Russia is fighting fascism to the last swastika; Ukraine is combating communism to the last red star. And they’ve racked up success after success. Investigators in Moscow have opened a case against vendors selling toy soldiers in Nazi uniform. Authorities in Smolensk have fined a journalist for posting a World War II-era photo on her page in VKontakte, a popular social network: It showed her house with a German flag. I suppose when the Nazis occupied Smolensk they hoisted UN flags, yes? The Ukrainian government, for its part, has found good use for the first tranche of its IMF loan: It will rename towns and villages that have the word “red” in them. In Kharkov, someone tore down a metro station sign bearing the name of Marshal Zhukov, whose crime was to capture Hitler’s Berlin. Other Ukrainians, meanwhile, are busy writing a brief history of national suffering and celebrating the death of writer Oles Buzina, who claimed that the 360 years between the Pereyaslav treaty — when Ukraine accepted Russian rule — and the Euromaidan protests wasn’t all bad.

There’s no point talking at length about the latest murders in Kiev. What’s genuinely frightening is to hear people who seem to be part of the intelligentsia – not KGB agents, government officials, or even just simple folk – say that, although killing enemies of the state in the streets, courtyards and building lobbies is an unpleasant business, it’s basically the right thing to do. They then go on to give a detailed, itemized list of reasons explaining why it happens to be the right thing in this absolutely unique case. But neither I nor anyone else outside a state of delirium can possibly care what comes after the word “right.”

Alexander Baunov
Baunov is a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and an editor in chief.
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The law of war is still law, and even its broad framework doesn’t accommodate outright lynching — all the more so since one always hopes the law will be applied to one’s enemies.

Oles Buzina’s murder is a mirror image of Russian opposition leader Boris Nemtsov’s, although the victims held diametrically opposing views, and their supporters would likely take offense at the comparison. Ukrainians poke fun at the Russian patriotic majority’s wish to see an enemy conspiracy behind any misfortune or blemish on their homeland’s otherwise pristine image. Yet plenty of them eagerly engage in the same pastime when it comes to their own homeland. It’s nonsense, for instance, to say that Western intelligence services and their Ukrainian collaborators shot their own agent, Boris Nemtsov, just a few steps from the Kremlin to tarnish Putin. But some in Ukraine claim in all seriousness that Russian intelligence services and their collaborators from the Party of Regions killed their own agent, Oles Buzina, right before Putin’s annual call-in show to tarnish Ukraine. 

Many, if not most, of the articles I’ve read on the topic in the Ukrainian media can be summed up like this: Putin killed Buzina; he’s a murderous villain, after all; but he did the right thing because the victim was a real scumbag; he said and wrote things we didn’t like, appeared on Russian TV, published a disrespectful book about the national poet Taras Shevchenko and, obviously, a person deserves worse than death for that, even though, initially, Buzina just got a beating from some patriots for his book, as is the custom in civilized countries. Over there, as everyone knows, disrespecting Lord Byron would certainly land a man in the Tower of London; and if the police prove too slow in convicting the scoundrel, the neighbors will pummel him themselves and throw the body in the Thames: Let the corpse of the enemy of national literature float past for all to see; people are waiting. So the authorities had better not drag their feet: Had Byron’s foe been sitting in jail, he could’ve stayed alive and maybe even gotten a breath of freedom closer to retirement age when the neighbors had calmed down a bit. Honestly, if everyone we dislike were in jail, their lives would be so much safer.

As some in Ukraine used to say: “Put a member of the Party of Regions in jail, save his life” (just substitute “put a liberal” in the Russian version). And why haven’t Russians convicted, or condemned, journalist-turned-documentarian Leonid Parfyonov for his film “Living Pushkin” or given writer Vladimir Sorokin a thrashing for his ceaseless desecration of Russia’s literary saints? Because Russians have a slave mentality and are insufficiently European. Back in Soviet times, a court put writer Andrei Sinyavsky behind bars for his treasonous “Strolls with Pushkin.” Meanwhile, Portugal’s only Nobel laureate in literature, Jose Saramago, called for the unification of his native Portugal with Spain back in 2007 and peacefully lived out his life after that in the Canary Islands, dying at 88. He must’ve simply left his country in time.

He Got What He Deserved

Both Nemtsov and Buzina expressed views unpleasant to those among their countries’ respective majorities who feel like minorities trapped in a besieged fortress. A year ago, I got to wondering why it is so important for any majority to feel like a minority. The only explanation I found was this: It allows them to feel entitled to hatred and revenge. A majority attacks, while a minority defends itself. Those who are defending themselves get more leeway. When you consider yourself a minority, you snag yourself the right to call for or condone violence that you would have been ashamed to support otherwise. That’s precisely why people from the pro-Putin 86 percent constantly emphasize that they’re a sorry handful of brave souls about to be engulfed by a stormy liberal ocean.

A representative of any majority is almost guaranteed to win, and a winner is supposed to be generous, but doesn’t want to share. The Maidan that toppled the Yanukovych regime turned out to be short on this winner’s generosity, just as the Soviet Union had decades before, when it grabbed up Eastern Europe right after liberating it.

At issue here are not the actual killers of opposition figures (what’s to be expected of them?), but the reaction of broad swathes of the vocal public — and today pretty much all members of the public are vocal and literate, not like the days of slash-and-burn agriculture. A society’s political maturity, after all, isn’t measured just by people’s ability to take to the streets; take Haiti, where street protests are routine, but over the course of a century none of the country’s rulers completed a full term in office, and few even managed to survive. What determines a society’s political maturity is how safe the defeated feel next to the victors, the minority next to the majority, the believers next to the dissenters.

Now members of the majority in both Russia and Ukraine are happy that the opposition feels threatened: That’s right, they got what they deserved; let them tremble in fear and constantly look over their shoulders; they can leave the country if they don’t like it here. Both Ukraine and Russia are going through a period of patriotic mobilization and have the same ready answer to the question of what to do when you don’t want to hear opinions different from your own. This only serves to confirm the idea Ukrainians hate: that the two peoples are actually one.

Doing Battle with Symbols

“There is no fascism in Russia, and there can’t be,” Russians say. “Look how we’re fighting against its symbols. Not a single swastika will slip through.” Pretty soon they’ll be getting blurred over in documentaries and feature films, like foul language gets blipped out. Because you know how these Russians are, not a drop of will power: Just let them see a swastika and they’ll turn right into National Socialists. Not seeing those symbols — that’s the only thing keeping them from falling to the ground and — poof! — morphing into big bad fascist wolves. Because, obviously, fascism is just a swastika and a couple of runes and nothing else.

“How can you accuse us of fascism?” say the Ukrainians. “Look at our officials and lawmakers: We have Jews, Afghans, Georgians, you name it. And we’ve made huge strides against communism: We’ve banned their hammer and sickle.” Again, what else could they do? Because as soon as a Ukrainian sees that red flag, he’ll run to enlist in the Red Army. 

In both cases, the authorities and the activists are displaying that astonishing lack of faith in the individual that is so characteristic of totalitarian systems. You can’t show people symbols, can’t let them read books and watch movies, because they’ll give in to temptation. So Ukraine prohibits Russian movies, and Russia forbids showings of a Hollywood film about the 1950s under Stalin in which Russians are, as usual, uncivilized. 

But phenomena outlive symbols, that’s how the world works: Symbols change, phenomena remain; it’s possible to sink into a new version of Nazism with Jews in government, thundering World War II victory songs, and a crusade against swastikas, and to slide down into communism without a red star in sight.

Communism is not a metro station with a Soviet name; but new billboards urging neighbors to report those with “separatist” sympathies, like the ones recently seen in Ukrainian cities – that’s communism.  And fascism isn’t the Iron Cross and runes; it is any condition in which a symbol is more important than a human being, the majority than the minority, the state than a private person, and the masses are held in higher regard than any single individual other than the leader. It is hatred toward any other ethnic group or country, not necessarily toward blacks or Jews. A national identity built on contempt for a people or culture other than your own is always some form of Nazism. It is strange to think that calling Jews or natives of the Caucasus untermenschen is Nazism, but writing the same thing about Russians or Ukrainians is not. Modern Europe was born when France, Germany Britain and other states recognized that their respective cultures have equal value. On top of all that, fascism also means banning people from freely reflecting on their country’s history, making it impossible for them to create modern art, and persecuting them for self-deprecating humor.

All this can happen under any kind of symbols; old totalitarian practices can reemerge with new symbols, from a new direction. What is now being called a restoration of the Soviet past didn’t happen in Russia under the red banner and communist leadership that had everyone so scared in the 1990s; it happened as TV series glorified the tsarist general Alexander Kolchak, and when quoting the counterrevolutionary philosopher Ivan Ilyin was in vogue, and with the works of Alexander Solzhenitsyn in the school curriculum. Here, one strange criticism leveled at Parfyonov’s film “Russia in Bloom” comes to mind: Again, people said, he’s idealizing the past, and that’s the source of all our troubles. In fact, the whole film says just the opposite: It’s about the impossibility of restoring the past. If we know perfectly well what it means to be a Communist Party secretary of ideology or a KGB colonel, but know virtually nothing of imperial ranks like “actual state councilor” and “court chamberlain,” then all our attempts to reinstate the councilors and chamberlains will wind up bringing back the ideology secretary and the KGB colonel. That’s just what we’re seeing now with the Russian Orthodox Church: All the attempts to restore its czarist-era role end up reviving a Communist Party committee.

And a party committee can make a comeback while people talk of democracy and freedom. In the Arab world and Africa this sort of talk abounded when colonial regimes — which were, of course, a form of unfreedom — got traded in for homegrown leftwing and nationalist dictatorships. In Latin America, most constitutions have long limited presidents to one term in office to prevent a usurpation of power; but it turns out power can be seized by a junta or a political party that goes on to rotate national leaders for show. Post-Soviet Central Asia escaped communist rule only to end up under the control of local sultans and their families. Iran rid itself of the authoritarian and corrupt shah, doing everything it could to erase any trace of personalized monarchic power, but found itself helpless in the face of theocratic rule. The Arab world is now edging along the same precipice: After freeing or trying to free themselves from dictatorship, Arab states start leaning toward becoming religious states, or just toward ISIS, now wreaking havoc in the squares cleared of Saddam Hussein statues.

We are accustomed to thinking that the struggle against anything Soviet means a struggle for freedom, but one can be anti-Soviet and still not be free. As Sergei Dovlatov once wrote in a comparable situation, “Soviet or anti-Soviet, what’s the difference…?” It’s possible to be a Nazi who opposes fascism. And battling the symbols of past unfreedom doesn’t protect against its latest incarnation.

This publication originally appeared in Russian.

  • Alexander Baunov