Viktor Medvedchuk, Ukraine’s most famous pro-Moscow billionaire/politician with close connections to Putin, was handed over to Russia in September 2022 as part of a prisoner exchange. Since settling in Moscow, Medvedchuk—unsurprisingly—has refused to criticise the Kremlin for invading Ukraine and instead has blamed “the collective West” for escalating the conflict. More surprising, perhaps, is a remark Medvedchuk made in an interview with the Independent newspaper back in 2018. He disclosed Putin’s thinking on the entitlements of the so-called state-civilisation: “Putin thinks we are one nation, but I think it’s not one nation, but two Slavic nations, with intertwined histories, religion. I tell him this all the time. I don’t think it’s one nation. You simply can’t say this.” If Putin had succeeded in vanquishing Ukraine in a matter of weeks, as apparently was the plan, he would have achieved a naked geopolitical conquest of great significance, no less than if Beijing could subjugate Taiwan in a matter of weeks. The imperialist assumptions inherent in the state-civilisation concept require our urgent attention.
This essay appears in May’s Quadrant.
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In 2009, a year after the death of Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Putin visited the cemetery of Donskoy Monastery in Moscow. He placed flowers at the graves of three important advocates of Ukraine’s incorporation into Greater Russia: White Army commander Anton Denekin; the arch-conservative philosopher Ivan Ilyin and the famous Soviet dissident Solzhenitsyn. It did not matter to Putin that all three were fervent anti-communists; their belief in the indivisibility of Greater Russia and “a strong Russian state” was what made them worth commemorating: “Their main trait was deep devotion to their homeland, Russia, they were true patriots.” Vladimir Lenin, on the other hand, earns Putin’s ire in his essay On the Historical Unity of Russians and Ukrainians because the founder of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics insisted—over Stalin’s objections—on recognising the right of its constituent republics “to freely secede” from the Union, a tacit acknowledgment of their distinctiveness. This, according to Putin, was a “time bomb” waiting to explode when the “safety mechanisms” of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU) were gone. Putin, at the start of his third term as president of the Russian Federation, began using the expression “state-civilisation” to explain Ukraine’s inseparableness from Russia and justify his neo-imperialist ambitions.
Owen Matthews, in Overreach (2022), might be right to say that the vision Putin employed to justify his invasion of Ukraine “was based not on imperialism but ethno-nationalism”. But it was a plagiarised vision, borrowed from Denekin, Ilyin, Solzhenitsyn and their latter-day counterparts. The cause of ethno-nationalism, for Putin, has been an ideological cloak to disguise his KGB—though not Marxist-Leninist—revanchism. The real tragedy of the dissolution of the Soviet Union, from this perspective, was the geopolitical one. The thirty million or so Russian speakers left living outside the borders of the Russian Federation were less a tragedy for Putin and his allies than an opportunity to reconstitute, in some form or another, Stalin’s empire. It is for this reason that Putin has become more ambiguous (or generous) on the role of Stalin in Russian history. In 2017, for instance, Putin placed a wreath at the Wall of Sorrows, a memorial to the victims of Stalin’s tyranny, and made these remarks: “The idea of a monument to the victims of political repression was born in the distant years of the ‘thaw’, but such memorials were created only in the past decades.” This would have pleased Solzhenitsyn were he still alive. Nonetheless, that same year Putin characterised Stalin as a “complex” figure in an Oliver Stone film: “It seems to me that the excessive demonisation of Stalin is one way to attack the Soviet Union and Russia—to show that Russia still bears the birthmarks of Stalinism. We all have some birthmarks, so what?”
Anti-communists such as Denekin, Ilyin and Solzhenitsyn would never have used the words “safety mechanism” to describe the CPSU as Putin does in On the Historical Unity. The Russian president turns out to be not so much an ethno-nationalist as a neo-imperialist. Putin, after Solzhenitsyn died, was emboldened to differentiate Stalin-the-tyrant from Stalin-the-Nazi-slayer. From Solzhenitsyn’s point of view, the Soviet Union produced a seventy-four-year eclipse of Russian civilisation. Nothing short of the dissolution of the USSR and the demise of communist totalitarianism would allow for Russia’s revival. For Putin, however, the Russian world was never extinguished. Though the Russian people suffered “political repression”, Stalin’s Red Army not only defeated Nazi Germany but extended the Soviet empire all the way to the heart of Europe with so-called “spheres of interest” in Hungary, Poland, Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia, Romania, East Germany and later China, Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan, Africa, Cuba, the Middle East et al. The Cold War was about Moscow directly opposing and competing with the only other post-war superpower.
Vladimir Putin, the young KGB agent stationed in Dresden, had been programmed to abhor the West and view it as an existential threat to Soviet-style socialism. That threat, going by the events of 1989 to 1991, turned out to be real. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Putin pragmatically abandoned Marxism-Leninism, leaving him in want of a rationale for his fear and loathing of the West and a pathway for Russia becoming great again. The works and exploits of Denekin, Ilyin and Solzhenitsyn inspired Putin, but the political philosophy of Alexander Dugin gave Putin’s neo-imperialist ambitions (and the justifications of Putin’s defenders in Russia and elsewhere) a contemporary dimension. The hegemonistic strategy of the West, according to Dugin, has been to advance the idea of a universal human civilisation (based on Western precepts) to the detriment of all those who identify with a non-Western civilisation. The remedy for people opposed to cultural extinction is to join forces with other anti-Westerners. As Dugin writes in the article “Huntington, Fukuyama and Eurasianism”:
We must organise the common front of civilisations against one civilisation which pretends to be the civilisation in singular. The priority common enemy is globalism and the United States, which is now its principal vector. The more the peoples of the Earth will be convinced of that, the more the confrontations between non-Western civilisations can be reduced. If there must be a “clash” of civilisations, it has to be a clash between the West and the “rest of the world”. And Eurasianism is the political formula which suits the “rest”.
Dugin’s importance to Putin has been questioned given that, reputedly, the two are rarely seen together and Dugin is not a member of Putin’s regular inner circle. But Rebekah Koffler, former senior analyst for Russian Doctrine and Strategy at the Defense Intelligence Agency, argues in Putin’s Playbook: Russia’s Secret Plan to Defeat America (2021) that Dugin’s 1997 book Foundations of Geopolitics made him popular among Russia’s military and political elites, especially those looking for a way to restore Russia’s great power (derzhava) status. Dugin might not be “Putin’s brain”, as some have claimed, but Foundations of Geopolitics identified key positions that Putin would come to adopt. For instance, if Russia were to retake its rightful place in the global scheme of things, America had to be challenged, undermined and thwarted at every turn. One passage Koffler quotes from Foundations of Geopolitics could have been lifted from Colonel Putin’s old KGB rulebook: “It is especially important to introduce geopolitical disorder into America’s reality; to encourage separatism and ethnic, social, and racial conflicts; actively support dissident movements [and] extremist, racist groups and sects; and destabilise internal processes.” Koffler adds that Dugin’s worldview did not only influence Russia’s president but also “the General Staff, which is in charge of developing Russia’s warfighting doctrine and strategy”. Moreover, Dugin’s ideas were heavily promoted, from 2012, by pro-Moscow political entities in Ukraine such as the For Life party.
One of the ironies of Dugin’s self-styled Eurasianism is that it takes Samuel P. Huntington’s “The Clash of Civilisations” thesis, which warned of future challenges facing the United States after the Cold War, and inverts its conclusion. For Huntington, the peace of the world requires America to be the protector of the international order. To do so, Washington has to be alert to the peril of playing global guardian in a world of civilisational divergency. For Dugin, conversely, it is the world’s civilisational divergency that needs protecting from America:
Westernism is not solely an intellectual position, but simultaneously a contagious disease and a betrayal of the fatherland. It is for that reason that we must restlessly fight the West … In fighting against the West, the Russians affirm themselves as Russians, belonging to Russian culture, to Russian history, to Russian values.
Thus, a multipolar world—as in the Cold War—was preferable to the unipolar vision devised by and most expedient for the United States. Not surprisingly, member states of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, which includes Russia, China and soon Iran, claimed in their 2022 Samarkand Declaration that the touchstone in “shared destiny for humanity” must be “civilisational diversity”.
Civilisational diversity sounds innocuous enough, but when it comes to Russia, China and Iran, we are talking about the prioritisation of empire over the modern concept of the nation-state. If Taiwan, for instance, possess its own liberal constitution, independent judiciary, democratic parliament and self-activating armed forces, then ipso facto it is a sovereign state on the same footing as any another sovereign state. Beijing’s claims on Taiwan, given that the island-nation has never been a part of the People’s Republic of China, only makes sense in terms of China and Taiwan (and Tibet, Manchuria, Mongolia and Xinjiang) all belonging to the same state-civilisation. This, of course, is why the Chinese Communist Party declares itself to be the vanguard of a superior and continuous civilisation that has as its unlikely genesis the mythical Red Emperor back in 2698 BC. Putin made a similar historical allusion in On the Historical Unity: “Russians, Ukrainians and Belarusians are all descendants of Ancient Rus …”
There are three major problems with Putin’s state-civilisation creed as it applies to Ukraine and beyond, and all three are connected. First, the idea that the citizens of the Russian Federation and the citizens of Ukraine should be conjoined in one political entity is based on an improbable chronicle of history. According to Timothy Snyder, specialist in Central and Eastern European history, Putin claims that the people of Russia, Belarus and Ukraine are forever bound together because a Viking named Valdemar captured the city of Kyiv in the tenth century and converted to Christianity around 987. Snyder, in “The War in Ukraine is a Colonial War”, argues that the lengthy and murky events following Valdemar’s demise in 1015 “do not reveal a timeless empire” but a splintering tribal scenario with “no succession principle”. Putin, in this sense at least, is a throwback: “An ageing tyrant, obsessed by his legacy, seizes upon a lofty illusion that seems to confer immortality: the ‘unity’ of Russia and Ukraine.”
Although Kyiv fell to the Mongols in 1240, and Lithuanian dukes and Polish nobles later ruled over a people who spoke the Ukrainian tongue, the idea of Ukrainian self-determination was never entirely extinguished: even if, from 1569 onwards, “Kyiv was no longer a source of law but an object of it” and Polish colonisation of Ukraine “resembled and in some measure enabled the European colonisation of the wider world”. In the following century, pro-Polish Cossack clans associated with Hetman Ivan Vyhovsky fought internecine wars with Hetman Yuri Khmelnitsky and his (often) pro-Russian clans. This development, maintains the Ukrainian writer Andrey Kurkov, “only strengthened the political influence of Moscow in the territory of today’s Ukraine”. In Ukrainian school history textbooks, that catastrophic era is referred to as “The Ruins”.
The Poles and the Russians, down through the centuries, discouraged or even prohibited the Ukrainian language, and so it often survived the effects of colonial marginalisation in rural settings. This, in turn, allowed Russians to disparage Ukrainian as nothing more than the primitive utterances of uneducated country-dwellers, as per Tsar Nicholas II’s alleged opinion on the subject: “There is no Ukrainian language, just illiterate peasants speaking Little Russian.” Today we have the work of philologists such as Andriy Danylenko, a professor of Slavic languages, to verify the cultural and historical specificity of the Ukrainian language and people, notwithstanding the Russification of Ukraine (especially but not only in the east and south). Over time the Ukrainian language not only endured but experienced revivals, as in nineteenth-century Galicia, the Ukrainian-speaking territory of the Austro-Hungarian empire. Putin, in On the Historical Unity, accounts for Imperial Vienna’s endorsement of the Ukrainian language as an attempt at “a counterbalance to the Polish national movement and the pro-Muscovite sentiments in Galicia”.
This brings us to Putin’s second conceptual mistake: to persuade himself that Ukrainian nationalism is not genuine but part of an anti-Russian conspiracy. Ukrainian historian Georgiy Kasianov, in “The War Over Ukrainian Identity”, argues that Putin’s Great Russia narrative has blinded him to the reality of a long-emerging form of Ukrainian separatism, one that uses history for its political purpose as does Putin’s own narrative. Kasianov cites the life and work of Mykhailo Hrushevsky, seminal writer and president of Ukraine’s first independent parliament from 1917 to 1918, as the prism through which today’s citizens of Ukraine—rural Ukrainian-only speakers, Russian-only speakers, bilingual speakers, Jews, Tatars, ethnic Poles, ethnic Hungarians and Bulgarians and so on—view the world in general and Russia in particular. It is the narrative now taught in all Ukrainian schools (apart from those in the occupied territories) and appears to be no less persuasive than the Great Russia narrative imparted in the Russian Federation and the occupied territories of Ukraine. The ultimate destination of Ukrainian nationalism, as delineated by Hrushevsky, was always an independent nation-state à la Poland. Its final goal? National sovereignty and full integration into the West.
Putin’s denial of a separate historical Ukrainian identity has led him to blame Lenin for creating the division between Ukraine and Russia. The truth, insists Snyder, “is close to the opposite”. The reality of the Ukrainian National Republic, founded with German and Austrian support in 1917 and crushed by the Red Army in 1920, forced Lenin and the victorious Bolsheviks to configure their new communist empire as a federation, if in name only. The inhabitants of Soviet Ukraine underwent a range of experiences as a member state of the Soviet Union. On the negative side, there was the crackdown against local artists in the late 1920s and 1930s, and then the horror of the Holodomor terror-famine in 1933-34, in which Ukrainian peasants were brutally exploited to subsidise Stalin’s first Five-Year Plan. On the positive side, it was anticipated at the foundation of the USSR that Ukrainian would be the dominant language in Soviet Ukraine. That said, it was the Russian tongue rather than Ukrainian that grew in influence over time, not least because Russian was the prestige language of the USSR. Putin can point to the benefits enjoyed by Ukraine during the Soviet era, including the extensive industrialisation of the Donbas region and the provision of ready markets in Moscow and St Petersburg. Economic development in the east provided work and material progress for Ukrainians but also brought ethnic Russians to the region and contributed to its Russification, a situation Putin’s regime has exploited in later years for its own purposes. The nature of the Soviet Ukraine era might be summarised by the fact that in 1945 the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic was an original member of the United Nations and yet its independence on the world stage over the ensuing forty-six years was always an illusion.
It is not unreasonable, then, to assume that many Ukrainians saw the dissolution of the USSR as less of a catastrophe than an unforeseen historical opportunity. Kyiv, admittedly, signed the Alma-Ata Protocol in 1991 and thereby joined the Russian inter-governmental organisation known as the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS). But membership of the CIS did not compromise Ukraine’s newly attained autonomy—and, in any case, Ukraine stopped participating in the CIS long before it formally left the ill-defined body in 2018. Legally speaking, at least, the entity known as the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic was superseded by the sovereign state of Ukraine, ratified by the Ukrainian people on December 1, 1991. That day some 92.3 per cent of the population voted “Yes” in the Declaration of Independence of Ukraine referendum.
Today, of course, a powerful form of patriotism has united the Ukrainian people as never before. This is Putin’s third conceptual mistake—to believe his long-standing intervention in Ukraine could only be a positive from his perspective. We might begin with his support of Viktor Yanukovych to win the 2004 presidential election against Viktor Yushchenko. Four times Putin descended upon Ukraine to make his position absolutely clear. His meddling backfired when Yanukovych won the election only to be confronted by a storm of protests claiming that pro-Russia elements in the government and bureaucracy had rigged the vote in favour of the pro-Russia candidate. The Supreme Court of Ukraine, caught in the midst of the Orange Revolution, called for fresh elections. On this occasion, with better international oversight in place, Yushchenko defeated Yanukovych—but the latter was not yet done as Putin’s man. Improbably enough, Yanukovych won the 2010 presidential election despite a poor showing in western and central Ukraine. In the east and south of the country, however, the pro-Russia candidate over-performed. This time the Supreme Court of Ukraine decided against annulling the poll. Yanukovych—as Putin’s marionette—was in an untenable position given the overall mood of the Ukrainian people. Yanukovych’s unsustainable role as both president of an independent republic and Putin’s proxy came to a head in November 2013. The Kremlin insisted he veto a looming political association and free-trade agreement with the European Union and instead choose closer ties with Russia and its Eurasian Economic Union. Yanukovych’s capitulation to Moscow was his undoing. His hold on power did not survive the Maidan Uprising—he eventually fled to Russia in what has been called the Revolution of Dignity. Putin retaliated in 2014 by initiating the war in the Donbas and unilaterally annexing Crimea. And then the invasion on February 24, 2022.
Whereas more than 80 per cent of locals had a “good attitude” to Russia in May 2013, according to the Kyiv Institute of Sociology, by May 2022 that figure had plummeted to 2 per cent. We can presume that Russia’s unyielding attacks on Ukraine’s civilian infrastructure, leaving millions without homes, electricity, water and heat, will have only strengthened the belief amongst Ukrainians that Putin’s Russian Federation is enemy number one, a conviction likely to endure for years, decades and maybe beyond. Putin’s brutality has changed everything. For the people of Ukraine, their history intertwined with Russia for bad but also for good, not unlike the tangled story of Ireland and Britain, their outsized eastern neighbour is now an anathema.
We see the same story being played out between China and Taiwan. Xi Jinping, not unlike Putin, believes that any territory previously occupied by one of China’s past dynastic realms must be ruled by Beijing—be it Tibet, Manchuria, Xinjiang, Mongolia or Taiwan. They all belong to China because China is the custodian of a state-civilisation. Although Taiwan might share some of the same cultural heritage as mainland China, the burgeoning of democracy on the island-nation after the lifting of martial law in 1987 has changed everything. For instance, David C. Schak, in Civility and Its Development: The Experiences of China and Taiwan (2018), makes a solid sociological case that civility, in the form of politeness, courtesy and kindness in speech and behaviour, has transformed Taiwanese society from an authoritarian and compliant one under Chiang Kai-shek into something utterly distinct from the social mores in China.
Along the same lines, modern-day sensibilities or norms in Ukraine are entirely different from those in Russia, maintains Andrey Kurkov in Diary of an Invasion (2022), and Putin’s obliviousness to that reality “has fortified the Ukrainian national spirit”. As a result, previously consequential pro-Moscow Ukrainians, such as Viktor Medvedchuk, “simply belong to a past era, a very distant one”. Kurkov contrasts the individualism and liberalism of Ukrainians and their scepticism of government authority with the political passivity and state-worship so prevalent in Russia: “If [the Ukrainians] do not like the actions of the authorities, they go out and create ‘Maidans’. Any government in Ukraine is afraid of the ‘street’, afraid of its people.” As a consequence, the idea that the Orange Revolution and the Revolution of Dignity, not to mention Ukraine’s current resistance against the Russian Army, are not home-grown but the product of a Western anti-Moscow conspiracy, sounds absurd. Kurkov encapsulates the spirit of Ukrainian patriotism in this powerful passage:
Ukraine has given me thirty years of life without censorship, without dictatorship, without control over what I wrote and what I said. For this, I am infinitely grateful to my country. I now understand very well that if Russia succeeds in seizing Ukraine, all the freedoms that the citizens are so used to will be lost, together with the independence of our state. While soldiers are fighting with weapons in their hands in the east and the south of Ukraine, writers are fighting on the information front against fake news and false narratives by which Russia is trying to justify its aggression to the residents of other countries and continents.
Post-Cold War Ukraine, notwithstanding early economic dependence on Russia, persistently high levels of corruption and a less-than-independent judiciary, is a prime example of political factors being more important than (authentic and imagined) shared civilisational ties. The case of Volodymyr Zelenskyy, a native Russian-speaker born in the old Soviet-style industrial city of Kryvyi Rih, is as good example as any of the un-Russian sensibilities of modern-day Ukraine. His Servant of the People party and his own national fame have their origins in a satirical television show, and he won the second round of the 2019 presidential elections—on an anti-establishment and anti-corruption ticket—with 73.3 per cent of the vote in a legitimate democratic process. The defeated candidate, Petro Poroshenko, now backs Zelenskyy’s wartime leadership.
In striking contrast, the Russian Federation has not solved the problem of political succession or embraced the rule of law and democratic norms. None of this is to say that Zelenskyy is beyond criticism, especially some errors of judgment before the Russian attack. For instance, Zelenskyy now speaks boldly about the need for free and independent nations to unite to prevent an invasion of Taiwan. In 2021, however, he removed Ukraine from a list of countries condemning Beijing’s subjugation of Hong Kong. Maybe Zelenskyy had to learn the hard way that the proponents of state-civilisation are the mortal enemies of freedom, autonomy and the nation-state. When the likes of Putin and Xi speak about upholding territorial integrity and sovereignty, they are referring to the territorial integrity and sovereignty of their respective state-civilisations, not the sovereignty of the nation-states they wish to absorb into their modern-day empires.
Daryl McCann contributed “Russia, China and Iran: An Uneasy Alliance of Rogues” in the December issue, “Putin’s Inglorious War of Terror” in January-February, and “Putin, Russia and the Purpose of Power” in March. He has a blog at https://darylmccann.blogspot.com