As the drums of war over Ukraine resound too loudly in Anglophone media, there seem precious few signs of restraint or measure in projecting the worst of fears and the basest of motivations on the opposite number. The most fanciful of long buried Cold War imaginings are extravagantly revived. Let’s remember the balance of the Cold War: the United States intervened militarily in an estimated seven-dozen countries while the Soviet Union hardly reached a single dozen. Tensions today are typified less by a clash of ideologies that neatly divide the world than shared symptoms of a general collapse of the Euro-American world order (perhaps any world order, tout court): strong man politics, rampant identitarianism, tremendous corruption, a backlash against systemic racism, widespread abuse of power, and a veritable perversion of the public sphere.
Russia is the enemy one loves to hate. It must be an especially irresistible temptation, this convenient pas de deux, given that since the Cold War, improbably, it is the US that has grown closer to what Russia is purported to be rather than the other way around. That backwards, embarrassing global redneck, as the media too often frames Russia, might, after all, just be America. No longer global Brahmins who can self-imagine above the fray, it is the US that must contend with oligarchy unbounded, nepotism run amok, unrelenting violence, a paranoid populace and crumbling, underdeveloped, infrastructure. How convenient to target again that peripheral neighbour from the frozen north when staring in the mirror too long becomes too painful.
This repressed, unwanted symmetry has gone on a lot longer than recent years. Some would argue the Church Rock disaster exceeded Chernobyl, slavery that of serfdom, Jim Crow segregation versus Russia’s relatively happy integration of its major minority of colour, the Muslim Tatars.
For all the orthodox script of ‘wokeness’ that rightfully counsels atonement for paternalism, Russia doesn’t seem to count. In the world of pop culture, in fact, Russians appear to be the one identity group we are encouraged to fear, mock and belittle. Hollywood can hastily carry on casting villains as Russians with no concern for pushback, and so identity-based demonization apparently still has its outlets. And in a world where trauma is considered the highest icon of virtue, the Russophone world seems peculiarly left out of the picture. The collapse of the Soviet Union, felt by all her inhabitants, was a kind of universal trauma to an extent without parallel in the Western world: across the board in the former republics per capita income is 20 percent lower than in 1990, and in several the crude death rate is 20 perent higher, worse than anywhere in Africa. The choice to aggressively pursue the Cold War via NATO expansion after 1991 seems fatefully amoral indeed, suggesting that the push is less about anti-communism than geostrategic isolation of another polar superpower in landmass and resources to an untenable corner.
The Soviet Union was the last in a long line of great multinational empires, which continued on after the Habsburg and Ottoman had fallen away. In the Soviet Union, as in Tsarist Russia before it, the Russia-Ukraine nexus served as a kind of core, as the keystone for a delicate architecture of sixty plus nationalities, and more than one hundred plus ethnicities. The parallel most familiar for the Anglophone world would be England and Scotland, as senior and junior partners in a centuries long world historical project of empire, but for one sweeping distinction: Russia and Ukraine are separated neither by ethnicity, nor language, nor religion. The lingua franca throughout most of Ukraine today, even in the Ukranian national core around Lviv, remains Russian.
Much of what today is Ukraine was wrested from the Ottoman Empire, by Russian forces, under Catherine the Great by legendary officers like Mikhail Kutuzov who would later liberate Europe from the yoke of Napoleon. Originally named Mala Rossia or Little Russia (the name Ukraine in Russian actually derives from the phrase “at the frontier”), the names of most of the new cities were derived from the Ancient Greek, like Odessa or Tarnopol, or Sebastopol, harkening back to the long conquered Byzantine Empire. And while Russian power emerged too late to save that empire, to the Russophone world goes the credit for stopping not one, but two cataclysms of humanity—the Armenian Genocide and the Holocaust—and that without adding a further one into the mix, as the Anglo allies did, with firebombing and nuclear weapons.
Ratcheting up tensions during a global pandemic is nothing less than a shoddy diversion; another symptom of the weakening of both public discourse and the fortitude of institutions, now fueled by comic-book like personality-driven politics. The West has begun to slowly recognize that its incessant paternalistic meddling elsewhere was not only disruptive and ineffective, but a persistent violation of human rights. In this all too overdue consciousness, the Russian world should not, not count. What Russia and Ukraine both need is no different than that eternal human dream of everyone else everywhere: better living and hope for a brighter future for all citizens.
Adam J. Sacks is a lecturer in history at the University of Hong Kong. He holds an MA and PhD in history from Brown University.