To Understand Ukraine, We Must Remember The Communist Past

Published March 3, 2014


It is twenty-five years since the collapse of communism in Central and Eastern Europe, and we ought to be celebrating. But a shadow has been cast over what sparse festivities were planned by the situation in Ukraine. It seems that we made a mistake in thinking it was all over, that the inscrutable Russian empire was only distracted for a few years, and that its demonic urge to control its neighbors is now fully revived. Or is there some other and more comforting explanation?

The European Union has played an interesting part in the drama. Its foreign ministers, weakly flapping their arms, and in the German case merely shrugging their shoulders, tell the Russians to respect the “territorial integrity” of Ukraine, and to recognize internationally agreed borders. But the project of the European Union, from the outset, has been to remove the concept of territorial integrity from the government of Europe, and to dissolve the continent’s borders.

Were the Ukrainians in the Maidan demonstrating on behalf of their borders? Surely not; they wanted to get out of the Russian sphere of influence and into the European. Their hope was not to secure the territorial integrity of Ukraine but to earn their right to flee the place, as so many other citizens of the post-communist states have fled, so as to take up residence in the West and put the memory of Soviet communism finally and irreversibly behind them.

The European Union doesn’t believe in national borders

That is what the EU has meant to Eastern Europeans, and it is why Eastern Europe has proved a problem to those countries, notably the United Kingdom, which are the unwilling hosts to the hundreds of thousands of migrants. Given the European project, which is to remove all borders, it is difficult to take the EU seriously, when it condemns Russia for not respecting them.

Moreover, the events awaken us to the great danger in which Europe has been placed by the process of integration. This process has proceeded without any reference to military matters, ignoring the history that tells us that prosperity provokes envy and that envy leads to the use of force, and cushioning the European people in an illusion of lasting peace.

That peace was not secured by the EU but by the Atlantic Alliance; the contribution of the EU has been to weaken the authority of the alliance by tying it to countries like Germany, which have neither the will nor the means to defend themselves. The events in Ukraine show us that, when Russia decides to move its borders towards us, there is little that we can do to prevent it.

Putin’s Orwellian approach

There are some important lessons to draw, concerning the last 25 years of dream-diplomacy. Few of the current generation of West European politicians have had to wrestle with the inner nature of the Soviet Union, or to explore the deep psychology of those like Vladimir Putin and his circle, who were formed as secret police officers under communism. It is the Orwellian aspect of this psychology that seems to me to have eluded our politicians – the aspect so brilliantly and prophetically described by George Orwell in 1984.

The fundamental observation that dictates the scenario of Orwell’s novel is that truth is our only defense against manipulation, and that when truth is confiscated by power, we are helpless. That is what Lenin and Stalin perceived. Hence they set up a system of government in which truth was entirely plastic, to be shaped and reshaped by decrees from the ruling politburo, and to be fed to the people and to foreign powers in the form and the quantities that would be most useful to the business of social control. We see this process at work today.

The Russians claim that their actions are necessary to protect the Russian population in Ukraine, to ensure stability in the region, to counter the threat from fascist or extremist elements. And false documents, photographs, and alleged conversations are immediately produced in order to turn these lies into truths.

Mysterious figures emerge claiming to be Ukrainians, who demand the annexation of Crimea by Russia; Yanukovych, the ousted President, is recycled by the Russians as the patriot who begged the Russian troops to intervene; the history of Ukraine is rewritten for the 50th time since Stalin conceived the plan of starving the whole population to death in order to deal with the Ukrainian problem; and although nobody believes any of the stories, least of all those who invent them, that does not matter. For the point of the stories is to make truth irrelevant; to remove it entirely from the central place that it would otherwise occupy in people’s lives, and to put power in the place of it.

We must retain the memory of communism’s methods

This situation, which I knew so well during the years before the communist collapse, is one of which we should retain the memory. We should constantly remind ourselves that people brought up in a world where truth has been displaced from the heart of decision-making, where the secret police have all the power, and the ordinary person has only that “power of the powerless” of which Vaclav Havel wrote, are psychologically quite distinct from us. They live in a world of secrets, where it is dangerous to know things, and where every secret that is peeled away from the other person reveals another secret beneath it.

It is not only the operation of power that is changed in this world of secrets. In those circumstances personal life too has quite another meaning, and although ordinary people cling to each other for protection, to a certain measure it is always without trusting each other.

Under communism, the Poles, the Czechs, the Hungarians, and the Slovaks all cherished in their hearts another view of things than the one to which they were condemned. And sometimes the brave dissidents like Havel would speak out on their behalf, reaffirming the right of the individual to “live in truth,” and the right of the nation to those things of which the communists then, and the Eurocrats now, would deny them: defensible borders, territorial integrity, and a democratic process of their own. But all life was conducted under the rule of secrecy. And for that reason no mistake could be fully confessed to and no error corrected. That is what made the situation so dangerous, and what makes Russia so dangerous today.

Recently, looking back over these 25 years, I put my mind to writing down my own impressions. The result is a novel, Notes from Underground, which is set in Czechoslovakia in the mid-1980s, and explores love between two young people who are struggling in their separate ways to emerge from the dark world of secrets into the light of day. It is my attempt to keep alive the vivid memory of a situation which we, in Europe and America, should never lose sight of: the situation whose effects remain with us and for which we in general, and the Ukrainians in particular, are still paying the price.

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