“To be open, in spite of the past”: Revisiting Putin’s words in the light of Russia’s war in Ukraine

Dina Gusejnova | 28 March 2022

Europe / European Modern History / Russia / Ukraine / War

Projection of a future publication on Russia’s predicament (Loosely based on Friedrich Meinecke, Die deutsche Katastrophe, Wiesbaden, 1946)

On the night of 23 February 2022 - formerly Soviet Army Day - Russia violated the territory of another sovereign post-Soviet state, independent Ukraine. The actions demonstrate Russia’s continued denial of the right to sovereign nationhood of former USSR member states, previously manifested in the Chechen wars (1994-96, 1999-2009), the occupation of South Ossetia and Abkhazia in 2008, and Crimea in 2014.

The war being waged by Russia has turned into a kind of looped Blitzkrieg on multiple, seemingly disconnected fronts, leading to the displacement of around 10 million people, around a quarter of Ukraine’s total population. Millions have limited or no access to basic goods such as water or electricity, over 3.5 million had to flee the country under humanitarian escape corridors continuously violated by Russian forces. Given Ukrainian resilience, a ‘Chechen’ scenario, with Grozny pulverised by Russia and reconstructed under a pro-Russian protectorate in 2006, is not a likely prospect for Kyiv, yet what ‘deal’ precisely can lead to a way out of the war is not clear either.

The International Criminal Court has been receiving tangible evidence of war crimes being committed by Russia, including Putin-loyal Chechen forces, on Ukrainian territory. In some cities, like Mariupol, over 70% of its residential buildings have been destroyed. Attacks, including the use of weapons such as vacuum bombs, previously used by Russia in Syria, have targeted civilian infrastructure from health facilities and food storage to theatres and historical archives.

I am the kind of historian who thinks that words and ideas matter, even - perhaps especially - in times of the greatest violence. They matter, too, because they resonate long after shots have been fired, bodies burned and buried, new borders etched onto the map of Europe. But to disclose the true power of words, their capacity to affect audiences and divide them, to reveal truths as well as to obfuscate, they need to be put in relation to social actions and legal interventions.

Last year, on 22 June 2021, eighty years after Germany’s attack on the Soviet Union, Putin published an op-ed in the German liberal weekly Die Zeit. It appeared in German translation under the title “To be open, in spite of the past”. The piece concluded that Europe ‘simply cannot afford to lug around the weight of bygone misunderstandings, offences, conflicts and mistakes.’

It was time for the Europeans to leave old-fashioned Cold War institutions such as NATO behind and instead to work on ‘constructive interdependence’ for the sake of ‘security and prosperity’. This new aim should be secured by such initiatives as ‘Nord Stream’, and visions such as Charles De Gaulle’s greater Europe ‘from Lisbon to Vladivostok’, and Putin’s own idea of ‘creative cooperation’.

Sometime between last summer and now, the link to Putin’s Die Zeit article on kremlin.ru disappeared. (It is still accessible at Die Zeit). Has Putin changed his mind? It will remain a mystery, but we can still try to make sense of the meaning of the piece in the light of his subsequent writings.

Putin has been partial to long op-eds and increasingly long speeches on matters of history, and yet many people refuse to engage with his ideas in any detail. I understand why, as I too feel a kind of squeamish disgust whenever I find myself in a room where someone is blurting something on Russian state TV. The bare essence of this material can be reduced to a single claim, made repeatedly to Russia’s home audiences, a claim with which the Russian executive sent its conscripts into this war that is never called that. This claim centres around the supposed ‘genocide’ of Russians in the areas of Ukraine no longer under Ukrainian control.

It should be noted that even according to the UN High Commissioner (OHCR) data, which is likely to be a wild underestimation, the number of civilians who died in Ukraine alone in one month since 24 February 2022 (1,035) is more than four times higher than the total number of civilian deaths recorded by OHCHR in the conflict zone of eastern Ukraine in four years, from 1 January 2017 to 31 December 2021 (253).

Those who endorse the actions of Russia’s leadership, such as, most recently, these Rectors of most major Russian universities, leaders of orchestras of major Russian conservatories, or, most horrifyingly, those looking after children in hospices for palliative care, provide their own servile justifications for Russia’s criminal actions in Ukraine.

Those who despise them, such as the close to two million Russians who have signed various petitions since the war started, let their names speak against his words. On 4 March 2022, the Russian government introduced the latest of a series of legislative packages aimed at curtailing dissent. It is now a criminal offense to call the actions of the Russian army in Ukraine a war rather than a ‘special operation’, punishable with up to fifteen years of prison colony.

The remit of interpretation is so wide that there is now an entire legal advice industry elaborating on how to use social media ‘safely’ under the new legal regime. There is no doubt that punishments are no longer symbolic, by the way: just a week before the war, a Russian teenager was sentenced to five years of prison colony for trying to blow up the FSB building in a video game. So, many of the millions of names in petitions against the war have been taken down or hidden by the creators of the petitions themselves, to protect the signatories.  

But let’s go back to the op-ed from June 2021. What did Putin and his circle mean by being open ‘in spite of the past’? The internal dimension of this phrase only becomes clear in the context of recent legislative changes regarding historical interpretation. The Russian government not only seeks to disburse itself of the responsibilities for the Soviet state’s crimes against its own citizens, such as illegal imprisonment, execution or deportation, and mass famines; it actually seeks to silence the very memory of these offences.

Since 2017 the Russian Duma has passed no less than four laws which make it a criminal offense to utter certain historical judgments about the Russian past. These include proposing analogies between the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany, particularly with reference to the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact of 1939. Moreover, by November 2021 more than 100 organisations and over 60 individuals registered in Russia and abroad have been declared ‘foreign agents’ under Russian criminal law.

As a result, the more than three decade-long work in documenting and describing crimes committed by the Soviet state against its own citizens and those of other states, undertaken by the network of NGOs called Memorial, has been stopped, the organisation ‘liquidated’, their offices raided.

Against all odds, like a refugee, the living memory of these injustices has been crossing the borders of post-Soviet Russia, defying regulation by means of national legislation or military intervention. While Russia’s FSB archives have been closing and attempts to investigate the persecution of one’s ancestors are now met with intransigence, Ukrainian KGB archives have opened, like those of the Stasi previously, making it easier to piece together the story of both countries’ Soviet past. Some of these Ukrainian archives, however, have now also been destroyed by Russian bombs.

In a television address of 21 February 2022, just a few days before the invasion, Putin had made clear his assertion that Ukraine’s sovereignty was illegitimate because as a nation-state it was essentially a product of Bolshevik imagination. The current secessionist movements were part of the unintended boomerang effect of this statement, Putin argued. Secondly, Putin asserted Ukraine’s government had no legitimacy because it was oligarchical and corrupt. ‘You want Decommunisation?’ he asked. ‘We will show you Decommunisation’.

It is worth delving a bit more into historical detail here, because the arguments made in this last prewar speech appear to have been put through some kind of counterfactual speech generator. Putin is basically saying that contemporary Russia is the rightful heir to the medieval Kievan Rus’, to the Russian empire under the Romanovs, and to the USSR.

By contrast, Ukraine has no basis in premodern history and in its modern history was created by the Bolsheviks. You could, however, just as well use the same references to make the opposite argument, that Russia is a product of the Bolsheviks and Ukraine is the true heir both to Kievan Rus’ and the empire. In any case, neither outcome of such scholastic disputes should be used to extinguish the lives of thousands of innocent people.  

At the level of twentieth-century history alone Putin’s statement about the Bolshevik origins of Ukraine is plainly wrong. Lenin’s essay, ‘The Right of Nations to Self-Determination’ appeared in 1914, three years before the Bolshevik faction had come into being. It was a document of internal controversy within Russian Social Democracy, which also included Rosa Luxemburg, who wanted to see the rights of minority nations supported against larger nations through robust federations. Lenin dismissed this view by asserting that effectively only national sovereignties would be able to promote capitalism to a higher stage needed for revolution to succeed.

The Ukrainian People’s Republic emerged in the February revolution of 1917 and was thereby the first aspirant to post-imperial Russian sovereignty. A Ukrainian delegation negotiated with the Central Powers at Brest-Litovsk before the Bolsheviks hijacked the proceedings. Meanwhile, the Bolsheviks were at this time not only internally divided over tactics and strategy, but also did their utmost to undermine the emergence of Ukrainian sovereignty throughout the Civil War. Thus, chronologically, Ukrainian national sovereignty emerged before the Bolsheviks took over the Russian state from the failing Provisional Government.

Putin’s emphasis on the early twentieth century, moreover, deflected attention from the more relevant recent sources of Ukrainian sovereignty in the dissolution of the USSR. Its emergence was rooted in the same kind of constituent power as that of modern Russia itself, wielded by the Ukrainian nation as represented by the Ukrainian SSR, including Crimea, and declared on 16 July 1990, just over a month later than Russia, then reaffirmed by a referendum in 1991.

While the erasure of this uncomfortable past informs one dimension of Putin’s speeches, a second dimension is more emotive. Putin’s recent speeches convey the feeling of having been offended by the collective ‘West’. Putin’s critique of NATO has caught on particularly among the ‘progressive’ readership in the West. For broader audiences, he refers to the current military campaign both as an act of ‘Decommunisation’ (used ironically, as a nod to the recent depedestalisations of Lenin in Ukraine - after all, in his home country the Communist party has consistently been his main real political adversary, attracting around a third of voters’ sympathies) and Denazification (with angry righteousness, linking the history of collaborationism with the Nazi regime in Ukraine to the existence of far-right groups there today).

For positive orientation, Putin points to international treaties such as the OSCE agreement at Astana of 2010, which tampered the ‘equal right to security’ of each state with an element of relativity by allowing military capability that is ‘commensurate with our legitimate individual or collective security needs’.

A third major line of Putin’s argumentation is the dual assertion that, on the one hand, not all nations are ultimately eligible for sovereignty, and on the other hand, some sub-national communities can be entrusted with self-determination. It may be surprising to note that this argument about unequal entitlements used to be rather wide-spread in liberal circles of late imperial Germany, for instance, notably by Friedrich Meinecke - who, after the Second World War, ended up writing a bitter indictment of Germany’s path, titled The German Catastrophe.

At the last raid on Moscow Memorial, the police left the infamous letter ‘Z’ - the new sign of Russia’s interventionist actions against enemies at home and abroad - on its noticeboard. It is the same letter, apparently derived from the World War II-related phrase Za pobedu [for victory], which marks the so-called ‘special operation’ in Ukraine. Is it worth trying to find a name for the Russian political movement responsible for the catastrophe in Ukraine, such as Russian fascism, or Putinism? Fascism is often overused, or used too lightly, and for a long time Putin and his immediate circle lacked a common ideological core, while Putin’s own popularity had been steadily waning.

For the time being, it may be more precise to call its supporters by the name they use themselves: Zetism, perhaps. It means that when a time of reckoning comes, not having Russian citizenship or performing a last-minute disavowal of Putin will not be an obstacle for the need to accept individual responsibility for these atrocities.

Dina Gusejnova is an Assistant Professor at the Department of International History at the London School of Economics. She has previously been Senior Lecturer in Modern History at Sheffield University and has taught at Queen Mary University of London, UCL, and at the University of Chicago. She is the author of European Elites and Ideas of Empire, 1917-57 (Cambridge University Press, 2016), and the editor of Cosmopolitanism in Conflict: Imperial Encounters from the Seven Years’ War to the Cold War (Palgrave, 2018).

Her current research concentrates on the longer-term impact of the internment of scholars from continental Europe in Britain during the Second World War. In the current crisis, she is involved in managing mentoring opportunities for students, scholars and cultural workers from Ukraine or those fleeing political repression in Russia and Belarus, at neweurope.university. At LSE, she is also a member of Ukraine Hub UK Academic Taskforce.