David Crouch is a freelance journalist, lecturer and media consultant in Gothenburg, Sweden. He spent the 1990s in Russia and in 2004 covered the Orange Revolution in Ukraine for various newspapers.
The metro train swayed slowly through the Moscow suburbs. A drunken young Russian started making fun of two Ukrainians sitting opposite. ‘Khokhly, you fucking khokhly!’ he guffawed, using a racist slur that refers to a traditional Ukrainian hairstyle. After a few minutes, one of the men stood up, walked over to the Russian and punched him hard in the face.
In microcosm, this incident captures what happened in Ukraine in the immediate aftermath of Russia’s invasion last year. That confrontation in the metro took place in spring, 1996. I had arrived in Moscow five years before, on the day the Kremlin sent tanks into Vilnius in a bid to crush Lithuania’s mass independence movement. It was the year that the Soviet Union burst apart under the pressure of popular national movements, ending with its formal dissolution in December.
I was a naïve young lefty, brought up in the British political tradition of ‘socialism good, USSR bad’, mixing the romance of Shelley, Wilde, Tressell and Orwell with grassroots activism and a dollop of Trotsky. Bliss it was in that dawn to be naïve: no amount of reading could have prepared me for the surreal world of Russian politics. It was Alice in Wonderland meets A Clockwork Orange. But to understand what is happening in Ukraine and Russia today, we need to make some sense of it.
By 1991, Russia’s democratic upsurge had already peaked. When free market fundamentalists let hyperinflation rip through post-Soviet Russia the following year, the optimism of the late Gorbachev period popped like a balloon. Taking its place came a politics of despair. As the Soviet dictatorship crumbled, concepts and institutions that we take for granted in western societies – social democracy, liberalism, civil society, human rights, democracy itself – had not had time to take root. Now the simultaneous collapse of ideology and economy saw ideas like these turned on their heads.
A big winner from the chaos was something called the Liberal Democratic Party. It was led by unashamed and self-proclaimed neo-Nazis, who peppered the party’s publications with references to national socialism, anti-Semitism and white supremacy. When Russians went to the polls in 1993 for their first multiparty elections in 75 years, these Liberal Democrats won nearly a quarter of the vote — the largest share of any party.
So much for them liberals. I soon learned that anyone calling themselves a communist was nailed-on to be an anti-Semite with nostalgia for both Stalin and the tsars. It was common to see participants in communist demonstrations carrying placards with images of Stalin and Tsar Nicolai II alongside symbols of the Russian Orthodox Church. The orange and black striped ribbon of Saint George – the highest military decoration of the tsarist empire, today so prevalent at pro-Putin events – was everywhere.
When the government split in 1993 and one side sent tanks to shoot up the other in central Moscow, killing hundreds, the side without the tanks turned to swastika-wearing neo-Nazis to lead their resistance. As civil war raged in the capital, these sieg-heiling scum stormed the city hall and the television centre, armed with machine guns. The following year, they united with an outfit called the National Bolshevik Party, whose symbol was the 1930s German Nazi flag but with a hammer and sickle in place of the swastika.
Confused? You should be. The fallout from the collapse of the Soviet empire makes the far-right assault on the Capitol in Washington DC look like a picnic in the park. Moscow’s uniformed Nazis would have died laughing at the semi-naked QAnon shaman and his horned headdress. Scared of Trump? Just think of the cesspit that Putin crawled out of.
Making sense of this was no easy task. Take Matt Taibbi, for example, who later made a name for himself in US journalism – most famously for describing Goldman Sachs as a vampire squid wrapped around the face of humanity. From 1997 he co-edited a bi-weekly Moscow newspaper in English called The eXile. This published relentless, extreme misogyny, including a regular column by the ageing leader of the National Bolshevik Party, Eduard Limonov, who combined anti-Semitic filth with boasts about sex with very young women which make Jeffrey Epstein look modest by comparison. This parody of gonzo journalism reflected the dominance of ideas like this in the circles where Western men hung out – nightclubs full of women desperate for a way out of the country, and Russian men who hated women for having that option. Surfing the wave was more fun than thinking critically about it.
Hold your nose
When I first met my future father-in-law, he produced a bottle of vodka with a picture of Stalin on it and proposed a toast to him. (I refused.) His political views were vile – among other things, he was a bitter anti-Semite. He and his wife regularly joined the mass protests against the government which were led by the Communist party.
The pair were typical of that milieu: both retired, she the daughter of a Communist Party apparatchik (a nice one, actually), while he had been a well-paid engineer in oil and gas. With half a million members, the Communist Party was by far the biggest political force. Its leader, Gennady Zyuganov, also led an umbrella organisation uniting the Communist Party with Nazi, monarchist and extreme nationalist groupings. A cesspit, indeed. Hold your nose, we’re going to plunge in.
These apparently diverse forces were agreed on their demands for an end to democracy, a state of emergency, a strong military, and restoring Russia as a superpower. The ideological cement of the movement was Russian nationalism. Zyuganov’s book Derzhava (Great Power) set out the central aspects of his party’s politics. For him, Moscow was the Third Rome, the centre of Holy Rus, destined to fulfil the tsarist trinity of autocracy, Orthodoxy and nation.
Russia must now fight the cosmopolitan forces of the world oligarchy to resurrect the USSR, the historical inheritor of the Russian empire, Zyuganov wrote. It must expand its borders to include Belarus and the ‘little Russians’ – the Ukrainians. He considered the Communists a party of patriots who had rejected class struggle and would unite the nation:
Now it’s a little clearer why Zyuganov could share a platform with Nazis and monarchists. What is more, he represented the moderate wing of the Communists, competing with a number of other currents laying claim to the Stalinist heritage. All of them agreed, however, that Stalin had restored continuity between the regimes that preceded and followed the 1917 revolutions.
The Communist Party was the engine of the Soviet dictatorship. Faced with economic decline, the leadership tried to turn the party supertanker around, but instead the mass membership took the wheel, clinging on to the nationalist, racist and imperialist ideology that had pervaded the organisation since the late 1920s. The Soviet Union was the Russian empire, staffed by Russians and inspired by a messianic Russian nationalism, the great majority of them members of the Communist Party.
All hail to the cesspit
One of the wonders of life in Moscow for foreigners in the early 1990s was that the exchange rate of the dollar to the rouble was insane. I could do a minimal amount of work and still survive, which left lots of time for reading, reading, reading. The democratic upsurge had left a residue in the form of excellent books either liberated from the archives or translated from English. I immersed myself in these, all the time measuring the evidence of my eyes – I was devouring several newspapers every day – against academic research and autobiographies. Here is what I learned.
The collapse of tsarism after World War I turned out to only be a brief hiatus for the Russian empire, which Stalin resurrected. Throughout the 1920s, Russian nationalist tendencies in the state, literature and art intensified. This was what émigré sociologist Nikolai Timasheff called Stalin’s ‘Great Retreat’ from the original aims of the revolution, a retreat that in the course of a few years transformed Russia into a country with a much more fervent nationalism than she had ever possessed before the attempt of international transfiguration. Russian nationalists who had fled abroad recognised this dramatic reversal in official attitudes.
From the mid-1930s onwards, Russian history reappeared as a sequence of magnificent deeds performed by Russia’s national heroes. Symbols of Russian medieval barbarism, such as Peter the Great, entered the gallery of national heroes. In 1938, Eisenstein’s film Alexander Nevsky celebrated the life of this medieval prince. Then came the tsarist general Suvorov, who was likewise honoured in a film, and Kutuzov, who was glorified in a book. Later still came the rehabilitation of the leaders of Russia’s World War I campaigns, and in the early 1940s, Alexei Tolstoy, the most acclaimed Russian author of the time, was given the honour of writing a play to glorify Ivan the Terrible.
Russian nationalism reached its apogee during World War II. In the words of Alexander Solzhenitsyn, whose views were situated on the far right, ‘From the very first days of the war Stalin refused to rely on the putrid decaying prop of ideology. He wisely discarded it and unfurled instead the old Russian banner – sometimes, indeed, the standards of Orthodoxy – and we conquered!’ Glorification of Russian history played a major role in mobilising the war effort. In 1941, anti-religious organisations and publications were closed down and the Orthodox church was rehabilitated. Tsarist uniforms were restored in the army, and elite military schools were renamed after tsarist generals. The Internationale, the USSR’s anthem since 1918, was replaced by a new, nationalist hymn.
The postwar years until Stalin’s death saw a fearsome nationalist campaign, cracking down on ‘rootless cosmopolitanism’ in culture and the arts. Almost all the wars waged by tsarist Russia were proclaimed just and progressive, including the expansionist policies of the pre-revolutionary empire. Classical Russian opera was officially proclaimed the best in the world, and all Western art from the Impressionists onwards classified as decadent. The Soviet press published systematic claims that Russians were leaders in all fields: it wasn’t Edison who invented the electric light, but Lodygin; the Cherepanovs built a steam engine before Stephenson; the telegraph was in use in Russia before Morse in America; Chernov invented steel; penicillin was declared a Russian discovery.
As described in detail by John Dunlop and historian Alexander Yanov, in the 1960s nationalists were free to an astonishing degree to air their views in the official media. The strength of the Soviet Writers Union as a bastion of Russian nationalism in the late Soviet period is an indication of the extent to which nationalist writers were encouraged, their books published in their hundreds of thousands. Throughout the 1970s, these writers attempted to weld a common ideology integrating the Communist period into the credo of the nationalist right.
While the revolution had elevated Jews such as Trotsky, Zinoviev and Sverdlov to the status of national leaders, the Great Retreat saw the gangrene grip the patient harder than ever. When Vasily Shulgin, the tsarist politician whose anti-Semitic tirades plumbed the depths, made a secret visit to Russia in 1926, he was delighted to find anti-Semitism widespread: ‘I thought I was going to a dead country, but I saw the awakening of a great country … The Communists will give power to the fascists … [Russia] has eliminated the dreadful socialist rubbish in the course of just a few years. Of course, they’ll soon liquidate the Yids.’
The purges of the mid-1930s saw organised Jewish life almost completely paralysed. During the years of the Nazi–Soviet pact (1939–41), the Soviet press ceased to report on Hitler’s persecution of the Jews. Only Stalin’s death may have prevented plans to deport the entire Jewish population to Siberia, just like the Balts, Poles, Tatars and Caucasus peoples before and during the war. Khrushchev told the author Ilya Ehrenburg of a conversation with Stalin in which the latter voiced this intention. There is evidence that cattle trucks were prepared in 1953 and that lists of victims were drawn up. As historian Walter Laqueur comments, by the early 1980s it was legitimate to argue that there had never been anti-Jewish pogroms in tsarist Russia, but merely legitimate acts of self-defence against Jewish provocations.
In sum, six decades of Stalinism provided fertile soil in which extreme ideas could take root. Small wonder that Konstantin Rodzayevsky, leader of the Russian Fascist Party in exile after World War II, could write, ‘Stalinism is exactly what we mistakenly called “Russian fascism”. It is our Russian fascism cleansed of extremes, illusions and errors.’
In this light, the statement by The Guardian’s former Russia expert, Jonathan Steele, in 1994, that ‘for the Communists [Russian nationalism] was impossible, given the long tradition of Soviet internationalism and the desire to preserve the USSR’, seems like an exercise in self-delusion.*
On the night of December 10, 1994, I was glued to my radio. Russian troops and tanks were massed on the border of Chechnya, the tiny nation in the foothills of the north Caucasus mountains which had declared independence from Moscow. Early the following morning, those tanks started to roll towards the capital of Grozny, commencing a full-scale invasion and igniting a decade of the bloodiest, most brutal and most unequal conflict imaginable.
The following Saturday, I stood outside a Moscow metro station with some anti-war friends, collecting signatures on a petition against the invasion. People queued up to sign it. Russians were sick of war. In 1989, the last Soviet troops had fled Afghanistan after a bloody decade of failing to subdue the local population. Limbless Russian soldiers, abandoned by their army, now begged for roubles on the streets. The Afghan defeat was a signal to the non-Russian parts of the Soviet empire that the army was weak. Despite the use of troops by Gorbachev to put down uprisings in Yerevan, Tbilisi and the Baltics, two years later the empire disintegrated.
But it was only a partial disintegration – the ‘republics’ that had made up the Soviet Union were now independent, at least politically. Russia itself remained a multinational entity, the Russian Federation, with a population consisting of more than 130 national minorities, 21 of which had their own ‘autonomous’ republics and all of which had a history of repression at the hands of the Russian-dominated Soviet state. Would Russia itself now fall apart?
Chechnya was the first to declare independence, having suffered most brutally at the hands of Stalin. The response from Moscow was rapid. In November 1991, Russia sent tanks into Grozny. This quickly turned into a fiasco; the army was a mess and the troops returned home after just three days. But the Kremlin’s intention was already clear. Any moves towards independence within Russia would be opposed, by force if necessary, while the independence of the former non-Russian republics would be undermined wherever possible.
Incredibly, the 1994 invasion of Chechnya ended in defeat for Russia. After two years spent trying to defeat the Chechen resistance, the Russian troops pulled out. But it remained unfinished business. When Putin took over, his first priority was Chechnya. Commenting on the subsequent bombardment of Grozny, he said of the Chechen resistance, ‘If we catch them in the toilet, we will finish them in the toilet.’ This is perhaps his most famous quote – oddly appropriate for the leader of the Russian cesspit.
Putin was successful, at the cost of tens of thousands of Chechen lives and the razing of Grozny to the ground. If you are shocked by photos of the city of Mariupol after the Russian attack on Ukraine last year, you ought to look at what they did to Grozny, which the UN called ‘the most destroyed city on Earth’. At the same time, this was a popular war in Russia. Overnight, former friends of mine turned from cheerful liberals or lefties into warmongering nationalists.
If crushing the Chechens effectively put an end to demands for independence among the non-Russian minorities within the Federation, Moscow also had its sights fixed on the empire it had lost beyond its borders. As early as August 1991, the mayor of Moscow spoke on TV about annexing the Crimea, eastern Ukraine, and virtually the entire Black Sea coast – demands that were then repeated year after year from within the Kremlin and the Russian parliament. In subsequent years, Moscow weaponised its primitive version of the Russian national identity, exploiting local conflicts to intervene militarily, reclaim territory, prop up Moscow-friendly governments and re-establish permanent military bases in Armenia, Georgia, Kyrgyzstan, Moldova and Tajikistan.
In 2014, Putin exploited political upheaval in Kyiv to invade Crimea and support armed separatists in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions of eastern Ukraine. Over the next eight years, Putin’s pliant media pumped out anti-Ukrainian propaganda, building on the racist and colonialist tropes that went all the way back via Stalin to the tsars. Thus was the ground prepared for last year’s invasion. The Kremlin’s intention, however, had been there from the earliest days of the post-Soviet period.
The Ukraine tragedy
My first insight into the Ukrainian national identity came in March 1981, when I was a student delegate to a conference on nuclear spectroscopy in Kyiv. During a pause, a Ukrainian physicist ushered me into the shadowy alcove under a staircase and gave me a whispered, five-minute lecture on resistance. That moment – and how it was interrupted by my angry Russian tutor – is seared into my brain. His message boiled down to this: Russians run everything; they make us speak Russian; Russians are bastards.
Lenin makes a necessary distinction between the nationalism of the oppressor and the nationalism of the oppressed. Ukrainian nationalism is the latter, shaped by centuries of oppression at Russian hands and stoked by memories of the terror famine that was the Holodomor. It is this liberatory, progressive, democratic nationalism (with all its faults) that has inspired some 18,000 Ukrainians so far to give their lives in the war against Russia. It is inspiring, these sacrifices being made by civilians in the face of Russian shells, missiles and bombs.
But the tragedy of Ukraine is being multiplied by the NATO powers’ exploitation of Ukrainian nationalism. The US made its war aims very clear early in the conflict. The West has contributed $80 billion to the war effort – roughly equivalent to Russia’s entire military spending last year. More war means more dead Ukrainians. At the time of writing, the mood in Ukraine seems to be in favour of continuing the fighting. But wartime Ukraine is very far from democratic, and anyone who questions the leadership is accused of being a Putin stooge.
The tragedy is further amplified by the hypocrisy of Western leaders in prosecuting this war. Iraq is still fresh in the memory – a similarly unprovoked invasion that has visited untold misery on the Middle East. Western leaders, notably Britain’s Tony Blair, backed Putin’s invasion of Chechnya. Palestine, Tigray, Yemen – forgotten slaughter fuelled by Western arms sales. Ukraine today is as much a failure of Western leadership as a fulfilment of Putin’s imperial dream.
As the fighting drags on, divisions within Ukraine will grow and the illusion of unity will fall apart. Calls for a negotiated peace will grow louder. Where then will Western leaders stand? There is no military solution to Putin. With each zinc coffin that returns to Russia containing a conscript’s body, Putin’s power will wane. Ukraine needs peace to heal its wounds and rebuild its society. The world can leave the Russians to clean out their cesspit themselves.
Bliss it was in that dawn to be naïve: no amount of reading could have prepared me for the surreal world of Russian politics. It was Alice in Wonderland meets A Clockwork Orange. But to understand what is happening in Ukraine and Russia ...