One hundred years ago this coming Aug. 4, the day Britain declared war on Germany, socialists in the German Reichstag voted for credits to finance the war. Marxists — including Lenin, who that day was in what now is Poland — were scandalized. Marx had preached that the proletariat has no fatherland, only a transnational class loyalty to proletarians everywhere. “In 1918,” wrote Louis Fischer, Lenin’s best biographer, “patriotism and nationalism, born of the ‘subjectivism’ Lenin so disliked, were ideological crimes in Soviet Russia.”
These are history-shaping virtues in Ukraine today. Because the nation-state is the necessary framework for durable political liberty, nationalism is a necessary, although insufficient, impulse sustaining liberty. Marx, whose prophesies were perversely predictive because they were almost invariably wrong, predicted the end of nationalism. Economic forces, he said, determine political, cultural and psychological realities. So capitalism, with its borders-leaping cosmopolitanism, would dilute to the point of disappearance all emotional attachments to nations. Ukraine’s ferment is an emphatic, albeit redundant, refutation of Marxism.
The political elites who cobbled together the European Union hoped that the pooling of national sovereignties would extinguish the nationalism that, they think, ruined Europe’s 20th century. They considered the resulting “democracy deficit” — the transfer of national parliaments’ prerogatives to Brussels bureaucrats — a price well worth paying for tranquillity.
Now comes turbulent Ukraine, incandescent with nationalism and eager to preserve its sovereignty by a closer relationship with the European Union.
Ukraine’s president, Viktor Yanukovych, is resisting the popular desire for constitutionally limited government and for a national existence more independent of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s presence. Yanukovych wants to trade Ukraine’s aspirations for Putin’s billions.
Russia is ruled by a little, strutting Mussolini — the Duce, like Putin, enjoyed being photographed with his chest bare and his biceps flexed. Putin is unreconciled to the “tragedy,” as he calls it, of the Soviet Union’s demise. It was within the Soviet apparatus of oppression that he honed the skills by which he governs — censorship, corruption, brutality, oppression, assassination.
Remember when President George W. Bush peered into Putin’s eyes and got “a sense of his soul” as someone “very straightforward and trustworthy”? Remember when Putin fed the world the fable about rushing naked from his burning dacha — the fire started when Putin was in a sauna — before the rescue of his cherished crucifix, which had belonged to his sainted mother? Ukrainians, whose hard history has immunized them against the folly of wishful thinking, see in Putin’s ferret face the cold eyes of a prison warden.
Ukraine, whose population (46 million) and size are approximately those of Spain, is a potential economic power. Russia remains what the Soviet Union was, a third-world country with first-world military technologies. Its hunter-gatherer economy — name a Russian consumer good other than vodka and caviar you might want — is based on extraction industries (oil, gas, minerals).
Putin’s contempt for Barack Obama is palpable. Russia’s robust support of Bashar al-Assad is one reason Assad has, according to the Obama administration’s director of intelligence, “strengthened” his position in the period since Obama said Assad should “step aside.” Russia has been less than helpful regarding U.S. attempts to halt Iran’s nuclear weapons program. Where, exactly, has Obama’s much-advertised but never defined “reset” of relations with Russia been fruitful?
Yet Obama seems so fixated on it that he will not risk annoying Putin by voicing full-throated support for the Ukrainian protesters. Obama participated in waging seven months of war against Libya, a nation not threatening or otherwise important to the United States. Yet Joe Biden’s Tuesday phone call to Yanukovych is, as of this writing, Obama’s strongest response to the Ukraine crisis, which matters to the political trajectory of the European continent.
Europe, which for many centuries was a cockpit for many fighting faiths, is now politically vanilla. And as a military or diplomatic power, “Europe” remains more a geographical than a political term. Still, the pull of European political culture has not lost its power. And if Europe’s historical amnesia is not complete, it should hear echoes of 1848 and 1989 in the voices of Ukrainians today.
The Soviet Union — “one of modern history’s pivotal experiments,” in the weasel words of NBC’s Olympics coverage — existed for seven miserable decades. Ukraine’s agony is a reverberation of the protracted process of cleaning up after the “experiment.” So, this is perhaps the final episode of the Cold War. Does America’s unusually loquacious 44th president remember how the words of the 40th — “Tear down this wall!” — helped to win it?