Shortly after the end of the Second World War, a Soviet tank was driven onto a plinth in Prague to celebrate the city’s liberation. In April 1991, a young Czech artist by the name of David Černý painted it pink as a protest. He wasn’t a Nazi sympathiser: just someone who’d grown up to see the Soviet Union not as a liberator, but an occupying force. Over the next three months, the tank was repainted and revandalised several times, until the authorities decided in July to take it off its pedestal forever.
I lived in Prague back then, and wasn’t sure what to make of the arguments. Soviet tanks had gone on to do very unheroic things in postwar Czechoslovakia, but honouring the memory of soldiers who’d risked and given their lives fighting Nazism seemed obviously important. The questions played on my mind for a long time, and I eventually decided to track down the tank. I found it in the suburbs, alongside rusting missiles, armoured personnel carriers and fighter jets in a poorly guarded military hardware hospice.
Thirty years on, it turns out that David Černý wasn’t just a political prankster. As Communists used to insist about themselves, he had history on his side. On a recent trip to Prague, I went back to the square where the pink tank used to stand and found that it’s been replaced by a fountain – but on the other side of the road, Černý has been at work again. Soon after Russia’s illegal seizure of Crimea in 2014, he sunk another tank into the ground, and after its most recent invasion, he painted it in the blue and yellow colours of Ukraine.
Vladimir Putin’s supporters don’t like to acknowledge that they’re living in a ruthless kleptocracy. It’s nicer to portray Russia as a beacon of anti-fascism. With that self-image in mind, a legislator called Andrei Kresov demanded almost three months ago that Moscow stage a ‘Nuremberg 2.0’ to put captured Ukrainians on trial. That’s apt in ways he probably doesn’t know. There was nothing inherently progressive about Nuremberg 1.0. Winston Churchill didn’t want it to happen at all; he proposed in 1942 that leading Nazis be ‘shot to death within six hours of capture’ and hankered for summary executions until the eve of the trial. It was Stalin who insisted on court-imposed punishments (lest people say the Allies ‘were wreaking vengeance on their political enemies’) and that’s because, in his experience, they were useful to cloak murder. The lawyer he put in charge of Soviet preparations was Andrei Vyshinsky, who’d prosecuted his rivals to death at a series of show trials in the late 1930s. The senior Soviet judge, Iona Nikitchenko, had ordered many of their executions, and he was appointed for just one reason: he could be trusted to follow instructions without question.
Quite belatedly, here’s a short piece about a trip to Finland three months ago: https://www.lrb.co.uk/blog/2022/march/in-helsinki. I went with my mum, to visit relatives and find out more about a great-uncle who was wounded in battle in 1940 – defending the country against an unprovoked invasion ordered by Moscow, as it happens . . . Before and after my stay in Helsinki, I traveled around the Baltic States, and the picture above was taken in Tallinn. It’s a truck pretending to be a tank, in solidarity with Ukraine.
Putin’s announcement this morning of a ‘special military operation . . . to demilitarise and de-Nazify Ukraine’ was probably the most aggressively unhinged statement that’s been made by a European political leader in three quarters of a century. If outsiders interfered, he warned, they’d face ‘consequences . . . such as you have never seen in your entire history’ – which can’t mean anything except a nuclear strike. He threatened Ukraine’s government even less conditionally. The ‘junta’ had been responsible for the ‘genocide of millions’, he said, so Russia plans to put perpetrators of those crimes on trial.
There’s every reason to assume he means that, and worse. Six days ago, Foreign Policy magazine cited US intelligence which suggests that Russia had already drawn up lists of prominent Ukrainians to be targeted or killed. And though it’s ordinarily sensible to be sceptical of anonymous intelligence sources, it would be stupid in hindsight to doubt that report. Western assessments of Putin’s intentions have turned out to be demonstrably true, while his repeated denials of a planned invasion are all palpably false.
Plenty of apologists will still excuse the destruction, assassinations and show trials ahead with observations that the West has done lots of bad things too. The toadies who work at RT are going to keep parroting Putin’s lies, while the partial peaceniks who rally behind Stop the War these days will say that ultimately, all the killings are NATO’s fault. But with a three-pronged invasion by air, sea and land under way, a more urgent truth should be obvious. The Kremlin is out to destroy an independent state and incapacitate or murder many of its leaders. Ukraine deserves our full support.
Vladimir Putin has just given himself the legal authority to invade Ukraine. A decree he signed yesterday, which acknowledges Donetsk and Lugansk to be independent states, says that Russian military forces will enter both regions at their request to maintain peace. Since separatist rebels control less than half the territory that he’s now recognising as autonomous, the role of Russian peacekeepers is likely to become very bloody, very quickly, as and when they start work.
Until a few days ago, I was almost confident that Russia wouldn’t invade. When a draft resolution urging recognition of the regions was tabled (by Communist MPs) in the Duma on 19 January, Putin had kept the initiative at arm’s length. His press secretary Dmitry Peskov said a couple of days after that initial vote that ‘when the situation is so tense and so sensitive, it’s very important to avoid any steps that could provoke an increase in this tension’. I read that as a sign that Putin wanted to look relatively moderate, in Russian eyes at least.
Now that he’s decisively taken the most provocative step possible, it’s impossible to say what comes next. I suspect Putin thinks he knows. I suspect he imagines himself to be blindsiding his adversaries in a game of geopolitical poker. But whatever his negotiating strategy might be (and Russian roulette’s a better analogy than poker), I don’t trust his judgment for a moment.
Just over a year ago, I wrote about a trip through eastern Poland that took me almost as far as Belarus: https://sadakatkadri.com/2020/10/13/on-the-edge-13-october-2020/. What I didn’t say then is that my arrival at the border got me arrested. Now that 15,000 Polish guards are policing places like the crossing pictured above, I decided to come clean . . .
That was the fate a senior Belarusian official in Tokyo saw in store for sprinter Krystsyna Tsimanouskaya last weekend, after she publicly criticised coaches in the national Olympic squad. It looks as though she’s actually broken free, but for millions of her compatriots – functionaries keeping Alexander Lukashenko in office, as well as people who long to see him leave – the hazards are more perilous than ever.
News out of Belarus has hardly been slow of late, but it feels as though the drama is accelerating. I’ve just written an LRB post (https://www.lrb.co.uk/blog/2021/august/into-the-devil-s-vortex) about the Tsimanouskaya drama – which coincided with the mysterious death by hanging of a 26-year-old opposition activist in Kyiv – and that’s made me reflect on the fear and malevolence that’s now hanging over Lukashenko’s determination to retain power. A couple of years ago, knowing little about Belarus except that I fancied a holiday there, I saw him as a benign figure by neo-Soviet standards: almost avuncular, as dictators go. No longer. His regime isn’t just victimising people who make their opposition public; it poses a challenge to everyone’s integrity and self-respect. To survive, it insists on positively indulgence, no matter how unreasonable Lukashenko’s demands. And that’s not going to end well. As I’ve said before about the pseudo-president’s ‘reasons’ for grounding a Ryanair jet, threats of external aggression he invokes are delusional – but within Belarus, there’s a bomb on board.