Animosity towards Ukraine and Ukrainians by a certain type of Russian has a long history and is being reanimated as propaganda in Russia’s war effort. I encountered the phenomenon on my first visit to Russia and Ukraine in 1974 with a group of western journalists. Not having started to learn Russian at that time I was wary that conversations with ordinary people would be “lost in translation”, since the translators were employed to provide a positive view of life in the USSR.
Fortunately, two colleagues came to the rescue. Moshe Lehrer from the Israeli newspaper Maariv was born in Ukraine and brought up in Soviet-ruled Latvia while Ian Wooldridge of the Daily Mail had learned Russian during his national service in the UK’s Royal Navy.
At our briefing in Moscow we were regaled with stories of the brotherhood of the Russian and Ukrainian people. The then Soviet leader, Leonid Brezhnev, born and raised in Ukraine, was held up as an example of this indivisible relationship.
Things changed on arrival in Kyiv. It became clear that our guide from Moscow despised Ukrainians. He spoke to them with hatred in his voice, ordering them about as though they were inferior beings. Questioned about his attitude by my Russian-speaking colleagues, the guide accused all Ukrainians of having been followers of the extreme right-wing nationalist leader Stepan Bandera.
Almost half a century later Kremlin propagandists evoke Bandera’s name in a war for what they call the “denazification” of Ukraine, even though Bandera never had support in the regions of eastern Ukraine where the war is being fought and people are losing their lives and their homes.
In Memory Makers, Jade McGlynn of King’s College London raises the issue of the “Red Army’s mass rapes in Berlin or the post-1945 occupation of eastern Europe” in the context of Russian propaganda. Her inference appears to be that the rapists were Russians even though the Red Army was composed of more than 30 nationalities.
The historian Antony Beevor took a more nuanced view in his celebrated history of the capture of Berlin: “One important lesson,” he wrote, “is that one should be extremely wary of any generalisation concerning the conduct of individuals. Extremes of human suffering and even degradation can bring out the best as well as the worst in human nature. Human behaviour to a large extent mirrors the utter unpredictability of life or death. Many Soviet troops, especially in the frontline formations, unlike those who came behind, often behaved with great kindness to German civilians ...”
Ironically, as McGlynn reports, Beevor’s work has now been banned by the Kremlin for its “anti-Russian” content. McGlynn’s work is a guidebook for fellow academics on Moscow’s use of propaganda in the current war, replete with phrases such as “historical framing” and “mnemonic layering”.
Serhii Plokhy’s The Russo-Ukrainian War, a far more accessible work of wider importance, details the political events that have led to the current conflict as well as the conduct of the war from February to December 2022.
A professor of history at Harvard University, Plokhy is the author of 20 books on Russian, Ukrainian and Soviet issues including The Gates of Europe, an even- handed history of his native Ukraine. Not surprisingly, he looks at the war from a Ukrainian perspective. This involves a view of Ukraine and Ukrainians under the merciless rule of Russia and Russians, even when non-Russians such as Stalin were in charge or, later, when the Kremlin was dominated by the “Ukrainian Clans” within the Politburo of the Communist Party.
Plokhy denounces Russia’s invasion of his country in the strongest of terms and highlights many of the barbaric actions in this war. But he also points out some of the mistakes made by Ukrainian leaders, particularly after the Maidan Revolution in the interim period between the ouster of pro-Russian president Viktor Yanukovich and the election of billionaire president Petro Poroshenko.
These were exciting times and, in their excitement, the Ukrainian parliamentarians, he writes, “gave Putin a political gift with its maladroit adoption of a new law supporting the use of the Ukrainian language, which pro-Russian politicians in Ukraine characterised as an attack on Russian minority rights”. The Kremlin, he adds, used the law to “stoke the flames of Russian nationalism, thereby helping to justify the annexation [of Crimea]”.
Plokhy, as a historian, gives us a picture of the build-up to the current conflict before attempting to detail the course of the war from its outset in February 2022 to December. The problem here is that the latter part of the book verges on journalism and has already been overtaken by events, not only on the battlefront but by the leak of Pentagon documents on the conduct of the war.
Of greater value is Plokhy’s look into the future with an analysis of how the war has changed geopolitics. Putin’s attempt to stop the expansion of Nato has resulted in Nato’s further expansion and a major extension of the alliance’s border with Russia following Finland’s abandonment of neutrality. His desire to end a unipolar world dominated by the US may be on the way to achievement but the country at the opposite pole will be China and not Russia, which has shown itself to be weak militarily and weakening economically.
In short Putin, and his acolytes, have created a mess and have damaged Russia’s standing in the world at the expense of tens of thousands of lives.
Séamus Martin is a former Moscow correspondent for The Irish Times. He was worked extensively in Ukraine as an observer for the Organisation for Security and Co-Operation in Europe