Commentary on Political Economy

Saturday 19 August 2023


The Pushkin prob­lem

As Ukraine ‘can­cels’ the revered poet, Timothy Gar­ton Ash reflects on the rejec­tion of Rus­sian cul­ture and the long arc of imper­ial decline

Main picture: a statue of Russian poet Alexander Pushkin being dismantled in the Ukrainian city of Dnipro in December 2022

Last month, I stood at the corner of what used to be Pushkin Street in Kyiv. Fol­low­ing Vladi­mir Putin’s full-scale inva­sion of Ukraine in 2022, it has been renamed Yevhen Chykalenko Street, after a major fig­ure of the early 20th-cen­tury Ukrain­ian inde­pend­ence move­ment. To lov­ers of lit­er­at­ure and opera, can­cel­ling Alex­an­der Pushkin, poet and author of Eugene One­gin, might seem a bit over the top. Putin, yes, but why Pushkin?

For Ukrain­i­ans, however, engaged in an exist­en­tial struggle for their inde­pend­ence against Rus­sia’s war of recol­on­isa­tion, Pushkin is a sym­bol of the Rus­sian imper­i­al­ism that has long denied Ukraine’s right to a sep­ar­ate national exist­ence. Pushkin was a great poet, but also a poet of Rus­sian imper­i­al­ism, just as Rud­y­ard Kip­ling was a great poet, but a poet of Brit­ish imper­i­al­ism.

Right: books in Rus­sian, includ­ing by Pushkin, in the cel­lar of a book­shop in Kyiv, wait­ing to be pulped. The pro­ceeds were to be used to buy vehicles for Ukraine’s army

Pushkin’s Poltava depicts Ukrain­ian Cos­sack het­man Ivan Mazepa as a fickle traitor to the heroic Rus­sian tsar Peter the Great, who non­ethe­less tri­umphed over the Swedes in the 1709 Battle of Poltava — and 12 years later form­ally foun­ded the Rus­sian empire.

As Rus­sian forces bom­barded Ukraine last year, an offi­cially dis­trib­uted video showed Rus­sian for­eign min­is­ter Sergei Lav­rov recit­ing lines from Pushkin’s “To the Slan­der­ers of Rus­sia”, a poem ful­min­at­ing against west­ern sup­port­ers of Slavs rebelling against Rus­sia. Cut­aways to pho­tos of US pres­id­ent Joe Biden and a G7 sum­mit made the mes­sage plain. When Rus­sian forces occu­pied Kher­son, bill­boards fea­tur­ing Pushkin were deployed in a pro­pa­ganda cam­paign that pro­claimed Rus­sia was “here for ever”.

Small won­der some Ukrain­i­ans now refer on social media to “Pushkinists” launch­ing mis­sile attacks on their cit­ies. For example: “Pushkinists didn’t allow us to sleep prop­erly — it was very loud in Kyiv”. (After a couple of late-night hours in an air-raid shel­ter, I didn’t feel all that friendly to Pushkinists myself.)

Behind this Ukrain­ian rejec­tion of Pushkin is a much lar­ger story. With hind­sight, we can see that the decline of the Rus­sian empire has been one of the great drivers of European his­tory over the past 40 years. And with foresight, we should expect it to remain one of Europe’s greatest chal­lenges for at least the next 20 years, if not another 40.

After the Rus­sian Revolu­tion of 1917, the Rus­sian empire con­tin­ued in a rather pecu­liar form as the Soviet Union. When the Union of Soviet Social­ist Repub­lics was foun­ded in 1922, Lenin had decided that it should be a state of notional equal­ity between its con­stitu­ent union repub­lics. (Stalin, like Putin a hun­dred years later, wanted Ukraine to be part of the Rus­sian Fed­er­a­tion.) After the second world war, this novel ver­sion of empire dom­in­ated cent­ral and east European coun­tries all the way to an Iron Cur­tain run­ning through the middle of Ger­many. From Warsaw to Wash­ing­ton, people saw it as both a Soviet and a Rus­sian empire.

In the 1970s, this imper­ial super­power still seemed to be a for­mid­able rival to the US, even in parts of Africa and Latin Amer­ica — but by the 1980s it was already in vis­ible decline. Mikhail Gorbachev’s attemp­ted reforms cul­min­ated, between 1989 and 1991, in the most spec­tac­u­lar peace­ful col­lapse of any empire in his­tory. This col­lapse dis­solved not just Soviet/Rus­sian con­trol of cent­ral and east­ern Europe, but also the much older imper­ial bonds between Rus­sia, Ukraine and Belarus. Unusu­ally, and pre­cisely because of the com­plex rela­tion­ship between Soviet and Rus­sian, it was the leader of the core imper­ial nation, Rus­sia’s Boris Yeltsin, who gave the final push.

Fool­ishly, many in the west assumed this was the end of the story, but declin­ing empires don’t give up without a struggle. The first signs of a push­back were there already in 1992 in a Rus­sian army occu­pa­tion of what is still the break­away ter­rit­ory of Trans­nis­tria, at the east­ern end of the newly sov­er­eign state of Mol­dova, as well as sub­sequently in two bru­tal wars to sub­due Chechnya inside the Rus­sian Fed­er­a­tion.

The empire then struck back decis­ively, and across inter­na­tional fron­ti­ers, with the occu­pa­tion of two large areas of Geor­gia in 2008, the annex­a­tion of Crimea and the begin­ning of the war in east­ern Ukraine in 2014, and the full­s­cale inva­sion of Ukraine on Feb­ru­ary 24 2022. In his speeches and essays, the Rus­sian leader makes it per­fectly clear that his primary ref­er­ence point is the Rus­sian empire. Sur­prised by his boss’s decision last Feb­ru­ary, Rus­sian for­eign min­is­ter Lav­rov reportedly muttered to a friendly olig­arch that Putin has only three advisers: “Ivan the Ter­rible. Peter the Great. And Cath­er­ine the Great.”

This his­tory won’t be over even if Ukraine regains every square metre of its sov­er­eign ter­rit­ory, includ­ing Crimea. There will still be Belarus, a coun­try of more than 9mn people that at the begin­ning of this dec­ade wit­nessed one of the most sus­tained efforts of civil res­ist­ance in mod­ern his­tory, against the increas­ingly auto­cratic rule of pres­id­ent Alex­an­der Lukashenko.

There are the inde­pend­ent post­So­viet states of Mol­dova, Geor­gia, Armenia and Azerbaijan, as well as those in Cent­ral Asia. Inside the Rus­sian Fed­er­a­tion, there are repub­lics such as Chechnya, Dagestan and Tatarstan. At the moment, Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov is one of Putin’s most loyal hench­men, but if Rus­sia were to enter a “time of troubles”, Kadyrov might begin to make other cal­cu­la­tions.

We in the west should not kid ourselves that we can “man­age” the decline of this nuc­lear-armed empire, any more than European powers could “man­age” the decline of the Otto­man Empire in the late 19th and early 20th cen­tur­ies. West­ern demo­cra­cies have a chronic tend­ency to over­es­tim­ate their abil­ity to influ­ence the domestic polit­ics of author­it­arian regimes. Our pos­sib­il­it­ies of dir­ect influ­ence are espe­cially min­imal in today’s Rus­sia, a per­son­al­ist dic­tat­or­ship in an advanced state of para­noia and repres­sion. After Putin, and per­haps his imme­di­ate suc­cessors, there should come a moment when we have more pos­sib­il­it­ies of con­struct­ive engage­ment, and we should pre­pare for that. But it will be a long time before Rus­sia finally accepts that it has lost an empire and begins to find a role.

What we can and must do in the mean­time is to ensure that those coun­tries who seek a bet­ter future out­side a declin­ing Rus­sian empire are able to do so in peace, secur­ity and free­dom. Geo­pol­it­ics, like nature, abhors a vacuum. In the long run, bring­ing Ukraine and its smal­ler neigh­bours into both the EU and Nato, thus secur­ing them against any future attempt at recol­on­isa­tion,

will be a ser­vice also to Rus­sia. With the door to empire finally closed, it can start the long walk to nation-state­hood. That walk will, however, be espe­cially dif­fi­cult because, unlike old European states such as France and Por­tugal, which acquired and then lost over­seas empires, Rus­sia has no his­tor­ic­ally, geo­graph­ic­ally or con­sti­tu­tion­ally well-defined state to return to.

Another post-imper­ial future was pos­sible. Rus­sian-lan­guage lit­er­at­ure could have been enriched by the work of Ukrain­ian and other post­co­lo­nial writers, as Eng­lish lit­er­at­ure has been enriched by the work of South Asian, African and Carib­bean writers. Try­ing to restore the “Rus­sian world” by force, Putin has des­troyed it. In May 2013, 80 per cent of Ukrain­i­ans said they had a pos­it­ive gen­eral atti­tude to Rus­sia. Last May, only 2 per cent of the Ukrain­i­ans that poll­sters could still reach gave that answer. And Pushkin Street has been renamed. Putin has done for Pushkin.

Only when Ukraine is securely embraced by both the strong arms of the geo­pol­it­ical west, the EU and Nato, will its people be able to sleep eas­ily in their beds, as Esto­ni­ans and Lithuani­ans do, untroubled by nightly attacks from “Pushkinists”. Then Ukrain­i­ans might even go back to read­ing Eugene One­gin with pleas­ure.

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