Living in Russia’s shadow

Shadows and Lines (On the Top of the Hill - Moscow) (Photo: Geraint Rowland /  Creative Common License BY-NC 4.0 Deed
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On Post-communist Perceptions on History and the Need for Civil Society and Western European Engagement

Historian Nicolaas Kraft van Ermel spoke at the ‘Politiek Café: Solidair met Oekraïne’ last week about what it means to live in the shadow of Russia? There is no single answer, but an influential answer was given by the recently deceased Czech playwright and emigré dissident Milan Kundera, writes Kraft van Ermel.

Door Nicolaas A. Kraft van Ermel

Last summer, my partner and I visited Romania. We arranged a private tour to some remote Transsylvanian mountain villages not easily accessible by public transport. When we met him, he introduced himself as a former Romanian army colonel and on the way to the mountains he lectured us about Romanian history from a fairly nationalist point of view. On purpose I had only introduced myself with my first name, and had not told our guide that I was a professional historian of Central and Eastern Europe. Whatever he told us, was what our guide wanted a generic Western European tourist audience to know. Most intriguing, he started his long monologue on Romanian history with the words: “We, Romanians, know who the Russians are. They come to take your land and plunder it; they kill and rape. We were not surprised by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Western Europeans had no idea, they were so naïve. The only thing Russians understand is a violent response.” The rest of his “lecture” lasted for about an hour. Although a long historical narrative, it can be summarised as: “We Romanians are peace loving by nature and only interested in defending the homeland in which we have lived since antiquity. Invaders – Slavs, Hungarians, Turks, Germans and Russians – came and went, and it is a wonder we still exist as a bulwark of Latin civilisation in a sea of barbarism”. 

Most Western European readers will probably find the notions raised by our guide rather astounding. Yet, I raise this story not because it is so special, but because it is not. It is quite the opposite: visit any country to the East of Germany and to the West of Russia and you will hear similar historical narratives. Our guide might have given a rather blunt version, but his story fits a broader regional pattern. Of course, there are differences between various national narratives and even within countries there are variations. However, most narratives share the same structural elements: it is a kind of self-perception of a freedom-loving nation suppressed by its neighbours. Each nation has its own neighbours, but Russia often figures prominently amongst them, even in countries nog directly bordering Russia.

Most nations in the region share that they have been in

the shadow of Russian power projection for parts of their history

and were the subject of Russian political and cultural manoeuvring

Most nations in the region share that they have been in the shadow of Russian power projection for parts of their history and were the subject of Russian political and cultural manoeuvring. Although the Russian empire was of different nature than the Soviet Union, most depictions make little difference between what is ‘Russian’ and ‘Soviet’. There are of course exceptions: anti-Russian feelings are less strongly developed in countries with close ties to Russia such as Belarus and Serbia. But also here there are those who would like to see otherwise. Most importantly also in these countries national historical narratives share much of the same structural elements.

This all leads to the question of what it means to live in the shadow of Russia. There is no single answer, but an influential answer was given by the recently deceased Czech playwright and emigré dissident Milan Kundera in the long article ‘The Tragedy of Central Europe’. In it Kundera claimed that “Central Europe”, which essentially is the easternmost part of the West, was an “uncertain zone of small nations between Russia and Germany”, whose “very existence may be put in question at any moment”. It is not for nothing that Kundera quotes the opening line of the Polish national anthem Jeszcze Polska nie zginęła (Poland has not yet perished). 

Milan Kundera (Photo source: Wikimedia Commons)
Milan Kundera (Photo source: Wikimedia Commons)

In Kundera’s presentation, Central Europe is a diverse area of tremendous cultural diversity. He contrasts this with Russia, which he considers ‘uniform, standardising, centralising’ and ‘determined to transform every nation of its empire into a ‘Russian’ or ‘Soviet people’. Published in 1984, Kundera’s article should be seen from the perspective of its time: only a year before Ronald Reagan referred to the Soviet Union as an evil empire and presented the Cold war as a battle between good and evil. There was still no sight of Mihail Gorbachev and his policies of glasnost and perestroika. Nevertheless, Kundera’s article seems rather up to date seen from a contemporaneous perspective, a he could as well have quoted the opening line of the Ukrainian anthem in its original form Ще не вмерла Україна (Shche ne vmerla Ukrayina; Ukraine has not yet perished).

Interestingly, Kundera is very keen in defining what Central Europe is not, that is Russia and Russian. However, it gives no clear definition of what countries and nations belong to Central Europe. Instead, he portrays it as a common tradition or a fate. As political frontiers are inauthentic, he proposes to define Central Europe by ‘the great common situations that reassemble peoples, regroup them in ever new ways along the ever changing boundaries that mark a realm inhabited by the same memories and conflicts’. Or translated to our own time: because Russia’s western border shifted to the east in 1991, so did Central Europe’s border.

There is much to be said about Kundera’s definition and the self-positioning of the region vis-a-vis Russia in general. While Kundera is certainly not blind to the existence of other tendencies in Russian history than its “uniform, standardising, and centralising” aspects, he certainly emphasised the latter. It is clear that they overshadowed Russia’s more positive faces in the view of 1984’s Kundera. Again, there is a parallel to our day and age: If one stakes claims about positive contributions of Russia in our day and age we will also face a hard time. Russia has two faces, and at this moment it shows the face we find ugly. We should however not rule out the possibility that at a future point in time, Russia will show its other face once again. 

It is however striking that Kundera’s essay in part reads as a version of our Romanian guide’s story last summer. Of course, the Tragedy of Central Europe has much more intellectual rigour and is much more geared towards the tastes of an international and cosmopolitan audience. Nevertheless, the structural overlap is striking: both present the self as a victim of Russian aggression and proclaim their own innocence.

Russia’s shadow has left a clear legacy. It often created or greatly encouraged the formation of counter projects to forms of identity that proclaimed cultural and political links to Western Europe. Pan-Slavism was in part supported by Russia to prevent various Slavic nations from finding a future in Europe. Likewise, Moldovan national identity is in part a Russian and Soviet construction to dissuade the people of this strategic territory located near the mouth of the Danube river to find their future in a much more European centred Romania. To counter Polish claims on territories in present-day Ukraine, it became explicit policy to deny the existence of a Ukrainian nation and language in the second half of the twentieth century. 

It is not up to Russia to decide in which direction these countries

and nations head in our day and age.

Let the Poles, Ukrainians, Moldovans etc. decide for themselves.

It is not up to Russia to decide in which direction these countries and nations head in our day and age. Let the Poles, Ukrainians, Moldovans etc. decide for themselves. However, the region seems to give an answer that is troubling because it relies on notions of victimhood and at the exclusion of others. In the last years it has increasingly become common parlance to view the history of the twentieth century through the lens of what I call – lacking a better description – post-Communist anti-totalitarianism. 

The basic tenet of this ideology is that Communism was a totalitarian and evil ideology artificially imposed on the region by the Soviet Union (which is almost universally equated to Russia). Communism was criminal, foreign and illegitimate. For sure, many crimes were committed on the basis of Marxist class ideology and Western Europe knows too little about this. However, the idea that communism was an alien totalitarian ideology that was artificially imposed on the region has its problems. First of all, it is bad history: While the Soviet Union imposed communism by force, often with deadly consequences and committed grave atrocities and human rights violations in the process, it is simply untrue that Communism is not a part of national history. Communism was an answer to specific political and social problems in twentieth century European history which had a broad appeal. Amongst its adherents were Germans, Russians, Dutch and of course also Poles, Hungarians and Ukrainians etc.

Beyond such historiographical concerns lies the problem that post-Communist anti-totalitarianism has become a tool for political mobilisation throughout the region. For instance, it forms the backbone on which the Polish Law and Justice Party sought to upend the constitutional order formed by compromise between the Polish Communist Party and the anti-Communist opposition in 1989. Such policies pose – or perhaps in the very near future, and hopefully, posed – a great threat to Polish democracy and rule of law. Because of semi-automatic recognition of judicial acts and deeds this extends to the entire European Union.

Likewise, in Hungary, Viktor Orbán often refers to Hungary’s experiences with Soviet communism to support his policies. The very same Orbán makes a point of comparing the European Union to the Soviet Union, likening European civil servants to Soviet apparatchiks. 

Ukraine has felt the pressure of Russian aggression long before the 2022 full-scale military invasion. Partly in response to the annexation of the Crimea and Russia’s fueling of an uprising in the Donbas in 2014, Ukraine imposed four so-called ‘Decommunisation Laws’. These laws should not only be understood in the context of troubled Russian-Ukrainian relations, but also on the domestic plain: they were both a response to years of polarisation around history in the run-up to 2014 and a tool by part of the Ukrainian establishment to deflect from the problems of corruption and the weak rule of law in the country. 

Een man met een bordje "Glorie aan de gewone deelnemers van de Oranje Revolutie" op de negende verjaardag van de Oranje Revolutie in Kyiv, Oekraïne (Foto: Ivan Bandura, Creative Commons licentie)
Een man met een bordje “Glorie aan de gewone deelnemers van de Oranje Revolutie” op de negende verjaardag van de Oranje Revolutie in Kyiv, Oekraïne (Foto: Ivan Bandura, Creative Commons licentie)

It is impossible to summarise the content of all four laws in just a short paragraph, but they were based on a narrative that depicts Soviet Communism as a foreign ideology imposed on Ukraine against its will. The freedom loving Ukraine went through a century long struggle for its freedom and independence. To protect the independence gained in 1991 and re-asserted in the Orange Revolution of 2004 and Euromaidan of 2013-2014, it is necessary to remove the legacy of Communism from Ukrainian society. In essence, the laws contain a Ukrainian version of post-Communist anti-totalitarianism. To undertake Ukraine’s decommunisation the laws prescribe the cleansing of Ukraine’s public space from Communist symbols and place names and the promotion of an almost hagiographic narrative of various Ukrainian nationalist movements in the twentieth century. As a consequence of the laws, the Communist Party of Ukraine was banned. Not because of any connections to Russian intelligence services or an anti-democratic ideology (which represent legitimate causes for banning a political party), but purely on the basis of its name. 

Likewise, the law dictates that criticism of the legitimacy of anti-Communist Ukrainian nationalist movements is a ‘humiliation of the Ukrainian people’s dignity’ and ‘unlawful’, leaving unclear what the consequences are. The problem is that these Ukrainian nationalist movements had complicated ethno-nationalist ideologies and histories of mass murder and collaboration with Nazi-Germany. This can be explained as historical phenomena, but how does uncritically making these movements into national heroes serve the rebuilding of Ukraine into a democracy state and a member of the European family? All in all, the decommunisation laws are troubling from the perspective of Ukraine’s democratisation, the strengthening of its rule of law and geopolitical shift towards Europe. 

As a historian my perspective might be skewed towards seeing history as both the cause and solution for problems. Nevertheless, what seems to underlie these and other policies is the idea that there is precisely one correct way to write history. That legal means are often employed to police this – the case of Ukraine is but an example – is indicative that the legacy of Communist rule and encounters with the “uniform, standardising, and centralising” Russia has not yet been overcome, but has been translated into different projects suiting present-day political needs. 

To be sure, this is not exclusively limited to the countries living in the shadow of Russia. Similar ideas pop up in the culture wars in the United States and increasingly also in Western Europe.  Nevertheless, for the countries in Russia’s shadow, the legacy of encounters with Russia and Soviet communism are an important driving force for entertaining the notion that history is too important to be left to society alone.

Free discourse on history is to democracy

and rule of law what canaries are to coal miners

Free discourse on history is to democracy and rule of law what canaries are to coal miners.
It is therefore important to guard it: making sure that history remains an never ending discussion about the past is preferable, especially because one cannot write history without political and ideological considerations.

This is not only a problem for formerly communist countries, but has become a poignant problem for Western European societies as well. Russia’s war against Ukraine and the atrocities it commits against Ukrainian civilians have led to calls to ‘decolonialise’ and ‘derussify’ our understanding of Central and Eastern Europe. To be sure: Western Europe has a ‘Russia problem’. Our research library collections and study programmes often prioritised Russia and the Russian language. This inadvertently leads to an intellectual filter. Maybe, if this was less the case, Western Europe would have listened to Central and Eastern European warnings about Russia’s revisionism better and acted accordingly. 

Nevertheless, the opposite of what is wrong is not necessarily right. More nuanced historical narratives and social responses are needed to counter the Russian threat. The answer to Russia’s challenge to the rules based world order and European democracy should be to ‘dare more democracy’. This would also do more justice to Kundera’s notion of Central Europe as an inherently diverse and dynamic region of Europe.

It is here that I want to stress that the countries of the region have one asset which can counter problematic and simplistic historical narratives in the region: unlike Russia, many of these countries seem to have a much stronger civil society. Protests in Poland against the various democracy undermining policies over the recent years demonstrate this. Ukrainian civil society prevented the transformation of the country into an oligarchy dictatorship thrice since 1991. And I can continue for much longer. As new generations – who have not lived through the experience of Soviet Communism themselves – have grown up with a more cosmopolitan view of the world, civil society can give other directions to discourse about history.

Holocaust Museum in Odesa (Foto: Alina Gusewa / Creative Commons licentie)
Holocaust Museum in Odesa (Foto: Alina Gusewa / Creative Commons licentie)

This is all very abstract, but it can be made more concrete. In 2013 I visited the city of Odesa. The place which left the strongest impression on me was the city’s small Holocaust Museum. Located in a residential courtyard outside of the touristy centre of town, the museum opened at the initiative of a regional Jewish NGO that concerns itself with the fate of Holocaust victims. The story of the Holocaust in Odesa needs to be told, if only because it is different from the Holocaust elsewhere in Ukraine as its main perpetrator was not Nazi-Germany but the Romanian Antonescu regime which occupied the region. However, this was not the only reason the visit left a strong impression. At the time Ukraine was strongly politically polarised over history, with various political forces seeking to monopolise either an outspoken nationalist view of Ukrainian history or a neo-Soviet/pro-Russian narrative. Neither version of history had any real engagement with the plight of the Jewish population. In the midst of these heated political and social debates, a small NGO – in part survivors of the atrocities of the Holocaust in Odesa – undertook all kinds of activities to educate the youth, so that the Holocaust would never be repeated again. Neither the Ukrainian nationalist nor the neo-Soviet/Russian perspectives of history had any real interest in the fate of the once numerous Jewish population in the country. Not only did the museum offer its own perspective, it also sought to create bridges between the two competing and politically contested narratives and the history of the destruction of the Jews in Odesa. This essentially undermined the great polarisation between competing historical narratives which were at that time not only dividing the country but were also exploited by political elites to prevent meaningful anti-corruption and other reforms.

With relatively small budgets and little staff there is only so much you could do. Organisations such as the small NGO mentioned above need more support, because they are an asset to countries all over post-Communist Europe. But I want to add another dimension. As Western European societies undergo their own decolonisation, it is also necessary to consider the condescending attitudes these societies have shown vis-à-vis Central and Eastern Europe. Moreover, Western Europe will have to learn to live with an understanding that freedom after the Second World War came at the cost of accepting unfreedom in Central and Eastern Europe. To date, we insufficiently comprehend this and this troubles our view of the present situation in the region. While civil society in the region needs Western funding, organisational and other kinds of support, this should not lead to one-way traffic. Instead Western European societies have as much to learn from their Central and Eastern European partners as vice versa.

Dr. Nicolaas A. Kraft van Ermel is a historian of Central and Eastern Europe, who specialises in Ukrainian, Russian and Polish contemporary history. He works as scientific staff member at the Groningen Institute for Central and Eastern European Studies (GICEES) at the University of Groningen, the Netherlands.
Dit artikel is gebaseerd op een tekst uitgesproken tijdens het eerste, door Libereco georganiseerde panel tijdens Politiek Café: Solidair met Oekraïne op 19 november 2023 - een samenwerking van Max van der Stoel Stichting, Libereco, PvdA, International Foundation GroenLinks en Mara.
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