The Ukrainians and Russians are divided not only by borders, but also by myths which have been imposed by imperial propaganda. Grad launchers and tanks, occupied territories of the Donbas and Crimea have shown clearly that there can be no “brotherly friendship” with an invader who thinks only in categories of conquests, influence, and expansion. However, the Kremlin-created distorting mirror of history still deceives many, including those who call themselves Russian intellectuals and even liberals. The Day discussed with Russian historian Taras Orlyonok the nature of the Russian intellectual, the history “according to the Kremlin” and how the Russians see Vladimir Putin.
“THE CURRENT RULERS OF THE RUSSIAN FEDERATION IGNORE ANY REALITY THAT DOES NOT FIT IN THEIR HEADS”
His Beatitude Lubomyr Husar once said about the relations between the Russians and Ukrainians: “They say that we are ‘brotherly peoples.’ Well, how is Ivan the Terrible my brother or Catherine II my sister? The same applies to Peter I... We must know the history and have no illusions about some utopian ‘one people.’ Do we need to be good neighbors? Yes, but nothing more.” Still, do you believe the Russians and Ukrainians to be brothers or just neighbors who cannot escape each other?
“I do not really understand how ‘peoples’ could be brothers at all. The English fought the US, and Prussia fought Austria-Hungary. Speaking of the Slavs, it is sufficient to look at the events in Yugoslavia in the 1990s. The so-called Slavic brotherhood was actively promoted by Russian Panslavists and Slavophiles back in their time. Where did it lead? Bulgaria fought against the Russian Empire and the USSR in two World Wars. What brotherhood can we talk about, then? The history of Polish-Russian relations in all their incarnations speaks for itself. Also, I would like to quote a Russian army commander in the Turkish war of 1877-78. ‘It is dreams of our Panslavists that have drawn us into this war. Liberating Christians from the Ottoman yoke is a chimera. Bulgarians live more prosperously and happier than Russian peasants; their sincere desire is to get the liberators to leave the country as soon as possible,’ Commander-in-Chief General Eduard Totleben remarked. It is people who belong to the same family by blood or by marriage who can be brothers; moreover, we live in a time when there are so many local communities and people communicate on many levels. Nations, meanwhile, act because of their pragmatic interests, agreements, and cooperation – or lack thereof. What cooperation can one talk about now, after the Crimean Anschluss and the creation of the ‘people’s republics’? The neighborly relations are possible, but nothing more, clearly.”
Recently, Putin said at a meeting with French President Emmanuel Macron that Anne of Kiev was a Russian princess, thus effectively “appropriating” her name to the history of the Russian state. What is your take on this incident? She came from Kyiv, after all.
“Modern Russian historians, like their Soviet and imperial predecessors, consider the Rurikid line as running continuously through Moscow, and consider Kyiv a Russian city subject to the Moscow center. However, there was no Moscow whatsoever in the times of Anne of Kiev. The very ethnogenesis of the Moscow State (Principality, Tsardom) started later and the Slavs were only one component part of it. By the time of Ivan the Terrible, it was already quite a multiethnic Babylon. Still, both Putin and Russian imperial historians consider Ukraine not a real nation, but rather an artificially created entity, ignoring the fact that Zinaida Gippius already described huge rallies in support of the independence of Ukraine in St. Petersburg (1917, if I am not mistaken), the arrival of a separate Ukrainian delegation to the Brest-Litovsk peace negotiations in 1918, exploits of Nikifor Grigoriev, Nestor Makhno, and others. Meanwhile, the current rulers of Russia ignore any reality that does not fit into their heads, and live the imperial myth.”
“THE RUSSIAN ORTHODOXY WAS GROWING LESS AND LESS CHRISTIAN”
Edvard Radzinsky wrote the book Stalin some time ago, where the dictator was seemingly portrayed without bias, but the text still emanated its author’s (who is supposedly a liberal) sympathy for the protagonist. A playwright said back in the 1980s, when Stalin was being denounced especially strongly by the Democrats, that his portraits would reappear in the streets after a while. Why do the Russians long for a strongman?
“History explains it all. Indeed, the dictatorship was not only imposed from above, as people sought authoritarianism to some extent too. After all, authoritarianism also offers stability, clarity, and a certain degree of security for a certain part of society. Despite the fact that the Communist Party leaders were not always ethnic Russians, they essentially became part of this common imperial mentality.”
“We are free to show mercy to our slaves, and we are also free to execute them,” wrote the Muscovite Tsar Ivan the Terrible, who was also not quite Russian by blood.
“As a result of that, the Russian intelligentsia, apart from emigres, also became essentially socialist. By the 1970s, this intelligentsia came to support chauvinism, xenophobia, imperialism. Even speaking of matters of faith, the Russian orthodoxy was growing less and less Christian, thus becoming what is called today the Russian Orthodox Church. Finally, we now have a social stratum that calls itself the Russian intellectuals while armed with a whole array of imperialist ideas. Aleksandr Dugin is a striking example of this. These people are not sticking to literature or journalism alone. Public speeches, TV shows, demotivators posted on various social networks online – all this furthers a very specific ideology of greatness of the nation, its superiority and so on.”
How much do the Russians equate Putin with Joseph Stalin at the moment? The feeling is that just like Stalin built the Lenin Mausoleum, where the latter served as a “God-man,” who had entrusted the dictator with his powers, Putin has built a sort of virtual “mausoleum” for Stalin.
“It looks so. I will add, however, that the most stubborn Stalinist nationalists constantly condemn Putin for his softness.”
That is, they are eager for repression.
One cannot help but remember Sergei Dovlatov’s saying “We endlessly and, of course, rightly condemn Comrade Stalin. And yet I would like to ask: who wrote four million denunciations?”
“Yes, they want executions, want to move pariah peoples away and suppress opponents by any means.”
I remember a beggar in Luhansk who believed that Stalin deported the Chechens and Crimean Tatars “for a good reason.” It is such a fanatical logic, based on refined cynicism and chauvinism.
“These beggars have not disappeared. The historic layer of the empire and Stalinism have not gone away, they have just synthesized. The imperial myth is timeless, so it wanders from era to era, finding grateful supporters among new generations. Many people do not see much difference between Peter I, Stalin, and Putin.”
“PUTIN FEELS HIMSELF TO BE A LIVING GOD, AND BELIEVES HIS AUTHORITY TO BE SACRED...”
There was a case when Putin drove through the streets of Moscow, and all the TV channels showed that the route was totally people-free. The satirist Mikhail Zhvanetsky dared to joke then that Moscow was like a woman who made up her face while standing before the mirror in the morning... only to go home. So, is there a sense that a gap exists between the myth of Putin and the real Putin in Russian consciousness? If so, the gap will sooner or later lead to disappointment...
“Lenin did not travel across the country, Stalin also avoided travel after he became the all-powerful general secretary. Capabilities of the head of state’s protection detail have expanded, so Putin definitely travels more. However, he is guarded very closely, to say the least. Therefore, this barrier between the president and the people is felt. I have to say, however, that it was the same under Boris Yeltsin, with snipers on rooftops. Putin went to his most recent inauguration through streets of Moscow which had been completely cleared from people, acting as a sort of triumphator; incidentally, the progress of Stalin’s body through the city’s streets in 1953 looked the same. Judging by his words about Mahatma Gandhi, he already feels himself to be a living god and believes his authority to be sacred, hence such an attitude to ‘the masses,’ ‘the mob.’ Often enough, many people do not have anything against it, and I have read messages on a regional security forces discussion board where they call Putin ‘the Dad.’ The father, the head of the traditional Russian peasant big family, the so-called bolshak (compare with the Bolshevik) is seen as the all-father, and Russian emperors felt about the same when defining their relationship with the country. For immediate descendants of peasants who now live in cities (urbanization lasted for the whole of the 20th century and ended just now more or less), patriarchal relations are taken for granted. Meanwhile, the thoroughly urbanized and differentiated population of large cities is unenthusiastic about such a relationship model, to put it mildly, as these are often pragmatists, realists, and business-minded people.”
Does this distance between Putin and the public contribute to impairing or improving his public image?
“His entire PR machine responds accurately to the public demand. That is, the image is formed not so much by the person of Putin, but rather depends on what the Russians want to see Putin like. The Russian propaganda has long surpassed the Soviet Agitprop and Goebbels’s efforts. The Kremlin Agitprop 2.0 is unusually sophisticated and diverse. It should be said that the West is absolutely unprepared for war on this information front.”
“RUSSIAN INTELLECTUALS ARE OFTEN IMPERIALISTS”
I remember two old photos of Putin. In one, he looks like a profiteer or racketeer and wears a characteristic jacket with a purse, while the other shows him carrying Anatoly Sobchak’s portfolio. Is he really the monster which he looks like now?
“Putin is not a monster, but the system behind Putin is. Putin is a product of this system, its flesh and blood. It is especially so since we should not forget that Putin’s KGB training focused on working abroad, where he eventually served for some time. As for Putin as the nation’s president, it should be understood that the power mechanism involves a very special logic. It is different from the everyday one. This is what power is based on – the image of the leader, his inaccessibility which comes with alleged friendliness. But those in power, including the old Soviet revolutionaries, were ready to commit any abomination in the name of expediency. Thus, there is a totally different morality at work here.”
Or its absence...
“At the same time, Putin has incorporated certain prejudices common to the intelligentsia of his formative time. By the way, the KGB began to accept Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn at some point.”
He was a true imperialist.
“Yes. We can say that he fit into the imperial system well, just like the liberal Pavel Milyukov back in his time, who was one of the leaders of the February 1917 revolution, but also a Slavophile and a supporter of unification of all the Slavs. He said in 1939 that he was sorry for the Finns, but Russia needed the Vyborg Governorate. And he was a liberal! The aim of the empire is to enslave people under the guise of unification or create ulcers such as the Donbas ‘people’s republics,’ Transnistria, Abkhazia or South Ossetia. It is important for them to make these ulcers as numerous as possible, because it allows the empire to keep neighboring nations in a state of tension.”
It is a paradox. Solzhenitsyn survived Gulag, wrote the fundamental study The Gulag Archipelago and the naturalistic short story One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich and still remained essentially an imperialist. The question is, did Russia ever have an intelligentsia at all? After all, the word intelligentsia comes from intelligence, that is, intellect. And intellect is, above all, about having a critical mind. Even philosophy relies on the principle of doubt. Why, then, did these intellectuals become in fact the creators of myths, not knowledge?
“With the annexation of Crimea serving as a backdrop, many intellectuals and liberals have revealed their true selves. I can say that I have banned many of them from my social network accounts. Unfortunately, Russian intellectuals are often imperialists, and exceptions are very few. Russia learns history using Soviet textbooks, which are essentially about mythology, not history. The French Revolution was not done by ivory-tower dreamers, since along with theorists, its governments included financiers and lawyers, that is, ‘people of action and business.’ In Russia, the problem was that the intellectual clubs usually spurned business-minded people. Thus, the Russian intellectuals created the image of the ideal state in their heads. The Soviet utopia was just such a virtual project which had little to do with reality. They thought they moved the history forward with their ideas, but it turned out to be actually an illusion. These illusions are still going just as strong in the Russian society.”
“THE RUSSIAN ELITES DID NOT CONSIDER UKRAINE A NATION OF ITS OWN THEN, AND DO NOT CONSIDER IT SUCH NOW AS WELL”
I visited Moscow and Rostov in 2004 on the eve of the Orange Revolution. Surprisingly, a few Russians approached us both in Moscow and Rostov where we took part in exhibitions, and advised that we should vote for Viktor Yanukovych, claiming that Viktor Yushchenko was a US agent. As a reminder, it was during the Beslan tragedy. The bombing at the Rizhskaya Metro Station in Moscow was also in recent memory then. It stood to reason that the Russians’ minds should have been occupied by these tragedies, not the Ukrainian voting advice. Moreover, they completely refused to believe that Yanukovych had been convicted several times. Where did this didactic tone come from? How can you explain this phenomenon of penchant for preaching?
“It depends on what Russians you met, whether they were ordinary people or, say, media professionals, and what place they occupied in the hierarchy which was being rebuilt even then. I cannot call precisely the time when the Russian Agitprop began to target Ukraine. But it is possible that it started already by the time of your visit, when the Kremlin openly supported Yanukovych. Based on Mikhail Zygar’s book, Putin believed that Ukraine could have left the Russian Federation’s zone of influence. In other words, I assume that the Russian elites (especially the secret services and former bureaucrats) did not consider Ukraine a nation of its own then, and do not consider it such now as well, and hence they ordered the Agitprop to target your country’s population. But the people you met could be also quite sincere ‘patriots’ as we call them now, who share the Putinist views. As you know, the secret services and the elites of the late Soviet Union were particularly badly obsessed with ‘external influence,’ ‘US agents,’ etc., and conspiracy theories are particularly well developed in these circles.”
“HISTORY HAS BEEN MOSTLY A HANDMAID OF THE REGIME IN RUSSIA”
Are the Russians aware that our countries are at war at the moment?
“Those who are resistant to propaganda are aware, they are in the minority, but it is hard to say what their share is, since there have been no opinion polls asking about it. This is despite dead soldiers being brought home, troop activity near the occupied Donbas, and other signs that clearly show what is going on (not to mention the Battle of Debaltseve or the so-called ‘vacationers’). However, I believe that even should the war be acknowledged publicly, many people may well keep supporting the current government.”
The real story of relations between Ukraine and Russia has nothing to do with the official Russian history. Do you see any chance of Russia abandoning the well-rooted myth of Russia as the Third Rome in the future?
“The official version of the Russian history is a lot like popular prints, with controversial issues often downplayed or not mentioned at all. History has always been mostly a handmaid of the regime in Russia: how can one dare to write something ‘wrong’ when there is a security officer with a gun at one’s side? Mikhail Lomonosov accused his opponents, academicians of German descent, essentially of Russophobia, and it was not an accident but rather a norm. As far as I remember, Putin also railed about the content of history textbooks at the start of his reign, and the result can be seen today in bookstores which are full of apologetics for Cheka/GPU/NKVD/KGB/FSB.
“As for the myth you mentioned, it is doubtful that many people even know about it now, since the Moscow Tsardom of the time and the present Russian Federation are not so totally identical. I think the myth will be forgotten, and it is not clear if its content is well-remembered even now. The current official myth is based on ‘the collapse of the USSR,’ ‘the roaring 1990s,’ ‘Russia rising from its knees’ and ‘the danger of color revolutions.’”
Can Russia become a real federation in the image of the US?
“Many people think of this option, but the real prerequisites for this are not in place, as the nation is just as supercentralized as it was. Perhaps the real growth of regional centers will give some impetus to it, but it clearly will not come with the current holders of absolute power in Russia; besides, the Russian ‘new’ New Economic Policy of the 2000s has clearly had a limited effect.
“Let us not forget that the US’s formation proceeded completely unlike that of Russia. The country is more homogeneous, the territories were gradually settled, developed, and became new states. The Russian Federation, meanwhile, consists of different ethnic entities, it is not a melting pot but rather a collection of lands including Russia proper, Siberia, the Urals, Tatarstan, Chechnya, etc. However, it is ethnically more uniform than its predecessors (the Russian Empire and the USSR disintegrated precisely along ethnic boundaries), and it may prove able to ‘melt’ itself, but it requires, say, Yekaterinburg or Novosibirsk mattering just as much as Moscow and St. Petersburg for the nation.”