Events in Ukraine are moving fast and faster. Dangers of economic paralysis in Ukraine and of wider war with Russia are very real. This essay will argue that we all need to notice our historical biases in perceiving and misperceiving events. My own bias is anti-war. Now is not the time in human history for geopolitical power plays and military alliances. Now is the time for coordinated international actions on climate and economy. I am a professor of social and community psychology at the University of Tromsø in Arctic Norway, near the Russian border. I have no special knowledge of Russia other than conventional sources (Google Scholar, Wikipedia, JSTOR). My surname is Lithuanian, from my grandfather’s emigration in 1897 when Lithuania was controlled by Russia.
James Joyce’s famous statement that “history is a nightmare” from which we should try to awake, aptly describes current events in the Ukraine. All nations involved in these events are biased by the remembered, misremembered, forgotten, and mythologized history they carry in their heads. Chaos in Maidan Square, neo-fascists in positions of power in Kiev, Russia annexing Crimea, these are inkblots that everyone sees differently depending on the historical visions that dominate their minds. Our national memories have the passion and power to drive us blindly to hatreds and to war. The histories we believe set us up for easy manipulations and disastrous actions.
Hillary Clinton, on March 5, said that Putin’s concern for Russians in Ukraine is like Hitler’s concern for Germans in Poland and Czechoslovakia. It is also like Ronald Reagan’s concern for US medical students in Grenada by which he justified his 1983 invasion of that small island nation. Clinton said, “We can learn from this tactic that has been used before.” That is good advice if we consider this tactic of:
a) personifying a nation by its leader’s personal name and
b) then labelling that leader “Hitler.”
This is sure way to activate a demon in the American national memory and to mobilize the United States to again fight evil personified by the new Hitler. John Kerry said Assad is Hitler. John McCain said Castro is Hitler. George Bush said Saddam was Hitler. Donald Rumsfeld said Chavez was Hitler. The list of leaders the US has targeted as Hitler includes Allende (Chile), Noriega (Panama), Ortega (Nicaragua), Milosevic (Serbia), Arafat (Palestine), Gaddafi (Libya), Ahmadinejad (Iran), and Kim (North Korea).
Hitler, in fact, was defeated by the USSR more than by the USA. After the Battle of Stalingrad in February 1943 and the Battle of Kursk in August 1943, Germany had effectively lost WWII. D-Day was a year later, in June 1944. Soviet armies caused more than 90% of total German casualties. Nevertheless, Americans remember that it was they who defeated Hitler.
Americans also “Remember the Alamo”. In 1835, American settlers in the Mexican territory of Texas felt threatened by the government of Santa Anna in Mexico City, which had come to power by coup. In1836, the American settlers in Texas declared independence, and later negotiated annexation by the United States. Thus, Americans can, if they wish, appreciate that Crimeans felt threatened by the government in Kiev, which came to power by coup, and that Crimeans also declared independence, and also then negotiated annexation by the nation of their origin. However, unlike Texas, Crimea had previously been part of Russia for 170 years.
Just as the Alamo is an iconic historic site for Americans, so, too, is the Crimean fortress of Sevastopol an iconic historic site for Russians. Both symbolize steadfast courage and sacrifice in the face of overwhelming force. The Siege of the Alamo in 1836 lasted 13 days, with 1,500 Mexican soldiers overwhelming 250 Americans who died heroically defending liberty and independence. The first Siege of Sevastopol in 1854, lasted two years, with 175,000 British, French, Turkish, German, Italian, Polish and Swiss soldiers overwhelming 35,000 Russian soldiers heroically defending Russian Crimea. Americans should remember that they own Alaska only because Russia sold it, in large part, to pay debts incurred defending Crimea from the attacking European alliance. The second Siege of Sevastopol in 1941 lasted one year, with more than 200,000 German, Romanian, Italian and Bulgarian forces overwhelming 106,000 Soviet soldiers heroically defending Russian Crimea. When Americans feel emotional remembering the Alamo, they can begin to imagine the depth of emotion Russians must feel remembering Sevastopol.
America experienced invading foreign forces during its War of Independence in the 1770s, and again on a small scale during the War of 1812. But only two foreign attacks are seared into the American psyche with historic force. One is the Dec. 7, 1941, attack on Pearl Harbor which lasted less than 2 hours and killed 2,400 Americans. The other is the Sept. 11, 2001, attack on NY City and Washington, DC which lasted less than 3 hours and killed 3,000 victims. Americans’ anger to avenge those attacks is deep and enduring, allowing no limits of cost, no limits of law, to prevent such attacks happening again. Thus, Americans can, if they wish, appreciate Russia’s reactions to being attacked by foreign armies, and can understand why Russia also will allow no limits of cost, no limits of law, to prevent such attacks happening again.
The USA has not suffered invasions because it is bounded by large oceans east and west, and by powerless, peaceful nations north and south. Russia has no protective natural barriers, and has had aggressive neighbors on three sides. Although they may forget or deny this history, Turks, Poles, Swedes, French, Germans, British, Italians, Romanians and Japanese have each invaded Russia more than once. For example, in the early 1600s, Poland twice invaded Russia when its government was in disarray. Russians of all social classes united in popular uprising and saved the nation. In 1613, the Romanov Tsar instituted a holiday called “Day of Moscow’s Liberation from Polish Invaders” which is now celebrated every November 4 as “Unity Day”. In the early 1700s, Sweden invaded Russia with 40,000 troops but was defeated by Peter the Great’s use of scorched-earth retreat across vast distances. Although only the Swedish king and 543 soldiers survived, he immediately raised another army of Turks to attack Russia.
It is not something unique in the personalities of Tsar Peter or President Putin that drives Russia to require non-threatening neighbors. It is the collective Russian memory of invasion. Each era of history has had its military super-power, and each super-power in turn attacked Russia:
The Mongol Super-power: The Mongol Empire was the largest in history, conquering the Chinese Empire and Persian Empire. In 1238, the Mongols crossed the Volga River with 35,000 mounted archers backed by 70,000 Turks including Chinese siege equipment for attacking walled cities. They conquered most Russian regions as well as Crimea. In 1240, the Mongols captured Kiev and killed most of its 50,000 inhabitants. An estimated 500,000 Kievan Rus’ (Russians, Ukrainians, Byelorussians) died during the Mongol invasion. For several centuries afterwards, regional khans continued attacking Russia. For example, in 1382, the Golden Horde sieged Moscow, slaughtered 24,000 Muscovites, and took thousands of captives.
The Ottoman Super-power: At the height of its power in the 1600s, the Ottoman Empire controlled half of the Mediterranean world and all of the Black Sea and Red Sea regions. The Crimean Tatars supplied the Ottoman slave trade by “harvesting the steppe”, taking an estimated 2 million captives between 1500 and 1700. For example, in 1571, a combined Crimean and Ottoman force of 120,000 invaded Russia, burned Moscow, killed an estimated 80,000 Russians, and took 150,000 captives to slave markets in Crimea. Historians count more than 50 Tatar attacks. The last “harvest” of Russians was in 1769. In the 7th Russo-Turkish War, Russians conquered Crimea and finally freed themselves from Tatar attacks and slavery. In 1783, Russia annexed Crimea. This is the same time in history that the American colonies finally freed themselves from oppressive British taxation.
The Napoleonic Super-power: Napoleon harnessed the passionate ideals of the French Revolution to coercive diplomacy and to new military tactics of massed armies and mobile artillery and was thus invincible in conquering Continental Europe in only 9 years. In 1812, Napoleon assembled the largest army Europe had ever seen, comprised of an estimated 600,000 troops, including 98,000 from Poland. Although Napoleon won battles at Vilnius, Smolensk and Borodino, the Russian strategy of scorched-earth retreat across vast distances, including the evacuation and burning of Moscow, starved and demoralized the invading army. Relatively few survived the winter retreat from Moscow. Russian deaths are estimated to have been 150,000 - 400,000 soldiers and as many civilian.
The Nazi Super-power: Hitler harnessed the passionate ideals of fascism to coercive diplomacy and to new military tactics of blitzkrieg and was thus invincible in conquering Continental Europe in only 2 years. In 1941, Hitler assembled the largest army Europe had ever seen, comprised of an estimated 3.2 million German soldiers and about 500,000 from Italy and Romania. Although Hitler conquered vast stretches of territory, he failed to capture Moscow, Leningrad, Stalingrad or the Caspian oil fields. Soviet deaths were an estimated 8 - 13 million soldiers and as many as 20 million civilians. For example, 200,000 soldiers and 1.2 million civilians died in the Siege of Leningrad. In contrast, total US deaths during WWII were 418,000 military and fewer than 2,000 civilians.
The US Super-power: The US has harnessed the passionate ideals of democracy to coercive diplomacy and to new tactics of covert operations, advanced weapons technology and economic warfare to achieve what it calls, “full spectrum dominance”. Considering its own immense military resources and those of the other 27 NATO nations it controls, plus the resources of its Asian allies of Australia, New Zealand, Japan and South Korea, the US commands the greatest military might the world has ever seen. As with past super-powers, the US and its NATO allies seem to be setting their sights on Russia. Perhaps Cold War history causes them to confuse Russia with the USSR and its many atrocities under the dictatorships of Stalin (native Georgian) and Khrushchev (native Ukrainian). Or perhaps racist perceptions of Russians as “untermensch” are still active in Western minds. Or maybe the vast resources of Russia are too attractive to leave untaken.
President Gorbachev allowed the re-unification of Germany based on promises from President Bush and Chancellor Kohl that NATO would not expand eastwards, and then NATO did exactly that, even inviting Ukraine and Georgia to prepare for membership. Georgia is closer to India than it is to the North Atlantic. The US has been determined to install anti-missile systems in Poland, purportedly to shoot non-existent Iranian ICBMs, but suspiciously capable of nullifying Russia’s nuclear deterrence. Recent telephone intercepts show that US State Department officials (Victoria Nuland and Geoffrey Pyatt) selected an anti-Russian replacement government for the Ukraine when the elected, constitutional government was still in power. Then chaos in Kiev caused by unidentified snipers resulted in the elected Ukrainian government collapsing. As per US planning, the selected anti-Russian replacement government took power in Kiev and was quickly declared legitimate by NATO nations.
It is easy to see why Russia would perceive these events as another super-power preparing to attack Russia. It is perfectly predictable that Russia would react in ways to defends itself, no matter what the costs. It is mental manipulation by historical trigger-words to claim that Putin is “Hitler”, or that Stalin’s “Red Army” again threatens Europe. Because Americans know nothing of Russian history and have no national experience of foreign invasion, they cannot escape the confines of their own Cold War rhetoric. They cannot imagine history seen from a Russian perspective. Europeans, however, know the horror of war on their own territory, and well remember their own history of attacking Russia. European nations know how many times they teamed up to attack Russia, and know it never worked out well, probably not this time either. In this crisis, it is the European nations who need to stand up and shake the super-power awake before an incident turns into conventional war turns into missile war turns into nuclear war. Those transitions could take 30 minutes. At this moment in human history, the world community has more pressing priorities than re-enacting our historical nightmares.