So rivetted am I by the Russian invasion of Ukraine that I actually dreamed I was there, helping someone who was rescuing displaced cats. It may yet prove to be the third great crisis of our lifetimes, along with the pandemic and the even more destructive ecological meltdown. I knew little about the region, except that it had been invaded and fought over innumerable times – so often that historian Timothy Snyder titled his book on it “Bloodlands”. So here are a few things I found.
Putin’s fateful, appalling and ill-conceived invasion is just one of a very, very long series.
In the year 370 it was the Huns.
In 882 it was the Varangians (no, I’m not sure where they came from, either).
In 1240, the Mongols sacked Kyiv; many fled to other countries. Five years later, the papal envoy Giovanni da Pian del Carpine reported:
"They destroyed cities and castles and killed men and Kyiv, which is the greatest Russian city they besieged; and when they had besieged it a long while they took it and killed the people of the city. So when we went through that country we found countless human skulls and bones from the dead scattered over the field. Indeed it had been a very great and populous city and now is reduced almost to nothing. In fact there are hardly two hundred houses there now and the people are held in the strictest servitude."[
In the 1470s a then-powerful Lithuanian/Polish combination did it again. At that time, ‘Rus’ to the east barely registered on the map.
In 1793 Catherine the Great invaded Ukraine, just one of several Russian autocrats who would exert dominance over an area that at one time formed the very heart of Russia, at other times opted for fierce independence, and at others still were as nasty to their neighbours as anyone. The tsarist ambition for a Greater Russia in some ways was merely continued by the Communists after 1917. This new-ish national sensibility was forged in contradistinction from the ‘West’, upon whose cultural coat-tails Russia had long and ambivalently dangled. The West helped stoke Russian antipathy and fear by themselves invading occasionally: Napoleon in 1812, others a century later in the aftermath of World War I, when Russia endured a gruelling civil war. Canadian scholar Orest Subtelny wrote:
In 1919 total chaos engulfed Ukraine. Indeed, in the modern history of Europe no country experienced such complete anarchy, bitter civil strife, and total collapse of authority as did Ukraine at this time. Six different armies-– those of the Ukrainians, the Bolsheviks, the Whites, the Entente [French], the Poles and the anarchists – operated on its territory. Kyiv changed hands five times in less than a year. Cities and regions were cut off from each other by the numerous fronts. Communications with the outside world broke down almost completely. The starving cities emptied as people moved into the countryside in their search for food. [Quotations courtesy Wikipedia]
One of the worst was in 1941, when the Nazis rumbled through, levelling cities and shipping tens of thousands off to the gas-ovens. The Soviet response and backwash over Ukraine was almost as vicious; and it wasn’t long before Stalin’s policy of compulsory collectivisation starved millions more Ukrainians to death.
So one can imagine a cold-blooded Putin saying: “Why is everyone getting so excited? This has happened before!” One can see him choosing to model his attitude on a particular moment of Russian historical pride – Peter the Great, perhaps – spiced with KGB-trained Cold War paranoia, centuries-old resentment of perceived inferiority to the West, and fears of yet another encroachment, this time by NATO. He seems motivated, in short, by a monumental myth – and as Roland Barthes argued a long time ago, such myths are the greatest motivators of all. Napoleon had his myth, too; so did the British Empire, as Caroline Elkins shows in her magisterial new book, Legacy of Violence. Such myths serve to deny, justify, legalise or cover up acts of terrible violence inflicted on subject peoples. Putin’s propaganda is nothing new; every empire, every power structure, has one.
This is not in any way to justify the present invasion, which will deliver good to no one much except the arms manufacturers. Not even to Russia. And of course the situation today, due to the presence of thousands of nuclear warheads, looks more dangerous than any of those previous occasions.
What seems most mysterious to us now, perhaps, is why so many within Russia (and some outside) seem to swallow that myth and propaganda, even publicly support it.
I found myself going back to a book I’d read maybe 30 years ago, by the Nobel Prize-winning Polish poet Czeslav Milosz. Poland has been through much the same turbulent history as neighbouring Ukraine, the same spasms of national and linguistic pride and independence, the same kind of incorporation into that one-time ‘Greater Russia’ that Putin seems set on reinstating. In his book The Captive Mind, first published in 1953, Milosz explores in detail how complex is that ‘submission’ to the autocratic state. Not a simple belief in the propaganda, not a simple sense of numbed victimhood, not even a simple survival strategy for potential dissenters; but something of all of these, varying from individual to individual. Milosz is concerned mostly with intellectuals and writers, especially from Poland, who had to find ways of accommodating themselves to Stalin’s hyper-surveillance. (To understand just how intense that surveillance was, read Nadezhda Mandelstam’s Hope Against Hope, or Orlando Figes’ grimly absorbing study of everyday lives under Stalin, The Whisperers. There are moments I feel a little in sympathy with Putin’s sneering at ‘the decadence of the West’, but however messy and hypocritical democracy can get, the Stalin-style alternative is just unacceptably terrifying.)
What strikes me about Milosz’s book, even after 70 years, is how often it’s eerily prescient of today’s situation, unsettlingly parallel. Here are just some of the passages I picked out. A key component of the syndrome is Russia’s suspicious disdain for the West – far from new to Putin & Co. Despite the West’s technological superiority,
[The] Eastern intellectual asks, what goes on in the heads of the Western masses? Aren’t their souls asleep ... isn’t Christianity dying out in the West, and aren’t its people bereft of all faith? ... Don’t they fill that void with chauvinism, detective stories, and artistically worthless movies? ... One has but to read Tolstoi’s What is Art? to get a picture of the scorn for Western sophistication that is so typical of the Russians. [The Russian] must break that habit of imitation which was inevitable as long as French, English or Belgian capital, investing in the mines, railroads and factories [add, today, oil and gas] of the ‘Eastern Marches’, pushed its books, films and styles upon them. ... “
According to Stalin’s version of Marxism, the West is doomed: “The bourgeoisie rules through demagoguery, which in practice means that prominent positions are filled by irresponsible people who commit follies in moments of indecision.” [Trump? Johnson?] Hence, the average Russian is subjected to propaganda that “tries by every means to prove that Nazism and Americanism are identical in that they are products of the same economic conditions...” Putin seems to have bought this line entirely, relying on outdated philosophers who punt a Russian version of America’s “Manifest Destiny”, but a faith avowedly founded on pure reason and historical inevitability.
“The philosophy of History emanating from Moscow is not just an abstract theory; it is a material force that uses guns, tanks, planes, and all the machines of war and oppression. All the crushing might of an armed state is hurled against any man who refuses to accept the New [Stalinist, or Putinist] Faith. ... What is happening in Russia and the countries dependent upon her bespeaks a kind of insanity, but it is not impossible that Russia will manage to impose her insanity upon the whole world ...”
Milosz writes of the 1950s, but it is uncannily being reproduced today. Under such pressures of history, surveillance, external curbing of dissenting voices, internal self-censorship and guilt, little wonder that many find ways to ‘go along’, quietly harbouring any doubts while publicly writing odes to the Leader. It is not just a matter of lying to save one’s skin or position.
“Finding oneself in the midst of an historical cyclone, one must behave as prudently as possible ... All [one’s] intellectual and emotional capacities are put to the test. ...What can be said openly is often much less interesting than the emotional magic of defending one’s private sanctuary. For most people the necessity of living in constant tension and watchfulness is a torture, but many intellectuals accept this necessity with masochistic pleasure. [And] even the enclosing fence affords the solace of reverie.”
This gives just a flavour of the subtlety and complexity with which Milosz unpacks the mentalities of people, especially poets and intellectuals, who find themselves caught up in the periodic whirlwinds of the “bloodlands.” It makes the courage of Pussy Riot and Navalny all the more remarkable – but look what’s happened to them. I suppose if there is any hope arising from this tortuous history, it’s that although these cities have been flattened time and again, time and again they’ve also been rebuilt. May the present-day sites of horror – the suddenly-household names of Kyiv, Bucha, Kharkiv, Mariupol – be similarly restored.
As for Milosz the poet, he refuses to give in to despair.
“The war years taught me that a man should not take a pen in his hands merely to communicate to others his own despair and defeat. This is too cheap a commodity; it takes too little effort to produce it for a man to pride himself on having done so. Whoever saw, as many did, a whole city reduced to rubble – kilometres of streets on which there remained no trace of life, not even a cat, not even a homeless dog – emerged with a rather ironic attitude towards descriptions of the hell of the big city by contemporary poets, descriptions of the hell in their own souls. A real “wasteland” is much more terrible than any imaginary one. ... Today the only poetry worthy of the name is eschatological [pertaining to the ‘end times’], that is, poetry which rejects the present inhuman world in the name of a great change.”
One has to wonder if we're not in similar eschatological times, history repeating itself, to be sure - but with contemporary variations.