Continued. Read Part I of the article here
By Gaither Stewart
Since all of history, opaque and ambivalent, is open to revision, I have come to believe that Soviet Communism, including Stalinism will also be reassessed (fact is, it IS being reassessed). If we bother to look and truly see through the hype and brainwash, history is there to remind us that Stalinism and Soviet nationalism were also Russia’s response to western encirclement and various forms of warfare since the Revolution. So Russia’s reactions today are not surprising, as America continues to encircle it and push back its borders, with US-NATO military bases in Turkey, Iraq, Kosovo, Georgia, Italy, Germany, Poland and elsewhere, the infamous and useless missile shield, and is now trying to engulf Ukraine, something like New England to the United States.
4. The German nomad poet Rainer Maria Rilke called two places his home: Bohemia where he was born and the Russia he came to love. He spent years studying the language and Russian history and translating Dostoevsky and Chekhov into German. The Russia he knew was of before the Revolution that he did not support. Still, I understand the rootless poet’s remark to Leonid Pasternak (the painter and father of Nobel writer and poet Boris Pasternak) concerning his love for Old Russia: “What do I owe Russia? It made me what I became … all my deepest roots are there …. But even if we don’t live to see it at its resurrection, the profound, the real, the other surviving Russia has only fallen back on her secret system, as she did before, under the Tatar yoke; who could doubt that she is still there and is gathering her forces in that dark place, invisible to her own children, moving leisurely with her own slowness on to a possibly still-remote future?”
Recognition of that secret strength, appreciation of the Russian world outlook and the international aspect of the Russian Revolution are essential to understanding the revolution’s success and grasping the significance of Soviet Communist Internationalism and the slogan Workers of the world unite. Lenin warned that without proletarian socialist revolutions in West Europe the Russian Revolution was doomed to defeat by capitalist counter-revolution. Originally Russian revolutionaries led by Trotsky and Lenin had no illusions that a revolution in Russia alone could succeed: permanent and international revolution was the key to victory. Trotsky and Lenin had to have in mind the world outlook inherent in Russians.
At the heart of Russian Communist Internationalism lies an age-old and very Russian idea: all-human brotherhood. I think no understanding of Russia and Russian Communism is possible without an awareness of that aspect. Actually Russians are Europeans too, except they are more cosmopolitan than most, certainly much more cosmopolitan than inward-looking Americans.
Dostoevsky was the very embodiment of the Russian concept of all-human brotherhood (vsyechelovechnost)
In fact, until the great wars of the Twentieth century nationalism was largely foreign to Russian mentality. Nicolas Berdyaev, existentialist thinker and prolific writer, who broke with Marxism and Bolshevism and left Russia for West Europe in 1922, wrote that Russian Communism was actually the transformation and deformation of the old Russian messianic idea of international brotherhood (not to be confused with America’s religious missionary fixation!), and in that sense a reflection of the Russian religious mind. Even if history has demonstrated again and again that the Russian idea of universal brotherhood is utopian, Berdyaev insisted that Soviet Internationalism derived from that ancient, deep-seated Russian idea.
Communism and religion! The theme returns again and again. It must when speaking of Russia! The cornerstone of Russian ethics was traditionally charity, which Russians do not confuse with justice as in Anglo-Saxon ethics. In Russian eschatology Christ’s return at the end of all things is not a judgment but the fulfillment of the world to come—the new, third world. Traditionally Russians sought personal salvation in repentance and a moral life in which the dominant ethical attitude was charity and the brotherhood of all men.
Russia’s major poet after Pushkin, Aleksandr Blok, wrote his greatest poem, Dvenadtsat’ (The Twelve, 1918) about the Russian Revolution. In the first winter of Bolshevik Russia a band of twelve Red guardsmen, apostles of destruction (and renewal), march through the icy streets of Petrograd, looting and killing. They are led by a Christ figure, “crowned with a crown of snowflake pearls, / a flowery diadem of frost,” who appears beneath a red flag. The poem sold some two million copies in three years, was on the Vatican index and was long banned in Fascist countries.
For the Russian masses, who welcomed the revolution, Communism as such was something Western, imposed upon the people’s revolution by the Communist Party, which after years of chaos succeeded in disciplining and organizing in its elemental force the nihilistic masses. In the early years of the revolution there was a legend about Bolshevism and Communism: Bolshevism was the revolution of the Russian masses, “Communism”, something foreign.
It has often been said that one reason for Bolshevism’s success in harnessing the Revolution is that Russians are a people but not a nation. The author and religious thinker Vladimir Weidle in fact lamented the “dismaying abyss between upper-class culture and the culture of the people.” The state symbolized by Orthodoxy and the double-headed eagle was always distant from the people, while their Tsar was a godlike “Little Father”, a minor divinity to this unruly people. Stalin understood this well and became the hard and unyielding Vozhd-Leader and Little Father.
5. Europeanized Russians, the Westernizers in opposition to the Slavophiles, never had a love affair with the Russian people. Though the early generation of Marxist intellectuals, nearly all Westernizers, considered the masses an obstacle to the new society they wanted to create, they nonetheless shared with the people a rejection of bourgeois Liberalism, a feeling for the boundlessness of the great land and an awareness of its majesty. Years earlier Tolstoy had reflected popular abhorrence for bourgeois Liberals: “I sit on a man’s back, choking him and making him carry me, and yet assure myself and others that I am very sorry for him and wish to ease his lot by all possible means, except by getting off his back.” Such thinking is naturally terrifying to bourgeois capitalism.
Soviet Communism in this sense came to resemble the Great Russian nationalism of the Tsars. Thus it was an easy and obligatory step for Soviet Russia to become something different than the original revolutionaries imagined. Nationalism! Resistance against foreign intervention. Socialism in one country. Naturally, this was also somewhat inevitable given the all-out hostility exhibited by the Western powers toward the new system.
Today one can also compare more clearly Soviet Russia and modern Russia. One suspects that beneath the cynicism of today’s leaders and the greed of the new rich still beats another rhythm, a human Russian rhythm, generous and different from egotistic and self-seeking Europe. For the land is deep within Russian guts. Despite the capitalist corporatist stamp he has put on modern Russia, authoritarian Putin is still very Russian! Some things return, others remain intact—the renewed colors of the city of Moscow of two centuries ago—rose, red, yellow, blue, ochre … and the green roofs. Yet, something is still not right—there is a kind of uncertainty or risk in the air, the absence of the sense of security the Tsarist and Soviet states guaranteed. When considering Russia you have the feeling that anything can happen from one moment to the next. I think the uncertainty, again as in post-revolutionary Russia, has to do with American encirclement and Russians’ concern that their government can handle it.
Some personal impressions of perestroika times as a journalist in Moscow reflect the spirit of this land that is easy to love. You feel magnified by the great Russian language all around you. You feel its dignity. A Russian once reminded me of the dichotomy of the Russian language—the simultaneous hope and the terror people speaking the language had caused in the world—on one hand the hope Communism offered the oppressed and the disillusionment of its tragic ultimate reality. Yet, you feel the differentness of Russia. You begin to grasp the Russian world outlook, an appreciation for the idea of Mother Russia and the facility of genuine patriotism for this enormous territory, which for Russians is a world. Though it is a truism that politics is everywhere primary, causes are often empty. Though Stalin proved—with plenty of help from the West’s machnations, that utopia contains its own dystopia, sometimes today it seems it never took place. Yet only a short generation ago Russians still felt Stalin. His ghost still lived. Something in the air smacked of old times, Stalinist times and further back. You come to realize that not everything is the fault of one side or the other. One side was not all white and the other all black.
6. When you consider the encirclement of Russia today, the Ukrainian question returns. Ukraine is a potential threat to New Russia and its authoritarian corporatist model. Ukraine is a threat to US-Russian relations in general. Ukraine’s apparent choice for the West in the State Department-abetted bourgeois “Orange Revolution” of 2004-2005 again sharpened the tensions between Russia and the West. How would economic success of a western-oriented, neo-liberal Ukraine affect Russians, leaders in Moscow wondered? What if the Russian people wanted to follow the Ukrainian example?
With fifty million inhabitants, Ukraine is the France of the East. Therefore, where Europe ends in the east is not just a rhetorical question: since 1991 Europe and the USA have steadily pushed the eastern borders right up to the frontiers of Russia. A weakened post-Soviet Russia was unable to stop that advance. Not only the ex-Soviet satellite countries in East Europe from Bulgaria to Poland changed sides, but also parts of the USSR itself, with their rightwing, nationalist segments reactivated—Lithuania, Estonia, Latvia and Ukraine—turned toward West Europe.
But Ukraine is a different matter. Ukraine was the cradle of Russia, the center of the first Slavic state, Kievan Rus. Western emotions about the new-old country of Ukraine are as confused as those of the Ukrainian people themselves, forever divided between East and West. They too are a big people with a desire to decide their own fate, a fate that has led them down disastrous paths in their long history. The major problem has been their two souls. Their eastern soul has held them close to their big brothers, the Great Russians; their western soul led desperate and rabid nationalists to close collaboration with Nazi Germany against Soviet Russia. Ukraine’s western soul—the representation of re-energized upper-class interests– aspires to become part of capitalist Europe; its eastern soul prefers a privileged relationship with Russia.
In 2004 the “Orange Revolution” swept pro-western reformists into power in Ukraine
A year later the Kremlin’s candidate won out in the country’s first free parliamentary elections and became Prime Minister. The elections were the confirmation of the traditional division of the country between East and West. Ancient divisions stall all efforts at the formation of a unified nation.
Lying at the crossroads between Europe and Russia, Ukraine is marked by three powerful currents: the linguistic, historical, pro-Russian soul; the nostalgic, big nation, central planning, pro-Soviet soul; and a vaguely democratic, capitalist, neo-liberal pro-western soul. Yet, for many Russians and Ukrainians, the two peoples are nearly one and Ukrainians are often referred to as “Little Russians.”
The rapid move westwards of big and powerful Ukraine justifiably alarmed Russia. In the 1990s, Ukraine contributed troops to “peacekeeping” operations in Kosovo. It sent troops to Iraq. For Moscow the Ukrainian announcement in May 2002 of its intention to seek membership in United Europe, NATO and WTO was the last straw.
Western Ukraine has close historical ties with Europe, particularly with Poland. Ukrainian nationalist sentiment has always been strongest in the westernmost parts of the country, which became part of Ukraine only when the Soviet Union expanded after World War II.
The Eastern Ukraine is a different story. During the 10th and 11th centuries Kievan Russia was the largest state in Europe, The cultural and religious legacy of Kievan Rus laid the foundation for Ukrainian nationalism. In the late 18th century, Russia absorbed Ukrainian territory. Following the collapse of Tsarist Russia in 1917, Ukraine had a short-lived period of independence (1917-20), before it was re-conquered and absorbed into the Soviet Union. A significant minority of the population of Ukraine are Russians or use Russian as their first language. Russian influence is particularly strong in the industrialized east of the country, where the Russian Orthodox religion is predominant.
The Ukrainian Republic was the most important economic component of the former Soviet Union after Russia itself. After independence in December 1991, Ukraine initiated privatization but resistance within the government itself blocked reforms. By 1999 industrial output fell to less than 40% of the 1991 level. Ukraine’s dependence on Russia for energy supplies and the lack of structural reform make its economy vulnerable. Though the post-Communist era seemed closed, the change was illusory. The coalition government has its ups and downs, marked by disastrous economic policies, corruption and the gas war with Russia. At the same time, Russia remains Ukraine’s largest trading partner and the East and South of the nation prefer Russia to the West. Ukraine’s impulse toward the West has slowed. Though it cannot reasonably choose between the West and Russia because it assumes it needs both, in the contest between Russia on one hand and Europe-USA on the other, I believe Moscow in a fair battle will always win.
Russia had retreated from West Europe for fifty years. Now with its gas as a weapon its retreat has ended. Since much of Europe’s economic future depends on Russia’s gas, European efforts at “democratizing” Russia have stopped. Only friendly relations count. Europe can no longer push hard for Ukrainian “democracy.” But America can and does. Pushy, abrasive, arrogant US foreign policy accounts for Ukraine’s hesitancy. For Russia, a Ukraine in the camp of the USA would be like Canada suddenly taking control of New England, or Mexico taking over Texas.
America can flail and threaten and push and pull, but that will not stop Russians. They are back to stay.
European Union support for Ukraine’s membership in the WTO and a show of respect for the democratic choice of the Ukrainian people ring friendly and cooperative—to western-oriented Ukrainians. To Russia and eastward-looking Ukrainians it sounds threatening, with an underlying note of economic blackmail. In reaction, Russia supports pro-Russian political leaders who threaten revolt by the eastern and southern parts of the Ukraine, while Russia can either cut off Ukraine’s gas supply or raise its price.
Thus, the question of where the West ends and Russia begins is not unimportant for the rest of the world. Russia is again a global actor. Alongside India and China, Russia has assumed a protagonist role. Much of the empire is gone but Russia’s aspirations—and raw power—remain. Today Russia, however reluctantly, is showing its muscles in a game of hazards and risks and maneuvers reminiscent of Cold War brinkmanship. Moscow has tried negotiating with Iran on the nuclear issue. It mediates with Hamas in Palestine.
A strong Russia worries Washington (not that difficult when we consider the US ruling class has responded in a notoriously thin-skinned and paranoid way to any “threats” to its overwhelming superiority), less so Europe. In fact, a strong Russia to counter uncontrollable American unilateralism appeals to much of the world: Cold War at low risk is better than America’s hot war in Iraq or its nuclear threats launched at Iran, and who knows who else. On the other hand, a weak Russia is a danger for the world’s balance of power. The disappearance of the USSR paved the way for “pre-emptive war America”, its hands free to strike when and where it liked. America is never friendlier with Russia than when it is divided and poor, its economy in shambles, its empire dismantled.
Washington cannot control China or India. Nor in the end can it contain Russia.
7. Nonetheless the encirclement of Russia continues. Turkey is an old story, but last spring NATO’s new ally, Bulgaria, agreed to host three US military bases for 2500 American troops, the first time in the 1325 years of its history that foreign troops are stationed in Bulgaria. The heart of the agreement is that American soldiers can be sent from Bulgaria to third countries without specific permission from Bulgaria. And now the Czech Republic has agreed to host missile shield sites. Less than principled ideological agreements, these are forms of diplomatic prostitution between opportunistic political bureaucrats representing eviscerated states and a Washington crew myopically bent on supremacy over its former foe at any cost.
Bulgaria and Czech Republic and Georgia and Kosovo as links in the chain around Russia are emblematic of the nearly incalculable extent of the U.S. global empire, all of which frightens and irritates Russia. According to the US Department of Defense there are seven hundred U.S. military locations in foreign countries; the true number is estimated at 1,000. According to the Department of Defense the USA has troops in 135 of the world’s 192 countries. The Pentagon has even turned much of Italy into a gigantic strategic base, a permanent super-carrier in the underbelly of Europe. It is hard to know just how many troops are stationed abroad. Statistics vary of America’s true military strength, as they vary for most powers. Secrecy rules. Officially the U.S. has about 1,500,000 troops, approximately 250,000 abroad. But the number of those abroad might be much higher because of secrecy. Nor do we know what kind of forces they are: regular troops, CIA troops or “beyond the law” special forces and mercenaries. And although such meddlesome power is certainly paid for with American treasury, it is by no means subject to democratic review and control. In fact, foreigners—including Russians—understand far better what we are up to around the world than Americans themselves.
Gaither Stewart is Cyrano’s journal’s European correspondent based in Rome. A longtime admirer and student of slavonic cultures, he maintains a particular interest in the developments affecting Russia after the overthrow of communism.