Ukraine vs. the Evil Empire (with Victor Rud)
The breakup of the Soviet Union was not a catastrophe. It was an inevitability.
Vladimir Putin, the Russian Federation’s psychopathic strongman, thinks the USSR breaking up was, like, the worst thing that ever happened: worse than the Holodomor, worse than the Holocaust, worse than Hiroshima.
“First and foremost it is worth acknowledging that the demise of the Soviet Union was the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century,” Putin said back in 2005, not long after George W. Bush looked into his eyes and mistook pure evil for a soul. “As for the Russian people, it became a genuine tragedy. Tens of millions of our fellow citizens and countrymen found themselves beyond the fringes of Russian territory.”
This wasn’t some one-off deal, nor was Putin using hyperbole as a rhetorical device. He’s repeated the assertion a bunch of times over the years. This is something he truly believes, deep in his chickpea-sized heart.
The statement demonstrates both a glaring lack of empathy and a deep ignorance of world history. The demise of the Soviet Union was not a catastrophe; it was an inevitability. Reigns of terror, mercifully, tend to have a short shelf life. The USSR lasted far longer than it had any right to expect.
European imperialism has its roots in what the historian Eric Hobsbawm calls the “dual revolution” of the late 18th century—“a decisive double breakthrough of the first industrial revolution in Britain, which established the limitless capacity of the productive system pioneered by capitalism for economic growth and global penetration, and the Franco-American political revolution, which established the leading models for the public institutions of bourgeois society, supplemented by the virtually simultaneous emergence of its most characteristic—and linked—theoretical systems: classical political economy and utilitarian philosophy.”
In other words, just as Western Europe learned how to make stuff on a massive scale, capitalist plutocrats supplanted dynastic royals at the top of the economic food chain. This all lead to the Age of Empire. As Hobsbawm writes in his book of the same name, this was “an era of, in spite of appearances, growing social stability within the zone of developed industrial economies, which provided the small bodies of men who, with almost contemptuous ease, could conquer and rule over vast empires,” whose resources, natural and human, they would ruthlessly exploit.
The starting point of the Age of Empire is a bit fuzzy—Hobsbawm uses 1875—but it ends, decisively, in August of 1914, when hostilities began in what later came to be known as the Great War. At the time, Great Britain was still in India, France in Indo-China, the Netherlands in the East Indies, Germany in East Africa and Cameroun, and Belgium, tragically, in the Congo. Even the United States, a country with not much historical appetite for empire, planted its flag in Puerto Rico, Hawaii, Guam, and the Philippines.
Russia’s approach to empire was more traditional. Rather than move troops to far-flung lands, subjugate the native populations, and plunder the natural resources, Russia simply invaded and occupied neighboring states, absorbing them into what was already the world’s largest country by size. They’d been doing this for years. For example: the Crimea was annexed in 1783, during the reign of Catherine the Great. This was an old school, Constantine the Great-style approach. Basically, Peter the Great and his successors put the “Roman” in “Romanov.”
But the First World War upset the chess board that was the map of the modern world. When the foxhole dust settled and the poison-gas smoke cleared, three of the oldest and most influential royal houses in Europe had fallen: the Habsburgs, the Hohenzollerns, and the Romanovs. Together, those three families accounted for some 23 centuries of dynastic rule. In four short years—and in one fell swoop—they were toast. The Austro-Hungarian Empire imploded. So did the Ottoman; Britain and France carved up the former Turkish possessions in the Middle East, blithely penciling in borders that would cause so much woe in the decades to come. Germany switched out governments. So did Russia, which fell to the Bolsheviks.
The Russian Empire, however, did not really go away. It merely changed guises, trading the two-headed Romanov eagle for the Communist hammer and sickle. There was no lasting independence for Ukraine, Armenia, Georgia, Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, and so on, whose citizens had been living miserably under the tsar’s rule. All of those countries were simply rolled up in the new confederation. The Union of Soviet Socialist Republics was the Russian Empire with different branding. But unlike in Austro-Hungary or the Ottoman Empire, the borders, already vast, remained more or less intact. And the United States just let this happen.
“All the empires had gone essentially down the drain, and yet the Russian Empire was reconstructed—with, ironically, American money, American capital,” explains Victor Rud, chair of the Committee on Foreign Affairs for the Ukrainian American Bar Association and my guest on today’s PREVAIL podcast. “We approached the reconstruction of the old Russian Empire without regard to the fact that it was, as any empire is, a multinational state.” The Soviet Union “was simply a new moniker that was placed on a reconstructed Russian Empire that of course [had fallen] apart during World War I.” Woodrow Wilson’s 14 Points, Rud laments, “didn’t extend to the nations of the Russian Empire, including Ukraine.”
This had dire ramifications in the country Putin is currently trying and failing to take over. Ukraine had a brief flirtation with independence at the end of the Great War. But Stalin, recognizing both the fierce will of the Ukrainian people and its strategic importance as the breadbasket of Eastern Europe, did everything in his considerable power to keep Kyiv under Soviet rule. The Great Purge—it was just as Orwellian and awful as it sounds—eliminated a generation of Ukrainian intellectuals and political leaders. During the Holodomor, or Great Famine, of 1932-33, Stalin intentionally starved to death millions of Ukrainians, with the highest number of fatalities being in the Kyiv and Kharkiv regions.
It’s easy for the eyes to breeze past that last sentence, so let me repeat it: Stalin murdered millions of Ukrainians, on purpose, by depriving them of food. Food that was grown in Ukraine. We don’t know how many human beings were killed in the Holodomor, but estimates range from 3.9 to 10.5 million fatalities. Even using the lowest estimate, that’s more than the entire populations of Chicago and Cleveland, combined. This did not stop Washington from formally recognizing the USSR in 1933 (although perhaps FDR was influenced by the “reporting” of Walter Duranty, the Moscow bureau chief of the New York Times and the Tucker Carlson of his day, who cheerfully repeated the Stalinist party line that the famine was fake news).
So: untold millions dead of starvation, but Ukraine leaving the Soviet Union is the greatest geopolitical tragedy? Please. There are ethnic Russians living in countries beyond Russia that were once part of the USSR. Crimea, as Rud points out, is the “Florida” of the former empire, and was crawling with retired Soviet politicians, generals, diplomats, and spies, even while the peninsula was part of Ukraine. The difference is, those other governments aren’t actively trying to exterminate them, like Stalin was, and Putin is, the Ukrainians.
The Russian Empire should have been hacked apart at the end of the First World War, like the Austro-Hungarian and the Ottoman. For a variety of reasons, it was allowed to remain intact during the interwar period, and generations of strongmen kept it that way for decades. It lasted three quarters of a century longer than its expiration date. The breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991—with Ukraine’s declaration of independence providing the coup de grâce, as Rud points out—was neither “geopolitical catastrophe” nor “genuine tragedy,” but a long-overdue correction. The real tragedy is that Putin can’t get this through his botoxed head.
Greg Olear welcomes back Ukraine expert Victor Rud, chair of the Committee on Foreign Affairs for the Ukrainian American Bar Association, to discuss common misconceptions about Ukrainian history, Russia’s long-standing aims in the country, America’s “strategic slide,” Putin’s brazen violation of international order, and how credibility of will establishes deterrence. Plus: a new moving company.
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Photo credit: Yours Truly. Romanov and Soviet banknotes.
This piece has been corrected to better explain the Holodomor death toll estimates.