BY GAITHER STEWART
The Motherland Calls, on the mouth of the Volga in Volgograd (formerly Stalingrad), commemorating the Soviet effort in The Great Patriotic War (WWII) against the Nazis. At 52 meters, the main figure (with the sword it reaches 85 meters) was at one time the tallest monument in the world (the Statue of Liberty itself is about 46 m). More than 25 million Soviet people died in the war, the equivalent of Texas and California combined in the 1940s.
(Rome) “With Russia it’s always like that,” writes contemporary Russia’s most read author, Viktor Pelevin. “You admire it and you cry, but when you look at what you admire up close, it can make you vomit.” That’s Pelevin, and others of the young generation. A mixture of compassion and fury. The rage of a young Russian against the post-Communist society that missed the curve and stuck the country in a repugnant swamp. But it’s also compassion for the Old Russia that he defends against superficial criticism and despite his violence he is solidary with its misery and its grandeur.
Strategically located at the crossroads of Eurasia, Russia’s geographical position enhances its power and influence which again today extends over much of the planet. Its military-industrial complex equals that of America and besides it has the world’s greatest natural gas reserves. America cannot afford to underestimate Russia on the basis of the economic collapse of the Soviet Union twenty years ago. Now Russia is back and is here to stay.
In the immediate post-World War II years American policy-makers agreed with defeated Germany that the United States had fought the wrong war. Until the last moment German generals had hoped that the Allies would allow Germany to surrender to the West and then fight the “real war” in the East, together. American generals too were hankering for the right war, and this time against Soviet Russia. Even “rusting arms too dreamed of wars,” wrote the young German Wolfgang Borchert on his return from the Eastern front, (Verrostet träumen Waffen von Kriegen.) Now, together, shoulder-to-shoulder, Germans and Americans should fight the real enemy: the Russkies.
Russians remain fiercely proud of their identity and traditions, but their cosmopolitanism is a surprise to many Americans.
The common enemy for Americans and Germans alike was Communism and the USSR. When I say “Americans,” of course, I mean the American ruling oligarchy, the US ruling class, not the masses, who, benighted for generations, are essentially propagandized by the corporate media to love or hate whomever or whatever such privileged class deems necessary to their strategic goals. Long before the war started, as is true for all class wars, some American political leaders (as well as British) began to consider WWII as a war against Communism not against Nazi Germany and sided with the Nazis against the Communists. According to one view of history, the war against Communism began with the German invasion of Russia in 1941 and ended in 1991 when the Soviet Union collapsed. Germany and Japan had fought the first part of the war; from 1945 the USA took over. (Others, with ample justification, put the beginning of the war against Soviet communism to the formation of the first Soviet government in 1917, and the cordon sanitaire and military expeditions that followed.)
As many of our readers will recall, after the war America was so dependent on Nazi Intelligence—Gestapo, SS and Abwehr—for information about Russia that it built the new CIA around Hitler’s intelligence chief in East Europe, General Reinhardt Gehlen. Gehlen had held intact Germany’s spy network in the East and saved for the new times German intelligence documentation about the USSR. Gehlen sold his data to the USA and his organization produced propagandistic materials used to justify growing American intelligence budgets and at the same time sharpened US/USSR hostilities by a systematic exaggeration of the Soviet Communist menace. This soon bloomed into a cottage industry, in a fertile soil of extreme gullibility and vast pools of reactionary political agitation lodged at all levels of American society, from academia to back country hillbillies.
Russian elan during the early part of the war often made up for the shortages and deficiencies in materiel, but by 1943 the tide began to turn as the USSR, despite the German destruction of much of its industrial capacity in the West, was managing to outstrip the Germans in tank, guns and airplane production.
So what is this thing about Russia anyway? The Russian “threat” that provokes intervention? Like Napoleon and Hitler, also America’s two-gunned General Patton had the dream of a triumphal march straight to Moscow. Nach Moskau! incited Gehlen. To Moscow! echoed Patton. Though Patton didn’t get marching orders, for subsequent decades the United States followed Nazi policies in the East. Nazi war criminals and their collaborators in East Europe became America’s allies and colleagues. Some were parachuted into the USSR. Others staffed US intelligence gathering organizations. Ex-Nazis were also sent to the USA and used to fuel anti-Communism. Film and literature has described how the Gehlen Org, aided by the USA, Vatican and Red Cross, set up postwar “rat lines,” or “Operation Odessa”, an escape route to save SS and Gestapo men from war crimes trials, changing their identities and sending them off by submarine to sanctuaries in Argentina and Paraguay and Chile to organize for the next round against Communism and Russia.
Putin surely resents America’s efforts to encircle his country.
One can imagine that the hostility America bears toward Russia derives from something buried deep in America’s puritanical chromosomal-genetic make-up. One has to wonder who these Russians are that America feels it has to encircle, circumscribe and contain, and dictate and preach to and look down on. Is it really only competition for world domination? Maybe it is also jealousy. Envy for Russia’s still vast lands. For its great culture. Perhaps it is something Russia has that America lacks. The cynic would say that today it has to do with the great natural gas reserves in Siberia. However that may be, the source of the perceived Russian threat is a mystery.
We now know that the Cold War subtly deformed countless immature minds. Not only two generations or more of Americans were brainwashed and hoodwinked; a whole world was hoodwinked. Yet, despite the brainwash and the Cold War, despite what was instilled into our generation about Stalin and Communism gone wrong, there were people who loved Russia anyway. Some came to understand that Russia would always be Russia.
In his beautiful book, Dictionnaire Amoureux de la Russie, editions Plon, Paris, 2007, Dominique Fernandez describes the dance, la danse, as much more than a pastime in Russia. Speaking of the extraordinary ability of the world’s greatest dancers, Nijinski and Nureyev, to levitate and hang suspended in the air for several instants, Fernandez writes, “It is a necessity of the (Russian) soul, impatient to break away from the weight of matter, the battle of the spirit against the body.” This French writer and lover of Russia chose the dance as emblematic of the indomitable spirit of Russians to rise above normal human limitations, a national characteristic shown over and over again throughout Russian history. The Italian Slavist and poet, Angelo Maria Ripellino, hoped to compile a history of Russian letters based on the dance, a repetitious and obsessive theme in Russian literature: the dancing feet in Pushkin, the obscure leaps of Lermontov’s characters, Blok’s serpentine dances, Bely’s mountebanks.
In a discussion of Russian’s values, Fernandez writes, “For him food, money, vacations are necessities, not values. Books, theater, music, hikes in forests, gathering mushrooms, family solidarity, hospitality, voilà Russian values.” The Soviet period did not undermine these basic values; it enhanced them. One important achievement of the Soviet system, Fernandez notes, was low prices for culture enjoyment. Culture in Russia has no relationship with wealth. Even people with low incomes fill theaters and opera houses, concert halls and museums still today. And the state lavished support on artists of all types, a fact recognized even by Nureyev at one point, despite his ostensible defection to the West, chiefly for career advancement reasons.
Paradoxically this people of the far north are mentally people of the South. Russians love especially Italy, and in their emotionality they often resemble them. Maybe because Russians also have a penchant for disorder, procrastination, inefficiency, qualities more than redeemed by their fantasy, poetry, nobility and confidence in life. In his book, La Tregua (The Truce. Abacus, London, 1987), Primo Levi, the great writer from Turin, describes his liberation from Auschwitz by Russian soldiers and the subsequent errant train voyage in the joyous chaos of Russian troops returning home from the war which first carried him north through Poland and Ukraine. Levi and the liberated Italians observed the Red Army soldiers homeward bound in a kind of “disorderly and multicolored biblical migration….” So what is their strength, Levi wondered? “It is an interior discipline born from the harmony, reciprocal love and love for their homeland; a discipline that triumphs—precisely because it is interior—over the mechanical and servile discipline of the Germans. It was easy to understand why they prevailed.”
Russian soldiers in the modern militia.
According to Primo Levi “even the Soviet bureaucracy was an obscure and gigantic force, not ill-disposed toward us (the Italian enemy) but only suspicious, negligent, ignorant, contradictory, and in fact blind like a force of nature…. The Soviet Union (at war’s end) is a gigantic country that harbors in its heart gigantic ferments, among others, a Homeric faculty for joy and abandonment, a primordial vitality, a pagan talent, virgin, for manifestations, rejoicing, country fairs.”
Both Fernandez and Levi mean that the characteristics of the Soviet era did not represent a dramatic rupture with Tsarist Russia. Now that enough time has passed and some minds are free of Cold War brainwash, we can see that the Soviet Union was ALSO the continuation of Tsarist Russia, only with a more “modern” state, that is the Communist state. Authoritarianism, Caesarism, bureaucracy, social inequalities and privileges, all enduring Russian realities, remained in the Soviet Union, albeit not in the same acute dimensions as under the Tsars, as they are today in the Capitalist Russia Pelevin depicts. Today as yesterday, and the day before, such traits belong to Russia, not to a specific political system.
Russians are used to suffering, especially from authority. But they lack in critical spirit (in this they are not exactly alone as witness whom we elect in the US and in Italy and France these days) and always have. Russians follow the rules only as much as they are forced to.
Crafty Slavonic peasant ambushing Nazi occupier.
So is their obedience based on innate conformity? On resignation? Or is it laziness? Mental habits forged by authority? Dominguez writes that the positive traits remaining from the Communist system are gradually being erased today: austerity and moral dignity are ceding to the vulgarity of imports from the West. Still, degradation is slower than elsewhere because Russians have an exceptional force of both passivity and resistance. Maybe also because of the enormity of the country and the isolation of entire regions in the long winters thus far it has been saved from the fate of Prague, once one of the world’s most beautiful cities, which the thirst for money has transformed into a tourist souk. The callousness of today’s new Russia is predictably most visible in the big cities, especially in Moscow, now as yesterday a state within a state. Or maybe it is just the sensation of an emptiness left by the disappearance of the old eras.
Those qualities and characteristics of Russians, noted by non-Russians and Russians themselves, account for the feeling of the “differentness” of the Russian people and also for the Asiatic quality of Russian Communism. Communism elsewhere, Russia’s philosopher Nicolas Berdyaev, rightfully predicted, would be less integrated than in Russia, more secular and less likely to try to take the place of religion … and most likely more bourgeois.
Bourgeois! The theme running through Russian letters reflects the people’s instinctive hate for the bourgeoisie. The Anglo-Saxon worship of reserve and even dissimulation is distant from the Russian mentality. Reserve—as observed in Britain, for example–is considered a false social role. One reason for the initial success of the Bolsheviks around the world was their overt hate for the false bourgeoisie. Russians mistrust the surface of things. The raw and crude is more likely to be free of deception. Form is suspect. Form exhibits the lie while concealing the truth. Human greatness and a too well turned phrase are suspect. Systems ands rules are departures from the human. Russians prefer living life to playing roles. They live interiorly.
Despite the threats, America’s hostility and the temptations of capitalist values, this northern people with a southern mentality and a capacity for levitation has returned. The Russians are back, and how!
Liberationism of East Europe became the theme of the so-called Free World after WWII. In that period, one said, the USA “stopped beating a dead Nazi horse.” America convinced itself with its own propaganda that war with the USSR was inevitable. The atmosphere in rubble-infested Germany, a country of military uniforms and military vehicles everywhere, resembled the carefree spirit of wartime. It was as if the hot war had not really ended. Or it was just a hiatus, a pause while everyone rested up from the previous effort before the war would resume in earnest.
Ultimately the Soviet attempt to unify East Europe (mainly as a defensive buffer) failed. The geo-political future was again uncertain. After the break with Russia in 1989 the nations of former East Europe wondered whether the national states would return or were destined to pass from Russian domination into the hands of expansive Germany, into former Mitteleuropa. “Napoleon’s victory over the Austrians at Ulm,” the Germanist and historian Claudio Magris told me in an interview in Trieste in that same 1989, “was the victory of modern Europe of unification over the old Hapsburg-Danubian Europe of separate states, of the totalizer over the particular. Napoleon signified the modern fever for everything new; Austrian civilization instead defended the marginal, the secondary.”
Hitler’s defeat and the ultimate economic collapse of the USSR (chiefly as a result of being forced to join an arms race it could ill afford) continue to condition Europe today. Both events—as anticipated by American planners– strengthened American hegemony. Today the dilemma remains: unification and sameness in Europe or national states and the particular. People in the East want the material wealth of the West, they want it now, but like Dutch and French and Irish and Italians, also Poles and Czechs are cautious about surrendering their separateness, the particular. That is Europe’s quandary: an economic super-state of multinationals or the particular and separateness.
While it re-gathered its forces after the collapse of the USSR, Russia remained silent, aloof and apart, a wounded animal, fearful of its future but preparing for its resurrection.
The reasons the USA joined in so gleefully in the bombing of Belgrade—a contemporary European capital—during the Balkan wars of the 1990s are now clear. Russia was the reason! Time lends transparency to historical events that are jumbled when they happen. Russia then was still defenseless. The USA could do as it liked in the world. Russia had lost many other lands during the watershed years from 1989. But it supported Serbia, the home of the Southern Slavs, Russia’s brothers, and a nation which still, defiantly, refused to embrace the neocon siren song of unbridled capitalism as the solution to all social questions. Actually Serbs were hardly more cruel and criminal than Croats and Bosnians and Albanians in the widespread slaughter in disintegrating Yugoslavia of the 1990s. But USA-dominated NATO decided to bomb, with America in the role of chief executioner. It was determined to crush Serbia and detach from it the cradle of the Serbian state, Kosovo, destined to become another American vassal state and the host of one of America’s biggest military bases in Europe. Thus, in 2007 Kosovo became another link in the chain of America’s encirclement of Russia.
Old habits of containment of Great Russia are hard to break!
Yet some people understood that Russia was not the enemy. It was their enemy, the enemy of America’s neo-liberal policymakers. Nor was Socialism the enemy. It was theirs, too. Sometimes events get out of control. They just seem to happen, caught up in the swirl of history. But still, we try to interpret and to understand. And then take a stand for or against. Understanding is like discovering a new world, like converting to a new faith. Revolt invades your life and everything is different from what it once was.
Since all of history, opaque and ambivalent, is open to revision, I have come to believe that Soviet Communism, including Stalinism will also be reassessed (fact is, it IS being reassessed). If we bother to look and truly see through the hype and brainwash, history is there to remind us that Stalinism and Soviet nationalism were also Russia’s response to western encirclement and various forms of warfare since the Revolution. So Russia’s reactions today are not surprising, as America continues to encircle it and push back its borders, with US-NATO military bases in Turkey, Iraq, Kosovo, Georgia, Italy, Germany, Poland and elsewhere, the infamous and useless missile shield, and is now trying to engulf Ukraine, something like New England to the United States.
The German nomad poet Rainer Maria Rilke called two places his home: Bohemia where he was born and the Russia he came to love. He spent years studying the language and Russian history and translating Dostoevsky and Chekhov into German. The Russia he knew was of before the Revolution that he did not support. Still, I understand the rootless poet’s remark to Leonid Pasternak (the painter and father of Nobel writer and poet Boris Pasternak) concerning his love for Old Russia: “What do I owe Russia? It made me what I became … all my deepest roots are there …. But even if we don’t live to see it at its resurrection, the profound, the real, the other surviving Russia has only fallen back on her secret system, as she did before, under the Tatar yoke; who could doubt that she is still there and is gathering her forces in that dark place, invisible to her own children, moving leisurely with her own slowness on to a possibly still-remote future?”
Recognition of that secret strength, appreciation of the Russian world outlook and the international aspect of the Russian Revolution are essential to understanding the revolution’s success and grasping the significance of Soviet Communist Internationalism and the slogan Workers of the world unite. Lenin warned that without proletarian socialist revolutions in West Europe the Russian Revolution was doomed to defeat by capitalist counter-revolution. Originally Russian revolutionaries led by Trotsky and Lenin had no illusions that a revolution in Russia alone could succeed: permanent and international revolution was the key to victory. Trotsky and Lenin had to have in mind the world outlook inherent in Russians.
At the heart of Russian Communist Internationalism lies an age-old and very Russian idea: all-human brotherhood. I think no understanding of Russia and Russian Communism is possible without an awareness of that aspect. Actually Russians are Europeans too, except they are more cosmopolitan than most, certainly much more cosmopolitan than inward-looking Americans. Dostoevsky was the very embodiment of the Russian concept of all-human brotherhood (vsyechelovechnost). In fact, until the great wars of the Twentieth century nationalism was largely foreign to Russian mentality. Nicolas Berdyaev, existentialist thinker and prolific writer, who broke with Marxism and Bolshevism and left Russia for West Europe in 1922, wrote that Russian Communism was actually the transformation and deformation of the old Russian messianic idea of international brotherhood (not to be confused with America’s religious missionary fixation!), and in that sense a reflection of the Russian religious mind. Even if history has demonstrated again and again that the Russian idea of universal brotherhood is utopian, Berdyaev insisted that Soviet Internationalism derived from that ancient, deep-seated Russian idea.
Communism and religion! The theme returns again and again. It must when speaking of Russia! The cornerstone of Russian ethics was traditionally charity, which Russians do not confuse with justice as in Anglo-Saxon ethics. In Russian eschatology Christ’s return at the end of all things is not a judgment but the fulfillment of the world to come—the new, third world. Traditionally Russians sought personal salvation in repentance and a moral life in which the dominant ethical attitude was charity and the brotherhood of all men.
Russia’s major poet after Pushkin, Aleksandr Blok, wrote his greatest poem, Dvenadtsat’ (The Twelve, 1918) about the Russian Revolution. In the first winter of Bolshevik Russia a band of twelve Red guardsmen, apostles of destruction (and renewal), march through the icy streets of Petrograd, looting and killing. They are led by a Christ figure, “crowned with a crown of snowflake pearls, / a flowery diadem of frost,” who appears beneath a red flag. The poem sold some two million copies in three years, was on the Vatican index and was long banned in Fascist countries.
For the Russian masses, who welcomed the revolution, Communism as such was something Western, imposed upon the people’s revolution by the Communist Party, which after years of chaos succeeded in disciplining and organizing in its elemental force the nihilistic masses. In the early years of the revolution there was a legend about Bolshevism and Communism: Bolshevism was the revolution of the Russian masses, “Communism”, something foreign.
It has often been said that one reason for Bolshevism’s success in harnessing the Revolution is that Russians are a people but not a nation. The author and religious thinker Vladimir Weidle in fact lamented the “dismaying abyss between upper-class culture and the culture of the people.” The state symbolized by Orthodoxy and the double-headed eagle was always distant from the people, while their Tsar was a godlike “Little Father”, a minor divinity to this unruly people. Stalin understood this well and became the hard and unyielding Vozhd-Leader and Little Father.
“I sit on a man’s back, choking him and making him carry me, and yet assure myself and others that I am very sorry for him and wish to ease his lot by all possible means, except by getting off his back.”
Europeanized Russians, the Westernizers in opposition to the Slavophiles, never had a love affair with the Russian people. Though the early generation of Marxist intellectuals, nearly all Westernizers, considered the masses an obstacle to the new society they wanted to create, they nonetheless shared with the people a rejection of bourgeois Liberalism, a feeling for the boundlessness of the great land and an awareness of its majesty. Years earlier Tolstoy had reflected popular abhorrence for bourgeois Liberals: “I sit on a man’s back, choking him and making him carry me, and yet assure myself and others that I am very sorry for him and wish to ease his lot by all possible means, except by getting off his back.” Such thinking is naturally terrifying to bourgeois capitalism.
Soviet Communism in this sense came to resemble the Great Russian nationalism of the Tsars. Thus it was an easy and obligatory step for Soviet Russia to become something different than the original revolutionaries imagined. Nationalism! Resistance against foreign intervention. Socialism in one country. Naturally, this was also somewhat inevitable given the all-out hostility exhibited by the Western powers toward the new system.
Today one can also compare more clearly Soviet Russia and modern Russia. One suspects that beneath the cynicism of today’s leaders and the greed of the new rich still beats another rhythm, a human Russian rhythm, generous and different from egotistic and self-seeking Europe. For the land is deep within Russian guts. Despite the capitalist corporatist stamp he has put on modern Russia, authoritarian Putin is still very Russian! Some things return, others remain intact—the renewed colors of the city of Moscow of two centuries ago—rose, red, yellow, blue, ochre … and the green roofs. Yet, something is still not right—there is a kind of uncertainty or risk in the air, the absence of the sense of security the Tsarist and Soviet states guaranteed. When considering Russia you have the feeling that anything can happen from one moment to the next. I think the uncertainty, again as in post-revolutionary Russia, has to do with American encirclement and Russians’ concern that their government can handle it.
Some personal impressions of perestroika times as a journalist in Moscow reflect the spirit of this land that is easy to love. You feel magnified by the great Russian language all around you. You feel its dignity. A Russian once reminded me of the dichotomy of the Russian language—the simultaneous hope and the terror people speaking the language had caused in the world—on one hand the hope Communism offered the oppressed and the disillusionment of its tragic ultimate reality. Yet, you feel the differentness of Russia. You begin to grasp the Russian world outlook, an appreciation for the idea of Mother Russia and the facility of genuine patriotism for this enormous territory, which for Russians is a world. Though it is a truism that politics is everywhere primary, causes are often empty. Though Stalin proved—with plenty of help from the West’s machnations, that utopia contains its own dystopia, sometimes today it seems it never took place. Yet only a short generation ago Russians still felt Stalin. His ghost still lived. Something in the air smacked of old times, Stalinist times and further back. You come to realize that not everything is the fault of one side or the other. One side was not all white and the other all black.
When you consider the encirclement of Russia today, the Ukrainian question returns. Ukraine is a potential threat to New Russia and its authoritarian corporatist model. Ukraine is a threat to US-Russian relations in general. Ukraine’s apparent choice for the West in the State Department-abetted bourgeois “Orange Revolution” of 2004-2005 again sharpened the tensions between Russia and the West. How would economic success of a western-oriented, neo-liberal Ukraine affect Russians, leaders in Moscow wondered? What if the Russian people wanted to follow the Ukrainian example?
With fifty million inhabitants, Ukraine is the France of the East. Therefore, where Europe ends in the east is not just a rhetorical question: since 1991 Europe and the USA have steadily pushed the eastern borders right up to the frontiers of Russia. A weakened post-Soviet Russia was unable to stop that advance. Not only the ex-Soviet satellite countries in East Europe from Bulgaria to Poland changed sides, but also parts of the USSR itself, with their rightwing, nationalist segments reactivated—Lithuania, Estonia, Latvia and Ukraine—turned toward West Europe.
But Ukraine is a different matter. Ukraine was the cradle of Russia, the center of the first Slavic state, Kievan Rus. Western emotions about the new-old country of Ukraine are as confused as those of the Ukrainian people themselves, forever divided between East and West. They too are a big people with a desire to decide their own fate, a fate that has led them down disastrous paths in their long history. The major problem has been their two souls. Their eastern soul has held them close to their big brothers, the Great Russians; their western soul led desperate and rabid nationalists to close collaboration with Nazi Germany against Soviet Russia. Ukraine’s western soul—the representation of re-energized upper-class interests– aspires to become part of capitalist Europe; its eastern soul prefers a privileged relationship with Russia.
In 2004 the “Orange Revolution” swept pro-western reformists into power in Ukraine. A year later the Kremlin’s candidate won out in the country’s first free parliamentary elections and became Prime Minister. The elections were the confirmation of the traditional division of the country between East and West. Ancient divisions stall all efforts at the formation of a unified nation.
Lying at the crossroads between Europe and Russia, Ukraine is marked by three powerful currents: the linguistic, historical, pro-Russian soul; the nostalgic, big nation, central planning, pro-Soviet soul; and a vaguely democratic, capitalist, neo-liberal pro-western soul. Yet, for many Russians and Ukrainians, the two peoples are nearly one and Ukrainians are often referred to as “Little Russians.”
The rapid move westwards of big and powerful Ukraine justifiably alarmed Russia. In the 1990s, Ukraine contributed troops to “peacekeeping” operations in Kosovo. It sent troops to Iraq. For Moscow the Ukrainian announcement in May 2002 of its intention to seek membership in United Europe, NATO and WTO was the last straw.
Western Ukraine has close historical ties with Europe, particularly with Poland. Ukrainian nationalist sentiment has always been strongest in the westernmost parts of the country, which became part of Ukraine only when the Soviet Union expanded after World War II.
The Eastern Ukraine is a different story. During the 10th and 11th centuries Kievan Russia was the largest state in Europe, The cultural and religious legacy of Kievan Rus laid the foundation for Ukrainian nationalism. In the late 18th century, Russia absorbed Ukrainian territory. Following the collapse of Tsarist Russia in 1917, Ukraine had a short-lived period of independence (1917-20), before it was re-conquered and absorbed into the Soviet Union. A significant minority of the population of Ukraine are Russians or use Russian as their first language. Russian influence is particularly strong in the industrialized east of the country, where the Russian Orthodox religion is predominant.
Ukrainian militia in a street drill demonstration
The Ukrainian Republic was the most important economic component of the former Soviet Union after Russia itself. After independence in December 1991, Ukraine initiated privatization but resistance within the government itself blocked reforms. By 1999 industrial output fell to less than 40% of the 1991 level. Ukraine’s dependence on Russia for energy supplies and the lack of structural reform make its economy vulnerable. Though the post-Communist era seemed closed, the change was illusory. The coalition government has its ups and downs, marked by disastrous economic policies, corruption and the gas war with Russia. At the same time, Russia remains Ukraine’s largest trading partner and the East and South of the nation prefer Russia to the West. Ukraine’s impulse toward the West has slowed. Though it cannot reasonably choose between the West and Russia because it assumes it needs both, in the contest between Russia on one hand and Europe-USA on the other, I believe Moscow in a fair battle will always win.
Russia had retreated from West Europe for fifty years. Now with its gas as a weapon its retreat has ended. Since much of Europe’s economic future depends on Russia’s gas, European efforts at “democratizing” Russia have stopped. Only friendly relations count. Europe can no longer push hard for Ukrainian “democracy.” But America can and does. Pushy, abrasive, arrogant US foreign policy accounts for Ukraine’s hesitancy. For Russia, a Ukraine in the camp of the USA would be like Canada suddenly taking control of New England, or Mexico taking over Texas.
America can flail and threaten and push and pull, but that will not stop Russians. They are back to stay.
European Union support for Ukraine’s membership in the WTO and a show of respect for the democratic choice of the Ukrainian people ring friendly and cooperative—to western-oriented Ukrainians. To Russia and eastward-looking Ukrainians it sounds threatening, with an underlying note of economic blackmail. In reaction, Russia supports pro-Russian political leaders who threaten revolt by the eastern and southern parts of the Ukraine, while Russia can either cut off Ukraine’s gas supply or raise its price.
Thus, the question of where the West ends and Russia begins is not unimportant for the rest of the world. Russia is again a global actor. Alongside India and China, Russia has assumed a protagonist role. Much of the empire is gone but Russia’s aspirations—and raw power—remain. Today Russia, however reluctantly, is showing its muscles in a game of hazards and risks and maneuvers reminiscent of Cold War brinkmanship. Moscow has tried negotiating with Iran on the nuclear issue. It mediates with Hamas in Palestine.
A strong Russia worries Washington (not that difficult when we consider the US ruling class has responded in a notoriously thin-skinned and paranoid way to any “threats” to its overwhelming superiority), less so Europe. In fact, a strong Russia to counter uncontrollable American unilateralism appeals to much of the world: Cold War at low risk is better than America’s hot war in Iraq or its nuclear threats launched at Iran, and who knows who else. On the other hand, a weak Russia is a danger for the world’s balance of power. The disappearance of the USSR paved the way for “pre-emptive war America”, its hands free to strike when and where it liked. America is never friendlier with Russia than when it is divided and poor, its economy in shambles, its empire dismantled.
Washington cannot control China or India. Nor in the end can it contain Russia.
Nonetheless the encirclement of Russia continues. Turkey is an old story, but last spring NATO’s new ally, Bulgaria, agreed to host three US military bases for 2500 American troops, the first time in the 1325 years of its history that foreign troops are stationed in Bulgaria. The heart of the agreement is that American soldiers can be sent from Bulgaria to third countries without specific permission from Bulgaria. And now the Czech Republic has agreed to host missile shield sites. Less than principled ideological agreements, these are forms of diplomatic prostitution between opportunistic political bureaucrats representing eviscerated states and a Washington crew myopically bent on supremacy over its former foe at any cost.
Bulgaria and Czech Republic and Georgia and Kosovo as links in the chain around Russia are emblematic of the nearly incalculable extent of the U.S. global empire, all of which frightens and irritates Russia. According to the US Department of Defense there are seven hundred U.S. military locations in foreign countries; the true number is estimated at 1,000. According to the Department of Defense the USA has troops in 135 of the world’s 192 countries. The Pentagon has even turned much of Italy into a gigantic strategic base, a permanent super-carrier in the underbelly of Europe. It is hard to know just how many troops are stationed abroad. Statistics vary of America’s true military strength, as they vary for most powers. Secrecy rules. Officially the U.S. has about 1,500,000 troops, approximately 250,000 abroad. But the number of those abroad might be much higher because of secrecy. Nor do we know what kind of forces they are: regular troops, CIA troops or “beyond the law” special forces and mercenaries. And although such meddlesome power is certainly paid for with American treasury, it is by no means subject to democratic review and control. In fact, foreigners—including Russians—understand far better what we are up to around the world than Americans themselves.
Gaither Stewart is Cyrano’s journal’s European correspondent based in Rome. A longtime admirer and student of slavonic cultures, he maintains a particular interest in the developments affecting Russia after the overthrow of communism.