Vladimir Putin delivered a bitter and delusional speech from the Kremlin this week, arguing that Ukraine is not a nation and Ukrainians are not a people. His order to execute a “special military operation” came shortly afterward. The professed aim is to “demilitarize and de-Nazify” this supposedly phantasmal neighbor of forty million people, whose government is so pro-Nazi that it is led by a Jewish President who was elected with seventy per cent of the vote.
Like many aging autocrats, Putin has, over time, remained himself, only more so: more resentful, more isolated, more repressive, more ruthless. He operates in an airless political environment, free of contrary counsel. His stagecraft—seating foreign visitors at the opposite end of a twenty-foot-long table, humiliating security chiefs in front of television cameras—is a blend of “Triumph of the Will” and “The Great Dictator.” But there is nothing comic in the performance of his office. As Putin spills blood across Ukraine and threatens to destabilize Europe, Russians themselves stand to lose immeasurably. The ruble and the Russian stock market have cratered. But Putin does not care. His eyes are fixed on matters far grander than the well-being of his people. He is in full command of the largest army in Europe, and, as he has reminded the world, of an immense arsenal of nuclear weapons. In his mind, this is his moment, his triumphal historical drama, and damn the cost.
Putin’s official media outlets echo his claim that the Army’s mission is to stop a Ukrainian “genocide” against the Russian-speaking population in that country. His deployment of distortion and deception as weapons is hardly unique. After the First World War, many German reactionaries and military leaders, in their humiliation, declared that they had not lost on the battlefield; instead, disloyal leftists, scheming politicians, and, above all, the Jews had stirred up labor unrest in the arms industry in order to undermine the war effort. This was the legend of the Dolchstoss im Rücken, the stab-in-the-back story that Hitler used to denigrate the Weimar Republic, in general, and the Jews, in particular, as he built support for his fascist movement and another war.
History is never a settled matter. American politics is no stranger to fierce arguments about the past. But, when an autocrat is the sole narrator of the national archive, history becomes subsumed into the instrumental aims of policy and control. This has long been the case in Russia. In 1825, Tsar Nicholas I put down the Decembrist uprising and then sought to expunge the affair from the official history books, lest the revolt be repeated. What little freedom scholars had under the Communist Party vanished when, in 1928, the All-Union Conference of Marxist Historians declared that the chief historian of the Soviet Union was its dictator, Josef Stalin. He was the putative author of “Kratki kurs”—“The Short Course”—which described how all of human history had led inexorably to the glorious revolution and the Communist Party; all his Bolshevik rivals were “White Guard pygmies whose strength was no more than that of a gnat.” No alternatives to “The Short Course” were permitted.
In 1956, Nikita Khrushchev took a step toward restoring history. In his so-called secret speech to the Communist Party leadership, he criticized Stalin for carrying out purges of Party members, inadequately preparing for war with Nazi Germany, and cruelly deporting and oppressing ethnic minorities. Khrushchev’s remarks, though concealed from the population, led to a short-lived “thaw,” and to the release of many thousands of Soviet political prisoners.
But it was not until Mikhail Gorbachev came to power that a Kremlin leader opened a true discussion of the past. “Even now, we still encounter attempts to ignore sensitive questions of our history, to hush them up,” Gorbachev said, in 1987, in a speech marking the seventieth anniversary of the October Revolution. “We cannot agree to this. It would be a neglect of historical truth, disrespect for the memory” of those who were repressed.
That speech proved shrewd and transformative. Gorbachev signalled that the time had come to examine the history of the Soviet Union, including the “secret protocols” of Stalin’s pact with Hitler, which paved the way for the annexation of the Baltic states and the brutal subjugation of Poland. Nearly overnight, Soviet citizens learned how the decisions had been made to invade Budapest, in 1956, Prague, in 1968, and Kabul, in 1979. One of the watersheds of the Gorbachev era was the creation, in 1989, of Memorial, an organization charged with exploring Soviet history and its archives and upholding the principles of the rule of law and of human rights. Putin’s regime, mobilizing against civil society, has tellingly designated Memorial a “foreign agent” and ordered the group to be shut down.
Putin, who blames Gorbachev for defiling the reputation and the stability of the Soviet Union, and Boris Yeltsin, the leader who succeeded him, for catering to the West and failing to hold back the expansion of NATO, reveres strength above all. If he has to distort history, he will. As a man who came into his own as an officer of the K.G.B., he also believes that foreign conspiracy is at the root of all popular uprisings. In recent years, he has regarded pro-democracy protests in Kyiv and Moscow as the work of the C.I.A. and the U.S. State Department, and therefore demanding to be crushed. This cruel and pointless war against Ukraine is an extension of that disposition. Not for the first time, though, a sense of beleaguerment has proved self-fulfilling. Putin’s assault on a sovereign state has not only helped to unify the West against him; it has helped to unify Ukraine itself. What threatens Putin is not Ukrainian arms but Ukrainian liberty. His invasion amounts to a furious refusal to live with the contrast between the repressive system he keeps in place at home and the aspirations for liberal democracy across the border.
Meanwhile, Volodymyr Zelensky, the President of Ukraine, has behaved with profound dignity even though he knows that he is targeted for arrest, or worse. Aware of the lies saturating Russia’s official media, he went on television and, speaking in Russian, implored ordinary Russian citizens to stand up for the truth. Some needed no prompting. On Thursday, Dmitry Muratov, the editor of the independent newspaper Novaya Gazeta, and a winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, said that he would publish the next issue in Russian and Ukrainian. “We are feeling shame as well as sorrow,” Muratov said. “Only an antiwar movement of Russians can save life on this planet.” As if on cue, demonstrations against Putin’s war broke out in dozens of Russian cities. Leaders of Memorial, despite the regime’s liquidation order, were also heard from: the war on Ukraine, they said, will go down as “a disgraceful chapter in Russian history.” ♦
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