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TODAY, May 9th, Putin is celebrating the seventieth anniversary of the defeat of Nazi Germany by wheeling out his military hardware in Red Square and dropping in on the Crimea, the piece of Ukraine that he has just helped himself to, on the grounds that he is merely responding to the will of the people there and reclaiming what is anyway Russian territory. It is in short a day for nostalgia, sentimental bullshit about our great and glorious, not to say holy, Mother Russia, a day for the kind of ultra-nationalist propaganda that is not in the least concerned about truth and fact and that is such a feature of Russia’s view of itself.

Well… for a start, whether or not Crimea is historically Russian territory rather depends on what view you take of history. Russia has certainly occupied it for the last couple of hundred years, but there was nothing Russian about it before that. Herodotus records Scythian tribes inhabiting the surrounding steppes. The coastal towns were independent Greek city states from around 600BC, later incorporated into the Byzantine Empire, by which time the residents of the hinterland were Turkic-speaking Tatars, ruled by their own Khan, whose capital was at Bakhchisarai: a state of affairs which lasted until Catherine the Great grabbed the Crimea for Russia just short of 1800. Bakhchisarai is a Turkish name, made up of bahçe, a garden,and saray, a palace (see photo). Many towns’ names may have been Russified, but topographical names, for rivers and hills, for example, remain Turkish, albeit in Russified form – Uçun-su (Flying-water), Tepe Kermen (Castle-on-the-Hill). A sure sign of who was there first.

Bakhchysarai 2

Under both the Czars and the Communist regime the Crimea became the summer watering-hole for the ruling classes, and many less exalted Russians moved in as well. Russia has always been an aggressive, expansionist, imperialist state – the workers’ paradise bullshit notwithstanding. And racist, to boot. Just listen to the Russians who settled their Central Asian possessions like Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan. They speak of the natives as wogs.

The Russians are meddlers in other people’s affairs. They occupied a large chunk of north-eastern Turkey between 1878 and the end of WWI, drove out the local populations and imported a whole lot of Christian settlers, posing as ever, when it suited them, as champions of the oppressed Christians of the Muslim Turkish Ottoman Empire.

Putin is doing what Russia’s rulers have always tried to do. Furthermore, he is by training and inclination a policeman, and a secret one at that – another long-standing Russian tradition under both Czars and Communists: if you don’t like the look of them, lock ‘em up – his nose put out of joint by post-Soviet Russia’s diminished status in the world.

As for the glorious victory over the German Fascists… Again, well… of course there was heroism, stoic endurance and dogged resistance. But are the thousands of Soviet soldiers shot by their own secret police, the NKVD, pour encourager les autres even in such battles as the siege of Stalingrad…are they being remembered and celebrated today? And the Soviet POWs in Germany who returned to their deaths in their motherland? Not to mention all those other many thousands of good Soviet citizens whose last contact with their families was a 3am knock on the door, followed within hours by a bullet in the back of the neck or death by exhaustion and cold in the prison camps of Siberia and Kazakhstan?

Death to Fascism is a slogan you see all over Soviet-era monuments. If by Fascist you mean those people who exercise unchallenged and unchallengeable authority over those they govern, is not this a matter of the pot calling the kettle black, especially when Putin has the nerve to call the new government in Kiev Fascist? If there were Ukrainians who looked with favour on the arrival of the Germans during WWII, it was largely because they were sick of being sat upon by Communist Russia and saw the Germans as potential saviours. As for the new regime in Ukraine, it is there because Ukrainians, especially the young, are sick and tired of being ruled by the old gang, the people who profited under cover of the Soviet Communist regime and profited under its corrupt successor. The ousted president Yanukovich and his like were Russia’s legacy to all the countries of eastern Europe “liberated” by the Red army. Fascist indeed! You can’t even open a beauty salon without paying some nasty racketeer. Do you think a law degree allows you to practice as a lawyer? Not without bribing some gangster.

Sure, you find people who are nostalgic for the old days. They tend to be the poor and unambitious, people who fiddled around half looking after twenty-five cows on a collective farm, asked no questions, received a pitiful wage (but received it), were housed at very low rents (in shockingly horrible circumstances often, from what I have seen visiting just such friends), had their heating and hot water supplied from some central factory through a rusting system of enormous pipes arching over roads, received their pitiful pensions…If they kept their mouths shut and wanted no part of responsibility for any aspect of their lives…If they were content to be ranked, as Macbeth says, in the very lowest file of humanity… Such people do complain about their lives today and regret the passing of Communism. I suspect a large proportion of the so-called Russians of eastern Ukraine come into this category.

And their heads are stuffed full of nationalist propaganda, by their education system no doubt, ably aided and abetted by the Orthodox Church. I like many aspects of Orthodox practice, but they do seem dangerously attracted to the ugliest manifestations of nationalism – the Greek and other branches of Orthodoxy too.

What do Russians know of democracy, of dissent, of acknowledging the right of those who disagree with you to express their opinions too? Three quarters of them were slaves, were somebody else’s property until 150 years ago. They have been ruled uninterruptedly by one kind of authoritarian regime after another, whose only response to dissent is to “disappear” you. If you sit on people brutally enough for long enough, you can destroy their humanity. A friend, trapped for more than forty years in Hodja’s Communist Albania, said to me once: “Hodja had us like rats in a cage. We lost our humanity.” It is not difficult to brutalise people. If you travel in countries where Russia’s writ has run you will see plenty of evidence of that. Just try getting information from the bus depot in Odessa or buying a train ticket at the mainline station in Sebastopol or negotiating with the conductor on a Romanian train: dealing with anyone in any kind of authority you will get the sense that “Off with his head!” or “Off to Siberia!” is the response that still would come most naturally.

When I visited the Crimea in 2009 I was taken aback by the number of Russian Federation flags flying from roof tops in Sebastopol and the presence of Russian folk dance troupes performing on the seaside promenades. Sebastopol is – was – after all part of the Ukraine.

But it was also home – albeit rented – to the Russian Black Sea fleet and Russia has never hidden its aggressive designs on a warm water Black Sea or Mediterranean port. How “convenient” that the ethnic Russian – whatever that means – population should want to leave Ukraine and become part of Russia!

None of this of course justifies just grabbing a piece of someone else’s country. And what will happen to the substantial Tatar population, who most definitely don’t want to be part of Russia? Stalin rounded them up and deported them at a hour or two’s notice to the “stans” of Central Asia in WWII. It is only since the collapse of the USSR that they have been able to return home and they too, it would seem, did not behave in a very gentlemanly way towards the people they found occupying their homes and lands in their absence. A guide in the Danube delta told me that she and her family had fled there to escape the murderous revenge of some of the returning Tatars.

A plague on all their houses one feels like saying. How is this for an idea: let Putin buy the bloody Russian troublemakers of eastern Ukraine and see what he can make of them?

What sort of a lie is a nation living that can build itself monuments like this? As if the humble proles ever received any kind of honour or respect…

Sevastopol

Death to Fascism is the slogan on this WWII locomotive by the Sebastopol bus station. Who is kidding who?

Death to Fascism

And here are two photos of Kerch, where Putin wants to build a bridge joining Crimea to Russia. They show Crimea’s Greek connections, much older than those with Russia.

Kerch

Kerch: John Baptist

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