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  • Writer's pictureThe Paladins

Fragments from a War Diary, Part #354

Yesterday was the solemn second anniversary of the (second) Russian invasion of Ukraine, and crowds marched around the free world in shows of open support with the Ukrainian people and as a reminder to the world’s politicians that this is an issue about which all the world’s people care. It was essential that this happens, because democratic leaders everywhere need to understand that Ukraine is an issue upon which people are prepared to decide their votes in elections and ultimately the success or failure of democratically elected leaders everywhere. Ukraine is a voting issue and not just because people are horrified by the fate of the Ukrainians but because I think there is a consciousness amongst voting populations in Europe and the United States that if Russia is not stopped then she is perfectly capable of carrying on westwards and disturbing the Euro-Atlantic peace and harmony that has enabled Europe and the world to flourish in the period since the end of the (first) Cold War. The peoples of the West want Russia out of their lives and it was a terrible mistake ever to end the Cold War on terms that allowed Russia to become firstly a gangster-capitalist state and then later taken over by a ruthless KGB killer.

The mistakes in the Cold War, it turns out, were all made at the end of it. The obsession at that time was with dismantling communism, not with dismantling the Russian Empire. Nobody at that time was talking about the Russian Empire which is what the Soviet Union really was, together with its Warsaw Pact client states sequentially liberated by Russian-dominated communist tyranny at the end of the 1980’s. Instead both sides had framed the division between the two global superpowers (remember that this was a time before the ascendancy of China) in ideological terms, and hence the end of the Cold War was understood not as a victory of western freedom over Russian imperialism but as a victory of capitalism (that became conflated with the notion of freedom) against communism as rival economic and political systems. Communism lost, and therefore the state ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange had to be dismantled and replaced with liberal economics, while communist party structures had to be replaced with democratic elections, and that was what the transformation of Russia was imagined to be all about in the 1990’s.

What the prevailing western parties in the Cold War failed to see was that just as capitalism, freedom, democracy and rule of law are natural bed fellows, so are communism, state ownership, Russian nationalism and tyranny. Hence great emphasis was placed upon mistakenly privatising huge Soviet-era companies that were really the arteries of Russian imperialism across the Soviet Union, connecting up the various parts of the Russian Empire as it stood under the communist system. Russia herself maintained control over this vast portion of the world’s territory using these huge networks of political-economic relationships that we came to understand as state-owned or socially owned companies. These weren’t really companies at all; they were mediums for the control of Russian imperial satellites and outposts from Moscow. Therefore the very idea of trying to privatise them, in botched privatisation schemes, was hopeless. The privatisation process became politicised, and former members of the Communist Party, which was disbanded in name only, amassed these shares for themselves from the workers to whom they had been assigned in exchange for food. Thereby the state structures owned by the Communist Party now instead became owned by a series of former communist managers, and nothing was really privatised at all. Moreover those communist managers became subject to control by a new Stalinist leader, Vladimir Putin, who kept his own communist managers in line just as Josef Stalin had done so in keeping his managers in line: through use of Russia’s network of secret police to undermine, intimidate, incarcerate and execute dissenters.

Hence we understand the enormous mistakes that took place not in the run-up to the second Russian invasion of Ukraine - that was inevitable with a leader like Mr Putin in power in the Kremlin, who was determined to refashion the Soviet Union as a rejuvenated version of his own vision for Russian imperialism - but in the 1990’s, when the West, having won the Cold War, had the opportunity to enter Russia and radically change her entire political infrastructure - but we failed to get that right. We focused on all the wrong things, with daft shames like voucher privatisation - because we never understood that the Soviet Union was really just a Russian imperial project that had borrowed Marxist terminology for its convenience. What we should have been doing then was breaking Russia up into a series of constituent democracies that could live freely and harmoniously with democracies in the West, in a post-imperial period. Now all we have across Russia and indeed in her other satellite states are a series of sham parliaments full of members of the United Russia party - a successor entity to the Communist Party, that never really went away - and run by Governors all of whom are appointed by Mr Putin. Hence we never focused upon democratisation, nor indeed upon Empire-breaking and the dissolution of Russia into a series of viable democratic nation states. Having failed abjectly in the real task facing us in the 1990’s, we had only to wait for a character in the vein of Mr Putin to emerge to reconstruct the Russian tyrannical monolith it had always been and to stretch Russia’s imperial tentacles again as far as they would go in every direction from Moscow. The result of that was the two Russian invasions of Ukraine, and many other struggles across Russia’s “near abroad”.

Last night I returned to the Lviv Opera House for a moving if mercifully short dramatic choral and orchestral piece by celebrated Ukrainian composer Yevhen Stankovich, The Psalms of War. The choral performers were dressed as refugees in plain clothing; children listlessly played with their soft toys on stage while the choristers screeched about the righteousness of their cause and the evil inflicted upon them by the invaders. While the music was far from to my taste, it was certainly extremely moving. I’ve never before seen an operatic performance that involved wheely suitcases, but it brought home to me the horrors and dislocation that this conflict has imposed upon European people who seek to be democratic and free. It was fitting and appropriate that this performance was scheduled for last night, and I emerged into the crisp Lviv early springtime air with a renewed determination to continue the fight against Russian nationalism.


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