Russia’s annexation of Crimea, in blatant violation of international law, is a highly symbolic expression of power. In an exclusive article for the Swedish newspaper Expressen, Sofi Oksanen exhorts the West to put a stop to Putin’s colonialism.
I wake up every morning wondering if today is the day when eastern Europe is going to be sold out again. I check my mobile, and when I see it hasn’t yet announced anything too alarming, even if the news isn’t exactly cheering, I switch on my computer and go through the news headlines, still wondering if it’s going to happen today, or tomorrow.
The day when I will only be able to cope with the news by concentrating on observing my own reactions and those of the world around me, because it is the duty of a writer to remember the moments when the pages of history turn.
A new age has already begun. The inter-Cold War period – 1989-2014 – is over.
The last time eastern Europe and the Baltic states were sold out to the Soviet Union and its sphere of influence under the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, a manoeuvre which contributed to the Soviet empire reaching its greatest strength. An unpaid workforce was locked away in the slave camps of the gulag. Now Russia has made clear in both word and deed that it intends to restore the empire to its former glory. Brezhnev’s doctrine has been updated and adopted by Putin:
Russia believes it has the right to intervene in the actions of independent states if they appear to be moving too far towards the West, and if Russia considers itself to have authority over the area in question.
The Russian Duma is currently pushing through a law which would facilitate the annexation of regions that were previously Soviet, and the peoples of eastern European and Baltic countries are wondering if they have once again put their faith in the West in vain. For the past decade the West has paid little attention to eastern Europe, except as asource of cheap labour and profitable production facilities.
The illegal annexation of Crimea is of great symbolic value: this is the first region since the Soviet period to have been taken from an independent state and incorporated into Russia. It is also a test, an exploration of western tolerance and morals: will the West dare to stand by its promises – or will it betray eastern Europe again?
The fallen empire’s counterattack began back in 2005, when Putin declared that the collapse of the Soviet Union was the greatest geopolitical disaster of the twentieth century. The way history is taught is one of the methods by which this thesis is promoted, its retrograde content motivated by geopolitical interests. This version of history is intended to reawaken Russian national pride and act as a reminder that belonging to the Russian empire was beneficial to the peoples of other nations.
The former vassal states themselves take a rather different view.
For years people in the West have politely applauded Putin’s speeches about his country’s “democratic development”. Putin himself has defined his societal model as “managed” democracy. This sort of government is no democracy, but the West fell for the explanation, as it did for other euphemisms from the FSB (today’s KGB) that were intended to calm the rest of the world while the elite in power in the Kremlin made preparations for Putin’s brave new world.
The Soviet Union was rehabilitated, and journalism became a suicidal career choice. Since 2012 Putin’s elite have been repatriating their assets from the West in order to guarantee the independence of those in power.
One of the founding principles of the European Union is that we should at least try to learn something from the past. The Eurasian Union promoted by a clique within Putin’s elite is diametrically opposed to this. It is based upon the choicest bits of Stalinism and National Socialism, the lessons of whose propaganda are consistently followed. And this way of exercising power has an inexhaustible budget.
In 2005 the English-language television channel Russia Today was set up to serve the Kremlin’s propaganda purposes, with an annual budget of more than 300 million dollars. Because the channel’s programming looks like news, everyone believes that it is news, whereas in fact it is focused on disseminating Russian “truths” to the West, as former employees have admitted.
Only with the Ukrainian crisis has this propaganda become so shameless that it no longer makes any attempt to disguise its intentions to the West, as it had previously. This is a considerable change.
In the West, editors are used to presenting the opinions of various parties in order to come up with an article that comes somewhere close to the truth. But this is the wrong way to go about things when one of those parties is blatantly lying. Acting in this way also means that the western media are indirectly repeating the message promoted by the Kremlin’s siloviks [literally “people of power”, used to denote senior politicians with a background in the security services].
At the very heart of Kremlin’s policy is a war of information, full of claims and counterclaims, because this is the cheapest way of waging war and conquering territory without tanks. Fear, provocation, projection and propaganda: the Kremlin’s elite are masters of these. And these are the weapons that are always used to justify occupations, both to native populations and the outside world.
To Russia, the annexation of the Crimean peninsular, legally part of Ukraine, was a simple nut to crack. The invasion didn’t lead to any Russian casualties that could have brought mothers out onto the streets, and they managed to present the West with a narrative in which the annexation was rendered understandable, seeing as a large proportion of the region’s population is Russian-speaking.
The majority of these arrived in Crimea as a result of Stalin’s mass transplantations, whose purpose was to mix up the populations of the Soviet Union’s vassal states and russify theregion. Similar areas can be found in various parts of eastern Europe. And now these people are being exploited by Putin’s gang. But the fact is that the original inhabitants of Crimea, the Tatars, have already been forgotten. Their experience of Stalin’s population policies culminated in genocide.
At the time of writing, the doors of houses occupied by Tatars are being marked with crosses. Does that sound familiar?
Russia has been trying to destabilise the independence of eastern Europe and the Baltic states for a long time now. Back in 2008 Putin described Ukraine as an artificial state. Russia has called into question Ukraine’s right to inviolable borders, and through a skilful construction of lies has managed to make it look almost like a Russian state. There’s nothing new about this strategy: this is what happened to the young Austrian state in the 1930s, and led to the Anschluss in 1938.
The Baltic states have had tolisten to this sort of rhetoric from Russia for years now. The rest of the world knows relatively little about these countries – just like Ukraine. Consequently the Russian agenda – to question their right of self-determination – is by no means an impossible task.
In what passes as the Russian media, there have long been stories about Russians being kept in concentration camps in Estonia (vintage of lie: 2007). It is also claimed that the children of Russian tourists could be kidnapped from hotels in Finland, which is historically regarded as belonging to Russia (vintage of lie: 2013).
When this sort of thing is being pumped out into the ether year after year, it is hardly surprising when a majority of the Russian populace gradually begins to adopt a suspicious attitude towards the West. And this is precisely the point of it. This way people can be mentally mobilised for war and previously amicable ethnic groups goaded against one another.
Imaginary enemies are exactly what Putin’s clique needs in order to maintain their popularity and preserve the assets they have acquired for themselves by highly questionable means. Any loss of power would expose the corruption that allowed them to accumulate such wealth. Which is exactly what happened to Ukraine’s deposed President Yanukovych.
For the time being, the Russian leadership is concentrated on a small group of siloviks, and Putin – the richest man in Europe and Russia – is its outward face. The educational background of the group’s members differs from that of western politicians, and has its basis in the FSB and KGB. There is no higher status within the Russian power hierarchy. In the days of the Soviet Union, at least the Party used to be above the KGB.
Anyone who still believes that Russia is using its “compatriot policy” to protect the interests of ethnic Russians outside the country’s borders is advised to do a quick reality check and remember how Hitler made use of ethnic Germans. Everyone who has ever visited Russia knows how little those in power really care about Russians. And it was Russian actions under the guise of “humanitarian aid” that left South Ossetia in such a wretched state.
The Kremlin is not particularly fond of the variously coloured revolutions in neighbouring countries. So people inclined towards Moscow are installed in the governments of countries riddled with corruption. While he was in power, Yanukovych managed to arrest historians investigating Soviet crimes, and personally expressed his doubts about the Holodomar, the catastrophic famine that was actually an act of genocide instigated by the Soviets in the early 1930s. His policies also included limitations on freedom of speech, and homophobic propaganda. Yanukovych acted as a Moscow-inclined leader is expected to act. But the people protested, and spoiled Putin’s well-progressed plans to quietly unite Ukraine with Russia.
It’s time for the West to say no to Russia’s intention of expanding its territory beyond the country’s borders, and this cannot be done by diplomatic dialogue. It is impossible to negotiate with an adversary who consistently lies about their goals. Russia has already shown that it adopts a diplomatic façade merely to buy time to transport heavy weaponry to the border. To buy time to push through laws supporting puppet regimes.
The West has tried to understand the policies being put into practice by the Kremlin, but there’s really no need to understand colonialism. It is simply greed, and it has to be stopped.
Or would we try to show understanding if Queen Elisabeth II decided to revive British colonialism? Would you try to comprehend Angela Merkel’s thinking if she threatened to restore the German Reich? What if German television started to broadcast children’s programmes in which stuffed toys were shown preparing for war? What if Germany were run by people trained by the Gestapo? How would you feel if the Germans regarded Hitler as one of the greatest men in their country’s history, the way Stalin is regarded in Russia?
What if Germany declared that Europe (or “Gayrope”, as the Russians call it) was governed by a homosexual conspiracy, as has recently been claimed in a Russia bolstered by anti-gay propaganda legislation? Does anyone remember who it was who claimed that western degeneracy was the result of a Jewish conspiracy?
No-one would tolerate this, not even for an instant. You know that there is no way you could ever explain to your grandchildren why you let it happen.
Sofi Oksanen is a Finnish-Estonian writer and one of Europe’s biggest literary stars. This article was originally published in Expressen, and has been translated by Neil Smith.
Anansi is publishing Sofi Oksanen’s novel, When The Doves Disappeared (translated by Lola M. Rogers), in 2015.