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Where there is no law, but every man does what is right in his own eyes, there is the least of real liberty
Henry M. Robert

Over the barriers

Russian public apathy looks miserable against the backdrop of Europe’s civil solidarity with Ukraine
9 December, 2013 - 18:11
Sketch by Anatolii KAZANSKY from The Day’s archives, 1997

The attitude to what is going on in Ukraine has not yet become critically important – it is not yet a yardstick for telling who is who. It is in fact part of an all-pervading boundless and rather bleak tolerance and vulgar pluralism that eats away the brains of Russian society’s intellectually active part. When even those referred to as superdemocrats support Alexei Navalny and his struggle against migrants and corruption, so typical of totalitarian leaders, what can be expected from the mainstream intellectuals who turn up their noses at all things Ukrainian? This is expressed in different ways from the use of the word “khokhol” to deliberations on a single nation – Russian, of course. Even if this nation may be confined to south-eastern Ukraine only, it is still considered single.

Anti-Ukrainian rhetoric is now blaring from the mouths of those who have shouted lately about an upcoming downfall of the Putin regime. I have long been saying that these cries will benefit, above all, Putin himself and his agitprop which is aimed at making Russian society always swing from hysteria to euphoria and vice versa: “Damn the bloody regime that will die in two weeks!” The exposure of the schemes of Europe integrators, who encroach on the single nation that populates Ukraine and Russia, sounds self-revealing in the mouths of these people.

There is also another song, much the agitprop’s credit. Its refrain says comfortingly: what is going on in Ukraine is shallow, uninteresting, and has nothing to do with Russia. Europe needs a colony, a raw-material appendage, while Ukraine has nothing to sell to the West. All this can be easily denied by facts to which agitprop is, of course, unreceptive and, what is more, it is rather funny to hear this from a country in which the entire economy depends on hydrocarbon sales. It is surely Russia that was deliberately turned into a raw-material appendage to Europe and China by the current ruling elite.

But it is uninteresting to debate on provocateurs and pointless to discuss TV products. It is far more important to understand what is happening with the people who seem to be sincere and to have noticeable status in society and the media.

Maybe, the Ukrainians do not care about some details at this moment. Every word of support is of value now, be it Boris Nemtsov’s picket near the embassy, the arrival of several showbiz figures from Moscow, or an address from writers. However, the Russians do care about the reason why the Ukrainian events have not received an assessment adequate to their scale and nature. There used to be other times. The first alternative demonstration on Red Square was held on May 1, 1990, under the Lithuanian flag. Chanting “Freedom to Lithuania!” the protesters forced Gorbachev to leave the podium. It is different now, even though a considerable number of analysts are very critical of Putin’s policy towards the post-Soviet states.

Such headlines as “Putin Pushes Ukraine to European Union” or “Outraged by Russia’s Pressure, Ukrainians Come Out on Maidan,” are, naturally, correct. However, they still present a Russia-centric picture of the world, where the movement in Ukraine is reduced to anti-Russian protests and deprived of a positive content. This simplifies the view on Russia itself and on what can be counterpoised to the sociopolitical setup that has admittedly won in it.

Moreover, it is in a way a mirror reflection of the official propaganda which is doing its utmost to put across the idea that the European Union is exclusively using Ukraine to exert pressure on Russia and that Ukraine itself is of no interest to them – they only need it to sting the Kremlin.

This is also claimed, to some extent, in some Western publications known as mouthpieces of certain Soviet and Russian agencies. It is common story to have a Western publication reprinted in Russia. Agitprop, security services, and corporate publicity departments resort to this practice. This kind of articles focuses on the European Union’s unwillingness to interfere into Ukrainian affairs. These publications are made subtly and professionally – the EU really has certain bounds which it will not, cannot, and does not want to overstep.

It is also true that the US is not in fact supporting Ukraine – in comparison with the 2004 events and the reaction to the Russian aggression against Georgia in 2008.

Here is a brief overview of the US press.

“As Ukraine turns away from closer relations with the European Union and further into the embrace of Russia, the Obama administration is saying little about it or the resulting street protests, for fear of provoking a fracture with the Kremlin.

“Huge street demonstrations in the Ukrainian capital that might have sent U.S. spokesmen to the ramparts just a few years ago have merited only mild and largely noncommittal statements – and a decision by Secretary of State John F. Kerry to skip a planned visit to Kiev this week… The low-key U.S. response comes as Russia has lately been a U.S. partner in diplomatic deals involving Syria’s chemical weapons and Iran’s nuclear program” (The Washington Post).

“Kerry opened a news conference at NATO headquarters with a call for calm in Ukraine. Yanukovych, he said, has made a ‘personal decision’ that his people do not support. ‘Europe and Europe’s friends all declined to engage in a rather overt and, we think inappropriate, bidding war with respect to the choice that might or might not be made,’ Kerry said. He did not call out Russia by name” (Los Angeles Times).

But it is also true some European politicians, constrained in their actions by many circumstances, appear on the Maidan and ambassadors of a number of European countries and the EU saw it fit to speak at a Kyiv rally. These and many other things create an impression that solidarity with Ukraine differs this time from that in 2004. I already said it when I was drawing a parallel with velvet revolutions and the Prague Spring. But I think there are ample grounds for going further. Europe has not seen this kind of civil solidarity for a long time. This solidarity is making up, to a considerable extent, for the passivity of politicians and reminds us that ties between the European nations are primary to relations and ties between the governments.

Europe is an always-fighting and an always-split continent that began very recently to reach unity, one that has always needed communication “over the barriers,” as Boris Pasternak titled his 1914 poetry collection. And Russian public apathy looks miserable against the backdrop of Europe’s civil solidarity. The Russian public is again concerned about top officials’ dachas, although the latter were built near Moscow and are quite in line with their owners’ incomes. All that the self-called democratic opposition is showing is these “fits of populism.” Russia is really and heavily opposed to Europe as a certain socio-cultural and ethnic community, where the government and its critics are united.

And what about the government? It is obvious from what is being said and written about Ukraine and was previously said in the countries of “tank-type socialism” that the one who personifies Russia and Russians was and is not Brezhnev and the Politburo, not Putin and his fellow servicemen and villagers, but the Russian man in the street. And, as far as attitude to Ukraine and Ukrainians is concerned, the most refined Russian esthete, intellectual, and liberal sometimes remains the same man in the street, who is sure of his superiority over the younger brother and does not know either his history or his culture. This occurs at a time when the two countries vitally need public diplomacy, links over the barriers, to use Pasternak’s words, and over the heads of governments, to use the formula of Mayakovsky.

On the Russian side, the main obstacle is the introductory words that occur repeatedly in almost every publication about Ukraine regardless of its trend: “With due account of a common history, sociopolitical system, and historical development…”

There is no commonness. It is as much a trap as is the seeming closeness of the Russian and Ukrainian languages. What can be common with Ukraine, where serfdom was introduced by a Russian empress’s ukase in 1783? How long had it existed in Russia by that time?

The same applies to the current events. Yet the view from Moscow on Kyiv’s Maidan is not useless at least because, calling for trilateral talks on the EU agreement, Yanukovych renounced the people’s sovereignty and transferred the source of his legitimacy to the Kremlin. And the Maidan clampdown is a step towards further Russification of power in Ukraine.

The Russian experience of opposition is a special subject. But still, I must immediately caution you against euphoria. The Russification of power means that rulers exclusively focus their efforts on retaining power, and the cost of these actions for the country as a whole does not matter. The fragmented evidence that keeps coming from Ukraine and is mostly of an accusative nature (riot police and provocateurs in the crowd) proves that the Ukrainian authorities have established in the past few years a deeply-echeloned, well-considered, and effective strong-arm system to defend and assault society.

I am afraid this applies not only to such perpetrators as musclemen, but also to such as officials, prosecutors, and judges. Putin has routed the opposition by subjugating the courts, which allows him to use force as seldom as possible.

The situation in Ukraine still remains alarming for, above all, Europe. What awaits Russia – in any case and at any outcome – are screw tightening and increased repressions. There is no such thing as “For your and our freedom”: the Russians who support the Maidan are coming out for Ukrainian freedom without too much hope for their own freedom. Europe and the rest of the world may become different, but Russia will bristle up still more at this kind of Europe and the world. But should Yanukovych get the upper hand, the Russian government will become even more brazen. It’s six of one and half a dozen of the other.

The conclusion is that the Russians who support the Maidan are doing so just out of the desire to be Europeans.

Dmitry Shusharin is a Moscow-based historian and political journalist

By Dmitry SHUSHARIN, special to The Day
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