Staunton, July 13 – In the summer of 1942, during the height of fighting on the eastern front, Soviet writer Ilya Ehrenburg issued a series of attacks on German soldiers that mirror imaged Nazi propaganda, describing German soldiers as less than human and calling on Soviet citizens to kill them wherever and whenever they found them.
Such excesses are understandable in the course of war, but Soviet leader Joseph Stalin became so alarmed at the way in which Ehrenburg’s appeals threatened both the internationalist ideology of communism and future Soviet relations with Germany that he ordered Georgy Aleksandrov to publish in Pravda an article ordering Ehrenburg to back off from such “simplifications.”
Few besides historians have paid much attention to the Ehrenburg-Aleksandrov exchange, but on July 11 Stanislav Stremidlovsky, the editor of the Ostkroft portal, said that what Ehrenburg had done was being repeated regarding Ukraine and that Aleksandrov’s warnings, which ultimately came from Stalin, remained valid and should be heeded by Russians today.
Much Russian media coverage has followed the line of least resistance and the one intended to generate “the greatest emotional response and instead of analyzing the situation in Ukraine carefully have fallen into the trap of equating Ukrainian nationalists with fascists, Stremidlovsky says.
But such an equation is not justified. While there are some Ukrainian nationalists who are fascists, their numbers are small, and they do not represent an immediate threat to anyone. More important, he argues, is the blowback effect of using such propagandistic language on Moscow and the peoples of the Russian Federation.
By treating the conflict in Ukraine as one between Russians and Ukrainians, Stremidlovsky continues, those who do so are “creating enormous problems for the future when Moscow will seek to reach agreement with Kyiv” and big problems now within the Russian Federation by “distancing the representatives of all” non-Russian peoples from the Russians.
To say this is not to say that there is no Russophobia in Ukraine. It does exist, but it is not in and of itself a threat to Russia and ultimately can be dealt with more easily and quickly than many suppose.
But “a more dangerous ideology for the Russian Federation is being born now in Ukraine in front of our eyes,” Stremidlovsky says. It is political nationalism and its emergence is shown by the fact that many ethnic Russians living in Ukraine are prepared to fight for Ukraine against their co-ethnics in the Russian Federation.
“It is difficult to call” this phenomenon “classic Russophobia,” he continues. What it represents is something which “threatens us with just the same danger that fascism did.” Not only does this “’political anti-Russianness’” pose a threat to ethnic Russians “but to all peoples living on the territory of the Russian Federation.”
Such “political” anti-Russianness if one examines it closely carried with it a demand “for the enslavement or destruction” of Russia. If those who are “infected” by it “win,” then “no one will be able to avoid getting involved.” “Bashkirs, Tatars, Yakuts, and the peoples of the North Caucasus and the Far North can forget about their statehood and culture.”
And consequently, Stremidlovsky concludes, it is this “political” nationalism rather than “ethnic” nationalism that Russia must defeat in Southeastern Ukraine. Its defeat, he suggests, will “all the same not be on the battlefield but in the minds” of those who are fighting. Misstating what the fight is about doesn’t help Russia – or ultimately Ukraine.
Three aspects of this essay are noteworthy. First, it is part of the Kremlin’s effort to cool down war fever in the Russian Federation, a fever that it has stoked for so long. Second, it is a recognition of something few in Moscow want to admit: Russian identity is much weaker than they suppose, and many ethnic Russians in Ukraine are on Ukraine’s side.
And third, and most important, Stremidlovsky’s comment reflects a growing awareness among the Russian authorities that stirring up ethnic nationalism is dangerous, especially if one is trying to control a multi-national state. Stalin understood that even in the midst of war; it is not clear that the current rulers in the Kremlin yet have an equal appreciation of that reality.