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Historical messages emerging from Ukraine: autocrats, information, and the cost of freedom

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The daily atrocities being perpetrated on the people of Ukraine have revealed to all the world that the leader of Russia, Vladimir Putin, is suffering from the same paranoid loss of perspective which afflicted the most infamous previous occupant of his office in the Kremlin, Joseph Stalin. Stalin imposed the appalling Holodomor famine on Ukraine, killing 3-4 million people in 1932-3. But Stalin got away with his crime against Ukrainian humanity, in a way which Putin cannot.

Not only did Stalin stay in power for a further two decades to die in office in 1953, but when I was being taught modern Russian history in my final undergraduate year as late as 1979, the scale of the famine was still a suspicion, not an established fact. Such was the capacity of the Soviet state to continue to control information on what had happened within its borders. But much has changed, notably Ukraine becoming an independent state in 1991.

Control of public information is the crucial means to preserve totalitarian power, as George Orwell so clearly expounded in his 1949 novel, Nineteen Eighty-Four, based on long acquaintance with the Soviet Union under Big Brother Stalin. Though he may try with Russia Today’s incessant propaganda and by closing down various media, Putin cannot control information at all, compared with Stalin. Ukraine is not currently within the curtilage of the new Russian empire, about which Putin fantasises. Unlike during the famine, there is a relative abundance of information from brave journalists and citizens globally circulating on an hourly basis detailing exactly what the Russian forces are doing.

Just as in the famine, agents of the Kremlin’s totalitarian state are obeying orders to murder Ukrainians at scale. Only this time the world knows. So Russian soldiers and citizens are also beginning to realise, despite the Kremlin’s best Big Brother efforts. The officers and generals are going to be held very visibly accountable for what is now happening - throughout the rest of their lives. There will be no hiding their shame, unlike after Holodomor. This is not war, it is a cowardly slaughter of innocents and destruction of cities for its own sake by a totalitarian leader, for whom his master-plan is going wrong – and he knows it. So he is lashing out.

The parallel for me is very personal. The senseless destruction being delivered from distance by missile, rocket and artillery on Kharkiv and no doubt intended next for Kyiv itself, feels too much like what Hitler ordered be done to Warsaw in 1944. He was outraged that mere Slav and Jewish races would rise up in this city against the Nazi Ubermensch. My Jewish father was one of those fighters in the second Uprising of 1944. He lost his right arm to a mortar shell, exactly the kind of useful weapon for street-fighting which the insurrectionists lacked. But in the Ukrainian cities the defenders do at least have the weaponry they need, while Putin cannot afford to take the casualties they will inflict on his troops because he cannot control the information which will leak out to the Russian people about what is happening to their sons. Furthermore, his troops are not motivated by any sense of racist superiority; quite the opposite – unlike the Nazi SS, they cannot ignore Ukrainian women, the same age as their mothers, confronting them in practically their own mother tongue. So, instead of the city being razed in vengeance after the battle, which was Warsaw’s fate, the cowardly Russian ‘military’ tactic is to raze the city first and hope that their troops don’t talk too much to the locals.      

Kremlin propaganda is so profoundly historically-illiterate as to indulge in deranged talk of its mission to de-Nazify the Ukrainian government. How awkward, then, that this democratically-elected government is led by Volodomyr Zelensky, a Jew. This is a fact of supreme importance, which not only gives the lie to this reckless piece of Kremlin fake news. Indeed, it shows how far, in three short decades of democratic freedom, a country previously infamous for anti-semitic pogroms, has come in its liberal disposition in electing a government that is positively anti-Nazi.  

The true heir to Hitler’s and Stalin’s inhumanity is of course sitting in the Kremlin, gnawed by distrust of those around him and deranged by megalomaniac illusions, like Hitler in his bunker in Berlin.

What Putin is in fact doing, just as Hitler once did, is succeeding in unifying those opposed, which today means the world’s more truly democratic nations and its peoples. There has, for instance, been plenty of conflicts between Poles and Ukrainians over the centuries. Now faced with the new Stalin, Poland is willingly giving safe haven to hundreds of thousands of fleeing Ukrainians and is the obvious route for supplying arms to Ukraine’s defenders. Ukraine and Poland each have their consciences to deal with in the treatment of the Jews, with whom they shared their lands for centuries. However, once independent the Poles have built the splendid and moving POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews on the site in Warsaw of the command bunker of the Jewish Fighting Organization (Żydowska Organizacja Bojowa; ŻOB), which directed the heroic, doomed first Warsaw uprising in the Jewish Ghetto in 1943. The Ukrainians for their part have fully acknowledged the terrible Babyn Yar massacres of Jews during World War II. Symbolic of the Kremlin’s repressive, distorted carelessness with history, its officers were evidently not under sufficiently strict orders to avoid at all costs damaging the commemorative site, which was hit by stray missiles.

This, like every other Russian military outrage, is being watched and logged and it is moving the dial of all nations against Putin: 141 nations denounced Russia at the UN General Assembly on 2nd March, now including Israel, UAE and even Serbia. Only Russia’s three payroll stooges, Belarus, Syria and Eritrea, and predictably the pariah state of North Korea sided with Russia. Still, as yet, 35 abstained, including China, India, Iran and many African countries, surprisingly including South Africa. More importantly polls are indicating western citizens are increasingly prepared to accept economic costs for themselves in their households if that means choking Putin’s hold on power by denying him gas and oil revenue.           

Is there perhaps a sliver lining to the horrors inflicted by Putin on the poor people of Ukraine? The national governments of the world desperately and urgently need to find ways to co-operate in the face of the global challenges of climate change, potentially even more destructive than Putin’s indiscriminate missiles. Rapidly reducing our dependence on gas and oil is a top priority. Putin is providing us all with good reason voluntarily to reduce our living standards by paying much more for a de-carbonised energy supply and standing up for all of our democratic freedoms at the same time. In the terrible sacrifices they are making, the brave citizens of Ukraine deserve to be honoured with our full support. They may be teaching us all to learn the true meaning of co-operation and the cost of freedom in more ways than one. 

Please note: Views expressed are those of the author.

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