War of Memories
“History is too often our present-day politics projected onto the past”
There is no way to know Russian President Vladimir Putin's mind. But the bombing of a maternity hospital in the city of Mariupol, be it a strategic blunder or hyperbolized media narrative, has outraged almost every well-meaning individual. Of course, here, one must not lose sight of the old Greek wisdom that “in every war, the first casualty is the truth.”
The media worldwide is presenting this war (call it aggression or special military operation) in all manners, from pure pedestrian stuff to the profound geopolitical story. The extended duration and kind of resistance being faced by the Russians (if true) prompts me to add another dimension, “War of Memories,” about disputed heritage and contested victimhood.
If one carefully observes Putin’s politics since he was first appointed the Russian president, one senses a strong current of memory politics, a deep sense of loss of empire and his motherland’s global power status. I wonder if Putin, having grown up in the seventies, no longer appreciates the Bolshevik ideals. Rather he idolizes leaders like Brezhnev, whose state objectives were no longer the Leninist “Increasing fusion of nationality into a New Soviet Man,” but of Czarist Russia, with the consolidation and centralization of Soviet State power burying once for all the issue of autonomy of minorities (24th Communist Party Congress). Consequently, Putin considers the Bolsheviks’ treatment of Ukraine as separate from Russia and their generous bartering of Russian land to appease non-Russian (mainly Ukrainian) minorities a historical blunder.
In today’s realpolitik, what needs to be seriously debated is this denial of Ukraine and separate Ukrainian identity irrespective of how closely the two have been interwoven through centuries.
For some, this is the manifest version of the neoconservative foreign policy of Democratization and force-fitting Nations into the New Economic Order. When the peaceful Euromaidan demonstrators refused to subside the Government used high-handed and cruel police tactics. Then suddenly, a large posse of well-built and well-armed fascist groups clad in black descended and turned an event into a violent clash with armed police, and the state machinery collapsed. Readers may recall a similar sequence of events in the agitations in Kazakhstan, which were reined in promptly, and an alleged regime change exercise failed.
The point here is that the Denazification objective of President Putin is not a figment of imagination, but a few other statements are. And that is adding a dimension of a Memory War, making the anticipated resistance harsher than expected.
On July 12, 2021, Putin published an essay “On the Historical Unity of Russians and Ukrainians”. More than a historical essay, his position paper contended that Independent Ukraine is a brainchild of the Soviet era and was, to a large extent, created at the expense of Russian land. A more significant part was that “true Ukrainian Sovereignty is possible only in partnership with the Russian state.”
It will be unwise to go into the causality of events in centuries-old relationships. The modern nations of Belarus, Russia and Ukraine all claim “Kievan Rus,” the ninth-century kingdom of Ukraine’s predecessors, as their cultural ancestor.
The project of Ukrainian nationalism was started in the late nineteenth century and picked up pace at the end of the first World War along with other Slavic communities under the Ottoman and Austro Hungarian empires calling for nationalism. Having started as a pan-Slavic movement, it soon transformed into an ethno-Slavic project. Then under Russian nationalism, the third project developed the project of Ukraine as the “Little Russian” identity both originating from the Middle Ages’ Kievan Rus and sharing a common religion (Orthodox Christianity) and language (Old Church Slavonic).
However, through aggressions, the territory of Ukraine was constantly being divided and changing hands. The Galician Ukrainians under the Austrian empire experienced “the emergence of modern democratic culture”. Despite Ethnic differences, there was limited accountability and semblance of the rule of law. So a Slavic complainant with a ragtag appearance got a hearing, and justice where due. There was a free job market for the craftsman. Working abroad was possible, and many Ukrainians could travel westwards and work in the Industrializing west. It is interesting to note that remittances to Galician Ukraine were USD 9 billion at their peak.
Even in the Second World War memories, occupation under German and Russian power in Ukrainian memory was far outweighed by the Russians, and the experiences of Soviet Authorities while withdrawing - not acting as a native Government but a conqueror, who employs scorched earth policy so that the invading party finds the area entirely unfit for habitation - left deep antagonistic feeling.
The two years of German occupation were devoid of paranoia of being watched, being drafted into the army against their wishes and no looting while retreating.
The Ukrainian Nationalist movements cleverly helped these individual memories coalesce into a strong Ukrainian identity. Discrimination by Moscow’s elite and attempts at Russification further augmented the Otherness of Russians and Russia. Memory adapts itself with time. Older and more general memories shed their specifics and get simplified and fuse into the prevailing broader narrative.
The Ukrainian Elite used memories cleverly to make the newly formed nation a ploy in the Neo-Con game plan of Global Dominance. And the more painful historical irony has been to appropriate without appreciating the sizeable benefit in terms of Social and Industrial development during its 70 years as part of the Socialist experiment. Just two glaring examples are the energy infrastructure of Fifteen Nuclear Reactors that helps the country export energy, and the many quality Educational Institutes where thousands of international students study.
Such memory politics may proliferate in the present Unipolar World. A close look at the 35 absentee countries during the UN General Assembly may give clues for future hot spots.