How many have had the patience to read Putin’s very long speech of February 21, three days before the outbreak of the war? In this speech, there are both remarkable novelties as well as confirmations of Putin being Putin.
The novelties concern his verdict on the Soviet past, which seems to belie the label usually assigned to him as a former KGB officer, someone who has said that the disappearance of the USSR was “the greatest tragedy of the twentieth century,” leading to him being classified as a dangerous, but predictable, would-be restorer of communism.
Here is how Putin describes the Bolshevik Revolution in this context: “modern Ukraine was entirely created by Russia or, to be more precise, by Bolshevik, Communist Russia. This process started practically right after the 1917 revolution, and Lenin and his associates did it in a way that was extremely harsh on Russia — by separating, severing what is historically Russian land. Soviet Ukraine is the result of the Bolsheviks’ policy and can be rightfully called ‘Vladimir Lenin’s Ukraine.’ He was its creator and architect.” Then, Stalin implemented the policy of distancing himself from the past with “the Red Terror and a rapid slide into Stalin’s dictatorship, the domination of the communist ideology and the Communist Party’s monopoly on power, nationalization and the planned economy.”
So, at the origin of these events lie “the odious and utopian fantasies inspired by the revolution, which are absolutely destructive for any normal state.” Finally, “the disintegration of our united country was brought about by the historic, strategic mistakes on the part of the Bolshevik leaders and the CPSU leadership, mistakes committed at different times in state-building and in economic and ethnic policies.”
The words Putin is using here are the same ones that the Reagans, the Bushes, the Clintons, and the sovietologists have been using for decades — only that, for the first time, the denunciation of communist ideology is coming from the Kremlin, without any seeming awareness of the paradox, or acknowledgment of the political and institutional break with the previous 74 years. Or can that break be inferred from that video where, in a lavish setting, soldiers in equally lavish uniforms are seen opening the doors before Putin?
Putin is casting himself in the role of rex costruens (“the Builder King”), a remarkable one given his origins in a working-class family in the city of Peter the Great.
This role is confirmed by his strategy. In the second part of the speech, there is both an account of all the benefits that Ukraine has had from being part of Russia — the industrialization and urbanization of a rural country — and, on the other hand, the claim that a part of the country was attracted by the “virus of nationalism” all the way to the “coup” of 2014, which “had direct assistance from foreign states. According to reports, the US Embassy provided $1 million a day to support the so-called protest camp on Independence Square in Kiev.”
Thus, Ukraine has become a “colony with a puppet regime” and at present, “with foreign military support,” it is moving towards a “geopolitical confrontation with the Russian Federation.” The appropriation of Crimea was thus a declaration of intent addressed to his opponents by the Builder King.
The speech concludes with an examination of relations between Moscow and America-NATO: “We also know the main adversary of the United States and NATO. It is Russia. NATO documents officially declare our country to be the main threat to Euro-Atlantic security. Ukraine will serve as an advanced bridgehead for such a strike.”
In his examination, Putin lists the events that since 1989 have marked the relations between Russia and America, and the European Union. The latter welcomed the Trojan horse of Eastern European countries without realizing that they would become the tool in American hands to block our own political and military future. Not only does the Builder King of Russia — who is interested in restoring its dignity as a great power — ignore our own conflict there, but he fails to distinguish between the aversion of Poland and the desires for autonomy from Washington on the part of France, Germany and Italy. All the while, he talks to Macron to let him know of his intentions, but doesn’t want to take Merkel’s advice, even delivered in Russian.
In the backyard of the West, the only exception is Israel; and outside, China. These are exceptions that can be explained: Israel because of its borderless network of international finance (which does not distinguish between the businessmen of Wall Street, Kyiv, London, Moscow, Las Vegas, etc.); China because of the importance of power politics. If one closes one’s eyes to the “collateral damage” on Ukrainian soil — as the Americans and the British are doing in the Middle East, and right now in Taliban-ruled Afghanistan — the current war in our Europe has its roots in the game between two powers that have magnified themselves precisely in fighting each other. The extent of their respective military apparatuses are there to prove it.
The Cold War was a truce; the end of the USSR was an opportunity that America was able to exploit only with Gorbachev and Yeltsin, but then came an unpredictable element, a diminutive former spy who believes he is the heir of Peter the Great. Not of Stalin, as Western politicians and media would like to believe, but the heir of a Russian icon. And here China can enter the field, which at the moment is only observing the moves of the two sides: a U.S. exhausted by the defeats in the Middle East and a Russia that possesses nuclear capacities but fails to supply gasoline to its tanks and food to its soldiers, already tired from waiting at the borders of the Ukrainian lands.
Will China be able to intervene, and send home both the Russian soldiers and the whole technological and military apparatus on which the Ukrainian president is relying? It would be its first move as a major strategic power in the Western region. Could it be the beginning of the history of the future?
Rita Di Leo is a historian of soviet socialism.
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