The Problem With Russia Is Russia

KRAKOW, Poland — One year ago this Tuesday, Vladimir Putin recognized the independence of the Russian-backed separatist republics of Donetsk and Luhansk — effectively the starting pistol for Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, which began three days later. For us Ukrainians, the world would never be the same. Yet it was another act of recognition in 2022, one largely neglected, that made my heart beat faster. On Oct. 18, Ukraine’s Parliament declared the Chechen Republic of Ichkeria “temporarily occupied by the Russian Federation.”

I should explain. When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, Chechnya was one of the two autonomous republics of the newly independent Russian Federation that claimed independence. (The other one was Tatarstan.) But world leaders were by then quite fed up with the discovery that all those union republics that they had for decades regarded simply as administrative units of Russia — Ukraine, Georgia, Kazakhstan and others, still harder to pronounce — appeared to be real things. The West’s shock at this new geography meant that independent Ichkeria had not the slimmest chance of recognition.

The dismemberment of the Soviet empire was duly halted at the borders of the Russian Federation — at the cost of two devastating Chechen wars, for which the Kremlin was given a free hand both domestically and internationally. As a result, Chechnya-Ichkeria became a testing ground for the military strategy now applied against Ukraine: state terrorist warfare.

What if, I keep asking myself, Russia’s new totalitarianism had not been so lightheartedly overlooked by the rest of the world in the 1990s? Back then, to spare humanity the rise of a new Hitler, it would have been enough to let Russia go on peacefully shrinking under proper international control. Alas, the West agreed to blame Communism alone for all the atrocities of the Soviet regime. Russian imperialism was never identified as a problem.

Could this have been — as my war-honed anticolonial acuity prompts me to believe — a case of latent imperialistic solidarity? Was it guilty pleasure that for decades made the elites of the former Western empires smile indulgently, rather than shudder, when faced with the brazen colonial supremacy with which Moscow was treating its non-Russian subjects? I fail to see any other reasonable explanation for why so many in the West clung to the irrational belief that democratic transformation in Russia was just around the corner.

Yet Russia will not become a democracy until it falls apart. That’s because Russia is not really a nation-state but the same premodern multiethnic empire living on geographic expansion and resource looting as 300 years ago — and is thus doomed to reproduce, again and again, under whatever ideological cover, the same prison-ward-like political structure that alone keeps it together.

One intellectual holdover from the imperialistic 19th century is the idea that preserving the Russian empire would be less catastrophic, in terms of humanitarian consequences, than recognizing the right to life of dozens of peoples whose lot under Moscow’s rule was never anything other than dogged survival, under the threat of extinction. This prejudice helped the empire to survive twice in the 20th century, in 1921 and in 1991. It is high time to rethink it.

I remember only too well how the specter of extinction was stalking Ukraine through the 1970s and early 1980s, until the Chernobyl disaster finally broke our social paralysis and pushed Ukrainians to take our security into our own hands. In those police years, those who dared to speak Ukrainian in public could be at any moment humiliated with the Russian colonialist phrase “Govorite po-chelovecheski!” (“Speak human!”) If you heard it once and were unable to respond — any discontent about the superiority of everything Russian was labeled Ukrainian nationalism, the worst political crime of the time — you could never forget the experience.

Looked at closely, this war on Moscow’s part is a monstrously enlarged version of the Ukrainian purges of the 1970s (Operation Block, as it was known in the K.G.B. files): same language, same techniques. The only difference is the scale. Those purges were selective and unostentatious, whereas nowadays each of the thousands of Russian rockets that have so far hit our cities howls the same message — “Speak human!” — at the highest possible pitch. Ukrainians respond with the glorious phrase from the defenders of Snake Island. We will survive the Russian Federation, just as we survived the Soviet Union.

But not every nation once in Moscow’s grip proved so lucky. That is why our Parliament, 30 years later, recognized Ichkeria. We have been there: We know what it is like to be sentenced to disappear as a nation, with the rest of the world taking no heed.

And the same story is repeating itself. The disproportionately large conscription among Russia’s ethnic minorities in 2022, a form of ethnic purge of potentially mutinous regions, was not half as widely discussed as the plight of Moscow office workers fleeing abroad. The women’s protests against mobilization in Dagestan and Yakutia, too, were tellingly headlined in the world media as protests in Russia.

With a sigh, I recall that’s how Chernobyl was discussed in 1986, as a nuclear catastrophe in Russia. Thanks, but no. Never again, please; the age of imperialism is over. If there could be any positive result found in the 12 months of this horrific war — in tens of thousands of people murdered, raped and mutilated, in millions of lives ruined, in the best black soil on earth littered with mines, in innumerable treasures of cultural heritage turned to debris — it would be that we Ukrainians have all together, in a united effort of resistance, proved that non-Russian lives matter.

It is good news, for that was not the case before, certainly not in the past century. It gives all those who speak human, with no quotation marks, hope for the future.

Oksana Zabuzhko is the author of many books, including, most recently, “Your Ad Could Go Here.”

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