The third Reconsidering Russia podcast, featuring Dr. Yuri Zhukov of the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor about the recent conflict in Ukraine’s Donbas. Dr. Zhukov is an Assistant Professor of Political Science and a Faculty Associate with the Center for Political Studies at the Institute for Social Research.
This Saturday (9 May) marked the 70th anniversary of World War II (or the Great Patriotic War) in Russia and the former Soviet Union. Yet, misconceptions of the Soviet involvement in the war and its legacy persist in the West. Here are five of them – debunked:
1. The Americans won World War II in Europe. While one can justifiably state that the Americans won World War II in the Pacific, in fact it is clear that the Soviet Union unambiguously won the war in Europe. The battles of Stalingrad, Kursk, Kiev, and other cities, as well as the sieges of Leningrad and Sevastopol, will be forever burned in the collective memory of the people of Russia and the former Soviet Union. The major Soviet sacrifice in the war can be best illustrated factually by the sheer statistics. At least 27 million Soviet citizens, or 14% of the USSR’s prewar population, died in the war, compared to less than 1% of the British prewar population and less than 0.5% of the American prewar population. 3 million Soviet soldiers from the war remain missing in action action to this day.
Noted Russia scholar Dr. Stephen F. Cohen of NYU and Princeton stated in a recent interview on the war that “when the Germans came in June 1941 and there was an emergency call-up, they called up the class that graduated that May-June from high [secondary] school. 18 year old boys. And sent ’em off to fight. Of every 100 high school boys who went off to fight in June 1941, only three came home… What that meant was, as life went on after the war, was that millions of Soviet women never had a husband, never married. And there was actually a name for them. They were called ‘Ivan’s widows.'”
2. The Soviet victory of World War II in Europe was a Russian victory alone. In fact, the victory of the Soviet Union was not a Russian victory alone. Even though Russians formed the highest number of military casualties (close to 70%), soldiers of other Soviet nationalities also sacrificed greatly for the victory. Ukrainians, Belarusians, Jews, Armenians, Georgians, Kazakhs, and others made major contributions to the war effort. Some of the greatest heroes of the war were non-Russians, such as Marshal Semyon Timoshenko and Marshal Ivan Bagramyan, who were Ukrainian and Armenian respectively. Belarus, the Soviet republic that served as a major center for partisan activity during the war, proportionally suffered the greatest loss of life against the Nazi onslaught – over 25% of its prewar population. The Soviet soldiers who raised the Soviet flag over the Reichstag in the famous World War II image were from Daghestan (Abdulakhim Ismailov), Ukraine (Aleksey Kovalev), and Belarus (Leonid Gorychev) while the photographer, Yevgeny Khaldei, was a Jew from the Ukrainian Donbas. To this day, Victory Day is a major holiday in all non-Baltic former Soviet republics.
3. The war is viewed very differently in Ukraine than in Russia. In reality, this only applies to those areas of Western Ukraine, annexed by the Soviet Union in 1939, where the Ukrainian nationalist movement was active and where the Red Army was seen as an “oppressor.” By contrast, throughout the rest of Ukraine, primarily in the Central and Southeastern parts, the war is remembered as a patriotic endeavor against the hated Nazi German invader. The war saw major figures emerge from these parts of Ukraine. They included not only Timoshenko, but also Marshal Rodion Malinovsky, Marshal of Armored Troops Pavel Rybalko, General Mikhail Kirponos, fighter ace and Chief Marshal of Aviation Ivan Kozhedub, and the sniper Major Lyudmila Pavlichenko, who was immortalized in song by the American folk singer Woody Guthrie. The different perceptions of the war in the different regions of Ukraine is perhaps best illustrated by Dr. Ivan Katchanovski of the University of Ottawa in his study on the subject.
4. The Americans liberated the prisoners of Auschwitz. While it is true that the Americans liberated the prisoners of Buchenwald, it was in fact the Soviet Red Army that liberated the prisoners of Auschwitz on 26 January 1945. Further, the Holocaust itself largely took place on the Eastern Front.
5. The orange-and-black St. George Ribbon sported by Russians and other former Soviet peoples on 9 May is a recent invention. In fact, the St. George Ribbon has a history dating all the way back to Tsarist times in the late 18th century. During World War II, the ribbon was later re-adopted by the Soviet military. The ribbon gained greater visibility and public significance in Russia under Putin, beginning in the mid-2000s as a symbol representing the war effort, part of a greater campaign focused on reviving Russian patriotism after the chaotic Yeltsin years.
Since the Ukraine conflict in 2014, the ribbon has become associated by the Ukrainian government and its supporters with the pro-Russian rebels of Donbas. In response, the Ukrainian government has controversially adopted a new symbol to commemorate the war – the red-and-black poppy common in the UK, Canada, and the British Commonwealth. The poppy is favored by nationalists in the Ukrainian government because the red-and-black colors match those used on the flags of the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN) and the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA) which collaborated with the Nazis during the war. According to Ivan Katchanovski, the red-and-black colors “in turn were adopted from the Nazi blood and soil colors.” The move has consequently met with much controversy in Ukraine, especially among veterans of the Red Army and the pro-Soviet partisan movement.
The second Reconsidering Russia podcast, featuring Dr. Philip Metres of John Carroll University.
With Tatiana Tulchinsky, Dr. Metres has translated an anthology of poems by the Russian conceptualist poet Lev Rubinstein, entitled Compleat Catalogue of Comedic Novelties, which was published in December 2014. More recently with Dimitri Psurtsev, he translated the poetry of Arseny Tarkovsky in a comprehensive bilingual anthology entitled I Burned at the Feast, which will be officially published this month.
Presenting the first podcast for Reconsidering Russia, featuring Sergey Sargsyan of the ArmComedy Project. Enjoy!:
Dehumanization is a central component of war propaganda. By removing the humanity of individuals and reclassifying them as anonymous “others,” it becomes easier for combatants in a war to kill them. Such is the case with eastern Ukraine, a conflict rife with dehumanization.
In the Ukraine conflict, the greatest victims of such dehumanization are the 5.2 million Russian-speaking civilians of the industrial eastern Ukrainian region of the Donbas. Lifelong residents, they are caught in the crossfire between the pro-Russian rebels and the pro-Kiev militias. Regardless of their political sentiments, the locals have been cast by officials in the Kiev government variously as “terrorists,” “Colorado beetles,” “Moskali,” and “subhumans.” Very little distinction is made among the civilians, the actual rebels, and the rebels’ supporters in Moscow. Civilians who remain in rebel-held territory are often considered “traitors” by the mere fact that they chose to remain in their homes.
This lack of clarity, combined with attacks against east Ukrainian civilians by far-right battalions (accused of war crimes by Amnesty International), has driven the majority of the population to support the rebels. If they were ambivalent toward the rebel cause before, the rhetoric and actions of the Kiev government and its supporters changed their stance. Further, since the start of the conflict, the dehumanization has extended to anyone in Ukraine deserting the army, dodging the draft, or explicitly voicing opposition to the war, like the journalist Ruslan Kotsaba. He was arrested by Ukrainian authorities for openly expressing his views in a YouTube video and now potentially faces 15 years in jail for treason. Amnesty International has declared him a prisoner of conscience.
The dehumanization of eastern Ukrainians has also spilled into the discourse of Western politicians, pundits, and analysts. One of the most vocal of these, the Ukrainian-American academic, Alexander Motyl, has called the people of the Donbas “the most retrograde part of [Ukraine’s] population” and has attempted on more than one occasion to draw parallels between them and white US southerners who supported Jim Crow. His discourse has only fueled the flames of the conflict, pitting Ukrainians against Ukrainians. It also drew strong criticism from Lev Golinkin, a writer originally from Kharkiv, in The Huffington Post.
Motyl was not alone. Other Western commentators have also dehumanized the people of eastern Ukraine. Further, this dehumanization has seeped into a general dehumanization of all things Russian. From the start of the crisis in Ukraine, the Ukraine-EU Association Agreement was presented to Western readers as a “civilization choice” for Ukrainians between a “civilized Europe” and a “barbaric, Asiatic Russia.” During the Euromaidan protests in December 2013, Sweden’s former Foreign Minister Carl Bildt, the co-architect of the EU’s Eastern Partnership (EaP) program, tweeted that the growing conflict between the protestors and police symbolized “Eurasia versus Europe in [the] streets of Kiev.” Even more extreme, former Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili declared Moscow to be the “new Tatar-Mongol yoke.”
Such characterizations and stereotypes imply a superiority of one people, culture or civilization over another. They allude to destructive racial ideologies from the darker chapters of the 20th century. The implicit message is exclusion and separation, not cooperation and engagement. These discursive Social Darwinist formations have absolutely no place in the discourse of the 21st century. Yet, somehow they persist.
There is also dehumanization in the Russian media. However, it is important to highlight the distinct nuances here. Dehumanizing rhetoric in the Russian media has largely concentrated around liberal oppositionists who are derided as “fifth columnists” and potential “traitors.” The discourse is purely internal, though it is undoubtedly exacerbated by external affairs. Western policies toward Russia and the former Soviet space since the dissolution of the USSR have fueled greater distrust and suspicion on the part of the Russian government toward the opposition, making freedom of speech more difficult. In this respect, one can make a very strong case that Western policies like NATO expansion, missile defense, the unilateral cancellation of the IBM treaty, or the sponsorship of pro-Western revolutions in ex-Soviet states have harmed the development of democracy in Russia, not helped it.
This stands in contrast to the dehumanization of east Ukrainian civilians and Russia by the present Ukrainian government and its supporters in the West. In fact, official Russian-backed media has refrained from engaging in any dehumanizing rhetoric toward the people of Ukraine proper. True, they have liberally used terms like “Nazis,” “fascists,” and “Banderists.” However, they have not used these terms to describe the Ukrainian people as a whole. Rather, they have used them to describe the government in Kiev, a very important distinction. In Moscow’s view, there is a clear delineation between what is regarded as “the government” and “the people.”
Indeed, in the Russian worldview and discourse, the Ukrainian people are seen as either a deeply kindred people or an extension of a greater East Slavic whole, along with Russia and Belarus. Further, a larger partition of Ukraine, which would certainly involve more conflict, is decidedly not in Russia’s interests. Therefore, Moscow has little to gain from dehumanizing a large number of Ukrainian civilians through the mass media. This explains why they have been careful to distinguish between the government of Ukraine and the people. In fact, in the Russian narrative, the people of Ukraine are often presented as being “naive” or “duped” by Western policies, though their struggle against corruption is viewed understandably.
By contrast, the distinction between the breakaway governments of Donetsk and Luhansk and the locals living there is barely made by the Ukrainian government. This is why the dehumanization of civilians in the Ukrainian media and in the Russian media simply cannot be compared or “equalized.” Equalization often has the intended goal to bring people together. By creating a false symmetry, the thought is that people will recognize the flaws of “both sides” and work toward peace. The goal is indeed noble, but the aims of achieving it, which obscure the facts of a given situation, are questionable.
Analytical equalization has likewise been applied to another part of the Soviet Union: the conflict over Nagorny Karabakh between Armenia and Azerbaijan. Armenia is a hybrid regime among the ex-Soviet states, embracing elements of liberalism and authoritarianism. Yet, it largely has a free press and free media (including a Daily Show-style satirical news program). Armenia simply cannot be described as an “authoritarian state.”
This is in contrast to Azerbaijan, which is indeed an authoritarian state. The country boasts a pervasive personality cult of the ruling Aliyev family, especially the current president Ilham and his father, Heydar. Dissent is systematically muzzled and there is little room for free expression or free speech.
An objective assessment would illustrate the differences that exist between the two states. Yet, Western commentators, eager for an immediate peace over Karabakh, gloss over these differences and instead generalize that “both are exactly the same.” Such a formation excludes critical thinking and prevents one from observing nuances between the conflicting parties. Consequently, the search for that all-elusive resolution becomes even more challenging.
Overall, the key to ending any war or conflict is to first and foremost stop the senseless dehumanizing and malicious rhetoric. Dialogue becomes possible when people begin to realize their common humanity – that which they share. Consequently, instead of talking in exclusionary terms of “Europe” vs. “Eurasia,” “West” vs. “East,” we should be reflecting collectively in terms of cooperation among all peoples on the vast Eurasian landmass, from Lisbon to Vladivostok. Only then can there be true peace.
Correction (8 March 2015): It has been called to my attention that I made a typo on this piece. I accidentally referred to Amnesty International declaring Ruslan Kotsaba as a “prisoner of consciousness” as opposed to a “prisoner of conscience.” This has now been fixed, but the mistake was somewhat ironic, given concerns of Europe “sleepwalking into war.” Kotsaba was indeed “conscious” enough to see that danger.
In recent weeks, renowned veteran Russia scholar, Professor Stephen F. Cohen, and his wife, Katrina vanden Heuvel, have been at the center of a controversy involving the Association of Slavic, Eastern European, and Eurasian Studies (ASEEES).
Much has already been written about this matter. For some background, see the article published in The New York Times on 28 January here and a listing of articles related to the situation, compiled by Sean Guillory, here.
However, within the context of this controversy, I would like to focus on one specific issue, i.e. that of Ukrainian academics, their reaction to Cohen’s work, and their suspected role in the ASEEES affair.
It is true that Cohen is not a specialist on Ukraine, though he does have some background on the country. Overall, though, within Russian and Soviet studies, his primary focus has been, and continues to be, Russia itself rather than the other ex-Soviet republics.
Nevertheless, some Ukrainian academics in North America have used this perceived “weakness” as a means of discrediting Cohen’s views on Ukraine. One observer cited two Ukrainian-American scholars in this regard, Alexander Motyl and Serhii Plokhii, both of whom are known for their more nationalistic views. The observer alleges that such “aggrieved” Ukrainian-American academics have likely been at the forefront of the ASEEES’ considerations regarding Cohen. This may be correct, but it is important to clarify some significant aspects of this issue.
The narrative of Cohen being a Russianist who is “disconnected” from Ukrainian affairs and the post-Soviet republics is exceedingly problematic and over-simplistic. In fact, to criticize Cohen on his views on Ukraine simply on the basis that he does not specialize on the country is misleading and unfair.
Knowing Cohen personally, I can say that during this entire crisis, he has carefully and scrupulously consulted Ukrainian sources and made contact with specialists on the post-Soviet republics for his writings. As someone who studies the former Soviet republics and the history of the Soviet nationalities policy with a tangential interest in Ukraine, I can confirm that what he has written on domestic developments in Ukraine is indeed factually sound.
Further, the narrative of the “disconnected” Cohen also excludes dissenting views on the dominant narrative within Ukrainian studies. In fact, at least two Ukrainian academics, Ivan Katchanovski of the University of Ottawa and Volodymyr Ishchenko of the National University of Kyiv-Mohyla Academy, would agree with many of Cohen’s viewpoints on Ukraine’s domestic politics.
Indeed, while many Ukrainian academics have hailed the Maidan as a “liberationist” movement, the more skeptical Ishchenko has instead characterized it as a “pro-neoliberal [and] pro-nationalist” movement led by elites who do not necessarily represent the interests of the people. Both Katchanovski and Ishchenko, like Cohen, have also been highly critical of the presence of the far-right in the Maidan Revolution.
They are not alone. There are other Ukrainian academics who have dissented from the prevailing narrative as well. In their search for an objective reality of events, they often contradict nationalist viewpoints which have found a warm reception among influential anti-Russian hawks and members of the war party in the US political establishment. Indeed, the works of Motyl and the Canada-based, OUN-affiliated Taras Kuzio are prominently featured in Foreign Affairs, the main publication of the US foreign policy establishment. By contrast, dissenters, like Katchanovski and Ishchenko, have not received such privilege, despite the more objective and factual nature of their research.
Given their views, dissenting Ukrainian academics have often found themselves in difficult positions. Not only do they face difficulties with their more nationalistic and ideological colleagues in Ukrainian Studies in North America and Europe. They also face repercussions in post-Maidan Ukraine as well.
For instance, the over 100-year-old Czech-built family home of Ivan Katchanovski in Lutsk, the center of historic Volhynia in northwestern Ukraine, has been unlawfully appropriated by the Kiev government. The beleaguered professor believes that his research on Ukraine’s far-right and on the Odessa and Maidan Snipers’ massacres was most likely the reason for this action. The aim, he believes, is to prevent and intimidate him from conducting further research on these subjects in Ukraine. His thorough investigation into the Maidan Snipers’ massacre is especially significant. It found that the snipers who shot and killed both protestors and police on the Maidan were most likely far-right activists. This inconvenient truth contradicts the official Kiev line which blames the massacre on former President Yanukovych. On 11 February, a report by the BBC World Service seemed to corroborate Katchanovski’s investigation.
Katchanovski suspects direct involvement from officials in Kiev in the seizure of his property due to the fact that the original decision came from higher-ups. Further, according to Katchanovski, Mykola Sorokopud, the head of the lawyers’ association of the Volyn Oblast, was directly involved in falsifying evidence against him in order to confiscate his property. Sorokopud is affiliated with the far-right group Right Sector (Praviy Sektor) as well as Ihor Palytsia, the current governor of the Odessa Oblast. Another Lutsk native, Playtsia is also connected with Right Sector. He runs the foundation “New Lutsk”, headed by Sorokopud’s wife, that finances members of Right Sector fighting in the Donbas in the neo-Nazi Azov Battalion.
As these facts demonstrate, the ASEEES-Cohen affair is not strictly about issues relating to free speech, censorship, and much-needed funding for a much-needed but neglected discipline. Ironically, this debate is also indicative of how the Ukraine crisis has divided the Slavic, Russian, Ukrainian, and Eurasian academic communities, much like in Ukraine itself. These divisions exist on multiple levels, whether they are between those willing or unwilling to take into account Moscow’s point of view, or between those who are pro-Kiev or anti-Kiev.
Indeed, in their official correspondences, the ASEEES has expressed concern regarding “splits within the organization.” One hopes that these “splits” are not so profound as to affect the objective judgment of the ASEEES, an organization that professes to encourage discussion and debate among its members. Unfortunately, this seems to be the case. Evidently, the crisis in Ukraine has cast a long shadow over a respected academic association that should know better.
Full disclosure: I am a proud member of the ASEEES and a MA graduate student at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, focusing on the history of the Caucasus (especially Armenia and Georgia) in the Soviet era. My academic advisor is Ronald Grigor Suny, one of the signatories of the ASEEES letter in defense of Cohen and of the reply to the ASEEES. Like Cohen, he is a fellow scholar in the revisionist school of Soviet and Russian historiography.
Numerous observers of the recent events in Ukraine and Mariupol have concluded that the Donbas rebels seek to establish an overland corridor (or “land bridge”) to Crimea on behalf of the Kremlin. The claim, often repeated by pundits in the West, was also echoed by at least one Russian political analyst (Sergey Markov).
However, is this really the case? Do the Donbas rebels really want to establish an overland corridor to Crimea?
The facts and realities of the situation indicate, simply, “no.”
First and foremost, the Donbas region as a whole (including both Kiev-held and rebel-held areas) has no geographic link whatsoever with the Crimean peninsula (see the above map). In order to establish a land bridge to Crimea, the rebels would need to invade the neighboring oblasti of Zaporozhia and Kherson on the Black Sea, both of which are not considered part of the Donbas.
Such an action would create a serious escalation of the Ukrainian conflict, something that Moscow has continuously stressed it wants to avoid. There is also the question regarding the rationale for the creation an overland corridor to Crimea when Russia has already invested a lot to build a bridge to the peninsula across the Kerch strait to the Krasnodar Krai.
Even more importantly, since August, the rebels, especially the leader of the Donetsk Republic, Aleksandr Zaharchenko, have made it clear on numerous occasions that they do not have any territorial ambitions outside of the Donbas region.
In fact, in light of the most recent fighting between Kiev and the Donbas rebels, Zaharchenko vowed to push the front to the borders of the Donetsk oblast so that “no shells can fall on Donetsk.” The recent Mariupol hostilities need to be comprehended in this context.
Mariupol is important to the rebels, not as a potential part of an overland corridor to Crimea, but as part of the Donbas region and part of the Donetsk oblast more specifically. In fact, it is the second largest city in the Donetsk oblast after Donetsk. It is also a major port, giving the rebels another “life line” to Russia. These are the reasons for its importance.