June 4, 2021

Pondering Russia’s (long standing) problem with truth


A little more than a month ago, in mid-April, I came across an article on the website of the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR) titled “War of Unreality” that struck a deep, personal nerve. The piece, authored by ECFR Fellow Gustav Gressel, was written as both an observation and a warning. The observation was that Russia was engaged in creating an “alternate reality” – constantly positing a narrative of current events that flatly contradicted the way that the West (read the global community of democracies) thought about the world. The warning was that Russia’s attempts at ontological contrariness would sooner or later have dire consequences.

While the piece left a distinct mark on me, it did so in a strangely unsettling way. I knew the observation was accurate and that the warning was valid, but for a time I could not somehow shake off the feeling that the analysis was incomplete, or more bluntly, that something was missing.

Relief in the matter surfaced two weeks ago (shortly after the annual Victory Day commemorations) in the form of another article, penned by the authoritative Washington foreign policy commentator Janusz Bugajski and dedicated to taking to task Vladimir Putin’s increasingly over-the-top ‘victory laps’ at his Victory Day events.

The piece began by voicing two complaints that were becoming a habit among astute Kremlin observers. For one, Mr. Putin was showing a growing affinity for asserting that the only true conqueror of fascism and hence the only deserving victor in World War II was the “Sovyetski narod” (the Soviet nation). Two, and equally troubling, “Vlad” was becoming prone to equating the “Sovyetski narod” with the Russian nation “in its Red phase” (Particularly disingenuous in this regard was the way that “millions of Soviet victims” were morphing into “millions of Russian victims”).

As the article progressed, however, a much less often articulated complaint surfaced – i.e., that neither Mr. Putin nor the denizens of the Kremlin generally were ready to fess up to their own culpabilities with regard to the “Great Patriotic War.” After all, it was a pact between Nazi Germany and the USSR (using Mr. Putin’s logic, read Soviet Russia) dividing up Eastern Europe among them that began the war. And it was the Kremlin supply line of wheat and steel that helped feed and arm the Nazi armies that took the north, west and south of Europe before turning on the USSR. In fact, one might dare to say that major “Nazi collaboration” started with the Kremlin since it was formed first.

Mr. Bugajski’s reflection almost immediately brought into focus the perceived absent ingredient in Mr. Gressel’s otherwise excellent article; it brought into play a historical dimension. Put simply, the land that gave us “little green men” and “khaki-clad Wagne­rians” in the contemporary world had a history of creating alternate realities (dare we call them “Potemkin village” projects).

The described “light bulb turning-on moment” did indeed produce an intellectual catharsis and for that I was very grateful. But my sense of uneasiness on an emotional level did not pass. Instead, a set of highly charged memories came flooding in.

I first flashed back to my youthful piety tale fascination with Prince Volodymr of Kyiv, who, upon presiding over the emergence of his city state (the earliest incarnation of the Ukrainian polity) as a rival in stature to Constantinople and medieval Venice, decided to thank the heavenly power he had come to believe in (and whose assistance he “witnessed” in his quest) by mass baptizing Kyiv’s inhabitants at or near the spot where St. Andrew reportedly had prophesied (during his sojourn up the Dnipro) a great metropolis would arise.

I nearly simultaneously remembered being confronted first in school and then in the wider world with a “Russkie Myr”-style version of the same tale. In the latter version of the “baptism” story, Grand Duke Vladimir of primordial Russia (and only incidentally of “Kiev”) came to Chersonese in Crimea to accept his wife and the Christian faith from Constantinople in a brilliantly prescient “geo-theological/geopolitical move” that allowed early modern Russia’s new capital, Moscow (incidentally, a swamp in 988), to claim that it was the “Third Rome” after the fall of the Second Rome in 1453.

In short order, I remembered growing up admiring the literally Byronic figure of Ivan Mazepa, who, upon recognizing that his Hetmanate (the Zaporizhian Kozak Republic that had become the second incarnation of the Ukrainian state) was fast losing both its sovereignty and territorial integrity to an autocratic interloper in “Moscovy” (Peter I), forged an alliance with Europe’s most enlightened monarch, Sweden’s Charles XII, to change matters, and who, upon losing with the Swedes in Poltava, was astute enough while facing approaching death to leave his now exiled office to Phillip Orlyk, the eventual author of one of the earliest constitutions in modern history.

And, again, I nearly simultaneously flashed back to listening to a very different story in school and the wider world, featuring Czar (a Russian takeoff on Caesar) Peter defeating the “Little Russian” Mazepa, who was attempting to undermine the inspired (and Westernizing) monarch’s plan to unite all the old lands of Russia into one great “world beating” modern nation state and who, coincidentally, was also keeping Moscow from playing its divinely ordained “Third Rome” role as “protector of all the Orthodox faithful,” for which he was rightfully anathematized.

Finally, I remembered being surrounded in my childhood by survivors of Ukraine’s liberation struggles in 1917-1921; survivors of the genocidal terror-famine of 1932-1933 known as the Holodomor; survivors of Ukraine’s liberation struggles in 1939-1950 who fought an uneven conflict against two totalitarian behemoths and who, when caught, spent time in Nazi camps (my future father-in-law went legally blind in Mauthausen) or Siberian Gulags; ostarbiters who lived through Allied bombings as slave laborers working Germany’s factories and farms; and veterans of the First Ukrainian Front armies that liberated Berlin before escaping to the west. I could still probably recite their various tales of woe decades later.

And once more, as a nightmarish counterpoint, I stepped back in time to hear being told in school and in the wider world that Ukraine was nothing but a German question in both world wars (tell that to German chancellors Gerhard Schroeder and Angela Merkel); that the Holodomor was not a genocide and may not have even been man-made; that the Ukrainians (apparently both west and east) welcomed the Germans with bread and salt in 1941; that the Ukrainians were, despite suffering millions of casualties during the Nazi occupation, a serious auxiliary force in the Nazi terror campaign (including the Holocaust); and that the Ukrainians helped invent the Cold War with their incessant Russo-phobia after World War II.

The recited exercise, for all of its replayed heart-breaking memories, actually worked wonders. It induced an emotional catharsis to match the earlier intellectual breakthrough; I was rid of any sense of unease. But that was not all. My personal catharsis prompted me to put pen to paper (call it a Memorial Day musing) – to encourage others to take serious note of Russia’s long-standing proclivity to play fast and loose with reality, or more simply, the truth.

Having nearly completed the item you are now reading, I found myself stumped with regard to crafting a last sentence (or two). My initial version was a jocular take-off on a Dr. Suess device: “Can you say Potemkin village?? I know you can, I know you can!!!” I finally settled on “Welcome to my world!!”

Volodymyr Zaryckyj is executive director of the Center for U.S.-Ukrainian Relations. The Center provides “informational platforms” or venues for senior-level representatives of the political, economic, security, diplomatic and cultural/academic establishments of the United States and Ukraine to exchange views on a wide range of issues of mutual interest, and to showcase what has been referred to as a “burgeoning relationship of notable geopolitical import” between the two nations. Dr. Zaryckyj completed his undergraduate and graduate work at Columbia University; he taught political science at NYU for nearly three decades before moving on in recent years to do postdoctoral research work on Eastern Europe.