James Meek writes: The Russians and Ukrainians of the 1990s were able to temper regret at the collapse of the USSR with their own knowledge of the dismembered country’s shortcomings. A generation later, this is less and less the case. Many of the most articulate and thoughtful Russians and Ukrainians, those of middle age who knew the realities of Soviet life and later prospered in the post-Soviet world, have moved abroad, gone into a small business or been intimidated: in any case they have been taken out of the political arena. In Russia and Russophone Ukraine the stage is left to neo-Soviet populists who propagate the false notion of the USSR as a paradisiac Russian-speaking commonwealth, benignly ruled from Moscow, a natural continuum of the tsarist empire, disturbed only by Nazi invaders to whom ‘the west’ are heirs and the only obstacle to its re-creation. If you were born after 1985 you have no remembered reality to measure against this false vision, just as you have no way to situate those charming Soviet musical comedies of the 1960s and 1970s, idyllic portrayals of an idealised Russophone socialism, brightly coloured and fun, propaganda now in a way they weren’t when they were made. This is the context that has made it possible for Vladimir Putin and his government to sell Russia’s opportunistic invasion of Ukraine to his own people and to Ukrainian neo-Soviets: the idea that it undoes what should never have been done, an artificial division of Russian-speaking Eurasia by fascists/the West/America/rabid Ukrainian nationalists – in neo-Soviet discourse, avatars of a single anti-Russian monster.
The truth is that Russia and Ukraine have been reunited for a long time, in a corrupt mosaic dominated by Moscow. Putin didn’t begin invading Ukraine to bring it back into the fold but to stop it escaping. He established a patriarchal-oligarchic police state in Russia; the now universally despised Ukrainian president-in-exile, Viktor Yanukovich, was well on his way to establishing one in Ukraine; the leaders of Belarus and the Central Asian republics have established similar repressive polities. Russophone Ukrainians have real fears about Ukraine’s new leaders. Putin’s great fear is that the people of a future better Ukraine might inspire an entirely different unification with their East Slav brethren on his side of the border – a common cause of popular revolt against him and other leaders like him. The revolution on Maidan Nezalezhnosti – Independence Square in Ukrainian – is the closest yet to a script for his own downfall. In that sense the invasion is a counter-revolution by Putin and his government against Russians and Ukrainians alike – against East Slav resistance as a whole.
The Maidan revolution wasn’t a purely ethnic Ukrainian uprising, although ethnic Ukrainians seem to have taken the lead in storming police lines. In the week I spent in Kiev in the immediate aftermath of the revolt I met no one who objected to my speaking Russian. On Maidan there are ethnic Russians speaking Ukrainian and ethnic Ukrainians speaking Russian. In one of the sagging khaki tents pitched on the square I met Vladimir Malyshev, a 44-year-old from St Petersburg, who came to the city to join the demonstrations late last year after a period spent in the anti-Putin movement in Russia. ‘It’s the one form of struggle that seems possible against the particular kind of power that’s appeared in the post-Soviet space: these gangs of criminals and bandits – they can be fought by gathering a large enough group of people to defy them. You can’t bribe or destroy this force. My experience here confirmed that this was possible. It happened.’ [Continue reading…]