My article in The New Republic, “Is Russia Suffering From Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder?”
In Collapse of an Empire, Yegor Gaidar, the Russian economist and 1990s shock therapist, wrote that “the identification of state grandeur with being an empire makes the adaptation to the loss of status of superpower a difficult task for the national consciousness of the former metropolis.” Gaidar likened the loss of the Soviet empire to Germany’s defeat in WWI and warned, like Weimar Germany, Russia could thirst for a strong national leader to right the wrongs of the Soviet collapse. Empire, after all, was “an easy-sell product, like Coca-Cola” to a parched population. Gaidar turned out to be premature though prescient. Only now, with the crisis in Ukraine, is the opportunity for Russian revanchism—and the collective trauma that serves as its foundation—fully revealed.
Vladimir Putin’s annexation of Crimea is a reaction to a trauma experienced by millions of Russians: In his speech to Russia’s Federation Council, Putin called Nikita Khrushchev’s 1954 transfer of Crimea to Ukraine a robbery that made Russians on the peninsula feel “they were handed over like a sack of potatoes.” Crimean Russians simply “could not reconcile themselves to this outrageous historical injustice.” This trauma redoubled when the Soviet Union collapsed. “Millions of people went to bed in one country and awoke in different ones, overnight becoming ethnic minorities in former Union republics, while the Russian nation became one of the biggest, if not the biggest, ethnic group in the world to be divided by borders,” he said.
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By Sean — 4 years ago
Translation and introduction by William Risch.
A friend of the Facebook group, Euromaidan News in English, sent this report from Sloviansk, Ukraine, the scene of fierce fighting between pro-Ukrainian and pro-separatist forces. As with this person’s previous report, posted in May, I have withheld the names of the author and translator. I have changed transliterations of place names from Russian to Ukrainian.
“This is Not My War”
We had to get out of Sloviansk. It’s too dangerous. We were spending the nights in the basement of our apartment building, it was too damp. It’s just terrible. War is war, what can I say? We fled the city to save our lives. As for our possessions—we left them behind and what will be will be. At least our family is together. When people flee Sloviansk, their apartments are occupied by the so-called separatists/“home guard,” and then probably the National Guard will come in, and…who knows what will happen. Now both sides—the separatists and the National Guard—are just grabbing men, giving them guns, and telling them, “Go, fight!” Who are they supposed to shoot—their own people? The home guard (separatists) are our people, and the National Guardsmen are our people. It’s a civil war, and it is awful.
The Ukrainian National Guard isn’t “storming” Sloviansk, they are bombing it—from airplanes, helicopters. They say they are targeting checkpoints and the like, but in actuality they are bombing the entire city. The terrorists take shelter, and the ones who suffer in the bombings are the elderly, women, and children. There have been a rash of premature births.
The Ukrainian National Guard is firing on the city with high caliber cannons, as well as from helicopters. A shell landed in a 9-story apartment building in the city last week. Four people died and many were injured, and every single window in the building was shattered. Lots of buildings in the city have been damaged like this from the bombings. For example, another 14-story residential building was damaged. Shells hit the 7th, 11th and 12th floors. A shell also fell on the roof of the central polyclinic, but didn’t explode. Shells landed in the pedagogical university and the dormitory, causing deaths and injuries. A janitor was killed and one student had her arm ripped off from shrapnel. Shells also landed in the children’s hospital but thank God no one was injured. It seems like they are just bombing indiscriminately.
Yesterday Krasnyi Liman was bombed. A guy I know had a shell land right in his living room, and his apartment was obliterated. In a residential apartment building. Krasnyi Liman has a really important railway station—the hospital at the railway station was bombed and a machinist was killed, a bunch of bystanders, the head doctor, and others. The National Guard tried to blame the separatists for it, but there have never been any separatist-terrorists in Krasnyi Liman—they are all in Sloviansk. I know a guy who works at the hospital—he said the Guard came into the hospital, searched for patients who had battle wounds, and shot them. Without any arrests, investigations, or anything. The National Guard did that. In Sviatohirsk there are cannons—those kind that can fire 15-20 kilometers—positioned on top of a hill pointing in the direction of Krasnyi Liman. They’ve been firing on Krasnyi Liman, and everybody there is living in basements, just like everyone in Sloviansk has been. Why did they do this to Krasnyi Liman? It’s a tourist town of 50,000 people where no terrorists have been stationed.
If they can do this to Krasnyi Liman, God only knows what they will do to Sloviansk. They aren’t storming the city. Battles are carried out on the outskirts of the city. Otherwise, it is bombing, bombing, bombing. I wouldn’t have believed it if I hadn’t seen it with my own eyes. The government announced that the “active phase” of anti-terrorist operations was starting, and then they just started bombing. They haven’t stormed the city yet. Maybe a peaceful solution will be found. But think about it—if the military enters the city, and captures it, a lot of innocent civilians are going to be killed in the process. Snipers have been killing civilians already. A little girl was shot. There are a lot of guys from Pravyi Sektor in the National Guard. They caught one sniper and asked him why he was shooting at children in the city. He answered, “You all only have five days left anyway.” People have decided they have nothing more to lose, so their attitude to the war is changing accordingly. Like the father of that little girl who was shot by a sniper—if earlier this wasn’t his war, now he has something to fight for. He won’t fight for the Donetsk People’s Republic (DNR)—who is that? What is that? Dear DNR, what are your programs, what are your political views? These are just some armed guys who took power, there is no loyalty to them among the populace. And the other side is throwing bombs at us.
We are worried that they will impose the draft. It would be okay if the National Guard was reliable. But there are a lot of new recruits who joined up just recently after there was a big amnesty of 26,000 prison inmates—a bunch of those former inmates have joined the Guard. Including those who were imprisoned for hard crimes—they’ve been given guns and enlisted in the Guard. We are worried there will be more looting in the city—there’s already looting and it might get worse.
It is really a shame that our own military is doing this. Of course they don’t want to admit it, and they blame the separatists. The separatists say it is the National Guard, and the National Guard says it is the separatists. How do you know what’s true? But as for those bombings I described, I saw them with my own eyes, across the street. I could see who was bombing, and it was the National Guard. Sloviansk is surrounded by 15,000 national troops. Things have reached the boiling point. I see that both sides are lying. Both sides are lying about the number of casualties. The morgue in Sloviansk is overflowing. They are burying bodies in swamps, wrapping them up and throwing them in the lake—it’s awful.
Sloviansk is now without running water. The waterlines were damaged in the bombing. Where we are staying now, in a nearby town, the water was also cut off. We’re getting water from another house’s well. I guess we’ll bathe in the river, at least its summertime. And there is no food left in the stores. There’s been no bread for a long time, and now the stores are out of almost everything else. There are no shipments in, because the Donetsk Region has been completely cut off and isolated from the Kharkiv Region and all others.
Right now Sloviansk is totally closed—you can’t get in or out. Those who stayed there are stuck now. It is the same in nearby towns—you are stuck wherever you are now. People can’t get in or out of Donetsk, either. (By the way, the other day the burned bodies of two Arab university students were found in Donetsk—we don’t know who did that or why.) They say the Ukrainian borders are closed now, too—women and children can cross the border but men are turned back. Maybe it’s because they are getting ready to impose the draft, I don’t know. Who are we supposed to fight? Who? This is not my war. I’m for a united Ukraine. My children were born in Ukraine. Sure, I was born in the USSR, but my children were born here, in Ukraine. Everything I have is here, in Ukraine.
The kids are suffering, of course. There were no graduation ceremonies or parties this year, nothing like that. Final exams were suspended.
There are some programs helping evacuees, and helping people evacuate from Sloviansk—the International Renaissance Foundation, for example. A few weeks ago, when the first attempts to evacuate people were made, women and children boarded the busses to evacuate, and they were attacked by gunfire. People have become cannon fodder. It doesn’t benefit the home guard for people to evacuate. And the only ones who can evacuate are those who have money. The trains from Sloviansk aren’t running. Because of the war the prices have risen 1.5 times. The banks are working, but only informally—if you know somebody you can call them up and get service through the back door of the bank. We’ll see how long we can afford to rent this little house we are staying in now. People’s pensions and salaries have been frozen, and all social payments. We got our April paychecks but nothing after that. We’re just living on what we had put away.
I thought I would go back to the city—I wanted to relocate my family here and go back. But the checkpoints were under fire; the outer ring is controlled by the National Guard, and the inner ring is controlled by the “terrorists-separatists-home guard,” however you want to call them. The National Guard let me through fine, but the separatists started shooting warning shots in the air and turned me back. I’m a local! It is really too dangerous to travel anywhere.
It’s hard to get to sleep at night, not knowing what the next day holds in store. I never could have imagined these horrors could happen here.Post Views: 1,062
By Sean — 4 years ago
Over at the NYT, Paul Krugman has written some interesting posts on Russia’s economic woes: Putin on the Fritz; The Ruble and the Textbooks; Notes on Russian Debt, and Putin’s Bubble Bursts. Essentially, Krugman notes that falling oil prices and the collapse of the ruble have combined to add stress on the “terms of trade stock.” He explains:
What’s going on? Well, it turns out that Putin managed to get himself into a confrontation with the West over Ukraine just as the bottom dropped out of his country’s main export, so that a financing shock was added to the terms of trade shock. But it’s also true that drastic effects of terms of trade shocks are a fairly common phenomenon in developing countries where the private sector has substantial foreign-currency debt: the initial effect of a drop in export prices is a fall in the currency, this creates balance sheet problems for private debtors whose debts suddenly grow in domestic value, this further weakens the economy and undermines confidence, and so on.
Krugman fleshes this out in a longer column:
The proximate cause of Russia’s difficulties is, of course, the global plunge in oil prices, which, in turn, reflects factors — growing production from shale, weakening demand from China and other economies — that have nothing to do with Mr. Putin. And this was bound to inflict serious damage on an economy that, as I said, doesn’t have much besides oil that the rest of the world wants; the sanctions imposed on Russia over the Ukraine conflict have added to the damage.
But Russia’s difficulties are disproportionate to the size of the shock: While oil has indeed plunged, the ruble has plunged even more, and the damage to the Russian economy reaches far beyond the oil sector. Why?
Actually, it’s not a puzzle — and this is, in fact, a movie currency-crisis aficionados like yours truly have seen many times before: Argentina 2002, Indonesia 1998, Mexico 1995, Chile 1982, the list goes on. The kind of crisis Russia now faces is what you get when bad things happen to an economy made vulnerable by large-scale borrowing from abroad — specifically, large-scale borrowing by the private sector, with the debts denominated in foreign currency, not the currency of the debtor country.
In that situation, an adverse shock like a fall in exports can start a vicious downward spiral. When the nation’s currency falls, the balance sheets of local businesses — which have assets in rubles (or pesos or rupiah) but debts in dollars or euros — implode. This, in turn, inflicts severe damage on the domestic economy, undermining confidence and depressing the currency even more. And Russia fits the standard playbook.
Except for one thing, he adds, corruption.
The reason why Russian companies have so much debt is because elites have cannibalized the companies they run by skimming off the top and shipping that money abroad.
Where does the elite get that kind of money? The answer, of course, is that Putin’s Russia is an extreme version of crony capitalism, indeed, a kleptocracy in which loyalists get to skim off vast sums for their personal use. It all looked sustainable as long as oil prices stayed high. But now the bubble has burst, and the very corruption that sustained the Putin regime has left Russia in dire straits.
Basically, Putin’s kleptocracy worked fine and dandy as long as there were enough petrodollars to sustain the theft. Now that the price of oil has plummeted, those accrued foreign currency debts are coming back with a vengeance. So this economic crisis is no blimp, but based on the very structure of the Putinist economy. There’s no quick remedy for this.Post Views: 767
By Sean — 11 years ago
I thought Mark Ames said something quite interesting today. He concluded his addition to the Medvedfest, “Dmitry Medvedev & The Banker’s Murder” with,
If this sordid story reveals anything, it’s that the only way to grasp the current power-transfer is through Russian eyes. Trying to understand Medvedev and his significance through the liberal/Stalinist prism explains nothing; Dmitry Medvedev is neither liberal nor neo-Stalinist, but rather, Russian, the sort of Russian who was groomed in the chaotic and savage transition from perestroika through Putin’s stabilization.
I think Ames’ emphatic statement that “Dmitry Medvedev is neither liberal nor neo-Stalinist” but rather, a “Russian, the sort of Russian who was groomed in the chaotic and savage transition from perestroika through Putin’s stabilization” deserves some thought.
Russia is not a “this” or “that.” It’s never been the first, and the second, the venerable “neo-Stalin,” is just analytically lazy. First, this Russia is capitalist (albeit, protectionist.). Second, Russia has a history. We know many of you are suffering from “Cold War syndrome” and long for a more manageable (or is it imaginable?) enemy than the “Islamists.” But get over it.
What and who is this princely traumatized, “morally complex” Russian “groomed in the chaotic and savage” times of the smuta of the late 1980s and 1990s? That’s a great question worth pondering.
For some reason I thought of Nicholas I. Not that I think Putin is some neo-Niki. It’s more that Russia imperial past (a past that spans 1200 years) is often left out of the “What is Russia?” grab bag. Also, for some reason I think he and Putin possibly share a lot of qualities.
So I grabbed W. Bruce Lincoln’s Nicholas I: Emperor and Autocrat of All the Russians off my bookshelf to give him a revisit. I found Lincoln’s opening paragraph something to think about in regard to Ames’ words.
Perhaps no ruler left more of an impression upon nineteenth-century Russia than did the Emperor Nicholas I, for the origins of nearly every major change or event during the last century of Romanov rule can be traced to his reign. Certainly was an imposing figure. Many Russians admired, even venerated him; others saw him as the personification of oppression. But none who lived during his thirty-year reign cold remain indifferent to the force of his personality and the system which he developed.
He continues on second page,
Nicholas’s reign was a good time for many Russians, and some looked back upon it with a sense of longing even nostalgia. It was, after all, the last time in Imperial Russia’s history when things were certain and predictable. Russia stood at the pinnacle of her power during those years, and Russian society was plagued by few of the self-doubts that would begin to tear the old order apart in the half century after Nicholas’s death. As the Baroness Fredericks, who had lived at Nicholas’s Court as a child, wrote in the 1880s, when looking back upon his reign after some three decades of social turmoil . . . “during the lifetime of Nikolai Pavlovich, Russia had a great and noble stature . . .[and] he heaped still greater glory upon her. Everyone and everything bowed down before him and before Russia!”
Lincoln’s book should prove to be an interesting read as Russia shuts down for the holidays.Post Views: 600