Russia cannot understand what it has done to its neighbours
Russia cannot understand what it has done to its neighbours
Russian authorities and diplomats have accepted that Estonia is an independent country because the mental divide between the people of the two countries has become too wide, says Aleksandr Sytin, formerly a researcher for ten years at the Russian Institute for Strategic Studies (RISI), which is engaged in Russian foreign intelligence, in an interview with Diplomaatia about the hundred-year history of Estonian-Russian relations. Sytin, who was dismissed from RISI three years ago, is one of the few specialists in Moscow focused specifically on the Baltics, and in 2011 defended his dissertation titled “Russian-Baltic relations at the end of the 20th century and beginning of the 21st century (1985–2007)”.
What were the main conclusions of your thesis? And why start from 1985?
I consider that year the beginning of processes that led to the dissolution of the Soviet Union for Russia and concluded with independence for the Baltics. My dissertation was aimed at rehabilitating the Baltics somewhat in the eyes of the Russian public—at least, in the eyes of those who read [such works]. I finished writing the thesis in 2010 and at the time I was still under the illusion that Russia might learn from some of the experiences of the Baltic states. At the moment I am still hoping that Ukraine will take account of these experiences. Although in my estimation it took the Baltics at least ten years to exit the Soviet era and overcome the post-Soviet syndrome, the scale was completely different to Ukraine. Russia has still not managed to overcome this syndrome. Russia today is a hybrid of the Empire and the Soviet Union, which time and again demonstrates its inability to develop. We might blame Lenin, [Aleksandr] Parvus [Marxist theoretician who is today presented in Russia as the real “demon of the Bolshevist revolution” in 1917—JP.], the British, the Americans, the Germans or anyone else, but both empires fell because they were not capable of developing. This is because development [in Russia] is always seen as taking over new territories. But this, in fact, is no development.
Let’s jump back a hundred years. Could Estonia have any reason to build a memorial to Lenin for recognising Estonia’s independence, as some have—more or less seriously—proposed?
Of course not. In today’s circumstances it would be a concession to systematic Russian propaganda, which says that all countries that gained independence at the time came into being thanks to Russia. In fact they were created due to the fall of the Russian Empire. Lenin’s aim was to demolish the empire but it was to be replaced by a world revolution, a union of workers and farmers on a global scale. In Estonia as well. The [Soviet] annexation in 1940 not only happened by agreement with the Germans [in Moscow’s view], but it was also presented as a victory of certain social classes. This is still the most widespread approach in the Russian understanding of history.
How does the Russian treatment of history present the Estonian War of Independence against Russia in 1918–20? How much is it even mentioned, considering that it was the first, and one of the very few, wars that the Red Army lost?
First, it is usually interpreted in the context of the [Russian] Civil War and intervention. Second, as the entire White movement is popular in Russia due to the rise of nationalism, it is written that they [the Estonian government and army—JP.] were bad and did not support Yudenich when it was necessary.1 A strong minority—but these people do exist!—understand that the Poles, Ukrainians, Latvians, Finns, Estonians could not in principle support the [Russian] Whites because their slogan was “a united and undivided [Russia]”.
So there are not many people in Russia who know that Russia lost the war to Estonia a hundred years ago?
There is general historical illiteracy in Russia, even regarding its own history—it is absolutely astonishing. These days anyone in Russia can call themselves a historian, talk absolute nonsense and feel completely comfortable.
Does it seem to you that the Russian elite has finally become used to the idea that Estonia is an independent country? And, of course, Latvia and Lithuania as well?
Yes! And this goes especially for Estonia. It became particularly clear after the events in Ukraine. When it comes to the Baltics, they have overcome the post-Soviet syndrome; they have been cured of it.
Who in Russia has overcome this in respect of the Baltics?
The authorities and diplomats. If they do think of the Baltics, it is in the context of the West once having promised not to admit the Baltic states into NATO, but now there will soon be missiles in place that can reach St Petersburg in only a few minutes etc. But this mental divide [between the people of Estonia and Russia], which was there and is now only getting wider—an understanding of this has sunk in. It is a different world [compared to Russia today]. Another aspect is the living standards of the Russians in Narva, in Estonia generally. It seems to me that these are not bad, especially in comparison to [neighbouring] Pskov oblast. For if it were bad, it would be loudly declared every step of the way. Demonstrating that the Russians are badly off in the Baltics has been unsuccessful. The suppression argument also seems to be failing. The primary emphasis with this is on Latvia, simply because so many Russians live in Riga and there are many more people there who are engaged professionally [in this matter], living on Moscow’s support. In broader terms, there was only the Bronze Soldier incident in Estonia, which was followed by complete silence [regarding the suppression of Russians].
You worked for a long time at a research institute that was in the service of the Kremlin. What do all the numerous research institutes that serve the Kremlin think about Estonia, and the Baltics in general? How do they see us?
When I worked at RISI, it [the Baltics] was clearly regarded as a secondary topic. In general it can be said that Estonia was only of interest to us in the context of NATO. Put simply: will they install missiles [in Estonia] or not?; will Article 5 [of the North Atlantic Treaty] be triggered [for Estonia] or not? Even guys like Ichtchenko no longer talk about the urgent need to conquer the Baltics.2
Why is this?
I see certain signs that Russian foreign policy will retreat somewhat after the [presidential] elections [in March]. This primarily concerns Ukraine, and to a lesser extent Syria and the Middle East.
What has become of RISI since the former prime minister, Mikhail Fradkov—who was forced to resign as head of the Foreign Intelligence Service—took over?
It has become a completely closed institute, because experts are no longer able to appear in public.
Do you think Estonia and Russia have ever had normal relations? Or is Russia’s interest in Estonia so minimal that there is no reason to speak of any special relationship?
I do not think there is anything especially bad at the moment.
It was only in January that foreign minister Sergei Lavrov accused Estonia and told our country’s administration to behave better towards Russia.
What else could he say? Listen, I remember how a big poster was put up in Moscow’s city centre in front of a travel agency that sold trips to Estonia: “Sell your homeland, buy a trip to Estonia”—compared to this, the situation right now is very good. [The poster was put up during the Bronze Soldier events of 2007.—JP.] Right now it is not a problem to travel to Estonia from Russia and vice versa, and nobody warns against Estonia. Lavrov has to say something because a picture has already been painted [by propaganda] that there is Russophobia all over the world. In this world created by propaganda, the Baltic states have been assigned the role of the accused. I would not pay any attention at all to this.
Has Russia made any miscalculations regarding the Baltics in recent history—chosen the wrong policy for them?
For a long time, Russia was convinced that if it ended transit through the Baltic states, they would come, tails between their legs, and ask for it back. It was also convinced that the Baltic states would back Nord Stream [offshore natural gas pipeline under the Baltic Sea from Russia to Germany] and would want to earn revenue from it. But as no one came forward or asked for anything, Russia realised that this blackmail did not work. If Ukraine were also to solve this problem for itself when it loses gas transit [through pipelines], Russia would properly understand that such a policy does not work. Secondly, during the Ukraine crisis the Baltic states demonstrated excellent resilience to Russian propaganda. Due to all of this, Russia has lost almost all interest in the Baltic states. Its interest has shifted from Ukraine to the Balkans instead of the Baltics. The Mediterranean Sea, especially the Bosphorus, is much more interesting for Russia. The Baltic Sea is not familiar to the Russians; this is especially evident in Kaliningrad.
Are you sure?
Well, compare the feelings that Russians have regarding the Black Sea and the Baltic Sea. It is obvious: you cannot even swim properly in the Baltic Sea.
Many in Estonia believe that Estonian politicians should follow the lead of their Finnish counterparts: be more pragmatic about Russia, not base their judgements on values so much and keep quiet—which would immediately result in better relations and more economic ties. What you think?
There will be no extensive economic relations. The Russian administration has repeatedly said that, even if the [Western] sanctions end, there is no guarantee that its countersanctions will change. This means that some Estonian goods will still not enter the Russian market—at least not in the foreseeable future. Regarding the Finns, their seemingly good relationship with Russia does not prevent them from quietly doing more and more research about cooperation with NATO. Also, even with “good behaviour”, it is unlikely that Estonia could obtain the same status as Finland—not least because the rich of St Petersburg are buying summer houses in Finland and not Estonia. Whether something like this would be good for Estonia is a different matter. I know that it worries many people in Finland.
So you think it wouldn’t help Estonia’s relationship with Russia if we began to create a “positive atmosphere”?
I don’t see any point. If you wanted to use it, for example, to increase exports of Estonian food products to the St Petersburg market, this is unlikely in any case today. It would be more feasible to achieve something in infrastructure projects, but then it has to be taken into account that some concessions must be made. With Russia it is not possible to simply negotiate and then agree on some joint project; this will undoubtedly be followed by political pressure. I think that, on Russia’s side, the current policy will continue for at least five or six years; it all depends on how—and whether—Putin resolves the issue of his successor. Estonia should leave everything as it is for the time being. There is no reason for Estonia to make any drastic changes. Russia does not pose any threat. All of its energy is directed elsewhere. For example, look more closely at how Russia is trying to break the European Union apart from within. In order to achieve this, it is primarily focusing on the countries where business circles have an influence over the national government—Germany and Italy.
Does the fact that Putin himself probably has a negative opinion of Estonia play any role in the Estonian-Russian relationship? It is known that, during World War II, Estonians betrayed the whereabouts of his father, who was a Red Army saboteur and was sent to the rear of the German army near Narva, and was taken prisoner?
I don’t think so—at least there is no specific evidence about this.
It is very common in Russia to look at Estonia and the other Baltics with the attitude “during the Soviet era we built you big factories and other infrastructure, brought you prosperity and you were very fortunate, but you were ungrateful, broke up the union and now are even demanding compensation”. Would Russians themselves be happy if, for example, they were occupied by the Americans, who then filled the country with factories so that everybody’s living standards doubled, or would they prefer to live independently and not under foreign rule and diktat? Do they refuse to understand this, or what the problem is?
No, they do not understand this. When a person left Moscow or Leningrad, let alone a province, to go to Estonia around 1975, it was almost like going abroad. On the other hand, they had their pride: all of this was also ours. This is an important concept in Russia: “ours” and “not ours”. There is also the fact that the structure of the economy in Russia has not changed: the defence industry and heavy industry are still dominant. Russians see big industries like this as a great boon. They generally fail to understand the principle that these huge factories could be done away with and smaller, more agile companies could be established instead. The concept of a service economy is simply not understood. In Russia it is still generally considered the greatest luck for a person if they can work at the same factory all their life, fixing the same bolts over and over again—for them this is stability. What the Baltic states did [with their economies] is the complete opposite of the Russian value system.
A Russian friend of mine in Moscow said that Russia tends to forget very quickly everything bad that it has done to another country.
I will say this again—most Russians do not see that it was bad in any way. The Russian mentality is based on equality, which they call justice. This equality is based on hatred of all other forms of life (not specifically those better off than Russians) different from theirs. They are basically hostile to everyone who does not live like they do.
Do you think there could be an administration in Russia that would apologise sincerely to all its neighbours for past killings, deportations and other crimes, or is this impossible?
Some formal apologies have been made, I think. More apologies could be made. But this will not change anything, as long as Russia’s politics do not change.
1 This refers to the offensive of the Russian Army of the North-west, under the command of Russian Imperial Army General Nikolai Yudenich, against the Bolshevist Petrograd in the autumn of 1919, which began successfully but failed as the rebellion that Yudenich had hoped for did not start in the city and the reinforced Red Army suddenly started a counterattack. The statements referred to by Sytin accuse Estonia of not providing military aid to the Army of the North-west at a decisive moment and then disarming the defeated army, which had retreated to Estonia, and interning the personnel.
2 Rostislav Ichtchenko, who worked in the administration of the ousted Ukrainian president, Viktor Yanukovych, and escaped to Moscow after the Maidan revolution and began to write very critical articles on Ukraine and the Baltics; in 2015 he also justified why Russia needed to conquer the Baltics.
This article was published in ICDS Diplomaatia magazine.