The Torment of Capitalism

The Hidden and Not-So-Hidden Causes of the War in Ukraine

Napoleon Putin (image created using Craiyon AI)

They shall beat their swords into ploughshares and their spears into pruning hooks; nations shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore; but they shall all sit under their own vines and under their own fig trees, and no one shall make them afraid. (Micah 4: 4-5)

Assured of the political passivity of the American population and emboldened by the inclination towards isolationism among MAGA Republicans, Putin made a matter-of-fact declaration that parts of eastern and southern Ukraine are Russia. What followed was his scorching annexation of four occupied regions in south-eastern Ukraine, a scabrous and bellicose gesture of defiance that gob-smacked the world. Putin’s plutocratic-populist rhetoric had meticulously groomed the United States for a post-Maidan quietism. On a signal from the Supreme Commander-in-Chief of the Russian military, a Eurasian prince – Tsar Cheekbones – with ‘old school’ KGB credentials and a penchant for displaying athletic prowess, a full-scale invasion of Ukraine was unleashed by underworld paramilitaries known as the Wagner Group along with Russian ground forces, putting the entire world in peril. Known by Patriarch Kirill, a bearded cleric who heads the Russian Orthodox Church, as a ‘miracle of God,’ Putin (or ‘Vladolf Putler’ as he is called by Ukrainians, using a derogatory neologism and portmanteau formed by merging the names of Vladimir Putin and Adolf Hitler) is a tragic figure ripe for the Shakespearian stage with its notable protagonists inflicted by excessive pride and fatal self-confidence that the Bard of Avon is wont to display as lessons on hubris, the Bonapartist autocrat, Putin, strides the Eurasian steppe like a paleolithic warlord dressed in bearskin, his barrel chest scarred by past skirmishes with sabre-toothed cats, his lungs heaving with battle lust. This is no puckish clown but the most stalwart and defiant of villains, a national chauvinist willing to strain the state budget to the extreme if it means a million more clay kickers and machine gunners hunkered down in primitive dug-outs, their trembling hands clinging to their battle bowlers as they face the blistering headwinds of modern Western ‘woolly bears’ and ‘whizz bangs’ going by names like ‘Storm Shadow’ and ‘Javelin.’ Russian forces are bombing hospitals, schools, community centres and electricity grids, torturing and executing civilians, and forcibly transporting ‘defective’ Ukrainian children to Russia to be ‘re-educated’ (according to the Daily Beast). The pretext for doing so – that Ukraine must be purified of Nazis and fascists – has been revealed as yet another cavalcade of lies and deceptions.

It has been reported that Putin told Bill Clinton three years before his 2014 attack on Ukraine that he was not bound by the Budapest Memorandum guaranteeing Ukraine’s territorial integrity, according to the former US president. This suggests that the US and its European allies should have been more prepared for the 2014 attack when Russia annexed Crimea and attacked the Donbas. But they were not. After the Russian annexation of Crimea in 2014, the mass removal of monuments to Lenin and Pushkin began. A bitter war ensued in the Donbas region, as Russia sent in troops, tanks and artillery. Donald Trump did nothing to end the conflict during his time in office, which contradicts his recent assertion that he could stop the war in Ukraine in one day if elected to office in 2024. After 29 failed ceasefires, Russia began a full-scale invasion of Ukraine on February 21, 2022. Anti-Russian sentiment became even more toxic and more problematic with respect to the task of decolonisation. As Rozanskij writes,

Pushkin lived for a long time in Odesa and Ukraine, as did several other great Russian poets and writers whose greatness of work is not rejected but whose nationality is. There remains the ambiguity of a legacy yet to be redefined, beyond some symbolic culling: Gogol, for example, is the first great Ukrainian writer but also the most Russian of Russian writers.

That Putin and his military planners have revealed in their invasion plans that they lack a formidable degree of tactical nous has not diminished some flanks of Putin admirers, who still view him as the éminence grise of a new russkiy mir – a soon-to-be vast Eurasian and Euro-Pacific power – a civilisation unto itself. It’s a power predicated on an imperialist reach marked by de-Westernisation and Eurasianisation, a move away from the post-Soviet permanent crisis of contraction, demodernisation and peripheralisation. Andrew Mitchta sees this move as an ideological shift and a major inflection point in Russian history where Russia seeks to carve out its destiny via a grand decolonisation, a shedding of its pretensions to being in any way European. It is a blatant move away from the West towards the creation of a unique Eurasian civilisation. Putin hopes that he will be able to defeat the West through new alliances, especially with China. According to a Moscow-based lawyer who provided no evidence for his claims, hundreds of American and Canadian right-wing conservatives are flocking to Russia ‘to live in a new purpose-built settlement’ because they desire to live in a country predicated on traditional Russian values which mirrors, in their eyes, Trump’s MAGA crusade.

But there is more to this story. It begins with understanding the Bonapartist dimensions of Putin’s rule. I have previously argued that Karl Marx’s The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte ‘can help us better comprehend the besotted arrival of Donald Trump and his imperial presidency onto the creaking stage of world history, stepping from an escalator that had just descended from the atrium of Trump Tower on Fifth Avenue in New York.’ In that essay, I wrote the following:

On the French republican calendar, the date – 18 Brumaire CCXXV – marks the beginning of a coup d’état led by Napoleon Bonaparte and his allies in which they overthrew the governing Directory and established a Consulate, giving Napoleon the power to choose his own advisors. For many historians, this marked the end of the French Revolution. Four years later, Napoleon crowned himself emperor. There was another coup d’état in 1851 involving the nephew of Napoleon I. This is the focus of Marx’s essay. Marx’s ground-breaking work examines from a historical materialist perspective the rise to power of Charles Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte, the third son of Louis Bonaparte, the brother of Napoleon I, and his staging of a December 2, 1851 coup. Louis-Napoleon’s coup enabled him to remain in office and implement a series of reform programs. His justification for his seizure of dictatorial powers was his universal popularity throughout France. In November 1852, he was confirmed as emperor and remained so until 1870…. Marx’s work examines the contradictory relationships between the appearance of a struggle and its objective social content. Marx’s method was designed to uncover the social forces and internal relations at work during the revolution of 1848 and to explain how and why the revolution of 1848 in France had led to Louis Bonaparte’s coup d’état in 1851. The proletariats of Paris would learn significant lessons from the experiences of 1848–1851 to enable their successful workers’ revolution of 1871. In his Preface to the Second Edition in 1869, Marx wrote that the intention of his essay was to ‘demonstrate how the class struggle in France created circumstances and relationships that made it possible for a grotesque mediocrity to play a hero’s part.’ Marx’s (1851) classic work also began with the famous quotation: ‘Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past. The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living.’ Personally, I prefer the following translation: ‘People (die Menschen) make their own history, but they make it not however they want, not under self-selected circumstances, but out of the actual given and transmitted situation. The traditions of all the dead generations burden, like a nightmare, the minds of the living’ (Marx, 1869).

Marx’s classic work raises the question of how a Bonapartist regime could arise from the contemporary historical-political circumstances of US society and turn the White House into a pavilion of vengeful narcissism and political chaos. As in nineteenth-century France, there exists today in the United States, in the words of Miller and Fluss (2016), ‘increasing desperation of poor and working people and a decimated left … subordinated … to capitalist parties … where members of vulnerable groups found themselves lured in by the siren song of right-wing strongmen.’ Like Trump, Charles Louis- Napoleon Bonaparte ‘pretended to be the saviour of a country bathed in blood from workers’ struggles.’ Both Bonaparte and Trump ‘exploited people’s economic distress by planting seeds of nationalistic and racial anxieties in those who would listen to their messages of restoring political honour and making their countries great again.’

In that same essay, I include Miller and Fluss’s comparison between Marx’s descriptions of Louis Bonaparte and Donald Trump’s media persona:

Bonaparte is said to be ‘clumsily cunning, knavishly naive, doltishly sublime, a calculated superstition, a pathetic burlesque, a cleverly stupid anachronism, a world-historic piece of buffoonery and an indecipherable hieroglyphic for the understanding of the civilised – this symbol bore the unmistakable physiognomy of the class that represents barbarism within civilisation.’ Even Bonaparte’s speeches anticipate Trump’s rally rants: ‘I am justified in repeating how great the French republic would be, were it allowed to pursue its true interests, to reform its institutions, instead of being constantly disturbed, on the one by the {socialist} demagogues and on the other by monarchist delusions … I promise you peace for the future.’ While in London in 1848, Bonaparte joined a special constabulary to combat Chartism and other socialist tendencies. Similarly, Trump’s line is very clear in singling out scapegoats instead of capitalism: ‘Mexicans are taking our jobs. They’re taking our money. They’re killing us.’ Trump has had a long history of racial scapegoating, even referring to his Black workers as ‘lazy.’ These points send a very clear message to struggling white Americans: the problem is ‘the Mexicans’; the problem is ‘the Blacks’ – in the same way that Bonaparte’s message rang clear to the peasantry: The problem is the urban proletariat and its socialist leaders.

Putin emerged as a leader who could rule with a directness of bearing and without the prevarications and paltering so typical of politicians and save Russia from its post-Soviet crisis. In this essay, I will rely on the illuminating insights of Volodymyr Ishchenko, who points out that

[a]uthoritarian leaders like Putin rose to power serving an important function for this elite. They ensured their assets and opportunities for rent-seeking, stopped the self-damaging centrifugal processes via coercion of some factions of the elite and balanced the interests of others, and provided some popular legitimacy by restoring stability amid post-Soviet chaotic collapse. The source of that legitimacy was halting the slide into disaster, not any kind of developmental project to lead the way out from the huge grey zone of stagnation and degradation after the Soviet collapse. This only conserved rather than resolved the post-Soviet crisis.

Putin rivals Trump in iconomachy, making use of publicity masterminds to ingrain the idea that he and his fellow orange-tinged despot are magnificently macho. Putin rides horses bare-chested, plays hockey and participates in judo tournaments, dives deep into rivers to find ancient artifacts, visits a shipwreck in a mini-submarine and plays his piano while singing ‘Blueberry Hill’ on stage with Kevin Costner, Sharon Stone and Monica Bellucci. Given Trump’s mediocre athletic ability (or perhaps we should give him some credit for his golf game), Trump’s flagging visage, on the other hand, is transferred onto stock images of Rambo, which appear as flags and banners held high by his Christian nationalist worshippers on their way to rallies designed to foment hatred for ‘woke’ liberal elites who run clandestine paedophile rings that service Satan-worshipping Democrats hellbent on taking away their AR-15s. Trump’s MAGA revolution is grounded in a necrophiliac hatred of the ‘other’ – of immigrants, of the LGBTQ+ community, of liberals, of African-Americans who defame America by daring to name institutionalised racism as one of its key attributes. MAGA supporters see these ‘others’ as taking away their opportunities and their future and thus decry all institutional policies directed towards diversity, equity and inclusion, which they view as fundamentally anti-white. But what he lacks in masculinised athletic prowess, Trump makes up for in his insults to women and incitements to violence in the streets. The great Brazilian educator, Paulo Freire, has frequently cited Frankfurt School theorist Erich Fromm, who helped develop a Marxian social psychology (a praxis of being) by synthesising the works of Marx and Freud, in contrasting biophilia, the love of life and living things, with necrophilia, which is a hatred of life and a desire for those mechanisms available to control living things, which Robert Lake and Vicki Dagastino describe as ‘driven by the desire to transform the organic into the inorganic, to approach life mechanically, as if all living persons were things.’

Putin’s authoritarian populism and his fascist rule are very attractive to many MAGA supporters, who value Putin’s ability to restrict the rights of Russia’s LGBTQ+ community and to ‘invisibilise’ them whenever it was deemed appropriate in order to emphasise the rule of law woven together with Russian conservative values and traditions. Ischencko maintains that

Bonapartist regimes like Putin’s or Alexander Lukashenko’s in Belarus rely on passive, depoliticised support and draw their legitimacy from overcoming the disaster of the post-Soviet collapse, not from the kind of active consent that secures the political hegemony of the ruling class. Such personalistic authoritarian rule is fundamentally fragile because of the problem of succession.

He also makes known that

there are no clear rules or traditions to transfer power, no articulated ideology a new leader must adhere to, no party or movement in which a new leader could be socialised. Succession represents the point of vulnerability where internal conflicts within the elite can escalate to a dangerous degree and where uprisings from below have better chances to succeed.

The Russian ruling class has not been taken over by a power-hungry maniac or ideological zealot obsessed with a historical mission of restoring Russian greatness. Nor does the ruling class suffer from false consciousness in believing Putin’s warning of a NATO threat and the urgency of denying Ukrainian statehood. This, according to Volodymyr Ishchenko, who firmly maintains that the objectives of Putin’s invasion of Ukraine have been described around ‘questionable extremes.’ Such extremes fail ‘to even question whether his obsession with NATO expansion or his insistence that Ukrainians and Russians constitute “one people” represent Russian national interests or are shared by Russian society as a whole’ while others ‘dismiss his remarks as bold-faced [sic] lies and strategic communication lacking any relation to his ‘real’ goals in Ukraine.’ He announces that:

[i]n their own ways, both of these positions serve to mystify the Kremlin’s motivations rather than clarify them. Today’s discussions of Russian ideology often feel like a return to the times of The German Ideology, penned by young Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels some 175 years ago. To some, the dominant ideology in Russian society is a true representation of the social and political order. Others believe that simply proclaiming the emperor has no clothes will be enough to pierce the free-floating bubble of ideology.

Unfortunately, the real world is more complicated. The key to understanding ‘what Putin really wants’ is not cherry-picking obscure phrases from his speeches and articles that fit observers’ preconceived biases, but rather conducting a systematic analysis of the structurally determined material interests, political organisation and ideological legitimation of the social class he represents.

There were some promising developments in the seventy years of the Soviet Union. As Brazil’s Frei Beto wrote recently,

In seventy years of Soviet Union [sic], the people benefited from rights that the West had not yet conquered. Men and women performed the same jobs and received equal pay. Already in the 1920s, 600 women held positions similar to that of mayor, while, in most Western countries, they did not even have the right to vote.

The Soviet Union was the first country in Europe to support reproductive rights, in 1920. Women had full authority over their bodies. School education was free, including graduate school. Students received textbooks and school supplies from the government. The health system was also completely free. The number of drug users was extremely low, and the few who got narcotics did so through tourists who smuggled them into the block. It was the soldiers who occupied Afghanistan in the late 1980s who infested the Soviet bloc countries with drugs.

Despite everything, the Soviet Union collapsed without a single shot being fired. The people welcomed capitalism. Today, Russia is one of the countries where social inequality is most alarming.

Russia’s journey to capitalism has taken place on roads filled with outlaws and pirates of all stripes. It’s led to a political capitalism that has witnessed the theft of the state.

The invasion of Ukraine corresponds to a singular and telling project for Russian capitalism that Putin and his allies have pursued since the collapse of the Soviet Union when the most dire and pressing question was pitched in world-historical terms: What should be built upon the ruins of Russian state socialism? In answering this question, Ishchenko warns that the war in Ukraine is mainly and purposefully designed to protect the ‘rational collective interests of the Russian ruling class.’ But this is far from manifesto Marxist critique. Ishchenko writes that the post-Soviet condition enabled a ‘centrifugal disintegration’ of the economy which, in the frenzy of privatisation, created the conditions of possibility for a process that became known as ‘stealing the state’ (privatising former public entities and placing the profits into private hands). The new Russian ruling class solved their problems of wealth extraction through ‘insider rent’ whereby they

exploited informal relations with state officials and the often intentionally designed legal loopholes for massive tax evasion and capital flight, all while executing hostile company takeovers for the sake of quick profits with a short-term horizon. Russian Marxist economist Ruslan Dzarasov captured these practices with the ‘insider rent’ concept, emphasising the rent-like nature of income extracted by insiders thanks to their control over the financial flows of the enterprises, which depend on the relationships with the power holders. These practices can certainly also be found in other parts of the world, but their role in the formation and reproduction of the Russian ruling class is far more important due to the nature of the post-Soviet transformation, which began with the centrifugal collapse of state socialism and the subsequent political-economic reconsolidation on a patronage basis.

The process described by Ishchenko is also referred to as ‘political capitalism’ and hinges on ‘the exploitation of political office to accumulate private wealth.’ Ishchenko describes the political capitalists as ‘the fraction of the capitalist class whose main competitive advantage is derived from selective benefits from the state, unlike capitalists whose advantage is rooted in technological innovations or a particularly cheap labour force.’

This class fraction of the ruling elite cannot be shared, only defended. In this instance, the state’s selective benefits are fundamental to the accumulation of their profits; it’s necessary that these capitalists manage their own territory where they exercise monopoly control in a type of mafioso-like fashion. The state bureaucracy is usually granted autonomy from the capitalist class so long as it still serves them ‘by establishing and enforcing rules that benefit capitalist accumulation.’ But in the case of political capitalism, Ishchenko argues that there is a steadfast requirement for ‘much tighter control over political decision-makers. Alternatively, they occupy political offices themselves and exploit them for private enrichment.’ There exists a fundamental tension between the more sovereigntist fractions of the Russian political capitalists and the more comprador fractions. In either case, the very survival of the political capitalists and their expansion of the market depends on who is holding specific offices and the specific parties and political regimes in power. The lesson: transnational capitalism can, to a certain extent, survive without nation-states. Political capitalists needed spaces where there would be no interference to their personal patronage networks, their predatory profit-reaping. But the state needs to take resources from somewhere. But where? There is a resulting pressure to transform Russia’s economy based on intensified labour exploitation and expansion. However, as Ishchenko points out, there exist considerable structural obstacles to reinvestment and labour exploitation in post-Soviet political capitalism. While many political capitalists hesitate to engage in long-term investment when their business model and property ownership are closely tied to specific people in power, it is no longer possible to simply move profits into offshore accounts. It is not so easy to exploit the Russian worker since post-Soviet labour ‘was urbanised, educated and not cheap.’ As Ishchenko maintains,

[t]he region’s relatively low wages were only possible due to the extensive material infrastructure and welfare institutions the Soviet Union left as a legacy. That legacy poses a massive burden for the state, but one that is not so easy to abandon without undermining support from key groups of voters.

The key advantage for Putin was his ability to balance out the ‘of some elite fractions and repressing others – without altering the foundations of political capitalism.’

Economic expansion by the Russian elites who wished to sustain the rate of rent by increasing the pool of extraction ran up against problems that led to the intensification of Russian-led integration projects like the Eurasian Economic Union. However, local political capitalists became a problem. While political capitalists in Ukraine were interested in cheap Russian energy, they also demanded their sovereign right to reap insider rents within their territory. Ishchenko remarks on how this situation disintegrated: ‘They could instrumentalise anti-Russian nationalism to legitimate their claim to the Ukrainian part of the disintegrating Soviet state, but failed to develop a distinct national development project.’ Predictably, there occurred a universal failure of non-Russian post-Soviet political capitalists to overcome the hegemony of Russia – they remained hogtied to the support of Russia. Just witness the case of Belarus and Kazakhstan.

Another problem cited by Ishchenko was the alliance between transnational capital and the professional middle classes in the post-Soviet space, represented politically by pro-Western, NGO-ised civil societies. This presented to this day a powerful obstacle to the Russia-led post-Soviet integration and, according to Ishchenko, ‘constituted the main political conflict in the post-Soviet space that culminated in the invasion of Ukraine.’ While Putin, a true Bonapartist, managed to stabilise the competing economic interests within the degraded post-Soviet space, the growth of the professional middle class was one of its products. This middle class was largely excluded from political capitalism. And therein lies the rub, according to Ishchenko:

[t]heir main opportunities for incomes, career and developing political influence lay in the prospects of intensifying political, economic and cultural connections with the West. At the same time, they were the vanguard of Western soft power. Integration into EU- and US-led institutions presented for them an ersatz-modernisation project of joining both ‘proper’ capitalism and the ‘civilised world’ more generally.

This fomented a crisis that meant breaking with ‘post-Soviet elites, institutions and the ingrained, socialist-era mentalities of the ‘backward’ plebeian masses sticking to at least some stability after the 1990s disaster.’ For Ukrainians, this situation meant that they had to become engaged in a war of self-defence. And the elitist nature of this project is why, Ishchenko contends, it was never successfully implemented in any post-Soviet country, even when boosted by historical anti-Russian nationalism. For Ishchenko, this situation helps to explain ‘the Global South’s sceptical neutrality when called on to solidarise with either a wannabe great power on a par with other Western great powers (Russia) or a wannabe periphery of the same great powers seeking not to abolish imperialism, but to join a better one (Ukraine).’ Hence, Ishchenko warns that we should be wary of those who claim to speak on behalf of all Ukrainians since they are ‘shaping ‘self-determination’ in a very class-specific way.’

We can credit Ishchenko’s lucid and critical analysis with offering an important Marxist contribution to understanding Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. In the final analysis, Ishchenko is convinced that a Western integration of Russia without the latter’s fundamental transformation could never have been possible, not even remotely. Furthermore, it was well-nigh impossible ‘to integrate post-Soviet political capitalists into Western-led institutions that explicitly sought to eliminate them as a class by depriving them of their main competitive advantage: selective benefits bestowed by the post-Soviet states.’ The survival of Russia as a sovereign nation essentially amounts to ‘the survival of the Russian ruling class and its model of political capitalism.’ Yes, the ‘multipolar’ restructuring of the world order would indeed offer some interim advantages, but not for long. Ishchenko’s final conclusion is ripe for further reflection and analysis: that ‘[t]he contradictory interests of post-Soviet political capitalists, the professional middle classes and transnational capital structured the political conflict that ultimately gave birth to the current war. However, the crisis of the political capitalists’ political organisation exacerbated the threat to them.’

Uprisings that have been fomenting on Russia’s periphery include the Euromaidan revolution in Ukraine in 2014, the revolutions in Armenia, the third revolution in Kyrgyzstan, the failed 2020 revolt in Belarus and the uprising in Kazakhstan. Ishchenko clarifies that on the eve of the invasion of Ukraine, ‘labour unrest was on the rise, while polls showed declining trust in Putin and a growing number of people who wanted him to retire. Dangerously, opposition to Putin was higher the younger the respondents were.’ But how were the post-Soviet political capitalists threatened? According to Ishchenko,

None of the post-Soviet, so-called maidan revolutions posed an existential threat to the post-Soviet political capitalists as a class by themselves. They only swapped out fractions of the same class in power and thus only intensified the crisis of political representation to which they were a reaction in the first place. This is why these protests have repeated so frequently.

Urban civic revolutions only temporarily weaken authoritarian rule and empower middle-class civil societies, in the same manner that ‘the maidan revolutions only weakened the state and made local political capitalists more vulnerable to pressure from transnational capital – both directly and indirectly via pro-Western NGOs.’ Despite their failures,

they have institutionalised oversight of key state enterprises and the court system by foreign nationals and anti-corruption activists, thus squeezing domestic political capitalists’ opportunities for reaping insider rents. Russian political capitalists would have a good reason to be nervous with the troubles of Ukraine’s once-powerful oligarchs.

What about the impact of the Western sanctions? Ishchenko notes that

the Russian regime’s partial autonomy from the ruling class allows it to pursue long-term collective interests independently of the losses of individual representatives or groups. At the same time, the crisis of similar regimes in the Russian periphery is exacerbating the existential threat to the Russian ruling class as a whole.

Putin’s ultimate goal, of course, is the ‘multipolar’ restructuring of the world order. Ishchenko reports that already there are ‘signs of a transformation toward a more consolidated, ideological and mobilisationist authoritarian political regime in Russia, with explicit hints at China’s more effective political capitalism as a role model.’ In the meantime, Russia will proceed in weeding out its ‘cosmopolitan traitors.’ If Russia needs some advice on creating a successful regime based on political capitalism, it needs look no further than China.

State expenditures for national defence are up in Russia while Russia’s class of the morbidly rich are eagerly investing in Russia’s military-industrial complex and in the reconstruction efforts in occupied Russian territories such as Mariupol that are involving thousands of burly, hardscrabble Russian hardhats: tin knockers, drillers and roofers wielding pipe wrenches and jackhammers and lunch pails filled with porridge, bread and sour cream. In 2014, when Russia invaded Ukraine, American ideology had been conditioned by Russian propaganda such that Americans didn’t see the invasion as an actual invasion. Some saw it as a coup or an attempt to Russianise Ukrainian politics, but they did not react to the Russian invasion at that time the way they did in 2022. At that time, Putin was reacting to pro-democracy movements in Belarus and in Kazakhstan (that he helped to crush) that he feared would spread to Russia. But here we are in a full-scale war, where Russia is killing Ukrainian citizens and seizing their farmlands, towns and cities. It’s genocide. Putin is terrified that a country bordering its territory might become a rule-of-law state where, according to Tim Snyder, ‘people made their wishes known, where elections worked, where protest was commonplace.’

Worse still, Putin is haunted by the idea that Ukraine will join NATO and be welcomed in the European Union. This would threaten Putin’s tyrannical rule and put his dictatorship and the oligarchy that supports it at dire risk. It’s a quintessential Byzantine dilemma. Any serious hermeneutic would reach this conclusion. Putin’s animus towards Ukraine is nothing new. In this regard, Putin follows Stalin in obfuscating Ukrainian history, especially as it pertains to World War II. It is certainly true that the barbaric murder of Ukraine’s Jews by the Germans and by local Ukrainian collaborators as well as ethnic cleansing by Ukrainian nationalists and wartime and post-war Soviet policies changed the structure of Ukraine for the worse. Stalin, however, was quick to portray the Russians as heroes and to vilify all Ukrainians, despite the fact that millions of Ukrainians died fighting the Germans. This legacy made much of the left in the world vulnerable to Russian state interpretations of the Maidan revolution as a ‘fascist coup.’ In essence, it was a popular revolution designed not to change the social relations of production but to overthrow a political regime. According to Snyder,

Although Ukrainians suffered more than Russians under German occupation, and, although Russians were no less likely to collaborate than Ukrainians, Stalin defined Russians as the heroes and the Ukrainian republic as a terrain of risk. Although Ukraine was actually Hitler’s main target, Stalin created propaganda stereotypes that could suggest, when politically useful, that Ukrainians had been on the wrong side of the war. Although there were also Russian nationalists fighting on the side of the Germans, Stalin made ‘Ukrainian nationalism’ a weapon for the continued punishment of the republic. The Russians were to be the main victors and the main victims, a stereotype that redounds down the decades to this day. Stalinist Russocentrism was meant as a weapon of centralisation and the restoration of Stalinism after the war; it is a tool of militarism and imperialism now. No one would recall that more Ukrainians died fighting the Germans than Americans, British and Frenchmen – taken together. Ukrainian culture was again suppressed; contained as it was now almost entirely in the USSR, it became largely invisible.

Putin harbours a genuine fear that if democracy could, in fact, provide more robust economic prosperity and security for Russians than the political capitalism of his current post-Soviet regime, he could, at the very least, be turned out of office or pushed out of an office window. Complaints by Trump about stolen elections in the US must provide Putin with some anti-Western solace in this regard. Putin, after all, reacts to the idea of democracy as if it were sourced from a word cloud from Murray Edelman’s book, Constructing the Political Spectacle (1988). Democracy for Putin is little more than a carefully rigged carnivalesque whose Big Top is filled with propaganda acrobats that provide for the gullible an illusion of freedom of choice. But he would hate democracy even more if it actually managed to live up to its name. According to Snyder, Putin’s

idea of ‘rescuing’ Russian-speaking people in Ukraine always meant conquering them, humiliating them, taming them. Remember, Zelens’kyi himself is one of those people! Ukraine is the country in the world where more people say what they want in the Russian language than anywhere else. It was that freedom, expressed in Russian, that threatened Putinism. Now Ukraine threatens Putinism in other ways, which can bring other reactions.

Once you have decided to get into the annexation game, what better strategy in this post-Soviet era than to claim that the territories you wished to annex never really belonged to the people who occupy them and call them home? That Crimea and all the territories seized by Russia never really belonged to Ukraine. They always belonged to Russia. In fact, the country from which Putin has stolen its lands doesn’t even exist; it’s a mere historical fiction, the result of political legerdemain, a palimpsest of competing conceptions of identity and history, a country of traumatised landscapes in a fight for the right to exist as a people, with a viable national identity and history. That’s enough to cause each and every Ukrainian to stare at their feet in amazement and wonder what is keeping them upright and from sinking into oblivion. Ishchenko (2022) refers to Putin’s drive into Crimea as Russian military Keynesianism:

Russian military Keynesianism contrasts sharply with the Ukrainian government’s decision to stick to neoliberal dogmas of privatisation, lowering taxes and extreme labour deregulation, despite the objective imperatives of the war economy. Some top-notch Western economists have even recommended to Ukraine policies that constitute what British historian Adam Tooze has termed ‘warfare without the state.’

Annexation is a lucrative business that exploits the death pangs of the post-Soviet era. Russia’s seizure of Crimea tragically followed in the historical footsteps of the Russian conquest of its indigenous peoples. Shaipov and Shaipova write that

By now, many who study Russian history are at least vaguely familiar with the Stalin-era genocide of the Crimean Tatars and their replacement on the peninsula by Russian settlers. But why not shed more light on the Russian conquest and subjugation of Siberia, one of the most gruesome episodes of European colonialism? Or Russia’s 19th-century mass murder of the Circassians, Europe’s first modern-era genocide? What have we learned about the short-lived Idel-Ural state, a confederation of six autonomous Finno-Ugric and Turkic republics crushed by the Bolsheviks in 1918? Why not highlight Tatarstan, which proclaimed its independence from Russia in 1990? Nascent efforts to give Russia’s Indigenous peoples a voice have gotten underway, including the Free Peoples of Russia Forum that last convened in Sweden in December 2022 – but they have hardly registered in Western academia. Not only are Western scholars’ interests and relationships Russia-centric; within Russia, those relationships and contacts are Moscow-centric. It’s as if Russia’s highly diverse regions didn’t exist.

In response to the question of what should be done in practice to decolonise Western studies of Russia and the region, Shaipov and Shaipova view removing Russian imperial narratives from the Western academy and mental space as imperative as a means of transforming Russia-centric regional studies:

First, universities and think tanks on both sides of the Atlantic should strike ‘Eurasia’ out of their program names, not least because it is a geopolitical concept straight out of Russian far-right nationalism. There is no shortage of more appropriate terms to designate the countries being studied. For instance, geographical terms such as Eastern Europe, Baltics, South Caucasus and Central Asia could easily be used.

Second, existing centres of Russian studies should refocus their attention to reflect the history and contemporary experiences of Indigenous peoples living in today’s Russian Federation. In an academic world that is everywhere addressing issues of diversity, representation and respect, this is long overdue and morally right. It would allow the world to see Russia for what it actually is: an empire made up of multiple peoples craving for voice, agency, opportunities and freedom.

Third, we need to establish and strengthen institutions that study Russia’s former colonies. This would include Ukrainian and Crimean Tatar studies, Belarusian studies, Georgian studies, Moldovan studies and so on. This will allow academic circles and wider audiences to obtain a better understanding of the region and defy Russian propaganda about ‘historically Russian lands,’ as the actual history of these peoples, states and national identities finally comes to light in the West. A great example of this approach is Cambridge University’s Ukrainian Studies programme.

Both Russia and the US have difficulty condemning the dark stains on their imperial history, including imperialist wars, genocide, ecocide and epistemicide. Major world hegemons have a tendency to bury the past in mystification or outright denial. What is most disturbing is that when examining the most outrageous wartime crimes of our era, the formative reasons for such blood-soaked events are too often refracted through the profit-bearing prism of value augmentation while entangled in the structural sins of transnational finance and capitalist exploitation.

As hypersonic Kinzhal missiles unleash hell upon Ukrainian civilians, where is the great Patriarch’s cry against injustice? Where is his Christology from below? Is it muffled by the size of his koukoulion hood? Did it get lost in the folds of his Byzantine robes? The ideologically and spiritually compromised Pontifex Maximus has done immeasurable damage to the Russian Orthodox Church – and more importantly to the human family – in his ever-active support for Russia’s brutal invasion of Ukraine. Where is Kirill’s God, and does his God stand with the victims and make himself their advocate? Putin, the plutocratic potentate, and Kirill, who is serviceable to Putin only with respect to the power of his sacred imprimatur, have entered into an unholy union that can only be viewed through twisted pillars of steel and the smouldering embers of battle. Blasted out of the sky by one of Russia’s surface-to-air missiles, Benjamin’s Angel of History lies in a heap of burning rubble, along with the charred bodies of families who remained hopeful until the end.

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Peter McLaren

Peter McLaren is Emeritus Professor at the Graduate School of Education and Information Studies, University of California, Los Angeles. From 2013-2023 he served as Distinguished Professor in Critical Studies, Co-Director and International Ambassador for Global Ethics and Social Justice, The Paulo Freire Democratic Project, Attallah College of Educational Studies, Chapman University, USA.