“The Conquerors Peace of Mind Requires the Death of the Conquered.”
Part Two. Stalin & Putin bring the terror to Ukraine…
“The great mass of men, the common stuff of humanity, exist on earth only in order that at last, by some endeavour, some process, that remains as yet mysterious, some happy conjunction of race and breeding, there should struggle into life a being, one in a thousand, capable, in however small a degree, of standing on his own two feet. Perhaps one in ten thousand is born with a slightly greater degree of independence, and one in a hundred thousand with even more. One genius may emerge among millions, and a really great genius, perhaps, as the crowning point of many thousands of millions of men.”
The quote above is taken from a speech by Raskolnikov, in Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, 1866 (1). Obsessed by the so-called ‘Napoleonic’ idea that exceptional individuals should have the right to commit acts that other, normal people would consider crimes, Raskolnikov ponders the idea of murder, and his ability, or right to get away with it, and in so doing challenges the fashionable ideas (of the time) of ‘rational egoism’ and ‘utilitarianism’ (as represented by a cast of thoughtful characters such as Lebezyatnikov and Luzhin), themes that remain at the heart of Chernyshevsky’s ‘What is to be done? (2)’ — discussed in Part One — and the inherent ambiguity demonstrated by many of Chernyshevsky’s peaceful followers when they turned to the violence of terrorism to achieve their aims.
But in making that turn to violence, these peaceful followers of Chernyshevsky’s ideals, members of the Russian intelligentsia as they mostly are, conform to Raskolnikov’s ‘Napoleonic’ vision of his own putative enterprise who argues that:
“…if it is necessary for one of them, for the fulfilment of his ideas, to march over corpses, or wade through blood, then in my opinion he may in all conscience authorise himself to wade through blood,” and then as if qualifying the idea, he adds almost as after thought, that such actions should be, “in proportion, however, to his idea and the degree of its importance…”
Indeed, it has been argued that the Nuremberg Trials were designed to prosecute crimes that were not seen as crimes by those who committed them, with recent examples of Russian atrocities committed in Ukraine by Russian troops fitting into just this category. Though, believing you are immune (from prosecution) and believing you are born to be immune, as in Raskolnikov’s case, are distinct to be sure, but the line is a fuzzy one and that particular discussion is beyond the scope of this post.
As to whether Lenin, Stalin or Putin ever saw, or indeed sees himself as such an allegory for the mental and emotional machinations of Raskolnikov is a matter of conjecture. I’m sure each of them has read Dostoevsky, but to what end or process, and what they may have seen in Dostoevsky’s dark, psychological drama, is a mystery to me, though I do have my opinions.
Russian literature is rich in volume, and rich in quality. Tragedy, suffering and death are recurring themes that I find absorbing, utterly captivating and extremely moving. These themes often run concurrently with Russian history itself. It is not a history replete with, what one might loosely call, good news stories. The suffering of the Russian masses is huge, repetitive, and never-ending it seems, and it has been captured and illuminated in the enigmatic, charismatic lines of the Russian literature I adore so much.
And, as if to state the obvious, that suffering has been in large part at the hands of a succession of colourful, yet utterly despotic, destructive and uniquely violent leaders.
Their rise is another recurring theme that enriches Russian history in other, much darker ways. The last century has been particularly tragic, filled with unthinkable suffering, and garishly lit by the various charismatic leaders whose violent, oppressive, megalomaniacal natures may have followed different political and ideological trajectories, but have retained nevertheless a few recurring themes that have run like grizzly threads through the reigns of one despot after another.
An enduring distrust and hatred of the West; a woefully tragic sense of paranoid insecurity and an inherent distrust of their own people, manifested time after time in the violent suppression and oppression of the Russian masses; and finally, a lust for imperial expansion and the desperate need to be recognised as a world power.
Last week I detailed a few examples of how Lenin used violence to further his ends. This week I shall look at the reigns of Putin and Stalin through the same lens.
As ever with things Russian, this is a saga; so I beg your indulgence, your patience and your concentration. Stay with me and let me know your thoughts!
The people of Ukraine were always expendable…
“For the night wind has a dismal trick of wandering around and around a building of that sort, and moaning as it goes; and of trying with its unseen hand, the windows and the doors, and seeking out some crevices by which to enter…/… ‘There’s nothing,’ said Toby, ‘more regular in its coming round than dinner-time, and nothing less regular in its coming round than dinner. That’s the difference between ‘em.’”
Charles Dickens, The Chimes. A Christmas tale of Goblins.
In December 1931 as Stalin celebrated his birthday, and then Christmas at his dacha at Zubalovo in the Western suburbs of Moscow, the famine across Ukraine was coming to a tragic head.
Stalin, who by all accounts had rather a good singing voice, sang arias from Rigoletto, Orthodox hymns, Cossack ballads and Georgian folk songs, as he and his guests danced and feasted, passing the festive season in raucous fashion untouched by the reality of the suffering of the people at large (4).
Christmas elsewhere must have had a distinctly more Dickensian feel about it.
Famine had been a constant companion for many Russians during the revolution and the harsh, cold years since. By the early 1930’s the Ukrainian people had already endured the horrors of one dreadful, largely politically induced famine, and were about to face another.
The first famine…1920–23. Lenin’s collectivisation
Marxist doctrine had always allowed for the exploitation and sacrifice of the peasants; a necessary price for a glorious future.
The short lived era of Ukrainian independence, declared in the Spring of 1917 came to bloody and ragged end during 1920–1. Lenin’s Bolsheviks enforced the peace, along with the nationalisation of industry, the abolition of trade and the implementation of agricultural collectivism, measures that left the economy all but dysfunctional.
Hunger, starvation and disease were mounting rapidly.
Lenin’s sweeping agricultural collectivisation policy was being cruelly enforced by requisitioning committees against wealthier peasants — or kulaks — to ensure control over the rural village Soviets. Those charged with requisitioning the grain, the dreaded komnezamy, appeared to have no scruples, even though the majority of them were little more than jumped up peasants — often as not previous employees of the kulaks they were now actively persecuting — looking to gain protection and privileges for themselves and their families.
“If they want, they take the grain; if they like it, they arrest; what they want, they do,” said one embittered peasant (6). The komnezamy were left to their own devices but remained guided by their state-centred ‘revolutionary sensibilities.’
Lenin gave strict instruction that all grain, including that for immediate consumption and for planting next years crop, be expropriated for the State. In the Spring of 1921 far less grain was planted and production dropped to a fraction of the previous year. In Ukraine’s southern provinces production was less than 4% of what had been produced in 1920 (6), resulting in severe shortages and mass hunger across wide swathes of the Russian Volga region.
Unable to care for their children, many threw them into the Volga, rather than hand them over to the care of the State to be brought up in, what many peasants saw as ‘the communist faith,’ an ‘anti-Christ doctrine (6).’
But the difference between this famine, and that 10 years later was that finally the State acknowledged the problem and attempted to help. By June more than 25 million across Russia were suffering severe food deprivation and hunger. Lenin set up a famine committee to help, and an impassioned, international appeal by Maxim Gorky attracted offers of aid from abroad.
The largest aid organisation at the time was Herbert Hoover’s American Relief Administration (ARA) who, after many political delays, and in spite Russian suspicion that there were spies within the organisation — that may or may not have been true — were eventually given permission to distribute aid.
But the accord between Lenin and the ARA was short-lived. It transpired that, even in the face of extreme and widespread famine, Lenin was exporting some, of what little food there was, abroad as payment for what Hoover said derisively was ‘machinery and materials for the economic improvement of the survivors.’
Disgusted by Lenin’s duplicity, and cold, calculating behaviour, Hoover withdrew the ARA and all aid came to an end as Winter 1922 approached.
Numbers of dead are difficult to estimate because, apparently, there were no records kept of the numbers that died. Across Russia some 33.5 million were affected (including 7.5 million in Ukraine) during the 3 year famine. In Ukraine deaths were probably between 250,000 and 500,000, with the ARA estimating that 5 million died across Russia as a whole (6).
Whilst it is unknown if the famine was specifically politically motivated by the Kremlin as a way of ending the peasants revolt in Ukraine, Anne Applebaum notes laconically, that if it was, it could hardly have been done more efficiently. Just as it would be 10 years later, the grain requisition “…broke up communities, severed relationships, and forced peasants to leave home in search of food.” Those who remained were demoralised and starving, unable to continue any organised resistance (6).
The second famine…1930–33. Stalin’s revenge
The kulaks had long been designated enemies of the State. Despite most of them being small-holding peasants themselves, Lenin had defined them as enemies of the State simply because they owned land and may therefore have ‘capitalist’ sympathies and tendencies.
By the late 1920’s Lenin’s New Economic Policy (NEP)(see Part One), introduced to try and limit the ongoing effects of the first famine, was beginning to fail. Food shortages were becoming more common once again.
In 1927, a full ten years after the revolution. living standards were still lower than they had been under the Tsars for most people. The problems were compounded by squabbling, mistrust and violence within the hierarchy of the Communist Party which now, almost 4 years after Lenin’s death, had still not fully resolved the problem of party leadership.
Whilst Stalin had the notional leadership, his power was far from absolute and the party was beset by constant bickering, backbiting, plot and counter-plot.
Stalin’s Machiavellian manoeuvres had led him to first side with Nikolai Bukharin’s ‘rightists,’ who backed limited commerce and cooperation with the peasants detailed within Lenin’s NEP, pitting them against Trotsky’s ‘leftists’ who had argued that the NEP was creating a new class of capitalists and entrepreneurs among the kulaks.
Once Trotsky had been sufficiently weakened — and shortly to be exiled — and with a new grain crisis looming, Stalin changed tack, attacking Bukharin’s rightists for precisely the same reasons Trotsky had warned of. By weaponising the food crisis and radicalising Soviet policy against Bukharin Stalin managed to get rid of the last of his main rivals.
Trotsky was later assassinated in Mexico City by an agent of the NKVD, the predecessor of the KGB, whilst Bukarin was later tried, then executed.
The conquerors peace of mind requires the death of the conquered.
Stalin then set about militarising the State apparatus against those who he said, were refusing to pay their taxes — especially if they were kulaks. The kulaks had, Stalin said, “taken advantage of the goodwill and slow workings of our organisations and broken through the front on the bread market, raised prices and created a wait and see movement among the peasants, which has paralysed the grain collection even more (6).”
With this he set about separating the kulaks from the other peasants, with mass arrests, huge fines and confiscation of property if fines remained unpaid.
On 19th January 1928 a blunt decree effectively ended the NEP when Stalin declared that anyone refusing to sell their grain to the State at a set price would be arrested and tried. This shattered what Lenin had called the ‘indispensable link’ between the kulaks, the peasants and the workers in the city, who had been like allies in an spoken system in which they all got what they needed to survive.
Now, peasant farmers were caught in a trap.
The State’s order was to ‘sow as much as you can,’ but in so doing you risked the future of yourself and your family. If they worked hard and produced a lot of grain or other produce, they risked being labelled as kulaks and losing everything, whereas if they took the other option and produced little, not only did they risk going hungry, but they were in large part, worse off than the American peasants they had been told they were competing against (6).
Thus, the State destroyed all incentive to grow more grain. Stalin, however, understood this contradiction and set about addressing the problem.
He understood that larger landowners produced more grain and were logically more successful and productive than small landowners. But these more successful farmers could, then over time become even bigger landowners and become wealthy kulaks through their capitalist endeavour, something that was unacceptable under the communist doctrine and thus couldn’t be allowed to happen. But he also saw that by punishing the successful he was destroying incentive.
Stalin’s solution then was to collectivise all small landholders into large, state owned farms. These poor peasants would give up their land, pool their resources for the common good. They would live together, work together, share all equipment and labour, and then together with the correct application of science and rationalised management techniques, efficiency and scale of production could be vastly improved.
Similar theory was applied across heavy industry as well.
In 1929, Stalin’s first 5 year economic plan called for a mandatory 20% increase in production across farming and industry through the introduction of a seven day working week. This created thousands of new jobs, often filled by evicted peasants, as well as a massive increase in the need for the resources to maintain such an industrial surge. Iron, coal and other resources would be mined in large part by the vast numbers of kulaks and peasants who had been deported or made redundant during collectivisation.
But in Ukraine resistance to collectivisation was strong and was feeding a strong nationalist sentiment among the peasants, and in Stalin’s head the connection led inevitably to the dangers.
“The peasantry,” he had said, “constitutes the main army of the nationalist movement,” and, “that there is no powerful nationalist movement without the peasant army.”
And the largest, and by far the most powerful peasant movement was in Ukraine, where economic and social strife had led to rebellion in 1919/20, and ultimately the first famine, and now the OGPU (The Joint State Political Directorate — the secret police, state security and state intelligence combined) feared a repeat with Stalin’s collectivisation decree looming.
Links between Ukrainian intelligentsia and the peasant movements fueled the anxiety of the OGPU, as anger among the peasants grew following a poor harvest due to bad weather in 1928/29. But the grain collection continued nonetheless, and as that Winter arrived people began to starve in Ukraine.
At least 23,000 died from this pre-famine famine, with another 80,000 or so dying from disease and ‘other knock on effects of starvation (6).’ Ukrainian troops in the Red Army, most of them peasants themselves, aware of the suffering being imposed on their families, began deserting in droves to join partisan movements.
Stalin just doubled down on collectivisation.
For Stalin the state was in charge of all aspects of life and ‘the unification of small and tiny peasant farms into large collective farms,’ is he said, ‘the only path (6),’ and to do their dirty work the state employed 25,000 working class urban aktivists, who became known as the Twenty Five Thousanders, or Thousanders for short.
Fervent believers in the Marxist doctrine, and armed with an arsenal of revolutionary propaganda these urban warriors entered the countryside with little or no understanding of what it was, or how it worked. Peasants who resisted were denounced as bourgeois capitalists, kulaks, evil to the core, and they set about their liquidation.
Going from village to village, collectivisation was meant to be voluntary, but the reception for the aktivists was often hostile from peasants who still remembered the harsh deprivations and consequences of Lenin’s collectivisation 10 years before.
The definition of what, or who was a kulak kept growing until in the end anyone who opposed collectivisation was included. And whilst the policy was applied all across Russia, it was implemented more harshly in Ukraine. Quotas for the expulsion and deportation of kulaks had to be met, so the definition widened again to ensure its fulfilment.
The process of de-kulakisation had started in earnest.
In 1930 alone 50,000 Ukrainian kulaks were deported to Siberia — many directly to a series of labour camps that later became the gulags — whilst elsewhere only a fraction of that number were ‘required’. Whether this was a product of the militancy of Ukrainian peasants, or the fact that there were relatively more peasants in Ukraine than elsewhere is unknown (6).
But collectivisation was set to fail once again. Ukrainian peasants were once again becoming violently unhappy with the harsh methods employed by the state. Protests and rebellion were brewing once again all across Ukraine as Bolshevik officials blamed nationalist sentiments — which were certainly present, and even prevalent in some areas — rather than place any blame at the feet of Stalin’s collectivisation policy.
The harvest of 1931 produced a fraction of what was expected, but the quotas still had to be filled. In June 1932 Stalin and Molotov ordered that, “No matter or deviation — regarding amounts or deadlines set for grain deliveries — can be permitted (4).”
Yet a few days later the Ukrainian politburo begged for assistance as the country was in a ‘state of emergency.’ Stalin remained unmoved, blaming the peasants themselves, saying that the famine was the direct result of a hostile act against the Central Committee, or by proxy, against himself. He wrote, “The Ukraine has been given more than it should get (4).”
One Ukrainian official reported that a train had pulled into Kiev full of corpses; not a single person alive.
Fred Beal, an American labour organiser and known Communist who lived and worked in Russia in the early 1920’s, visited the Ukrainian town of Kharkov, finding everyone, except for one old lady dead; starved to death one and all.
Upon reporting this to Petrovsky, the President of Ukraine’s Central Executive Committee, Beal was told callously; “We know millions are dying. That is unfortunate, but the glorious future of the Soviet Union will justify it (4).”
One time Soviet convert, and later an outspoken critic and dissident, Lev Kopolev wrote at the time, “…with the rest of my generation, I firmly believed the ends justified the means. I saw people dying from hunger.”
With Christmas round the corner “the peasants ate dogs, horses, rotten potatoes, the bark of trees, anything they could find,” wrote Fedor Belov. As Stalin sang lustily at Zubalovo. Oblivious.
Years later Stalin would bemoan the situation to Churchill, saying the struggle had been more troubling than even the German invasion. “Ten million!” he moaned, “Four years it lasted. It was absolutely necessary…no use arguing with them. A certain number of them had been resettled in the Northern parts of the country…others had been slaughtered by the peasants themselves — such had been the hatred for them (4).”
While Nadezhda Mandelstam understood the teachings, she couldn’t grasp the consequences. “They deny responsibility. But how can they? …/…Every new killing was excused on the grounds we were building a remarkable ‘new’ world.”
Yet each year as the harvest yields dropped Stalin kept insisting that the grain he believed existed could still be collected, regardless of facts on the ground. The policy led to famine, a huge humanitarian catastrophe all across the USSR, but in Ukraine, says Applebaum, he ‘twisted the knife further (6).’
Ever harsher measures were introduced, extraordinary measures that left nothing edible whatsoever in the homes of millions, creating a famine within a famine, that today is called the Holodomor.
Genocide by any other name…
“L’Ukraine a toujours aspiré à être libre,” — Ukraine has always aspired to to be free.
By 1935 the numbers of dead in Ukraine were staggering. Exact figures are unknown, varying from 4 million to as high as 10 million (6) with discussions in Ukraine and in Russia, on how to remember, classify and memorialise the Holodomor remain still today, unsurprisingly, hotly disputed.
Raphael Lemkin, the Polish-Jewish lawyer, who invented the term ‘genocide,’ spoke of Ukraine at this time as a ‘classic example’ of his concept.
Speaking of the Holodomor during the Winter and following Spring of 1933, and the subsequent persecution and liquidation of the Ukrainian intellectual and political class in the months that followed, that led directly to the Sovietisation of Ukraine, the destruction of the Ukrainian nationalist movement, and the ‘neutering of any Ukrainian challenge to Soviet’ authority (6), Lemkin said:
“It is a case of genocide, of destruction, not of individuals only, but of a culture and a nation.”
For Stalin, the peasants of Ukraine were always a threat. Under Lenin he had served as People’s Commissar of Nationalities. In 1923 in an essay entitled ‘Marxism and the National Question,’ he had argued that nationalism was a distraction from the global ambitions of socialism, and that comrades ‘must work solidly and indefatigably against the fog of nationalism, no matter from what quarter it proceeds (6).’
By 1925 his ideas had coalesced around the dangers of peasantry in national movements. ‘The peasant question is the basis, the quintessence, of the national question. That explains the fact that the peasantry constitutes the main army of the national army, that there is no powerful national movement without the peasant army…’
Thus destruction of the peasantry, especially in Ukraine where the nationalist spirit had always been strong, was required to ensure the glorious future of the USSR.
The conquerors peace of mind requires the death of the conquered.
Whilst the Holodomor no longer fits today’s legal definition of genocide, the fight to have the famine recognised as such goes on for Ukraine. Today’s paranoid Russian state media, rather predictably, calls any remembrance of the famine — Russia does not recognise the term Holodomor — as Russophobic (6), but in light of events this year new discussions on genocide have taken precedence, with many calling Putin’s invasion of Ukraine a new genocide, with once again Ukrainians the victims and once again Russians are the aggressors.
Wading through the blood of the innocent is a religious endeavour…
“Comrades! Leningraders! Dear friends! Over our beloved city hangs the immediate threat of attack by German Fascist troops. The enemy is trying to break through to Leningrad. He wants to destroy our homes, to seize our factories and plants, to drench our streets and squares with the blood of the innocent, to outrage its peaceful people, to enslave the free sons of the Motherland. But this shall not be!”
Soviet propaganda issued to the people of Leningrad in the days before the start of the siege of Leningrad by the marauding troops of Hitler’s Wehrmacht; September 1941 (7).
When I hear or read things such as this quote, or even look at the remarkable similarities between then and now as in the image above, I often wonder if Putin has any chink of recognition as he pummels Ukrainian cities, as he has pummelled Syria and Chechnya before, inflicting similar unjustified punishment on the people of Mariupol, Kharkiv, Kherson, Aleppo, Grozny and more, or does Raskolnikov’s ‘Napoleonic’ factor justify everything in his head?
Can wading through that much innocent blood ever be justified?
From Lenin’s days Bolshevism held a cultish, quasi-religious status for its adherents. Bolsheviks were enforced atheists, but as Sebag Montefiore notes laconically (4), “‘they were never secular politicians in the conventional sense; they stooped to kill from the smugness of the highest moral eminence.’ Though not a recognised religion, Bolshevism was as Stalin said, ‘a sort of military-religious order.’”
Even the peasants, as we saw above, saw communism as a ‘faith’ of sorts, a religion of the ‘anti-Christ,’ from which they fled.
Adherents had to be prepared to die and kill for their faith for the betterment of humankind, to act utterly ruthlessly and to convince others of the righteousness of their quest.
Though most of Stalin’s close followers came from devoutly religious backgrounds, they had grown to hate the Judeo-Christian religions including the Orthodoxy of their parents, which Sebag-Montefiore says (4), was replaced with something even more rigid, and underpinned with a systemic amorality that allowed them to act with a sense of moral impunity.
“This religion — or science, as it was modestly called by its adepts — invests man with a godlike authority…/…In the (nineteen) twenties, a good many people drew a parallel to the victory of Christianity and thought this new religion would last a 1000 years. All were agreed on the superiority of the new creed that promised heaven on earth instead of other worldly rewards.”
Nadezhda Mandelstam; Russian writer who wrote of her life under the Stalin regime.
And their scriptures were the teachings of Marxism-Leninism which were regarded as providing the definitive ‘scientific’ truth for the improvement of mankind.
A Bolshevik was not someone who believed in Marxism, “…but someone who had an absolute faith in the party no matter what’ said one aging Bolshevik…/… ‘A person with the ability to adapt his morality and conscience in such a way that he can unreservedly accept the dogma that the party is never wrong — even though it’s wrong all the time (4).”
And a similar vein of cult runs through Putin’s regime today. In Putin’s People, Catherine Belton says one oligarch described the philosophy of Putin’s rule of being like a knot with three elements bound indelibly, unbreakably together.
“The first is autocracy — a strong government, a strong man, a papa, an uncle, a boss. It is an autocratic regime. The second element is territory, the fatherland, love of country and so on. The third element is the Church…/…It is the cement, if you like. It does not matter if this is the Church or the Communist Party. It doesn’t make much difference. If you look at the history of Russia, you’ve always had these elements put together. Putin is very careful in bringing the three elements together. It is the only way the keep the country whole. If you take away one of the elements, it collapses.”
Reported in Putin’s People; Catherine Belton (5).
This philosophic approach, drawn directly from the state doctrine of Nicholas I (1825–55), was adopted by Putin and his siloviki, his loyal ex-KGB hardmen, to secure their power base and stamp out any opposition (5).
All this was underpinned by the fascist ideologies of Ivan Ilyin, Lev Gumilev and Nikolai Trubetskoi that provided the philosophical base on which to build a strategic and theoretical framework to rival that of the democratic West (8).
Ilyin’s works provide the religious component tied to a unique fascist vision of Russian patriotism, whilst the writings of Gumilev and Trubetskoi provide geopolitical and socio-cultural elements that Alexander Dugin combined into a single destructive strategy; a Putin playbook if you will, that enabled him and the siloviki to enrich themselves outrageously at the expense of the Russian people, to cache enough pilfered Russian cash in Western banks to buy off and corrupt Western institutions, officials, politicians, and businessmen, all of whom had forgotten the nefarious Soviet tactics of the Cold War, and paid little or no attention to the massive influx of black money into Western markets, and the growing presence and acceptance of the Russian criminal underworld, all thought to have been destroyed, crushed beneath the Berlin Wall when the USSR collapsed.
For Putin, the overwhelming objective has always been the destruction of the West, who he had always believed was responsible for the dismantling and eventual disintegration of the USSR, but this enmity was brought into even sharper focus following the Rose Revolution (that brought Mikheil Saakashvili to power in Georgia in 2003) and the Orange Revolution (in Ukraine, that secured the Presidency for West leaning candidate, Viktor Yushchenko, following a failed assassination attempt by poisoning).
In the wake of the political disaster that was the Beslan school attack, which had once again seen a botched operation by Russian Special Forces that had left more 330 hostages dead, more than half of them school children (5), Putin’s approval ratings were sinking fast.
Putin saw the meddling influence of the West all about him, encroaching, corralling, decreasing the reach and influence of his power, threatening to the Motherland itself. Georgia and Ukraine became the catalyst for all that has followed.
Putin and the siloviki dug in! Rather than admit to the failures of his government Putin began, just like Lenin and Stalin before, to blame all the tragedies of Russia on malign, external forces.
The day after Beslan disaster had concluded, Putin, sensing an opportunity said, whilst offering no evidence whatsoever, in a national address that the tragic events were “a challenge to all Russia, to all our people. This is an attack against all of us.”
Linking the Beslan attack directly to the end of the Cold War, Putin continued, “There are certain people who want us to be focused on internal problems, and they pull strings here so we don’t raise our heads internationally (5).”
The external threat was immense. The West wanted, and still wants, what Russia has. Russia was a country under siege and the hatches needed to be battened down. He cancelled all local elections lest the West interfere (with no proof of interference); from now on all local officials would be state appointed.
Henceforth, political opposition was no more.
The conquerors peace of mind requires the death of the conquered.
The myth of a malign Western influence in Russia was being created, in part to cover up the failures of Beslan, but also in part because it suited Putin’s narrative, lifted straight from Ilyin’s fascist writings.
Ilyin spoke of an innocent Russia, led by a redeeming leader, who could make Russia into a durable, resilient and powerful state once again (8), but in so doing Putin was locking his position in, closing off all other avenues. From here on in there was no escape for Putin and the siloviki.
The more Putin lied, the deeper the hole became; the more he stole, the more paranoid he became. And this paranoia, felt most deeply by Putin in Ukraine’s turn and potential loss to the West — a loss for Russia Belton calls ‘the phantom limb of Empire’ (5) — made Ukraine the focus of much of Putin’s subsequent ire.
Apart from anything else the Russian economy was hugely dependent on Ukraine. Once solely an agricultural powerhouse, Ukraine was being transformed into a vast industrial centre, all linked indelibly to big brother, Russia.
“It’s steel plants had been joined with Russia’s in the Soviet command economy, while its factories (largely in the Donbas) were still key suppliers of raw materials for Russia’s aluminium industry. Most importantly of all, Ukraine was a vital transit zone for Russia’s most strategic export. Eighty-five percent of Russian gas exports to Europe were shipped through Ukraine’s pipeline network, arteries of Empire built in Soviet times, while Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula on the Black Sea was still home to a strategically important Russian naval base (5).”
At risk were Putin’s plans for the resurrection of an Imperial Russian Empire, the first steps being the incorporation of Belarus, Kazakhstan and Ukraine, into what was being called a new Common Economic Space, designed and projected to rival the growing influence of the EU.
Ever the opportunist, Putin aware that the West now viewed Russia as a has-been power, and distracted still by the War on Terror, Putin and the siloviki, took advantage, using the spoils of kleptocracy, they sponsored both right and left wing parties across Europe, bribing and corrupting officials, politicians and businessmen, to promote the illusion of a benign Russian influence whilst they sought to undermine, weaken and eventually bring down the EU, and the US.
A distracted West gave Putin the chance to begin restoration of the phantom limb. Illusions of Ukrainian Nazis persecuting Russian speakers was the pretext for the annexation of the Crimea, and for the invasion of the economically viable Eastern provinces of Ukraine in the Donbas.
Wading through the blood of the innocent, blaming it all on nefarious external forces, and creating the illusion of an innocent Russia under siege, is Russia’s staple now, and for the foreseeable future.
The conquerors peace of mind requires the death of the conquered.
One last thought. I don’t know Putin’s musical taste’s, but I would bet he’s never listened to any Bob Marley. But just in case…here’s one verse from One Love.
“Let’s get together to fight this Holy Armagiddyon (one love)
So when the Man comes there will be no, no doom (one song)
Have pity on those whose chances grows t’inner
There ain’t no hiding place from the Father of Creation.”
Thanks for reading.
- Crime and Punishment; Fyodor Dostoevsky, 1866. Translation, Oxford World Classics version, 1980.
- What is To Be Done? Nikolai Chernyshevsky, 1863. Translation; Cornell University Press, 1989.
- Before Evil: Young Lenin, Hitler, Stalin, Mussolini, Mao & Kim; Brandon K. Gauthier, 2022.
- Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar; Simon Sebag-Montefiore, 2003.
- Putin’s People: How the KGB Took Back Russia & Then Took on the West; Catherine Belton, 2020.
- Red Famine: Stalin’s War on Ukraine; Anne Applebaum, 2017.
- Russian History Rulers Podcast: The Siege of Leningrad; Mark Schauss, Episodes 222–25.
- The Road to Unfreedom; Russia, Europe, America; Timothy Snyder, 2018.