When it comes to the status of Ukraine as “self” or “other,” Russian state propaganda manages to have it both ways. One aspect of the strategy is familiar from the Russian media’s demonization of domestic dissent: discrediting any expression of dissatisfaction with Russian policies as the work of secret puppetmasters who stir up dissent either through brainwashing (“Western" style innovations in pedagogy, the pernicious influence of the Western media, and, of course, the public menace known as “grants") or bribery (the reflexive accusation that protesters are paid by enemies was a feature of Russian political culture long before Donald Trump brought it to the American mainstream). The conflict in Ukraine fits nicely with one of the master narratives of post-Soviet conspiracy theory: not satisfied with destroying the USSR, the Americans are busily dismantling Russia both as a world power and a sovereign state.
With NATO at its borders and a portion of the population looking West rather than East, Ukraine becomes the logical site for a proxy battle between Russia and the United States. Intentionally or not, successive American governments have encouraged this sort of thinking by approving NATO expansion right up to Russia’s borders and shamelessly taking public sides in Ukrainian internal political conflicts. Whatever principles may have guided the last two decades of American foreign policy, discouraging Russian paranoia does not appear to be among them.
To make matters worse, this is by no means the first time that Ukraine would serve as either buffer of battleground in a conflict between Russia and the West: invading Russia from the West without going through Ukraine is theoretically possible, but inefficient. For a recent precedent that is never far from the popular consciousness, we need look no further than the Second World War.
World War II is widely recognized as the touchstone for Soviet national pride and the source of a national myth that supersedes even the October Revolution. Setting aside the complex questions of Stalin’s leadership (not to mention the Molotov-von Ribbentrop pact), the centrality of the Great Patriotic War for Russian political and public culture has only become more obvious in the Putin years. It also serves as something of a “get out of jail free” card for any Russian accused of supporting a policy that might be considered fascist (“I can’t be a fascist; my grandfather saved Europe from Hitler”).
Theoretically, the Soviet triumph could be claimed by all the former Soviet republics, since they all were once part of the victorious Soviet state. But just as the Russian Federation assumed the entirety of the Soviet debt along with the nuclear arsenal, it has also assumed the lion’s share of pride in the defeat of Nazi Germany. In particular, Ukraine is in no position (political, geographic or otherwise) to make an uncomplicated claim on the Soviet Union’s victory. Like so many countries in Eastern Europe once occupied by the Nazis, Ukraine has a checkered history of resistance and collaboration that haunts public expressions of national pride.
At issue is probably the second most sensitive topic in Russian-Ukrainian relations in Soviet times (after the Holodomor): Stepan Bandera’s Ukrainian Liberation Army’s participation in World War II on the side of the Nazi invaders. Viewed as a traitor in Russia, Bandera and his insurgency against Soviet power have been coopted by a narrative of Ukrainian national struggle, his alliance with the Nazis largely whitewashed (when it isn’t being actively championed by extremist, far-Right forces). Many Russians find the current appropriation of Banderovite images and slogans (such as “Glory to Ukraine,” which would sound innocuous if it weren’t for its history) disturbing, but the exploitation of this phenomenon is depressingly familiar: the Russian media are borrowing from the Serbian scriptbook of the early 1990s, when a similar revival of Nazi-era Croatian symbols allowed Milosevic’s men to label their Croat enemies as “Ustaše” (WW II-era fascists). Thus where a naive American media paints the post-Maidan Ukrainian government as a pro-Western, democratic bulwark against Russian imperialism, the preferred term in the Russian media is “fascist junta”.
The fighting in Ukraine gets recast as a long-delayed sequel to World War II, with crypto-fascists emerging from their bunkers after seven decades of presumably cryogenic suspension. It’s like the scenario for Captain America, only with the Nazis on ice instead of the antifascist superhero. If this sounds flip (or, because of the American reference, irrelevant), it is anything but. The miraculous return of Nazis thanks to the miracles of mad science is a cliche of adventure fiction around the world (The Boys from Brazil, Hellboy) and Russia is no exception. One of the key players in the Ethnogenesis cycle, a sprawling, four-dozen-plus series of novels spanning continents and millennia, is the Fourth Reich, complete with a frozen Hitler in their antarctic Ultima Thule base.
Ethnogesis is an odd bird; in the attempt by pro-Kremlin media ideologue Konstantin Rykov to integrate Gumilev's theories into popular entertainment, the authors inadvertently consign these widely-accepted, but profoundly crackpot ideas to what should be their natural habitat: low-rent science fiction. Yet the conflict in Ukraine seems tailor-made for an Ethnogenesis novel. The backwards-looking, black-and-white morality of official Russian propaganda transforms all of Russia’s international conflicts into a retread of World War II. And, thanks to America’s own checkered history of harboring Nazi scientists to help with the postwar arms race, the Nazi narrative does not contradict the portrayal of the US as anti-Russian masterminds.
The equation of Ukrainian nationalists with fascists serves multiple functions. For one, it allows critics to avoid calling them “Ukrainian” at all, in part to avoid legitimizing them, and in part to maintain the appearance that it is not Ukraine itself that is the enemy. This allows Ukrainians to continue to function as both “self” and “other”: the “bad” Ukrainians are essentially Nazis and traitors, and can be named as such, while the broader masses of “good” Ukrainians are simply another variety of Russians, who one hopes will soon cast off this Ukrainian nonsense and rejoin the fold. Meanwhile, Russian propaganda fulfills the classic psychoanalytic function of displacement: fostering an intolerant climate for minority populations and adopting repressive legislation is a Ukrainian problem, not a Russian one.
Next: Breadbasket Case