The phrase “How come the Americans can, and Russia can’t?” has become the main talking point emanating from Russia aimed to justify the Russian army’s aggression in Crimea. What is implied, clearly, is Russia’s asserting a right to play the role of a “world policeman,” that Russia has just as much right to bomb Iraq or send its troops into Afghanistan. “We too have the right to do it,” they say indignantly. “Why can’t we kill, bomb, and pillage? Why can’t we establish our order of things in various places?” It doesn’t matter that Ukraine is not Afghanistan. It doesn’t matter that Mikheil Saakashvili is not Saddam Hussein. “Why can’t we?”
The latest events in Ukraine have led the entire world to understand that the Putin regime, established over the course of fourteen years with the help of a revanchist ideology of reclaiming Russia’s former greatness, is striving to return the world to the conditions of a cold war.
An aggravating circumstance of such a return stems from the fact that over the course of the twenty-three years since the disintegration of the USSR, the world has changed a great deal, while Russia hasn’t.
The conflict emanates from the heads of the ideologists of Russian power who have heightened the revanchist sentiment in their country to an absurd level. Today we are dealing with a veritable political monster: a postmodernist fusion of protectionist neo-imperial ideology with elements of a Russian-style chauvinism that is dangerously close to Nazism, as well as Soviet-style bully behavior. Now we are witnessing the export of this Kremlin-generated phantom beyond the borders of the Russian Federation.
Thus when I, a citizen of Ukraine, whose sovereign territory is now steamrolled by Russian armored personnel carriers and trampled by soldiers in green camouflage, hear from the bards of Russian revanche, “How come the Americans can, and Russia can’t?,” I reply with a question of my own: “What is Russia bringing to the world? Which values underlie its present-day mission? Including, and especially, in the countries of the former USSR, Ukraine in particular.”
In other words, we are speaking about Putin’s “Russian order” and the values of russkii mir, “the Russian world” as an export commodity, and also why for Ukraine, and for the rest of the world, this commodity is not simply unnecessary, but harmful.
The main problem is that since the beginning of Putin’s rule, following the collapse of Yeltsin’s democratization and liberalization program of the 1990s, Russia found itself in a curious situation. What should it do next? What should be done with the phantom Soviet identity of millions of Russians; how should this enduring identity be reconciled with reality? How could one preserve the integrity of a large country and grant people a sense of stability? At that moment, they were unable to come up with any other project but a return to the good old Russian imperial chauvinism. “Russia is rising from its knees!,” said Putin and began building his “power vertical.”
It all began with a search for enemies. And enemies were found. First the Chechens, then the Georgians, the gays, the Jews, the Ukrainians. Naturally, all of this was accompanied by ratcheting a phobia of the West, so familiar to the Russia ear. There appeared a new slur for the Americans, pindosy. The assortment of enemies surrounding the proud and unassailable fortress of the Russian soul became so wide that each challenge of contemporary world was easily met with a handy and effective new phobia.
The Putin regime was shutting itself off from the rest of the world with the help of an orderly system of psychological complexes.
The propaganda machine, turned on to satisfy these needs, accomplished what had seemed impossible. In fourteen years Putin & Co. managed to implement a fantastic experiment: return to the mental state of a cold war, of all-encompassing danger and extreme intolerance. May 9, Victory Day, became not only the main holiday of the country but also the last stand of Russianness. Add to this the superficial gold-plated Orthodox piety, which following the ancient Byzantine tradition fused itself with secular power, cementing state ideology with xenophobic paranoia. The official Russian Orthodoxy was proclaimed a special kind of spirituality, replacing the Soviet-era “moral code of builders of communism.” At the same time, the utter marginalization of any and all manifestations of dissident thinking and disagreement with the party’s general line created a stale atmosphere of suspicion and fear.
Under the banner of a nation that won the war with Nazism, an actual fascist regime has been created. “The fascists of the future will call themselves anti-fascists”: this principle was put into reality in contemporary Russia.
Side by side with the return to a Jurassic-era ideology, a thorough clearing of the political field was undertaken. In the current Russian parliament there isn’t a single political force that could be seen as an opposition to this ghost of “rising from the knees.” Any and all openness, reform-mindedness, actual modernization were chased into a corner and replaced by a harsh vertical line of power, the unchallenged dominance of Gazprom and the oligarchic circles, and a laughable attempt to create Russia’s own Silicone Valley in Skolkovo. Simultaneously the regime’s creators sold oil and gas to Europe, bought British soccer teams, acquired fancy Western mansions, sent their children to study in Western universities, and funneled billions of dollars into offshore bank accounts.
In this way, a schizophrenic system was created where old myths and fears were peddled to the rank-and-file population while members of the power vertical consistently integrated themselves, on an individual basis, into the Western world.
The hypocrisy of the Putin regime consists in the total plunder of natural resources under the cover of peddling old ideological cud. Billions of dollars exchanged for illusions and phantasms for their poor and robbed populace. It is in this shape that contemporary Russia arrived at today’s Crimean crisis, using the situation in revolutionary Ukraine to satisfy its own revanchist ambitions. And when Putin, this “gatherer of Russian lands,” talks about “Russia’s interests,” he means first and foremost disrespect of the world order that took shape after 1991.
For fourteen years Russia strove to become the anti-America. However, in difference from the US who, in the opinion of many, serve as “the world’s policeman,” none of the values proclaimed by the present-day Russian leadership and by the sizeable portion of Russia’s population poisoned by the propaganda flowing from their TV sets, comes across as attractive to the rest of the world. Similarly, contemporary Russia as a project is not needed by Ukraine, which for the last four years was subjected to full-scale control of the Kremlin.
At present, Russia has neither democracy, nor an attractive model of economic development, nor a successful project of nurturing civil society.
If the USSR, in the 1950s–1980s, at least offered the newly postcolonial nations the idea of socialism, present-day Russia is a negative value, an empty shell of a myth, armed with nuclear warheads and a propaganda machine. Nothing good, productive, or attractive. Only the principle that might makes right, along with information wars, propaganda, and all-pervasive corruption.
Today’s Russia is a nation in collapse, a place of triumphant hypocrisy, of an unbridgeable gap between theory and practice, and a source of danger not only for its close neighbors whom, following the example of the Russian Orthodox Church, it considers its canonical territory, but for the whole world. A matryoshka doll with nuclear missiles, empty and rotten on the inside. Today it has occupied Crimea, and tomorrow it may take Poland or Finland. A new Third Reich, trampling all the possible international treaties in the matter of days, now flourishes in Russia and is beginning to spill beyond its borders. This is how Hitler acted in 1938.
And this is why Russia can’t.
Translated by Vitaly Chernetsky
Andriy Bondar is a poet, essayist, and literary translator based in Kyiv, Ukraine