I write this from a standpoint of supreme ignorance.
I pretty much know next to nothing about Russia and even less about huge swaths of eastern Europe. What knowledge may be stuck somewhere in the ganglian-sorting folds of my ever-shrinking grey matter is there through messy shards of undergraduate Chekhov – for what theatre arts major has not performed in at least one scene of The Cherry Orchard? – occasional stabs at the canon of Great Literature, early and often doses of childhood Cold War propaganda including the 1972 Summit Series where, because of my perfectly Russian sounding name in reverse spelling, Nerad Retsof, I found myself on the bad guys team for ball hockey games and, of course, regular viewings of Rocky & Bullwinkle’s Boris Badenov and Natasha Fatale.
That’s it. My base layer. Supplemented in recent years with Bloodlands by Timothy Snyder, a heavy dose of Eric Hobsbawn, from The Age of Revolution through to The Age of Extremes and, after the recent deadly incursion by Russia into the Ukraine, A Concise History of Russia by Paul Bushkovitch, for a quick overview of Russian history in an attempt for even the dimmest of understanding about exactly what the fuck was going.
This is where I’m coming from. My bias, stated upfront. As a qualifier for what follows.
Vladimir Putin is a petty tyrant, a low-grade Bond villain, probably from the Roger Moore era. If his character played the nemesis in a superhero movie, he wouldn’t be able to carry the story alone. He’d have to be part of a League of Baddies, a supporting role in an Ensemble of Eee-ville.
Vladimir Putin is also a product of the West. Not just from his time as a KGB agent, an in-the-bones Cold Warrior, but owing to the absolute perfidy of the West throughout the post-Soviet era, beginning with the sacking and dismantling of the Soviet state under the guise of liberalization, helping to usher in the gangster age and destabilizing the already shaky societal foundations in the process, all the while offering up assurances that it, the West, through its various institutions like, say, NATO, would not encroach the newly (re)established Russian borders. Hello, Czechia, Hungary, Poland before the bloody century had even ended. Hello, Bulgaria, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania, Slovakia and Slovenia, five years later.
Knock, knock, Kyiv.
None of this, it needs to be said, is to remove agency from Putin, as a poor player at the mercy of historical forces, or downplay his regime’s crimes and carnage, or his masterful way with propaganda in the cause of finding and exploiting the cracks in western democracy. He’s a state-level terrorist, more mafia don than despot, end stop.
Now, here is where we get to the part of slippery conjecture.
More than the reasons of real politik, geographical integrity, dreams of empire, pledges of fidelity to the Motherland and tradition, and whatever other justifications Putin has used to defend his invasion of Ukraine, it ultimately boils down to the sordidness of money. Money, and the accumulation of great swaths of it. For a select few.
While he may derive great satisfaction also from kicking at the underpinnings of liberal democracy, a reflex from the glory days, Vladimir Putin is, above all else, a plutocrat. He’s not in this to improve the well-being of the Russian people, to lift up their lot in life. His battle isn’t ideological, at least not in the ideology we were indoctrinated in. Despite the words he uses, this isn’t an existential battle to him, for him, maybe, he and his fellow Russian oligarchs, but not for Russia itself. Not really.
Vladimir Putin, and yes, I’m going to write this statement, is no Josef Stalin.
No doubt that Stalin himself was a petty Georgian thug, far less ideologically hidebound than those he supplanted, Lenin, Trotsky, Bukharin et al, to become the undisputed Fearless Leader of the revolution, but of all the accusations leveled at him, personal enrichment would be far down the list. (Yes, yes, nodding to all the What Abouters, he most certainly didn’t live the peasant life but let me ask you in return: How many of our Presidents and Prime Ministers rose up from the great Unwashed and went on to live a life of penury and dispossession?)
Josef Stalin was many things but a straight-up mercenary was not one of them.
Whatever else his murderous, genocidal, purge-loving motivations may have been, and there’s always more than simply one, Stalin, unlike Putin, dealt with very real, very potent existential threats, not just to himself but to the country he knived and shot his way up to lead. From its inception, the Soviet Union was beset from the west by the remaining world powers after World War I, namely the United States and Great Britain. Stalin watched those powers grow increasingly comfortable with the rising fascist tide as a satisfactory counterbalance to Communism throughout the 1920s and 30s.
The Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact signed in August 1939 by the Soviet Union and Germany just over a week before the Nazis invaded Poland provided Stalin with, among other things, there are always other things, the land and time buffer he would need to prepare for the inevitable attack Hitler would launch against his country. Unlike western leaders, Neville Chamberlain for one, Stalin grasped Hitler’s intentions. Less than 2 years later, Operation Barbarossa began, and the Soviet Union and Germany were at war.
What we in the west tend to forget or conveniently overlook is that the Battle of Stalingrad, commencing on the 3rd anniversary of the signing of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, broke the back of Nazi Germany. The Russians and Soviet Union paid a heavy, heavy toll for the victory, much more, much, much more than any other side fighting in the war. Yet somehow managed to become the successor international villain to the Nazis post-1945.
None of this is to justify or rationalize the barbarous Stalinist cruelty and inhumanity both before and after the war. Or to diminish the individual efforts to resist and defeat it. As unambiguous and moral as we like to think back about World War II – how many times have we been told or read that We knew who the bad guys were? – what might have been true at the macro level was far less so at the micro. ‘The enemy of my enemy is my friend’ and all that.
Still, 80 years on, we cannot conflate the struggle of Ukrainian nationalists against Putin’s Russian aggression with Ukrainians fighting under Nazi auspices against Stalin’s Red Army. ‘A Ukrainian veteran who fought against the Soviet Union in 1943’ should’ve set alarm bells ringing and red flags waving as soon as it was said. That it didn’t, speaks to either a monumental breakdown of the vetting process or our country’s continued refusal to accept responsibility for our past acceptance of the idea that ‘Not all Nazis…’.
If, in 2023, we can’t agree that, unequivocally, a Nazi is a Nazi was a Nazi is a Nazi, then it seems we haven’t learned the lessons of history, as murky, muddy and messy as those lessons may be.