Twelve years ago I wrote my second novel. The action took place in an Eastern European magic kingdom, superimposed in another dimension over what is, in this world, western Ukraine, south-east Poland, eastern Slovakia, and reaching down perhaps as far as the north-eastern corner of Hungary and the northern border of Romania. I named the kingdom after two historical regions, partly overlapping, by which this borderland of ethnicities and states had once been known. Last together as part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, five independent nations now share the tectonic fault zone between Russia and the Orthodox Slavdom in the east and the Catholic Central Europe to the west.
One of the plots of the novel – titled “Ruthenia & Galicia” – revolved around the attempts by Russia to blackmail sections of the kingdom’s political establishment and destroy the country if unsuccessful.
If the plot sounds vaguely familiar today, I hasten to add I’m not claiming any prophetic abilities. While in 2010 Ukraine was largely at peace, two years prior Vladimir Putin briefly invaded Georgia in order to detach from it two separatist regions. In any case, the main point is that over the past five centuries, ever since overthrowing the Tartar yoke and consolidating under Ivan the Terrible, Russia has been an imperialist and expansionist power, which has repeatedly and consistently invaded, absorbed and dominated its many neighbours. Sadly, there is not much that is unusual about the current conflict in Ukraine; mid-17th century Poles, Ukrainians (to the extent there existed then any ethnic consciousness among the region’s peasantry), Cossacks and Muscovites would have been intimately familiar with the issues at stake.
Forget for a moment the Bidens, “globalists”, NATO, the “decadent West” and all other attempts to blame one’s own side first for, in effect, “provoking” Russia, and ask yourself why all of Russia’s regional neighbours, from Finland, through the Baltic states, Poland, Czechia, Slovakia, Rumania and beyond (Hungry and Serbia being two exceptions, the former contemporary political, the latter historical) are so fiercely opposed to Russia’s military actions and so supportive of Ukraine’s resistance against Putin’s aggression. Most of the historical Poland (which prior to WW2 included western Belarus and western Ukraine) had been, with small breaks, dominated, occupied and colonised by Russia (either as the centre of the empire or of the Soviet Union) for well over three centuries. Ditto for the Baltic states. Finland used to be a Russian vassal before WW1, fought Russia twice (in 1939-40 and 1941-44) and after the war had lent its very name to the concept of forced pro-Russian neutrality. Other parts of Central, Eastern and Southern Europe had only experienced Russian domination post-1945, as member states of the Warsaw Pact. Hungary and Czechoslovakia were at the receiving end of military interventions directed by Moscow; Poland almost was. Foreign policy realists like John Mearsheimer might argue for the unchanging reality of power politics in human history – from which point of view, a great power like Russia needs and will get a friendly or neutral buffer zone – but the states, which have the geographical and historical misfortune to exist within such buffer zone are by now well and truly over having to live in perpetual shadow and/or under the jackboot of an imperial power with delusions about its civilisational mission.
From that point of view, the challenge is not “de-Nazification” of Ukraine, whatever that means apart from being another example of Russia’s historical tendency, now also assumed by the Western left, of smearing everyone and everything it doesn’t like as Nazi (the Azov Battalion, whose heritage harks back to the Ukrainian collaboration with Hitler against Stalin, is a real problem – in an ideal world the Azov men and the pro-Russian Chechens would all kill each other – but as propagandictically exaggerated as attempts to portray the American right as a whole as white supremacists, bigots, extremists and terrorists). The true challenge is de-imperialising Russia.
This is perhaps a Sisyphean task. Former imperialist powers like Germany and Japan are now normal countries, liberal democracies, successful and prosperous economies and generally good international citizens. Arguably the reason for that can be traced to their unequivocal military defeat in WW2, large scale devastation and subsequent occupation, which forced a traumatic psychological reset. After “year zero”, the past was consigned to history and new society were born.
This has not happened in Russia. In fact, Russia today is much more reminiscent of Germany in the 1930s than Germany in the 1960s. Like the Imperial Wilhelmine Germany, Russia had lost the war – the cold one – without suffering a crushing military defeat or the indignity of foreign occupation. What the Versailles Peace was for the inter-war Germany, the dissolution of the Soviet Union has been for Russia – a disadvantageous and humiliating settlement, which resulted in imperial dissolution and has left millions of Russian speakers scattered beyond the borders of the Fatherland/Motherland. The newly independent states are illegitimate – both the Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union considered Poland a “bastard creation of Versailles”, just as Russian nationalists nowadays see the former Soviet republics and satellites as artificial entities that are rightfully Russia’s. If there are temperamental similarities between the Weimer Germany and Yeltsin’s Russia, Putin himself resembles Hitler circa 1938. Let us hope and pray he never graduates to 1939 and beyond (though some would argue that the invasion of Ukraine is worryingly analogous to the invasion of Poland at the start of WW2). For the international community, Russia of the past two and a bit decades represents the worst of all worlds: humiliated enough to be resentful but undefeated enough to remain unrepentant. Hence Putin can claim the fall of the Soviet Union to be the greatest tragedy of the 20th century (as opposed to both world wars or communism) and agitate for the de facto recreation of the Russian, if not the Soviet, empire.
The problem for the rest of us is that it’s not just Putin:
86.6% of Russians tolerate and support the potential assault on the territory of the European Union, including: Poland, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Slovakia and others as evidenced by the results of the sociological survey conducted by “Active Group”.
75.5% of Russians approve the idea of a military invasion in the next country and believe that it should be Poland. According to respondents, this is a logical continuation of the so-called “military special operation of the Russian Federation”.
Moreover, according to the survey, 75% of respondents tolerate to a varied extent the use of nuclear weapons by their government.
Granted, public opinion surveys in authoritarian countries where protest and opposition are criminalised are close to meaningless. As the pollster here admits, “Respondents either refuse to communicate after learning the topic of the interview, or declare their readiness to support and approve further Russian incursions into other countries.” The recent pro-Putin and pro-war rally also involved a large number of government employees forced to participate. But there is little doubt that nationalism and imperialism in the name of the “Third Rome”, the Eurasian Slavic superpower, is very popular in Russia. After all, it’s a centuries-old tradition; Putin’s propaganda can and has reinforced the sentiment to the exclusion and suppression of alternative perspectives, but it did not create it. Whether it’s a plurality view or a small majority is difficult to say. We cannot judge and blame every Russian for their government’s actions, but we cannot pretend that they are not broadly popular either. How to “de-imperialise” Russia without subjecting it to the same fate as Germany and Japan in 1945 is a conundrum. But there is little doubt that Russia’s neighbours would rather live in peace and friendship with Russia rather than in constant fear of aggression. The whole world would be safer too if Russia was somehow able to discard the chips on its shoulders, its all-pervasive sense of insecurity and paranoia, and its ambitions at the cost of those around it.
I have started publishing “Ruthenia & Galicia” online, chapter by chapter, almost this time two years ago, as one of those “let’s make the most of the COVID madness” projects. To my shame, this one had lasted a lot shorter than the pandemic. Since only about a quarter to a third of the book is available online, I can’t give you any spoilers as whether there is a happy ending for the magic kingdom under attack by Russia. No one knows either what the future holds for Ukraine. While the resistance has been much stiffer than what Putin most likely expected, hoping for a quick 46-72-hour capture of Kiev, followed by the installation of a puppet regime, the money is still on Russia as the bigger power. It too retains some too-terrible-to-contemplate trump cards such as mass destruction of cities (remember Chechnya’s capital Grozny in 1994) or the use of nuclear weapons, tactical or strategic. Any prospect of Putin being deposed, however unlikely, is further complicated by the realisation that a replacement might not be any better – it certainly is unlikely to be liberal and pro-Western. And while Russia dreams of recreating an empire, instead it’s fast becoming China’s bitch, at mercy of the much more populous and wealthier power, which is culturally much more alien than Europe.
Whatever happens, the world’s down for some difficult times ahead. We sure could use some magic right now.