Streetwise Professor

May 25, 2009

“The Past is Never Dead. It’s Not Even Past.”

Filed under: Politics,Russia — The Professor @ 4:39 pm

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, émigré 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, … especially when one is talking about the Little Russian land – Ukraine” (

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.

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  1. Meanwhile Russia has food inflation ten times — yes, TEN TIMES — that of Europe.

    Putin promised to avoid this kind of thing, at the cost of sacrificed civil liberties. Now, he has in fact given Russia the worst of all possible worlds, just as was the case with Russia’s prior rulers. Russians repeat their past mistakes over and over, collapsing over and over, until only dust will remain.

    Comment by La Russophobe — May 25, 2009 @ 5:18 pm

  2. And if you think Russians are getting quality food for those soaring prices, think again:,0,2568746.story

    Read it and weep, Russophile filth. But you won’t weep, will you, because you couldn’t care less about the people of Russia. That’s why you rationalize those who inflict this grievous suffering upon them.

    Feeling the pain, open revolt is spreading among Russia’s oppressed masses:

    Suffering just as they were in Tsarist times.

    Oh woe is Russia!

    Comment by La Russophobe — May 25, 2009 @ 5:25 pm

  3. Yet another regathering of the Russian lands? About time.

    Though we obviously disagree on the desirability of it, how, and to what extent, do you think they’ll (try to) do it, SWP?

    Comment by Sublime Oblivion — May 25, 2009 @ 7:04 pm

  4. Anecdotal evidence –

    Medvedev, or Putvedev, has mentioned the “holy duty” to defend moozer Rasha – against what?

    Well, there are emails now floating all over the place.

    What is the current great scourge of Russia? The Fourth Reich – that’s right, the European Union was “predicted,” it is the Fourth Reich, and it is designed and calculated to take over Russia.

    This “prophecy” and the “call to arms” is right in line with typical xenophobic and paranoid Russia.

    Comment by elmer — May 25, 2009 @ 7:39 pm

  5. S/O:

    I give an attempt better than 50 percent odds, but it is unlikely that it will be, in the first instance, military. Instead, a combination of economic pressure–especially through energy–and political subversion, culminating in the runup to the next Ukrainian presidential election. And, perhaps, a stirring of the pot in Crimea.

    Will it succeed? I won’t hazard a guess now. Depends in large part on whether such efforts revive the fractured Orange coalition, and prod the Europeans into action.

    You also assume that Ukraine (and presumably other areas–the Baltics?) are “Russian lands.” Pretty pretentious.

    The ProfessorComment by The Professor — May 25, 2009 @ 8:06 pm

  6. I agree re-economic pressure. It will in fact most likely be justified since current estimates are that Ukraine’s GDP fell by an amazing 20-25% in Q1, so I don’t see how they will find the money to pay for gas supplies, even at reduced prices, when they are already having so many budgetary problems. Recently Putin suggested the Europeans lend Ukraine money themselves, which of course they will not do.

    On the other hand, I don’t really see how you could exploit this effectively politically – what do you have in mind, exactly, when you speak of “political subversion”? Signs are that Russia is splitting its support between Timoshenko and Yanukovich, and the former is becoming much more pro-Russian of late (I’ve always viewed her as a 100% opportunist) – so current reality on the ground dictates that it is almost certain that Ukraine will move geo-politically closer to Russia in the next few years. But how exactly could Putvedev use this window of opportunity to recreate a Russian Empire, in the sense of a unitary Eurasian state? (If that is indeed one of their long-term goals – I’m not sure how seriously, ultimately, they take their occasional rhetoric).

    So I’m not necessarily disagreeing with your thesis, just interested in more details as to how you see it playing out.

    And re-“Russian lands”, it’s was just another of the shock jock comments I like making to liven this place up.

    Comment by Sublime Oblivion — May 25, 2009 @ 8:56 pm

  7. S/O–

    I’ll respond to the more detailed questions tomorrow. Just one quick comment now. So, you say something outrageous/provocative/shock-jocky, and it’s livening this place up. I say something, and I’m a degenerate. Is that how it goes? Just calibrating the double standard;-)

    The ProfessorComment by The Professor — May 25, 2009 @ 9:40 pm

  8. […] helped him read Putin’s soul. In other words, don’t believe your lying eyes and ears “The Past is Never Dead. It’s Not Even Past.” – 05/25/2009 I am often accused of equating modern Russia with the USSR. […]

    Pingback by Ладушки.Net » Blog Archive » Posts about Putin as of 26/05/2009 — May 26, 2009 @ 2:13 am

  9. “It will in fact most likely be justified since current estimates are that Ukraine’s GDP fell by an amazing 20-25% in Q1, so I don’t see how they will find the money to pay for gas supplies, even at reduced prices, when they are already having so many budgetary problems. Recently Putin suggested the Europeans lend Ukraine money themselves, which of course they will not do.”

    It’s amazing how many absurd lies the Russophile filth can pack into such small statements. Here’s something by way of actual facts:

    (1) Russia’s GDP fell 23% in the same period.

    (2) Russia is going begging the Europe for money to pay basic living expenses in next year’s budget as its reserve fund evaporates.

    (3) Russia can’t sell gas to anyone. Demand has evaporated, prices are plummetting and Gazprom has cut its dividend by nearly 90%.

    (4) The only reason Ukraine is having economic difficulties is because of Russian exploitation, dating all the way back to the genocide of Holodomor and right up through the attempt by Russia to assassinate Victor Yuschenko. What is Russia’s excuse for its own economic collapse?

    Please stop lying. Or at least do it a little better. You make Russia look like nation of apes.

    Comment by La Russophobe — May 26, 2009 @ 6:26 am

  10. @LR,

    You fail as usual.

    1. Russia’s GDP fell by 9.5% and Ukraine’s fell by ip to 30% in Q1 2009, both relative to Q1 2008.

    The 23% figure you refer to is the seasonally unadjusted Q4 2008 / Q1 2009, and as such pretty meaningless.

    2. International Reserves* of the Russian Federation in 2009
    23.01.2009 = 386.5
    15.05.2009 = 391.3

    #3 and #4 are similarly delusional and not really worthy of response.

    Comment by Sublime Oblivion — May 26, 2009 @ 2:39 pm


    Russia no longer has a real currency or stock market, they rise and fall in helpless lock step with the price of oil as determined by international markets.

    Russia is no longer a real country, but rather just a shadow of the world oil markets. It may as well cease to exist.

    Comment by La Russophobe — May 26, 2009 @ 5:05 pm


    I’m referring to BUDGETARY reserves, not FOREX reserves, you hopless moron. The government itself has admitted budgetary reserves will exhaust in 2010. You simply can’t think at all, can you? It’s kind of sad and pathetic.

    Does your PhD in economics tell you that 23% is meaningless? Oddly, SWP’s PhD tells him otherwise. So do the empty bellies of Russians who are eating garbage. But you wouldn’t know about that since you’ve never lived the life of an ordinary Russian.

    Your gibberish is embarrassing to the people of Russia, as are your sad little boy smears. If you really cared about Russia, you’d shut up and crawl back under your dark little rock.

    Comment by La Russophobe — May 26, 2009 @ 5:08 pm

  13. Wow! Russia had DOUBLE-DIGIT GDP DECLINE in April and now expects a DOUBLE DIGIT BUDGET DEFICIT.

    And that’s just what the Kremlin will ADMIT! Dare you imagine how bad things REALLY are?

    The Kremlin also admits that GDP contraction this year will be FOUR TIMES WORSE than it predicted four months ago.

    Vladimir Putin, utterly unqualified, has mismanaged his country into the poorhouse, and his only response is to restrict media and even history reporting.

    Comment by La Russophobe — May 26, 2009 @ 5:26 pm

  14. I’ve just discovered that Google has a very capable website translation tool.

    Just enter text or a webpage URL and select languages.

    Here is a translated article about genocide of Ukrainians.

    I’d advise everyone who wants to learn more about Russia to translate and read

    After that read the same site in English.

    There is a very big difference in presentation.

    Russian bear turned into a poisonous snake.
    Our president, O’Bum, needs to pay attention.
    I bet a dollar by the end of O’Bum’s turn Russia will become much stronger, and the US much weaker.

    Here is a good solution.
    Print money and invest in the arms race.
    When we are talking about our long-term survival, inflation be damned.
    Because in the long run advances in technology – financed by Pentagon – will bring more good than whatever bad will happen because of inflation.

    Comment by Michael Vilkin — May 26, 2009 @ 7:37 pm

  15. Well, Russian never stops fighting about the past – in order to influence the present. Russia reaches back to Denikin, and freaks out over Mazepa.

    Ukraine is putting up a monument to one of its great leaders, Ivan Mazepa. There have been books, poems and an opera written about Mazepa. The Rooskies HATE Mazepa, view him as a “traitor,” and the Russian Halloween oily Orthodox church even excommunicated him for being a “traitor” to Russia, because he stood up for Ukraine.

    Here’s the article –

    Russia reaches back to Denikin, Mazepa in fight

    Ukraine and Russia can’t seem to agree on anything of late. Natural gas payments, the Ukrainian language, Ukraine’s participation in European Union projects – everything seems to be annoying Moscow.

    Debates over the complicated history between both nations are no exception. The newest standoff has been triggered by Kyiv’s decision to have a statue erected to Hetman Ivan Mazepa, a Kozak leader in 17th-century Ukraine. Political analysts say that Moscow’s protests over Mazepa’s rehabilitation reflect a deep desire to keep Ukraine within Russia’s cultural and historical orbit.

    Mazepa was the hetman, or leader, of the Kozaks who inhabited the central and northeastern regions of modern-day Ukraine in the 17th and 18th centuries. He is credited with uniting the warriors from the left and right banks of the Dnipro River. When the Kozak Hetmanate came under threat from the Poles in 1708, Mazepa broke from previous ally Peter The Great, the Russian czar, who refused to supply a significant force to help with defense. Allied with the Swedes and the Poles, Mazepa lost a decisive battle against Russian forces at Poltava in 1709.

    A statue in his honor will be unveiled on Independence Day on Aug. 24 in Poltava, two months after the 300th anniversary of the battle. “It’s not by chance,” said Valeriy Asadchev, chairman of the regional state administration in Poltava. “Mazepa played an extraordinarily important role in the formation of our nation.”

    During the Soviet period, Mazepa was denounced as a traitor and a Ukrainian nationalist. But since the country declared independence in 1991, he has been portrayed in a more favorable light. On March 20, Mazepa’s 370th birthday, President Victor Yushchenko said that it was time to dispel the myth of his treason. He emphasized Mazepa’s wish for an independent Ukraine and his cultural achievements. “Ukraine was coming to life as a country of European cultural traditions,” he said.

    Moscow is unimpressed. The Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs last week issued a statement condemning the rehabilitation of Mazepa, calling on Ukrainians not to be drawn into “an artificial and contrived confrontation with Russia.”

    “We would like to remind the Ukrainian leadership that games with history, particularly with a nationalistic background, have never led to anything good. Trying to re-write the common Russian-Ukrainian history, Ukrainian authorities split society rather than uniting it,” the ministry said in a statement.

    In recent weeks, Russia has made a number of moves to shore up the dominance of its views of history. On May 20, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev ordered the creation of a presidential commission “to counter attempts to harm Russian interests by falsifying history.”

    Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin weighed in with his take on the two counties’ shared history on May 24. In an unusual exchange with reporters in Moscow, he recommended that they read the diaries of Anton Denikin, a commander in the White Army that fought the Bolsheviks following the Russian Revolution in 1917.

    “He has a discussion there about Big Russia and Little Russia – Ukraine,” Putin said, according to Russian newswires, after laying a wreath at Denikin’s grave. “He says that no one should be allowed to interfere in relations between us; they have always been the business of Russia itself.”

    Putin’s words were seen as an attempt to warn the West not to interfere in Ukraine. Experts say that Russia consistently uses its strong historical and cultural links with Ukraine as a justification for what Medvedev has called his country’s “privileged interests” in the region.

    “Russia sees Ukraine as a large threat,” said Olexandr Paliy, a political analyst with the Institute of Foreign Policy at the Ukrainian Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ Diplomatic Academy. “For 300 years they have tried to take Ukraine’s history as their own. Ukraine’s independence destroys the imperial myth of Russia. They need to keep the myth going.”

    The Kremlin accuses Kyiv of tearing the two countries apart with its promotion of a different approach to history. But Moscow’s bad mouthing of this approach and any steps made towards the West, primarily through state-controlled TV, is seen as itself having led to a dramatic worsening in relations between Russians and Ukrainians.

    Ukraine’s ambassador in Moscow, Kostyantyn Hryshchenko, noted with concern on May 17 the recent rise in anti-Ukrainian feeling in Russia. A poll by Russia’s Levada Center in January and February showed that 62 percent of Russians have a negative attitude towards Ukraine, whereas 91 percent of Ukrainians expressed positive feelings towards Russia.

    “An information campaign is being carried out against our state by the Russian media,” the ambassador said.

    Russian media also give Moscow’s views a wide airing in Ukraine, as Russian TV is particularly popular in the south and east of the country, where pro-Russian sentiment is strongest.

    “Propaganda on the [Russian] state-controlled TV channels is a tool for influencing people within Ukraine,” said Valeriy Chaly, head of international programs at the Razumkov Center think tank. He added that Moscow’s aim is to prevent the consolidation of a political nation in Ukraine.

    But while such propaganda may be disruptive, analysts said that attempting to mobilize Ukrainians along ethnic lines is not a political trump card. “People don’t have a clear understanding of their own political identity,” said Serhiy Taran, director of the International Institute for Democracy. “If you ask people on the street about their identity they will say they are Ukrainian, but they will speak Russian. People cross barriers.”

    But although arguments over history may not, as Moscow claims, be tearing Ukrainian society apart, the Russian response to the rehabilitation of Mazepa reflects a more worrying trend: increasingly aggressive Russian rhetoric. While many analysts see this as threats to try to keep Ukraine in line, Paliy said that – in the wake of Russia’s war in South Ossetia last August – a modern-day Battle of Poltava shouldn’t be ruled out. Paliy said: “The Russian leadership’s words show very serious intentions. Russia can change its position in a second, and it could lead to war if they can find a pretext.”

    Comment by elmer — May 29, 2009 @ 7:56 am

  16. There’re those historically challenged folks, who appear unfamiliar with how the ancestors of modern day Ukrainians categorized themselves.

    The Ukrainian concept was very much Communist promoted. Granted, this identity was in the works anyway. It takes different forms, which includes seeking common ground with Russia – in a way that Russia haters don’t prefer. Public opinion polls in Ukraine confirm this. In Ukraine, one can find many Ukrainians who don’t think positively of Mazepa, Petliura and Bandera. Diito Yushchenko, who is fond of those three.

    Seeing how much of the Russian Civil War was fought in “South Russia” (modern day Ukraine), you can bet the house that many of the Whites were born on that territory. At the time of the Russian Civil war, the majority of citizens on that territory seemed to favor some kind of togetherness with Russia. Besides the Whites, note the Ukrainian supporters of Pavel Skoropadsky and the Reds. Petlura essentially became a puppet of Pilsudki, in a way that included a willingness to sellout out Galicia to Poland.

    Comment by Cutie Pie — May 30, 2009 @ 11:20 pm

  17. Should read as Pilsudski. Excuse the grammar and spelling errors (it’s late and I’ve more pressing things to deal with).

    Comment by Cutie Pie — May 30, 2009 @ 11:39 pm

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