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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The 20th Anniversary of the Democratic Constitution of Belarus

During the ongoing crisis between Russia and Ukraine, one European former Soviet republic has kept a low profile. I am talking about Belarus. Belarus borders on Russia, Ukraine, Lithuania, Latvia, and Poland and is a dictatorship run by Aljaksandr Lukashenka. But twenty years ago, Belarus was headed in the direction of democracy and on March 15, 1994 adopted a constitution to fulfill that goal. What happened?

Belarus is approximately one third of the size of Ukraine and has a population of 9,441,000 (2013), 1.9 million of which live in the capital Minsk. Belarusians constitute the largest ethnic group, followed by Russians. Before World War II, Jews were the second largest ethnic group in Belarus. The Belarusian language is the official language but Russian is used on all levels of society.

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The location of Belarus is marked in red.
Source: Nationalencyklopedin

Throughout history Belarus has been a region located in between the cultural and economic regions of the Baltic and the Slavs. From the middle of the ninth century, the area that was to become Belarus was part of the state of the Kievan Rus, originating in present-day Ukraine. Kievan Rus collapsed when the Mongols invaded and during the thirteenth century, Belarus constituted the western-most part of the Mongolian realm. Meanwhile, Lithuania on the Baltic increased in political power and during the course of the fourteenth century, Belarus instead became a part of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, which in 1386 entered into a political union with Poland. This political union lasted until the three partitions of Poland (1772, 1793, and 1795) when the Polish-Lithuanian area was divided in accordance with Russian interests.

Due to Polish-Lithuanian governance, Belarus became integrated into the Polish-Catholic cultural sphere while distancing itself from the Slavic-Orthodox. This development is confirmed by the fact that during the Middle Ages, Belarusian towns and cities adhered to the so-called Magdeburg Law. The City of Magdeburg, today located in east Germany, was an important trading place at the intersection of the Germanic and Slavic regions. Towns and cities of lesser importance and stature adopted the city laws of major cities to be able to participate in European trade and exchange. Magdeburg was a city whose law was adopted by several other cities. Lübeck, on the German Baltic coast, was another such city. The fact that Belarusian cities adopted the Magdeburg Law indicates their affiliation with the European continent rather than the landmasses ruled by Kiev and Moscow.

Following the partition of Poland, Belarus became part of the Russian Empire and continued as such until the Empire’s collapse during the Russian Revolution and the ensuing Russian Civil War (1918–1920). During this period, Belarus, together with Finland, Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia, declared independence. Belarus became part of the Soviet Union, once again after being divided, this time in accordance to the borders between Russia and Poland as constituted by Poland’s First Partition in 1772. The new borders of Belarus was determined by the Treaty of Riga, signed by Russia and Poland in 1921. Of these new-born independent states, Finland was the only one not to become part of the Soviet Union.

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Current flag of Belarus.
Source: Zscout370

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Flag of Belarus, 1918–1921, 1991–1995.

The Soviet Union itself collapsed in 1991. The reason why the Soviet Union collapsed was because the Soviet Republic of Belarus, together with Ukraine and Russia, agreed to create a Commonwealth of Independent States instead of the Soviet Union. Belarus, Ukraine and Russia were soon joined by other Soviet Republics and the CIS began functioning on December 21, 1991, with its administrative center located in Minsk.

Soon after independence work on drafting a constitution began. While working on the new constitution, the legislators looked towards the legal foundations of sovereign states such as the United States, France, Belgium, Denmark, and Sweden, while constructing a legal system based on the principle of the Russian Federation. The constitution was adopted on March 15, 1994.

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Constitution of Belarus. Title written in Belarusian, followed by Russian.
Source: Zscout370

The constitution created the office of President as the new nation’s leader. In July 1994, Aljaksandr Lukashenko was elected to the post and has ruled the country ever since, amending the democratic constitution through two non-transparent and highly criticized referendums in 1996 and 2004, respectively.

Today, Belarus is the only dictatorship in Europe. The country has no freedom of speech, no freedom of the press, no freedom of organization and its domestic economy is in shambles. Its prisons hold political prisoners and the government has executed several of its imprisoned dissidents.

To stay in power Aljaksandr Lukashenko needs both Ukraine and Russia. Lukashenko needs Ukraine because that country is one of Belarus’ main trading partners. Therefore, Lukashenko needs to stay on friendly terms with whomever is in power in Kiev.  Lukashenko needs Russia because Russia is one of his few supporters. But Russia’s support of the Lukashenko regime is based on strategic interests. If Russia loses interest in Belarus as an ally, Lukashenko’s days are numbered.

And that is why no voice on the Ukrainian crisis is heard from Minsk.

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

Sources:
Nationalencyklopedin Vitryssland
Nationalencyklopedin Litauen: den ryska tiden
Nationalencyklopedin Magdeburg
Britannica.com Belarus
Britannica.com Commonwealth of Independent States
Wikipedia Constitution of Belarus
Belarusbloggen Varför tiger Lukasjenka om Krim?

Note:
There is no standard set for transcribing Belarusian names in English.
Images of Belarusian flags and constitution downloaded from Wikimedia Commons.

The Real Life Courier of the Czar

The Åland Islands is an autonomous region within the republic of Finland, located in the Baltic between Stockholm and Turku. The islands are a demilitarized zone with their own parliament, their own flag, their own stamps, their own national holiday and they are the only region in the European Union where you can still shop tax free. Unlike the rest of Finland, the Åland Islands have only one official language — Swedish. Why then are the islands littered with red-painted markers indicating distances in Russian miles?

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The official flag of the Åland Islands
Photo: EH Kern

To find the answer to this question we have to go as far back in time as the twelfth century, which is when the Swedish king Erik Jedvardsson, also known as St. Erik, went on a crusade to what is today Finland and incorporated the west coast into the developing Swedish kingdom. Over time Finland and the Åland Islands became an integral part of Sweden, given as a duchy to royal sons and serving as a bulwark to the developing kingdom of Russia in the east.

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The location of the Åland Islands is indicated with a red circle.
Source: Nationalencyklopedien

As I have written in a previous blog post, during the seventeenth century, the Swedish kingdom expanded, mainly through military conquests in the Baltic. Because of this expansion, the need for a reliable and speedy postal service became apparent. Consequently, Queen Christina (1633/1644–1654) ordered the creation of postal routes, one of which ran from Turku to Stockholm across the Åland Islands.

Delivering mail before modern transportation was not an easy task. To transport the mail from Turku to Stockholm, so-called postal farmers were appointed. These farmers were responsible for delivering the mail for a certain distance when it passed through their area.

A letter written in Turku addressed to Stockholm would first have to be transported over land to the town of Gustavs. From there it was taken by boat to the Åland island of Brändö. From Brändö the letter was transported by boat and by land across the islands of Kumlinge and Vårdö, through Bomarsund to Eckerö. At Eckerö in the west, the mail was loaded onto row boats that crossed the sea to the town of Grisslehamn on the Swedish east coast. Today, it takes two hours by ferry from Eckerö to Grisslehamn. The time it took to row across — no matter the weather or the season — in the seventeenth century, I can only imagine.

Finland, and the Åland Islands, were lost to Russia in 1809 as a result of Sweden’s participation in the Napoleonic Wars (1798–1815). One of the most famous battles during the Napoleonic Wars is the battle of Waterloo (1815). The postal route across the Åland Islands remained and was extended to St. Petersburg. To mark the route, red-painted markers were placed across the islands, giving the distances in the unit used in Imperial Russia: verst. One verst equals 1.066 kilometers.

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Postal route marker in Russian verst, Vargata village, Vårdö Island
Photo: EH Kern

The postal route across the Åland Islands was in use until 1910. In 1917, during the turmoil of the Russian Revolution, Finland declared itself independent from the Russian Empire. Despite several invasion attempts by the Soviet Union during the Second World War, Finland has remained an independent nation.

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

Note:
Michael Strogoff or The Courier of the Czar is a novel by French author Jules Verne written in 1876. The novel is about Strogoff who is a courier for Czar Alexander II. However, Strogoff does not carry his message between Turku and Stockholm, but between St. Petersburg and Irkutsk.
If you would like to read classic Russian literature where distances are given in verst, I recommend Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace.

Sources:
Nationalencyklopedien Åland
Nationalencyklopedien verst
Wikipedia Postvägen Stockholm – Åbo

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.