Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Rumblings at the borders

Once again we are caught up in the news of unbridled power politics and the playing of trump cards and the rolling of more than dice in the latest showdown between East and West.
For the Cold War, like the fabled White Witch, is rumored by its believers to be somehow still alive, ‘whoever heard of a witch that really died? You can always get them back!’ And the ‘spectre of Communism’ that Marx prophesied was haunting Europe in 1848, taking on any one of its numerous disguises to conceal its true nature—the sin of the world—has recollected itself from its recent repose to resurrect as what looks to be a revitalized Russian imperialism.

Hammer and sickle, not plough and pruning hook, have been beaten back into weapons of war, threatened or just imagined, as we watch voraciously and with mock compassion the first bite of the beast on the body of ancient Rus, now known as Ukraine.

I wonder, do we ever actually know what we are looking at in the flow of human history, whether in the past or in the making? Without understanding either nation, the ‘great’ or the ‘little’ Russians, the manhandling, commiserating West, seeing its latest pet and hopeful political prodigy seemingly becoming the target of a powerful, alien neighbor, one with a history of large geopolitical appetite, is quick on the draw, to challenge its arch-rival, the mysterious East, to a fateful duel.

Without looking back too far, we can see this is another point on the path of confrontation that has tainted the relations of East and West centuries before we ever heard of Communism. Byzantium is still the butt of our sarcasm (I am speaking of the West, not of myself or any others who fall with me through the cracks between history’s floorboards), and our distrust, while we pride ourselves on our pretended liberalism.

On a very superficial level, some see this antagonism as the manifestation of the Catholic world’s hatred of the Orthodox. Protestants are included as Catholics, of course. They point at least as far back as the First World War where Serbia, an Orthodox nation, was made the culprit, yet forget that Germany was harshly punished with unreasonable reparations, that Austria was drawn and more than quartered, and that Serbia was, in the end, rewarded with historically Catholic lands—Croatia and Slovenia—as well as Muslim territories, like Bosnia.

The rape and pillage of Kosovo under the watchful eye of the West does, however, seem to indicate a persistent antipathy to the Orthodox, or at least to the Serbs. Yet I wonder if this antagonism really has other roots and reasons, deeper than the religious divide, which may be more a symptom than the disease itself. What that disease might be, I think I have an intimation.

The deviant individualism of the West, and the insistent collectivism of the East—forget the rationalism of the one and the mysticism of the other—seem destined to tear the human race apart, each trying to make ‘one world’ in its chosen image. The European Union, to save face, must expand in a 21st century version of ‘Drang nach Osten’ whitewashing the same ancient urge which purged Great Moravia of its Byzantine faith, and mowed down more recently more than six millions of sub-human Poles and Jews, to coax the modern princes of Kiev into the Western fold. They make it look so wonderful, but what would any level of material prosperity look like to a people who within living memory were nearly starved out of existence in Stalin’s planned famines? Even if the ‘great’ and ‘little’ Russians, as they were called during the reigns of the Czars, are one and the same nation, who would turn to a controlling, abusive spouse, when a new suitor of forgotten atrocities, comes a-courting?

The West, the culture I was born into but do not choose, has a missionary urge, now stripped of Christianity, ‘to make things better for you,’ whether you want it or not. Listening to what they think their consciences, they ‘plant evergreens while trampling on a flower.’ What they really want is to make things better for themselves, as any student of unbent history can discover.

If the West thinks that a people is a nation, then they must have a nation state. It doesn’t matter whether it is real or not, as long as it fits in with the West’s agenda. Czechs are a nation, undisputably. Tack on some extra territory manned by Slovaks—they’re almost Czechs, or vise versa—and voilà, Czechoslovakia. Never mind if the two nations don’t really get along and never formed a nation state before. But it gets worse. They created another nation state, Yugoslavia, out of an ethnic mess that was bound to explode sooner or later. And it did.

So now, we champion Ukraine against Russia, unknowing or ignoring the fact that it was never a nation state before modern times. If the Ukrainians (formerly, the ‘little Russians’) are in fact a nation distinct from the Russians (formerly, the ‘great Russians’) and not merely a regional variation speaking their own dialect as the Boarisch-speaking Bavarians are still essentially Germans and part of that nation state, then yes, of course they ought to have their own nation state. But is there really a ‘Ukraine’ in the same sense as there is a Poland or a Germany? Or is the West following a line of reasoning based on the Cold War compromise that let the Soviet Union have three votes in the United Nations—one for Russia, one for Belarus, and one for Ukraine, an artificial division of ‘old Russia’ that the Soviets found convenient, ignoring as inconvenient, for example, the Baltic nation states they had illegally grabbed during the war?

Now that the West has ‘let the cat out of the bag’ with the fall of Communism and its disintegration into a complex community of aspiring democracies and burgeoningly corrupt oligarchies, we feel we have to stand up for our fledglings and protégés—selectively, of course.

Ukraine’s first taste of nation statehood since the days of Kievan Rus before the Mongol invasions is certainly a heady and hopeful experiment. But it still is just an experiment, just as is any newly founded state, just as the United States once was, and just as the European Community still is. The West is continuing to test its paramount humanistic tenet, individualism, from the single person to the multitude, and it has lots of people and lots of nations to experiment with. Ukraine is one of them. The tragedy is that the West simply does not understand the real life of its specimens, nor does it respect them.

Let’s hope the Ukrainian people will be allowed to find their own way.

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