new headstones.
During his visit, Putin praised Denikin and the others as leaders committed to the Russian state, noting that “the main thing which distinguished them was a deep and true love for the motherland, for Russia, true patriotism,” something that made them “heroic people” in what Putin conceded was “a tragic time.” [Emphasis added.]
This is of a piece with Putin’s sputtering, angry statement to President Bush that Ukraine is not even a state: ”Ukraine is not a state! What is Ukraine? Part of its territory is Eastern Europe, and part, a significant part, was given to it by us!”
Putin’s remarks–or, more accurately, his adoption of Denikin’s–also illustrate a point I’ve often made on SWP (thereby sparking outraged reactions from the self-styled Russophile set). Namely, the condescending, proprietary, paternal attitude that Great Russians take towards Ukrainians and the Ukraine. ”Little Russia.” What anachronistic, demeaning tripe.
This is also deeply disturbing, inasmuch as it reflects further evidence of a pattern, and an irredentist belief that the dissolution of the USSR–or, if you like, the Russian Empire–was illegitimate and definitely not irreversible. Combine this with the recent gas war, the threat to do it again (perhaps accompanied by a rousing chorus from the Red Army Choir), Ukraine’s bad economic conditions and dysfunctional politics, the Georgian War and its aftermath, Russian demands for a zone of special privilege, and on and on, and it is clear that all the ingredients are present for a significant ramping up of pressure on Ukraine, with very unpredictable consequences. Putin’s statement also resonates the revanchism implicit in Medvedev’s historical commission, which is motivated largely by a desire to legitimize Soviet actions in Eastern Europe in the aftermath of WWII; given Russia’s unabashed claiming of the Soviet legacy, this implies a legitimate claim of Russia in Eastern Europe over the objections of the region’s existing states.
The Orthodox angle is also another throwback to Muscovite/Tsarist times: the account of Putin’s trip to the cemetery comes from Archimandrite Tikhon, who accompanied Putin on his pilgrimage.
The potential for mischief here is great. Like many things, what is happening is overdetermined. I think that Putin has dreams (delusions?) of restoring Russian greatness; the economic crisis makes a foreign adventure an appealing distraction; control of Ukraine would remove a major threat to Putin’s dreams of energy dominance; and the weakness of Ukraine and the division and pusillanimity of the Europeans creates a target of opportunity. There are many reasons for Putin to make an aggressive move.
Not that the Ukrainians, or Eastern Europeans generally, will reciprocate Putin’s imperial desires. Indeed, as the linked article from Paul Goble notes, if anything it is likely to drive them even further from Russia, just as Denikin’s policies did. As I’ve said many times, Russia has yet to learn that you catch more flies with sugar than gall. But Putin has gall in abundance.
Learned nothing. Forgotten nothing. Not even past, indeed.