Giving it all away to Putin

Political cartoon: Putin


2014/09/19 • Politics

Article by: Robert van Voren

Today I discussed the rule of Putin – the Putinshchina –with one of the leading Lithuanian diplomats, whose name I won’t disclose for obvious reasons. The core of the conversation was the inability of the West to respond adequately to Putin’s Russia, to each and every provocation that is now at high speed unleashed against the West. Putin acts, the West reacts, and every time he is a step ahead of us, every time surprising us with his callousness, his total disrespect for international diplomatic codes and agreements that seemed to be cast in stone, and that now turn out to be nothing more than Russian balota, a marsh…

The key element in all this is that to a large agree we ourselves are to blame.

Several years ago I started to teach Sovietology in several universities in the former Soviet Union, realizing that the new post-Soviet generation in this region had only little understand of what the Soviet Union was about, and how much of the Soviet Union is still here – even in a country like Lithuania, that joined the European Union and NATO in 2004 and felt itself safe – until the spring of this year when Russia invaded the Crimea and a new “reality” appeared.

However, only later I realized that the deficiency of a lack of understanding of Sovietism is not only a problem here, in the now democratic former Soviet republics. It is as much a problem in Western Europe, where we lost some two generations of Sovietologists because we thought the Soviet Union was gone and not to return, and the interest in its ideology, worldview, state structure and psychology disappeared like snow before the sun.

Now we know that was a mistake, that the Soviet Union actually never disappeared, but reappeared under a new (or pre-Soviet) name: Russia. Those who understand, those who report with quality and not with ignorance, are the “last of the Mohicans”, the experts and journalists who were also around 25 years or more ago, and who “smell” the Soviet Union wherever they go. What needs to be done is to educate a new generation, to start from scrap, and create a new contingent of experts who can breach the 25-year gap and connect what was (until 1991) and what is (now in 2014) and are able to explain the threads of history.

But the problem runs much deeper: we gave away to Putin what is not rightfully his. Please allow me to explain.

When the USSR disintegrated in 1991, virtually all of the former Soviet republics (as well as its citizens) tried to disconnect from any responsibility for the USSR and its frightful history. The USSR was like a rotting molar with a huge cavity, black and stinking, with an economy that collapsed, a society consisting mainly of members of the race Homo Sovieticus in which morals and values had been replaced by survivalism and thievery, international obligations that were mostly a collection of feudal obligations to totally dependent “socialist” countries and the black legacy of terror and murder. Nobody wanted to be part of that.

However, things changed, and while we all had a short- or mid-term vision, the KGB/FSB and their harlequin Vladimir Putin had a much longer-term perspective than we ever imagined. I am not sure whether we can put this to their credit, maybe it is more the result of our ignorance, but we gave up our claims to things that are now the crown jewels of his policy.

Putin claims his country is the rightful heir to the USSR. We all accepted, because we didn’t want to be part of this stinking hole. However, he turned it around, combined it with “glorious Imperial Russia” and by ignoring some 70-80% of its history he turned it into a brilliant wedding cake hardly anybody wants to deny.

Putin claims to defend Russian language speakers, and thinks he has the right to do so. Again we ourselves are to blame. By linking “Russian” with “occupants”, “intruders” or “import” we allowed the Russian language to become an exclusivity of Russia, of the Putinshchina. It is ridiculous, and it is fundamentally dangerous. Excuse me, a considerable part of the Ukrainian population speaks Russian, and so do many citizens of Central Asia and the Baltics. To claim the language is as ridiculous as Britain claiming that English is “theirs”. We should never ever have allowed this!

Putin claims that the USSR (read: Russia) was the main victor in the Second World War. Apart from the whole discussion why the USSR lost so many people during that war (many were in fact killed because of Stalin’s ruthless policies and “unorthodox” decisions) the fact is that it was not Russia that suffered most. If one looks at the data, it was Belarus and Ukraine that had most of the victims in percentage, and that were totally devastated by the acts of war. Yet it is Putin who uses this claim over and over again to explain why Russia needs to occupy the Crimea and invade Ukraine, and needs to prepare its next incursions into neighboring countries…

In fact, Russia was not the main victim of Nazi aggression, and Russia was not the main victor. There were Ukrainian, Belarus, Kazakh, Baltic and even Jewish units that performed heroic deeds and liberated their land. Yes, Lithuania was subsequently occupied by the Soviets, but that does not mean it did not contribute to the liberation of its territory from Nazi occupation. It has a rightful claim to this, and should keep it, and not let Putin get his way.

And now we already see the next phase coming: Russia (read: Putin) claims that all the successes of the First World War are also the result of Russian interventions. Several days ago a special (paid) supplement to the International New York Times conveyed exactly this message, in a clever, slick and slippery way. Russia as the savior of Europe – and we all stay mute and do not care.

Over the past twenty or so years, we have been sleeping. I have to admit, so did I. But dozing time is over; it is time to return to reality. We do not face a monster in the Kremlin, absolutely not. We face a calculated system of disinformation, seduction and repression, with a mediocre but well-organized psychopath at its helm. The only way to respond is to reclaim what is ours, not his. Do not let him have his way, and do not fall into his simple yet clever trap: this is not the world against Russia – this is the world against the Putinshchina. If we want to get rid of him, we need to show to Russians that we understand one thing: he is not Russia, he is not the same as them. They might be blind or blinded now, but we know better: there is another Russia.


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  • wooly bully

    A well written and concise article. Yes, one of the main causes of what is happening today, on both sides, is LACK OF HISTORICAL KNOWLEDGE. I wish Professor Van Doren would spend more time with columns about history. Perhaps even make up quizzes about Sovietology, may one for Western Europe, Ukraine, Soviet Union , and America. i remember a couple incidences while in East Ukraine. One, a young lady I was having lunch with insisted Stalin was over 6 feet tall (one of my own little Sovietology questions I carry around). Our interpreter looking down started chuckling. To the utter dismay of my guest she said, I am afraid he is correct. Stalin was only 18o cm high. The shocked look on my guest face was worth learning just pieces of history. Another friend in Kharkiv, a professor told me that negotiations were going on between the US and Russia to purchase Alaska for 2 trillion dollars. Being am astute young man I thought he was pulling my chain. He wasn’t. He had “read all about it.” This was in 2012.

  • Dean Venture

    Putin wants to expand Russia into Soviet borders, and he’ll do it by force if he has to. The problem is that a large number of body bags returning home will turn the people against him. The last thing he want is a Russian Maidan in Moscow.

    There’s only one way he can avoid this. His war has to be a defensive war. He needs to engineer it so that it looks to Russians like the West attacked them. A defensive war will absolve Putin of any responsibility for starting it and will rally his people to protect the motherland.

    This is why he constantly pokes at us. He hopes that we will eventually bite, and then we’ll have sprung his trap. This is also why the west has been so measured in their response. They will respond to the right provocation, a mistake that Putin will have a very hard time turning into a defensive war. We have to be patient. In the meantime, we isolate Russia, we fortify our defences, secure our alliances, and strengthen our economic independence.

  • Jason Finch

    Well said, Mr van Voren. Keeping an understanding of the meaning of the ‘Soviet’ alive is a vital task in countries like Lithuania, where you work. In Estonia, speaking from personal experience, people in the early 2000s thought that the idea of the Soviet Union only merited harsh jokes about the things that were actually the best things about it: pioneer corps, po-faced classical music. In fact, as you say, the evil that is Russian power, was lurking just over the border to the east licking its wounds and ready to get down to work once again. People’s mistake when the USSR fell was to think that ‘Communism collapsed’ for economic or ideological reasons; what happened was that one dynasty of the Russian empire collapsed and some of its subject peoples were able to win freedom from it. The rest, in the Russian Federation, Ukraine, Belarus etc. continued to suffer under subsequent emperors (Yeltsin, Putin) and their satraps (Lukashenka, Yanukovich). Please keep writing these pieces and getting them out there.