Monday, March 17, 2014

Worse than a Tatar: COD on Crimea

There's an old Russian proverb: "Незваный гость хуже татарина," or, "an uninvited guest is worse than a Tatar."  Typical Russian black humor, comparing the nuisance of an uninvited guest to the Mongols, who invaded what we now call Russia in the 13th century, slaughtered inhabitants and sacked a number of cities, and subjected the area to paying tribute for centuries before the "Mongol yoke" was thrown off in the 15th century.

Today the Crimean autonomous region of Ukraine voted for independence in a referendum condemned by much of the international community.  Actually,  as he writes, COD admits we don't have the results yet, but you can bet your a*s this is going to be the result.   You may ask, WTF is COD doing commenting on stuff in Ukraine?  Well, in Crusty's past life, he was a Soviet and Eastern European studies major.  Crusty studied Russian language for four years in high school and four years in college, along with
Yes, COD used to have a thick head of jet black hair.  Sigh.
Russian literature and Eastern European/Russian/Soviet history.  Crusty lived in the Soviet Union for the summer of 1987 for two months (and spent a week in Kiev), and for five months in 1990 (decided to go to the Baltic countries for spring break that time, and had the train turned back at the Lithuanian border), as part of language immersion language programs, studying alongside Soviet, Eastern European, and Western students, living in dormitories at Soviet universities.  Look, here's a photo from my Soviet student ID, a mop-haired Crusty Old Dean at age 20 in 1990.  Don't click on it; you might get Rick-rolled.  Crusty also studied Eastern Orthodox Christianity, he received a Master of Theology degree from Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology, where he also, coincidentally, was the only non-Eastern Orthodox student enrolled at the time.  COD later went on to work as ecumenical officer for The Episcopal Church, in part helping to coordinate relationships with the Orthodox Churches (though admittedly those conversations were on the wane by the time COD arrived).  Crusty was last in Moscow in 2002 as part of the official Episcopal Church delegation to the Moscow Patriarchate.  While far from an expert, Crusty does have a little background and experience in Eastern Europe.

Crusty is not terribly surprised at the turn of events in Ukraine.  Crusty refused to watch the opening or closing ceremonies of the Sochi Olympics, tweeting that in 20 years we may look back on them with shame similar to the 1936 Olympics:  as giving the opportunity for a thug and a dictator to try to buff his image on a world stage.  What is happening right now has not dropped out of the sky, but rather been building for going on 15 years now.

There have been several things Crusty has been pondering in the past few weeks.

1)  First there's the almost utter ignorance in the West of the complex dynamics of the area.  We're dealing with over 1000 years of history, here, people -- and, if anything, the collapse of the Soviet Union in the 1990s led to the West knowing even less about Eastern Europe.  If we aren't locked in a life and death ideological struggle, why learn anything about anybody else?  For instance, the Russian language program at Crusty's high school has been discontinued in favor of Chinese.  So, that said,

2)  There's the complexity to "Ukraine" itself.  The name, literally, in Russian means "on the border/edge."   Well...of what?  Of Russia/Muscovy of course.  The very name applied to the region defines it in terms of its neighbors, which has been Ukraine's lot for most of its history.  It was split up between Poland-Lithuania, the Crimean Khanate, and Muscovy in the 1500s, and its borders redrawn several times in the past hundred years.  It's been torn between East and West, Catholicism and Orthodoxy, in a more dramatic fashion than Russia (more on this below).  In Russian, to say "in Ukraine" uses a different preposition than is used for other countries.  In the more modern Soviet period, Ukraine suffered bitterly.  There was widespread resistance to the policy of forcing farmers onto collective farms, resulting in a catastrophic famine in the 1930s that killed millions.  During the Soviet period its western region was romanticized as the agricultural heartland of the country (kind of like many view the American
The dance sequences they were filming were pretty awesome.
midwest), with its Eastern region industrialized.  This is, after all, what the hammer and sickle symbol was all about:  the coming together of the oppressed agricultural and industrial workers to throw off capitalism and build a worker's paradise through the dictatorship of the proletariat.  There's a famous statue in Ukraine which captures this, the industrial worker with his hammer linking together with the female agricultural worker with her sickle.  When COD was in Kiev in the summer of 1987 they were filming a huge musical set piece for state television in front of the statue, if he could find the photo albums in his basement (still unpacking from the last move he made) COD would dig up the pictures he took.  Until then, here's a stock photo of the statue.

3)  There's the complexity to "Crimea."  The old Soviet Union was, on paper, technically a voluntary association of independent republics, which, in turn were theoretically based on all power given to local councils.  "Soviet" comes from the Russian verb "to advise, counsel" and during the revolutionary period local revolutionary councils of advice were set up in many cities, called soviets.  All power to the soviets! was the Bolshevik rallying cry.   Hence: the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics.  Within these theoretically independent republics were regions which were for various reasons granted a degree of autonomy.  This is all "theoretical", of course, since the USSR was a single party totalitarian dictatorship -- but these definitions existed on paper in the USSR constitution and in constitutions of the republics.  Crimea was an autonomous region within the Russian Soviet Federated Republic, but was transferred to the Ukrainian Socialist Federated Republic in 1954 by Nikita Khruschev, so has been "Ukrainian" only a little longer than Alaska has been a state or rock and roll has been rock and roll.  The inter webs will sometimes say Khruschev did this "while drunk,"
Khruschev's grave in Novodeviche cemetery, not the Kremlin.  COD visited.
but this is utterly ridiculous and part and parcel to efforts to discredit Khruschev as a buffoon.  There are various theories as to why Kruschev did this (while an ethnic Russian he was party head in Ukraine), all about as good as any other.  This was, however, just a formality at the time, since this was all part of the Soviet Union.   Crimea, in turn, was home to probably the third most famous and hallowed battle during the Second World War.  Though not getting as much historical ink as Leningrad or Stalingrad, the siege of Sevastopol on the Crimean peninsula lasted years and was as devastating as the other battles.  The Second World War is revered as a national touchstone in the Russian conscience akin to adding the American Revolution and the Civil War and multiplying it by infinity.  It's referred to not as World War II, but the Great Patriotic War.    So Crimea itself, let alone Ukraine, has a complex dynamic within the region's history.  Further, with all the talk about whether Crimea is "Russian" or "Ukrainian", there's the fact that if anything, you could argue it is Crimean:  it had an independent existence for 400 years prior to being conquered by Russia as an independent khanate from the breakup of the Mongol empire (though it was in essence a vassal of the Ottomans).  The descendants of the Mongols and nomadic invaders, the Crimean Tatars, currently make up a large minority of the population, which leads to...

4)  How so much of what is happening are hangovers from events in Eastern Europe during World War II.  Just like the Civil War, and the battle to shape its historical understanding and legacy, define much of American politics and especially in the American South, so was World War II a defining event for much of Eastern Europe.  For one thing, parts of what we now call Ukraine didn't become part of Ukraine until after World War II: as part of the redrawing of national boundaries, the Soviets kept much of the parts of Eastern Europe they divided with Hitler.  For another, Crimea itself was changed by the war: while many Crimean Tatars served in the Red Army, many also collaborated with the Nazis, seeking to throw off the Soviet yoke.  This led to Stalin's retaliation by deporting  almost the entire population at the end of the war.  When Crusty was living in Moscow in the summer of 1987, he was taking a tour of St Basil's Cathedral in Red Square when suddenly groups of police officers came in, ordering the thronging tourists to evacuate the church by the back, the exits facing away from Red Square.  Trying surreptitiously to look back and see what was happening and not get his head cracked by a police baton (not the only time this almost happened, but those are other stories), COD saw police hauling people out of Red Square.  Later Crusty found out they were Crimean Tatars, occupying Red Square to demand the right of return to their homeland.  The Soviets had technically permitted the Tatars to return in 1967, but did nothing to facilitate repatriation.  The Crimean Tatars would return by the hundreds of thousands in the late 1980s and 1990s, but still are nowhere near as numerous as they once were in their homeland.

There's also the dynamics in Ukraine during the war:  Ukrainian nationalists, headed by Stepan Bandera, proclaimed an independent Ukrainian republic and were involved in a tactical alliance with the Nazis (somewhat like Finland, which shared no particular ideology with Nazi Germany, but fought with the Germans against the Soviets to try to reclaim territory seized by the Soviets in the 1939-1940 war).  The term "fascist" which is being thrown around by the Russian propaganda machine is in part mudslinging -- like in American when people call
Babi Yar memorial, outside of Kiev.
someone a "socialist" but without really meaning the person is calling for nationalization of industry, just as an insult because it's considered an offensive term -- but also a conscious effort to revive the taint of Ukrainian nationalism with Nazi fascism.  The shadows of 1939-1945 period stretch over this area of Eastern Europe. The most powerful experience COD has ever had (really defies description in terms of the emotions generated) was visiting Babi Yar, the site of mass executions of over 100,000 during the war by the Nazis, with some collaboration by local Ukrainians, including over 30,000 Jews in a single day.

5)  There's also the hangover from the Balkan wars of the 1990s.  The bombing campaign in Serbia in 1999 (anyone in the West even remember it?) was bitterly opposed by the Russians.  There is lingering animosity that it was only the Serbians who were punished with western military intervention; any atrocities committed by Croats or Slovenians or Albanian Kosovars, in their understanding of events, is whitewashed and Serbians blamed solely for the destruction that followed the breakup of Yugoslavia, which, by the way, was an arbitrary nation drawn up by the Western powers themselves after World War I.  Kosovo is particularly a sore spot.  There are many in Russia who feel the partition of Serbia and recognition of independence of Kosovo by the West is as illegal as what the West is saying about events in Crimea; for many in the Russian leadership, this is just an example of Russia and the West both being part of the same hypocrisy, like Michael Corleone and Senator Geary in The Godfather.

6)  And there's the religious component: the areas annexed and incorporated into Ukraine after World War II were largely areas with a "Greek Catholic" component.  Ukraine sits square in the boundary between Catholicism and Orthodoxy.  In the 1500s, a number of Orthodox Christians entered into a full communion arrangement with the Pope and the Catholic Church, while allowed to retain many aspects of Orthodox liturgy and practice (such as married parish clergy):  Ruthenians, Slovaks, Ukrainians, and others.  Lviv, in northwest Ukraine, is the cultural and intellectual center of Greek Catholic Ukrainian culture.  After World War II, with the redrawing of boundaries, Lviv and a number of Greek Catholics came under Soviet rule and were bitterly suppressed.  Nearly the entire hierarchy of bishops were arrested and sent to forced labor camps, and the property was confiscated by the state.  In addition to the East-West tensions (Eastern Ukraine having higher proportion of Russians, western Ukraine higher proportions of Ukrainians), there is also a Catholic-Orthodox element of this division.  The religious component was a significant aspect of Kosovo as well, almost nearly universally absent in discussion in the west.  Although populated by majority Muslim, Albanian Kosovars, the area of Kosovo is the historic center of Serbian Orthodoxy -- Pec is the ancient home of the Serbian patriarchate and where many former archbishops and patriarchs are buried.  A post-Christendom, secular west consistently fails to understand the impact of religious elements underlying current struggles.  (To give another example, Crusty Old Dean was taking an American Religious History course when the FBI stormed the Waco compound of the Branch Davidians in 1993.  We watched on TV in class.  The professor, visibly angry, said, "Nobody who knew anything about American religious history and the place and role of religious sectarianism would be surprised at this result.  This is what happens when we're ignorant of history.")

7)  Lastly, there's the whole concept of Russian self-understanding that is frankly lost on many in the West.  Crusty will not try to parse the mind of Vladimir Putin (if anyone can) he'll leave that to others with far more experience and guffaw at Jon Stewart's relentless mocking of Putin, because if there's one thing dictatorial thugs despise, it's mockery.  One thing to keep in mind, and which may be hard for the West to grasp, is the way Russia sees itself as a unique nation (if anything, this is one area of commonality between the USA and Russia).  It sees itself as unlike other nations.  It's neither Eastern nor Western, sitting between Asia and Europe.  It has the largest Orthodox Church in the world.  It's the largest Slavic nation and sees itself as the cornerstone of Slavic culture and protector of the Slavic peoples.  These understandings have been developed over the centuries, from notions of Russia as the "Third Rome" and successor to Constantinople after its fall to the Turks, to the "sobornost" philosophy of Alexander Khomiakov in the 19th century, to Pan-Slavism, to current writings by people like Alexander Dugin.  Sure, there are the geopolitical concerns, with Putin seeking to counter NATO and the West.  But also underlying this is the notion that Russia has a different calling and a special destiny.  Lacking any cohesive ideology for his dictatorship other than oligarchic kleptocracy, Putin has been turning to these aspects of Russian exceptionalism.  This, in part, underlies Putin's strategic alliance with the Russian Orthodox Church (the Patriarch now has an office in the Kremlin) and increasingly anti-Western propaganda.  Russia's anti-LBGT legislation is an extension of this:  Russia must not be infected by the West and its decadence but preserve its purity and its identity.

8)  We should also keep in mind the West's own complicity in all of this.  The West has done nothing as Russia has intervened repeatedly in its former Soviet republics.  George HW Bush did nothing over Moldova; George W. Bush did nothing over Georgia, which as an actual shooting war, in 2008.  There is, of course, the question of what we "can" do. At least during the good old days of the Cold War there was the threat of mutual assured destruction.  The West is complicit as it swims in a sea of Russian money:  Russian oligarchs bank in the City of London and Germany sells Russia trucks and other exports.  A cynical Putin knows that the West won't want to walk away from all that money over a tiny peninsula nobody knew about a month ago.  As one commentator put it, under Putin the oligarchs "rule like Stalin but live like Trump," and they couldn't do that without the West's involvement.

The 1990s were often talked about as the "end of history," to the bipolar Cold War dynamic that dominated the world since the end of World War II.  If anything, one could argue the 1990s were an anomaly rather than the inauguration of a new world order.  As we sit and listen to bloviating TV talking heads argue about who "lost" Crimea, we're facing the fact that admitting our own ignorance and dealing with complexity are two things politicians are not very good at.


  1. Interesting stuff here. Thanks for filling in some of the details.

  2. there are some true facts, but others are not. The monument of a worker and a girl-farmer is in Moscow, not Ukraine. Crimean tatars assimilated mongols but actually their tribes came a little earlier; Stepan Bandera did not collaborate with Nazis but was put by Nazis in concentration camp (though he did write about Ukrainian Independence from Russians, Germans or Poles); there were no Ukrainians collaborating during Babi Yar, there were Ukrainians who were killed together with Jews there, and there were Ukrainians who were hiding Jews from Germans and were killed for that. There are several trees in Israel's Memorial planted in memory of those Ukrainians who hid Jews and were lucky to survive - and no trees for those Ukrainians who were killed; of course, Crimean history is more complicated but, I assume, it was simplified here to keep the size of the article short. Nevertheless, thank you, it is good, that people are learning about it. I would just wish that the accent would be done more on the interest of the people who live in Crimea (if not Ukraine).

  3. Thanks for the comments, Natasha. I did note the photo I used was a stock photo and not the one I was referencing (since I can't find my own photo). I was hesitant to address issues this complex in a posting like this, because of the need to oversimplify very complex matters. You could write books on all of these topics. For instance Bandera was indeed put in a concentration camp, but the OUN earlier had received funding from the Germans. Ukrainians suffered brutally under the Nazi occupation and many died in the massacres, and many helped hide Jews; yet like almost every country under Nazi occupation, there also evidence some helped round up Jews. These are incredibly complex and at times contentious issues, and this was an effort to raise broader awareness where many in the West are woefully unaware.

    1. Basically, I agree. But OUN was in Western part of Ukraine, on the territories which belonged to Poland before 1939. And I was referring just to Babi Yar, which is in Kiev (mainland Ukraine). The massacre happened pretty soon after Germans seized the city (September 29, 1941, 10 days after Germans entered Kiev). In «The Einsatzgruppen Case» during court hearings Sondercommands which committed this crime tried to blame also other military divisions which helped them, but they never mentioned Ukrainian police as possible helpers. There are also photos which were taken during Babi Yar massacre by German soldiers and there are no Ukrainians among executors on these pictures.

  4. Thanks for this. One of the more fascinating, and ultimately personally worrisome, aspects of the conflict unfolding is watching my ethnic Russian friends in Kharkiv shift allegiance from Moscow to Kiev, willing now to bear arms to defend the nation for which they previously had a sense of tolerant disdain. I hope the general notion that McDonalds-ized nation states don't go to war holds true.


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.