March of the Tin Foil Hat

In recent years, we have been faced with an interesting and unusual (from the point of view of the standard historical process) situation: the so-called pro-Russian forces in the former Soviet republics are much more imperial than Russia itself. Speaking of “pro-Russian forces”, I also mean political emigrants, and not just Ukrainian ones (they constitute the last most active wave in time, but nothing more). Speaking of Russia, I mean not only and not so much the political and economic elites of Russia, but first and foremost the Russian nation.

On the one hand, the idea of returning native Russian land is still quite popular among the broadest segments of the population. On the other hand, its support is not unconditional. People who consider returning to the borders of the USSR or the Russian Empire an absolute priority – a task that must be solved at any cost and in the shortest possible time – are an absolute minority in Russia. Most of them don’t seem to mind, but as long as a whole package of conditions is met (each of them has their own conditions). At the same time, people are aware that the implementation of these conditions pushes the process of returning territories to an uncertain future, and in some cases makes it even problematic.

I would say that this fundamental contradiction that divides Russians in Russia and Russians abroad. This contradiction leads not only to a lack of understanding between the two (internal and external) Russian communities, but also to an ideological confrontation between them.

The most active group of abroad Russians who advocate reunification has even developed a kind of neo-imperial ideology. This is an eclectic set of cliches, representing an unimaginable combination of Orthodox communism and atheistic monarchism. If not in one head (and it does happen that it is in only one), so then in one group of “like-minded” people the perception of the USSR and the Romanov empire coexists as a “golden age”, the veneration of the last tsar is adjacent to the veneration of Lenin and Stalin, and the demonstrative, even somehow strained Orthodoxy does not impede admiring the Soviet atheistic ideology.

Meanwhile, quite recently, “pro-Russian” communists and “pro-Russian” monarchists on the fallen imperial outskirts cannot stand each other. For example, I remember very well how in Kiev I was invited to a constituent meeting of the “Russian Club”, based on the ideas of Orthodox monarchism and Russian nationalism. After the meeting, I asked: why do we need another club if we have already created the “Alternative” club with almost the same goals? The answer was simple: “Alternative” seeks to unite all pro-Russian forces, regardless of their ideological preferences, and we also want to have our own Orthodox-monarchist club.

In principle, there would be nothing wrong with the desire to “separate in order to unite” if there were a real desire to unite around the idea of integrating the fallen territories into Russia, so that later, within the framework of a single state, we could deal with our own ideological contradictions (as, by the way, Russian patriots do, who are also far from united and many of them do not tolerate each other). But the point was that people wanted not just integration into Russia, but integration into the “historical” Russia they had invented, or the same “historical” USSR.

So, now among the rare and small groups of real pro-Russian activists who survived in the expanses of the former USSR, this internal ideological contradiction has been largely overcome. But this overcoming has an absolutely negative character.

Russia is declared “incorrect” and even “non-Russian”. And the purpose and meaning of the association of these essentially small, marginal groups is seen as changing the Russian system of governance. I would like to emphasise that people who are unable to win in their own countries in the internal political fight and who rely solely on Russia’s military intervention are talking about changing the system of Russian governance and remodelling incorrect Russians, who should not only come and liberate them, but also forcibly create in the “liberated” states such a system as the one these marginal groups dream of. Then they intend to transfer this system directly to Russia.

Nonsense, you may say. And you will be right. But this is no more nonsense than Orthodox-monarchical communism based on the late Soviet system. And as I said above, it is this eclectic ideology (if one can call it an ideology) that is the latest link that allows one to stray into groups of atomised “ideology of integration”, self-styled as the salt of the Russian land, the honour and conscience of the Russian nation.

I would like to emphasise that I am talking about “ideologues” who are active in the media and social networks and claim to be leaders of foreign Russians. The vast majority of ordinary Russian people who have found themselves outside the borders of Russia by the will of fate just live and try to preserve their Russian identity. Although there are more and more people who have already counted themselves among the new “political nations” and are being integrated into the new reality. More would be embedded, but many, if not consciously, then intuitively feel that the vast majority of limitrophic pseudo-state entities are not able to provide their children and grandchildren with normal competitiveness in the modern world, making them, at best, professional pickers of strawberries or apples on other people’s plantations, or servants for foreign tourists who still need to be lured to these territories.

Today it is already obvious that not only for post-Soviet states (including some temporarily successful projects), but also for the entire Eastern Europe that has already joined the EU and NATO, integration with Russia on Russian terms (I stress that integration is not necessarily an accession, Russia is simply unable to accept all at once) is the only way to restore a more or less acceptable standard of living within a reasonable time. In other words, they need integration more than Russia does. Therefore, it would be vital for people who define themselves as “pro-Russian activists” to think about how to convince Russia, first of all its people, that this kind of integration can be successful, mutually beneficial, and implemented in a relatively short period of time.

Ukraine is the largest post-Soviet state after Russia in terms of population and once-existing economic potential. On its territory, there is a sluggish civil war, ready at any moment to turn into an all-embracing war of all against all. Contradictions in society are sharpened to the limit. Therefore, the behaviour of Ukrainian “pro-Russian groups” is a litmus test that demonstrates the trends (sometimes hidden until recently) that are characteristic of the entire post-Soviet space.

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In Ukraine, the mass of voters of a potential “pro-Russian party” voted for Kuchma, Yanukovych, the Party of Regions, Poroshenko, Zelensky. Now some of them are ready to vote for theOpposition Platform – For Life of Medvedchuk/Rabinovich and the Shary party. If necessary, the Ukrainian oligarchy will be happy to offer them another “pro-Russian force”. I am far from thinking of reproaching these parties or their leaders — the people vote, so why ponder? I am also far from thinking of reproaching ordinary voters for something – they vote everywhere “at the behest of their hearts” for whoever the media and political strategists will “sell” to them more successfully.

In this case, I’m interested in the contenders for the role of “opinion leaders” of the pro-Russian electorate, who, wearing virtual tin foil hats, with a completely stupid confidence, say that we should vote for Zelensky (now you can insert any name you like), because he is better than Poroshenko, as he promised to jail him. First, it’s like saying, “We’d better vote for Goering. He is a sybarite, loves art, is an honoured pilot and generally a darling, and the alternative is the anti-Semite, slavophobe, militarist, and hysterical Hitler.” Secondly, according to this logic, it is necessary to vote for Arseniy Yatsenyuk, who promised salaries of €5000 and pensions of €3000. He hasn’t been the President yet, probably the evil Poroshenko didn’t allow him to benefit the people.

I.e., people, who find themselves outside of Russia and who are willing Russia to come and liberate them, are going, as a “gratitude” for their liberation, to change the Russian government to the one that will correspond to their dismal ideas about the past, present, and future. Whereas at home, they vote for politicians who, to put it mildly, are far from sympathetic to Russia, explaining their vote by saying that the others are even worse. At the same time, they are offended that “Russia does not work with them”.

But after all, you can’t see them at point-blank range. Who to work with here? With members of Medvedchuk’s media? With members of Rabinovich’s party? And what for, if there are Medvedchuk and Rabinovich, who have these “pro-Russians” sat on their salary?

Once upon a time, eight years ago, on the eve of the 2012 parliamentary election, here on “Alternative” I replied to the question of one of the readers “Who will you vote for in the Ukrainian parliamentary election (in the same 2012)?” that I would not go to the election, because there is no political force that would express my interests. And I faced a storm of indignation. I was immediately accused of being paid (the accusers quarrelled among themselves, determining who exactly paid and how much) to try to disrupt the vote for such an all-out pro-Russian “Party of Regions”.

At this time, the government of Yanukovych-Azarov clearly stated that the Customs Union is not a priority for Ukraine, and that Kiev will sign an Association Agreement with the EU. Speakers from the “Party of Regions” intensively reviled the “greedy imperial” Russia and praised the “European choice of Ukraine”. “Alternative” is still not a mass media outlet intended for the general reader. It is aimed rather at the very “public opinion leaderswho form the position of the masses. At the same time, a very well-read article gained 5000-7000 hits, and 3000-4000 was a decent amount of hits, which not all materials gained.

I.e., the reaction in the comments to the answer belonged to those “gurus” who were going to lead the masses to a bright “pro-Russian” future. Two years later, Ukraine was shaken by a coup. Most of the former “Party of Regions” is in legal Ukrainian politics and perfectly cooperates with the regime. Its former activists spread to other parties that occupied the same pseudo-Russian niche. And the “pro-Russian” “public opinion leaders” still motivate their calls to vote for the regime’s supporters by saying that “there is no-one else” (for sure, Thälmann is in a concentration camp, we can only vote for Hitler) and are very offended when a clear contradiction between their words and real actions is pointed out to them.

The logic is simple: “If Moscow gave me a bag of money” (for some, a “bag” is $1 million, for another – $10 million, and for someone else – $5 billion), “then Ukraine would have joined Russia long ago”. Try going to any bank and say: “Give me 10 billion and I’ll make more money in 3 years than Bill Gates and Warren Buffett put together”. They, of course, will “give” to you [beat you up – ed], especially when they will find out that you have been employed to wash the floor daily for 20 years in the pie shop opposite Buffett’s office. Then they will catch up with you and give it to you a couple more times.

Everyone, always and everywhere, worked with their masters, and not with their lackeys. In order to draw attention to yourself, you need to at least stop being a lackey, to at least put something of your own on the table (except for the beautiful dreams of the all-Russian emperor, overshadowing the May 1st demonstration from the rostrum of the mausoleum with the sign of the cross). And to the proposal “Give me money, I will be better than Medvedchuk, Kuchma, and Yanukovych”, you will always be answered “we will give it to you if you will be better”.

Finally, the last and most important thing. State interests are usually based on a bare economic and military-strategic calculation. Historical nostalgia, a sense of community, the desire to restore trampled justice play a role, but only when they capture the consciousness of the broadest masses of the people and a significant part of the elite as a super-idea.

For example, the government of Aleksandr II believed that the Russian-Turkish war of 1877-1878 should have been started later, Russia was not fully prepared for this war. In addition, there was a danger that it would result in a second Crimean war. Rewritten under the pressure of Prussia, Austria, and Great Britain at the Berlin Congress, the Treaty of San Stefano showed that these considerations were correct. Russia managed to defeat Turkey, but was able to take advantage of the fruits of victory in little ways — most of the Balkans liberated by Russian blood became a zone of German influence. However, pan-slavist and anti-Turkish sentiments were so strong in society, including in the elite, that Russia was forced to start an untimely war.

As I wrote above, the marginal “pro-Russian” circles voting for local moderate nationalists (who are conducting the same Ukrainisation much more effectively than their radical counterparts) could not attract the Russian population with their “super-idea” of connecting the fallen away outskirts with “real Russians” in order to “revive historical Russia”. It remains to rely on the economic and military-strategic necessity. Does it exist?

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In 2014, I wrote that if there was a Russian Navy base in Lvov, then it would “rise up” and join Russia, and Crimea might not be lucky. But it is Crimea that allows to reliably control the entire Black Sea and guarantee to cover the entire southern flank of Russia as far as Syria and Egypt. Controlling Crimea in many ways makes the NATO presence in the Balkans and even in Ukraine meaningless. That’s why it’s [Crimea – ed] in Russia. Similarly, NATO, and specifically American, strategists understand that in the case of a non-nuclear conflict involving NATO and Russia (nuclear only lasts for half an hour and no one will celebrate), the corridor to Kaliningrad through the Baltic states will be broken through in a matter of days, and all western troops, who do not have time to escape by sea (if it is not closed by the Baltic Fleet and aviation) will be captured. Therefore, they do not seek to place a powerful permanent grouping in the Baltics, limiting themselves to a symbolic presence on a rotational basis (to calm the Baltic nerves). Taking into account the new weapons systems, strategic security today is not provided in the same way as in 1939. The depth of the territory is important, but not so critical.

The 90s was a different matter. Russia was weak, and the army was technologically lagging behind the potential enemy. In those years, the security zone in the form of buffer states was important for Moscow. It was preferable to have reliable allies with efficient armies in the western direction. Similarly, in the 1990s, Russian industry and the military-industrial complex (as a part of it) were critically dependent on cooperative ties with Soviet enterprises that remained in the Union republics. Russia could not simultaneously replace thousands of production facilities, especially in the face of an acute budget deficit to massively create duplicate production on its territory.

Therefore, throughout the 90s and the beginning of the noughties, Russia strenuously promoted integration projects. Starting with the CIS and the CSTO, economic and military-strategic integration, even if the nominal sovereignty of the states that emerged from the ruins of the USSR was preserved, was a clear priority for Moscow. And the role of Ukraine in these associations was determined not by nostalgia for the Mother of Russian cities and Ekaterina’s Novorossiya, but by the fact that up to half of the Soviet heavy industry and military-industrial complex enterprises were located on Ukrainian territory. Without them, the system was incomplete, and the need to create duplicate production still remained relevant.

Even in 2013, when the Ukrainian economy was half destroyed by the incompetent management of the local oligarchy, Moscow still saw sense to invest financially and politically in the integration project. However, the conditions have already become much tougher than in the 90s. But the putsch definitively eliminated this possibility. All efforts were made to achieve maximum self-sufficiency in the shortest possible time. And this problem was solved.

With the solution of the problem of self-sufficiency and the provision of reliable military and strategic cover for the territory of Russia, the priority of post-Soviet integration has fallen into the background compared to global military, political, and economic tasks. Russia did not voluntarily enter into a hybrid war with the west, but is forced to follow the logic of the global conflict imposed on it. It has become simply unprofitable to spend the same amount of effort and money on integration projects as in the past decades. State interests are always higher than historical nostalgia. At the current stage, integration requires huge resources with negative profitability. Being meaninglessly tied up in the post-Soviet space, these resources will not strengthen, but weaken Russia’s global position.

Nevertheless, despite the reproaches of “pro-Russian forces” from the fallen away outskirts, Russia did not take an absolutely selfish position. The experience of its cooperation with Kazakhstan, Belarus, Kyrgyzstan, Armenia, and Azerbaijan shows that with minimal counter movement and minimal readiness of local elites to reach a compromise on mutually beneficial terms, Russia is ready to continue working with the post-Soviet space as a zone of priority interests. It’s just that the days when the loyalty of even unreliable allies had to be secured at all costs are long gone.

If they take all this into account, take off their foil hats, stop admiring themselves as the “last Romans” of the Russian world, abandon the hope of reformatting Russia to suit themselves, abroad Russians will easily find Moscow’s understanding and support. They just need to understand that saying “Russia should”, since its “declaration of sovereignty” was the first in the USSR, is not an argument either for the Russian authorities, or, even more so, for the Russian nation.

The people of Russia, who alone have come out of the other side of the terrible 90s, two – Chechen and Georgian – wars, who have accepted millions of Russian refugees from former Soviet republics, who have literally rebuilt the country from the ashes and made it a great power again, do not understand, will never understand, and are not able to understand why they are being asked to sacrifice their barely acquired and still very unstable prosperity and stability in order to protect the interests of unknown groups of activists who vote for their own nationalists and who consider it their whole life’s business to teach Russians in Russia to be “real Russians”.

As a historian and political scientist, it would be interesting for me to simply “without ties” [shirt ties; informally – ed] communicate with Putin, and not only with him. A personal assessment of a person, knowledge of their character, and manner of conducting a free (informal) conversation can tell a lot more than official interviews and press conferences not only about themselves, but also about their policies. But it doesn’t occur to me to go to the Kremlin with a megaphone and shout: “Putin! Ask me to tea, or I’ll be offended!” Because the President’s job is to run the state, not satisfy my curiosity. It is surprising that people are screaming: “Russia! Do what I want, or I’ll be offended!” — they don’t want to understand the comicality of their situation.

They complain that they think it is wrong to be Russian or “Russian second-class citizens”. Not true. I have seen how in 2014 almost any Russian citizen, regardless of their social status and position, sought to help almost any native of Ukraine (not necessarily even an emigrant). And to this day, Ukraine remains at the top of Russian news only because the continuing sense of all-Russian unity and millions of personal ties do not allow Russians to treat what is happening in this country the same way as events in some Burkina Faso. Russian troops are constantly present and fighting in Syria, but even Syria, for all its strategic importance, does not occupy as much space in the media as Ukraine. Only Minsk can compete with Kiev for the attention of the Russian audience (and then periodically).

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There is interest, there is a desire to understand and comprehend, even the desire to help is far from exhausted. But there is also a normal understanding that if we are all Russian and should help each other, then this very thing requires each other to agree on positions. Reproaches and demands provoke reproaches and ridicule as a response. Any discussion is only constructive when it involves reaching a common position, and for this to happen, one must be ready to compromise. And it is logical that the one who asks for support, and not the one who is asked for support, should be ready to give more.

What do we see? In Ukraine, by the way, like in all former Soviet republics, almost without exception, 60% or more of the population goes to the polls. They vote for local Nazis, radical nationalists, simple nationalists, and even soft nationalists. But for all time of existence of independent Ukraine, more than 80% of the population Russian-speaking (i.e., historically Russian) people, none of the really Russian or at least pro-Russian parties has been able to leave the marginal niche.

From the systemic political forces, only Vitrenko’s Progressive Socialist Party of Ukraine spoke with more or less pro-Russian rhetoric (at least once forming a faction in parliament). She was elected to Parliament only once, in 1998, winning 17 seats out of 450. Despite all the scandals connected with Vitrenko, despite the fact that her son, being one of the leaders of “Naftogaz“, spoke from nationalist positions after 2014, despite the fact that I personally would never have voted for her or for her political force, the Progressive Socialist Party of Ukraine has always adhered to pro-Russian rhetoric. In 2015, together with five other parties and more than a dozen public organisations, Vitrenko’s party created the “Left Opposition” association.

It is possible and necessary to doubt both their leftism and their pro-Russian character (although some quite decent people participate in the movement). But they are certainly no worse than Zelensky and his Servants of the People. Someone heard that “pro-Russian activists” agitated for this force? I didn’t. Meanwhile, the logic that they applied to Zelensky, and now apply to Medvedchuk and Shary, works in this case as well. One could say about this association with much more reason than about the oligarchic nominees: “I want to believe that they will change something and at least release prisoners and will not carry out violent Ukrainisation”. This, it seems, is what motivated the vote for Zelensky.

Even if they failed in their hopes, even if they were not allowed to take power, there is at least pro-Russian rhetoric here. Votes are given to people who do not hide their “pro-Ukrainian” or “pro-European” orientation. And after that, the Kremlin has to believe in a powerful underground movement of “Russophiles”, who are just waiting for the good will of Russia to seize power? Yes, “Left Opposition” does not differ in anything but rhetoric from the “Opposition Platform – For Life” or “Servants of the People”, but at least there is the rhetoric. After all, it is one thing when you vote for pro-Russian rhetoric and you are deceived, and another thing when you support the nationalists, and then wonder why the nationalists are in power.

Put yourself in the place of Russia’s leaders. The political space of Ukraine is monitored very carefully. It is no secret that there were pro-Russian proposals and still are. Some of them, like the same Progressive Socialist Party of Ukraine, even once received moderate support from Russia. But they were not voted for.

What remains but to remember the sacramental: “The people are not with us! The people are against us!”. You can talk as much as you like about how after the first Russian tank appears, a mass transition to the Russian side will start, that the Ukrainian army, the Interior Ministry, the SBU in 2014 “just waited for the signal from the Kremlin” to suppress the riot, and other fairy tales. There is no answer to the logical question why they were “waiting for the go-ahead” and caught the escaped Yanukovych, instead of re-capturing and dispersing Maidan. It turns out that until February 20th they were hindered by Yanukovych, after February 20th they were not given the go-ahead by Moscow, and they are still sitting, waiting for the first Russian tank, and do not understand why it does not arrive.

It’s a funny tale about how 40 million Russians destroy themselves by voting for nationalists, because Moscow is too lazy to send one tank across the border.

I understand that in the presence of some honest people with an unspoiled reputation, there are no real pro-Russian forces in Ukraine. But one can at least not vote for anyone. Let the presidential election be held with a 30% turnout. Let Poroshenko sit in his chair (and he still wouldn’t remain sat, as there were oligarchs, militants, and Americans against him). How would things be any worse than they are now? They wouldn’t – at least from the outside it was clear that the majority of Ukrainian citizens are not satisfied with the nationalist regime. They didn’t vote for it. There would be something to talk about.

Meanwhile, the “pro-Russian forces” in Ukraine are marching cheerfully in beautiful shiny tinfoil hats, looking for another nationalist hope for a better future in the foul-smelling garbage of Ukrainian politics, and Russia is branded with shame and bad words worse than other nationalists, the Kremlin simply has no one to talk to and work with in Ukraine.

But one can’t be forbidden from dreaming. Beautiful, bright, artistic dreams about how a Russian tank drives up to one’s house, Putin comes out of it and says: “Dear hero of the Russian world, I have come to liberate you and at the same time brought several billion dollars so that you can overthrow my criminal regime and build a real Russia” — they are so fascinating, these dreams.


Rostislav Ishchenko

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