How to Explain the Real Reason Why Russia is Waging a War on Ukraine to Europeans
The Ukrainians who fled to Europe lack the right arguments while talking to Europeans who just can't understand why Russia attacked Ukraine and why Ukrainians do not agree to meet halfway. We did our best to prepare a few points which might help to clarify the matter.
In a nutshell, Russians colonized the neighboring countries in Europe and Asia. Those exploits have always been glorified in Russian literature. Each new generation of Russians absorbs the sacralization of the gains along with the idea that Russians are superior to those who they “enlighten” (i.e. the conquerors are better than the conquered) with mother’s milk.
Since an anti-colonial rethink of Russian culture never happened, the members of the so-called Russian “liberal opposition” still cannot grasp the idea nor do they feel the need for it.
This explains why the majority of Russian people support Russia's war against Ukraine according to the assessment carried out by Levada Analycical Center.
Still, the people of the West cannot fully understand what the real Russia is about and how it differs from the image Russia has been building meticulously for many centuries. The people of the West also lack the understanding of what Ukraine actually is. Here are a few key facts about Russia and Ukraine to clarify things.
1. Ukraine has always fought for its independence
Ukraine became a part of Muscovy in the second half of the 17th century according to the Pereiaslav Treaty between the Hetman of the Zaporozhian Host Bohdan Khmelnitsky and the Russian tsar Aleksey Mikhailovich. Khmelnitsky only agreed to the treaty to gain leverage in the war against the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. The Ukrainians fought against the Polish state because they wanted Ukraine’s autonomy and more rights.
The treaty with Muscovy provided for a wider autonomy, but after the death of Bohdan Khmelnitsky the rights were gradually curtailed. Russia completed the absorption of Ukraine in 1709 after Hetman Mazepa had joined forces with the King of Sweden Charles XII in the Great Northern War and had lost. Those events marked the beginning of a rapid dismantling of Ukraine’s autonomy.
In the second half of the 19th century, when the peoples of Central Europe including Ukrainians started to embrace the ideas of national revival, Russia introduced a systemic policy of suppressing the Ukrainian language.
Taras Shevchenko, the most prominent Ukrainian poet who was born at the beginning of the 19th century, was arrested three times and eventually exiled by the Russian authorities.
Despite the crackdown, Ukrainians still managed to develop their literary language and create Ukrainian literature. It was a long and exhausting battle against the colonizers. Russia's policy in Ukraine was no different from the policies of European countries in their overseas colonies.
However, there are some significant differences in the perception: firstly, there was no sea to separate Ukraine and Russia. Both Ukrainians and Russians have the same color of skin and share the same Orthodox Christian beliefs. Even if some people in the West were aware of the struggle of the Ukrainian people, the fight was never perceived as anti-colonial.
Along the fight for the language and national identity, many popular revolts sparked in Ukraine to break the chains of serfdom and improve the harsh living conditions. The struggle culminated in the proclamation of Ukrainian People's Republic (UPR) in 1918.
UPR forces fought against the Bolsheviks, the supporters of the Tsarist Russia (the so-called “white guard”), and the Poles who laid claim to a part of Ukraine's territory. Unfortunately, UPR fell. The Bolsheviks established the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic to gain the loyalty of the Ukrainian people. When the Moscow regime established itself, the USSR leaders were executed while Ukrainian peasants fell victim to man-made famine engineered by the Soviet government which killed about 4 million Ukrainians. The Soviets also executed almost all Ukrainian cultural figures. To survive the purge, one had to adapt quickly and start praising the Communist party and “the elder Russian brother”. Today, those events are referred to as “the Executed Renaissance”.
A new movement for the revival of Ukraine’s independence was born on the ruins of UPR. Added at the request of the readers: On 30 June 1941, the self-proclaimed government formed by the members of the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists declared the renewal of the independent Ukrainian state leading to their execution by the Nazi regime. The armed struggle against all the hostile forces continued during and after the Second World War causing the communist repressions of approximately half a million Ukrainians in 1944-54 on the suspicion of being part of the movement. The Ukrainian Gulag prisoners with the experience of armed struggle and underground resistance organized mass uprisings in Norilsk and Kengir. The Soviet leadership finally realized that were unable to keep the labor camps under control causing the political thaw and the repudiation of the “Stalin cult”.
The Ukrainian dissident movement gained momentum in 1960s. The members of the movement did not agree with the colonial policy of the Soviet Union and expressed their liberal and anti-totalitarian views openly even under the risk of imprisonment which was exactly what happened to them. Today, those people are called “the Sixtiers”.
They were inspired by the article “Internationalism or Russification” passed around in great secret. It was written by the Ukrainian intellectual Ivan Dzyuba who argued that the friendship among peoples is just a front for an elaborate russification policy. If you were caught reading this article, you could lose your job if you were lucky since you would otherwise end up in jail.
Ukraine has always put up a fight against the Russian colonialism which somehow remained unnoticed by the West.
Russia also continues its efforts to appropriate the name “Kyivan Rus” and count its history from this Medieval state. Ukraine, however, believes that it is Ukraine that is the heir to the ancient Rus. Why Kyivan Rus is Ukraine and not Russia was explained expertly by Timothy Snyder, Professor of History at Yale University, in his course “The Making of Modern Ukraine”. He calls the ancient Russia “Mongol Rus” since Moscow was a site of tribute collection for the Golden Horde for 300 years while Kyiv remained under Mongol control for a much shorter time. See the brief content of Timothy Snyder’ lecture on Moscow Rus in the Ukrainian language here.
The full series of lectures by Timothy Snyder is available here (subtitled in Ukrainian).
2. Contempt for non-Russians in the USSR
Along with the frequent mentions of international friendship, the popular culture Soviet Union abounded in jokes which ridiculed non-Russian citizens of the USSR and portrayed them as utterly stupid.
There were all kinds of reasons to laugh at all of the “brotherly” peoples except “the elder brother”, the moniker of the Russian people in the USSR. For example, in the popular jokes the Moldovans changed a light bulb in teams of five, the Chukchi drove in the rear gear, and the peoples of the Caucasus engaged in sexual perversions, but only in the Soviet imagination. There were also jokes about the Russians who competed against the “noble” nations – the French or the Americans and, of course, won.
Ukrainians can give many examples of Russians' scornfulness which is a characteristic feature of a colonizer's mindset. They would typically say that although your food is delicious and your songs are lovely, your language is ungainly and more appropriate in a pigsty than in the classroom.
Such things were told by the teachers working in Ukrainian schools. Those were no single and unrelated occasions: any deviation from the official policy spelled trouble for the teachers. Bear in mind that Soviet repressions took their toll on most every family: there was always someone who fell victim to the regime. Nobody wanted to follow the same fate.
Interestingly, although there were no explicit instructions in the communist policy documents or government regulations on ridiculing the Ukrainian language in Ukrainian schools or other languages in other Soviet republics, this was common practice in schools. Most teachers of the Russian language were ethnic Russians. They behaved like typical colonizers because they were exactly that. They were paid higher salaries compared to the teachers of national languages. For more information on the subject read our article here.
While reflecting on the Russian contempt and imperialist mindset, Russian liberal journalist Leonid Parfyonov, who fled Russia after its invasion into Ukraine, shared a story from his days at university. When he was a student, he learned the Bulgarian language to converse with students from Bulgaria who had come to Russia under the “international friendship” program. The fellow Russian students reported him to the authorities claiming that he had been supporting the ideas of Bulgarian nationalism by speaking Bulgarian to the Bulgarians. The logic of the snitches was quite simple: if the “younger brothers” (in fact, those were all the people from non-Russian Soviet republics and satellite countries) come to Moscow, they must speak Russian — a Russian national who is bowing to them is up to no good.
Russians still treat Ukrainians and other neighbors with the same imperial contempt irrespective of their attitude to Putin. Despite being critical of the Kremlin regime, a member of the Russian opposition would still remain a colonizer at heart and treat Ukrainians and other nations from the former Soviet countries as second-grade. The current Russian liberals and the opposition supporters never question the feasibility of the existence of the Russian empire and show no support of the occupied peoples who strive to revive their national culture or obtain more rights of self-government.
For example, although the famous Russian dissident Solzhenitsyn was an outspoken critic of the communist dictatorship, he still believed that the Russian empire had its merits. The current leader of the opposition Navalny supported the Russian occupation of Crimea.
3. The cult classic film “Brother 2”
In the Russian action film “Brother 2” released in 2000, a simple young man from Russia goes to Chicago to take on the Ukrainian mob. The film developed a cult following while the line “You bastards are going to answer for Sevastopol, too!” became a popular meme. Russian media still run articles which justify the invasion with the quotes from this film. What made “Brother 2” so popular is that it struck an imperialist chord throughout the Russian society. There were hardly any in-depth critical reviews of the film even when such things were allowed in Russia. This is no surprise at all since the film continued the cultural thread started by the Russian classics such as Lermontov and Pushkin.
The articles on how the “non-political” Russian cinema formed the Russia as we know it today are available here and here.
4. Classic Russian books justify colonialism
In fact, the “Brother” films continue a long-existing tradition of the Russian literature. The West relies on the classic Russian literature for insights about Russia. While the Western readers admire its character, a closer look reveals two distinctive trends: 1. The glorification of the conquests of the Russian empire and humiliation of the colonized peoples. 2. The absence of criticism of the authorities whose actions are always supported regardless of what they do and what atrocities they commit.
These trends are brilliantly explained in the book “Imperial Knowledge: Russian Literature and Colonialism” by Ewa M. Thompson. Here is a quick quotation: “From his early poem “The Prisoner of the Caucasus” to the mature “Journey to Arzrum during the 1829 Campaign” [Puteshestvie v Arzrum vo vremia pokhoda 1829 goda], Pushkin set out to create a mute and intellectually deficient Caucasus, recklessly brave in its pointless struggle and ripe for Russian governance. Pushkin and Lermontov manufactured for the Russian textual memory the image of Russia as a stem but just mistress of the area.”
Here is an example of Pushkin’s writing on the conquest of the Caucasus:
“And then I shall celebrate the glorious time
when our two-headed eagle
scenting bloody combat,
rose up high against the disaffected Caucasus...
Hushed now are the furious shouts of war:
all is in subjection to Russian arms.
The proud sons of the Caucasus fought on,
They suffered dreadful losses;
but nothing could save them —
not the carnage they inflicted on us,
not their fabled weaponry,
not their mountains, nor their spirited horses,
not their devotion to an untamed freedom”.
“The Prisoner of the Caucasus”
We would also like to quote a recent interview with the researcher:
“All the views on the world and Russia conjured up by Russian writers were subjected to strict censorship by the Tsarist and Soviet authorities.
It is hard to say if those writers desperately wanted to be published or they truly believed the propaganda. Of course, this creates a negative image of Ukraine or Poland in the West, but this is how things are done in Russia. The descriptions of languages of the minorities and their representatives are always negative there”. For more details read here.
Since this Russian literary heritage has not been rethought, it continues to evoke a sense of superiority over the enslaved peoples among Russian people.
Even such an acclaimed poet and United States Poet Laureate as Joseph Brodsky did not hesitate to humiliate Ukrainians in his poetry. Here is a quotation from his poem “On the Independence of Ukraine”
“It’s over now. Now hurry back to your huts
To be gang-banged by Krauts and Polacks.
It’s been fun hanging together from the same gallows loop,
But when you're alone, you can eat all that sweet beetroot soup.”
Russian literature is replete with other examples which all point to the same fact.
5. False internationalism in the USSR
Here is a brief collection of quotations from the opinion article by Botakoz Kassymbekova, Assistant Professor of Modern History at the University of Basel, of Kazakh descent:
“Many in Western academia bought into the anti-colonial narrative Moscow was trying to sell because they took official proclamations at face value and wanted to believe in the story of communist anti-imperialism. By focusing on individuals and official proclamations, Western academia too often overlooked the fact that Stalin was obsessed with maintaining Russian imperial borders and had adopted the same toolkit – ethnic cleansing, crushing dissent, destroying national movements, privileging Russian ethnicity and culture – that tsarist Russia used to maintain them.
Soviet coloniality was dismissed also because knowledge about the Soviet Union in the West was Russocentric. The Soviet Union was often referred to simply as Russia.
Western scholarship also overwhelmingly focused on Soviet metropolises – Moscow and Leningrad. They knew very little, if at all, about the Soviet peripheries, which meant that nobody really understood the uprisings in Central Asia, the Caucasus or the Baltics from the late 1980s onwards or the bloodshed in Tajikistan, Nagorno-Karabakh, Transnistria, Abkhazia, South Ossetia and later Chechnya.
The wave of decolonization in Africa, the Middle East, South and Southeast Asia, which started after World War II, was accompanied by rigorous academic discussions and scholarship of colonial legacies and tools of violence. By contrast, the 1991 dissolution of the Soviet Union did not result in similar scrutiny of the Russian imperial legacy.
In Russia itself, the dominant narrative was one of victimhood.
The idea that the Soviet Union was an internationalist experiment continued to stick, and its collapse was seen as this experiment simply expiring.
To understand Russia, one needs to listen to those who lived under Russian colonial rule. To understand former and current Russian colonies, one needs to listen to historians from these places and study their cultures, languages and histories, both written and unwritten. To appreciate the ways out of colonial dictatorships, one needs to study the successful transformations of states like Ukraine. This would require dismissing the myth of the “artificial nation” and finally seeing Russia as an empire.”.
How to change it
It was only military defeats and economic collapse that motivated certain members of the Russian cultural elite to rethink their history. However, those effects were not lasting. A failed attempt of taking part in the First World War triggered a revolution in Russia causing the tsar to abdicate the throne and the parliament to appoint the Kerensky government. After less than a year of democracy a new dictatorship established in Russia — the USSR.
The fear of an economic collapse forced the USSR to attempt reforms opening the floodgates to a stream of exciting and horrifying publications in the Moscow-based media telling about the crimes of the Soviet regime.
The events led to Putin's dictatorship which still enjoys an unwaivering support of the Russian people after his 23 years in power.
Following the collapse of the Soviet Union shortly after the Afghanistan debacle, the society grew critical of aggressive military campaigns. However, even the most fervent critics soon returned to the all-familiar belligerence and contempt of the conquered nations. The aforementioned film “Brother 2” is a prime example of such attitude.
Therefore, the only Russia which does not pose a threat to the world is the one which had dissolved into a number of smaller states after a military defeat in Ukraine following the path of the British Empire. Two English-speaking countries co-exist peacefully in North America. Similarly, a number of Russian-speaking countries may co-exist in Eurasia on the territory of the current Russia which is still inhabited by many conquered peoples with a history of genocide, suppression of national language, deportations, seizures etc. Some of them already enjoy an autonomous status while others still don't.
There are also differences between the Russians who live in Siberia and those who inhabit its European part. The establishment of smaller sovereign states will enable Russians to live more prosperously without wasting resources on confronting the entire world.
The Russians who live in the Asian part of the country fear Chinese expansion and dislike the communist regime in China — therefore, such countries are likely to side with the USA, Europe and Japan joining the rest of the democratic world. When the last empire ceases to exist, imperialist ambitions will curb significantly causing the new countries to welcome investments and new technology. This will provide lucrative business opportunities for Western companies.
The people who used to be enslaved by the empire will finally have a chance to revive their culture and language.
Western politicians are concerned about the risks of nuclear weapons currently maintained by Russia falling into the hands of terrorists. However, after the collapse of the USSR its nuclear weapons did not end up on the black market while Ukraine even agreed to denuclearize completely. To prevent terrorists from taking control of Russian nuclear weapons, Western governments ought to be already working on multiple scenarios to prepare for the imminent collapse of Russia.