It didn’t start with Putin

Kremlin propaganda insists on stressing the similarity between the Russians and the Ukrainians – the latter are supposed to be merely a subset of the former. That turns the on-going bandit raid into a legitimate attempt to reunite two parts of Russia torn asunder by her enemies.

That’s a lie. The real issue isn’t that the Ukraine is too similar to Russia to exist as a sovereign country. It’s that the Ukraine is too different.

The problem Putin really has with the Ukraine isn’t that she used to be part of the Russian Empire. It’s that, as the westernmost part of the Empire, she is sullied with corrupting influences that make her existentially incompatible with Russia.

The Russians suffer from a malignant condition: a Gnostic belief in their own exclusivity, posing as holiness, saintliness or whatnot. Some will describe this as delusions of grandeur; others as typical provincial insecurity.

Whenever this condition flares up, the Russians detest everything the West stands for because they think themselves superior. Whenever the disease is in remission, they detest everything the West stands for because they think themselves inferior.

However, hostility to the West is constant. It pervades every pore of what goes into the making of Russia: politics, philosophy, religion, economics – even indigenous music, which was more or less begun by the chauvinistic composers of the ‘Mighty Handful’ as a reaction against Western musical perversions, as exemplified by the likes of Beethoven and Brahms.

You’ll find manifestations of this tendency in most Russian writers and philosophers of the Golden Age, from Tolstoy to Dostoyevsky, from Pushkin to Soloviov.

Sometimes this attitude is masked by fulsome protestations of affection. Thus Dostoyevsky wrote in his Karamazovs about going down on his hands and knees to kiss “the sacred stones of Europe”, and Soloviov dreamt about the reunification of Western and Eastern churches.

Yet Dostoyevsky’s affection for the inanimate objects of the West coexisted with his virulent hatred of anything Western that moved. Soloviov’s version of ecumenism left one in no doubt as to which church should absorb which. And though Tolstoy professed to loathe the state as such, in fact it was the Western state – and its elements in Russia – that he mostly abhorred.

All those men had in their sights, some would say justifiably, a West irredeemably sullied by mercantilism, amorality and understated spirituality. Russia was by contrast considered an exemplar of spiritual purity, a claim that was difficult to sustain even in the nineteenth century, never mind later.

But it didn’t need to be sustained. This was an article of faith, not a product of reason or empirical observation.

There is a mystery to the glorification of the Russian people, so widespread among the intelligentsia. Actually, the mystery starts with the very words ‘Russian people’.

As one wades through the works of Russian writers, one realises that they apply the term only to the poorest and least educated tiers of the population. Such exclusivity is unique: teachers, doctors and even businessmen aren’t denied their nationality in, say, England or France. “He isn’t British; he’s a gynaecologist” is something one is unlikely to overhear on a London bus.

The implication is that, since education in Russia was either nonexistent or Western, the educated classes were tainted to a point where they no longer qualified as the Russian people. In other words, by deifying the peasant the cultured Russians were demonising the West.

Thus the historical class conflict in Russia is largely, though not exclusively, xenophobia in disguise. Characteristically, classical Russian literature shows not a single sympathetic portrayal of a Westerner, at least none that I can recall offhand.

Both Russia and the Ukraine originated in Kievan Rus’, a hodgepodge of ethnic, cultural and religious inputs. Its ruling dynasty descended from the Swedish Viking Rurik, but the local population was mostly Slavic.

In the 10th century, the Rurik prince Vladimir baptised Rus’ in the Eastern rite, having rejected Catholic proselytising. He sensed that the kind of statehood gestating in the Catholic West was ill-suited to Rus’. However, considering the geographical proximity to the West, objectionable cultural influences couldn’t be kept at bay completely.  

By the beginning of the thirteenth century, Kievan Rus’ had broken up into many independent – and generally hostile – principalities. The conflict between East and West was particularly ferocious: eastern princes must have felt that contaminating proximity to the west made western principalities less than Russian.

Witness the fact that, when the Vladimir Prince Andrei Bogolyubsky captured Kiev in 1169, he gave the city to his host for a three-day rape and pillage – a treatment that in Rus’ was reserved only for foreign cities. For Andrei and his troops Kiev was as foreign as any Polish or German town.

The pivotal figure of medieval Rus’ was Prince Alexander Nevsky, canonised by the Russian Orthodox Church in 1547, almost 300 years after his death. Alexander’s claim to sainthood stems from two battles (in fact, mere skirmishes) he fought against the militant Catholic orders trying to westernise Rus’.

Characteristically, although Alexander wouldn’t accept even a mild compromise with Catholicism, he was more than willing to submit to the Mongol invaders from the east.

Rather than fighting them, he fraternised with Khan Batu’s son Sartaq, thus becoming the Khan’s foster son. In that capacity, Alexander collected tribute for the Mongols from his fellow Russians, ruthlessly punishing those who wouldn’t pay.

Having their eyes poked out and their tongues cut off were the mildest of the punitive techniques favoured by the great hero, and his Mongol masters approved (thank goodness our own dear Inland Revenue is so much more civilised).

Mongol political influences survived until the 16th century. But culturally they left an indelible mark that has never been erased.

Erasing Western influences, on the other hand, was a natural pastime of Russian princes, later tsars. The most pro-Western principality was that of Novgorod, a Hanseatic city with the parliamentary traditions Russia could have developed. Instead she saw Novgorod as a bugbear – precisely because it was pro-Western.

In January, 1570, Ivan the Terrible captured Novgorod. By way of a warm-up, all Novgorod monks were clubbed to death. Then Ivan summoned the city’s boyars and merchants, accompanied by their wives and children. They were all tortured “unimaginably”, as a contemporary described it, and then murdered in all sorts of creative ways.

Meanwhile, what is now the Ukraine was part of the Catholic Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. In 1654, Hetman Khmelnysky submitted his Cossacks “to the Russian hand”. That was unacceptable to Poland, and after a subsequent war the Ukraine was divided between Russia and Poland. After the three partitions of Poland, Galicia (Western Ukraine) became part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

Quite apart from the strong Catholic influences west of the Dnieper, the Ukraine has always been more Western than Russia. Even her Orthodox bishops were culturally and intellectually closer to their Western colleagues than to the Russian clergy.

In fact, when Peter I set out to westernise the Russian Church, he had to rely on two Ukrainian bishops, Stefan Yavorsky and Theophan Prokopovych, to provide the theological and philosophical impetus of the reform.

Even the peasantry was westernised in the Ukraine, eschewing as it did the communal practices of Russian agriculture. Unlike their Russian counterparts, Ukrainian peasants were enterprising individualists, similar to Western farmers.

That was a formative experience of the Ukrainian nation, and even when in 1783 Catherine II extended serfdom to the Ukraine (it had existed in Russia since the 17th century), the spirit of independence survived.

That’s why Ukrainians resisted Stalin’s collectivisation of agriculture so resolutely. Stalin solved the problem in his inimitable manner, by deliberately starving millions of Ukrainians to death in 1932-1933. That did nothing for the prospects of enduring cordiality between the two peoples.

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Ukraine has been steadily (if not on a straight line) moving towards the West, following the path well-trodden throughout her history.

That’s the immediate reason for Putin’s aggression. But the conflict didn’t start, and neither will end, with him.

3 thoughts on “It didn’t start with Putin”

  1. Looking at a map of China’s One Belt, One Road initiative, Russia is firmly in the One Belt. Putin is clearly trying to emulate Nevsky.

    One Belt, One Road needs just one more thing to make it ring true: One Leader.

    1. I disagree. It has been ‘the Ukraine’ in English for centuries, and so, as far as I am concerned, it will remain. I understand — and sympathise with — the sensitivities involved, but I don’t recognise the right of foreign politics to interfere with our language. If a country or a city changes its name, then fine, we must follow suit, much as we may hate it. Thus, if the Vietnamese now choose to call Saigon ‘Ho Chi Minh City’, then so it should be — in spite of what we may think of the politics involved. Conversely, we shouldn’t kowtow to the Chinese and turn Peking into Beijing. The latter is closer to the way they pronounce ‘Peking’, but the city hasn’t changed its name. (Incidentally, the French have resisted that diktat; it’s still Peking to them.) The Ukraine hasn’t changed its name, and so she is still the Ukraine to me.

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