Streetwise Professor

May 4, 2007

The “Russian” Soldier

Filed under: Politics,Russia — The Professor @ 7:09 am

All bow before Russia, scourge of the Georgians, smiter of the Estonians. Tremble before Vlad, Tsar of all the Russians, and (apparently) would be Emperor of a lot of people who have been there, done that, and don’t want to repeat the experience, thank you.

Russian revanchism has reached a new low (though probably only a temporary one) with the contretemps over the war memorial in Tallinn, Estonia which has spurred riots in the Estonian capital and thuggish intimidation of Estonian diplomats in the Russian one. Edward Lucas’s j’accuse casts a pox on both houses, blaming the Estonians for needlessly baiting the Russian bear, and the Russian bear for snapping up the bait. He also excoriates the pusillanimous European response.

Lucas, as usual, makes excellent points, especially in his blog post on the subject. Personally, the Jacksonian in me is more sympathetic with the Estonians. Pragmatically speaking, Lucas is right that it is not wise to give Putin and his clique the opportunity to whip up nationalist sentiment in the lead up to the Russian “election.” But: (a) Estonia is a sovereign nation, (b) the Soviet occupation was a terrible and unlawful thing that deprived Estonia of its sovereignty, and many Estonians of their lives and many more of their liberty, (c) the monument has been a lingering reminder of that occupation, and (d) the Russians need more than a little reminding of (a)-(c) above. Moving the monument is a declaration of independence/sovereignty, and coming at a time when Russia is aggressively attempting to undermine the sovereignty and independence of its little neighbors, it is a bracing example of a small but determined nation standing up to a malign and bullying one. Passivity in the face of Russian bluster–and worse–will only encourage more.

Lucas objects that since no other country thinks that this is a good idea, the Estonians should have demurred. I think that the main problem is with the other countries that shy away from standing up to Putin. The collective cowardice of many is a poor reason to be a coward oneself. Indeed, in a better world Estonia’s action–and the Russian response–would shame the cowardly into a more manly posture (can you say that anymore? Harvey Mansfield, call your office.) Estonia is also providing a valuable positive externality, by taking an action that has goaded Putin into showing his true colors.

Hence, my main objection is to the aforementioned pusillanimous Euros. (No surprise that they are pusillanimous; no surprise that I am bagging on them yet again. La plus ca change.) They should be standing up for Estonia–an EU member and a member of NATO. But–MIA. Again.

An interesting sociological aspect of this is the identification of the statue of a Soviet soldier as a Russian one by a large slice of the Russian populace (and the Russian citizens of Estonia). The USSR largely tried to downplay–and indeed suppress–Great Russian nationalism. Russia was clearly the first among not-so-equals in the USSR, but for a variety of reasons (ideological and pragmatic) the Soviet regime did not encourage the development of a Russian national identity. (Robert Service’s book on Russia in the 1990s discusses this in some detail, and argues that it had consequences for Russian politics in the post-Soviet years.) The Great Patriotic War was fought not just by Russians, but by Ukrainians, Georgians, Azeris, and yes Estonians. Men (and women) from many nations under Soviet rule wore the uniform of the soldier depicted in the statue. Perhaps there are non-Russians buried under it; certainly millions of non-Russians died under Soviet banners in the conflict the statue commemorates. (If only Russians are buried underneath, I would be curious to know whether that was a trick of fate, or a deliberate choice.)

But outside of Russia, and the Russian populations of former Soviet republics, few–very few–want to claim the legacy of service in the arms of the USSR during the period 1941-1945. The Estonian episode is a graphic reminder that although hardly anybody else misses the USSR, many Russians do. I am currently reading Moby Dick (what a book!), and the Estonian riots evoke in me an analogy between Ahab’s fury at his lost limb and the Nashi-ites fury at their lost empire. There is an unreasoning anger at the loss–anger that is directed at any reminder of it. So Russian revanchism is not just driven by material goals and a thirst for power. It draws its energy from primal, emotional, psychological sources, and hence will be difficult to manage with reason, compromise, and diplomacy. One may with reason chide the Estonians for unleashing these dark emotions, but perhaps we owe them thanks for providing the world with an important object lesson. The first step in dealing with Russia in a constructive way is understanding it, warts and all, and plucky (and perhaps foolhardy) Estonia has provided anyone paying attention with valuable (if frightening) insights that we should all heed.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

No Comments »

No comments yet.

RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URI

Leave a comment

Powered by WordPress