Anti-Imperialist Myths are Coming Back in 21st Century Russia
Toomas Hendrik Ilves 9 November 2015

It is completely ridiculous to attempt to find any ideological coherence in what we see in Russia today, summed up by two iconic pictures we’ve seen over and over again. One is an icon, I mean a deeply religious figure, in the same classical Russian icon-style, carried around, blessed once some weeks ago, of Josef Stalin as a saint, with a halo around him. Now if you can understand, if you can find any kind of ideological coherence in Josef Stalin being an icon, with a halo, and having a Russian Orthodox priest bless the icon with holy water, it is a world that I cannot grasp. And I would add to that, the hundreds of pictures we have seen of people giving a Roman right hand salute, with flags, with swastikas, of people saying they are going to fight the Ukrainian fascists, or Russian soldiers captured in the Donbass, with huge Germans sort-of eagle and the swastika tattooed on their backs. Now there is no ideological coherence and I would argue that an attempt to search for an ideological coherence here, at least in the classical lines that we are used to thinking of ideology and ideological coherence or you know sort of deep arguments between Trotskyites and whoever through the past 20th century is doomed. I will come back to that and I will end by saying that this is probably the first post-modernist ideology, and what some of its sources are.

But we can see a number of features in what is going on. First of all, there is clearly an attempt to resurrect Tsar Nicholas I’s authoritarianism, this sort of three-part ideology of the Russian Empire in the early 19th century of authoritarianism, orthodoxy and Derzhava, which is a Russian term not easily translatable, but means “Great Statehood,” “Big Power.” And this was something that Tsar Nicholas I was promoting, it was a very reactionary creed at the time. As you recall there were all kinds of attempts, for example the Decemberists, to bring democracy to Russia. They were all arrested and shot and exiled. But that is the 19th century source of what is going on right now. We see former communists, we see KGB people sort of embracing orthodoxy. This is, if anyone’s really interested, there is a person whose name is Victor Yasman who, about 25 years ago, was already talking about the KGB’s instrumentalization of orthodoxy and its ties to Lev Gumilev’s sort of funny ideas, which were very fascistic. But in any case that’s one of the sources of their behavior.

I would argue that a second source, intellectual source, that has been adopted is actually a German, Carl Schmitt, who probably promoted the most coherent and serious argument against liberal democracy ever produced. I mean everybody else who has been against liberal democracy has been intellectually kind of weak but this was an – even Leo Strauss wrote his first paper ever on The Concept of the Political. But Carl Schmitt who was basically the great ideologue and the crown prince of Nazi jurisprudence basically said ‘forget democracy’, liberal democracy, politics is about us versus them. And it’s very clearly represented in Russian political thought in the last ten years and this whole idea of nashi, ours, we are nashi then there is them, this opposition defining the enemy, which was also used, by the way, by Josef Goebbels (“Was wir brauchen ist eines Feindes Bild zu schaffen”), but he was also a student of Schmitt as well. So I mean this is clearly part of this, we, it’s us and it’s them. Very strongly promoted. Krim nash, Crimea is ours. The big slogan of the last fifteen months. It’s us.

And who is them? Well this is clearly enunciated by all kinds of people, I guess the way to sum it up is in the Russian term Gay-ropa. Europe is “them”. Europe is – I mean the ultimate iconic figure of Europe for Russia, or Russian ideology, is that guy with the beard, Conchita Wurst. “He” sums up the West. Decadent, weak impotent. Whereas we, nashi, we are strong, we are powerful. We are uncorrupted by all of this homosexuality, all of this silly liberal democracy, all of this gay marriage. I mean this is the image that is presented of them as opposed to us. Now this is a very bizarre mishmash. You cannot really find a logical coherence in this. And I would say that in order to get to where it gets very post-modernist is that in fact post-modernism, through Derrida and all kinds of other people, basically say you don’t need any of this. And I think what is clearly one of the intellectual sources of the architect of a lot of this. The architect being Mr. Surkov, who was the chief architect of this whole thing, I don’t know how else to put it, you can find in Baudrillard, who says there is no truth. There are no truths. I mean this is the general part of the postmodernist program for the last thirty years but Baudrillard probably is most explicit in this. And so, how is this manifested? When you shoot down the Malaysian Airline flight MH17’s, you put out all these various theories. You say that well it was shot down by a BUK missile. Okay, maybe. No, it was a Ukrainian jet fighter that actually went in there and fired a missile. Then they put another alternative one that actually all three hundred people on the plane were dead already when the plane lifted up from Schipol airport, I mean you’ve seen this yes? This is what they said. And then the nasty Americans blew it up over Ukraine to discredit the Russians. I mean we see it over and over again. Those are probably the craziest examples but what was put out when Boris Nemtsov, who was actually a good friend of mine, when he was shot. It was “done by the Russian liberals to discredit the Russian government”. Now so what you do is you put out all of these possible versions, and, in this way, you raise doubts about the entire concept of truth and that, in this postmodernist reality, where all things are equal to one another and there is no intellectual, at least the German word would be, there is nothing konsequent. Nothing is logically consistent. It doesn’t matter. This allows you to basically say anything and the concept of truth becomes more and more devalued and in the service of the regime. So we have seen all kinds – and this especially applies to history where in the once case there is this major attack on so-called falsifiers of history, anyone who does not have the same history as the history promoted by the Kremlin, on the other hand, the worst Soviet lines about the Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact are repeated. Three weeks ago there was a movie shown on Russian television showing how yes in fact the Soviet Union was forced to invade then-Czechoslovakia because the nasty Americans were planning, the imperialists, were planning to overthrow the government of Czechoslovakia. I mean now the Czech and Slovak republics. Not even the Soviets believed that and took it seriously. I mean maybe in 1968 for a while, you know Suslov and Breznev would take that line but of course, even throughout the ‘80s, this was really embarrassing.

Yet in this current environment we see all of those myths coming back. Where it gets really bad is the demonization of the Ukrainians. Denying them nationhood. Saying they were never really a nation anyway. This mythologization of Crimea as the New Jerusalem. I mean, “we are the crusaders fighting to get Crimea back to us the way we saw the crusades” with those evil Saracens the Ukrainian fascists who wouldn’t be able to do anything anyway without the nefarious West, the nefarious European Union, the nefarious NATO. All of this flies so completely in the face of what the facts are. Yet, what we find is that people believe this.

Before I get to my final point, I’ll say what really stuns me is that we take this seriously. We have to assuage their worries. We have to make them realize we don’t really mean harm to them. I mean my problem – what do you do in this context? It’s absolutely ridiculous to be able to say no, we really are not fascists. No, we really don’t want to enlarge, expand NATO to the Ukrainians. There’s now – something as small as the European Association Agreement. We signed our Association Agreement ten years before we joined the European Union. What did it give us? Not much, I mean we got the Archimedes and Aristotle Programs for teacher-student exchange. We got a break on some tariffs. That’s about it. We gave up a lot, but that’s different. But the point is presented, and it’s taken seriously in the West and especially here, like “oh my god we’ve gone too far. We’ve given them an Association Agreement.” And of course, even EU membership was something that even late Primakov was willing to accept, for countries like mine. They said, you can join the EU, just don’t join NATO. But now here we are.

What this has led to, unfortunately, aside from just simply this bizarre, incoherent ideology that we see, is what is more important for us, I would argue, is the complete and utter discrediting of the post-WW2 order or security architecture. We’ve seen, in the annexation of Crimea, first of all a violation of the UN Charter, forbidding aggression. The 1975 Helsinki Final Act saying that border change may not take place through use of force. The 1990 Paris Charter which says that countries have the right to choose their security arrangements, not to mention of course the Budapest memorandum, which I predict will have the long-term consequences of no country ever giving up their nuclear weapons, because why would you? If you saw, with the added, bizarre, moment that the Budapest agreement guaranteed the territorial integrity of Ukraine in return for removal of nuclear weapons. And now we see the threat to bring nuclear weapons to the territory of Ukraine, though it is called Crimea, and Russian Crimea. And then of course the final thing that I am surprised has not elicited a bigger reaction, which is the Sudetenland argument used to annex Crimea. The Sudetenland, our compatriots abroad, argument was discredited on May 8, 1945. It was the argumentation used in 1938 to dismember Czechoslovakia —“we have to save our compatriots from illusory discrimination”. Yet this is what was used and I really am surprised that has not been attacked more because I mean whose idea was that? Of course it was very interesting to read an article by Andranik Migranyan, about a year ago, saying that, well until 1939 or 1940 Adolf Hitler was a good guy. He was defending the interests of Germans abroad. Only with the invasion of, what was his – his nefarious invasion of the Soviet Union did he become a bad guy, which is interesting.

But the problem is why do we have all this? And I really think that if we’re looking at the sources of Russian behaviour we really have to look at why is this being done? I would argue it is to basically prop up a mafia regime, which is a regime – it is a regime based on kleptocracy, on bribery, on getting its way through bribing people and making a lot of money and not using it to develop your own economy and the fear is that when you have this kind of regime, which is best described by Mario Puzo, who was the author of the book The Godfather, if you really want to understand how these people think, watch The Godfather I and The Godfather II, they beat the book. But in any case, that represents the sources of their behavior. I mean look at the whole FIFA scandal, if nothing else. But the point is that by bribing people, offering people lots of money, they get their way and domestically anything that threatens the situation is dealt with very harshly. I would disagree, I mean you could be an intellectual whining and complaining but if you try to do something political you’re lucky if you live. I mean, for example, when the reporter went and took pictures of dead, of fresh graves in Skov, of soldiers who had died in Ukraine, he was brutally beaten. I mean anything that threatens the real narrative is very scary. So that’s where we are today, I would say we’re dealing with something that is intellectually incomprehensible except to view it as anything that works in the service of maintaining the status quo. So I think that’s where we are and I think trying to find rhyme or reason here is fairly pointless.

As a final coda I would say, to get away from this argument that “oh we don’t want a new cold war”: we don’t want a hot war. That’s what we’re worried about. Frankly, we don’t want a hot war. And the cold war, as bad as it was, and I’m an old cold warrior and I lived in München as a cold warrior – is that nobody got killed. Or a few – at least after 1960, – I mean basically from 1960 on, basically, people didn’t get killed. No one threatened to use nuclear arms – , I mean the Soviets, they realized that it was not appropriate to threaten people with nuclear bombs. It was not appropriate to say, as the deputy prime minister said “tanks don’t need visas”. Which he did say. All of this was absolutely missing. Somehow the Soviets became civilized, I mean you know they did run around with Negev pistols, ambassadors ran around with guns and pistols in the 1920s, but by the 1950s, they realized that if they wanted to be taken seriously they would have to behave, they would have to show a little bit of Kinderstube.


Closing remarks

I will focus on the foreign policy implications of this discussion, which is that, I mean we spend a lot of time all of us trying to understand what is going on but understanding does not mean you can acquiesce. The fact that we have to understand what Russia wants and pay attention to it doesn’t mean that we say okay, Ukraine is not a country. I mean you have to – the point is understanding them is one thing, caving in is another. The second point I want to make is that I think we should see that Russia, has been a dismal failure in terms of ultimate goals from a foreign policy view because it has had three effects: it’s brought the US away from its pivot to Asia and back to Europe, which was something we all thought, the US would disappear. Secondly: it has revitalized a dying NATO, which was basically, I mean twenty years ago, Lugar wrote the article “Out of Area or Out of Business” and here we are, twenty years later, and we’re back to territorial defense of the NATO space. Twenty years ago it was already out. And finally, what has it done, it has created the Ukrainian nation! During the last one and a half years in the crucible of war, you have seen a nation created whereas before outside of Lviv no one really thought of themselves very much as Ukrainian.

The final thing is that, you said that, Sarrazin, that we shouldn’t do containment. I think that’s not what you meant because I think what we should do is maintain the gains of the last twenty-five years. We have expanded the territory of liberal democracy to a number of countries, institutionalized those gains in the European Union, where you have countries that are rule-of-law based, liberal democracies. And those countries must be defended from any type of serious encroachment and the kind.

The word containment has a bad connotation: it’s cold war, but it actually, it’s an idea of George Kennan who pointed out, in his Long Telegram, that Russia has two kind of neighbors, either vassals or enemies. And I think it’s a very true analysis, from seventy years ago. And the thing is we have to preserve those countries, all of the countries where democracy has been institutionalized via the European Union. The task is to leave them be for a while.

I remember reading the new foreign policy doctrine of the Swedish government when the new government came in: it said, “we don’t want to confront Russia, we want to democratize Russia”, which showed me the greatest misunderstanding of Russia I’ve ever seen. Because what they – when you say ‘we,’ ‘we’ want to democratize Russia means ‘we want regime change.’ And that’s exactly what scares Putin. I think Putin and that regime can understand perfectly that you defend your interests and you defend your own, our nashi, nash nashi, as it were.

But, saying we want to change you to become a democracy is the wrong line to take with these people right now. And that is what scares them. So I think that if we want to think seriously about Russia, I think we should pursue this tact, which is understanding. But at the same time, realize that our first tact is to preserve what we have and not lose the gains of the past twenty-five years because – my final comment is that when you say that what we did wrong, I would say the original sin was all of the Western democracies but especially the United States saying “rah-rah-rah” when Boris Yeltsin shelled the Duma. We may not like what the Duma was doing, we might say ‘yes, Boris Yeltsin was a democrat’ but if you praise Yeltsin for shooting democratically-elected parliamentarians that was the end, I think, of the experiment.

* Toomas Hendrik Ilves is the President of the Republic of Estonia. He was born on December 26, 1953, to an Estonian family living in Stockholm, Sweden. He acquired his education in the United States. From 1993 to 1996 Toomas Hendrik Ilves served in Washington as the Ambassador of the Republic of Estonia to the United States of America and Canada. From 1996 to 1998, he was Minister of Foreign Affairs. After a brief period as Chairman of the North Atlantic Institute in 1998, he was again appointed Minister of Foreign Affairs, serving until 2002. From 2002 to 2004, Ilves was a Member of the Estonian Parliament; in 2004 he was elected a Member of the European Parliament, where he was vice-president of the Foreign Affairs Committee. As a MEP, he initiated the Baltic Sea Strategy that later was implemented as official regional policy of the European Union. Toomas Hendrik Ilves was elected President of the Republic of Estonia in 2006. Ilves was re-elected for a second term in office in 2011.


Between June 22nd and 25th 2015, Reset-Dalogues on Civilizations organized an international workshop and a roundtable on The Evolution of Russian Political Thought After 1991. The conference, held in Berlin at the Deutsche Gesellschaft für Auswärtige Politik, included a roundtable focused on The Political Culture of Today’s Russia.



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