Thursday, March 6, 2014

The Crimean Tense: When Past Is Present

Referencing the past is a weak form of analysis and one that offers little insight to the current situation in Ukraine. The Russian occupation of Crimea is distinctly not like the Soviet invasion of Hungary or Czechoslovakia. In the current situation, the Russian invaders and occupiers of Crimea altogether deny being Russian in the first place. These soldiers wear no insignia that would undeniably link them to Russia, although everyone knows that they are indeed members of the Russian military. No other nation has announced it is missing an army or claimed them as its own. It was not until a few days ago that one of the soldiers slipped and confessed his nationality. Can we really imagine a Hungarian in 1956 or Czechoslovak in 1968—or even a Georgian in 2008—wondering, Now who could this invading army be?

This ruse seems to be Putin’s attempt toward plausible deniability, except that from the very beginning of the occupation, everyone already either knew or assumed that it was indeed the Russian military coming ashore. Can it be a masquerade if nobody is really fooled? Isn’t a masquerade precisely when a person pretends to be someone else instead of pretending to be no one at all? Camouflage only works on the surface. In fact, there seems to have been some concern on the part of the Crimean Tartars that these Russians might indeed try to impersonate them in order to incite to action the other ethnic groups (Russians, Ukrainians) who call the peninsula home. Such potential impersonations and incitements invite comparisons to the Boston Tea Party, when, as the story goes, the Sons of Liberty, disguised as Native Americans, dumped tea in Boston Harbor.

The Russian claim that Russians (and Russian speakers) are being targeted by the new government in Kyiv also invites allusions to the Sudetenland. Nevertheless, there is no evidence to suggest that Ukrainians (that is, specifically, the new government in Kyiv but also more generally the citizens of Ukraine who are and have always been speakers of Ukrainian and/or Russian) are seeking to outlaw the Russian language or otherwise diminish the role of Russian speakers in Ukraine. There is no question that the upheavals and revolutions of the past several years might be cause for alarm or suspicion within minority communities. There does indeed seem to be a concerted push to repeal a recent law that asserted the legal status of minority languages, including Russian, within certain levels of government, mostly municipal or regional jurisdictions. However, the law is still on the books. And Crimea continues to enjoy its particular state of autonomy granted it since Khrushchev handed it over to the Ukrainian SSR in 1954. The peninsula’s autonomy, too, was enshrined in the Ukrainian constitution of 1996. 

It is truly unfortunate that we do not get to wallow in our nostalgia for long, celebrating our always anachronistic misunderstanding of the Cold War, when a sharp division between us and them seemed to exist. Whether it be the Berlin Wall or the 38th parallel north, exact borders are always a myth. Ask anyone, for example, who lives on the 37th or 39th parallels. It should be no surprise to us, then, that a land literally called “the border” should occupy such a contested space geographically as well as such a liminal space in history or in the Western mind. Nor, I suppose, should we be surprised that so many journalists and pundits keep referring to “the Ukraine”—a country that hasn’t existed in twenty-three years!

Just as precise borders are a fiction, so, too, is the past. We always already misunderstand the stories our predecessors told themselves in order to make sense of their world. Resorting to the past, then, especially in a time of crisis, will never offer any new insight into the present, which already recedes into the historical.

The past is past. However, Putin’s worldview is not necessarily in the past. Sure, in the West we have been celebrating the end of history since 1989 or 1991 or whenever Fukuyama published his insipid book. But while we were partying in the time after time, history, as far as Moscow was concerned, continued marching forward. The hegemonic West, specifically the US, is suspended in amber for Putin and his co-oligarchs. We are the same depraved, neocolonial world power we always were accused of being by Russia. If we in the West are living in the past, however, then it’s fair to say that the past itself is living in Putin.

One thing that has changed over the past few decades is Russia’s standing in the world. As the Soviet Union, Russia had a vast empire consolidated under a red banner that offered an altogether different ideology from the West. But now, today, Russia’s security and stability are becoming more and more unhinged. By overtaking and occupying Crimea, Putin hopes to maintain a firm grasp on a place and time that will necessarily continue to slip from his hands.

In the same way that “Balkanize” became a sexy term to describe how nations violently fracture and fragment along ethnic and ideological lines, I propose we adopt the unwieldy adjective “Crimeanize” to denote that aspect of nostalgic longing for a past that never existed that ends up destroying all hopes for a realistic understanding of the present. Admittedly, this is not a good way to understand the current situation in Ukraine, but unfortunately it is a good way to understand much of the so-called expert opinion on the matter flowing from the mouths of politicians, pundits, journalists, and historians alike.