History as an instrument of foreign policy.
For several fundamental reasons, World War II played a key role in forming both the Soviet identity of the past and the emerging Russian identity of the present. Some of these reasons are quite evident and real, while others are kind of biased and self-righteous, but they are not just products of skilful manipulation of official propaganda. In fact all of them are inherent to the Russian mentality, albeit to different degrees.
To start with, many Russians sincerely believe that, given the Nazis’ declared aims—let alone their racial theory—the stakes in this war for the USSR were much higher than for the other major actors. While all of them risked military defeat and political surrender, the USSR had to fight for its survival, facing total extermination and enslavement. The monstrous nature of the Soviet regime—or, as Winston Churchill put it, “the past, with its crimes, its follies and its tragedies”—“flashed away” when Germany invaded the USSR. Against this background, World War II had truly become the Great Patriotic War for an overwhelming majority of Soviet people.
It cannot be denied, of course, that hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of Soviet people went over to the side of the enemy. However, given the amount of territory occupied by the Germans, the massive scope of the fighting and the number of troops involved, the proportion of Nazi collaborators in the USSR might not be any higher than that in other countries. All in all, the truth is that, during the war, an overwhelming majority of Soviet people were united in their defiance of the enemy. Perhaps even more important, after the war, most of these people and their offspring stayed united by the memory of the ordeal their country had come through.
In all fairness, they were and are justified to do so since every second combatant killed in action in World War II was Soviet. Poorly trained and equipped, often led by ruthless and unscrupulous commanders, Soviet soldiers died in large and excessive numbers. The overall count of those killed in action stopped at 11 million servicemen. Compared with the figures of other major actors (Germany—5 million; Japan—1.9 million; USA—400,000; UK—300,000), the Soviet death count is truly appalling. By a conservative estimate, over 15 million Soviet civilians perished in the occupied territories. In many countries an aggregate casualty count of such proportions would have made people at least belatedly reflect on the incompetence of their own government and military leadership. By contrast, in the USSR it made the people proud of their sacrifice. This attitude persists in present-day Russia.
A couple of years ago, official Russian propaganda coined the catchphrase “spiritual clamps”, bonds that helped to glue Russian society together. In fact the only genuine bond that unites the Russians of today is the multifaceted memory of the Great Patriotic War. They take pride in the victory, mourn the dead heroes, and denounce those who challenge their convictions, however simplified or distorted. In this context it should be noted that the memory of the Great Patriotic War, combined with an appalling lack of general education, makes many Russians easy prey for the propaganda campaign waged against them by the Russian government.
It may seem strange at first glance but, as time goes by and the victory in the Great Patriotic War drifts into the past, its popular appeal grows rather than diminishes. However, there is a traditional Russian logic behind this phenomenon.
More than a hundred years ago, Sergey Witte, one of the greatest Russian statesmen, wrote: “What was the key pillar of the Russian Empire? … Who built the Russian Empire, transforming the semi-Asian Princedom of Moscow into a great European power? It was accomplished through [the] power of army bayonet alone. Not through our culture, or bureaucratic Church, or wealth”. There have been a lot of changes in Russia since the time of Witte: the Russian Empire was overthrown by the Bolshevik coup, the USSR rose and fell, to be succeeded by its “legal continuation”—the Russian Federation. But Witte’s definition of Russian statehood as a product of military might seems to be as accurate as ever. In fact, the average Russian sincerely believes that, were it not for Russia’s military might—and primarily its nuclear deterrent—his country would have long ago been torn apart by foreign invaders. Admittedly, this version of siege mentality is essentially defensive. But, as Henry Kissinger once remarked, “there is nothing more offensive than Russians on the defensive”.
Within this popular “defensive” paradigm, an overwhelming majority of Soviet people always perceived victory in the Great Patriotic War as by far the greatest achievement in Soviet history, which otherwise is not blessed with achievements that have withstood the test of time. (In fact there has been just one other unquestionable Soviet achievement—the breakthrough in space.)
The serious problem associated with such a public perception is that the official Soviet history of the Great Patriotic War has been “canonised”: whatever the USSR had done before, during and, by extension, after the war, was right and noble. And whoever dared to disagree with this maxim was in fact challenging everything that the USSR had gained as the principal victor. In the last decade of the 20th century, this concept started to melt away, but in the following decade it was gradually resurrected and now it is once again officially held beyond reproach or criticism. An overwhelming majority of Russians welcomed this conservative U-turn, sponsored by the hardliners in the Russian government and political elite.
As a result, it looks as if the famous formula of George Orwell—“He who controls the past controls the future. He who controls the present controls the past.”—has been tacitly enacted in Russia. The real tragedy of Russian society is that this seemingly impossible task has been accomplished with relative ease by means of the most shameless propaganda campaign in the history of Russia. This campaign was first launched in 2004, with the “Orange Revolution” in Ukraine as a catalyst. Since then, its scope and volume have increased constantly. While the targets of the campaign varied, its common denominator has always been the same: post-Soviet states that failed to accept Russia’s “guidance”, let alone opting for a policy of which Russia did not approve, infringed upon its legitimate rights and interests. This concept can be traced back to the famous talks Josef Stalin held with Winston Churchill in October 1944 in Moscow. At the latter’s suggestion, the two leaders discussed “spheres of influence” in post-war Eastern Europe, measuring them in percentages of Soviet and British interests in each country. The discussion came to nothing, but the “pragmatic” approach introduced by Churchill impressed Stalin. It looks as if Russia has now suddenly decided to apply this “old-fashioned” approach to the post-Soviet countries. Is Russia serious?
My answer is “yes”—in present-day conditions, Russia is deadly serious because such an approach not only reflects President Putin’s desire to stay in office for life, but also fits nicely in Russia’s newly acquired national identity.
Since the collapse of the USSR, all former Soviet republics (the post-Soviet states) have been searching for their new identity. Understandably enough, all of them except Russia have opted for a nation-state identity. This proved a very painful process, since few of them had been exempt from the contradictions of their former Soviet legacy. Only two former Soviet republics (Armenia and Lithuania) were virtually monoethnic. The rest had ethnic minorities of their own, in particular a sizeable ethnic Russian population which had suddenly become a minority. The USSR was skilfully constructed in such a way that ethnic minorities in every “union” and “autonomous” republic helped the “union” government to keep in check the national sentiment of their “title” nations. In some cases, internal boundaries were drawn with this purpose in mind, while in others the multiethnic composition of the population was a by-product of economic development dating back to the USSR and the Russian Empire. In any case, introducing a new identity was a painful process for the post-Soviet states. But all of them stayed the course.
In Russia, non-ethnic Russians amount to roughly half the population. There are several autonomous republics, some of them with quite pronounced separatist ambitions. Russia could not therefore afford to pursue the nation-state path on the basis of ethnicity. Instead, it gradually came to identify itself with the late USSR.
In this context it should be noted that, while all the former republics of the USSR were recognised as its legal successors, only Russia was recognised as its “legal continuation”. In this capacity, Russia succeeded to all treaties to which the USSR had been party, as well as to the position of a permanent member of the UN Security Council.
Last but not least, in the early post-Soviet years many leaders of the new independent states, often to their own benefit, treated Russia as a new, albeit smaller, incarnation of the USSR. The Russian political elite of the early years was only too eager to accept such deferential treatment.
All these factors, among others, together helped to make Russia feel and behave like a dominant power in the CIS and in the whole post-Soviet space. Naturally enough, this feeling has further encouraged irredentist sentiment and ambition, shared by many Russians. Initially just one of several marginal political ideas, by the time of Vladimir Putin’s second presidential term irredentism (fuelled by huge oil and gas revenues) had developed into a fully-fledged political concept, cautiously supported by the president himself.
During his first presidential campaign, Putin once commented: “Those who don’t miss the former USSR have no heart, but those who want to build it anew have no brains”. By the time of his notorious Munich speech in 2007, he felt confident enough to brand the collapse of the USSR as “the biggest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century”. In the meantime, Russia’s efforts to intimidate the three Baltic States, and to bring back into line the “dissident” post-Soviet states of Georgia and Ukraine, were in full swing.
What was the true purpose of such a seemingly reckless policy? As far as I can remember, the first time I had to answer this question was back in 2004, right after the “Orange Revolution” in Ukraine. My answer then was somewhat ambiguous. It was still hard to believe that the president of Russia viewed reconstruction of the USSR as a viable option. In August 2008—when Russia, having set up a masterful trap for President Michael Saakashvili of Georgia, attacked his country and recognised its two breakaway republics (Abkhazia and South Ossetia) as “independent states”—I thought I had the answer to this question. Now, following the annexation of Crimea by Russia and with the Russian-sponsored separatist uprising in eastern Ukraine going on, I am quite certain that President Putin is really committed to the idea of reconstructing the USSR, although not in the form of a utilitarian state. He is smart enough to understand that, for example, the incorporation of Central Asian states would be a considerable burden for Russia. He’d rather keep them quasi-independent on condition that they follow Russia’s “guidance” in all issues that really matter. All in all, I would describe his true intention as being in line with the famous statement of Otto von Bismarck in 1850: “I seek Prussia’s honour in keeping Prussia apart from any disgraceful connection with democracy and never admitting that anything occur in Germany without Prussia’s permission”. As far as I am concerned, President Putin would eagerly subscribe to this statement.
That clearly sets Putin’s Russia on a collision course with the community of civilised nations—a course which in the long run is doomed to a failure of giant proportions. What is more, it seals the fate of the regime: it can neither win nor change, so it will tumble down, leaving behind a political no-man’s-land and a totally misguided population. However, as of now the reckless policy pursued by the regime appears to be rather expedient: millions upon millions of Russians enthusiastically support their president’s policy towards Ukraine, hate the Ukrainian “neo-Nazi junta”, wish all “Ukrops”’ (a newly coined abusive nickname for Ukrainians) dead, and denounce as traitors those in Russia who tend to disagree. The grim irony is that they do it in the name of those who died fighting against Nazi Germany.
In the final analysis, this reminds us how the proud memory of a great victory can be instrumental in pulling a great nation back into the past. In addition, this is exactly what makes the outcome of the current Ukraine crisis so vitally important: were Ukraine to succumb to the revanchist Russian policy, Russia’s wandering in search of its identity would continue, bringing about new crises that might not be helpful in making the world a safer place in which to live.
This article was published in ICDS Diplomaatia magazine.