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Putin’s obsessions. Russia, the Ukraine, and their shared past


By  Alexander Korb, Associate Professor in Modern European History

Russian president Putin justified his country’s murderous attack on its neighbour with the need to stop an allegedly on-going genocide of ethnic Russians in eastern Ukraine. In Russian rhetoric, the war was a ‘special operation’ to ‘de-militarize’ and to ‘de-nazify’ Ukraine.

The University of Leicester is home of the Stanley Burton Centre for Holocaust and Genocide Studies. It is the oldest Holocaust research centre at a British University, devoted to the study of genocide and mass crimes since 1990.

With this blog post, I protest against the shameless and unprecedented attempt to abuse the memory of the victims of the Holocaust to justify a murderous war and to cover up the Russian war crimes that this war will undoubtedly generate.

I join the choir of public responses that this cynic Russian distortion of history deservedly got:

  • The world’s most important memorial site in commemoration of the Holocaust, Yad Vashem in Israel, raised its voice in protest and slammed Russian propaganda as despicable and irresponsible.
  • The Wiener Holocaust Library, Britain’s library of record of the Holocaust and genocide, protested against “Putin’s bogus justifications for his war of aggression” and highlighted how absurd his claims to “de-nazify” Ukraine are given that the country’s president Zelensky himself is Jewish, and his grandfather had been a fighter against the Nazis.

This abuse, however, points to a larger problem. Russian elites live in another political orbit shaped by an explosive mix of nostalgia for the Soviet empire and modern Russian nationalism.

Whilst both is widely spread amongst the population, too, scholars point out that luckily parts of the Russian society are very different from the regime: creative, globally minded, and progressive.   The regime’s phantom pain of the lost imperial greatness after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the loss of the status of a world power, however, is obsessive.

What makes this worse is that it is intertwined with the paranoid belief in anti-Western conspiracy theories in Putin’s narrow-circle. The underlying lies are hard to reconcile with not only Western policies but with universal standards of honesty, reflection, and truthfulness. This is why, in the UN’s general assembly vote on March 2, only dictators like Lukashenka, al-Assad and Kim Jong-un stood by Putin’s side.

How can we deal with such a distortion of the truth and facts?

Those who talked to Russian leaders made the mistake that they often misread the Russian version of reality as propaganda, with Putin’s aggressive, but, so the hope, otherwise rational mind behind it.

What needs to be understood is that, from the perspective of Russian imperialism, this is rational behavior.

Russian nationalists firmly belief that their people were victimised for more than hundred years by:

  • Khrushchev, who ‘gave away’ Crimea to ‘the Ukrainians’ in 1954.
  • the Americans and President George H.W. Bush, who allegedly unjustly won the Cold War and broke promises to never expand NATO into the former Soviet orbit.
  • the West, who dares to ‘export’ democracy and offer it as an attractive alternative to authoritarian kleptocracy to countries such as Georgia, the Ukraine and Belarus.

Putin is not Hitler, and the war crimes Russia commits do not compare with the Nazi genocide.

There are, however, parallels when we compare the obsession with defeat and the inability to deal with it in Germany after 1919 and Russia after 1990. Both countries were dominated by a nationalist discourse of victimisation.

Others –namely the West— were blamed for their own shortcomings. Nationalistic elites in both countries were obsessed to undo the past – they saw themselves surrounded by a hostile world that, in their view, did not understand, the “true” German/Russian.

This obsession went hand in hand with the abolishment of democracy and the establishment of dictatorship both in Germany in late Weimar and in Russia under Putin. 30 years after the Treaty of Versailles, in 1949, parts of Germany had the opportunity to start learning and to emerge as a democratic society.  32 years after the downfall of the Soviet Union, the Russian future looks bleak, and, tragically, the Ukrainian with it. Russia is unable to accept alternatives to its authoritarian kleptocracy in what it is sees as its backyard.

Therefore, Russia attacked Georgia in 2008; the Ukraine in 2014; and therefore, it helped crushing democratic or at least alternative upheavals in the Ukraine (unsuccessfully) in 2013, in Belarus in 2021 and in Kazakhstan in 2022. Any peace talks with an independent Ukrainian state will be extremely difficult because Russia will not accept the free will of the Ukrainian people, regardless of question of neutrality or of the future borders of a Ukrainian state.

For Putin, Ukraine, ‘Russia’s little brother’, is family. In Putin’s KGB-agent logic, it is better to eliminate part of the family than to let them go. This is why the regime keeps on assassinating defectors.

It seems that a peaceful coexistence might only be possible after Putin.

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