guaranteeing soviet borders

A map of Crimea (1922)

THINGS ARE LOOKING SHAKY in Europe’s East. It seems that the Russian Federation has adopted a policy of trying to destabilize the new government in Kiev by questioning its authority and right to exist. To what end, I do not know, because it is clear that European, American, and other powers recognize that new government’s legitimacy. But deposed President Yanukovich is asserting his continued status as the country’s legal president, and his messages are being circulated by Russian state-owned news media. Meantime, masked gunmen have been seizing control of buildings in Crimea. We are warned against separatism in Ukraine’s south and east, and are holding the air in our lungs, fearing an escalating conflict over Ukraine’s territorial integrity.

The trouble with the concept of territorial integrity in the post-Soviet countries, is that the borders of the countries were drawn by Stalin and others specifically to foster internal divisions that would keep any of the republics from achieving goals of independence based on specific, national concerns. The most legendary case of this is in the resource rich Fergana Valley in Central Asia, which is split between Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan, making it an obvious source of contention for all three countries. Most of this mapmaking was done in Moscow, and with a quick stroke of Comrade Stalin’s pen, land became Ukrainian, or Uzbek, or Tajik. And now, more than sixty years after Stalin died, teenagers must bear arms, and diplomats must issue warnings, to defend the territorial integrity of the nonviable republics he created — states that were created to fail should they try to achieve and maintain independence.

While anybody who cares about anybody on Russia’s borders cringes at the idea of Russian expansion, we may eventually have to step back from our stalwart defense of, say, Ukraine’s territorial integrity, and ask ourselves hard questions about the creation of these states, and how they managed to produce so many of such problems — so-called “frozen” conflicts that just happen to flare up from time to time. Will the government in Kiev risk a war with Russia over a peninsula inhabited by people who do not want to be ruled by Kiev, just for the sake of the ideal of territorial integrity? Will young people have to die to defend borders that are, by their very constitution, unsustainable? How far should we go to defend Stalinist cartography? Is it even worth it?

Some things to consider.


that tiny, grimy gem of truth

“Beware of any messianic political figures who are, innately, the right person to lead their country forward into the light of the West.”

IT’S DISHEARTENING to come across opinion pieces from self-described left-leaning media sources that are critical of what has happened in Ukraine. They are regurgitating Kremlin talking points about a US or EU coup, about the resurgence of antisemitic ultra-nationalist groups, even recycling World War II propaganda about pogroms and Nazi-allied partisans.

To any of my friends who think of themselves as progressives, I think we should be aware that Kremlin disinformation campaigns have used left-leaning Western media for decades. We should also remember that the Kremlin in those years was never our friend, and some of the first people on Lenin’s hit lists were social democrats {“traitors to socialism who would castrate Marxism”}. But too many of us have eaten it up, unquestioningly. Because if our own corporate media is lying to us, then this other media must be correct, right? Right????

Putin is no Communist, but he represents a state built on the foundation of the USSR, with many of the same ideological underpinnings, memes, and channels of delivering information. And the propaganda against foreign meddlers and Ukrainian “fascists” is exactly the kind of tripe that would have been published in Pravda in the 1930s. Word for word. Putin never reinvented the Kremlin’s arsenal of disinformation, you see. They upgraded the channels of delivering it, but the logic behind it remains the same. So, what you hear coming from the Kremlin and its Western dispensers is just that: recycled propaganda. And the thing about leftovers, is that you can only reheat them so many times before they lose their flavor, or go bad and start to ferment. Which is why it pains me to even read these warmed up dishes of Stalinist junk food. I can’t stomach it.

And you shouldn’t either. Any mention of “fascism” or World War II should be a clue that you are dealing with something very antiquated and tied to long-debunked belief systems. It’s been 70 years since Mussolini and Hitler walked the earth, and 70 years since that war to end all wars. Seventy years is a long time, especially when you consider that many of the victims of those sharpshooters on Maidan were 22 or 23 years old. If your well-meaning progressive friends start using these terms, it’s probably best to take them aside, grip them by the collar, and shake them, until that fragile connection with reality is remade.

I am like you, though. I’m a skeptic. While some are bathing in the golden light of freedom and hope, I’ve got my hands in my pockets, whistling in the corner. Whenever I hear the word “freedom” or “freedom fighters,” I become suspicious. Smells too much like Nicaragua, right? And so many of the cheerleaders of the ouster of the Yanukovich government in Ukraine are the same people who told us that Iraq would be a cakewalk, and that we would be welcomed as liberators, and that their oil would fund their recovery. Just because the Kremlin is deluding itself with yesteryear’s golden nuggets of Stalinist propaganda, doesn’t mean their right-wing counterparts across the seas aren’t also living in a fantasy land. I would caution you to beware of grand narratives of “freedom and democracy” sweeping aside the old order in Ukraine and making over everything with wonderful and glistening neon signs from Western chain stores.

Also beware of any messianic political figures who are, innately, the right person to lead their country forward into the light of the West. How many times have we seen this? In an unstable, incomprehensible situation, a magical leader rises to the surface, with an iconic look and catchy name, and we put all of our faith into this one person to fix everything? The mainstream media outlets repeat that name over and over again, until it becomes synonymous with all that is just and good in the world, until it turns out that this modern day Moses is actually just as corrupt as the stooges he or she replaced.

What you have in Ukraine is a very messy situation. The crooked stooge Yanukovich is gone and the politically motivated murder has stopped, but there are still a lot of different interests (and yes, ultra-nationalist groups were one of them) and it remains to be seen where this will all lead. Whatever is happening there, though, it is not over, and it will be very difficult for the average person to grasp it all as it takes place (I’d wager that it’s perhaps tough for the average Ukrainian to know everything). So, don’t trust anybody — not your own media, not left-leaning media regurgitating Kremlin talking points, not the Kremlin-owned media itself (I wouldn’t even want to know what the Russian state-owned TV channel RT is broadcasting, though I am sure some musty, worm-eaten phrases from the Stalinist era have been put back into rotation). The best bet is to read as much as possible from as many sources as possible. Poke with care through the piles of a propaganda dung in search for that tiny, grimy gem of truth.

It’s in there, I swear. In there somewhere.