The War that Showed Us How an Underdog Can Beat the Russian Army, Or My Latest for The Daily Beast about the War in Ukraine

It’s been a while since last time, but this weekend I had another piece published by The Daily Beast. This time I wrote about The Winter War, which was fought between Finland and the Soviet Union from November 1939 to March 1940. The Winter War was a war of aggression where the Soviet Union attacked Finland with the intention of occupying territory and installing a puppet government.

Outside of the Nordic countries, The Winter War is pretty much an unknown conflict, but it is important to know about it because of the parallels to Russia’s war on Ukraine. Not only has Putin used the same fictional reasons for war as Josef Stalin, the Ukrainians’ fight to repel the Russians share similarities with how the Finns managed to fight off the Red Army.

To read the article in its entirety, please click here.

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

Photo by Baptiste Valthier on Pexels.com

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.

The Russian Mile Post, or Finland, the Åland Islands, and the Russian Empire in the Baltic

The Russian Imperial mile post at Vargata, Vårdö,
the Åland Islands. Photo: Erika Harlitz-Kern

Outside the general store in the village where my grandmother was born stands a wooden post painted red with seven white signs nailed to it. At the top of the pole is the sign with the name of the village, Vargata, spelled the old way with a W. Below it is a sign that gives the distance from Vargata to the city of Turku, Finland. To the left of the Turku sign are three signs pointing east to St. Petersburg, Helsinki, and the island of Kumlinge. To the right of the Turku sign, two signs point west, to the island of Eckerö and the village of Mångsteckta.

There are several peculiarities with this wooden post and its signs, the most obvious being that the distances given are in versts, the Russian Imperial unit of length, equaling 1.1 kilometers or 0.66 miles. The second peculiarity is that this Russian Imperial post stands in the middle of a village in the Åland Islands, a Swedish speaking autonomous region of Finland, located in the Baltic, equidistant to Stockholm in Sweden and Turku in Finland.

The post is a remnant of a once vast postal system that connected this village to the wide reaches of the Russian Empire, the very same empire that Vladimir Putin says he intends to resurrect, starting with Belarus and Ukraine.

Between 1809 and 1917, after having been conquered from Sweden as part of the larger military conflicts of the time collectively known as the Napoleonic Wars, Finland with the Åland Islands were part of the Russian Empire. As part of the Russian Empire, Finland with the Åland Islands became a grand duchy placed directly under the Czar but with its own Senate and citizenship.

In 1917, the Russian Revolution left a temporary power vacuum before the Bolsheviks took a proper hold of political power. As a result, the Russian Empire disintegrated. Several imperial regions took the opportunity to declare independence, among them Ukraine, Belarus, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, and Finland. Of these newly born nations, only Finland escaped becoming part of the Soviet Union.

But the Soviet Union never forgot about Finland. In November 1939, two months after Nazi-Germany invaded Poland and sparked World War II, the Soviet Union launched an attack war on Finland with the intention of bringing the country into the Soviet fold. Two wars were fought at great human and territorial cost for Finland, but in the end, Finland prevailed and remained independent.

Still, the Soviet Union continued to pressure Finland, and Finland was forced to contend with that pressure, which gave rise to the term “Finlandization.” Finlandization is when a country is forced to adapt its foreign policy and practice self-censorship to navigate the relationship with a more powerful geopolitical neighbor. A pejorative term for a policy created out of necessity to survive, Finland shed the yoke of Finlandization when the Cold War ended and the Soviet Union, in turn, fell apart. Since then, Finland has come into its own with a strong military and as a member of the EU and EMU.

Now, Vladimir Putin’s statements about wanting to rebuild the Russian Empire, of which the infiltration of Belarus and the invasion of Ukraine are two important parts, is forcing Finland to once again deal with its unpredictable neighbor. For example, already in 2017, the Finnish military adopted the policy of not hiring personnel with dual Finnish-Russian citizenship.

Ruins of the Russian fortress at Bomarsund. Photo: Erika Harlitz-Kern

As for the Åland Islands, there is no immediate threat because of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, but the islands’ government will be following the instructions of the Finnish government, if any were to be issued. Meanwhile, the islands still bear witness to the time when they were part of the Russian Empire. Ruins of the Russian fortress at Bomarsund, blown to smithereens as a result of the battle fought there in 1854 as part of the Crimean War, still dot the landscape, surrounded by the cemeteries with the soldiers who died, divided by religious creed–Catholics, Protestants, Russian Orthodox, Jews, and Muslims.

And at Vargata, the Russian mile post stands as a testament to the time when the vast machinery of the Russian Empire reached all the way to even the smallest village in the Baltic.

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

Eurovision Song Contest. A Primer

On Saturday May 14, 2016, Ukraine won the Eurovision Song Contest for the second time. Their winning contribution was the song “1944” performed by Jamala.

This year the Eurovision was broadcast in the US for the first time in the contest’s sixty-year history. Leading up to the Eurovision I published the following introductory post about the contest on Book Riot.

Eurovision Song Contest. A Primer.

Eurovision 2016 logo

With over 200 million viewers, the Eurovision Song Contest is one of the largest TV events in the world, and on May 14 it will be broadcast in the US for the first time.

After sixty years the US will finally be treated to this wonderfully cheesy international music contest that claims to be all about the song but in actual fact is just as much about politics.

If you would like to read the post in its entirety, please click here.

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

Svetlana Alexievich and the Politics of the Swedish Academy.

 

 

On December 10, Belarusian author Svetlana Alexievich will receive the 2015 Nobel Prize in Literature at the Nobel Prize Ceremony in Stockholm, Sweden. Here is an article I wrote about how awarding the Prize, the Swedish Academy continues its tradition to support the work of dissidents within the region that used to be the Soviet Union.

Svetlana Alexievich and the Politics of the Swedish Academy

Svetlana Alexievich

Svetlana Alexievich

According to the last will and testament of Swedish inventor and philanthropist Alfred Nobel, the Nobel Prize in Literature should be awarded an author “who shall have produced in the field of literature the most outstanding work in an ideal direction.” With her collected testimonies creating a history of emotions located at the intersection of fiction and reality, Belarusian author Svetlana Alexievich fulfills this criterion in a way few other authors do.

Named as one of the favorites to receive the 2014 Nobel Prize, this year’s decision places Alexievich in the company of other literature laureates whose work has forced them into exile. Moreover, the Academy’s decision highlights the importance of sanctuaries for writers as well as the commitment of the Swedish intelligentsia in supporting the critics and dissidents of Belarus, Europe’s only dictatorship.

Born in 1948, Svetlana Alexievich grew up in the Soviet Republic of Byelorussia. Already at a young age she noticed the discrepancy between the personal experiences related by the adults who surrounded her and the official version of events put forward by the Soviet government. From the very beginning of her career as a writer, the urge to expose this gap has been her driving force.

To be able to do so, Alexievich has invented a new literary genre where real-life testimonials are written as prose. Her books are based on interviews with people who participated in important historical events, such as World War II, the Chernobyl nuclear power plant disaster, the Soviet Union’s war in Afghanistan, and the aftermath of the Soviet Union’s collapse.

The interviews are detailed and in-depth; Alexievich estimates that it takes her between five and ten years to finish a book. Literary critic Kristoffer Leandoer writes in the Swedish newspaper Svenska Dagbladet how his wife, Elsa, became part of Alexievich’s source material when the couple was living in the Belarusian capital of Minsk in the late 1990s. Alexievich spent an entire weekend interviewing Elsa, going over details while drinking copious amounts of tea.

But telling the story of the everyday human experience as opposed to the narrative of a totalitarian system can be difficult and dangerous. Kajsa Öberg Lindsten, Alexievich’s Swedish translator, writes in the newspaper Göteborgs-Posten that the Soviet authorities banned Alexievich’s first book. Instead, Öberg Lindsten continues, War’s Unwomanly Face became the book that introduced Alexievich as a writer. Finished already in 1983, an edited version of War’s Unwomanly Face was published in 1985, riding on the wave of glasnost and perestroika.

Whereas War’s Unwomanly Face revealed the story of women soldiers at the Soviet frontlines during World War II, Alexievich’s second book, Zinky Boys, took on the subject of the Soviet Union’s decade-long war in Afghanistan. The official death toll is 50,000 soldiers, but, as Alexievich says herself, everyone knows that number to be a fabrication.

Zinky Boys exposes the human suffering during a war that the Soviet government pretended did not exist as it was going on. When the book was first published in the Soviet Union in 1989, it caused an uproar. In 1992, Alexievich was put on trial in Minsk, accused of slander against the heroes featured in her book.

By the time of Alexievich’s trial, the Soviet Union had ceased to exist after Belarus, Russia, and Ukraine declared independence. In the immediate wake of the Soviet collapse, Belarus was transitioning towards a democratic society. But the mentality of the Soviet Union still lingered, and it was only because of international pressure that the charges against Alexievich were dropped.

But Belarus never became a democracy. In the 1994 presidential elections, former kolkhoz chairman Alexander Lukashenko took power and has ruled the country ever since. In a column in Göteborgs-Posten, Alexievich describes Lukashenko as a man attuned to the changing currents of politics. Once he stood side by side with Russian president Boris Yeltsin, speaking about democracy and western values. But as faith in democracy faded in the former Soviet states, Lukashenko changed his tune. Now, his greatest heroes are Soviet leaders Lenin and Stalin.

Under Lukashenko Belarus has become a society with no freedom of speech, freedom of the press, or freedom of assembly. Belarus imprisons and executes critics of the government. Authors, journalists, and human rights activists are persecuted. The secret police is still called the KGB.

After publishing her third book, Voices from Chernobyl, which contains interviews with survivors and evacuees of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant disaster in 1986, the pressure exerted by the Lukashenko regime became too much to bear. As the 1990s came to a close, Alexievich went into exile.

At the time of the disaster, Chernobyl was a power plant located in the Soviet Union. But Chernobyl is in fact located in Ukraine, in close proximity to the northern border of Belarus. The dramatic event of when the nuclear reactor exploded is arguably the largest peacetime disaster in modern Belarusian history. In spite of this, the Lukashenko regime is investing heavily in the region that took most of the radioactive fallout.

According to Johanna Lindbladh, senior lecturer in Russian literature at Lund University, the regime responded harshly to Voices from Chernobyl because by portraying the human suffering caused by the disaster, Alexievich exposes the weaknesses of the state. To a totalitarian regime that is not only a humiliating insult, it is also a challenge to the status quo.

Support for Lindbladh’s conclusion can be found in an article in Politico, written by Joerg Forbrig, director of the Fund for Belarus Democracy at the German Marshall Fund of the United States. Forbrig claims that Alexievich has been able to tap into the post-Soviet era mindset of the Homo Sovieticus. It is this mindset that has given rise to the development seen in Belarus, Russia, and Ukraine.

The former Soviet Union looks the way it does, Forbrig explains, because of a “social consciousness that remained widely unreformed and that dragged down attempts at building open societies and polities.” This social consciousness fosters an attitude of cynicism, hatred, and suspicion. Its moral compass has stopped functioning and in its stead a longing for power, respect, and stability has developed alongside a genuine fear of change.

Alexievich would go on to spend the next twelve years in exile. Two of those years were spent in Gothenburg, Sweden, which has been a city of refuge for persecuted writers since 1996. Alexievich herself has declared that without cities such as Gothenburg, she would not have been able to continue her work as a writer. Moreover, Alexievich’s stay in Gothenburg served to strengthen the already established ties between the Swedish and the Belarusian intelligentsia. Because of these ties, Alexievich has become a regular contributor to Göteborgs-Posten, whose main office is located in Gothenburg.

In 2012, Alexievich decided to voluntarily return to Belarus. She says she moved back because she needs to hear the voices of the Belarusian people and spend time among them so that she can finish what she considers her life’s work–a book about love in the former Soviet Union.

Alexievich’s reason for returning home underlines a recurring misconception about her work, namely that she is a critic of Russia and Vladimir Putin. It is true that the sharp point of her pen often points in the direction of Belarus’s neighbor and its leader, but Alexievich is a Belarusian author. It was the Belarusian regime that forced her into exile, not the government of Russia. It is the Lukashenko regime that has banned her books from being distributed and prohibited her name from being mentioned in public. It is the Lukashenko regime that considers her a non-existing person.

It is within this post-Soviet Belarusian context that the Swedish Academy’s decision to award Alexievich the Nobel Prize should be viewed. Since the first Nobel Prize ceremony in 1901, the Swedish Academy has given four dissident writers from the now-defunct Soviet Union the Nobel Prize in Literature. The first one was Ivan Bunin in 1933, who at the time lived in exile in Paris. In 1958, the award went to Boris Pasternak. Still living in the Soviet Union, the authorities pressured him into declining the award. In spite of this, the official records of the Nobel Prize still names Pasternak as the recipient of the 1958 award. In 1970, Alexander Solzhenitsyn received the Nobel Prize, but did not accept it in person until he had gone into exile in 1974. The last of the Soviet Union dissident writers to receive the Nobel Prize was Joseph Brodsky in 1987. Forced into exile in 1972, Brodsky lived most of his life in the United States where he passed away in 1996.

By naming Alexievich the 2015 recipient of the Nobel Prize in Literature, the Swedish Academy has used the international prestige of the award to back Lukashenko into a corner, forcing the regime to acknowledge her existence. Following the announcement, Belarusian state media mentioned Alexievich’s name for the first time. On October 9, Alexander Lukashenko issued an official statement, congratulating Alexievich on the award, saying that her “creative art has touched Belarusians and readers in other countries alike.” He claimed to be happy for her success and expressed hope that the award would benefit the Belarusian nation and its people.

Furthermore, the Swedish Academy’s announcement could not have been more opportune. On October 11, presidential elections were held in Belarus. Leading up to the elections, Lukashenko presented them as fair and open. A number of political prisoners were released to show his good intentions. In order to maintain this facade, Lukashenko had no other choice than to congratulate Alexievich on the award.

Moreover, the Swedish Academy’s decision to award Svetlana Alexievich the Nobel Prize comes at a delicate time in the diplomatic relations between Sweden and Belarus. In 2012, the Swedish ambassador to Belarus, Stefan Eriksson, was asked to leave the country and the Swedish embassy was closed. The Swedish government answered in kind and the Belarusian embassy in Stockholm closed its doors. The Swedish foreign minister at the time, Carl Bildt, was quoted by Reuters, saying that the actions taken by the Lukashenko regime “is about Sweden being engaged in democracy and human rights in Belarus.” The Swedish embassy in Minsk reopened in 2013, but it is not until this year that negotiations concerning the Belarusian embassy in Stockholm are underway.

Even though the Swedish Academy has been criticized for pandering to totalitarian regimes–the latest example being Chinese author Mo Yan as recipient of the 2012 award–this year’s decision is a clear statement in favor of democracy and freedom of speech.

Meanwhile in Minsk, Svetlana Alexievich held a press conference after the award had been announced. She told reporters that the eight million Swedish kronor that come with the award would buy her the freedom to complete two more books that she is planning. When asked about the presidential election, she answered that she would not participate in an election where the result is predetermined.

As voting began on October 11, reports of voter fraud immediately began pouring in. By the end of the day, Lukashenko had won a fifth term as president with more than 80% of the votes.

Freedom from dictatorship might seem far off in the future for the people of Belarus. But with every author given the freedom to write–be it at home using the money from a prestigious award or in exile in a city of refuge–the day when the dictatorship will come to an end is still within our grasp.

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