Even critical Russians exaggerate humiliation by the West

The Ukrainian publicist and poet Mykola Riabchuk answers the Russian philosopher Aleksandr Tsipko: is Russia able to modernize and can it accept Ukraine's identity and political sovereignty?  

by Mykola Riabchuk

The impressive 80-plus per cent majority of Russians who support their president and his politics very often create an illusion of monolithic homogeneity of this group. The same can be said of the minority group of his opponents. But the picture is more complex. The ardent critics of the regime – like Lilia Shevtsova, Andrey Piontkovsky or Andrey Illarionov – are certainly a minority within a minority. The majority of Putin’s opponents are much less radical and consistent. Being critical on some issues, they are indulgent on others and often share quite a few prejudices with the regime.

Aleksandr Tsipko, a prominent Russian scholar and public intellectual, seems to represent this last group. He combines a mixture of highly insightful and courageous views with stereotypical ones. His article in RaamopRusland is an illustration of both strong and weak points of Russian liberalism. Therefore it deserves a closer look.

Crisis of values

The strongest point made by Aleksandr Tsipko touches upon the essence of today’s Russian crisis: that it is less political or economic than, first and foremost, a crisis of values and identity. The failure of Russia to develop a modern national identity instead of, or at least parallel to the imperial one, creates ambiguity that not only harms inter-ethnic relations within the former empire but also impedes the long overdue modernization of the Russian nation and state.

And this is the second important point made by Tsipko: dominance of the old imperial identity means dominance of the pre-modern values upon which that identity has been based. These are values like statism, collectivism, paternalism, authoritarianism, illiberalism, and programmatic anti-Westernism. Western values like freedom, secularism, individualism, humanism, and political liberalism are pictured as alien to Russia. This impedes modernization of Russia in three respects.

First, it spoils relations with Western powers and hampers much-needed technical assistance and economic cooperation. Secondly, it precludes introduction of more advanced and efficient models of governance and economic management. And thirdly, it pushes the most talented, educated, and dynamic young people towards emigration – not necessarily for economic reasons but primarily for the sake of freedom, security and human dignity.

Rebuttal of Putin's myth

The third important point emphasized by Aleksandr Tsipko is the recognition of the differences between Ukraine and Russia and a firm rebuttal of Putin’s myth that Ukrainians and Russians are allegedly one nation, that has been artificially divided. Tsipko’s arguments are both historical and political.

Historically, he justly draws attention to the fact that Ukrainians and Russians till the end of the 18th century had a completely separate development – the Ukrainians within the Polish-Lithuanian aristocratic republic, the Russians within the reign of the Tatar Golden Horde and similarly despotic Muscovy. The next two centuries, when Ukraine was incorporated into the Russian and Soviet empires, brought about rapprochement, but never totally eradicated inherited differences in political culture, mentality and way of life.

Politically, as Aleksandr Tsipko properly notes, Ukraine has never been fully digested by Russia. This implicates not only the Western part of the country that has been conspicuously resilient to Soviet rule, but also its main, central part where ‘separatist feelings were observable even in Soviet times,’ as Tsipko states. Large-scale Russification of Ukrainian cities, however harmful and psychologically traumatic, did not change most Ukrainians into Russians – exactly as Anglicization did not transform most Scots or Irish into Englishmen.

As Tsipko rightly states: ‘Putin with his myth about Ukrainians and Russians as one divided nation did not take into account that main Ukraine, central Ukraine, not to speak of the western bank of the Dnepr river in mentality are far closer to Western Ukraine then to pro-Russian Donbass’. But even Donbass, as Tsipko specifies, was not so much pro-Russian, as anti-Western – in both international and domestic terms.

Wishful thinking and political ignorance predicated the disastrous decision of the Russian leadership to annex Crimea and ignite the full-fledged war in Donbass for the sake of the ill-conceived ‘Novorossiya’ project. One can barely disagree with Tsipko’s definition of this policy as ‘psychotic irrationality’.

My objections

There are, however, two points in his article that evoke objection, even more so since they are typical for many Russian intellectuals. First of all, he exaggerates the presumed Western mistreatment of Russia when he contends that the West ‘poorly understands Russian psychology’, ‘ignores Russian psychological peculiarities’, ‘cares little about the dignity of the Russian people’, and that it ‘did nothing to integrate Russia into the European world on a mutually equal basis’, but instead ‘began the policy of pushing Russia out of post-Soviet space’.

This is incorrect, at least as long as we do not confuse ‘psychological peculiarities’ with imperial bullishness and pretentiousness, ‘dignity’ with resentment, and ‘pushing Russia out of post-Soviet space’ with the quite natural, sovereign and legitimate will of postcommunist states to distance themselves from unpredictable Russia and get integrated into the more advanced and secure Euro-Atlantic world.

The West actually did its best to integrate Russia. Not only by granting it the Soviet seat in the Security Council of the UN and the status of the only legitimate heir to the Soviet nuclear arsenal (which was not automatically predestined). Not only by restructuring huge Soviet debts inherited by Russia from the Soviet state. The West also admitted Russia to the prestigious G-7 group, even though it did not meet the criteria either politically or economically. The EU in particular singled out Russia for special partnership – while Ukraine and other post-Soviet states were packed with a motley group of North African and Middle East countries into the spacious bag of the European Neighbourhood Policy.

Privileges for Russia

NATO followed suit by granting Russia a privilege of special relations while all other post-Soviet satellites had to benefit collectively from the Partnership for Peace. Actually, the very fact that neither NATO nor the EU have ever considered future membership for any post-Soviet state was a clear concession to Moscow and, from the point of view of those states, an undeserved privilege, especially unfair and unjust in view of Russian increasingly bullish behavior and authoritarian domestic politics.

The Baltic states were an exception, as the West never recognized their occupation, so technically speaking their status was not considered ‘Soviet’ but rather identical to other East European satellites. In 2008, NATO did not promise Georgia and Ukraine membership but just stated that the door would remain open. This was merely a recognition of basic admission principles of NATO, that can not just be cancelled on Russia’s demand. But future admission to NATO was effectively blocked by Russia at the NATO summit of summer 2008 in Bucharest, and there is no chance that it will be unblocked any time soon. NATO statements about possible membership in some remote future de facto make it dependent on Russian consent.

NATO summit 2008 Bucharest

NATO summit 2008 in Bucharest

So the West did its best to integrate Russia on equal terms virtually at the cost of some other post-Soviet states like Ukraine or Georgia whose Euro-Atlantic integration was effectively blocked just to appease the Kremlin. But no integration, even of such a VIP-partner as Russia, can be unconditional. And so it was the failure of the Russian leadership to make a minimal pass, that is to accept Western rules, in their most simplified, lenient, and pliable form, adjusted to the proverbial Russian ‘peculiarities’.

Examples are the admission of Russia to the G-7, the Council of Europe and WTO. Additionally, there never was any pressure to force Russia to withdraw troops from Moldova/Transnistria, even though Russia officially was obliged to leave long ago. There were no sanctions regarding genocidal actions in Chechnia – that were much more cruel and outrageous than what Milosevic did in Kosovo. Nor were there any sanctions regarding the invasion in Georgia – although the salami slicing of Georgian territory continues till this day.

Aleksandr Tsipko seems to unduly shift the blame to the other side when arguing that Americans ‘grossly contributed to the growth of militaristic and anti-Western feelings in Russia’, and that the West ‘tries not only to fence off itself from Russia but also to facilitate its self-destruction by all means’. To be precise, militaristic and anti-Western feelings in Russia were ignited primarily if not exclusively by its own propagandistic anti-American and jingoistic media, whereas self-destruction of nuclear-armed Russia is definitely the last thing the West might wish to facilitate.

Conspiratorial narrative

The author seems to slip further into conspiratorial mood when suggesting that the West and Victoria Nuland (a minor U.S. official, disproportionately blown up and heavily demonized in Russian media) have actively supported Euromaidan and thereby provoked negative reactions in both Russia and Donbass.

Again, the truth is that neither the West nor Ms Nuland have ever really supported Maidan. At the time, their only goal was to prevent violence, bloodshed, and to mediate a peaceful settlement between the government and protesters. So it was not the Kyiv events per se that evoked a negative reaction in both Russia and Donbass but their very specific coverage in Russian mass media – so specific that even some seasoned intellectuals bought it at face value.

The conspiratorial narrative quite naturally represents Ukraine as a passive object rather than a subject of history, a pawn on the global chessboard, hapless victim of major players which, inter alia, are equally blamed for Ukraine’s misfortune. Or, as Tsipko states it: ‘The tragedy of nowadays Ukraine is the responsability of absolutely all major players in big geopolitics’. According to this logic, the solution depends not so much on curbing Russian aggression and on a firm reassertion of international law but, rather, on some unspecified ‘sober-mindedness’ (здравомыслиe) on the sides of both Russian and Western leaders – as if the lack of sober-mindedness on both sides is similar and comparable.

Ukraine as an 'accident'

The second argument in which I disagree with Aleksandr Tsipko is his ‘Putinist’ belief that the end of the Soviet Union was just a historical accident, the unfortunate result of some personal mistakes of Mikhail Gorbachev and Boris Yeltsin. Ukraine, in this narrative, is also an accident, some unwanted byproduct of perestroika and power struggle in Moscow. Tsipko: ‘We ourselves in the beginning of the 90’s have created this independent, sovereign Ukraine’.

1991 Signing the Agreement to eliminate the USSR Signing the agreement to eliminate the USSR in December 1991. Ria-Novosti

This contradicts his earlier opinion that there are substantial differences between Ukrainians and Russians, as well as his remarks on the tradition of Ukrainian separatism. But it is fully in line with his attachment to ‘russkii mir’ (Russian World) and his belief that its legacy should be rescued: ‘After the reunification of Crimea with Russia and the birth of an anti-Russian Ukraine there is no “Russian World” left. The “Big Russians” are in discord with the “Little Russians” for years to come. But we have to rescue at least what is left, to rescue the Russian Federation as heir to the Russian world.'

The bitter irony of this call is that Tsipko once again contradicts his stated position: ‘russkii mir’, at a closer look, is a reactionary political concept that promotes profoundly anti-Western and essentially anti-modern values and attitudes – hardly what Aleksandr Tsipko as a Westernizer stands for.

Ambiguity towards Ukraine

Ambiguity is a remarkable feature of too many Russian liberals who waver between the imperial sentiments (and ressentiments) and a sober and critical approach to reality. On the one hand they recognize, like Tsipko, that the communist system was introduced by Moscow in Eastern Europe after the Second World War by force; on the other hand, they are reluctant to say that Moscow played virtually the same role in Ukraine (and other former colonies) in 1918-1920, when Ukraine was an independent state.

On the one hand, they are well aware of the increasingly fascistoïd character of Putin’s regime, of a tide of political persecutions and even killings. Yet, on the other hand, they still persuade us and themselves that, as Tsipko writes, ‘the main results of the perestroika, luckily enough, are still preserved’ and that ‘in fact the political prerequisites for decent behaviour still exist’.

On the one hand they know that Russia is deeply engaged in the war in Ukraine, and may even admit that two thirds of the militants in the Donbass are Russian citizens (only half of them volunteers and the other half regulars), and they certainly know Moscovite Igor Strelkov’s confessions that without him and his troops there nothing would have happened in the Donbass. On the other hand, they keep repeating the convenient story that in Ukraine there is a ‘civil war’ going on. In Tsipko’s words: ‘There were more than enough grounds for a civil war in Ukraine, also internal reasons’.

Why all these grounds never brought about anything even remotely similar to what happened in 2014, or produced anything like a separatist movement within the previous 22 years, remains unclear. During Euromaidan in 2013/14, like during the Orange Revolution in 2004, all the regional bodies in the south-east of Ukraine were controlled by Yanukovich’s Party of the Regions; the Ukrainian parliament still was staffed with Yanukovych’s people, not to mention the judiciary and other bodies. Finally, all the Maidan political leaders were familiar nomenklatura folk, predominantly Russian-speaking and hardly ‘fascist radicals’.

There were no ‘internal reasons’ for any war. In Ukraine, under all governments, people have had the opportunity to express their will by ballots not by bullets. All elections have always been free, even though usually not fair. To unleash a war, Russia had to powerfully brainwash the people, to hysterically intimidate and mobilize them, to send weapons, money, intelligence officers, ‘volunteers’ and commandos. How can you possibly call this a ‘civil war’?

Supremacist discourse

Ukraine is a challenge and a litmus test for Russian liberals, as its independence causes a clash between their professed liberal principles and imperial resentments. Most Russian publicists have a huge problem with simple words like ‘independence’ or ‘self-determination’ when they are applied to Ukraine. In most cases, they avoid proper Russian equivalents (независимость, самостоятельность) and use instead the Ukrainian originals in quotation marks (‘нэзалэжность’, ‘самостийность’). Some other words like ‘language’ or ‘writers’ in the Ukrainian context are also unpalatable for Russian nationalists and typically are reproduced in quasi-Ukrainian form as ‘украинская мова’ rather than ‘украинский язык’, and ‘украинские письменники’ instead of ‘писатели’.

Russian philologists who studied this phenomenon in detail (Levkievskaya, 2003; Shmeleva and Smelev, 2008) argued that, functionally, such a derisive use of so called Ukrainian words resembles the comical imitation of any accent – either Jewish, or Georgian, or Chinese. But in the Ukrainian case there is one more peculiarity: since Ukrainian and Russian languages are closely related and, to a certain degree, mutually comprehensible, the purpose behind the use of specific Ukrainian words like ‘mova’ (language) or ‘nezalezhnost’ (independence) is to suggest that they should be understood with an ironic distance, as they fall short of a full-grown ‘language’ or full-fledged ‘independence’. All things Ukrainian in this ‘supremacist’ discourse have to be coarse, amusing and explicitly artificial, as in an operetta.

Regretfully, Aleksandr Tsipko also consistently uses these caricatured Ukrainian concepts. He is not an exception: humorous notions from bad ethnic jokes are broadly applicable in today’s Russia, even in academic debates.
Resentment looms large in these practices and ambivalences. It is a huge overstatement to say that ‘Ukrainian national identification exclusively grew out of offenses against Russia’, as Tsipko formulates. (He certainly knows that Western Ukrainians encountered Russians for the first time as late as 1915, during the Russian military advance in Galicia and short occupation of some parts of it; by that time, however, they had developed already quite a strong national self-identification – without any particular grievances against Russia).

Even more surprising is the author’s statement that ‘the Ukrainian idea of "independence" is first and foremost an anti-Russian idea’. Again, the scholar cannot but know the difference between being ‘anti-Russian’ and ‘anti-imperial’. Even today, despite the fact that Russia wages war in the Donbass and most Russians support it, most Ukrainians have a rather positive attitude toward the Russian people, contrary to a deep loathe and hatred of Putin’s regime.

Actually Tsipko contradicts himself when musing that if somebody like Boris Nemtsov would have come to power instead of Putin, Ukraine and Russia would have probably moved to the West hand-in-hand. Does that mean that Ukrainians then would have renounced their independence? Certainly not. Does it mean that they would have ceased to be ‘anti-Russian’? Certainly not – because they have never been anti-Russian and will probably never be.

The ball is now on the Russian field, and the Russian-Ukrainian relations will largely depend on how Russians themselves address the major three problems outlined clearly by Aleksandr Tsipko: the problem of national identity based on values; the problem of Western-style modernization; and the problem of coming to terms with Ukraine’s cultural otherness and political sovereignty.

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