Russia secretly invades: Déja-vu in the Eastern Ukraine

by Michael Johnson Michael Johnson is an international writer and journalist based in Bordeaux. His commentaries and reviews appear in the International New York Times, American Spectator, and Facts & Arts, among other publications. 01.05.2014

“Ukraine – his Ukraine – was dead, a corpse. No, it was worse. It was gone. It had disappeared, vanished. It had been extinguished and obliterated by the Russians. Only in his final delirium does he dream of rising to fight again for Ukraine’s liberation.”

The closing scene (above) in Alexander Motyl’s disturbing historical book Sweet Snow, published last year, was eerily prophetic. Now, Ukraine is destined to suffer again at the hands of the Russians as the dismemberment of Crimea heralds a new era of tension or possibly worse.

Motyl’s novel takes us back to 1933 when some four million Ukrainians died of forced starvation – punishment for resisting Stalin’s decree merging individual private farms into a grand agricultural scheme. Grain supplies, including seed grain, were confiscated along with all livestock. As Moscow’s enforcers moved on to the next property, uncooperative farmers and their families were left standing in their doorway with nothing left, doomed to a slow death by starvation. Memories linger, and hatred of the Russians remains among most Ukrainians.

The Soviet Union suppressed any mention of the man-made famine until Mikhail Gorbachev’s glasnost policies came into force. Until then, it had “never happened.” But with Gorbachev, a native of Ukraine, the cover-up was personal. As a boy, he had heard of the horror that killed so many, including his uncle and two sisters. Scholars have since exposed the famine in all its gruesome detail.

Motyl, a professor at Rutgers University, a political scientist, novelist and painter, is Ukrainian by ethnicity and co-author of the thoroughly documented Holodomor Reader, the primary sourcebook on the famine.

I asked Motyl what he thought about Moscow’s new military action in Crimea. “Russia has betrayed Ukraine once again,” he said. When I asked what might come next, he said he fears escalation. “In case of a Russian military assault,” he added, “it’s quite possible that the U.S. would provide arms to Ukraine… and then who knows?” Another Ukrainian friend, a second-generation British woman, is equally pessimistic. “For my father, the Russian was his eternal enemy, responsible for destroying his family and the Ukraine. He could almost have written this chapter of Ukraine’s history.”

Why all the fuss about a peninsula that most Americans could not identify without the help of Google Maps? (Even the New York Times mistakenly wrote that Russia had annexed the entire Ukraine – and published a shame-faced correction three days later.) The answers are complicated. Russians feel entitled for historical reasons to annex Crimea and want free access to their warm water port on the Black Sea. But the West fears a grander Russian strategy of reclaiming other frontier enclaves. Meanwhile, Ukraine, a sovereign nation, is asserting its own right to protect its territory. This triangular struggle cries out for negotiation rather than force.

Many fear that force on the Russian side is already taking place in disguise. The U.S. military has conducted a careful analysis of events in Crimea and the eastern Ukraine. The evidence is compelling: the masked men occupying government buildings are Russian special forces behaving with the discipline of trained commandos.

As Gen. Philip Breedlove, Supreme  Allied Military Commander Europe, wrote recently in Military Times, the pro-Russian activists ”work together in a way that is consistent with troops who are part of a long-standing unit, not spontaneously stood up from a local militia”.

Proof is in the detail. The weapon-handling discipline and professional behavior of these forces is consistent with a trained military force, Breedlove wrote. Rifle muzzles are pointed down, fingers not on triggers, but rather laid across trigger mechanisms.

“Video of these forces at checkpoints shows they are attentive, on their feet, focused on their security tasks, and under control of an apparent leader. This contrasts with typical militia or mob checkpoints, where it's common to see people sitting, smoking, and so forth.”

Finally, he wrote, the weapons and equipment they carry are primarily Russian army issue.

“Any one of the points above taken alone would not be enough to come to a conclusion on this issue, but taken in the aggregate, the story is clear.”

But beyond the military action and the geopolitics considerations, Crimea matters because it is one of the most appealing zones in all of Eastern Europe. I spent a few days in Yalta while a correspondent based in Moscow. I warmly recall the palm trees of a southern clime, and the bulky Russian women, pale from a lifetime of poor food and northern exposure, spilling out of their bikinis as they cavorted on the rocky beaches. Before the Soviets turned it into a workers’ paradise, Crimea attracted the great poets and writers of Russia’s intellectual golden age. Anton Chekhov’s classic Lady with Lapdog is set in Yalta; Mandelstam, Akhmatova and Tsvetaeva were frequent visitors who captured the exotic ambiance in their poetry.

For perspective on this unlikely crisis, it is instructive to contrast Crimea with the invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968. Soviet troops were jeered and insulted as their tanks rolled into Prague. The Russian boys in uniform looked down bewildered at the hostile population. In the present case, the hundreds of thousands of Russians living in Ukraine have embraced the return of Russian influence.

Why? History left ethnic Russians ready to accept the fiction that the Ukrainian marchers in central Kiev were against them. The Kiev demonstrators who deposed President Viktor Yanukovich were characterized as fascists, Nazis, Jews, Muslims and rampant homosexuals. While all those elements participated, it is a cynical caricature to ascribe the values of the movement to them.

To be sure, not everyone in Russia agrees with Putin’s initiative, and thousands have marched in Moscow to protest it. Yet today, a certain level of opposition is acceptable to a super-confident Vladimir Putin. This is new. The Soviet gulag would have long since overflowed with the demonstrators.

British journalist Marc Bennetts provides insight into the modest wave of non-conformity. For his new book Kicking the Kremlin: Russia’s new dissidents and the battle to topple Putin, he spent some time with Alexei Navalny, the lawyer and de facto leader of the opposition. One of Navalny’s incitements to protest rapidly went viral across the internet. It was couched in ringing tones: To fight for your rights is easy and pleasant. There is nothing to be afraid of. Every one of us has the most powerful and only weapon we need – a sense of our own worthiness.

In fact Putin last year picked his moment and stomped on the movement, allowing only medium-sized public protests as a safety valve for the disaffected. Even so, one of the leaders of the 1970s dissident movement, Pavel Litvinov, must look longingly at the changes. He was given seven years internal exile for his tiny protest against the Czechoslovak invasion.

Reading Bennetts’ book would make any journalist from past eras envious. Russia has changed in some important ways. The Internet is 98% free and opposition publications such as New Times circulate unmolested. Putin, for the most part, is “disarmingly honest,” says Bennetts, in such fora as his televised conversations with the nation. True, journalists who probe too deeply into areas that are too sensitive are reprimanded, sometimes arrested, and some have been mysteriously assassinated. But the Moscow press corps of newspaper and broadcast correspondents of the 1960s and 1970s would not recognize the more prosperous Moscow of 2014. In earlier times, we needed a lifeline to the West for food and necessities. Shipments came through Soviet Customs, which questioned or taxed everything. My mother-in-law once mailed a box of artichokes to us. They were confiscated as some kind of potentially dangerous growth. Another officer grabbed a bag of marshmallows and shook it. “What’s this? Oh, maybe it’s for madame’s time of the month?” I said yes, just to save time.

Journalists were hobbled by such tight information restrictions that, to do our job, we were obliged to pool our resources. Good reporters hate doing this. To maintain a spirit of competition, the press corps split itself along two camps: those who relied upon The Associated Press and Reuters, and those who sided with UPI and the French equivalent, Agence France Presse. We all strived to be first with whatever news we could dig up. Bennetts, an experienced reporter, has free access to anyone he wishes to speak with, at least those who want to speak. In our time, however, interviews with officials were out of the question.

We quoted official publications and wove in a balancing historical nugget or two, perhaps dressed up in a quote from a “diplomatic source,” often one’s colleague, wife or self. We were dependent on official reports from TASS and the Soviet press, all of which were openly aimed at furthering the aims of the Soviet state. If we did have a first-hand news source, he or she was likely to have something other than the truth in mind. Inevitably, mistrust of all sources – including dissident sources — became our attitude. There was no contact whatever with the dozen or so men who ruled the country.

An interesting sidelight to Putin’s recent actions is how he and his communications people have justified strong-arm tactics by the use of scare language. One cannot avoid thinking of George Orwell’s dystopian novel 1984, in which he imagined the deformation of language as a political tool. Orwell would have noticed that such terms as “fascist” and “Nazi” have a special resonance in that part of the world, particularly among the middle-aged and elderly.

Pro-Russian campaigners in the breakaway referendum in March went so far as to use the swastika on their billboards as the banner of the looming menace from Kiev. There is no better way to unite the Russian people against a foe – even a fictitious one. Viewed purely as an exercise in linguistics, the snatching of Crimea was brilliantly carried off. Language employed by the Russian occupiers has been so cool, bland and innocent that the takeover was made to seem perfectly normal.

In one formulation that turned truth on its head, Putin graciously “accepted” Crimea’s request to break away for join the Russian Federation. Putin’s predecessors, the Soviets, were past masters at language perversion and drilled their vocabulary into the population for 70 years. Clearly, we now live with their descendants.

Putin himself has now demonstrated his ability to play with words. As he freely acknowledges, “I was a pure and utterly successful product of Soviet patriotic education.” In his post-annexation speech before the Duma he finally made it clear Russia will now be going its own way. I found it striking how his anti-American argument neatly reflected what he had just done in Crimea:“Our western partners, led by the United States of America, prefer not to be guided by international law in their practical policies, but by the rule of the gun. They have come to believe in their exclusivity and exceptionalism, that they can decide the destinies of the world, that only they can ever be right.”

He said he had heard Crimeans say that back in 1991, during the breakup of the Soviet Union, they were “handed over like a sack of potatoes.” He called it “an outrageous historical injustice.”

Putin’s view of the world has evolved considerably since he achieved national prominence in 1999 as president of Russia. Originally courting Western approval, today he marches across front pages worldwide for different reasons. The Sochi Winter Olympics raised his profile, then immediately he did his quixotic about-face and annexed Crimea.

He has become the unlikely darling of his people. Polls at home showed a 72 percent approval rating after the annexation. Fans still buy and read his book of conversations, First Person: An Astonishingly Frank Self-Portrait of Russia’s President, published in 2000. It is neither astonishing nor frank, but it is a fascinating PR gambit. The tactic may be borrowed from Western politicians but it’s entirely new in Russia.

Russia has always been caught between the cultures of east and west, sitting at the crossroads of Europe and Asia, but Putin seemed to know where he wanted to go. One key question posed to him in his book was whether he intended to “search for Russia’s special path.” “We are part of Western European culture,” he said. “No matter where our people live in the Far East or in the South, we are Europeans.” Asked which political leader he considered most interesting, he joked, “Napoleon Bonaparte.” And he has shown no overt interest in trying to rebuild the old Soviet Union. He has said in public, “Whoever misses the Soviet Union has no heart. Whoever wants to see it return has no brain.”

Yet the tables have now turned decisively. He is now intent on building a Eurasian economic union with Kazakhstan and Belarus, and possibly the eastern Ukraine if he makes further acquisitive moves. This would become, as Yale professor Timothy Snyder wrote in the New York Review of Books, “the dictators’ club.” The decadent West is now mocked in the Pro-Putin press as a place with two preoccupations: money and same-sex marriage.

In Orwell’s language of future dictatorships, Newspeak, nuance was stripped out and human thought was hemmed in. The word ”free” could be used only in the concrete sense, as in “This dog is free of fleas.” In his appendix to 1984, Orwell captured the spirit of language distortion. Vocabulary, he wrote, “consisted of words which had been deliberately constructed for political purposes: words, that is to say, which not only had in every case a political implication, but were intended to impose a desirable mental attitude upon the person using them.”

For me, memories of Orwell and Brezhnev surged frequently during this crisis. From my old Moscow office, I watched and wrote about the last Russian military adventure in Europe, the invasion of Czechoslovakia, and witnessed the blitz in all its Red Army glory. I translated the three-page spread in Pravda explaining why it was all so sadly necessary. Pravda told us that members of Parliament had begged Russia to intervene to put down the counter-revolution and save socialism. (Terms such as “counter-revolution” and “saving socialism” needed no explanation.) Next thing we knew, the Prague Spring had regressed into a Prague Winter that lasted more than 20 years, and liberal reforms were snuffed out.

A sense of deja-vu permeates Putin’s speech. “The residents of Crimea and Sevastopol turned to Russia for help in defending their rights and lives …” he said. “Naturally, we could not leave this plea unheeded; we could not abandon Crimea and its residents in distress. This would have been betrayal on our part.”

And so the new Russian approach achieved the same result by being more sophisticated. Throughout, Russia maintained that it had taken no military action in Crimea. In fact, it was very 1984 — not an invasion at all, just a few thousand masked troops in unmarked uniforms protecting ethnic Russians. A Ukrainian woman amid the tense buildup asked on U.S. television, “What are they protecting us from?”

With blinding speed, a referendum at gunpoint was organized and Russian legalisms were employed to justify the annexation.

Many see the Czechoslovak adventure as the beginning of the end of the Soviet regime. One popular Soviet novelist, Anatoly Kuznetsov, made up his mind on the day of the Czechoslovak invasion that he would find a way to get out, so disgusted was he with the Soviet Army’s repression in Prague. He wangled a trip to London shortly thereafter and managed to defect to British intelligence. Once safely in London in the hands of MI6, he revealed that he was carrying a novel on dozens of strips of 35-millimeter film stitched inside his coat. He went on to publish it in English — Babi Yar, an uncensored account of the Soviet struggle against the Germans in the Ukraine during World War II. He defected, he later wrote, because the invasion proved a turning point in his faith in the socialist dream:“The invasion of Czechoslovakia was very important for us. It was our coming of age. But there was nothing we could do about it. We were completely impotent; we had no stake in the country or in the culture; we had nothing. After that came the long loss of the seventies. It was a time of total cynicism — and of alcohol.”

No such reaction is evident from the annexation of Crimea. Fireworks, parades and rallies celebrated the act.

Kuznetsov’s Babi Yar had previously been published in Moscow but only after heavy censorship. The text now in English has special interest for the students of repression. The censored passages are restored and highlighted in bold, leaving a clear record of Soviet censors’ criteria and methods. Kuznetsov writes, for example, of how Soviet flags had to be removed from homes as the Germans swept across the border in 1941, a man eagerly tears the red flag off its pole, and says to his wife. “Martha, stuff it in the fire right away. But the pole’s all right. It’ll do for a broom-handle.” The censor cut out the reference to pole and broom handle, concerned that it showed disrespect for the symbol of the Soviet Union – precisely Kuznetsov’s point.

Bennetts laughed when I told him my only contact with the Kremlin leadership in four years was long in coming but worth waiting for. In Stockholm in 1968, I attended the press conference staged by the grim and gloomy Alexei Kosygin, premier of the Soviet government. I stood up and asked Kosygin for assurances that there would be no invasion of Czechoslovakia. He replied with boilerplate about fraternal countries loving each other, but each time he intended to say “Sweden” he accidentally said “Czechoslovakia.” “I’m very happy to be here in Czechoslovakia,” said at one point. He apparently was so preoccupied didn’t know where he was. This was proof, of sorts, that the Soviet leadership was focused on one thing: the events in Prague. We all jumped on the story with both feet.

Early in the morning of August 21, we learned of the armed invasion. All communication with the outside world had been cut off. No international telephone calls, no AP wire, no Telex. It didn’t take a brain surgeon to realize that the invasion was under way, the first military action in Europe since the Soviet invasion of Hungary in 1956. When I got home at the end of an exhausting day, my wife Jacqueline told me our Russian maid Nina had been in tears — not because of the invasion but because Moscow Radio had used its special chimes to alert the public of an important announcement. These chimes brought back memories of World War II and bulletins from the front. The maid was choked up and started talking about how much she missed Stalin.

Comparing today’s Russia with the past reveals dramatic differences but also some basic similarities. Both sides suffer from historical mental blocks that make a fruitful relationship unlikely in the foreseeable future. Russia shows every sign of remaining suspicious of the West and resentful at the West’s Russophobia, hardly an atmosphere of promise.

Another version of this article appeared in Open Letters Monthly and is reprinted with kind permission.

This essay is brought to you by the author who owns the copyright to the text.

Should you want to support the author’s creative work you can use the PayPal “Donate” button below.

Your donation is a transaction between you and the author. The proceeds go directly to the author’s PayPal account in full less PayPal’s commission.

Facts & Arts neither receives information about you, nor of your donation, nor does Facts & Arts receive a commission.

Facts & Arts does not pay the author, nor takes paid by the author, for the posting of the author's material on Facts & Arts. Facts & Arts finances its operations by selling advertising space.

Vladimir Putin as seen by the author, Michael Johnson.

Related articles by Michael Johnson, please click the title to proceed:

A new Russia roadmap - The near impossible battle to topple Putin

Dreaming Different Dreams: The Early Russian Dissenters

Desperately Seeking Solzhenitsyn

The famine of 1933 that “never happened”

Rate this essay

Click the stars to rate

Recent Essays