The reading for the history book group was The Road to Unfreedom: Russia, Europe, America (2018) by Timothy Snyder. In preparation, I reread The Man Without a Face: The Unlikely Rise of Vladimir Putin (2012) by Masha Gessen. I read it shortly after it came out, with a postscript, in paperback in 2014. The two books were written of course before Russia’s ongoing invasion of Ukraine and our 2020 election with its fallout, but the two books complement each other in their portraits of Putin and Russia and present pictures that aid in understanding the present Ukraine situation and our politics. This reading did not lead to a full-blown depression, but it did not improve my mood.

          Putin’s obsession with Ukraine is longstanding. The Soviet Union, founded in 1922, was a federation of national republics that included Ukraine, but during the 1970s and 1980s in every Soviet Republic increasingly felt as though they were being exploited by other regions. In March 1991 Mikhail Gorbachev, the head of the USSR, organized a referendum on whether to maintain the Soviet Union as a single entity. Voters in nine of the fifteen constituent republics voted in favor, but six republics boycotted the vote. A few weeks later, Georgia held its own referendum and voted to secede from the USSR. Two months later, Ukraine declared its independence from the USSR, as did Chechnya, which was part of Russia. (In August 1991, President George H.W. Bush went to Kyiv and urged Ukrainians not to leave the Soviet Union, saying “Freedom is not the same as independence.”) More than 90% of the Ukrainians voted for independence.       A coup to remove Gorbachev failed, but in the aftermath, Boris Yeltsin became increasingly popular. He was soon head of the Soviet Union and removed Russia from the USSR and ended it.

          Putin, who came to prominence in Russia after 1991, proclaims religious, ethnic, and near mythical connections between Russia and Ukraine. Snyder says Putin sees Ukraine as “an inseparable organ of the virginal Russian body” and that Putin has said that Russians and Ukrainians “are one people.” The independent Ukraine that came into being in 1991 may have been tolerable to Putin as long as it remained receptive to Russia’s desires. Viktor Yanukovych was elected head of Ukraine in 2010 and, according to Snyder, began his term “by offering Russia essentially everything that Ukraine could give, including basing rights for the Russian navy on Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula,” which as it was then understood, would prevent Ukraine from joining NATO.

          The Ukrainian population, however, increasingly looked not to Russia for guidance and inspiration but to the West, and when Yanukovych canceled an association agreement with the European Union in 2013, demonstrations broke out in Ukraine. After several elections, the present government took power, and as we all know, this is not a Ukraine that takes orders from Moscow.

          The westward turn by Ukraine has been especially troubling for those who have “Mother Russia” feelings about Ukraine. While former Soviet satellite countries and the Baltic republics of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania joined the European Union in 2004 and 2007, the EU had not extended into any territory that had been part of the original Soviet state of 1922.

          This history and Putin’s viewpoints about Ukraine struck me as Russian. I remembered the first time I read about Raskolnikov kissing the soil at the crossroads and trying to understand a semi-mystical feeling for Mother Russia that seemed alien to American experience. Snyder writes that Russian slavophiles believed “that Russia was endowed with a particular genius. Orthodox Christianity and popular mysticism, they maintained, expressed a depth of spirit unknown in the West. The slavophiles imagined that Russian history had begun with a Christian conversion in Kyiv a thousand years before.”

          But as I thought about these aspects of Russia, I wondered whether there were counterparts in American history. Putin apparently believes that Ukraine is an integral part of Russia, and it is Russia’s destiny to include Ukraine. How much different is that from the nineteenth century American faith in “manifest destiny,” that it was the mission of Americans to push onward to the Pacific even though other peoples already populated the land? Didn’t the use of “destiny” imply that this path was preordained by an Almighty? Putin and others believe that Russia is somehow exceptional, distinct and more holy than other lands. And Americans? Of course, America is exceptional, and just below the surface of that notion is a kind of religious belief. When Jesus comes back, perhaps he is going to Galilee, but more likely he is coming to America. (That is if he can navigate our immigration laws, for nothing in them would allow him to enter. He might be able to walk over the river, but what if a border wall keeps him out, and he is consigned to a squalid camp on the Mexican side?)

          Perhaps finding links among Mother Russia, manifest destiny, and American exceptionalism is a stretch, but comparing some aspects of recent Russian and American political history is not.

(continued May 6)

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