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Russia is under a memory spell. It’s why Putin can’t give up on Ukraine

More than a millennium of extraordinary memories drove the maelstrom that has been unleashed in Ukraine by the Russian armed forces. And these memories are as literary as they are liturgical, as familial as they are military, and they are most definitely geographical. From oral accounts to high literature, from baptism to brutality, the hard drive of memories drives a policy in 2022 that is indecipherable for most brought up in the post-enlightenment educational systems. The truth is — Kyiv weaves a spell in Russian memories much like Kosovo does in Serbia, and Kashmir does for Indians.

Memories can also conjure up conspiracies, for that is the extraordinary pull they have on the mind, and there is no greater coincidence to today’s events than the astonishing providence of 22 February. In 2022, it was, of course, a numerologist’s dream sequence.  And it was the date when Russia began its recognition of Donetsk and Luhansk in eastern Ukraine as ‘republics’. It was the same date in 2014 on which pro-Russian Viktor Yanukovych was overthrown as the President of Ukraine by protestors wanting a closer Western alliance.

But in the far recesses of the Kremlin’s bank of memories, that is the date when the Cold War was born. George F. Kennan, the celebrated American diplomat and academic, wrote his famous Long Telegram on 22 February 1946 in the United States Embassy in Moscow. That extraordinary piece of writing ushered in the Cold War with its bleak and blunt outlook towards a future of diplomacy with then-emerging Soviet Union. Long Telegram is regarded as the progenitor of a policy of ‘containment’ that the Western alliance initiated to curtail the growth of the Communist Soviet Union. Habits die hard, obviously, and despite the disintegration of the Soviet Union, the policy continued with regard to Russia — it compelled Kennan to pen a stunning reversal of policy article in 1997.

He obviously thought that with the end of the Cold War, there was no need to maintain a policy that was, at its roots, confrontational. And, in fact, promoted cooperation with Russia to maintain peace in Europe. But with Washington hurtling towards expanding the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) with its alliance partners, the provocation was inevitable — something that some US veterans didn’t favour, as another much-quoted 1997 article by Rear Admiral (retd.) Eugene Carroll suggested. The article said, “NATO expansion is aimed at Russia. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright confirmed this in testimony to the Senate Armed Services Committee on April 23: On the off-chance that, in fact, Russia doesn’t work out the way that we are hoping it will . . . NATO is there.”

Also read: Ukraine’s path: From ‘cradle of the Russian nation’ to Soviet Republic to current conflict

Why Russia bewilders

Former US Secretary Madeleine Albright was right — Russia hasn’t worked out the way Washington or London may have wanted it to. That is because Russia is bewildering to the Anglo-Saxon world, and as a result, also to the many who have been brought up in the traditions of learning, thinking, and policy formulation delineated by reformation. Moral positioning is the much-touted buzzword when approaching the sensational developments unfolding in Ukraine. It really misses the moot point that morality pales when placed on the scales with memories, the heaviness of which outweighs all other sensibilities. The tyranny of memory sweeps all else before it.

It is easy to denounce Russia’s intervention in Ukraine from the moral prism, for in the modern era, such things are just not kosher anymore. But the fact is that not everyone in this game thinks entirely in the modern era. And there is a vast landscape, geographical and metaphorical, that occupies space not easily comprehensible to those unburdened by memory recall. This is neither east nor west, simply different, and it is vital to understand the other to get at the roots of what is unravelling. For between the Occident and the Orient, lies the striking Slavosphere.

The sociology and geography of Slav sentiment are deeply intertwined. So much so that it defies modern-day logic and reasoning. Reams can be written and still not make sense to the layperson. A simple commentary to decode this curious phenomenon comes from an unusual source, The Balkan Line, a Serbian TV series based on true events surrounding the Russian airlift at Slatina Airport on 12 June 1999 and the Kosovo crisis.

All the curiosities of Slav sentimentality are on display in that series, unambiguously and transparently. Roots that deep don’t let go of memory so easily.

Kosovo is, after all, where the Serbian Orthodox Church is rooted, where the Patriarchate of Péc was created in 1346, and the monastery is the seat of the Serbian Patriarchs. It is also ‘the site of the Turkish defeat of the Serbs in 1389 and the Serbian victory over the Turks in 1912’.

Serbian conversion to the Orthodox Church sprang from the influx of Russian monks, who, in turn, had been inspired by Constantinople. The self-positioning of Russia as the leading homeland of Orthodoxy was proclaimed in another jubilee, the ninth centenary of the baptism of St Vladimir that had taken place in Kyiv in 987 CE.

Also read: Ukraine can’t be protected without getting hands dirty. Reassurances don’t work for Russia

Putin is under the spell

To further understand the spell woven by memory on Russian sentiment, read no further than an unusual article penned by the person at the centre of this storm, President Vladimir Putin. On 12 July 2021, he authored ‘On the Historical Unity of Russians and Ukrainians’. Memory recalls the extraordinaire, and Putin said, “The throne of Kyiv held a dominant position in Ancient Rus…The Tale of Bygone Years captured for posterity the words of Oleg the Prophet about Kyiv, ‘Let it be the mother of all Russian cities,’ and then ‘The books of Nikolay Gogol, a Russian patriot and native of Poltavshchyna, are written in Russian, bristling with Malorussian folk sayings and motifs.”

Malorussian’ is colloquial for ‘Little Russia’. Ukraine, after all, derives its origins from the Russian word okraina, or periphery. Protecting the periphery, whatever it may mean geographically and sociologically, is something with which Indians are familiar. Thousands have given up their lives for the same principle, driven by similar sentiments. So, it shouldn’t be difficult to grasp why events are unfolding the way they are in Kyiv.

Manvendra Singh is a Congress leader and Editor-in-Chief of Defence & Security Alert. He tweets @ManvendraJasol. Views are personal.

(Edited by Humra Laeeq)

Source: The Print

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