Letter From - Summer 2014

Letter from Kaunas, Lithuania: Springtime for Putin

By Leonidas Donskis | June 9, 2014


Checking out Russian television this spring, especially after switching from BBC News or French TV, I found it difficult to avoid a sense of déjà vu. Every tidbit of information about Ukraine reminded me of the events that followed January 13, 1991, when troops from the Soviet Union killed 13 peaceful civilians in Vilnius, Lithuania.

Lithuania had declared its independence in March 1990, beginning a long and winding road for the first breakaway republic of the former Soviet Union. The Baltic country entered a period of danger, uncertainty, and insecurity, the logical result of the threat it posed for the slowly dying Soviet empire. Eleven months before the dissolution of the USSR, the slaughter of the 13 stripped the empire of its remaining political and moral legitimacy.

And yet Russia evaded denunciation. The world knew that Kremlin aggression had nothing to do with the opinions of the Russian intelligentsia—not to mention Russian dissidents. Immediately after the bloodshed in Vilnius, a group of Russian writers and academics came here to Lithuania to express sympathy and dismay at the Kremlin’s actions. One of them, Sergei Averintsev, an eminent cultural historian and poet, publicly recited his poem depicting Vilnius as a city of freedom on whose stones the blood of innocent people was shed.

Meanwhile, court journalists and various Soviet sycophants went so far as to suggest that Lithuanian snipers were killing fellow citizens to compromise and discredit the peaceful and progressive Kremlin. The point was that Lithuania had spoiled the show—much as the Maidan anticriminal revolution in Ukraine spoiled the show in Sochi for President Vladimir Putin, who masterminded the 2014 Olympics as a high point in Russia’s history and as its return to the club of powerful and significant global players. Some columnists observed that gay and lesbian athletes were for homophobic Putin what Jesse Owens was for racist Adolf Hitler. Putin readily sacrificed his imperial chauvinism by buying foreign athletes and offering them Russian citizenship. Had Hitler been less fanatical in his mad racist mythology, he might well have tried to buy medalist Owens for the glory of Germany in the 1936 Berlin Olympics.

If the Kremlin apparat sounded aggressive and bitter in the late 1980s, asserting that the Baltic States would certainly fail economically and culturally (“Who needs you there in the West?”), they’ve now reached the height of madness and folly. For instance, the political clown Vladimir Zhirinovsky, leader of the Liberal Democratic Party, launched a campaign of enlisting military volunteers to save their Russian brethren in Ukraine, a grotesque way of exploring how far the Kremlin would go to boost the pugnacity of court patriots. The hackneyed vocabularies of other public figures and political pundits are little different from Zhirinovsky’s pathological tirades.

Labeling all Ukrainians Banderovites (terrorists) or fascists is morally repugnant. But it also highlights the cynical, misguided, and misplaced nature of Russian public political discourse. The irresponsible and embarrassingly inadequate use of fascism can only be explained by the Cold War’s political and historical narratives, which legitimized calling anyone crushed by the Red Army, during and after World
War II, a fascist, and any form of anticommunism fascism. It would behoove those in Russia who crave to expose Ukraine’s supposed nationalism and anti-Semitism to remember the darkest traditions of anti-Semitism in Russia.

Calling Ukraine fascist camouflages the rise of fascism in Russia itself. Coupled with homophobic legislation and crackdowns on NGOs and civil society at large, this product of widespread hatred and xenophobia only dramatizes the failed democratization of Russia. The projection of one’s own decline onto others does not help much. That’s why it is essential to resist these insinuations against Ukraine, where many continue to wage a frontline battle for civilized politics and against kleptocracy, mafia control, and crony capitalism. In other words, defending everything that modern Europe stands for, including the fight against real, not imagined, fascism.

In March, prominent Russian artists and intellectuals signed a letter that blessed Russia’s occupation and annexation of Crimea. Endorsement of the letter, issued by the Ministry of Culture, dismayed many people who had tried to convince themselves that the revisionist state and its revenge-seeking regime would be met with contempt, or at least reservation, by respected figures in Russian music, theater, film, and art.

Among those who discredited themselves were dozens whose accomplishments in the arts are unquestionable. Yet the fact that conductor Valery Gergiev and violist Yuri Bashmet signed the disgraceful document hardly came as a shock. Both have long been court musicians—overpaid, easy to manipulate, and silent about independent political views that might, God forbid, contradict those of Putin. Actors Oleg Tabakov and Mikhail Boyarsky, stand-up comedian Gennady Khazanov, and film director Karen Shakhnazarov also signed the letter. The question floating in the air was, simply put, What happened to Russia?  Why did promises of political liberty and individual freedom fail once again, leaving many in sad and silent agreement with the Russian dissenters who articulated the country’s inability to embrace modern political and moral sensibilities?

The pride of Russia’s cultural elite was salvaged by such veteran movie and theater actors and directors as Mark Zakharov, Eldar Ryazanov, and Liya Akhedzhakova and by writer Mikhail Zhvanetsky. They and others refused to sign the letter.

The sinister paradox is that among those who did sign is an artist, director Vladimir Bortko, who made movies of satirical postrevolutionary works of Russian literature—Mikhail Bulgakov’s novels The Heart of a Dog and The Master and Margarita. Choosing The Heart of a Dog seemed to leave no doubt how the director viewed the Soviet Union and its legacies. In fact, Bulgakov’s interpretation is ambiguous, but I and others believed he saw the 1917 revolution and its legacies as the greatest political and moral catastrophes to befall Russia—as opposed to Putin’s view that the revolution was the greatest achievement in Russian history and politics, and its destruction was the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century.

A plethora of talented Russian actors appeared in Bortko’s Master and Margarita, which had the liberating and absolving effect on audiences of many other works of literature successfully translated into the language of film. It was widely assumed that Russia was on the way to putting behind and rejecting its horrible past—even to the point of putting Putin aside. Alas, that was not to be.

Scholars of Eastern European literature and culture note that the region’s expressions of modern anxiety and tension are most often concerned with physical destruction. The Master and Margarita portrays that kind of Eastern European existential anxiety. (In contrast, the anxiety of Western Europeans and Americans was found to be rooted in feelings that they were manipulated and their moral character was deformed.) Fate determines whether Bulgakov’s characters are sinners or saints, cowards or heroes. A central question is what chance nobility of character has in a world in which we have failed not just to identify evil (personified by Satan, calling himself Woland) in ourselves, but also to understand how it underpins our very way of life. Most dangerous are moral relativism, faithlessness, and the nihilistic rejection of everything not associated with power or mere physical survival.

Russian intellectuals naïvely thought that this obsession with power and its exercise over the rest of the world was exclusive to the 20th century, something we all would bid farewell to in the 21st. The emergence of Putin’s fascist regime right before our eyes brought us back to history and reality. Now we can only bid farewell to our postmodern fantasies about a postmaterial, postnational, and posthistorical world.

It is a farce that Bortko chose Bulgakov—a Ukrainian-born genius of Russian literature who died at the outbreak of the Second World War—to express the director’s own longing for a decent and free Russia and then ended up as a sycophant of the Kremlin. Ironically, in the movie hope comes from Woland, played by Oleg Basilashvili, who in real life had the courage to condemn the 2008 Russian invasion of Georgia and refused to sign the letter in support of Crimean annexation. He chose his conscience over the brutality and cynicism of his country.

Another film, Soviet documentarian Mikhail Romm’s Ordinary Fascism, remains unsurpassed in depicting the rise of fascism in Germany. Yet it possesses an ambivalent tone unnoticed by general audiences when it was released in 1965. Perceptive Russians saw scenes of mass rallies for the Führer, the cult of the young, quasi-religious enthusiasm, and a disdain for doubt as a cumulative perspective on the corrupt political systems of the 20th century. That was it. We tried hard to conceal this dangerous thought, yet it kept returning to us. Romm’s film brilliantly showed that our own Red fascism bore a family resemblance to German National Socialism. Both military dictatorships were based on the perception of the world as full of enemies and haters of their master race and hegemon class, and Ordinary Fascism was finally about the USSR, not Nazi Germany. With horror, Romm questioned whether the fascist plague was over.

And yet Putin’s Russia lacks Nazi Germany’s foundation in ideology. Instead of racial supremacy, there are ravenous pursuits of gas, oil, and political power unencumbered by social or political narratives. There is no Union of the Russian People (known as Black Hundreds), as there was in Tsarist Russia. Present-day Russian fascism comes from an Orwellian mafia state mentality. Power is exercised for its own sake while Ukraine and the best in Russia fight for freedom and the soul of Europe.

This was the springtime of our discontent, and it followed the winter of our discontent. The Euromaidan revolution in Kiev appears to have been a genuine anticriminal uprising that dealt a blow to the Kremlin and scared Putin. The criminalization of politics and the politicization of the criminal world were and continue to be the sword and the shield of the system created by the Russian president and his clique. Wherever they manufacture ethnic conflicts, we see criminal gangs in power. It was so in Transnistria, Abkhazia, and South Ossetia, and it is now the case in Crimea.

By the time this is published, we will know whether Russian ambitions in Ukraine went beyond Crimea, but here in Kaunas there is a strong sense of history repeating itself. Such code words as Munich, the Sudetenland, Hitler, Daladier, and Chamberlain resonate stronger than at any time since the fall of the Berlin Wall.

Five years ago, in a seminar with high-ranking EU and American officials, diplomats, politicians, and academics, I compared Putin’s Russia to post-Weimar Germany. I predicted that in Russia the rise of a revisionist state with a strong sense of injustice would result in a wave of chauvinism, neoimperialism, and fascism. Some colleagues took this remark seriously, yet others (especially Germans) thought it was overblown. I leave it to my gracious readers to decide who was right.

Kaunas is deeply embedded in the 20th century, with its cult of power and cruelty, violence, criminal regimes, and the politics of forgetting, as Milan Kundera would have it. Kaunas was the provisional capital of Lithuania before the Second World War. In this spot, the history of prewar Lithuania ended abruptly in 1940 with the invasion by the Soviet Union. Kaunas was immediately hated and feared by Soviet authorities, and throughout the Soviet period it was a symbol of independent Lithuania and the stronghold of Lithuanian nationalism. Now the city is widely identified as the home of Vytautas Magnus University, which the Soviets closed down after the war and Lithuanian émigrés from the United States reestablished in 1989. Two Vytautas Magnus presidents have been American scholars of Lithuanian background, and English is the second language of instruction. We regard the university’s American component as deeply symbolic for both Kaunas and Lithuania.

With the 1940 Soviet occupation, Lithuania seemed to be on a precipice, with no loyal and committed nation-friends in Europe. The Baltic region was not “a European necessity,” as one British diplomat put it. But Lithuania today, like the two other Baltic States, finds itself in a different world. The country’s accessions to NATO and the European Union in 2004 are pivotal events. Even now, when Russia threatens the world order and challenges the balance of international relations, Kaunas and Lithuania are safer and more secure than ever before.

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