Saturday, May 9, 2015

V-Day Meditations: Russia's Invincibility and the Permanence of War


A banner affixed to one of the buildings in the city of Kaluga in anticipation of the V-Day celebrations reads: "Today, it's Crimea, Tomorrow, it's Rome" (Сегодня Крым, завтра - Рим). In Russian Crimea and Rome rhyme nicely, in "I like Ike" sort of way, lending the idea of Russia's invincibility a matter-of-fact air. The airwaves are filled with the same sentiment. The grandiose parade in the Red Square commemorating the seventieth anniversary of the V-Day is meant to supply the Kaluga jingoistic jingle with a visually compelling objective correlative, notwithstanding the new tank breaking down on the parade grounds the other day. But like all myths, the myth of Russia's invincibility, does not stand scrutiny. The actual record is mixed or worse.
      The so-called Mongol-Tatar Yoke hung over neck of Ancient Rus for over 200 years before the hordes were either vanquished or, as evidence suggests, decamped to deal with their own internal problems (1480). During the Time of Troubles 1598-1613), Polish forces, even though eventually chased away, occupied Moscow. After sweeping across Europe, Napoleon was defeated, too, but not before he occupied and burned down Moscow in 1812. Russia lost the Crimean War (1856), lost in the Far East to Japan in 1903-05, and, by all accounts, Russia was a loser in WWI, her defeat overshadowed by and prompting the Russian revolution. Soviet Russia, a.k.a. USSR, lost territory in its war with Poland in 1920, an outcome that stopped the spread of the Bolshevik revolution further West. The war with Finland in 1939 looks more like a pyrrhic victory, if not a defeat, given the Soviet's catastrophically disproportionate losses. The victory in WWII came at the mind-boggling cost in life (16% of the entire population of the victorious USSR, compared to Germany's, the defeated agressor, 12%), not to mention the incalculable treasure, and near-complete devastation of the Soviet territory west of Moscow.
     More recently, in the nuclear age, when wars between major powers became unthinkable, Russia competed with the West in the so-called cold war. The acceptance of the concept of the mutually-assured destruction, made a hot war -- "the last and decisive battle in the words of the International"-- impossible. Because of this, the contest was held in the sphere of "peaceful coexistence," that is, science and technology, third-world proxy wars, and, most important, production and consumption of consumer goods. USSR was sure to win this war, because History, pace Karl Marx and Soviet ideology, was on its side. Nikita Khrushchev took Soviet Marxist gospel at face value, and thought Soviet Union to be the proverbial "gravedigger of History." Sputnik worked its magic., too, and in 1956, eleven years after the V-Day, Khrushchev was bold enough to declare to the country's former allies: "We will bury you!" Soviet economists, anxious to please their boss, projected the post-war growth figures into the not so distant future, showing that the USSR was to "catch up with and overtake the United States" in a couple of decades. Victory was within the reach of a single generation. As we know, the Soviet Union lost that war, too, and not through some battle-field contest or because it lacked tanks or ICBMs, but by imploding from within the unsustainable structure it had itself built. 
      But the foreign engagements aside, there has been another war -- an endless one -- that Russia seems to have been fighting with itself. In the 16th century Ivan the Terrible pretty much exterminated the Russian high nobility, in the process eliminating a check on his autocratic powers and laying waste to the whole country. Following the reforms of Peter the Great, the Russian educated elite fought, mostly with the pen and the printing press, on occasion violently, against the autocratic state, until the autocracy imploded and was bloodlessly overthrown in February 1917. What happened next was a Bolshevik coup d'état, followed by the shattering civil war of 1918-21. A decade later, before the wounds had the time to heal, the Russians resumed their "civil war" during the Stalin collectivization of agriculture and later in the Great Terror, with devastating consequences for the nation. Whatever the exact math, the numbers of victims of Bolshevism and the Nazi Wehmacht appear to be comparable (see, e.g., The Black Book of Communism). But the effect of Stalinism on the nation's moral fibre, its talent pool, its dignity, its political culture, would last for generations. Despite the perestroika, the freedoms the Russians have been enjoying since the collapse of communism, these effects have persisted, witness public attempts to resurrect the cult of Stalin (a bust of Stalin was recently installed in the city of Lipetsk and quickly defaced).
     Fast-forward to August 1991, the Russians, it seemed, won against their Communist party-state, the machine that Stalin built. Yet, with the fits and starts under Yeltsin, Russia's cold civil war proceeded apace, at times spilling into violence, as it did in the anti-Yeltsin revolt in 1993 or the well-publicized government raids on misbehaving oligarchs, or a string of assassinations of political and media figures from Vlad Listyev to Anna Politkovskaja, to, most recently, Boris Nemtsov. Today, it is increasingly clear that the Leviathan of the Russian State (pace Hobbs and Andrey Zvyagintsev's brilliant film) - has gained the upper hand over the opposing voices in Russia's educated society. This "Leviathan" state, flaunting the quasi-divine sanction granted it by the Russian Orthodox Church, wrapped in the flag of the Victory in the Great Patriotic War, now refers to its internal opposition as the "Fifth column" (Vladimir Putin's March 18, 2014, "Crimea Speech"). Resorting to this archetype of war-time rhetoric, President Putin is holding an explicit threat over the heads of the dissenting professional classes, in effect, promising to unleash the "people's wrath" against them, should they continue questioning the legitimacy of what is by all accounts a monumentally corrupt and, even worse, incompetent state. Plenty of resources, unconventional by the old Soviet standards, seem to be available to Russia's long-time president, from the seasoned praetorian guard of the Chechen leader Ahmet Kadyrov that numbers in the thousands to the organized urban toughs, like the Night Wolves Bike club of which President Putin seems to be the honorary member.
      And so the internal cold war between the Russian state and its own Russian educated elite continues unabated, while the "silent majority," whose brain is wired to the state-controlled TV, continues to support the new tsar and grumble at the "national traitors" (национал-предатели - Putin's own, German-inflected coinage from the "Crimea" speech of March 18, 2014).
      How long this chapter in Russia's cold civil war will last and how it will end is an open question. In the meantime, dissenting voices continue to be heard, even as Putin's trick war with Ukraine has unleashed forces so dark that the Russian Leviathan, puffed up as it is, may be too fragile to handle.

Berkeley-Paris, January-May 2015

No comments:

Post a Comment