Notes from Far Muscovy
by Justin E. H. Smith
I dreamt last night that I was sharing a taxi with Putin from Moscow to Sheremetyevo airport. He was being very friendly and I could tell he liked me. I felt like a coward and a moral cretin for not saying anything critical that would cause him to not like me, and at the same time I kept trying to convince myself that there were strong pragmatic reasons for maintaining good relations, at least for now, as this would enable me to eventually write more revealingly about him. I knew this was bullshit, however, and that I was really just a grovelling sycophantic underling who craved the approval of people in power. Then we got into a massive traffic jam, and I was so filled with self-hatred and dread that I woke up.
In real life I had shared a taxi from Moscow to Sheremetyevo, earlier that same day, with a kind, gentle, architect from Berlin. By ‘architect’ I mean one of those people from Berlin who talks about ‘space’ a lot and who participates in panels with philosophers. He has probably never built any buildings, but nor has he blown any up, which is why I am wondering why he got replaced by Putin in my dream.
We had been, earlier in the day, on a panel in front of a few hundred people and a number of angry journalists. We were a motley crew of philosophers and political activists, and to be perfectly honest my reason for accepting the invitation was somewhat disingenuous: it meant an opportunity to go back to Russia after what seems like a lifetime away.
Anyhow there were seething antagonistic dynamics between different parties in the room that I could not even begin to decipher. There was a guy on the panel who looked like a skateboarder but announced himself as a psychoanalyst. There were plenty of the sort of bearded, long-haired Russian men who could be either dissident leftists or ultranationalist Orthodox spiritualists. Many of the people in the room clearly had cults of personality attached to them, but I did not know who they were or in virtue of what the cults had congealed.
There was much talk, more than any westerner could possibly anticipate, of Ukraine, and of popular will, and revolution.
When it came time for questions a man in the audience stood up and said, “I am a doctor of philosophy. First of all, I would like to begin by asking you all to express solidarity with the protesters in Kiev. Long live the Ukrainian Revolution! Long live Maidan!” He held up his fist and yelled “Long live Maidan!” again, and then I and maybe a dozen other people did the same. (Why not? I thought. I too support Maidan.) Then there was an awkward silence, and the journalists were all glancing around to see who expressed solidarity and who kept silent. Would there be repercussions? I wondered.
And then the ‘doctor of philosophy’ said (to paraphrase): “All you so-called philosophers ought to be ashamed of yourselves. You haven’t even mentioned morality once. And that’s what philosophers need to be talking about: morality. Here we are in a world where all sorts of unnatural things are happening: capitalism, genetic engineering, same-sex marriage, drugs, and so on. How are we going to put a stop to these things if we don’t start taking morality seriously?”
For some reason they decided to pass the microphone to me. My Russian skills, often inaccessible during this short visit, snapped to attention, and I said: “As far as I am concerned it is the sole duty of a philosopher to compare different systems of morality, to attempt to find their weaknesses and inconsistencies, but by no means to defend the one or the other.” There was much muttering and nonplussedness.
What are the lessons I am drawing? For one thing, I return convinced more than ever that Russia is far more foreign than westerners are willing to recognize. On this visit I heard, on multiple occasions and from people of all political orientations, the expression of a contrast between ‘us’ and ‘Europe’. In the Soviet period and much earlier, the eternal question was whether ‘we’ are European or Asian, whereas now there seems to be a resolute and unconflicted commitment to the role of a tertium quid. At the same time, Moscow is indeed clearly more ‘Asiatic’ than it was 20 years ago, as a result of migration patterns from Central Asia. Restaurant wait-staff, construction workers, and others closer to the bottom of the social ladder are, it seems, far more likely to be named Chingiz than Sergei. One is reminded of how much of the current territory of Russia –not the former USSR, but Russia– was once covered by khanates.
But the lessons, the lessons. There is a place in the world where same-sex marriage can be plausibly lumped together with GMO’s as a sign of a world gone wrong, and indeed as a sign of excessive American power. One disagrees, but still wishes to rub one’s western liberal academic friends’ faces in it a bit: try to fit this into your pat schemes, into your Facebook echo chambers of mutually assured agreement.
One of the most intense preoccupations of western social media over the past few months is the question how, in spite of the fact that Russia is so terribly homophobic, nonetheless Russian men, and particularly Putin, look so hopelessly gay. The country’s leader goes horseback riding with his shirt off, and does so in defense of a purportedly rigorously heteronormative conception of masculinity. What on earth is going on here? It seems to me that there is something even far deeper than homophobia that marks the distance between Russia and the west in these matters, and that is a different relationship to irony, of which, I take it, the ‘camp’ so lucidly analyzed by Susan Sontag is but a subspecies. In the west it is impossible to simply be a man in the way Russians such as Putin take for granted, since the gestures or styles in which this would consist are continually being taken up by people who would like to subvert, invert, or at least question the process by which something so minor as gestures or styles could ever constitute something so fundamental as identity.
Putin is purportedly a hardbody (if by now tending toward gynecomastia, and really more thick than hard), but his authoritarianism is soft. For comparison, a fascinating list has been circulating of western bands prohibited by Soviet authorities in 1984. Number 1 is ‘German-Polish Aggression’, which is almost certainly made up. Number 2 is ‘German-American Friendship’, by which I assume they mean Deutsch-Amerikanische Freundschaft or DAF, which really existed but had nothing to do with the Marshall Plan or geopolitics. Numbers 3-14 are Soviet ‘Red Wave’ bands (except for one Czech group), and it’s not at all surprising to see them on a government blacklist. Then, suddenly, at 15 we get Blue Öyster Cult followed by a number of well-known western groups. The list is fairly clearly composed by clueless government agents, filled with misspellings and misgroupings, e.g., number 44: ‘Blondi and Debbia Kharri’. ‘Dzhutas Prist’, ‘Depesh Med’, ‘Kalche Klub’, ‘Tokan Khedz’ (i.e., Talking Heads), follow no known transliteration scheme. Julio Iglesias comes in at 45, two spots ahead of Black Sabbath, which strongly suggests the numbers are not ordinal. This list is really a nice measure of how much has changed: ‘soft’ authoritarianism of the sort Putin has perfected doesn’t waste time with stuff like this.
And then comes glasnost: I remember, in 1991, seeing a USSR state-run Melodiya vinyl recording of Pearl Jam, released not under the name Пэрл Джем, but rather Жемчужное Варенье, literally, “Pearl Jam,” i.e., fruit spread that is made out of pearls. So even with the official policy of openness the state proved as clueless as ever.
Lenin’s name is now fading in the marble atop his mausoleum on Red Square. The opening hours have been reduced to 10h-13h weekdays, and apparently for Russian citizens only [Вход для граждан]. Of all former leaders, Lenin seems the hardest to fit into current narratives of national identity. Stalin fits very well, without having to be mentioned by name. The precise species of dictatorship Putin is crafting is definitely not a revolutionary one, of the proletariat, and it’s not an omnipresent heavy-handed one either. The propaganda is unrelenting, but as long as you are a powerless nobody you’re free to express dissenting opinions as much as you like. I held my fist up in support of the Maidan protestors, one of whose leaders, evidently, Putin recently caused to be tortured. This happened in front of TV cameras. Why didn’t more people hold their fists up? Again, I don’t know.
I did get ‘controlled’ for eating an apple while waiting on the metro platform at Revolution Square (a transgression of which I’m guilty in multiple jurisdictions), but when the police saw my American passport they congratulated me for the glorious victory of the US hockey team earlier that day (which was the first I’d heard of it). Instinctively, though, here more than anywhere else I’ve been, one perceives the police and other officials warily, sensing that protection and service are the furthest thing from their minds. Life as a visible ethnic or sexual minority here would be a life of constant fear.
Nadia and Masha, formerly of Pussy Riot, are out of their Siberian labor camps now, making the rounds of the Colbert Report, Brooklyn, destinations they are surely being drilled to understand. The Guardian recently published an anonymous missive from remaining members of the Pussy Riot collective, disavowing these two for their association with the establishment, and in particular for speaking out in favor of mainstream prisoners’ rights groups. One somewhat hopes to see next a super-hardcore faction denouncing these anonymous posers for publishing in the Guardian. I don’t care what anyone says. Nadia Tolokonnikova is our era’s Aleksandr Radishchev.
I have no patience for westerners who say it is not our place to criticize the Russian regime. I suppose it depends on what you mean by ‘we’. I certainly don’t see myself in that deployment of the first-person plural pronoun.
I had a friend who spent much of the 1980s in Soviet jails for the crime of circulating bootleg Beatles tapes. He fell off a building and died, drunk, during the 1991 Generals’ Putch. His name was Vitaliy Dergachev. I’m on his side.
Western pseudo-left collusionism reached a fever pitch during the Olympics, which just happened to coincide with my recent return to Russia. The respected Russia scholar Stephen F. Cohen, whom I heard speak in the 1990s and I admired very much, wrote recently in The Nation that we are all, essentially, being duped by a lazy western media that is prepared to say more or less anything to make Putin look bad. But if it is true, as Cohen insists, that coverage of Russia is even less subtle than in the Soviet days, this surely follows from the far more general fact of the media’s overall decline in the past quarter century, and not from any deepening of the western media’s Cold War parti pris.
Cohen maintains that we are naive for going along with the official western line that the Ukrainians ‘yearn to be free’ and that this automatically means geopolitical alliance with the EU rather than with Russia. He evokes ancestrality: the bloody argument that Rus’ was once Kievan, and –therefore?– that Kiev must remain, if not Russian, then at least Russia-oriented. But this entirely overlooks the fact that the Maidan protesters do not think of themselves as dupes of the CIA or of western propaganda. They are disgusted by corruption and behind-the-scenes manipulation, mostly guided by Russia, and they want to be free of it. What is even more important, this overlooks the fact that almost all dissident Russian progressives (and not just the category-defying fish-fowl who simultaneously oppose gay marriage and GMO’s) are in strong solidarity with the Ukrainian protesters: not because they are западник suckers, not because they are pro-western, but because they want Ukraine to realize its right to autonomy and self-determination. As my friend Kirill Medvedev, a prominent figure in the Russian New Left, writes:
Извините, если что, но я совершенно серьезно думаю, что все прогрессивное человечество должно требовать сейчас двух вещей а)официально двуязычная, двуэтничная, мультикультурная Украина б)полное прекращение вмешательства России в дела этой страны.
Sorry, but I completely seriously think that all progressive humanity should now demand two things: (a) an officially bilingual, bi-ethnic, multicultural Ukraine; (b) the total cessation of interference on the part of Russia in the affairs of that country.
I’m on Kirill’s side.
What now about the Olympics? I agree that much of the western snickering and bickering about Sochi has been petty and embarrassing. I have been many places in Eastern Europe where a sign requested that I throw my toilet paper into the waste-paper receptacle, and not, as one might expect, into the toilet. When you travel, you see new things, and you marvel at the variety of the world. When you see them circulating on Tumblr, they’re easier to ridicule.
But let us make no mistake: Sochi was an ugly travesty, and it was made possible only by tremendous suffering. Forget about the repression of gays and lesbians, for a moment. In Moscow in the Winter of 2014, two sights are ubiquitous: the Olympic games on giant screens lining public thoroughfares; and migrant laborers from the Caucasus being treated like dirt. A racial hierarchy has emerged over the past two decades in the capital city, where Central Asians are now the tolerated, unthreatening, hard-working minority, while Caucasians occupy the very bottom rung of the social ladder, and are by definition targets of suspicion and exclusion.
Who are the Caucasians, and what is the historical cause of their place in the ethnic hierarchy of Russia? One thing you might notice is that Sochi is located in a region called ‘Krasnodar’. It is surrounded by many other administrative divisions that end in -stan, suggesting a Tataro-Turkic influence, and many other divisions that bear some sort of local ethnonym: Ingushetia, Ossetia, etc. Why is Krasnodar not a –stan? Why is Krasnodar not called Adyghia? The answer has in part to do with the fact that it was Russified in the mid-19th century through a brutal campaign of ethnic cleansing and genocide. The Circassians were exterminated, or relocated to Turkey. There is still today an active political lobby, based in Turkey, pushing for greater recognition of the Circassian genocide, but its voice is of course muffled by the Olympic juggernaut. In the lead-up to the games, Russian security forces were blowing up family homes around the Krasnodar region, hoping to weed out terrorists who had threatened to make the olympic spectacle their own.
The Americans were worried they’d need to be evacuated in the event of a terrorist attack, but the event of a non-event is, on reflection, no less troubling: a flawless Olympics means, for Putin, the consolidation of symbolic power in a contested part of the Caucasus, power that has seemed perpetually out of reach since at least the early 19th century. The westerners go and have a good time, tell themselves Putin’s not so bad after all even if they were made to shit in adjoining toilets at the Black Sea base camp. And brute power wins with the complicity of tacky pageant, and of a grovelling and sycophantic western left, whose best arguments for Putin never amount to anything more than a simple change of subject: Well, they say, it’s no worse than what we do.
Over the last few days, a disheartening consensus has emerged among self-styled Western progressives that there is little or nothing in the current Ukrainian revolution that merits solidarity. This mixture of wariness and indifference was already evident in the build-up to the bloody crackdown in Kyiv on February 18, but it has been stoked and heightened considerably since then by the clear and central role played in unfolding events by the Ukrainian extreme right, particularly by members of the so-called Right Sector and by the somewhat less extremist group Svoboda.
It is undeniable that the far right has taken a leading role in the shaping of post-Yanukovych Ukraine. But what international observers have entirely failed to grasp is that the choice between either supporting fascism or disowning the revolution is an entirely false dichotomy. Progressives worthy of the name could instead have taken the role of the far right as yet another challenge within a political situation that presented a complex cluster of challenges, including, most importantly, the removal of an utterly corrupt lackey of a neighboring dictator. The far right has come to own this revolution in part because of the prissiness of the left, the inability to accept that the situation might be intrinsically complex, and might impose common interests on groups that are otherwise entirely at odds.
The one place where the left seems to get this basic fact is in Russia. Now by ‘Russian left’ I don’t mean people who watch Alex Jones or whomever on RT and who meet every criticism of Putin with the subject-changing remark, ‘Well, it’s no worse than what the US does’. By ‘Russian left’ I mean the Russians who want to see Putin go the same way as Yanukovych, so that they can really start building a free and egalitarian society.
It was pointed out to me in Moscow a week ago that there is a direct, graphable correlation, over the past 10 years, between unrest in Kyiv and repression in Moscow. That is, the louder the demands for freedom in Ukraine, the more firmly Putin clamps down on the expression of dissident views at home. Putin fears nothing more than a contagion effect, the spread of disorder from Ukraine into Russia. And Russian progressives brace themselves for another cycle of repression, while inwardly rejoicing when Ukraine rises up, because it gives them hope that the same thing could happen next in Russia.
This is a slim hope, of course, and no one I know has any illusions. Putin could count on the army to repress any Maidan-style movement in Moscow, while Yanukovych knew all along that he could not be certain of the loyalty of the Ukrainian armed forces. His great error was to suppose that it would be enough to clear the square with police repression, and to fail to recognize the high degree of military organization on the part of the demonstrators. Police snipers are intimidating, but insufficient to bring down the sotni: hundred-strong legions of soldiers, first attested as centuriae in ancient Rome (for linguists this is a lovely instance of the famous centum/satem split), but incarnated much more recently by communist brigades in the Spanish civil war.
The tweets I am reading from the sotni are nationalist and ultranationalist in character. There is near constant invocation of the call-and-repeat formula: Слава Україні — Героям Слава! [Glory to Ukraine — Glory to the heroes!]. This phrase goes back to the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA), a hard nationalist and anticommunist group during World War II that also fought for Ukrainian independence against the Nazi occupation. The pair of phrases continues to be used today as a slogan for all supporters of Ukrainian independence. I chanted them myself at the demonstration in front of the Ministère des Affaires Étrangères in Paris on February 19 (there were some prickly fascists lurking around, to be sure, but there were also Odessa Jews, orange-bedecked Kyiv democrats, and assorted other good people singing the national anthem together). They have been consciously and carefully taken up by left supporters of Maidan in Russia and Ukraine. Thus for example Aleksandr Pivtorak, writing in Russian from Kyiv for the Ukrainian online news source Hvylya, concludes his article on Maidan and ‘the crisis of left mobility’ with the sign-off Слава Україні! He knows where the phrase comes from. He also knows what it means right now.
I recently read a comment from someone whose Jewish communist grandparents used to like to say that the only argument for Stalin was that he could keep the Ukrainian fascists in check. To me this comment said more than it intended: it drove home to me the fundamentally neo-Stalinist character of much of the vocal left in the West. In their own way, too, by turning their backs on the Ukrainian revolution for fear of its ugly fascists, the Western left is sticking with Stalin. The current incarnation of Stalin does not even pretend to represent a hope for a radiant future for the oppressed of the world. He is a pragmatist and a realist, but, like the dictator who represented both the apex of Soviet power and the beginning of its decline, Putin’s own power rests on convincing enough minds, at home and abroad, that the people he governs need this sort of government, that they are historically or genetically (the distinction is always blurry here) incapable of enlightened self-rule, and therefore must be ruled with an iron fist.
This is nothing more than an ugly prejudice, and it is clear that Western Ukraine isn’t buying it anymore. Putin had sought to keep Ukraine within Russia’s tighter sphere of influence through corruption, poison attacks, and, most recently, through a major, $15-billion-dollar loan to the Yanukovych government. It was implicit as a condition of this loan that the Ukrainian president would not go along with any movement for a reorientation toward the EU, and therefore that he would not tolerate the EuroMaidan movement, and would do whatever was necessary to suppress it. He tried to suppress it, and failed, and now Putin is very unhappy.
I have been reading many comments from Ukraine to the effect that we are only now seeing the true end of the pax sovietica, the true collapse of the USSR. The first collapse was partial, it let loose those republics, like the Baltics, that had only been seized in the chaos of World War II, and those of Central Asia, that always remained culturally and demographically very distinct (with the exception of major portions of Kazakhstan). Russia continued however, after the collapse, to perceive the world beyond its borders in terms of two distinct kinds of foreignness: the true abroad, on the one hand, and the ближнее зарубежье, or ‘near abroad’ on the other. Nowhere did this latter category apply more fully than to Ukraine. The very name ‘Ukraine’ suggests that it is ‘at the border’: u kraya.
In the early 1990s, when the final arrangement had yet to take shape and we were hearing strange acronyms like CIS (‘Commonwealth of Independent States’), exiled Russian nationalists like Solzhenitsyn were unequivocal: let the ‘Stans go, let the Baltics go, but keep greater Russia, historical Russia, together. This would include the RSFSR, ‘White Russia’ or Belarus, and ‘Little Russia’ or Ukraine. When that could not quite be realized at a formal level, Russia, at least since the beginning of the Putin era, did everything possible to make it a de facto reality. And it was, more or less, until now.
Left-leaning analysts in the West, including Stephen F. Cohen writing for The Nation, have appealed to the same ancestral ties that excited Solzhenitsyn’s patriotic imagination in order to argue that we must not rush to suppose that Ukraine has a right to be independent from Russia. This is ironic. Solzhenitsyn used to be the arch-conservative Western progressives could tolerate because of his truth-to-power exposure of the excesses of the Soviet Gulag system under Stalin and Khrushchev. Now there are echoes of Solzhenitsyn in the left’s defense of Russia’s neo-Soviet clinging to what’s left of its imperial power. But, again, this unlikely twist can be explained in large part by the fact that the left is far more Stalinist, mostly unknowingly, than it was a generation ago. (It also was not reading a magazine called Jacobin, a detail that seems to trouble me a lot more than it does my peers.)
We should not be talking about Ukrainian independence tout court. There are real political, economic, and cultural ties between much of Eastern Ukraine and Moscow, and it would seem to be a violation of the popular will of this region to break those ties by force or decree. There also does not seem to be any natural reason why Sofia, say, belongs any more in Europe than Lviv does. Many borders are artefacts of historical contingencies, and it would be ridiculous to seek to set them all just right once and for all. But as I’ve been arguing elsewhere, the current uprising in Western Ukraine is not primarily about geopolitical reorientation or about chasing the glossy consumerist dream of the EU.
Indeed, to suppose that this is what it is about, as many who are eager to abandon the Ukrainian revolution have argued, is a direct contradiction of the view that what the revolution is really about is ultranationalism, fierce defense of Ukrainian soil, etc. Again, ultranationalism is one of the elements in the current events, and so, admittedly, is Euro-optimism (on this latter point, the Russian line is of course a compelling one: there is no good reason for such optimism; Russia is richer by far than, say, Romania or Bulgaria, and only fools would rush to join the EU only similar terms). But I would conjecture that a deeper historical reason for what is happening right now is the desire in Western Ukraine for a free and independent society, and this means, most importantly, a final end to Russian domination.
I hope they attain this, and I declare my antipathy to any Westerner who does not have the same hope, or does not believe that this is something to which the Ukrainians have a right. I believe mutatis mutandis that this rift is the same as the one that separated defenders of the Soviet invasion of Hungary in 1956 from those who saw it for what it was. Again, one great difference between 1956 and today is that Putin is not even pretending to hope to bring about a better world (or, if he is, it’s only in the same obviously disingenuous way Alex Jones and other guests on the Russian propaganda network are). Were there craven Hungarian antisemites who resented those Soviet tanks coming and interrupting their plans for an independent Hungary? Of course there were! Does anyone today doubt that the Soviet Union overreached its legitimate exercise of power? I hope not.
And again, I declare that in this hope I look most of all to what the dissident Russian left is saying, and I don’t care much at all about the opinion of Americans who think Fox News is the only media outlet capable of lying, or that Obama is the only world leader prepared to kill innocents. The Russians I know look to Ukraine, and they see a glimmer of hope that they too might soon be free of the old prejudice that validates and excuses their being ruled by an iron fist, and that the pax sovietica might collapse even within its core of power in Russia. I’m on their side.
Yes, there are fascists playing a central role in the Ukrainian revolution right now. And yes, the US and the EU are trying cynically manipulate the revolution for their own geopolitical interests, just like Russia is. Don’t let these parties prevail. Don’t abandon Ukraine.
There is a risk of appearing perverse or flippant when, in the face of unfolding events, one insists on taking the very long view and invoking centuries-old battles. Often, indeed, one senses that many of the seemingly intractable problems on the fringes of Europe could be swiftly resolved if history were finally forgotten, or at least deemed definitively irrelevant to politics.
And yet sometimes such a perspective is just what is needed. I do not know whether Crimea is one such time, but when I read of a new Russian annexation of the Black Sea peninsula, I cannot help it: I think straightaway of 1783 and the fall of the Crimean Khanate.
There is talk in the Russian and Ukrainian social media of a ‘Second Crimean War’, the first being, of course, the war of 1853-56, which pitted the Russian Empire against a coalition of Ottoman, British, and French troops, along with an assortment of minor players. Paris has both a ‘Crimée’ as well as a ‘Sebastopol’ metro stop, and the French role in this affair seems to have been crucial for France’s rediscovery of its bellicose potential after Napoleon I’s defeat. But the First Crimean War can tell us little about its supposed sequel, since in truth it was not principally Crimean until the tail end, but rather pan-Pontic, and even Baltic. France’s military objectives were reached in the conquest of some territories in the Danube delta that had been seized by Russia. But by the time of this small victory the French public was hungry for more, and so the troops went on to the mythic battle of Sebastopol, and took at least a part of the peninsula, at least for a time, ostensibly in the aim of reconstituting a lost Turkish hegemony around the Black Sea.
So what is happening right now is less a repeat of the 19th-century battles around Crimea than it is of the initial 18th-century annexation. In neither case, of course, was there any question of Ukrainian sovereignty or historical claim to the peninsula. The khanate was one of many realms controlled by Muslim Turkic Tatars to the north and east of the Black Sea. It was established as an Ottoman vassal state in the late 15th century, and had its capital at Bahçesaray (now moderately Slavicized as ‘Bakhchysarai’). The de-Tatarization of the peninsula was the principal concern of the Russian Empire from the time of its initial annexation.
A great number of Crimean Tatars assimilated, or went to Anatolia and assimilated there in some degree (estimates for the Crimean Tatar population of Turkey today differ wildly, from a few hundred thousand to several million; it all depends what criteria are used). Over the couse of the 19th century the Tatars were ethnically cleansed, expelled, and brutally repressed. In this respect, one should see the Russification of Crimea as part of the same broader process of annexation and incorporation of the Caucasus region (some but not all of whose ethnolinguistic groups are also Turkic). We see in fact a close parallel history with the Adyghe or Circassians of the Krasnodar region around Sochi, who like the Crimean Tatars ended up relocating in large numbers to Anatolia.
This project continued well into the Soviet period, and the Crimean Tatars were subjected to particularly brutal repression by Stalin and Beria in 1944, under suspicion of being ‘fascists’. From the Soviet perspective, Ukranianization of the region was nearly as good as Russification. Both replaced an inherently intractable ethnic group with people from the USSR’s Slavic core. This history is worth recalling because it reminds us that, today, it is somewhat superficial to analyze what is happening in Crimea in the way we’ve become accustomed to doing for the events in Kyiv and points west. Crimea has a long history as a Russian colony, and when it fell into Ukraine’s hands at the collapse of the Soviet Union this was effectively the transfer of a colony, rather than the consolidation of a historical nation.
There is no question but that Putin is leaping on the opportunity opened up by the instability of Ukraine to attempt to reconsolidate the empire that partially contracted in 1991, and that has been going through phases of contraction and expansion for centuries. To this extent, the re-annexation of Crimea is to be vigorously opposed, not because it fractures a natural unity (as, say, a Russian invasion of Western Ukraine would), but because it marks the renascence of a properly imperial power. Ukraine had simply enjoyed temporary usufruct, by geographical circumstance, of a sliver of that empire.
I see Crimea more in continuity with recent events in Sochi than in Kyiv: the symbolic consolidation of Russian hegemony in historically non-Slavic, Muslim regions that have been contested since the late-18th and early-19th centuries. This development is in many respects more significant than the matter of Kyiv’s geopolitical orientation. It hints at a growing thirst for hegemony over the entire Black Sea. This could eventually lead to a confrontation with Turkey, which for its part is rediscovering, in parallel fashion, its own neo-Ottoman imperial ambitions.
Putin’s only argument to justify the new Russian imperialism is that, as a matter of fact, Russia is strong enough to pull it off. There is nothing more to it than that. If you have some time, watch a video or two of Ramzan Kadyrov on YouTube. Watch him on horseback, or at target practice, or throwing money in the air while dancing. This is Putin’s appointed warlord in Chechnya, and his only claim to authority in that beleaguered republic is (i) heredity, and (ii) his proven track-record of violence. One rises to the position of statesman, under Putin’s regime, by the display of virtues that would not have been out of place a millennium ago: strength, mightiness, ferocity in the field of battle.
There have been recent reports that Putin has sent one of his faithful ministers of parliament, Nikolaï Valuev, to assess the situation in Crimea. Valuev is a former heavyweight boxer, who is over seven feet tall and once knocked out Evander Holyfield. He looks like a classic James Bond villain. One of the leaders of the Ukrainian revolution is a man named Vitali Klitschko, leader of the Ukrainian Democratic Alliance for Reform– UDAR, which means ‘punch’ in both Ukrainian and Russian. He is also a former professional boxer who once fought Lennox Lewis. There is already talk in the Russian Twittersphere of an inevitable match between Klitschko and Valuev that will decide the fate of Crimea. Such a thing is not impossible in a moral-political climate set by Putin.
There is a legend that extends at least back to the stories the Greeks told themselves about the Scythians, according to which these people were such savage warriors that they were prepared to kill great numbers of their own people just to make the enemy quake and run the other way. While the Scythians were probably northern Indo-Aryans, the label ‘Scythian’ has always been slippery: sometimes it’s the Turks, sometimes the Mongols, and sometimes Russians. Balkan and Slavic peoples are praised or condemned for being able to turn back their enemies by adopting ‘Scythian’ ways themselves, as when Vlad the Impaler made a wall of impaled Transylvanian Christians before the gates of Brașov, and drove back the invading Turks. The stereotype extends all the way to popular entertainments of recent years, as when the vaguely Turkish character Keyser Söze, in the 1995 American movie, The Usual Suspects, resolved the crisis of his family’s tragic kidnapping at the hands of evil enemies by shooting, not the enemies, but his entire family.
One cannot help but think of this ancient trope when one recalls the Russian security forces’ response to the hostage crisis in Beslan in 2004, or the Nord-Ost siege in Moscow two years earlier. The enemy shows force, we show more force in retaliation, and we demonstrate our invincibility by demonstrating our indifference to the loss of innocent lives on either side. The regime acts as force majeure, as a power of nature that can’t be talked down or made to see things differently. We are in the realm of stereotypes here, and there is nothing natural or inevitable about Russia taking up the ancient role of the Scythians. But I am convinced that Putin himself believes in these stereotypes, that playing out these stereotypes is a winning strategy for his political career, and that this does not bode at all well for Russia’s neighbors.
I’m drawing mostly on memory here and I hope I’m getting my facts straight. In the past, I have found Alan W. Fisher, The Russian Annexation of the Crimea, 1772-1783 (CUP, 2008), particularly helpful for understanding the history of the region.
I’m also thankful to Andrey Slivka for recently reminding me of the crucial role of the Tatars in shaping Russian and Soviet policy toward the Crimea.
And thanks to Vladislav Davidzon, for taking me to those dark corners of Twitter where boxing and politics blend naturally together.
Pieces crossposted with Justin E. H. Smith’s website
Cover art by Mamchich