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For almost a hundred years, international law has been on the receiving end of relentless criticism from the policy and academic worlds. That law, sometimes called the law of nations, consists of the web of rules developed by states around the world over many centuries through treaties and customary practices, some bilateral, some regional, and some global. Its rules regulate issues from the very technical (how our computers communicate internationally or the lengths of airport runways) to areas of common global concern (rules for ships on the seas or ozone pollution) to the most political for individual states (like when they can go to war or the minimum standards for human rights).
The first challenge to international law comes from those politicians, pundits, and political scientists who see it as fundamentally ineffective, a point they see as proved ever since the League of Nations failed to enforce the Versailles Treaty regime against the Axis in the 1930s. But those who really know how states relate to each other, whether diplomats or academics, have long found this criticism an unrealistic caricature. While some rules have little dissuasive power over some states, many if not most important rules, are generally followed, with serious consequences for violators, like ostracism, reciprocal responses, or even sanctions. The list of routinely respected rules is enormous, from those on global trade to the law of the sea to the treatment of diplomats to the technical areas mentioned above. Most international cooperation is grounded in some legal rules.
The second challenge to international law has come from domestic lawyers and some legal scholars who asserted that international law is not really “law” because it lacks the structure of domestic law, in particular an executive or police force that can enforce the rules. But this too is a canard. As the British legal scholar H.L.A. Hart pointed out more than a half-century ago, one does not need to have perfect enforcement for a rule to be “law,” as long as the parties treat the rules as law. With international law, states certainly interact in a way that shows they treat those rules as law. They expect them to be followed and reserve special opprobrium and responses for law violators. Certainly, powerful states can get away with some law violations more easily than weak states, but that has nothing to do with whether international law is law.
Third, international law has faced a challenge from some philosophers and global leaders that it is fundamentally immoral. They claim that its rules reflect self-interested bargains among governments, but lack moral content. It is intriguing that this moral criticism actually comes from two opposite directions. On the one hand, so-called cosmopolitan philosophers, who think people’s moral duties to one another should not turn on nationality or national borders (which they view as morally arbitrary), condemn many rules for sacrificing concern for the individual, wherever he or she may live, for the mere interests of states. On the other hand, leaders of many developing world nations claim that many of international law’s rules are immoral for not privileging states enough, in particular because they see the rules as part of a move by Northern states to undermine poor nations’ national sovereignty.
One example shows the criticism. Consider the rule on secession, a rule that helps us evaluate, for instance, whether Crimea’s separation from Ukraine, and Russia’s engineering of that move, is illegal. International law has a “black-letter” rule that strictly limits the possibility for a group of people disaffected with their government to secede unilaterally from their state, only endorsing it if the government is severely denying them representation in the state. The point of the rule is to avoid the violence that comes from secessions – as we have seen from the break-up of Yugoslavia, the war between Sudan and the recently formed South Sudan, and the Ukraine-Russia conflict today. Cosmopolitan philosophers condemn the rule for not allowing individuals enough choice, by forcing people to remain tied to a state when they would prefer to have their own state, just for the sake of the stability of existing and arbitrary inter-state borders. Developing world leaders, often intolerant of minority groups in their state, criticize the rule for the opposite – for harming states by opening the door, however slightly, for some groups to secede and form their own states.
I think both of these criticisms miss the mark. In my view, many core rules of international law are indeed just because they do what all rules of international law must do – they promote peace, interstate or domestic, while respecting basic human rights. We need international rules to promote peace because the global arena is still characterized by a great deal of interstate and internal violence. At the same time, we cannot tolerate rules that trample on basic human rights, which are a sort of moral minimum for how we treat individuals.
This standard for a just system of international law is different from the more robust form of justice we might expect for a domestic society. The great theory of contemporary justice, that of John Rawls, demands both an equal right to basic liberty for all individuals within a state and significant redistribution of material wealth to eliminate the worst economic inequality. But we can’t really expect international law to do this right (particularly the second) now. Why? Because we cannot assume the domestic tranquility on which to build that more robust justice, and because the international arena does not have the same kind of strong institutions to force those sorts of rules on everyone (even though it can force some rules on recalcitrant states).
To return to my example about secessions, I think the rule we have strikes the right balance between peace and human rights. It promotes interstate and internal peace by disallowing merely unhappy groups to separate unilaterally; but it keeps the door open to that possibility if they are facing severe discrimination from the central government. So the Scots, Quebecers, or ethnic Russians in Ukraine do not have a right to secede, but Estonians did, and maybe Kurds still do. Other rules of international law will also meet this test, though I think some of them do risk undermining human rights.
Why should we care whether international rules are just? Because, as I stated earlier, those norms actually do guide much governmental action today. If a norm of international law is just, we have given global leaders and the public good reasons to respect it – as well as good reasons to be wary of changing it without careful reflection. And for those that are not, we can use an ethical appraisal to map out a course of action to improve the rules. That way, we can develop an international law that can promote global justice.
A lot is made of the romance of bookstores. The smell of paper! The joy of discovery! The ancient, cracking leather bindings of books with dated inscriptions! And it's true that bookstores are magical places to browse and linger — just maybe not in the two days before Christmas. Because in the swirling mad hum [...]
An iconic figure of 20th century science and culture, Ivan Pavlov is best known as a founding figure of behaviorism who trained dogs to salivate at the sound of a bell and offered a scientific approach to psychology that ignored the “subjective” world of the psyche itself.
While researching Ivan Pavlov: A Russian Life in Science, I discovered that these and other elements of the common images of Pavlov are incorrect. The following 22 facts and observations are a small window onto the life of a man whose work, life and values were much more complex and interesting than the iconic figure with whom we are so familiar.
Pavlov didn’t use a bell, and for his real scientific purposes, couldn’t. English-speakers think he did because of a mistranslation of the Russian word for zvonok (buzzer) and because the behaviorists interpreted Pavlov in their own image for people in the U.S. and much of the West.
He didn’t use the term and concept “conditioned reflex,” either – rather, “conditional,” and it makes a big difference. For him, the conditional reflex was not just a phenomenon, but a tool for exploring the animal and human psyche – “our consciousness and its torments.”
Unlike the behaviorists, Pavlov believed that dogs (like people) had identifiable personalities, emotions, and thoughts that scientific psychology should address. “Essentially, only one thing in life is of real interest to us,” he declared: “our psychical experience.”
As a youth, he identified worriedly with Dostoevsky’s Ivan Karamazov – fearing that his devotion to rationality might strip him of human morality and feelings – but also believed that science (especially physiology) might teach humans to be more reasonable and humane.
Although one would expect that this investigator of reflexive reactions would think otherwise, he believed in free will.
Pavlov was from a religious family and trained for the priesthood, but left seminary for science studies at St. Petersburg University. He pondered the relationship of science, religion, morality, and the human quest for certainty throughout his life. Although an atheist, he appreciated religion’s cultural value, protested its repression under the Bolsheviks, and supported financially the local church near his lab at Koltushi. (His wife was deeply religious and their apartment was full of icons.)
Pavlov’s beloved mentor in college was fired as a result of student demonstrations against him as a Jew, a political conservative, and (most importantly) a hard grader. This was a great blow to Pavlov and left him on his own as he attempted to make a career.
He first got a “real job” at age 41 – as a professor of pharmacology.
He didn’t win his Nobel Prize (1904) for research on conditional reflexes, but rather for his studies of digestive physiology.
He more than doubled the budget for his labs by bottling the gastric juice he drew from lab dogs and selling it as a remedy for dyspepsia. (A big hit, not just in Russia, but in France and Germany as well.
Like Darwin, Pavlov believed that dogs had full-fledged thoughts, emotions and personalities. His lab dogs were given names that captured their personalities and were routinely described in lab notebooks as heroic or cowardly, smart or obtuse, weak or strong, good or bad workers, etc. Pavlov constantly interpreted his own biography and personality in terms of his experiments on dogs (and interpreted dogs according to what he thought he knew about himself and other people).
He was famous for his explosive temper –“spontaneous morbid paroxysms,” as he put it. Students and coworkers all had their favorite stories about these vintage explosions. Afterwards, he would make his apologies and get on with his work.
Pavlov was an art collector – with a massive collection of Russian realist art in his apartment. His best friends before 1917 were artists.
To maintain a “balanced” organism, Pavlov spent three months every year at a dacha (summer home) where he avoided science entirely. A devotee of physical exercise, he spent these months gardening, bicycling, and playing gorodki (a Russian sport in which the players throw heavy wooden bats at formations of other heavy bats, trying to knock them down in as few throws as possible; Pavlov was a champion player even in his old age).
He seriously contemplated leaving Russia after the Bolshevik seizure of power in 1917, but finally decided to stay. His Western colleagues helped him financially during the hungry years of civil war (1918 – 1921), but did not offer to support him as a scientist in the West: they thought that, at age 68, he was washed up – but the research on conditional reflexes that would make him an international icon continued full blast for another two decades.
He corresponded with Communist leaders Nikolai Bukharin and Vyacheslav Molotov and was one of very few public critics of the Bolsheviks’ political repression, persecution of religion, and terror in the 1930s. He also praised the state for its great support of science and highly respected some of his Communist coworkers, who succeeded in changing his opinion about some important scientific issues.
Publically always very confident, privately he suffered constantly from what he called his “Beast of Doubt” – his fear that the psyche would never yield its secrets to his research.
Pavlov’s closest scientific collaborator for the last 20+ years of his life, Maria Petrova, was also his lover.
During a trip to the U. S. in 1923 he was mugged and robbed of all his money in Grand Central Station, and wanted to go home “where it is safe,” but was convinced to stay and had a great visit.
When the Communist state sent a political militant to purge his lab of political undesirables, Pavlov literally kicked him down the stairs and out of the building.
When he died, Pavlov was working on two surprising manuscripts that he never completed: one on the relationship of science, Christianity, Communism, and the human search for morality and certainty; the other making an important change in his doctrine of conditional reflexes.
According to Pavlov, the most terrible, frightening thing in life was uncertainty, unforeseen accidents (sluchainosti), against which people could turn to religion or – his choice – science.
How many of the above facts did you already know about the life of Ivan Pavlov?
Featured image: Pavlov, center, operates on a dog to create an isolated stomach or implant a permanent fistula. After the dog recovered, experiments began on an intact and relatively normal animal, which was a central feature of Pavlov’s scientific style. Courtesy of Wellcome Institute Library, London. Used with permission.
Here's a heartwarming moment of corporate cooperation as cartoon characters owned by four different entertainment conglomerates—Mickey Mouse (Disney), Bugs Bunny (Warner Bros.), Scrat (20th Century Fox), and SpongeBob (Viacom)—team up to beat the living crap out of a real-life human being.
Maguire, Gregory. 2014. Egg & Spoon. Grand Haven, MI: Brilliance Audio. Read by Michael Page.
Can what we want change who we are?
Have patience and you will see.
Set in the tsarist Russia of the late 18th or early 19th century, Egg & Spoon is an enchanting mix of historical fiction and magical folklore, featuring switched and mistaken identities, adventurous quests, the witch Baba Yaga, and of course, an egg.
Narrator Michael Page is at his best as the self-proclaimed “unreliable scribe,” who tells the tale from his tower prison cell, claiming to have seen it all through his one blind eye. In a fashion similar to that of Scheherazade, spinning 1001 "Tales of the Arabian Nights," our narrator weaves fantastical stories together and wraps us in their spell.
Ekaterina and Elena are two young girls - one privileged, one peasant - yet so alike that their very lives can be exchanged. Page creates voices so similar that one can believe the subterfuge, yet the voices are also distinct - a necessity in a book written to respect the reader's (or listener's) ability to discern the flow of conversation without the constant insertion of "he said/she said."
One girl finds herself en route to see the tsar, a captive guest of the haughty and imperious Aunt Sophia on a train to St. Petersburg. The other finds herself a captive guest of the witch, Baba Yaga, and her curious home that walks on chicken legs. As Baba Yaga, Page is as wildly unpredictable as the witch herself, chortling, cackling, menacing, mothering.
Michael Page is wonderful. He brings each of author Gregory Maguire's many characters to life with a distinct voice. He never falls out of character, and his pacing is perfect - measured to keep the listener from being overwhelmed by the story's intricate plot.
Grand and magical, Egg & Spoon is a metaphoric epic for readers from twelve to adult.
It opens with an imperial ball in 1903 to celebrate St. Petersburg’s 200th anniversary, the story then jumps back to the childhood of Nicholas II and Alexandra. It starts getting more in-depth once they are married, which is the same time that Nicholas II becomes Tsar. What follows is a horrific story of incompetence and willful ignorance and a population pushed to action in order to survive.
I knew Imperial Russia had problems, and I knew Nicholas II wasn’t the greatest ruler, but holy crap. Fleming paints a bleak picture that offers them very little redemption. Running parallel to the story of the Romanov family is an introduction to early 20th century Russian history, looking at what life was like for ordinary Russians and the causes and starts of the Revolution. The story seamlessly works in quotations pulled from journals and other primary source documents.
Despite covering so much, she keeps it very readable and it’s a great introduction to the subjects, but I think that readers who already know about the topics covered will get a lot out of it as well. It has two different inserts of photographs and frequently in the text is a pull-out box titled “Beyond the Palace Gates” which contains the words of someone else--a soldier, a factory worker, a reporter, a peasant--to add contrast and context to the main narrative.
The package wins further points with it'scomprehensive back matter--endnotes, bibliography, index-- and being a teen-friendly trim size. (I have very strong feelings on trim size for teen nonfiction. It's a surprisingly huge factor in appeal.)
Overall, it is fascinating and horrifying, and just really well-done and put together. I highly recommend it and keep an eye out for it come award season.
Book Provided by... my local library
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Candace Fleming is a master at writing narrative nonfiction that is entertaining as well as informative, and her newest book on the tragic and doomed Romanovs is a worthy successor to her last foray into nonfiction, the highly acclaimed Amelia Lost.
Fleming expertly weaves together the intimate life of Russia's last czar and his family with the saga of the revolution brewing underneath their royal noses, beginning with workers' strikes in 1905 and leading up to Lenin's seizing power in 1917. Interspersed with her compelling narrative are original documents from the time that tell the stories of ordinary men and women swept up in the dramatic events in Russia.
Unlike many books for young people, which seem to romanticize the Romanovs, Fleming doesn't try to make the family into martyrs. Indeed, it is hard to have a lot of sympathy for the Russian royal family after reading Fleming's account. Fleming describes Nicholas as a young boy as "shy and gentle," unable to stand up to his "Russian bear of a father." His wife, the Empress Alexandra, a German princess raised to be a proper Englishwoman under the wing of Queen Victoria, never felt comfortable with the excesses of the bejeweled, partying Russian aristocracy, and encouraged her husband to retreat to Tsarskoe Selo, a park 15 miles and a world apart from St. Petersburg. Fleming brings us inside of their privileged--but also strangely spartan--life (for example the children were bathed with cold water in the mornings and slept on army cots in their palace!), one in which they had almost no contact with outsiders.
Fleming manages to integrate her narrative history of the Romanov family with the larger history of the turbulent times in Russia, as the czar is forced to resign and he and his family are exiled to Siberia, fleeing in a train disguised as a "Japanese Red Cross Mission" so that the royal family would not be captured by angry peasants. She skips back and forth from the family's saga to what is happening in the capital, with plenty of original documents such as an excerpt from journalist John Reed's first-hand account of the swarming of the Winter Palace as well as excerpts from many other diaries.
In my favorite quote in the book, Fleming discusses how Lenin nationalized the mansions and private homes throughout the country, while the owners were forced to live in the servants' quarters. She quotes one ex-servant as saying:
"I've spent all my life in the stables while they live in their beautiful flats and lie on soft couches playing with their poodles...no more of that, I say! It's my turn to play with poodles now."
Whatever one's feelings about the Romanovs, one cannot help but be moved by the account of their cruel assassination in the basement of their quarters in Siberia. Particularly ironic is the fate of the royal children, who did not die immediately because they were hiding the family jewels in their camisoles and other undergarments. This layer of jewels unwittingly created a bullet proof vest that protected them initially, until they were finally murdered with bayonets and then with gunshots. The bodies were immediately hidden in the woods, where the remains were not found until 1979 and then kept secret until the fall of communism in Russia. Ironically, the Romanovs have since been canonized by the Orthodox Church in Russia.
The book is abundantly illustrated with archival photographs. An extensive bibliography is included, as well as a discussion of primary and secondary sources. Fleming also includes suggestions of websites on the Romanovs, as well as source notes for each chapter and an index.
Highly recommended for middle school and high school students.
My family often wonders about my propensity to jump from one seemingly unrelated topic to another, often within seconds. What they usually don't realize is that in my mind, the topics are connected; I've merely forgotten to fill them in on the links.
With that in mind, I offer you three new books on Russia that in my mind, are dramatically different and yet completely complementary. A young adult nonfiction book, a young adult fantasy, and a children's picture book —a microcosm of Russia in history, magic and dance.
You can read my review or any number of stellar reviews, but I will sum up by saying that whether you listen to the audio book or read the print copy, The Family Romanov is a fully immersive experience into the final years of tsarist Russia - the time, the place, and the tragically doomed family.
I was happily mulling over this excellent book when I immediately received an opportunity to review Egg & Spoon by Gregory Maguire (Brilliance Audio, 2014). I had received a galley copy of Egg & Spoon in the spring. I thought it looked intriguing, but hadn't had time to read it. I was pleasantly surprised to find that it is a folklore fantasy that takes place - of all places - in tsarist Russia. I couldn't believe my good fortune. The book was enhanced by my recent reading of The Family Romanov. With the history of modern tsarist Russia fresh in my mind, the location and historical setting was vivid, leaving me more time to ponder the story's underpinning of Russian folklore, of which I was mostly ignorant. I knew little of the witch, Baba Yaga and her peculiar house that walks on chicken legs, and I knew nothing of the magical Russian firebird.
My reviews are linked here and here. Again, you can read my review or any other, but I will sum up by saying that Egg & Spoon is grand and magical - a metaphoric epic for readers from twelve to adult.
So there you have it, my serendipitous encounter with Russian history, folklore and culture. As our two countries struggle with our relationship, may we always remember that there is more to a country than its leaders and politicians. There is always us, the common people. And as Egg & Spoon and Firebird will show you, there is always hope.
One hundred years ago today, far from the erupting battlefields of Europe, a small German force in the city of Tsingtau (Qingdao), Germany’s most important possession in China, was preparing for an impending siege. The small fishing village of Qingdao and the surrounding area had been reluctantly leased to the German Empire by the Chinese government for 99 years in 1898, and German colonists soon set about transforming this minor outpost into a vibrant city boasting many of the comforts of home, including the forerunner of the now-famous Tsingtao Brewery. By 1914, Qingdao had over 50,000 residents and was the primary trading port in the region. Given its further role as the base for the Far East Fleet of the Imperial German Navy, however, Qingdao was unable to avoid becoming caught up in the faraway European war.
The forces that besieged Qingdao in the autumn of 1914 were composed of troops from Britain and Japan, the latter entering the war against Germany in accord with the Anglo-Japanese Alliance. The Alliance had been agreed in 1902 amid growing anxiety in Britain regarding its interests in East Asia, and rapidly modernizing Japan was seen as a useful ally in the region. For Japanese leaders, the signing of such an agreement with the most powerful empire of the day was seen as a major diplomatic accomplishment and an acknowledgement of Japan’s arrival as one of the world’s great powers. More immediately, the Alliance effectively guaranteed the neutrality of third parties in Japan’s looming war with Russia, and Japan’s victory in the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-05 sent shockwaves across the globe as the first defeat of a great European empire by a non-Western country in a conventional modern war.
In Britain, Japan’s victory was celebrated as a confirmation of the strength of its Asian ally, and represented the peak of a fascination with Japan in Britain that marked the first decade of the twentieth century. This culminated in the 1910 Japan-British Exhibition in London, which saw over eight million visitors pass through during its six-month tenure. In contrast, before the 1890s, Japan had been portrayed in Britain primarily as a relatively backward yet culturally interesting nation, with artists and intellectuals displaying considerable interest in Japanese art and literature. Japan’s importance as a military force was first recognized during the Sino-Japanese War of 1894-95, and especially from the time of the Russo-Japanese War, Japan’s military prowess was popularly attributed to a supposedly ancient warrior spirit that was embodied in ‘bushido’, or the ‘way of the samurai’.
The ‘bushido’ ideal was popularized around the world especially through the prominent Japanese educator Nitobe Inazo’s (1862-1933) book Bushido: The Soul of Japan, which was originally published in English in 1900 and achieved global bestseller status around the time of the Russo-Japanese War (a Japanese translation first appeared in 1908). The British public took a positive view towards the ‘national spirit’ of its ally, and many saw Japan as a model for curing perceived social ills. Fabian Socialists such as Beatrice Webb (1858-1943) and Oliver Lodge (1851-1940) lauded the supposed collectivism of ‘bushido’, while Alfred Stead (1877-1933) and other promoters of the Efficiency Movement celebrated Japan’s rapid modernization. For his part, H.G. Wells 1905 novel A Modern Utopia included a ‘voluntary nobility’ called ‘samurai,’ who guided society from atop a governing structure that he compared to Plato’s ideal republic. At the same time, British writers lamented the supposed decline of European chivalry from an earlier ideal, contrasting it with the Japanese who had seemingly managed to turn their ‘knightly code’ into a national ethic followed by citizens of all social classes.
The ‘bushido boom’ in Britain was not mere Orientalization of a distant society, however, but was strongly influenced by contemporary Japanese discourse on the subject. The term ‘bushido’ only came into widespread use around 1900, and even a decade earlier most Japanese would have been bemused by the notion of a national ethic based on the former samurai class. Rather than being an ancient tradition, the modern ‘way of the samurai’ developed from a search for identity among Japanese intellectuals at the end of the nineteenth century. This process saw an increasing shift away from both Chinese and European thought towards supposedly native ideals, and the former samurai class provided a useful foundation. The construction of an ethic based on the ‘feudal’ samurai was given apparent legitimacy by the popularity of idealized chivalry and knighthood in nineteenth-century Europe, with the notion that English ‘gentlemanship’ was rooted in that nation’s ‘feudal knighthood’ proving especially influential. This early ‘bushido’ discourse profited from the nationalistic fervor following Japan’s victory over China in 1895, and the concept increasingly came to be portrayed as a unique and ancient martial ethic. At the same time, those theories that had drawn inspiration from European models came to be ignored, with one prominent Japanese promoter of ‘bushido’ deriding European chivalry as ‘mere woman-worship’.
In the first years of the twentieth century, the Anglo-Japanese Alliance contributed greatly to the positive reception in Britain of theories positing a Japanese ‘martial race’, and the fate of ‘bushido’ in the UK demonstrated the effect of geopolitics on theories of ‘national characteristics’. By 1914, British attitudes had begun to change amid increasing concern regarding Japan’s growing assertiveness. Even the Anglo-Japanese operation that finally captured Qingdao in November was marked by British distrust of Japanese aims in China, a sentiment that was strengthened by Japan’s excessive demands on China the following year. Following the war, Japan’s reluctance to return the captured territory to China caused British opposition to Japan’s China policy to increase, leading to the end of the Anglo-Japanese Alliance in 1923. The two countries subsequently drifted even further apart, and by the 1930s, ‘bushido’ was popularly described in Britain as an ethic of treachery and cruelty, only regaining its positive status after 1945 through samurai films and other popular culture as Japan and Britain again became firm allies in the Cold War.
Headline image credit: Former German Governor’s Residence in Qingdao, by Brücke-Osteuropa. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.
If Ukraine is a volatile tinderbox of political instability, the situation in its Russian-speaking east is even more dangerous: a tinderbox drenched in vodka. Aspirations and allegiances aside, the most striking contrast between the pro-European protests on Kyiv’s Maidan square and the pro-Russian, anti-Maidan protests in the east is not simply that the latter tend to be armed and forcibly occupying government buildings (rather than protesting outside of them), but also that they have a higher likelihood of being drunk and disorderly, making the situation dramatically more volatile.
Especially amidst revolution, vodka and AK-47s don’t mix, especially in Russia and Ukraine.
Lost amidst all the talk of ethnic, linguistic, and cultural ties between Ukrainians and Russians at play in the Donbass area of southeastern Ukraine, the culture of alcoholism seems almost too cliche to garner mention; yet perhaps it explains all too well the different political trajectories in Ukraine’s east and west.
Today, both Russia and Ukraine consistently rank atop of the world’s heaviest drinking nations. Unlike moderate wine- and beer-drinking countries, they also share a “traditional vodka drinking culture,” marked by heavy intoxication, binge drinking of hard liquor, and a general acceptance of the public drunkenness that results. These patterns are not hard-wired into the DNA of Russians or Ukrainians. Instead, they are the result of centuries of autocratic rule under the Russian empire and its Soviet successor, both of which used vodka to debauch society at the expense of the state. Unfortunately, the revolutionary experiences that both the Russians and Ukrainians shared as part of those empires—most notably in 1917 and 1991—were heavily influenced by alcohol, in conditions that bear eerie similarities to the present circumstances in Ukraine.
* * *
Already three years into total war, and suffering widespread desertions from the front, in early 1917 Tsar Nicholas II was rapidly losing control of his country. Hearing word that his military would no longer follow orders—which included firing on its own unarmed civilians protesting in the streets—Nicholas hurried from the front line back to Petrograd to reassert control. He never made it. His train was stopped by mutinous soldiers and railway workers, who forced the tsar’s abdication in the February Revolution of 1917.
With the police in hiding or defying orders, Petrograd mobs laid siege to police stations and government ministries. Armed gangs looted homes, shops, and liquor stores. Some commandeered motor cars—which they promptly crashed, since few knew how to drive, especially through a haze of pilfered vodka. Hundreds died, and thousands more were injured in the February Revolution, yet there was a sense that things could have been much worse, were it not for the tsar’s prohibition decree at the outset of the war. “If vodka could have been found in plenty, the revolution could easily have had a terrible ending.”
With the tsar gone, political power lay with a weak Provisional Government led by Aleksandr Kerensky, while de facto power lay with the self-organized councils of workers and soldiers who manned the streets. With more demoralizing drubbings at the front, continued economic chaos, and the inability to broadcast power much beyond the walls of the Winter Palace, by October 1917, virtually no one was willing to defend the Provisional Government against the growing power of Vladimir Lenin and the Bolsheviks.
The night of 24-25 October 1917 was relatively quiet, as the Bolsheviks discreetly took control of strategic assets: government offices, train stations, and telegraph posts. The Winter Palace itself was stormed by a relatively small and disorganized group of revolutionaries, many of whom bypassed the priceless artworks and looted instead the imperial wine cellars. Loud pops punctuated the Petrograd night—more often champagne corks than gunfire—while the snows snows were stained red: not with blood, but with burgundy wine.
Understanding that vodka was the means by which the old capitalist order enriched itself while keeping the worker drunk and subservient, Lenin and the early Bolsheviks were steadfast prohibitionists. Their equation of alcohol with “counterrevolution” was only reinforced by a series of drunken riots and pogroms in the streets of the capitol, which threatened their own tenuous hold on power. “What would you have?” the exasperated People’s Commissar of Enlightenment, Anatoly Lunacharsky, told a reporter. “The whole of Petrograd is drunk!”
“The bourgeoisie perpetuates the most evil crimes,” Lenin wrote to Felix Dzerzhinsky in December 1917, “bribing the cast-offs and dregs of society, getting them drunk for pogroms.” Lenin ordered that Dzerzhinsky’s newly formed All-Russian Extraordinary Commission for Combatting Counterrevolution and Sabotage—the “Cheka”—confront the vodka threat by any means necessary. All alcohol stores were to become property of the state, bootleggers were to be shot on sight, and wine warehouses were to be blown up with dynamite. And they were.
“The very nearest future will be a period of heroic struggle with alcohol,” proclaimed Leon Trotsky, the firebrand ideologue and founder of the Red Army. “If we don’t stamp out alcoholism, then we will drink up socialism and drink up the October Revolution.” Red Guard and Cheka detachments sworn to be “sober and loyal to the revolution” fought pitched street battles against unruly mobs and drunken military detachment—with heavy casualties on both sides—not only in in Petrograd and Moscow, but Saratov, Tomsk, Nizhny Novgorod, and beyond. Russia paid a heavy price for its drunkenness and disorder in the throes of revolution. Other legacies were even more nefarious: Dzerzhinsky’s Cheka security force was subsequently rebranded the NKVD and later the KGB—the secret police force complicit in the darkest days of Soviet totalitarianism.
* * *
While prohibition in the Soviet Union died with Vladimir Lenin, the KGB and the Soviet dictatorship endured another seven decades. While 1989 saw the peaceful end of the Cold War and the euphoric toppling of the Berlin Wall, the communist autocracy lurched ahead for another two years in the Soviet Union itself. Amid economic chaos and political dissatisfaction, the liberation of the East European satellite states emboldened nationalists in the Soviet Baltic, Caucasus, Ukrainian, and even Russian republics. With pressures for national self-determination threatening to tear the Soviet Union apart, Mikhail Gorbachev proposed a new treaty that would remake the USSR into something of a confederation, bequeathing sovereignty to the autonomous national republics. For Soviet hardliners this was too much to bear.
On 19 August 1991—the day before the new treaty—a hard-line “State Emergency Committee” led by Vice President Gennady Yanayev staged a coup d’etat: imposing martial law and putting Gorbachev under house arrest at his Crimean retreat.
The previous night, both Yanayev and Prime Minister Valentin Pavlov had been out drinking with friends when they were summoned to the Kremlin by KGB chairman Vladimir Kryuchkov, who set the plan in motion. “Yanayev wavered and reached out for the bottle,” Gorbachev later wrote in his Memoirs. Along with the other conspirators, it is doubtful that Yanayev was sober at any time during the bungled three-day coup.
Co-conspirator Defense Minister Dmitry Yazov later confirmed that not only was Yanayev “quite drunk,” but so too were other plotters: KGB head Kryuchkov, Interior Minister Boris Pugo, and even Yazov himself. After chasing his blood pressure medications with alcohol, Prime Minister Pavlov had to be pulled unconscious from the bathroom. After that, “I saw him two or three times, and each time he was dead drunk,” Yazov testified. “I think he was doing this purposefully, to get out of the game.”
Drunk or not, the conspirators somehow forgot to neutralize their primary rival: the populist Boris Yeltsin, who’d just been elected president of the Russian republic—the largest and most important of the fifteen republics that constituted the USSR.
Yeltsin—whose own intemperance later became the stuff of legend—rallied his supporters at the legislature of the Russian Republic (the “White House”), where protesters were busy constructing protective barricades. Nonviolent protestors convinced the Soviet tank troops surrounding the White House to defect and instead defend Yeltsin and the Russian republic. In an iconic moment captured by the global news media, Yeltsin—defying threats of sniper fire—courageously clamored atop a tank turret to address the crowd, denouncing the coup and calling for a general strike. In those delicate moments when the whole country teetered on the brink of civil war, Yeltsin sternly rebuked offers of vodka, claiming “there was no time for a drink” at this moment of supreme crisis.
Yeltsin’s sober command stood in stark contrast to the coup leaders in the Kremlin—just a few miles to the east—where the irresolute putschists confronted a restive media at an ill-fated press conference. “A sniffling Gennady Yanayev, his face swollen by fatigue and alcohol, had a tough time fielding the combative questions,” recalled Russian history professor Donald J. Raleigh. “His trembling hands and quivering voice conveyed an image of impotence, mediocrity, and falsehood; he appeared a caricature of the quintessential, boozed-up Party functionary from the Brezhnev era.” That’s precisely who he was.
In the face of growing opposition and a military unwilling to follow orders, the coup collapsed on 21 August. Rather than surrender to the police, Interior Minister Pugo chose to shoot his wife before turning the gun on himself. Others sought refuge in the bottle: Prime Minister Pavlov was drunk when the authorities came to arrest him, “but this was no simple intoxication,” attested Kremlin physician Dmitry Sakharov, “He was at the point of hysteria.” When the incoherent Yanayev was carried out of his Kremlin office—its floor strewn with empty bottles—he was too drunk to even recognize his one-time comrades who had come to arrest him. Hours later, when President Gorbachev returned safely to Moscow, he’d effectively landed in a different country. Thanks to Yeltsin’s leadership in bringing down the hardline coup, legitimacy lay with Russia and the other union republics rather than Gorbachev’s USSR. The subsequent legal dissolution of the Soviet Union was only a formality.
* * *
What does this drunken history lesson have to do with the ongoing crisis in Ukraine? Quite a bit, actually. Both 1917 and 1991 demonstrate how political protests instantly become more complex and dangerous when mixed with a culture of extreme inebriation and general apathy toward public drunkenness. Moreover, given their shared imperial/Soviet cultural inheritance (including alcohol abuse) Ukraine is only slightly less immune from these revolutionary dynamics than is Russia.
While much ado has been made of Ukraine’s (arguablyoverblown) ethnic and linguistic divisions between the pro-EU, Ukrainian west and the pro-Russian east; there are palpable demographic divisions between east and west Ukraine. While on the whole, Ukraine’s health indices are lower than its European neighbors, the demographic situation deteriorates as you move from west to east across the country. Ukraine’s western provinces—which spent less time under the sway of the Russian/Soviet empires—generally have higher rates of fertility, lower rates of mortality, and higher average life expectancy than those eastern regions that have longer history of Russian domination. Perhaps not surprisingly, the eastern Donbass regions exhibiting the highest mortality and lowest life expectancy are also by far the hardest-drinking regions of an already hard-drinking nation, with cultural acceptance of inebriation most aligned with the Russian “norm” to their east. It may be only a rough approximation, but the further east you go in Ukraine, the more dangerous this revolutionary stage becomes.
So is it any surprise that—in Ukraine’s ongoing struggles between east and west—we should see different approaches to vodka, and the potential for destabilization that it presents first in Kyiv, then in Donetsk?
For context: in 2004, a horribly rigged election favoring the pro-Russian, Donetsk-based Viktor Yanukovych prompted a backlash of popular opposition, which culminated with massive protests on Kyiv’s Independence Square, or Maidan Nezalezhnosti. Building an encampment on the Maidan, the nonviolent protesters—often in excess of 100,000—endured the brutal winter to rally for free elections. Relenting to the popular demands of this so-called “Orange Revolution,” new elections swept in triumphant, pro-European factions. Unfortunately for Ukraine’s lackluster economy, these once allied political factions squabbled and split, while succumbing to Ukraine’s chronic corruption. The split in the pro-European bloc opened the door for the once-vanquished Yanukovych to emerge victorious in the freely-contested presidential election of 2010.
While in the long term the Orange Revolution may have ended in failure, in the short term, it provided perhaps the best exemplar of an effective, nonviolent, post-Soviet political protest, not the least because alcohol was explicitly forbidden in the sprawling tent cities as a bulwark against the easily foreseen drunken disturbances that were sure to result.
When the pro-European protesters again took to the Maidan against Yanukovych’s corrupt presidency in November 2013, their self-organized security forces put a premium on maintaining tranquility through sobriety. “If someone is drunk, he is out of here,” explained Evgeni Dudchenko, a security volunteer on the square, “Alcohol is forbidden here, and we don’t need any hooligans.”
That the Euromaidan protests—like those a decade earlier—remained peaceful for as long as they did can partly be attributed to this enforced sobriety. Even when the movement turned violent in the face of ever-tighter government crackdowns, culminating in the indefensible slaughter of civilian protesters by government gunmen on 22 February, there is a sense that—as with Russia’s February of 1917—Ukraine’s February Revolution could have been much, much worse. A mob of inebriate protesters meeting a drunken security battalion armed to the teeth could have multiplied the carnage many times over.
Following the government’s spilling the blood if its own people on that fateful day, the Ukrainian parliament impeached President Yanukovych, who by that time had already fled the country. Filling the leadership void in Kyiv was a weak interim government that is effectively unable to broadcast political power across the country, as evidenced by Russia’s subsequent non-invasion invasion of Crimea, and the destabilization of the Donbass and the Russian-speaking east.
Even after Yanukovych had been toppled and the regime’s police and military forces had melted away, the major confrontations—and even shootouts—between competing, armed Maidan factions had their roots in drunken disagreements. Still, at the very least, in the midst of a potentially revolutionary situation, the protesters on the Maidan acknowledged, confronted, and mitigated the potential destabilization from vodka, making the protests there far less dangerous than they could have been.
Unfortunately, the same cannot be said of the more recent armed occupations in Ukraine’s heavy-drinking Donbass region that constitute the “anti-Maidan” movement. Beginning 6 April 2014 in the eastern cities of Kharkiv, Donetsk, and Luhansk, small numbers of violent activists—armed with everything from homemade clubs to firearms—clashed with local police, stormed and occupied regional administration buildings and other strategic installations, demanding greater political autonomy from Kyiv, and in some cases outright annexation by Russia in a repeat of the scenario in Crimea.
These protests differed not only in terms of aims and means, but also temperament. In Kharkiv, local residents complained that the protesters were not local, but rather that they were drunken hooligans dispatched from Russia to infiltrate and destabilize their town and intimidate their residents. Ukrainian special forces succeeded in clearing the separatists there, but not before they vandalized and torched the place, leaving behind a mess of garbage and empty liquor bottles. Yet the most noteworthy confrontations came further south in Donetsk—the former stronghold of ousted president Yanukovych.
In Donetsk, violent protesters fought their way into the local administration building, and displaced the Ukrainian flag with the black, blue and red tricolor of their newly declared “People’s Republic of Donetsk.” In a scene eerily reminiscent of the accounts of the drunken State Emergency Committee back in 1991, the organizers of this self-proclaimed mini-state in Donetsk appear to have done so while staggeringly drunk.
Manning the barricades outside the occupied Donetsk City Hall: armed protesters wandered freely, “while people lit fires in the street and drank beer and vodka.” Both outside the building and within, secessionists accosted the media while visibly drunk.
In his series of incredible reports from the region, Vice News reporter Simon Ostrovsky noted that at the beginning of “day two of the People’s Republic of Donetsk, it smells like there’s been a huge frat party here.” In something of a throwback to the press conference of the shaky State Emergency Committee, Ostrovsky then interviewed the leader of the Donetsk “Coordination Council” Vadim Chernyakov, who slurred through his speech, visibly hung over and slurring his speech—even admitting as much, apologizing for his “headache” as his eyes rolled back in his head.
It didn’t take long for the separatists to re-learn the historical lesson that alcohol and guns don’t mix in a revolutionary scenario: after recovering from their hangovers, the leadership decreed that the defenders of the building should dump all of their vodka and “follow a prohibition law” to maintain some semblance of order in such tumultuous times.
Still, in dispelling the false equivalence between the Maidan and anti-Maidan forces, the cultural context cannot be overlooked. “Unlike the pro-Europe protest movement in Kiev,” reports the New York Times, “the stirrings in Donetsk have so far attracted little support from the middle class and seem dominated by pensioners nostalgic for the Soviet Union and angry, and often drunk, young men.”
Whether or not discipline holds in Donetsk and throughout the Ukrainian east is yet to be seen, as Kyiv tries—in fits and starts—to reassert control over violent Russian-minded secessionists and local pro-autonomy protesters. Yet the task of all sides looking to bring stability to the region is made infinitely more difficult by the unpredictability generated by the region’s alcoholic inheritance. Recent events have demonstrated as much, as Vasily Krutov—the head of Kyiv’s counter-terrorism operation in the Donetsk region—was almost torn apart by a mob of Kramatorsk locals, some who were visibly intoxicated. Even more troubling—in one of his last dispatches before being kidnapped by the pro-Russian separatists in Slovyansk—Ostrovsky chronicled how a handful of the most drunken and agitated anti-Maidan protesters stumbled onto the Kramatorsk airbase, manned by heavily armed and understandably jittery soldiers. Such drunken provocation could easily have ended in tragedy—one that could have provoked even greater backlash locally, and even a pretext for greater Russian intervention in Ukraine.
The lamentable reality is that—in such times of revolutionary change and political crisis—we overlook that “cliche” of vodka only at our own peril.
Title: The Colors and Sounds of Kandinsky’s Abstract Art -The Noisy Paint Box Written by Barb Rosenstock Illustrated by Mary Grandpré Published by Alfred A. Knopf, 2014 Ages: 5-11 Themes: abstract art, sounds, Kandinsky, historical fiction First lines: Vasya Kandinsky spent his days learning to … Continue reading →
Development thinking in the second half of the twentieth century can hardly be credited for “manufacturing” development success stories. It is difficult, if not impossible, to claim that either the early structuralist models of the Big Push (financing gap and basic needs of the 1950-70s), or neoliberal ideas of Washington consensus (that dominated the field since the 1980s), have provided crucial inputs to economic miracles in East Asia or elsewhere. On the contrary, it appears that development ideas, either misinterpreted or not, contributed to a number of development failures. The USSR and Latin America of the 1960s-80s demonstrated the inadequacy of import-substitutions model. Later every region of developing world that became the experimental ground for Washington consensus type theories, from Latin America to Sub-Sahara Africa to former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, revealed the flaws of neoliberal doctrine by experiencing a slowdown, a recession or even a severe depression in the 1980s-90s.
Neither development theories nor policies of multilateral institutions can be held responsible for engineering development successes. Japan, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Singapore, South Korea, South East Asia, and China achieved high growth rates without much advise and credits from International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank. Economic miracles were manufactured in East Asia without much reliance on development thinking and theoretical background — just by experimentation of the strong hand politicians. The 1993 World Development Report “East Asian Miracle” admitted that non-selective industrial policy aimed at providing better business environment (education, infrastructure, coordination, etc.) can promote growth, but the issue is still controversial. Structuralists claim that industrial policy in East Asia was much more than creating better business environment, whereas neoliberals believe that liberalization and deregulation should be largely credited for the success.
It is said that failure is always an orphan, whereas success has many parents. No wonder, both neoclassical and structuralist economists claimed that East Asian success stories prove what they were saying all along, but it is obvious that both schools of thought cannot be right at the same time. There is a lack of understanding why government intervention sometimes results in spectacular failures and what particular kind of government intervention is needed for manufacturing fast growth (2000 – onwards).
Why did a gap emerge between development thinking and development practice? Why were development successes engineered without development theories? Why did development theoreticians fail to learn from real successes and failures in the global South? It appears that development thinking in the postwar period went through a full evolutionary cycle — from dirigiste theories of Big Push, to neoliberal deregulation wisdom of “Washington consensus” (1980-90s), to the understanding that catch up development does not happen by itself in a free market environment.
The confusion in development thinking of the past decade may be a starting point for the formation of new paradigm. Without mobilization of domestic savings and industrial policies there may be no successful catch up development. National development strategies for countries at a lower level of development should not copy economic policies used by developed countries; in fact, it was shown more than once that Western countries themselves did not use liberal policies that they are advocating today for less developed countries when they were at similar stages of development.
Most development economists share the general principle that good policies are context dependent and there is no universal set of policy prescriptions for all countries at all stages of development. But when it comes to particular policies, there is no consensus. The future of development economics may be a theory, explaining why at particular stages of development (depending on per capita GDP, institutional capacity, human capital, resource abundance, etc.) one set of policies (tariff protectionism, accumulation of reserves, control over capital flows, nationalization of resource enterprises, etc.) is superior to another. The art of the policymakers then is to switch the gears at the appropriate time not to get into the development trap. The art of the development theoretician is to fill the cells of “periodic table of economic policies” at different stages of development.
The emerging theory of stages of development would hopefully put the pieces of our knowledge together and will reveal the interaction and subordination of growth ingredients. A successful export-oriented growth model à la East Asian tigers seems to include, but is not limited to:
Building strong state institutions capable of delivering public goods (law and order, education, infrastructure, health care) needed for development
Mobilization of domestic savings for increased investment
Gradual market type reforms
Export-oriented industrial policy, including such tools as tariff protectionism and subsidies
Appropriate macroeconomic policy – not only in traditional sense (prudent, but not excessively restrictive fiscal and monetary policy), but also exchange rate policy (undervaluation of the exchange rate via rapid accumulation of foreign exchange reserves).
If this interpretation of development experience is correct, the next large regions of successful catch up development would be MENA Islamic countries and South Asia – these regions seem to be most prepared to accept the Chinese model. Eventually Latin America, Sub-Sahara Africa and Russia would be catching up as well. If so, it would become obvious in the process of successful catch up development that the previous policies that the West recommended and prescribed to the South (deregulation, downsizing the state, privatization, free trade and capital movements) were in fact hindering rather than promoting their development.
Vladimir Popovis an adviser in the Department of Economic and Social Affairs of the United Nations and professor emeritus at the New Economic School in Moscow. He is the author and editor of 12 books and numerous articles that have been published in the Journal of Comparative Economics, Comparative Economic Studies, World Development, Post-Communist Economies, New Left Review, and other academic journals, as well as many essays in the media. His most recent book is Mixed Fortunes: An Economic History of China, Russia, and the West.
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Image credit: “Money coins currency metal old historically pay” by Weinstock. Public domain via pixabay.
In 1979 one of the most prominent Russian classical scholars of the later part of the twentienth century, Mikhail Gasparov stated: “Virgil did not have much luck in Russia: they neither knew nor loved him . . .”. This lack of interest in Virgil on Russian soil Gasparov mostly blamed on the absence of canonical Russian translations of Virgil, especially the Aeneid. There have been several attempts at translating the Roman epic into Russian, four of them most notable and significant. In the 18th century Vasilii Petrov (1730-1778), the court poet of Catherine the Great was the first poet to undertake this monumental task. His translation, however, although highly praised by Catherine and the newly established Russian Academy, was ridiculed by the educated elite as a feeble shadow of the great Roman poem. Another attempt at translating the whole epic did not happen until late nineteenth century and was undertaken by a prominent Russian poet Afanasii Fet (1820-1892) who together with a Russian philosopher Vladimir Solov’ev (1853-1900) attempted to finally bring the Aeneid to the Russian reading public. While this translation was received much more favorably, it still did not acquire the desired canonical status. Valerii Briusov (1873-1924), one of the founders of Russian Symbolism and an accomplished translator, devoted most of his life to yet another translation of the Aeneid, but also fell short of the mark because the final version of his translation exhibited many ‘foreignizing’ tendencies replete with incomprehensible Latinisms, which rendered the text almost unreadable. Sergei Osherov (1931-1983), a Russian classical scholar, who undertook another translation during the era of ‘socialist realism’ took a more liberal approach to the Virgilian text, one that rendered it significanltly more readable by a wider audience but steered away from the poetic intricacies and complexity of the Latin text.
This is the situation Gasparov was referrring to when alluding the failure of Virgil to provoke interest in Russian reading public. And yet the importance of Virgil for the formation of Russian literary identity remained consistent as Russian writers partcipated in building their national literary canon.
Russian consciousness formed its connection to Rome and thus to Virgil through two venues: one was through the great but pagan Roman empire – that was the political claim that entailed imperial power and expansion. Another was via Byzantine Rome and the piety associated with its Orthodoxy. Even Catherine the Great who prided herself on her secularism and association with Voltaire and Montesquieu, had in mind the leadership of Russia as the religious and political ideal of a unified ecumenical Orthodoxy under which all the Orthodox East would be politically united.
Virgil came to be seen as the answer to both discourses and to encompass both the imperial rhetoric and the spiritual quest for a Russian Christian soul.
The eighteenth century Virgilian reception was mainly concerned with the imperial aspirations as the initial reaction to the text of the Aeneid in Russian literature. Antiokh Kantemir’s (1708-1744), Mikhailo Lomonosov’s (1711-1765), and Nikolai Kheraskov’s (1733-1807) failed attempts at a national heroic epic were encouraged by the Russian ruling family but failed to elicit any interest in the reading public. In the same way Vasilii Petrov’s first unfortunate translation of the Aeneid reflected the tendency to glorify and idealize the ruling monarch as a way to promote national pride but was found lacking in adequately reflecting the poetic genius of Virgil in Russian.
As Russian literary figures of the eighteenth century were experimenting with different approaches to a national epic, there emerged a quite influential and popular genre of travesitied epics. In opposition to the courtly attempts to glorify the house of the Romanovs through Virgilian reception, Nikolai Osipov wrote his burlesque Aeneid Turned Upside Down (1791-6) where following the European examples of French Paul Scarron and German Aloys Blumauer he made Aeneas speak the base language of the Russian everyday man and cast his adventures in a less than heroic light.
Epic, however, was not the only genre through which Russian literati tried to bringVirgil to Russia. As with the most European receptions of the Aeneid, the tragic pathos of Dido’s love and suicide attracted attention already in the eighteenth century at the same time with the epics. Iakov Kniazhnin’s ((1758-1815) play Dido (1769), which stands at the very beginnings of Russian mythological tragedy, offered his readers an unusual and politicized interpretation of Book 4 of the Aeneid combined with French and Italian influences on his Virgilian reception.
With Alexander Pushkin (1799-1837) Russian literature entered yet another stage of Virgilian reception. The courtly literature was long forgotten and so were the monumental attempts at epic grandeur. Pushkin refrained from any open allusion to or evocation of Virgil limiting them usually to a few passing jokes. Instead he penned his own diminutive epic of national pride, the Bronze Horseman in which he conteplated the same issues pondered by Virgil two thousand years earlier. At the center of his poem is the confrontation between the man and a state, individual happiness and civic duty, which Pushkin approaches in ways familiar to the readers of Virgil.
While the connection of Virgilian reception with Russia’s ‘messianic’ Orthodox mission manifested itself intermittently in secular court literature and even in Petrov’s translation, the specific and pointedly deliberate articulation of that mission occured in the literature at the beginning of the twentieth century and is represented by such formative thinkers as Vladimir Solov’ev (1853-1900), Viacheslav Ivanov (1866-1949), and Georgii Fedotov (1886-1951), who saw Virgil in messianic and prophetic light and as the source of answers for Russian spiritual quest both at home and abroad.
With Joseph Brodsky (1940-1996) the Russian Virgil entered the stage of post-modernism. Brodsky’s Virgilian allusions are numerous and persist in Brodsky’s poetics through its entire evolution. However, the monumental themes of either imperial pride or messianic mission become replaced in Brodsky by simpler, mundane, and even base themes. Brodsky reshaped Virgil’s Arcadia into a snow covered terrain and his Aeneas is a man tormented by the brutalizing price of his heroic destiny. As Brodsky reconfigured different episodes from the Virgilian texts through the lyric prism of human emotion, Virgil remained a constant presence both in his poetry and his essays as the poet moved with ease between ancient and modern, between emotion and detachment, between Russian and English, providing a remarkable closure to the Russian Virgil in the twentieth century.
Zara Martirosova Torlone is an Associate Professor of Classics and on the Core Faculty at the Havighurst Center for Russian and Post-Soviet Studies at Miami University (Ohio, USA). She received her B.A. from Moscow State University, Russia and her Ph.D. from Columbia University in New York. Her publications include Russia and the Classics: Poetry’s Foreign Muse (2009) and Vergil in Russia: National Identity and Classical Reception (2014). She has edited a special issue of Classical Receptions Journal, entitled ‘Classical Reception in Eastern and Central Europe’ to which she also contributed an essay on Joseph Brodsky’s reception of Virgil’s Eclogues.
Classical Receptions Journal covers all aspects of the reception of the texts and material culture of ancient Greece and Rome from antiquity to the present day. It aims to explore the relationships between transmission, interpretation, translation, transplantation, rewriting, redesigning and rethinking of Greek and Roman material in other contexts and cultures. It addresses the implications both for the receiving contexts and for the ancient, and compares different types of linguistic, textual and ideological interactions.
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In a shabby, tree-shaded playground on the outskirts of Simferopol, Crimea,two three-year-old boys are playing on a see-saw.
“Ukraine!” shouts Sayid, as his side of the see-saw goes up.
“Russia!” shouts Sergey, as Sayid comes down and Sergey’s side goes up.
It’s a cute scene, and the mums in the playground are laughing. The two boys live in the same block of flats, and have known each other since they were born. For them, these names of countries are just another game, like the different-coloured flags they’ve both waved sitting on their dads’ shoulders at opposing demonstrations; like the plastic guns they point at each other.
But when Sayid shouts “Ukraine!” and “Down with Putin!” on the bus into town, his mum hushes him up hurriedly, because who knows how people will react, in this town that used to be part of Ukraine two months ago until armed men appeared everywhere and it apparently became part of Russia. She doesn’t want to expose her son to hostile attention. And whatever she thinks about current events, she doesn’t want to teach her child to hate.
But all over Ukraine and Crimea, children are listening to their parents talk about politics and conflict and this side versus that side. They are learning to shout slogans and wave flags. If this society is not very, very careful, they will learn how to hate.
What has this got to do with children’s books? Everything. This last few months in Ukraine and Russia have shown the incredible power of words to persuade people to hate each other. The words come from the media and enter conversation in every home where children pick them up and imitate them, because that’s what children do.
But there has to be another side. Children’s authors have a incredible opportunity to use words and images to challenge stereotypes and encourage empathy and understanding in children like Sergey and Sayid. In children everywhere, because if the Russia-Ukraine conflict seems far away, Sunday’s Euro-parliament elections show that xenophobic and homophobic attitudes are gaining popularity a lot closer to home.
It’s a scary responsibility for authors, but a very positive one too.
Here’s another cute scene: my Ukrainian friend’s daughter Sonya, five, watched a well-known Russian cartoon called Morozko recently. She loves writing, and decided to write the main characters a letter.
She puts the letter in a envelope and asks “Where do they live?”
A long pause, while Sonya thinks. “Where the bad people live?”
My friend tries to explain that no, of course not; not all people in Russia are bad… But Sonya’s letter does not get sent.
That little story is a children’s book in itself. Maybe Sonya or Sonya’s mum will write it. In the book I hope the letter would be sent; maybe first we would see how sad Morozko and his friends are not to get their letter after all…
Meanwhile, tired of the see-saw, Sergey and Sayid in Simferopol go off in search of a new game, hand-in-hand – for now.
As Ukrainian voters go to the polls this weekend to elect the new president, their country remains stalled at a historical crossroads. A revolution sparked by the previous government’s turn away from Europe, Russia’s flagrant annexation of the Crimea, and the continuing fighting in eastern Ukraine–all these events of recent months can only be understood in their proper historical context.
A monument to the legendary founders of Kyiv re-imagined as a symbol of the pro-European revolution.
One must begin with Russia’s imperial domination of Ukraine during the age when modern nations developed, from the 18th to the 20th centuries. Much like the Scots in the United Kingdom, Ukrainians could make brilliant careers in the Russian imperial service, but their group identity was reduced to an ethnographic curiosity. Moreover, the tsarist government insisted that Ukrainians were not a separate ethnic group, merely the “Little Russian tribe” of the Russian people. Their language was no more than a peasant dialect, and all educated Ukrainians were expected to accept Russian high culture. To prevent a modern idea of nationhood from reaching the Ukrainian masses, the Russian government banned all educational books in Ukrainian in 1863 and literary publications in 1876.
This denial of Ukraine’s national distinctiveness had major implications for modern Russian and Ukrainian identities. The notion of what it meant to be Russian remained linked to the imperial project, first tsarist, then Soviet, and now Putin’s. In all these incarnations, imperial Russia was not prepared to let Ukraine go its way precisely because Russia’s own identity as a modern democratic nation without imperial complexes failed to develop. This explains the rise in Putin’s popularity after the annexation of Crimea. This act of aggression soothed the injured national pride of Russia’s imperial chauvinists, who still mourn the loss of their country’s great-power status.
A fake road sign used by the pro-European protesters in Kyiv: “Changing the country, sorry for the inconvenience.”
The long Russian “fraternal” embrace also had implications for Ukraine’s ambivalent national identity. The Ukrainian national governments of 1917–20 did not stay in power in large part because patriotic intellectuals could not reach out to the peasants in the previous decades. The Bolsheviks first tried to disarm Ukrainian nationalism by promoting education and publishing in Ukrainian, but in the 1930s Stalin decimated the Ukrainian intelligentsia by terror and killed millions of peasants in a man-made famine, the Holodomor. His successors promoted creeping assimilation into the Russian culture. As a result, the population of Ukraine’s southeast, although largely Ukrainian in ethnic compositions, was taught to identify with Russian culture and the Soviet state.
Another thing that the tsars, the commissars, and the Putin administration have in common is an inflated fear of “Ukrainian nationalists.” Its real explanation lies in the fact that the Russian Empire never controlled all Ukrainian ethnolingustic territories. In the 19th century their westernmost part belonged to the Austrian Empire, where the Ukrainians acquired the experience of political participation and communal organization. The tsarist government’s desire to crush the stronghold of “Ukrainian nationalism” in the Austrian province of Galicia was among the international tensions that caused World War I. After the Red Army finally secured this region for the Soviet Union during World War II, the anti-Soviet nationalist insurgency continued for nearly a decade. The spectre of “Ukrainian nationalism” has haunted the Russian political imagination ever since, because it threatened the main tenet of imperial ideology, that of Ukrainians being essentially “uneducated Russians.”
A barricade of tires prepared to be burned on Kyiv’s main boulevard.
In the twenty-three years since the Soviet collapse, the political elites in Russia and Ukraine learned to exploit the ambiguous sense of identity in both countries. The Putin administration discovered imperial chauvinism’s appeal to conservative voters outside of major cities. In Ukraine, President Viktor Yanukovych and his Party of Regions cultivated nostalgia for the Soviet past and identification with Russian culture in their electoral stronghold in the Donbas, the region of Soviet-style smokestack factories propped up by government subsidies. The identity time-bomb was bound to explode at some point, and it went off twice in the past decade.
The Orange Revolution of 2004 began as a mass protest against a rigged election allegedly won by Prime Minister Yanukovych, but grew into a popular civic movement against corruption and political manipulation. Unfortunately, the victors of the revolution did not manage to build a new system, instead descending into political infighting. Yanukovych finally gained the presidency in 2010 and went on to establish an even more corrupt regime. By the end of 2013 Ukrainians were so fed up with their government that the latter’s last-minute withdrawal from the Association Agreement with the European Union sparked another popular revolution.
The protestors on the EuroMaidan were not fighting for Europe and against Russia per se, but against authoritarianism and corruption. However, it is telling that the Putin regime saw their movement as a threat to Russia’s interests. The Russian state-controlled media exploited the presence on the barricades of radical Ukrainian nationalists to paint the entire popular revolution as “fascist.” Without the Russian annexation of the Crimea and barely-concealed support for the separatists in the Donbas, the situation there would also not have reached the brink of a civil war.
In many ways, then, the long-term resolution of the Ukrainian crisis would entail Russians and Ukrainians coming to terms with history–laying the imperial past finally to rest.
Serhy Yekelchyk is Professor of Slavic Studies and History at the University of Victoria (Victoria, British Columbia, Canada) and the author of Ukraine: Birth of a Modern Nation (OUP, 2007).
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Images courtesy of Serhy Yekelchyk. Used with permission.
Russia’s offensive policy of territorial annexation (of the Crimea), the threat of using military force and the actual support of separatist groups on the territory of Ukraine has left the West and NATO practically helpless to respond. NATO seems to be unwilling to agree on a more robust response, thus revealing a political division among its member states. This unwillingness can partly be explained with Europe’s dependency on Russian gas supplies but also in the recognition of legal limitations and considerations, such as NATO’s Article 5 (which only authorizes the use of collective self defence in cases of an attack on a NATO member state).
Borrowing the term from the so-called “Jasmine Revolution” of the failed “Arab Spring” of 2011 which challenged the existing political landscape in the Maghreb, it does not seem farfetched to see the events of this spring as the emergence of a new power balance in the region. As it was the case with the two historical examples, the overall outcome will be different from what was initially expected. While some of the protests led, with the deposition of Zine al-Abedine Ben Ali in Tunisia and Hosni Mubarak in Egypt, to actual regime change, soon the “old order” of autocratic governments was reestablished, as the cases of Bahrain, Egypt, and Syria show. It overall also brought Russia back into the region as the main player. Russia’s (re-)annexation of Crimea in April of 2014 is a fait accompli and unlikely to be revised anytime and the ongoing support of separatist groups in the eastern parts of Ukraine where the Russian speaking minority is in the majority, such as Donetsk and Luhansk, has seen an increase in open military combat.
Ukraine is already a divided country, with fighting taking place along its ethnic lines. The break-up of the old Yugoslavia in the 1990s and its ensuing humanitarian catastrophe may serve as a stark reminder of things to come. Yet, it is the prospect of such a civil war which has also removed the necessity for open Russian military intervention; Russia has begun to fight the war by proxy, by using covert military operatives and/or mercenaries. Reflecting these developments and having nothing further to gain from an invasion, Russia announced the withdrawal of regular combat troops from the border this week.
The changes to the world since the end of the “Cold War” in 1991 shaped the political landscape and also military strategy and doctrine. What we have seen so far was the evolving of a more liberal view on war as an instrument and continuation of politics — especially in the form of ‘humanitarian intervention’. Examples for this new liberalism in waging war, may be found in the US-led Iraqi campaigns of 1991 and 2003, the war in Afghanistan, Russia’s occupation of Georgian territories during the summer of 2008, the two Chechen campaigns and many more small scale interventions around the globe.
After adopting a ‘retro’ USSR foreign policy Putin needed and found new strategic allies. In May he entered into a gas deal with China which has the potential not only to disrupt vital energy supply to Europe but also to question the emergence of a future long term cooperation based on mutual economic interest and trust. If these developments herald the coming of a new ‘Cold War’ remains to be seen.
What is evident, though, is that the Cold War’s ‘Strategic Stability’ dogma, which prevented any military direct confrontation between NATO and the Soviet led Warsaw Pact, does not exist in the 21st century. New technologies such as ‘Cyber’ and the use of “New wars” along asymmetric lines of conflict” — which constitute “a dichotomous choice between counterinsurgency and conventional war” — will play a bigger role in the future conduct of hostilities. Such (multi-)modal threats have become known as ‘Hybrid Threats’. Recognized in NATO’s Bi-Strategic Command Capstone Concept of 2010, hybrid threats are defined as “those posed by adversaries, with the ability to simultaneously employ conventional and non-conventional means adaptively in pursuit of their objectives.” NATO decided in June 2012 to cease work on CHT at its organizational level but encouraged its member states and associated NATO Excellence Centres to continue working on Hybrid Threats.
Sascha-Dominik Bachmann is an Associate Professor in International Law (Bournemouth University); State Exam in Law (Ludwig-Maximilians Universität, Munich), Assessor Jur, LL.M (Stellenbosch), LL.D (Johannesburg); Sascha-Dominik is a Lieutenant Colonel in the German Army Reserves and had multiple deployments in peacekeeping missions in operational and advisory roles as part of NATO/KFOR from 2002 to 2006. During that time he was also an exchange officer to the 23rd US Marine Regiment. He wants to thank Noach Bachmann for his input. This blog post draws from Sascha’s article “Targeted Killings: Contemporary Challenges, Risks and Opportunities” in the Journal of Conflict Security Law and available to read for free for a limited time. Read his previous blog post on drone killings.
The Journal of Conflict & Security Law is a refereed journal aimed at academics, government officials, military lawyers and lawyers working in the area, as well as individuals interested in the areas of arms control law, the law of armed conflict and collective security law. The journal aims to further understanding of each of the specific areas covered, but also aims to promote the study of the interfaces and relations between them.
The arc of a presidency is long, but it bends towards failure. So, to paraphrase Barack Obama, seems to be the implication of recent events. Set aside our domestic travails, for which Congress bears primary responsibility, and focus on foreign policy, where the president plays a freer hand. In East Asia, China is rising and truculent, scrapping with its neighbors over territory and maritime resources. From Hanoi to Canberra, the neighbors are buttressing their military forces and clinging to Washington’s security blanket. Across Eurasia, Vladimir Putin is pushing with sly restraint to reverse the strategic setbacks of 1989-91. America’s European allies are troubled but not to the point of resolution. At just 1.65 percent of GDP, the EU’s military spending lags far behind Russia’s, at 4.5 percent of GDP. The United States, the Europeans presume, will continue to provide, much as it has done since the late 1940s.
Washington’s last and longest wars are, meanwhile, descending towards torrid denouements. Afghanistan’s fate is tenuous. Free elections are heartening, but whether the Kabul government can govern, much less survive the withdrawal of US forces scheduled for 2016 is uncertain. Iraq, from which Obama in 2011 declared us liberated, is catastrophic. The country is imploding, caught in the firestorm of Sunni insurgency that has overwhelmed the Levant. We may yet witness genocide. We may yet witness American personnel scrambling into helicopters as they evacuate Baghdad’s International Zone, a scene that will recall the evacuation of Saigon in April 1975. The situations are not analogous: should ISIS militia penetrate Baghdad, the outcome will be less decisive than was North Vietnam’s 1975 conquest of South Vietnam, but for the United States the results will be no less devastating. America’s failure in Iraq would be undeniable, and all that would remain would be the allocation of blame.
We have traveled far from Grant Park, where an inspirational campaign culminated in promises of an Aquarian future. We are no longer in Oslo, where a president newly laden with a Nobel Prize spoke of rejuvenating an international order “buckling under the weight of new threats.” Obama’s charisma, intellect, and personality, all considerable, have not remade the world; instead, a president who conjured visions of a “just and lasting peace” now talks about hitting singles and doubles. There have in fairness been few errors, although Obama’s declaration that US troops will leave Afghanistan in 2016 may count as such. The problem is rather the conjuncture of setbacks, many deep-rooted, that now envelops US foreign policy. These setbacks are not Barack Obama’s fault, but deal with them he must. The irony is this: dire circumstances, above all Iraq, made Obama’s presidential campaign credible and secured his election. Dire circumstances, including Iraq, may now be overwhelming Obama’s presidency.
Cerebral and introspective, Obama may rue that the last years of presidencies are often difficult. Truman left the White House with his ratings in the gutter, while Eisenhower in his last years seemed to critics doddery and obsolete. But for Mikhail Gorbachev, Reagan’s presidency might have ended in ignominy. Yet a president’s last years can be years of reinvention, even years of renewal. With the mid-terms not yet upon us, the fourth part of Obama’s day has not passed; its shape is still being defined.
Barack Obama speaks in Cairo, Egypt, 4 June 2009. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.
Notorious as a time of setbacks, the 1970s offer examples of late-term reinventions. Henry Kissinger, serving President Ford, in 1974-76 and Jimmy Carter in 1979-80 snatched opportunity from adversity; their examples may be salutary. The mid-1970s found Kissinger’s foreign policy in a nadir: political headwinds were blowing against the East-West détente that he and Richard Nixon had built, even as Congress voted to deny the administration the tools to confront Soviet adventurism in the Third World. Transatlantic relations were at low ebb, as the industrialized countries competed to secure supplies of oil and to overcome a tightening world recession. Alarmed by the deterioration of core alliances, Kissinger in 1974-76 pivoted away from his prior fixation with the Cold War’s grand chessboard and set to work rebuilding the Western Alliance. As he did so, he pioneered international economic governance through the G-7 summits and restored the comity of the West. Kissinger even engaged with the Third World, proposing an international food bank to feed the world’s poorest and aligning the United States with black majority rule in sub-Saharan Africa. Amidst transient adversity, Kissinger laid the foundations for a post-Cold War foreign policy, and the benefits abounded in the decades that followed.
Jimmy Carter in the late 1970s inherited serious challenges, some of which he exacerbated. Soviet-American détente was already on the ropes, but Carter’s outspoken defenses of Soviet human rights added to the strain. The Shah of Iran, a longtime client, was already in trouble, but the strains on his regime intensified under Carter, who sent mixed messages. Pahlavi’s tumbling in the winter of 1978-79 and the ensuing hostage crisis threw Carter’s foreign policy off the rails. Months later, the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan. Carter responded by reorienting US foreign policy towards an invigorated Cold War posture. He embargoed the USSR, escalated defense spending, rallied the West, and expanded cooperation with China. This Cold War turn was counterintuitive, being a departure from Carter’s initial bid to transcend Cold War axioms, but it confirmed his willingness to adapt to new circumstances. Carter’s anti-Soviet turn turned up the fiscal strain on the Soviet Union, helping to precipitate not only the Cold War’s re-escalation but also the Cold War’s resolution. Carter also defined for the United States a new military role in the Persian Gulf, where Washington assumed direct responsibility for the security of oil supplies. This was not what Carter intended to achieve, but he adapted, like Kissinger, to fast-shifting circumstances with creative and far-reaching initiatives.
Late term adaptations such as Kissinger’s and Carter’s may offer cues for President Obama. One lesson of presidencies past is that the frustration of grand designs can be liberating. The Nixon administration in the early 1970s sought to build a “new international structure of peace” atop a Cold War balance of power. Despite initial breakthroughs, Nixon’s design faltered, leaving Ford and Kissinger to pick up the pieces. Carter at the outset envisaged making a new “framework of international cooperation,” but his efforts at architectural renovation also came unstuck. The failures of architecture and the frustration of grand designs nonetheless opened opportunities for practical innovation, which Kissinger, Carter, and others pursued. Even George W. Bush achieved a late reinvention focused on practical multilateralism after his grand strategic bid to democratize the Middle East failed in ignominy. Whether Obama can do the same may hinge upon his willingness to forsake big ideas of the kind that he articulated when he spoke in Cairo of a “new beginning” in US relations with the Muslim world and to refocus on the tangible problems of a complex and unruly world that will submit to grand designs no more readily today than it has done in the past.
Moving forward may also require revisiting favored concepts. Embracing a concept of Cold War politics, Nixon and Kissinger prioritized détente with Soviet Union and neglected US allies. Kissinger’s efforts to rehabilitate core alliances nonetheless proved more durable than his initial efforts to stabilize the Cold War. Substituting a concept of “world order politics” for Cold War fixations, Carter set out to promote human rights and economic cooperation. He nonetheless ended up implementing the sharpest escalation in Cold War preparedness since Truman. Making effective foreign policy sometimes depends upon rethinking the concepts that guide it. Such concepts are, after all, derived from the past; they do not predict the future.
President Obama at West Point recently declared that “terrorism” is still “the most direct threat to America.” This has been the pattern of recent years; whether it is the pattern of years to come, only time will tell. New threats will also appear, as will new opportunities, but engaging them will depend upon perceiving them. Here, strategic concepts that prioritize particular kinds of challenges, such as terrorism, over other kinds of challenge, such as climate change, may be unhelpful. So too are the blanket prohibitions that axiomatic concepts often produce. Advancing US interests may very well depend upon mustering the flexibility to engage with terroristic groups, like the Taliban or Hamas, or with regimes, like Iran’s, that sponsor terrorism. Axiomatic approaches to foreign policy that reject all dialogue with terrorist organizations may narrow the field of vision. Americans, after all, did not go to China until Nixon did so.
If intellectual flexibility is a prerequisite for successful late presidential reinventions, political courage is another. While he believed that effective foreign policy depended upon domestic consensus, Kissinger strived throughout his career to insulate policy choice from the pressures of domestic politics. He persevered in defending Soviet-American détente not because it was popular but because he believed in it. Carter also put strategic purposes ahead of political expedience. Convinced that America’s dependence on foreign oil was a strategic liability, Carter decontrolled oil prices, allowing gasoline prices to rise sharply. The decision was unpopular, even mocked, but it paid strategic dividends in the mid-1980s, when falling world oil prices helped tip the Soviet Union into fiscal collapse. Obama, in contrast, appears readier to let opinion polls guide foreign policy. Withdrawing US forces from Iraq in 2011 and committing to withdraw US forces from Afghanistan during 2016 were both popular moves; their prudence remains less obvious. Still, the 22nd Amendment gives the President a real flexibility in foreign policy. Whether Obama bequeaths a strong foundation to his successor may depend on his willingness to embrace the political opportunity that he now inhabits for bold and decisive action.
Setbacks of the kind that the United States is experiencing in the present moment are not unprecedented. Americans in the 1970s fretted about the rise of Soviet power, and they recoiled as radical students stormed their embassy in Tehran. Yet policymakers devised ways out of the impasse, and they left the United States in a deceptively strong position at the decade’s end. Reinvention depended upon flexibility. Kissinger, Carter, and others understood that the United States, while the world’s leading superpower, was more the captive of its circumstances than the master of them. They were undogmatic, insofar as they turned to opportunities that had not been their priorities at the outset. They operated in the world as they found it and did not fixate upon the world as it might be. They scored singles and doubles, but they also hit the occasional home run. This is a standard that Obama has evoked; with luck, it will be a standard that he can fulfill, if he can muster the political courage to defy adverse politics and embrace the opportunities that the last 30 months of his presidency will present.
This quote, from Russian Menshevik Lydia Dan, is one of the epigraphs to my work in progress (one of them), a novel about Russian and Ukrainian revolutionaries.
Lydia Dan, a nice girl from a nice upper middle class family of Russian Jewish intellectuals, ended up touring Moscow factories agitating for workers rights among people she had barely a common language with, staying the night with prostitutes to avoid being picked up by the secret police, marrying not just one but two revolutionaries, losing her child, choosing the wrong side (Trotsky’s Mensheviks over Lenin’s Bolsheviks), and living long enough to see a revolution she dedicated her life to, turn distinctly sour and bitter.
“As people we were much more out of books than out of real life,” Dan says, in an extended interview with Leopold Haimson published in The Making of Three Russian Revolutionaries. She means that in her young days, she and her fellow idealists who sat up or walked the streets all night discussing the revolution to come, had seen nothing of ‘real life’. They got their world view from reading Marx and Chernyshevsky and Gorky; the first time Dan actually met a real-life prostitute all she could think about were scenes she had read in Maupassant. They were so busy theorizing about the revolution, and inhabiting its weird, underground, anti-social existence of ideas, that they did not know how to hold down a job, pay a bill, mend a coat, look after a baby…
For me, writing about such people a century later, the quote has a second meaning. Dan and her fellow revolutionaries seem to me like characters out of books: utterly recognisable in their loves and hates and idiocies and heroics, but larger than life, more vivid and interesting, coming from a complete and absorbing world that exists safely between the pages. In other words, fictional.
These last few months in Ukraine, I’ve met the contemporary reincarnation of Dan and her fellow revolutionaries. They are here in all their guises: the ones who make bombs and pick up guns, the ones who write heartfelt tracts or disseminate poisonously attractive lies, the ones who look after the poor and the dispossessed, the ones who spy and betray, the ones who are ready to die for ‘the people’ and the ones who kill, rob and torture people in the name of making a profit.
Again and again, I keep coming across characters who are straight from 1917.
It’s all amazing, amazing material for my novel, of course. But I realise that maybe I am more like Dan than I thought. My ideas for that novel came more out of reading than from experience: I thought those revolutionaries were safely between the pages.
It is terrifying to realise that the people who are tearing a country I love to pieces, or trying desperately to hold it together, are in fact, much more out of real life than out of books.
The downing of the Malaysian Airlines Flight MH17 on 17 July 2014 sent shockwaves around the world. The airliner was on its way from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur when it was shot down over Eastern Ukraine by an surface to air missile, killing all people on board, 283 passengers including 80 children, and 15 crew members. The victims were nationals of at least 10 different states, with the Netherlands losing 192 of its citizens.
With new information being released hourly strong evidence seems to indicate that the airliner was downed by a sophisticated military surface to air missile system, the SA-17 BUK missile system. This self-propelled air defence system was introduced in 1980 to the Armed Forces of the then Soviet Union and which is still in service with the Armed forces of both Russia and Ukraine. There is growing suspicion that the airliner was shot down by pro-Russian separatist forces operating in the area, with one report by AP having identified the presence of a rebel BUK unit in close proximity of the crash site. The United States and its intelligence services were quick in identifying the pro-Russian separatists as having been responsible for launching the missile. This view is supported further by the existence of incriminating communications between the rebels and their Russian handlers immediately after the aircraft hit the ground and also a now deleted announcement on social media by the self declared Rebel Commander, Igor Strelkov. This evidence points to the possibility that MH17 was mistaken for an Ukrainian military plane and therefore targeted. Given that two Ukrainian military aircraft were shot down over Eastern Ukraine in only two days preceding 17 July 2014 a not unlikely possibility.
It will be crucial to establish the extent of Russia’s involvement in the atrocity. While there seems to be evidence that the rebels may have taken possession of BUK units of the Ukrainian, it seems unlikely that they would have been able to operate these systems without assistance from Russian military experts and even radar assets.
Makeshift memorial at Amsterdam Schiphol Airport for the victims of the Malaysian Airlines flight MH17 which crashed in the Ukraine on 18 July 2014 killing all 298 people on board. Photo by Roman Boed. CC BY 2.0 via romanboed Flickr.
Russia was quick to shift the blame on Ukraine itself, asking why civil aircraft hadn’t been barred completely from overflying the region, directly blaming Ukraine’s aviation authorities during the emergency meeting on the UN Security Council (UNSC) on 18 July 2014. Russia even went so far to blame Ukraine indirectly of shooting down MH17 by comparing the incident with the accidental shooting down of a Russian civilian airliner en route from Tel Aviv to Novosibirsk in 2001. Despite Russia’s call for an independent investigation of the incident, Moscow’s rebels reportedly blocked actively international observers from OSCE to access the site.
While any civilian airliner crash is a catastrophe, and in cases of terrorist involvement an international crime, the shooting down of passenger jets by a state are particularly shocking as they always affect non combatants and resemble acts which are always outside the parameters of the legality of any military action (such as distinction, necessity, and proportionality). Any such act would lead to global condemnation and would hurt the perpetrator state’s international reputation. Consequently, there have only been few such incidents over the last 60 years.
What could be the possible consequences? The rebels are still formally Ukrainian citizens and as such subject to Ukraine’s criminal judicial system, according to the active personality principle. Such a prosecution could extent to the Russian co-rebels as Ukraine could exercise its jurisdiction as the state where the crime was committed, under the territoriality principle. In addition prosecutions could be initiated by the states whose citizens were murdered, under the passive personality principle of international criminal law. With Netherlands as the nation with the highest numbers of victims having a particularly strong interest in swift criminal justice, memories of the Pan Am 103 bombing come to mind, where Libyan terrorists murdered 270 humans when an airliner exploded over Lockerbie in Scotland. Following international pressure, Libya agreed to surrender key suspects to a Scottish Court sitting in the Netherlands.
The establishment of an international(-ised) criminal forum for the prosecution of the perpetrators would require Russia’s cooperation, something which seems to be unlikely given Putin’s increasing defiance of the international community’s call for justice. A prosecution by the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague under its Statute, the Rome Statute, is unlikely to happen as neither Russian nor Ukraine have ratified the Statute. An UNSC referral to the ICC — if one accepts that the murder of 298 civilians would amount to a crime which qualifies as a crime against humanity or even a war crime under Article 5 of the ICC Statute — would fail given that Russia and its new strategic partner China are Veto powers on the Council and would veto any resolution for a referral.
Other responses could be the imposing of unilateral and international sanctions and embargos against Moscow and high profile individuals. Related to such economic countermeasures is the possibility to hold Russia as a state responsible for its complicity in the shooting down of MH17; the International Court of Justice (ICJ) would be the forum where such a case against Russia could be brought by a state affected by the tragedy. An example for such an interstate case arising from a breach of international law can be found in the ICJ case Aerial Incident of 3 July 1988 (Islamic Republic of Iran v. United States of America), arising from the unlawful shooting down of Iran Air Flight 655 by the United States in 1988. The case ended with an out of Court settlement by the US in 1996. Again, it seems quite unlikely that Russia will accept any ruling by the ICJ on the matter and even less likely would be any compliance with an damages order by the court.
One alternative could be a true US solution for the accountability gap of Russia’s complicity in the disaster. If the US Congress was to qualify the rebel groups as terrorist organizations then this would make Russia a state sponsor of terrorism, and as such subject to US federal jurisdiction in a terrorism civil litigation case brought under the Anti-Terrorism Act (ATA-18 USC Sections 2331-2338) as an amendment to the Alien Torts Statute (ATS/ATCA – 28 USC Section 1350). The so-called “State Sponsors of Terrorism” exception to the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act (FSIA Exception-28 USC Section 1605(a)(7)), which allows lawsuit against so-called state sponsors of terrorism. The Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act (FSIA) Exception of 1996 limits the defense of state immunity in cases of state sponsored terrorism and can be seen as a direct judicial response to the growing threat of acts of international state sponsored terrorism directed against the United States and her citizens abroad, as exemplified in the case of Flatow v. Islamic Republic of Iran (76 F. Supp. 2d 28 (D.D.C. 1999)). Utilising US law to bring a civil litigation case against Russia as a designated state sponsor of international terrorism would certainly set a strong signal and message to Putin; it remains to be seen whether the US call for stronger unified sanctions against Russia will translate into such unilateral action.
Time will tell if the downing of MH17 will turn out to be a Lusitania moment (the sinking of the British passenger ship Lusitania with significant loss of US lives by a German U-boat led to the entry of the US in World War I) for Russia’s relations with the West, which might pave the way to a new ‘Cold War’ along new conflict lines with different allies and alliances. What has become clear already today is Russia’s potential new role as state sponsor of terrorism.
Sascha-Dominik Bachmann is an Associate Professor in International Law (Bournemouth University); State Exam in Law (Ludwig-Maximilians Universität, Munich), Assessor Jur, LL.M (Stellenbosch), LL.D (Johannesburg); Sascha-Dominik is a Lieutenant Colonel in the German Army Reserves and had multiple deployments in peacekeeping missions in operational and advisory roles as part of NATO/KFOR from 2002 to 2006. During that time he was also an exchange officer to the 23rd US Marine Regiment. He wants to thank Noach Bachmann for his input. This blog post draws from Sascha’s article “Targeted Killings: Contemporary Challenges, Risks and Opportunities” in the Journal of Conflict Security Law and available to read for free for a limited time. Read his previous blog posts.
The Journal of Conflict & Security Law is a refereed journal aimed at academics, government officials, military lawyers and lawyers working in the area, as well as individuals interested in the areas of arms control law, the law of armed conflict and collective security law. The journal aims to further understanding of each of the specific areas covered, but also aims to promote the study of the interfaces and relations between them.
In many countries, including Britain, the Euro-elections in May showed that a substantial minority of voters are disillusioned with mainstream parties of both government and opposition. This result was widely anticipated, and all over Europe media commentators have been proclaiming that the public is losing trust in established politicians. Opinion polls certainly support this view, but what are they measuring when they ask questions about trust? It is a slippery concept which suggests very different things to different people. Social scientists cannot reach any kind of consensus on what it means, let alone on what might be undermining it. Yet most people would agree that some kind of trust in the political process is essential to a stable and prosperous society.
Social scientists have had trouble with the concept of trust because most of them attempt to reach an unambiguous definition of it, distinguishing it from all other concepts, and then apply it to all societies at different times and in different parts of the world. The results are unsatisfactory, and some are tempted to ditch the term altogether. Yet there self-evidently is such a thing as trust, and it plays a major role in our everyday life. Even if the word is often misused, we should not abandon it. My approach is different: I use the word as the focus of a semantic milieu which includes related concepts such as confidence, reliance, faith and belief, and then see how they work in practice in different historical settings.
The original impulse for Trust came from a specific historical setting: Russia during the 1990s. There I observed, at first hand, the impact on ordinary Russians of economic and political reforms inspired by Western example and in some cases directly imposed by the West. Those reforms rested on economic and political precepts derived from Western institutions and practices which dated back decades or even centuries – generating habits of mutual trust which had become so ingrained that we did not notice them anymore. In Russia those institutions and practices instead aroused wariness at first, then distrust, then resentment and even hatred of the West and its policies.
I learnt from that experience that much social solidarity derives from forms of mutual trust which are so unreflective that we are no longer aware of them. Trust does not always spring from conscious choice, as some social scientists affirm. On the contrary, some of its most important manifestations are unconscious. They are nevertheless definitely learned, not an instinctive part of human nature. It follows that forms of trust which we take for granted are not appropriate for all societies.
Despite these differences, human beings are by nature predisposed towards trust. Our ability to participate in society depends on trusting those around us unless there is strong evidence that we should not do so. We all seek to trust someone, even – perhaps especially – in what seem desperate situations. To live without trusting anyone or anything is intolerable; those who seek to mobilise trust are therefore working with the grain of human nature.
We also all need trust as a cognitive tool, to learn about the world around us. In childhood we take what our parents tell us on trust, whereas during adolescence we may well learn that some of it is untrue or inadequate. Learning to discriminate and to moderate both trust and distrust is extraordinarily difficult. The same applies in the natural sciences: we cannot replicate all experiments carried out in the past in order to check whether they are valid. We have trust most of what scientists tell us and integrate it into our world picture.
Because we all need trust so much, it tends to create a kind of herd instinct. We have a strong tendency to place our trust where those around us do so. As a senior figure in the Royal Bank of Scotland commented on the widespread profligacy which generated the 2008 financial crisis: “The problem is that in banks you have this kind of mentality, this kind of group-think, and people just keep going with what they know, and they don’t want to listen to bad news.”
Trust, then, is necessary both to avoid despair and to navigate our way through life, and it cannot always be based on what we know for certain. When we encounter unfamiliar people – and in the modern world this is a frequent experience – we usually begin by exercising an ‘advance’ of trust. If it is reciprocated, we can go on to form a fruitful relationship. But a lot depends on the nature and context of this first encounter. Does the other person speak in a familiar language, look reassuring and make gestures we can easily ‘read’? Trust is closely linked to identity – our sense of our own identity and of that of those around us.
On the whole the reason we tend to trust persons around us is because they are using symbolic systems similar to our own. To trust those whose systems are very different we have to make a conscious effort, and probably to make a tentative ‘advance’ of trust. This is the familiar problem of the ‘other’. Overcoming that initial distrust requires something close to a leap in the dark.
Whether we know it or not, we spend much of our social life as part of a trust network. Such networks can be very strong and supportive, but they also tend to erect around themselves rigid boundaries, across which distrust is projected. When two or more trust networks are in enmity with one another, an ‘advance’ of trust can only work satisfactorily if it proves possible to transform negative-sum games into positive-sum games. However, an outside threat helps two mutually distrusting networks to find common ground, settle at least some of their differences and work together to ward off the threat. When the threat is withdrawn, they may well resume their mutual enmity.
During the twentieth century the social sciences – and following them history – were mostly dominated by theories derived from the study of power and/or rational choice. We still talk glibly of the struggle between democracy and authoritarianism, without considering the kinds of social solidarity which underlie both forms of government. I believe we need to supplement political science with a kind of ‘trust science’, which studies people’s mutual sympathy, their lively and apparently ineradicable tendency to seek reciprocal relationships with one another, and also what happens when that tendency breaks down. It is supremely important to analyse forms of social solidarity which do not derive directly from power structures and/or rational choice. Among other things, such an analysis might help us to understand why certain forms of trust have become generally accepted in Western society, and why they are in crisis right now.
Geoffrey Hosking is Emeritus Professor of Russian History at University College London. A Fellow of the British Academy and an Honorary Doctor of the Russian Academy of Sciences, he was BBC Reith Lecturer in 1988. He has written numerous books on Russian history and culture, including Russian History: A Very Short Introduction and Trust: A History.
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Image credit: David Cameron, by Valsts kanceleja. CC-BY-SA-3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.
Browsing my parents’ bookshelves recently, in the dog days that followed sending Anna Karenina off to press, I found myself staring at a row of small hardback volumes all the same size. One in particular, with the words Romola and George Eliot embossed in gold on the dark green spine, caught my attention. It was an Oxford World’s Classics pocket edition – a present to my grandmother from her younger sister, who wrote an affectionate inscription in curling black ink (“with Best Love to Dellie on her 20th birthday from Mabel, July 3rd 1917”), and forgot to rub out the price of 1 shilling and 3 pence pencilled inside the front cover. Inside the back cover, meanwhile, towards the bottom of a long list of World’s Classics titles, my heart missed a beat when I espied “Tolstoy, Anna Karenina: in preparation”: Louise and Aylmer Maude’s translation was first published only in 1918.
As I drove homethat night with Romola in my bag, I thought about my grandmother reading Eliot’s novel (unusually set in Florence during the Renaissance, rather than in 19th-century England), and I also thought about the seismic changes taking place in Russia at the time of her birthday in 1917. I wondered whether she was given the new Oxford World’s Classics edition of Anna Karenina for her 21st birthday, and was disappointed on a later visit to my parents to be presented with her copy of Nathan Haskell Dole’s pioneering but wholly inadequate translation, reprinted in the inexpensive Nelson Classics series. I pictured my grandmother struggling with sentences such as those describing Anna’s hostile engagement with her husband. After Karenin has begun upbraiding Anna for consorting too openly with Vronsky at the beginning of the novel (Part 2, chapter 9), we read, for example: ‘“Nu-s! I hear you,” she said, in a calm tone of banter’. The Maudes later translated this sentence into English (“Well, I’m listening! What next?” said she quietly and mockingly”), but they also changed Tolstoy’s punctuation, and the sarcastically deferential tone of Anna’s voice (Nu-s, ya slushayu, chto budet, – progovorila ona spokoino i nasmeshlivo – “Well, I’m ready to hear what is next,” she said coolly and derisively”).
Back in 1917, Oxford Word’s Classics “pocket editions” featured a line-drawn portrait of the author, but no other illustration. These days, nearly every edition of Anna Karenina has a picture of a woman on the cover, even if Tolstoy’s bearded face is absent opposite the title page. More often than not it will be a Russian woman, painted by a Russian artist, and while we know this is not Anna, it is as if the limits of our imagination are somehow curbed before we even start reading. The dust-jacket for the new hardback Oxford World’s Classics edition of Anna Karenina reproduces Sir John Everett Millais’ portrait of Louise Jopling. The fact that this is an English painting of an English woman already mitigates against identifying her too closely with Anna, but this particular portrait is an inspired choice for other reasons, as I began to understand when I researched its history. To begin with, it was painted in 1879, just one year after Anna Karenina was first published as a complete novel. And the meticulous notes compiled by Vladimir Nabokov which anchor the events of the narrative between 1872 and 1876 also enable us to infer that the fictional Anna Karenina was about the same age as the real-life Louise Jopling, who was 36 when she sat for Millais. Their very different life paths, meanwhile, throw an interesting light on the theme at the centre of Tolstoy’s novel: the predicament of women.
Louise Jopling was one of the nine children born into the family of a railway contractor in Manchester in 1843. After getting married for the first time in 1861 at the age of 17 to Frank Romer, who was secretary to Baron Nathaniel de Rothschild, she studied painting in Paris, but returned to London at the end of the decade when her husband was fired. By 1874, her first husband (a compulsive gambler) and two of her three children were dead, she had married for the second time, to the watercolour painter Joseph Jopling, exhibited at the Royal Academy, and become a fixture in London’s artistic life. To enjoy any kind of success as a female painter at that time in Victorian Britain was an achievement, but even more remarkable was Louise Jopling’s lifelong campaign to improve women’s rights. She founded a professional art school for women in 1887, was a vigorous supporter of women’s suffrage, won voting rights for women at the Royal Society of Portrait Painters after being elected, fought for women to be able to paint from nude models, and became the first woman member of the Royal Society of British Artists in 1902. None of these doors were open to Anna Karenina as a member of St. Petersburg high society, although we learn in the course of the novel that she has a keen artistic sense, is a discerning reader, writes children’s fiction, and has a serious interest in education. Tolstoy’s wife Sofya similarly was never given the opportunity to fulfil her potential as a writer, photographer, and painter.
Louise Jopling was a beautiful woman, as is immediately apparent from Millais’ portrait. In her memoirs she describes posing for him in a carefully chosen embroidered black gown made in Paris, and consciously donning a charming and typically feminine expression to match. On the third day she came to sit for Millais, however, the two friends chanced to talk about something which made her feel indignant, and she forgot to wear her “designedly beautiful expression”. What was finally fixed in the portrait was a defiant and “rather hard” look, which, as she acknowledges, ultimately endowed her face with greater character. This peculiar combination of beauty and defiance is perhaps what most recalls the character of Anna Karenina, who in Part 5 of the novel confronts social prejudice and hypocrisy head-on by daring to attend the Imperial Opera in the full glare of the high society grandes dames who have rejected her.
Louise Jopling’s concern with how she is represented in her portrait, as a professional artist in her own right, as a painter’s model, and as a woman, also speaks to Tolstoy’s detailed exploration of the commodification and objectification of women in society and in art (as discussed by Amy Mandelker in her important study Framing Anna Karenina). It is for this reason that we encounter women in a variety of different situations (ranging from the unhappily married Anna, to the betrayed and careworn housewife Dolly, the young bride Kitty, the unmarried companion Varenka, and the former prostitute Marya), and three separate portraits of the heroine, seen from different points of view. Ernest Rhys interestingly compares Anna Karenina to “a woman’s Iliad” in his introduction to the 1914 Everyman’s Library edition of the novel. Another kind of woman’s Iliad could also be woven from the differing stories of some of Tolstoy’s intrepid early translators, amongst them Clara Bell, Isabel Hapgood, Rochelle S. Townsend, Constance Garnett, Louise Maude, Rosemary Edmonds, and Ann Dunnigan, to whom we owe a debt for paving the way.
Untangling recent and still-unfolding events in Ukraine is not a simple task. The western news media has been reasonably successful in acquainting its consumers with events, from the fall of Yanukovich on the back of intensive protests in Kiev, by those angry at his venality and signing a pact with Russia over one with the EU, to the very recent moves by Russia to annex Crimea.
However, as is perhaps inevitable where space is compressed, messages brief and time short, a habit of talking about Ukraine in binaries seems to be prevalent. Superficially helpful, it actually hinders a deeper understanding of the issues at hand – and any potential resolution. Those binaries, encouraged to some extent by the nature of the protests themselves (‘pro-Russian’ or ‘pro-EU/Western’), belie complex and important heterogeneities.
Ironically, the country’s name, taken by many to mean ‘borderland’, is one such index of underlying complexity. Commentators outside the mainstream news, including specialists like Andrew Wilson, have long been vocal in pointing out that the East-West divide is by no means a straightforward geographic or linguistic diglossia, drawn with a compass or ruler down the map somewhere east of Kiev, with pro-Western versus pro-Russian sentiment ‘mapped’ accordingly. Being a Russian-speaker is not automatically coterminous with following a pro-Russian course for Ukraine; and the reverse is also sometimes true. In a country with complex legacies of ethnic composition and ruling regime (western regions, before incorporation into the USSR, were ruled at different times in the modern period by Poland, Romania and Austria-Hungary), local vectors of identity also matter, beyond (or indeed, within) the binary ethnolinguistic definition of nationality.
The Bridge to the European Union from Ukraine to Romania. Photo by Madellina Bird. CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 via madellinabird Flickr.
Just as slippery is the binary used in Russian media, which portrays the old regime as legitimately elected and the new one as basically fascist, owing to its incorporation of Ukrainian nationalists of different stripes. First, this narrative supposes that being legitimately elected negates Yanukovich’s anti-democratic behaviours since that election, including the imprisonment of his main political opponent, Yulia Tymoshenko (whatever the ambivalence of her own standing in the politics of Ukraine). Second, the warnings about Ukrainian fascism call to mind George Bernard Shaw’s comment about half-truths as being especially dangerous. As well-informed Ukraine watchers like Andreas Umland and others have noted, overstating the presence of more extreme elements sets up another false binary as a way of deligitimising the new regime in toto. This is certainly not to say that Ukraine’s nationalist elements should escape scrutiny, and here we have yet another warning against false binaries: EU countries themselves may be manifestly less immune to voting in the far right at the fringes, but they still may want to keep eyes and ears open as to exactly what some of Ukraine’s coalition partners think and say about its history and heroes, the Jews, and much more.
So much for seeing the bigger picture, but events may well still take turns that few historians could predict with detailed accuracy. What we can see, at least, from the perspective of a maturing historiographic canon in the west, is that Ukraine is a country that demands a more sophisticated take on identity politics than the standard nationalist discourse allows – a discourse that has been in existence since at least the late nineteenth Century, and yet one which the now precarious-seeming European idea itself was set up to moderate.
First published in January 1886, The English Historical Review (EHR) is the oldest journal of historical scholarship in the English-speaking world. It deals not only with British history, but also with almost all aspects of European and world history since the classical era.
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“In Crimea, literally everything is imbued with our common history and pride. Here is ancient Chersonesus, where the holy Prince Vladimir was baptized. His spiritual feat of turning to Orthodoxy predetermined the shared cultural, moral, and civilizational foundation that unites the peoples of Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus. In Crimea are the graves of Russian soldiers, whose bravery brought Crimea in 1783 under Russian rule. Crimea is also Sevastopol, a city of legends and of great destinies, a fortress city, and birthplace of the Russian Black Sea fleet. Crimea is Balaklava and Kerch, Malakhov Kurgan and Sapun Ridge [major battle sites during the Crimean War and World War II]. Each one of these places is sacred for us, symbols of Russian military glory and unprecedented valor.”
No less revealing is his reflection on the relationships uniting the diverse peoples of Russia.
“Crimea is a unique fusion of the cultures and traditions of various peoples. In this, it resembles Russia as a whole, where over the centuries not a single ethnic group has disappeared. Russians and Ukrainians, Crimean Tatars, and representatives of other nationalities have lived and worked side by side in Crimea, each retaining their own distinct identity, tradition, language, and faith.”
How Russians have often understood their history as an “empire” (though the word is no longer favored) pervades these words and Putin’s thinking.
History haunts arguments about what Putin thinks, how much further he might go, and what should be done. Some commentators focus on how Putin sees himself in history. The Republican chairman of the US House of Representative’s Intelligence Committee, Mike Rogers, told Meet the Press that “Mr. Putin…goes to bed at night thinking of Peter the Great and he wakes up thinking of Stalin.” The logical conclusion is that if we do not stop Putin “he is going to continue to take territory to fulfill what he believes is rightfully Russia.” Others think of historical analogies. The former US National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski, for example, writing in the Washington Post, described Putin as “a partially comical imitation of Mussolini and a more menacing reminder of Hitler,” making the Crimea annexation, if West does not act, “similar to the two phases of Hitler’s seizure of the Sudetenland after Munich in 1938 and the final occupation of Prague and Czechoslovakia in early 1939.” Echoing these interpretations are scores of satirical images of Putin as Stalin and Hitler that have appeared at demonstrations and in social media (images of Putin as Peter the Great, more common once, are seen as too flatteringnow).
Putin himself has a lot to say about history in his 18 March 2014 speech. He points, as he often has, to the recent history of humiliation and insults suffered by Russia at the hands of “our western partners” who treat Russia not as “an independent, active participant in international affairs,” with “its own national interests that need to be taken into account and respected,” but as a backward or dangerous nation to dismiss and “contain.” Worse, the Western powers seem to believe in their own “chosenness and exceptionalism, that they can decide the fate of the world, that they alone are always right.” Rulers since Peter the Great have been fighting for Russia to be respected and included, and generally along the same two fronts: proving that Russia deserves equal membership in the community of “civilized” nations through modernizing and Europeanizing reforms, and winning recognition through demonstrations of political and military might, “glory and valor” (in Putin’s phrase). That Russia was famously disgraced during the original Crimean War, revealing levels of economic and military backwardness that inspired a massive program of reform, and that Western commentators now are expressing surprised admiration at the advances in technique and command seen among the Russian army since it was last seen in the field in Georgia, is not only surely gratifying to Putin (who has made military modernization a priority) but part of an important story about nation and history.
Putin also has a lot to say about empire. In the nineteenth century, a theme in Russian thinking about empire was that Russians rule the diversity of its peoples not with self-interest and greed, like European colonialists, but with true Christian love, bringing their subjects “happiness and abundance,” in Michael Pogodin’s words. As Nicholas Danilevsky put it in 1871, Russia’s empire was “not built on the bones of trampled nations.” The Soviet version of this imperial utopianism was the famous “friendship of peoples” (druzhba narodov) of the USSR. Putin, we see, echoes this ideal. He also directs it against ethnic nationalisms that suppress minorities (above all, Russian speakers in Ukraine). Hence his warnings about the role of “nationalists, neo-Nazis, Russophobes, and anti-Semites” in the Ukrainian revolution, and his declaration that Crimea under Russian rule would have “three equal state languages: Russian, Ukrainian, and Crimean Tatar,” in deliberate contrast to the decree of the post-Yanukovych Ukrainian parliament that Ukrainian would be the only official language of the country (later repealed).
Of course, the Russian empire and the Soviet Union were not harmonious multicultural paradises, nor is the Russian Federation, but the ideal is still an influence in Russian thinking and policy. At the same time, Putin contradicts this simple vision in worrisome ways. A good example is how he wavers in his March speech between defining Ukrainians as a separate “people” (narod, which also means “nation”) or as part of a larger Russian nation. Until the twentieth century, very few Russians believed that Ukrainians were a nation with their own history and language, and many still question this. Putin works both sides of this argument. On the one hand, he expresses great respect for the “fraternal Ukrainian people [narod],” their “national feelings,” and “the territorial integrity of the Ukrainian state.” On the other hand, he argues that what has been happening in Ukraine “pains our hearts” because “we are not simply close neighbors but, as I have said many times already, we are truly one people [narod]. Kiev is the mother of Russian [russkie] cities. Ancient Rus is our common source and we cannot live without each other.”
Putin’s frequent use of the ethno-national term russkii for “Russian,” rather than the more political term rossiiskii, which includes everyone and anything under the Russian state, is important. Even more ominous are Putin’s suggestions about where such an understanding of history should lead. Reminding “Europeans, and especially Germans,” about how Russia “unequivocally supported the sincere, inexorable aspirations of the Germans for national unity,” he expects the West to “support the aspirations of the Russian [russkii] world, of historical Russia, to restore unity.” This suggests a vision, shaped by views of history, that goes beyond protecting minority Russian speakers in the “near-abroad.”
Putinism often tries to blend contradictory ideals—freedom and order, individual rights and the needs of state, multiethnic diversity and national unity. Dismissing these complexities as cynical masks does not help us develop reasoned responses to Putin. Most important, it does not help people in Russia working for greater freedom, rights, and justice, who are marginalized (and often repressed) when Russia feels under siege. “We have every reason to argue,” he warned in his March speech, “that the infamous policy of containing Russia, which was pursued in the 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries, continues today. They are constantly trying to sweep us into a corner.” Of course, Putin is not wrong to speak of Western arrogance toward Russia (though he is hardly a model of respect for international norms) nor to warn of the dangers of intolerant ethnic nationalism (though he looks the other way at Russia’s own “nationalists, neo-Nazis, and anti-Semites”). That he can be hypocritical and cynical does not mean his thinking and feelings are “empty,” much less that he has lost touch with reality or with the views of most Russians.
Mark D. Steinberg is Professor of History at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He is the author or editor of books on Russian popular culture, working-class poetry, the 1917 revolution, religion, and emotions. His most recent books are Petersburg Fin-de-Siecle (Yale University Press, 2011) and the eighth edition of A History of Russia, with the late Nicholas Riasanovsky, published by Oxford University Press in 2010. He is currently writing a history of the Russian Revolution.
If you're a news junkie like me, there are times when even the cornucopia of journalism available isn't enough to sate your curiosity or answer all of your questions. It's just too hard to fit the history of the Cold War or the shifting boundaries of Eastern Europe into a six-minute news segment on NPR, [...]
Russia’s annexation of the Crimean peninsula and its continuing military pressure on Ukraine demonstrates that the United Nations-centered system of international law has failed. The pressing question is not whether Russia has violated norms against aggression — it has — but how the United States and its allies should respond in a way that will strengthen the international system.
It should be clear that Russia has violated the UN Charter’s restrictions on the use of force. It has resorted to “the use of force against the territorial integrity” and “political independence” of Ukraine in violation of Article 2(4) of the Charter’s founding principles. Russia has trampled on the fundamental norm that the United States and its allies have built since the end of World War II: that nations cannot use force to change borders unilaterally.
Like the League of Nations in the interwar period, the current system of collective security has failed to maintain international peace and security in the face of great power politics. According to widely-shared understandings of the UN Charter, nations can use force only in their self-defense or when authorized by the Security Council. Great powers with permanent vetoes on the Security Council (the United States, United Kingdom, France, Russia, and China) can always block formal efforts to respond to their own uses of force. Hence, the United Nations remains as powerless now as when Vladimir Putin ordered the 2008 invasion of Georgia.
The United Nations and its rules have not reduced the level of conflict between the great powers. That doesn’t mean there has not been a steep drop in conflict, despite Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. From 1945 to the present, deaths due to great power wars have fallen to a level never seen under the modern nation-state system. Collective security, however, is not the agent of this “Long Peace,” as diplomatic historian John Lewis Gaddis has called it. Rather, the deterrent of nuclear weapons and stable superpower competition reduced conflict during the Cold War. Since the fall of the Soviet Union, the United States has continued to supply the global public goods of security and free trade on its own. Democratic nations’ commitment to maintaining that liberal international order, not the collective security of the UN Charter, has kept peace among the great powers.
As someone who worked in the Bush administration during the 2003 Iraq War, I am struck by today’s absence of criticism for Russia’s violations of international law and its effective neutering of the United Nations. About a decade ago, criticism of the United States reached unprecedented heights for its failure to win a second Security Council resolution authorizing the use of force. The United States and its allies claimed that it already had authority from Iraq’s refusals to obey its obligations at the end of the 1991 Gulf War and its continuing threat to regional peace. Some of the United States’ closest European allies, such as France and Germany, violently disagreed — although these nations seem to urge compromise today with Russia. Even though the United States went to war without Security Council authorization, it sought to build a legal case in support.
UN rules only constrain democracies that value the rule of law, while autocracies seem little troubled by legal niceties. Paralysis continues to afflict the democratic response to the invasion of Ukraine. The United States responded to the invasion of Ukraine and annexation of Crimea with the symbolic measures of sanctioning a few members of Vladimir Putin’s inner circle, kicking Moscow out of the G-8, and halting NATO-US military cooperation. Russian officials mocked the United States and raised the price of natural gas sold to Ukraine, an implicit warning to other European nations that depend on Russian natural gas. The Russian and US stock markets sighed with relief that no serious economic disruptions would follow.
Now Russian intelligence agencies are apparently fomenting unrest in eastern Ukraine and Russian troops have massed on the border. It should be clear that Putin sees Russia’s relationship with the Western democracies as one of competition, not cooperation. Putin has used the goal of restoring Russia’s great power status to win popularity at home. He has never ridden so high in domestic opinion polls as now. One response, in keeping with international law, should be to remove Russia from a position of superpower equality, which would only recognize Russia’s steep decline in military capability, its shrinking population, and its crumbling economy (which now relies on commodity prices for growth).
The United States could take the first step by terminating treaties with Russia that treat the former superpower as a current one. It can send a clear signal by withdrawing from the New START treaty, which placed both the United States and Russian nuclear arsenals under the same limits. There is no reason to impose the same ceiling of 1,550 nuclear warheads on Russia, which can no longer afford to project power beyond its region, and the United States, which has a world-wide network of alliances and broader responsibilities to ensure international stability.
Next, the United States could restore the anti-ballistic missile defense systems in Eastern Europe. Concerned about Iran’s push for ballistic missiles and nuclear weapons, the Bush administration had begun the process for deploying advanced ABM systems in Poland and the Czech Republic. As part of its effort to reset relations with Russia, the Obama administration canceled the program without any reciprocal benefits from Moscow or Iran. Re-deploying the missile defense systems would provide an important signal of American support for its NATO allies, especially those on the front lines with Russia, and raise the costs on Russia if it seeks to keep pace.
Another point where the White House should downgrade Russia’s status is in Syria. After threatening to bomb the Assad regime for using chemical weapons on the rebels, the United States leapt for a Russian to jointly oversee the destruction of Syria’s chemical arsenal. Bashar Assad has taken advantage of the withdrawal of American threats to seize the momentum in the civil war, backed up by Russian and Iranian support. The United States should not consider Russia an equal and joint partner on any matter, but certainly not on whether to allow the Assad regime and Iran to continue to destabilize the Middle East.
President Obama might even undertake a longer-lasting and more effective blow against Russia’s claims to great power status: ejecting Russia from the United Nations Security Council. Along with China, Russia has used its veto to act as the defense attorney for oppressive regimes throughout the world. Of course, the United States cannot amend the UN Charter to remove Russia from the Security Council. But it can develop an alternative to the Security Council, which has become an obstacle to the prevention of harms to international security and global human welfare. The United States could establish a new Concert of Democracies to take up the responsibility for international peace, which would pointedly exclude autocracies like Russia and China. Approval by such a Concert, made up of the world’s democracies, would convey greater legitimacy for military force and would signal that nation’s that resort to aggression to seize territory and keep their populations oppressed will not have a voice in the world’s councils.
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