About six months ago, I wrote and spoke about a recent trip to Lithuania. Across the border in Belarus, Alexander Lukashenko was meanwhile playing war games with Vladimir Putin against an enemy notionally described as ‘westerners’. I mentioned that at the time, but there was more I could have said – so I just did, in a new post for the LRB: https://www.lrb.co.uk/blog/2022/march/zapad-77
Last Thursday, Joe Biden invoked history to explain Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. ‘He has much larger ambitions,’ the US president said. ‘He wants to, in fact, re-establish the former Soviet Union. That’s what this is about.’
It isn’t. Putin thinks the Soviet Union wasn’t tough enough. In his address to the nation last Monday, Putin claimed that it went pear-shaped from the get-go: from the moment in 1922 when Lenin decided to ‘appease nationalist ambitions on the outskirts of the [Tsarist] empire’ by creating the USSR as a confederation. Its fifteen constituent republics were theoretically allowed to go their own way, and though Stalin was forceful enough to keep this ‘odious and utopian’ revolutionary fantasy in check, it constituted a ‘ticking time bomb’. Because nationalism was allowed to endure, neo-Nazism ‘rapidly developed’ across Ukraine after the Soviet Union’s collapse.
Putin’s made the same argument before, linking it to a second fundamental flaw in Soviet political structures. In a 2016 speech to supporters in Crimea – the Ukrainian peninsula he invaded in March 2014 – Putin blamed Lenin for having also planted seeds of conflict in the now contested eastern Ukrainian regions of Lugansk and Donetsk. Ethnicities hadn’t just been given too much autonomy a century ago, he said; ethnic difference had been disregarded when that suited Bolshevik purposes. That was why Russians in eastern Ukraine were suffering today. Lenin had wanted the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic to contain more workers, so he had ‘nonsensically’ detached the mining region from Russia.
Putin’s resentments aren’t consistent. In 2005, he called the USSR’s collapse the ‘greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the [twentieth] century’. That hasn’t made his sympathy for Russians stranded outside the Motherland any less potent though. Nostalgia for selective Soviet achievements, along with implicit pride in the glories of Tsarist imperialism, has given him a viewpoint that systematically downplays or disregards the aspirations of any nation previously ruled from Moscow.
Putin’s difficulty with the idea that other peoples think differently is now reaching its terrible culmination. In an article posted on the Kremlin’s website last year ‘On the Historical Unity of Russians and Ukrainians’, now more revealing than ever, Putin proposed that the very notion of a country with a capital in Kyiv was a fantasy concocted by intellectuals and Polish noblemen. ‘Since there was no historical basis – and could not have been any – [their] conclusions were substantiated by all sorts of concoctions’, he wrote. Insofar as Ukrainians had any distinct identity at all, they were just ‘Malorossy’ – Little Russians.
Putin’s approach to history isn’t rigorous, as the reflections in that rambling 6885-word article prove, but he’s understood the practical value of politicised nostalgia for at least fifteen years. At a meeting in his suburban villa on 21 June 2007, he convened a confab of academic historians which has come to assume great significance. ‘The old adage that whoever controls the past also controls the present and the future is being proven true time and time again today,’ he told them. Their duty was therefore to develop a coherent historical narrative, so as to ‘develop a national ideology that represents the vision of ourselves as a nation.’
School textbooks, state-owned media and government pronouncements have been promoting a centrally-coordinated approach to Russia’s past ever since, and one episode in particular has assumed pivotal significance. The date of Putin’s meeting with the historians was no accident – it was the eve of the anniversary of the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941 – and efforts to recall the Great Patriotic War almost immediately began to intensify. Between 1945 and 1991, there were just four parades to celebrate the defeat of Nazism. After Putin’s 2007 call for patriotic history, Victory Day became the defining moment of Russia’s political calendar – and now, if his invasion announcement of 24 February is to be believed, the country is once again battling to ‘demilitarise and de-Nazify’ a genocidal regime.
The argument is useful for smearing Russia’s adversaries. It’s not a plausible view of history though, let alone a fact. It’s a smokescreen and a lie. Ukraine’s leader Volodymyr Zelenskiy is a Jew, whose grandfather fought with the Red Army while three great-uncles were being exterminated by Nazis. Anyone who thinks he’s spent the last two years presiding over a neo-Nazi state is delusional. Putin’s real complaint is that Ukrainians haven’t shown enough gratitude for Russian lands mistakenly given up by the Bolsheviks – and need to be reminded by force.
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.
Anyway, I wrote a sideways take on the crisis for the LRB. Read it here: https://www.lrb.co.uk/blog/2022/february/what-is-truth
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 . . .
Nuclear rocket silos aren’t everyone’s idea of fun, probably, but they turn me on. So much so that I talked about exploring one of them on Radio 4’s From Our Own Correspondent. About eleven and a half minutes in, if you’re interested. https://www.bbc.co.uk/sounds/play/m000zv39. In order to milk the experience maximally, I also wrote about it for the London Review of Books: https://www.lrb.co.uk/blog/2021/october/out-of-the-silo.
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.
In reverse order, my earlier pieces are here:
I travelled to the Belarusian border, and wrote a blogpost about it for the LRB: https://www.lrb.co.uk/…/october/great-belarusian-disaster
I watched Russia Today to get the lowdown on Alexei Navalny’s poisoning. And wrote about it for the LRB: https://www.lrb.co.uk/blog/2020/august/a-spoonful-of-sugar. And then did a little media manipulation of my own . . . https://youtu.be/lwLW1UXruWk.
After a Sunday afternoon cycle ride to the Belarusian Embassy in Kensington, I wrote about the protests that have begun there for the London Review of Books: https://www.lrb.co.uk/blog/2020/august/the-revolution-will-not-be-colourised. *UPDATE* That led a couple of weeks later to an interview with Amy Goodman on Democracy Now! (https://tinyurl.com/ybfh8t5v) and a discussion with al-Jazeera about Russia’s approach to its problematic neighbour (extracts here: https://tinyurl.com/y9jgjncz).
Contemplating catastrophe is part of the daily grind at present, and though I’m keener than ever on distractions, VE Day made me dwell on devastation some more. Wandering through council estates and parks in east London that owe their existence to Nazi bombs, I tracked down the landing sites of the first V1 and last V2 rockets to hit the capital. En route, I passed a plaque near Cable Street that’s always moved me: a memorial to 78 people taken by surprise in their cots and beds on the second night of the Blitz. Around forty thousand Londoners died that way, and the total number of British civilians killed was almost twice that number.
Once upon a time, I was hoping to be elsewhere. A couple of weeks before the lockdown began, I was shopping for flights to Minsk. Belarus lost up to a quarter of its entire population during three years of Nazi occupation – many more than a million people – and its ruler is even keener than our own to associate himself with wartime sacrifice and leadership. Within a year of winning the presidency in 1994, Alexander Lukashenko instituted a tradition of commemorating the Great Patriotic War with a march through Minsk. Attending the 2020 victory parade – three months before elections that will almost certainly secure him a sixth term – seemed a good way to get acquainted with the country he’s made his own.
Events intervened. On the same day that curiosity stopped being a reasonable excuse for leaving home in the UK, Belarus required that foreign tourists isolate themselves for 14 days. Insofar as that suggests a precautionary approach to public health though, it’s misleading. With a neo-Soviet folksiness he’s made his political trademark, Lukashenko told Belarusians back in March that COVID-19 was ‘a psychosis’ which could be overcome by driving tractors and washing with vodka, internally and externally. He then ignored WHO recommendations to extend physical distancing measures, and infections are now spreading faster than almost anywhere else in Europe. The official death toll is still below 150, but the true figure’s almost certainly higher: two TV journalists have just been stripped of their accreditation for discovering ‘an abundance of fresh graves’ in a cemetery just outside the capital.
All in all, it’s probably for the best that my sightseeing trip didn’t happen. There’d have been plenty to see though – because Lukashenko’s victory parade went ahead. On Saturday morning, thousands of flag-waving spectators, including veterans in their eighties and nineties, spent more than an hour watching their uniformed president take salutes from dozens of armoured formations and military battalions. The state-sanctioned livestream coverage on Youtube (snazzily remixed by me here: https://tinyurl.com/ybpqm7wp) showed packed crowds and few masks, and Lukashenko wouldn’t have wanted it any other way. A week earlier, he’d dismissed calls to cancel the parade by observing that the heroes of 1945 hadn’t let mere viruses stop them. Unless people showed otherwise, he warned, the world might think Belarusians were ‘scared’.
The political aim was transparent enough. Pretending to be the world’s bravest anti-fascist will bolster the president at home – especially because his frenemy Vladimir Putin decided last month to call off the even more spectacular celebrations he was planning for Moscow – and though an electoral landslide in August is all but guaranteed (Lukashenko’s vote has never been lower than 77%), autocrats crave popularity as well as power. But the recklessness is even clearer. A historic episode that US media have been recalling quite often in recent weeks is particularly ominous. On 28 September 1918, as a second wave of Spanish Flu was about to break across the United States, Philadelphia’s health commissioner authorised a huge fundraising parade for the war effort. Every bed in the city’s 31 hospitals was occupied within three days, and 12000 infected people died in a month. In St Louis, where a similar event was cancelled, the peak mortality rate was eight times lower.
A Belarusian friend, a little concerned by my fascination with Lukashenko, reminded me before the parade that no nation should be defined by its leader. The corrective was useful, and after the livestream, I discovered worlds of virtual opposition on Facebook and Telegram. Across Belarus, a network of volunteers has sprung into existence to equip health workers with PPE. Football fans have been calling on their own clubs to stop playing games, or paying to occupy stadium seats as photos on mannequins. On Friday, there was even a slightly socially-distanced public protest, involving four Minskers carrying a coffin past the capital’s premier shopping mall: https://tinyurl.com/yadjk2g4. Though Lukashenko has very definite priorities, sensible citizens aren’t relying on their ruler to save their lives. Appreciating that is has made me doubly fond of the city I didn’t visit, but it’s also provoked reflection on matters closer to home . . .
The weekend that began with a military parade on my laptop ended on Sunday evening with Boris Johnson’s much anticipated television address about the next stage of the lockdown. The time had come, he announced, to ‘stay alert’ rather than ‘stay at home’. The baffling change, complemented a day later by 50 pages of more detailed confusion, came with so many inconsistencies that they’re not worth individually identifying. But though it reflects an inattentiveness that’s characteristic of the prime minister, at least some of the instant criticisms levelled at his government struck me as misplaced. It’s not wrong in principle to argue for relaxation of the lockdown. It certainly isn’t malicious to observe that the longer people have to stay at home, the greater the suffering that might result from unemployment, impoverishment, untreated medical conditions and unhappiness in general. Lifting the lockdown isn’t just the eventual destination: it’s an increasingly urgent one.
It’s in that context that my virtual trip to Belarus this weekend was thought-provoking. In a pandemic, it’s crucial that politicians act in good faith to maintain health services, give citizens informed warnings, and protect vulnerable people. Beyond that, I’m not sure. No government can eliminate the danger of infection until development of a vaccine – and though the UK would ideally have as much control over COVID-19 infection rates as South Korea or New Zealand, 66 million UK citizens won’t easily be shepherded. Gambling with increased risks is becoming unavoidable, and government failings can’t eclipse the importance of personal choice and responsibility. To a greater extent than is comfortable, our collective lives are in our individual hands.
Luckily, I don’t need to end on that very earnest note. While writing this post, I learned that Vladimir Putin hasn’t actually cancelled his own parade. The 75th anniversary of Nazi Germany’s surrender has just been postponed, apparently, and he says it’ll be celebrated later this year. Attending the festivities might still pose difficulties, and not just because Putin’s own position is starting to look a little precarious. Heathrow’s CEO recently claimed that socially-distanced boarding for a single jumbo jet ‘would require a queue a kilometre long’, and almost everyone returning to the UK from another country may soon have to self-isolate for 14 days. But if you’re interested in a Moscow trip, do let me know. It’d be nice to go in a group.