den Ouden/My Turn: Mother Russia
In the 17th and 18th centuries, Peter I and Catherine the Great, with her well-trained armies, fought a number of wars against the Ottoman Empire. In spite of their numerical inferiority, their troops defeated their rival from the south numerous times and these conflicts resulted in two treaties and in the Russian Empire extending itself by adding on the Crimea and adjacent territories.
These events have been an essential part of the Russian and the former Soviet Union’s view of themselves as a nation and a world power. The opinion of citizens of their own country is that the Ukraine should be part of Russia. Most Russians in the Ukraine are also loyal to “Mother Russia.” The people of this region have also not forgotten that, at times, European powers supported the Ottoman Empire in its wars against Russia. In the later part of the 20th century, as the Soviet Union disintegrated and separate republics were formed, the loss of the Ukraine and it becoming a independent state was the greatest humiliation to the Russian Nation.
In the late 1980s, during the time of Gorbachev and the related opening to the West, I had the good fortune of being one of the first non-Marxist philosophers to be invited to the former Soviet Union. I gave lectures at the Moscow Institute of Philosophy and Moscow State University. A year later, I was invited for a return visit which also included a conference in Crimea and a trip to St. Petersburg. I was treated very well with a personal tour of the Hermitage and other sites of cultural and historic interest. What I enjoyed most was talking informally with my new-found Russian friends. On one such occasion, my extremely bright simultaneous-interpreter commented in response to my question concerning how she viewed the changes occurring in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. She said that it was a sad development for it meant the dissolution of a great empire.
Putin, in his off-quoted remark, said something stronger, i.e. that the dissolution of the Soviet Union was the greatest tragedy of the 20th century. I find his viewpoint appalling. Does this fragmentation of the U.S.S R. into republics compare with Stalin’s purges or his forced famine in the Ukraine during which 6 million of the people of this country died? What about WWII, when 20 million Soviet citizens were lost? Is the coming apart of the U.S.S.R. really the greatest tragedy of the 20th century? Clearly Putin sees the world through imperialist lenses, where empire is the highest value and the return of Russian greatness is the only concern.
All the academics that I met during my visit to the U.S.S.R. were members of the Communist Party. No position in academia was available at that time to those who were not. Some were highly committed communists while others joined the party for no other reason than to have a career. What they had to say can, in part, provide a context for what is happening today. More than one of them was apprehensive about the evolution of democracy in their country. They were in favor of it, but stated regretfully, that they feared that their fellow citizens craved strong, if not tyrannical, leadership. A number of recent protesters supporting Putin carry large photographs of Stalin.
When we claim, that Putin’s Russia, by seizing the Crimea and fomenting dissent in the parts of this country that it borders, is acting in defiance of International law we would do well to reflect on our own recent history. We as a nation have engaged in regime change without regard to international law in Iraq, Libya, and now Syria. Do we and some European nations, who at times stand with us, have exclusive right to overthrow governments and install governments of our liking? The Russians are claiming that they, too, are engaged in regime change.
Why should the Ukraine have to decide that its economic and military ties are with Europe and that she should distance her economy from Russia? Under the Soviets, all of Eastern Europe was forcibly tied to the Russian command economy. Putin wants to control economic policy and practice in the Ukraine and perhaps for other countries in the region. He is proposing a “Eurasian Union.”
I am no fan of Putin. I also am convinced he won’t be stopped by sanctions. This does not mean that we should cease implementing them. There is nothing that the Obama administration could have done to prevent this move on Putin’s part. He thrives and gains status by defying the West and the U.S. in particular. The superficial and self-serving grandstanding by the Republicans in claiming that stronger action earlier on could have prevented this incursion is as destructive as it is ill-informed.
Putin and the Russians do not want to get along with our government or please us as a nation. Many of them remember the “Cold War” as time when they were one of two great powers that manipulated, shaped, if not determined what the world was like. According to the polls, well over 87 percent of the Russian populace approve of what Putin is doing. The Russians are in their own self-described ascendancy. They will cooperate with us when it’s to their advantage. They will seize all the territories they can and further foment and directly support political change in newly formed nations on their borders.
Continued negotiations are necessary but we can expect further duplicity from Putin and his representatives. Truth, as was often the case with the Soviet version of communism, is any fiction, illusion or distortion of facts that serves the cause.
Bernard den Ouden is emeritus professor of philosophy at the University of Hartford and lives in North Heath.