Erna Paris is the author of Long Shadows: Truth, Lies and History.
A man with soulful eyes and a wispy beard approached me at a recent academic meeting in St. Petersburg, Russia. “What do you hear in Canada about Crimea and the struggle in Ukraine?” he asked shyly. “We hear about a reborn Russian imperium, among other things,” I reply.
“That’s what Putin wants outsiders to think,” he said, “but it’s much more complicated. A few people feel uncomfortable over Crimea, but all of us grieve because the fighting in Ukraine is personal. It’s a family affair, a conflict over Mother Russia.”
The idea of a mythic “Mother of the Nation” has deep roots in Russian literature, history, art and religion. And the Ukrainian capital, Kiev, has long been mythologized as the cradle of Russian civilization. During the Soviet era, a statue to the Mother, complete with sword and shield, was erected there to complement the museum of the Great Patriotic War. Kiev, in other words, is integral to the historic Russian imagination.
Sentiments of this sort are easy to exploit, which helps explain why more than 80 per cent of Russians support President Vladimir Putin’s recent adventures. Mr. Putin has his reasons: One is the desire to regain face lost in the breakup of the Soviet Union, but the intent to shore up national pride by creating a clear demarcation between Russia and the West has been foremost. The mythic unity of Russia and Ukraine is central to his vision, meaning that the very notion that Ukraine might join the European Union is intolerable. In a speech to the Duma last March, he accentuated this: “We are one nation. Ancient Russia has one common root.”
During our visit, state-controlled television broadcast ceaseless reels of anti-Ukrainian propaganda compiled from Second World War archives. I have seen pictures from that era, but the rawness of the atrocities depicted in these Soviet-era films felt new. One didn’t need to know the language to hear, and see, repeated references to “Kiev-Berlin” – a blunt effort to revive memories of Ukrainian collaboration with Nazi Germany.
Since 60 per cent of Russians receive their news from state television, it was not surprising to learn that posses of drunken young men have been known to hang out of St. Petersburg windows shouting “Kill the Ukrainian traitors!” When a conflict is cast as fratricidal, the enemy is a renegade who has betrayed family values.
Family grief has also claimed Anna, another participant at the conference. She originates from contested Donetsk, where people lived together for long years in relative peace. Now, her frightened 77-year-old mother is trying to escape while she can. Her sister wants to emigrate – anywhere.
Anna and her husband, Sergei, belong to the tiny urban educated minority that opposed Mr. Putin; and what they worry about most is the future. Everything is in transition, they said. Street and city names are changing to reject the Soviet era, then reinstated. The teaching of history has been eviscerated, largely because no one yet knows what to say about it. Contemporary writers steer away from serious attempts at understanding, and the media increasingly censors itself. There is no meaningful political opposition.
In their view, the long-term danger is twofold. First, an economic collapse, since energy is effectively Russia’s sole industry. Second, the inevitable civil wars in restive ethnic republics.
Mr. Putin has succeeded in whipping up nationalist fervour in a distracted population, but should he fail to preserve the unifying myth of “Mother Russia” – the underpinning of his propaganda – by holding Ukraine in his orbit, there is no predicting the rest.