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 On a recent trip to Prague, I went back to the square where the pink tank used to stand and found that it’s been replaced by a fountain – but on the other side of the road, Černý has been at work again.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.
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 imagined 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.
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.