History Lessons

by Andrew Stuttaford

Those trying to learn more about the extraordinarily complex history of Ukraine, could do much, much worse than read this fine piece in Eurozine by historian Tim Snyder, author of the definitive Bloodlands. There is so much here worth excerpting that it is hard to know what to choose, but here are a few passages (my emphasis added):

Later, Soviet propaganda maintained that anyone who mentioned the [Ukrainian] famine must be an agent of Nazi Germany. Thus began the politics of fascism and anti-fascism, where Moscow was the defender of all that was good, and its critics were fascists. This very effective rhetorical pose did not preclude an actual Soviet alliance with the actual Nazis in 1939. Given today’s return of Russian propaganda to anti-fascism, this is an important point to remember: the whole grand moral Manichaeism was meant to serve the state, and as such did not limit it in any way. The embrace of anti-fascism as a strategy is quite different from opposing actual fascists.

….A revolutionary situation always favours extremists, and watchfulness is certainly in order. It is quite striking, however, that Kyiv and Ukraine returned to order immediately after the revolution and that the new government has taken an almost unbelievably calm stance in the face of Russian invasion. The only scenario in which Ukrainian extremists actually come to the fore is one in which Russia actually tries to invade the rest of the country. If presidential elections proceed as planned in May, then the unpopularity and weakness of the Ukrainian far Right will be revealed. This is why Moscow opposes those elections….

…The current government is unselfconsciously multiethnic and multilingual. Ukraine is a cosmopolitan place where considerations of language and ethnicity count for less then we think. In fact, Ukraine is now the site of the largest and most important free media in the Russian language, since all important media in Ukraine appear in Russian, and since freedom of speech prevails….the authoritarian far Right in Russia is infinitely more dangerous than the authoritarian far Right in Ukraine. It is in power, for one thing. It has no meaningful rivals, for another. It does not have to accommodate itself to international expectations, for a third. And it is now pursuing a foreign policy that is based openly upon the ethnicization of the world [of the world, perhaps not, but of Russia’s ‘near abroad’ certainly]. It does not matter who an individual is according to law or his own preferences: the fact that he speaks Russian makes him a Volksgenosse requiring Russian protection, which is to say invasion.

But almost no essay, however brilliant, is perfect and Snyder, having wobbled a bit (in my view) when discussing how Putin’s Eurasian project may be changing, goes off the rails when it comes to the western half of the continent.

“European integration,” writes Snyder, “presumes liberal democracy,” That “presumes” carries within it a great deal of presumption.

European integration on the EU model rests on the (false) premise that national democracies cannot be trusted to preserve European peace. Until the peoples of Europe can be persuaded to buy into the common, largely bogus “European” identity that is being constructed for them by their betters in Brussels they are not to be trusted with anything approaching a properly functioning representative democracy. Instead they are ordered around by technocrats, sometimes in a liberal (in the classical sense) direction, and sometimes not. It should not be forgotten that the founding principles of what became the EU owe infinitely more to corporatism than to the ideas of Adam Smith, something that Snyder overlooks. To be sure, the accession of the UK into what became the EU a decade and a half after its formation eventually added a good dose of free market thinking into the Brussels mix, but it has never been an easy fit. The EU remains au fond, a corporatist project, controlling, centralizing and profoundly suspicious of the ballot box.

Snyder’s (hopelessly idealized) EU is, to him, what stands between Europe and the “embrace of Eurasia”. That’s the either/or equation he sees as lying at the base of Putin’s disturbing engagement with the EU’s euroskeptic ”right” (a topic that I touched upon  here and here). I have no doubt that Putin would like to see a weaker EU. In some senses the EU does indeed represent a challenge to his regime, but it’s too much of a leap to jump from that fact to an argument that the peoples of the Western half of the continent must choose between Brussels’ United States of Europe or prostration (at the very least) before Putin’s Eurasia. To start with there’s NATO, an alliance (unmentioned by Snyder) that has done far more for European security than the EU, and which, I should add, has been somewhat weakened by the way in which the EU has evolved. 

More than that, we have to look at the way that the EU has drained so much of the vitality out of Europe’s democracies, leaving quite a bit of what remains to take refuge in sometimes alarming bolt holes, a process accelerated by the economic destruction that the euro has brought in its wake. The fact that the National Front’s Marine Le Pen flirts with Moscow is not a warning that European integration hasn’t gone far enough, but a demonstration that it has gone too far.

Speaking in that daily insult to democracy better known as the EU’s parliament, Nigel Farage, the leader of Britain’s euroskeptic UKIP, gave a stark warning of where the imposition of European union could lead. UKIP is a party that has — such is the damage that the EU has done to the domestic politics of its member states — shown itself rather too willing to give credence to the Kremlin’s version of what happened in Ukraine, but, despite that (and as so often), it is worth paying attention to what Farage had to say: 

“The whole European project is based on a falsehood… and it’s a dangerous one.. because if you try to impose a new flag, a new anthem, a new president, a new army, a new police force; without first seeking the consent of the people you are creating the very nationalisms and resentment that the project was supposed to snuff out”.

Farage concludes by saying  that he is not against Europe but he is “against this Europe.” To watch his speech (and do watch his speech), follow the link given here.

And after you have finished listening to his words, ask yourself what it says that no ‘mainstream’ politician would make a speech like that, and then ask yourself about the implications of that absence, and the opportunities that it has given to Mr. Putin.

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