How Putin Is His Own Kind Of Monster, Or Why Nazi-Germany Is Not the Answer to Every Question

When Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24, 2022, the first war of invasion in Europe since 1939 began. After decades of convincing themselves that Russia had been pacified and that wars of aggression in Europe would never happen again, people were searching for explanations to what was happening. Journalists, pundits, and arm-chair historians began scrambling for historical parallels and in doing so, they ended up where they usually end up: Hitler and Nazi-Germany.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is what Hitler did to Czechoslovakia in 1937, they said. No, it’s like the Nazi’s invasion of Poland in 1939. Putin is behaving like Hitler, beware.

Whereas I do agree that history is written to answer questions in the present, I disagree with Adolf Hitler and Nazi-Germany becoming the go-to answers for everything when people want to make themselves look more knowledgeable and insightful than they really are.

Because, the answers to Vladimir Putin and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine can’t be found by drawing parallels to Nazi-Germany. Putin is his own kind of monster who acts within a decidedly Russian paradigm of how to treat its own population and its neighboring countries.

As historians, we talk about history as the result of continuity and change, that is to say, things change while at the same time, they stay the same. Russia under Vladimir Putin is new, but it is also very old.

Putin is an old kind of Russian leader because he is a despot. But, he is a new kind of Russian leader because he is a despot who is neither royal nor communist. He is also a new kind of leader because the Russian state has become entirely based on him as a person.

The czars and the leaders of the Soviet Union had structures built up around them that survived the death of the individual person, the Romanov dynasty in the case of the former, the Communist Party in the case of the latter. When the Czar or the Secretary General of the Communist Party passed away or was ousted, the institutions survived the person and a new leader was recruited from its ranks, either by birth-right or as the result of political power struggles.

When historians study the development of the state, we make a distinction between the “state” and the “realm.” The realm is the geographical territory held together by customs and kinship. The realm speaks to our identity, which is the reason why the realm is often given a name: The Reich for the Holy Roman Empire and later Germany. Uncle Sam for the United States of America. Blighty for England. And Mother Russia for Russia.

The state is the political structure that governs the realm. For there to be a “state,” these structures need to be separate from the leader, as discussed above with the Romanovs and the Communists.

With Putin, there is reason to believe that when he either dies or is overthrown there is no structure that will survive him, which means that when Putin is gone, Russia the State might collapse. Mother Russia, on the other hand, will prevail.

But isn’t that what happened to Nazi-Germany after Hitler died by suicide? The state died when he died, right? Surely, we can draw a parallel here?

The answer to those questions is no. Hitler died by suicide, yes, but only after he had appointed his successor. He could do that because the state of Nazi-Germany was built on the structures of the Nazi party. Nazi-Germany as a state came crashing down because Nazi-Germany declared itself defeated, which happened after Hitler was gone.

In the case of Germany, the realm also disappeared when The Reich was divided into West and East Germany.

Just like we can’t draw parallels between Putin and Hitler, we can’t draw parallels between Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and Nazi-Germany’s annexation of the Sudetenland or its invasion of Poland either. Because this is not the first time Russia has gone into Ukraine with the intention to annihilate.

Russia as an expansionist force can be traced far back in time, and every country or empire that has ever shared a border with Russia has been forced to contend with this, as seen in the relationship between Russia and Sweden. The earliest known border agreement between Russia (here in the form of one of its predecessors, the Republic of Novgorod) and Sweden is the Treaty of Nöteborg from 1323. The Treaty of Nöteborg marked the end of a series of conflicts during the thirteenth and early fourteenth century over control of the Gulf of Finland and the Baltic. Sweden and Russia would continue to wage wars over the Baltic until 1809, when Russia conquered Finland from Sweden, breaking the Swedish kingdom in half. Their contentious relationship continued during the Cold War, and is ramping up again today as a consequence of what is happening in Ukraine.

As for Ukraine, their complicated relationship with Russia can be traced even further back in time, involving much more suffering and bloodshed than in the case of Sweden. Putin’s argument for invading Ukraine in 2022 is that Ukraine does not exist as a country because of Kievan Rus.

Kievan Rus at its largest extent in the 11th and 12th c. Source: Wikipedia

Kievan Rus was a loose federation of geographical and ethnically-based territories that reached from the Black Sea to the Baltic, and which existed in different forms from the ninth century to 1240 when the Mongols invaded from the East. (The Republic of Novgorod, mentioned above, was part of this federation.) Kievan Rus got its name from the city from whence it grew–Kyiv–and the dynasty that is believed to have founded it–the Rus. The Rus belonged to a larger group known as Varangians, who, to make it simple, were Vikings from Sweden. The name “Rus” is believed to be the root of the name “Russia,” and consequently, there is an argument to be made that the roots of Russia are in Ukraine.

Over the centuries, Ukraine has gone back and forth between ruling itself to being cut up and governed by surrounding empires such as Poland, Poland-Lithuania, Austria-Hungary, Russia, and the Soviet Union. In the 1920s and 1930s, it suffered two mass-starvation disasters, both orchestrated by the Soviet Union with the intention of bringing Ukraine to its knees. During World War II, Nazi-Germany invaded Ukraine with much bloodshed as a result. When the Soviet Union recaptured Ukraine, a purge of real and imagined collaborators began, again with a great toll on human lives. In 1991, the Soviet Union collapsed, and Ukraine declared itself an independent state based on the principles of democracy. This is the state that Russia now intends to annihilate. Again.

Even though the initial Russian military advance into Ukraine doesn’t seem to have gone as planned, and the reaction from the rest of the world has been a solid condemnation, when French President Emmanuel Macron after speaking to Putin declared that the worst is yet to come, we have every reason to be worried. All we need to do is look to Russian and Soviet history, and this time, we do need to look at what happened during World War II. But again, we need to look at the actions of the Soviet Union, not Nazi-Germany.

During World War II, after a brief stint as an ally to Nazi-Germany, the Soviet Union ended up fighting against them after Nazi-Germany invaded as part of Operation Barbarossa. The back of the up-until-then seemingly invincible Wehrmacht was broken as the German army pushed further into Soviet territory and found itself defeated after the six-month long battle of Stalingrad.

Soviet soldiers in a trench in the city center of Stalingrad. Photo: Wikipedia.

But the Soviet Union didn’t defeat the Wehrmacht because the Red Army was excellent at warfare. Rather, it was the opposite. Shrouded in a cloud of paranoia, Stalin had purged the army of all its generals and taken control of the war himself. The solution to ending the Nazi-German invasion was a tried and tested tactic of Russian warfare: the disregard for human lives, including those of Russians.

One example of how little Russian lives matter is the defense tactic known as scorched earth where people destroy their own homes and farms to break the morale of the enemy. Russian civilians have used this tactic to great success against the armies of Charles XII of Sweden, Napoleon of France, and Nazi-Germany. Unless the war on Ukraine turns and ends up on Russian territory, there is little reason to believe that scorched earth tactics is an option. However, the fact that this tactic exists, and has been used repeatedly, demonstrates that when it comes to winning a war, civilian lives do not matter.

As for the Soviet army during World War II, we feel the non-existent value of the individual soldier on our skins as we read Anthony Beevor’s excellent book Stalingrad, where the letters and diaries of Red Army soldiers give us first-hand accounts of the appalling conditions they were fighting under. In the end, the lives of more than one million Soviet soldiers were spilled to break the Wehrmacht.

Maya Angelou once famously said that when someone tells you who they are, believe them. Putin has made clear that he will not stop until Ukraine no longer exists. When we look at Russian and Soviet history for an explanation of what is happening, we have no choice but to believe him.

What matters now, is what we do next.

In the words of my friend, the Australian, I shall return.

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Sleepy Hollow, Starbucks and the American Revolution

In the preview for the upcoming TV-show Sleepy Hollow, Ichabod Crane, newly awakened from a slumber lasting more than two hundred years, reacts to the number of Starbucks there are. It is clear that what surprises him isn’t Starbucks as such, but the large amount of coffee shops on each block. The historian in me immediately asked, how plausible would it be for Ichabod Crane to be familiar with the concept of Starbucks? Then I realized the stupidity of my own question. Of course Ichabod Crane would be familiar with it. It’s a coffeehouse!

The TV-series Sleepy Hollow is loosely based on the story The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, written by Washington Irving (1783–1859). Irving is best known today for two of his short-stories of which Sleepy Hollow is one, the other one being Rip Van Winkle. The Legend of Sleepy Hollow and Rip Van Winkle were first published in the same story collection, The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent. (1819–1820), and are based on themes found in German folktales.

468px-Portrait_of_Washington_Irving_by_John_Wesley_Jarvis_in_1809
Portrait of Washington Irving (1809) by John Wesley Jarvis (1780–1840)

The Legend of Sleepy Hollow tells the story of the not-so likeable schoolteacher, Ichabod Crane, who moves to the small town of Sleepy Hollow. Being poor, Crane’s purpose in life is his own self-advancement. Therefore, he begins courting Katrina Van Tassel, the daughter and heiress of a local, wealthy farmer. Crane’s rival is Abraham Van Brunt. Knowing that Crane has come to believe in the local lore of ghost stories, Van Brunt decides to play tricks on Crane. One late night, on his way home from Katrina Van Tassel’s, Crane is pursued by a seemingly headless horseman. This incident is so distressing for the schoolteacher that Ichabod Crane is never seen in Sleepy Hollow again.

The_Headless_Horseman_Pursuing_Ichabod_Crane
The Headless Horseman Pursuing Ichabod Crane (1858) by John Quidor (1801–1881)

Washington Irving published The Legend of Sleepy Hollow in 1819-1820, but the story is considered to take place in the 1790s. Although not much of the original story seems to have been brought into the upcoming TV-series, the fact remains that the Ichabod Crane, who reacted to the amount of Starbucks on each block, is a man who lived during the eighteenth century. Him being able to relate to the concept of Starbucks is therefore not a surprise.

The reason for this is that in eighteenth-century North America, the coffeehouse was an integral part of the social life of free, white males. It was at the coffeehouse that such men gathered to gossip, to socialize, to debate, to do business and to receive the latest news.

The North American coffeehouse is part of a way of socializing, introduced into Europe with the introduction of coffee, which came from the Middle East and North Africa by way of Venice. Not long after coffee had been introduced in an area, coffeehouses began appearing and came to play an important part in politics and business. For example, the world’s largest insurance company, Lloyd’s, began as a coffeehouse in London.

800px-RoastedCoffeeBeans
Roasted coffee beans
Source: GOELE

The North American coffeehouses were important during the struggle for Independence from the British Empire (1776–1784). Because of their function as arenas for politics, debate, business and socializing, it was at the coffeehouses that decrees from the British government were read to the public. And it was at the coffeehouses that the public voiced their concerns regarding these decrees. Moreover, once the Declaration of Independence had been signed, it was first read to the public at the Merchant Coffee House in Philadelphia.

Today, the continuation of the tradition of the North American coffeehouse as a public arena for business and socializing can be witnessed in places such as Starbucks. When you walk in to order your hot beverage of choice, you will see people engaged with their laptops, college textbooks or attending a business meeting. If the North American coffeehouses of the twenty-first century will become arenas for the initiation of a revolution is doubtful. However, drinking coffee is in itself a revolutionary act. The Patriots of the eighteenth-century chose coffee over tea to demonstrate their opposition to the British Empire.

I will watch Sleepy Hollow when it begins airing on September 16. The preview looked interesting enough to give it a shot. Also, John Cho is part of the cast, which of course is a bonus.

If you are interested in the role of coffeehouses as meeting places for revolutionaries, go to the blog post Lenin Never Lived in Vienna.

In the words of my friend, the Australian, I shall return.

Sources:
Benjamin L Carp Rebels Rising: Cities and the American Revolution (Oxford, 2007)
Britannica.com Washington Irving
Britannica.com The Legend of Sleepy Hollow
Britannica.com Ichabod Crane
Britannica.com Coffee
International Coffee Organization The Story of Coffee
Sleepy Hollow

Note:
The images in this blog post have been downloaded from Wikimedia Commons.
This blog post is featured at Suvudu Universe.

Lenin Never Lived in Vienna

In his classic study on scientific paradigms and anomalies, Thomas S Kuhn writes about the issue of preconceived notions and expectations in interpreting our surroundings. He mentions a psychological experiment where a test group were shown a deck of cards where some cards had been slightly altered, for example a card of hearts was colored black instead of red. When shown these altered cards, the test group participants called the cards out as red, despite the fact that they were black. This misidentification was caused by the fact that from previous experience the participants anticipated the cards to be red since the symbol on the card was a heart. Therefore, the brain saw one thing but named it another.

For many years, I saw one thing and named it another. I saw Vladimir Ilich Lenin (1870–1924), the leader of the Russian Revolution and founder of the Soviet Union, as being in exile in Vienna but I named it Zurich. Let me explain.

One of the first historical topics I took on with interest was the Russian Revolution. I was in high school, had just discovered literature through Fyodor Dostoyevsky (1821–1881) and Leo Tolstoy (1828–1910) and Doctor Zhivago (1965) was my favorite movie. By way of books and films, I discovered Russian history.

On New Year’s Eve in 1992 I was in Vienna for the annual New Year’s Day Concert at Musikverein. I remember watching CNN when the news broke that the Soviet Union had been dissolved. The week we spent in Vienna became an interesting blend of the beginning and the end of that Socialist colossus. The Soviet Union had just ceased to exist when we went for coffee at the Café Central, during the early 20th century a hub for the intellectual elite of Europe. Authors, artists, revolutionaries and philosophers frequented the Café Central, many of them Russian.

During the years leading up to the Russian Revolution in 1917, Lenin lived in exile in Europe. He moved between places, such as Munich, Bern, and Zurich. As I read about the causes behind the Russian Revolution and those who played a part in it, I saw all this before me. The only problem was that I always pictured Lenin at the Café Central in Vienna. Consequently, even though I knew intellectually that Lenin never took up residence in Vienna, that was where I pictured him. If someone had asked me about Lenin’s years in European exile, I probably would have begun explaining Vienna to them.

Not until I went to Zurich in 2001 and was taken to the building where Lenin lived and shown the historical marker, did I finally realize that Lenin actually lived in Zurich and not in Vienna. In other words, it took me more than a decade and a trip to Switzerland to be able to put to the side my preconceived notion of what the life of an exiled 20th-century revolutionary was like. It was not until it was pointed out to me that Lenin lived in Zurich, that I, in my mind, could fully comprehend that he did not live in Vienna.

Just like the participants in the psychological study, referred to by Kuhn, who realized that the cards were black and not red only when it was pointed out to them.

Sources:
IMDB http://www.imdb.com Doctor Zhivago
Encyclopedia Britannica http://www.britannica.com Lenin
Thomas S Kuhn The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (The University of Chicago Press, 1962)

In the words of my friend, the Australian: I shall return.