Collective memory

Hands Off Russia’s Sacred Cow

WWII propaganda posters. Photo by author

Soviet WWII propaganda posters. Photo by author

This week the Russian Duma passed a law forbidding the expression of disrespect for “days of Russian war glory and memorial dates tied to the defense of the Fatherland,” as well as “publicly dishonoring symbols of Russian war glory.” Anyone who spreads “well-known false information about the USSR’s actions during World War II” could be fined up to $6,000 and spend up to 3 years in prison. Using the mass media to spread the “lies” would result in harsher punishment. The bill also outlaws any “rehabilitation” of Nazism or denial of Nazi crimes.

If the law goes into effect, it will be risky for Russians to contradict the Kremlin’s official version of what happened during World War II or the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Or the wars in Chechnya. Or events from the 13th through the 19th centuries, according to some sources. Russia has a lot of history to protect.

World War II in particular has long been a very sensitive subject. It’s Russia’s sacred cow. The Soviet army (which included more than just ethnic Russians) defeated the Nazis on the war’s eastern front at an immense cost. That’s reason to feel proud, but silencing any criticism of that history is just one more sad sign of where things are headed in Russia. With some exceptions, the country is still unwilling to publicly discuss and come to terms with the ugly parts of its past, a lot of which happened before, during, and after WWII while Stalin was in charge.

In 2009 a push for this kind of law failed, but this time the law’s sponsor, Irina Yarovaya, has the support. Why now? The government daily Rossiiskaya Gazeta said her colleagues were convinced by “recent events that show that attempts to rehabilitate Nazis or reconsider the outcome of WWII impact the global interests of international security and pose a threat to international peace.”

That means this is about Ukraine, and it’s no coincidence that Moscow’s been using words like “fascist” and “Nazi” lately to criticize Ukrainians it doesn’t like. It’s not a shock that Moscow recently revealed so-called “formerly unknown classified documents” showing that Stepan Bandera, a WWII-era Ukrainian hero whose name has been circulating again, collaborated with the Nazis. That’s propaganda, not news. Bandera’s partisans fought at one point with the Nazi army against the Soviet army, hoping to regain independence from Moscow, so he’s been a controversial figure for a long time already.

WWII vets celebrating Victory Day on May 9. Photo by author

WWII vets celebrating Victory Day on May 9 in Moscow. Photo by author

I’ll bet remembering WWII makes Russians feel stronger, as well as proud. Taking back Crimea and menacing eastern Ukraine must also make some of them feel like they once again live in a powerful country. (Read my post on the subject of Russia’s “great power” status if you haven’t already.) One journalist made a good point when she noted that the “law on glory” had its first reading on “April 4, on a wave of patriotism stemming from the annexation of Crimea and the propaganda war with Ukraine and the West.”

Wouldn’t you know that VTsIOM (the All-Russia Center for the Study of Public Opinion), found in a March poll that 42% of respondents said they considered “having powerful armed forces” a condition for being a great power, up from 35% in March 2013. Last year, 33% thought “providing citizens a high level of material well-being” was a necessary ingredient. This year only 25% thought so. Hhhhmm.

If Russians were free and able to rely on the rule of law, if the leaders actually prioritized the country’s interests over their own, then it could do so much more than grasp at the glory of its military past. But until Russia can create a more benevolent reason to be proud about now and optimistic about the future, it will hold on to the past like a former jock whose life has gone nowhere since he peaked during high school.

 

 

 

You’re Not The Boss Of Me

Putin subtle bird

Russia’s prickly president, Vladimir Putin

The expression “You’re not the boss of me!” has always bothered me from a grammatical point of view, but it’s been on my mind (on the mind of me?) since the Russia/Ukraine/Crimea story started making the news. It captures my impression of Moscow’s attitude toward Washington and perhaps the West in general.

Ever since the Cold War ended, Russian officials have emphasized their desire for Equal Partnership when interacting with us, and not being dictated to. “We have our own interests, thank you very much, and do not feel the need to do things your way.” They’ve complained about the unipolar world order that resulted when the USSR collapsed, and they have constantly pushed for establishing a multipolar system that would give them more of a voice in international affairs.

They’ve also asserted since then that Russia remains a great power, if no longer a superpower. In other words, “We must be reckoned with, we will not be relegated to the kids’ table, and need we remind you that we still have nuclear weapons?”

Scar Tissue

Rhetoric aside, it’s fair to say that the collapse of the Soviet Union was devastating for Russia. We know Putin has said he considers it one of the greatest catastrophes of the 20th century. Whatever you may believe about who won or lost the Cold War, the aftermath meant political, economic, social, and psychological upheaval for Russians and many others. Not only were people having trouble surviving, but Russia was no longer viewed as a formidable opponent, as the USSR had been. Russia was actually feared for its weakness and the possibility that it wouldn’t be able to keep nuclear material out of the hands of radicals or smugglers.

Crimea has shown that this scar tissue is obviously still relevant. In recent weeks, the Russian press has run plenty of stories about what the annexation of Crimea means for Russia and the world, good and bad. An editorial in Vedomosti said it is “presented by the authorities and accepted by the [Russian] population as an answer to defeat in the Cold War.” The paper says it might seem odd that 90% of Russians support the annexation, according to VTsIOM, but “such a reaction reflects the urge to overcome the post-traumatic syndrome and win back the respect of the outside world, even if it’s through fear.”

An earlier editorial from the same paper wrote, “Vladimir Putin can feel triumphant. Russia refused to follow rules” established in the Belovezha Accords that formally ended the USSR, which Putin “considered unfair. He demonstrated his leadership in the former Soviet space, showing his wavering neighbors his readiness to energetically oppose the West.”

“Leader among the Losers”

Not everyone in Russia is euphoric, however. For example, writer and psychologist Leonid Radzikhovsky was apparently very angry about what this move will cost Russia. After the UN General Assembly approved a resolution rejecting the Crimean referendum on independence, Radzikhovsky railed in a blog post that Russia had voluntarily taken its place at the head of the global “F students.” The 10 countries that voted with Russia against the resolution included “democratic beggars” like North Korea, Syria, Sudan, and Zimbabwe, as well as two former Soviet republics that depend completely on Moscow — Belarus and Armenia.

It’s sad, he said: “The USSR held a similar position, but it still occupied Eastern Europe. And like the Russian Federation, it knew how to build relations only on the basis of brute force and subordination.”

He criticized the pridefulness that says it’s “better to follow your own path at the head of the losers (which Russian society deeply despises…) than to be one among the masses of polite Western countries.”

Ouch.

Russian information campaign against Crimean Tatars?

Prince Ukhtomsky in the Battle with Tatars at Volga in 1469. 1904.  Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow, Russia

Prince Ukhtomsky in the Battle with Tatars at Volga in 1469. 1904. Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow, Russia

This morning I was listening to Kommersant FM radio talk about today’s referendum in Crimea and heard something disconcerting—likely part of an information campaign against the Crimean Tatars. Over the last week or two the Russian station has been playing 1- or 2-minute spots about the peninsula’s history, and this one focused on the Crimean Khanate. It mentioned how the Tatars burned Moscow in the 16th century, killing many, and how they made a habit of enslaving and selling Russians, Poles, and others.

Is this kind of message an attempt to reduce listeners’ sympathy for the Tatars, who have a lot to lose when Russia takes over (again)? Or is it a way to prepare Russians to tolerate oppression of the group? (Remember what they did to us…..)

Samethink, Otherthink, and the Russian Constitution

Statue of Lenin in Moscow. Photo by author

Statue of Lenin in Moscow. Photo by author

A few days ago, a member of Russian Parliament announced that he and some colleagues are working on legislation that could change the country’s society and politics, and not for the better.

Duma Deputy Evgeny Fedorov and the others propose removing language from the 1993 constitution about adherence to international laws and norms regarding human rights, saying that Russian law shouldn’t be subordinated to external laws.

They also want to change Ch.1 article 13, which forbids any official state ideology.

Considering Russia’s past, that’s a sensitive issue, to put it mildly.

In the Soviet Constitution, the Communist Party was explicitly given the “leading role,” and Marxism-Leninism was the party ideology.

Depending on who was in power and what was going on politically, there were times when people felt brave enough to criticize the system—gently or very obliquely. Twentieth-century Russian literature is full of impressive examples. At other times, people suffered greatly for daring to question the official version of events openly.

English: Mikhail Bulgakov in the 1910s, during...

Russian writer Mikhail Bulgakov in the 1910s, during his university years. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

When the USSR collapsed and Russians wrote a new constitution, they banned any official or obligatory ideology, with the understandable aim of not repeating that history.

Fedorov’s argument in favor of bringing it back now—twenty years later—is that Russian law has no soul as long as the state has no ideology. He told Moskovsky Komsomolets, “Fundamental Law deprived of ideology is a document without a heart. We want it to have a heart.”

The journalist comments during the interview that the 13th article “is a guarantee that the state won’t persecute people for thinking differently [inakomyslie]. … We have a thousand-year history” of punishing people for that.

Fedorov is more concerned with the health of the Russian state, which he says is “ill.” “The 13th article is a ban on moral values and state support of them. How can one live without an understanding of good and evil? The state must have the right to support good, patriotism, a healthy lifestyle, properly teach schoolchildren.” He says it isn’t right that Russians should have a law forbidding ideology. “It isn’t right. It’s a lack of trust in one’s people.”

This project may or may not become law. Other deputies might oppose it, but the Duma set a powerful precedent last year by pushing Kremlin critic Gennady Gudkov out. Would supporters of Fedorov’s draft law follow this example, or threaten to? Anyway, the bill’s fate is really in Putin’s hands. He might want the constitution changed this way, or maybe he wants to scare people a little. In any event, the process of actually changing these parts of the constitution would be very complex.

In the meantime, the possibility is provoking some debate (with some of it written in verse—how Russian!). Among other things, critics are worried that removing the ban would lead to an official one-party system. It would be great to have several real, independent parties with competing ideologies, but Russians already know what can happen when there is only one party, one ideology.

In conclusion, I have some questions for Fedorov and his pals:

  • Why does ideology have to be “official” to exist or have influence?
  • Is “a lack of trust in one’s people” really the problem here?
  • Why do Russian citizens need their government to tell them what is right and wrong? Too bad they can’t simply observe their leaders to understand that.

 

UPDATE: The Kremlin said today (Dec. 4) that it doesn’t support the proposal to change the constitution.  According to Izvestiya, Press Secretary Dmitry Peskov said Putin is more interested in the search for a “national idea” that could protect national identity and unity. Fedorov says he is not giving up on his project.

Fear and Loathing in the Gun Control Debate

On my “About” page, I ask these questions: “What do people expect from their leaders? Do they trust them and accept their authority? Do the people feel protected from threats?”

When I wrote that, months ago, I was thinking about threats like terrorist attacks or cyber attacks.

If you’ve read about the American gun-control debate lately, it’s hard not to notice the fear of another kind of threat.

Among those who oppose further restrictions or more thorough background checks there is a group that considers the government itself to be the threat. And they believe they must have firearms to protect themselves from the government.

This isn’t a new development. For a long time, gun rights advocates have pointed to American history as proof of how important it is for people to have—or be able to have—weapons.  They say our freedom was won from our former British rulers at the end of a gun. That’s hard to argue with, but we’ll never know if the colonists could have managed to win their freedom some other way–eventually.

Emanuel Leutze's depiction of Washington's att...

Emanuel Leutze’s depiction of Washington’s attack on the Hessians at Trenton on December 25, 1776 (photo credit: Wikipedia)

Former Augusta, Georgia City Council Member Grady Abrams puts this very well in an Augusta Chronicle opinion piece from earlier this year. Abrams acknowledges the difficulty of the guns problem, given that “the horses are out of the barn.” He also emphasizes this fear I’m talking about.

He says these gun-control opponents who view the government as a threat are not indifferent to the suffering caused by gun violence, but they fear something else more:

I DON’T BELIEVE at all that this group is callous about the shooting tragedies that have occurred recently, especially the killing of innocent children in Connecticut. To them, though, it is a matter of priority – what scares them most. Is it a person walking into a theater with an assault weapon and killing a bunch of people; a deranged individual going into a school and killing teachers and children; or a man shooting individuals from a campus tower in Texas?”

Although all of these events do shake the beliefs of this group of people, their overriding reason for fighting control, which very few want to discuss, is the hate some of them have for their government. It is not the enemy from without that they fear most. It is the enemy from within.”

Such a strongly felt need for the right to bear arms stems from the Declaration of Independence—the part where it reads people are obligated to abolish any government that becomes abusive or despotic:

THIS IS THE reason, I believe, that some will fight tooth and nail to keep their arms – assault weapons and all. It is not about hunting. Even a fool knows this. It is not about protecting homes from burglaries. It is not so much about protecting loved ones from violence. It is all about one day having to fight their government.”

Good example of what I'm talking about. From website http://forums.officer.com/t183729/

Good example of what I’m talking about. From website http://forums.officer.com/t183729/

It’s this attitude that stays on my mind.

Under what circumstances do members of this group imagine such a fight beginning?

How do they believe it would actually end?

Do they think it would benefit the common good, the economy, the country they presumably love enough to die for?

I’m not against gun ownership, but the last thing this country needs is more bad-asses with guns.

Wouldn’t it be better—and more patriotic—to take political action and try to solve the problems that bother them so deeply? Couldn’t they try to make the government look more like the one they wish they had? Easier said than done, but better than living in fear of it, no?

Stalinism alive and well in Russia?

In Russia, October 30th is a day to remember the victims of the Great Terror under Stalin, and this year is the 75thanniversary of the beginning of that massive wave of repression and show trials, when millions of people were executed, exiled, or sentenced to prison camps if they were seen as “enemies of the people.” So there has been a lot in the Russian news lately about the historical and cultural importance of this Soviet leader.

If you don’t follow Russia, you might be surprised to learn that Stalin is still rather widely admired despite the suffering he caused. While some people acknowledge that there was serious repression under him, a shrinking percentage of Russians believes the Great Terror actually happened, according to the Public Opinion Foundation. In another recent survey of Russian citizens, the Levada Center found that people’s attitude toward Stalin and the Stalin era has improved significantly since the late 1990s. Since 1998, the percentage of Russians perceiving Stalin negatively has fallen from 60 to 22 percent. Currently, 48 percent see him and his role in the country’s history positively. Maybe they forget that he was Georgian and not Russian. (more…)