It is not easy for western Europeans and north Americans to understand the conflict in Ukraine because in western Europe and North America there is a pre-existing explanation for all things east of Minsk. Russia and to a large extent eastern Europe — or that part of eastern Europe within what may be considered the Russian sphere of influence — have been assigned, in the western imagination, a certain set of meanings. The tsunami of shock that swept westward over Europe in 1917 when the Bolshevik revolution began in St Petersburg sparked an ideological response in the western imperial powers that resulted in the complete reframing of our conceptualisation of Russia; Leninist or Bolshevist Communism, by establishing the ‘dictatorship of the proletariat,’ posed a real and immediate threat to the power and privilege of the elite classes in every part of the world where that power and privilege was built on the exploitation of workers.
Russian people — ordinary working people — had achieved something for themselves unimagined since the beginning of the French Revolution, they had cast off the despotic reigns of a divinely appointed monarch and in so doing had reconfigured in the popular imagination how power was to be gained, maintained, and reapportioned. No more would Russian workers be sent to slaughter and be slaughtered by German, Austrian, and Hungarian workers in the trenches. These were people who had common cause — the workers’ struggle for dignity and rights against the Tsar, the Kaisar, and the King — and this cause, the cause of the Communist International, was in every sense an existential threat to monarchy, bourgeois democracy, and industrial imperialism everywhere. Russia had, in an instant, become the head of a figurative dragon that threatened the literal heads of every potentate west of Minsk. The head of this great serpent had to be removed.
While the first action of the Bolshevik government was to end the war with Germany and its allies, the first response of the western powers was to make war with Russia. Between January 1918 and May 1925, the interventionist forces of the British Empire, the United States, France, Czechoslovakia, Romania, Italy, Serbia, Estonia, Greece, and Japan — pretty much the whole of the industrialised world at the time — fought with the White Russians to dismantle the Communist institutions and re-establish Russian autocracy. From the moment of its conception, the Soviet Union had to fight for its survival — for the right of ordinary workers to combine and determine their own conditions in their own land — and the cost of the USSR’s survival was the nightmarish era of Stalin and a hybrid nationalist-communist Stalinist regime which has haunted Russia to this very day.
No less did the years of the Cold War, after some ten and a half million Russians lost their lives in another existential fight against Nazi Germany in the Second World War, colour the western perceptions of Russia. Western Europe and North America were content to tolerate Hitler and Nazism because the Third Reich promised to serve as the perfect ideological buffer zone between them and the dangerous workers’ republics of the east, and were then only too delighted to work with Stalin and Russia when Hitler smashed through western Russia, Ukraine, and the Baltic states in his murderous drive for Lebensraum. Communist Russia could be forgiven temporarily so long as Russian blood was flowing in the cause of liberating Europe from the most barbaric expression European bourgeois nationalism we are yet to experience. Rightly or wrongly — probably wrongly, Moscow established its own buffer zone against Europe after 1945. Every threat to Russia has come from Europe.
It was in the frosty isolation of the Cold War, between 1945 and 1991, against the backdrop of a nuclear arms race and the new threat to us all of a thermonuclear Armageddon, that western attitudes towards Russia were cemented. The newly established dominance of the United States over western Europe and the capitalist-imperialist siege mentality ideology it constructed — especially around the divided city of Berlin — became the language and the imaginative framework by which the West understood Russia. This language and framework were always wrong. This was not Russia, but rather the western idea of Russia projected onto the reality of Russia. The ‘Red menace’ was a monster of the West’s own creation; its worst fears of its own potential foisted on the Soviet Union. This ‘scare’ became the prime ideological weapon of the United States and the West to keep their own dissidents in line — and none of this is to suggest that the reality of the Soviet Union was perfect. It was far from perfect.
Taken together; the seismic shock of the Russian Revolution and the Stalinist and post-Stalinist Soviet Empire of the Cold War, have shaped, through a long process of western ideological indoctrination, inculturation, and propaganda, how the West imagines Russia. Cinematic generations of Russia portrayed on the big screen as a dark and evil Mordor-like expanse at the edge of Europe — what we have been trained to think of as the safe and civilised — has obscured our vision of the true Russia with an almost incurable scotoma. This imagined Russia cannot be permitted within the bounds of what we have determined to be safe and civilised. This Russia must remain on the outside as some kind of chthonic devil, eternally threatening the good order of our world. In fact, we have become dependent on this false image of Russia as it serves as a canon against which the limits of the other great ideological construct — ‘the West’ — can be set. This Russia cannot be western. It cannot be westernised. We cannot allow that.
Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine has exposed this crisis of the western imagination. It has forced westerners to reiterate their conceptions of Russia, and has brought to the surface once again this deeply embedded prejudice of the dangerous netherworld. Russia cannot be trusted! Russia only means harm! Russia will destroy us! But these are clearly projections. There is nowhere outside the imagined limits of ‘the West’ where the West is trusted. Through a vindictive sanctions regime, the United States was able to kill over half a million children in Iraq to barely a blush in the western world. Since the dissolution of the Soviet Union — yes, the USSR no longer exists — the United States and the US-dominated regimes of the West have been on a murder spree, and they have at every turn justified their slaughter with nothing but lies. By any balanced reckoning, what we think of as the West is the most dangerous monster in the whole history of human civilisation. Yet, its primordial fear of Russia makes it impossible for it to see its own nature, while the dangerousness of the West is a simple matter of fact everywhere else in the world.
We tell ourselves that Putin’s Russia is ‘isolated,’ and no doubt this comforts us, but this is nowhere based on facts. The global south in its entirety — almost to a country the former colonial victims of Europe and the United States — has in no way rallied behind NATO; the instrument by which the US dominates the planet. The most powerful states of the global south, China, India, and Brazil, are more inclined to take Russia’s side than the West’s. When it comes down to trust, these countries are more trusting of Russia because Russia has done them less harm. In fact, it might be argued that Russia — even during the Soviet era — did them some good.
What is happening in Ukraine is wrong. Innocent people are suffering and losing their lives because they are trapped inside a feeding frenzy of three power blocs. The war in Ukraine has as much to do with Russian aggression as it has to do with American ambition and European expansionism. Had the US and the EU not antagonised Russia — and deliberately antagonised Russia with a premeditated view to destabilising it — this war would not be happening. This is not to say that Putin’s Russia is not an aggressive state entity. It’s a superpower — or near-to superpower — state. Of course it’s aggressive. But with a neutral Ukraine to the south-west it felt safe and unthreatened. Russia had no reason to invade a neutral Ukraine — and it never invaded a neutral Ukraine. Ukraine’s peace and security were guaranteed by its neutral non-alignment.
Now that the war is happening, and now that we are at — as Noam Chomsky described it — ‘the most dangerous point in human history,’ the West finds itself unable to see Russia correctly. We are still looking at our projection of Russia — a false image of our fears rather than Russia as it really is. In effect, then, Washington and its NATO client states are boxing their own shadows while the real Russia acts in totally unexpected ways because we don’t expect a fiction to behave as anything other than a fiction. The problem is that the real Russia — the Russia that really exits — is active and moving and we don’t see it because we are still staring at Russia as it existed in the western imagination over three decades ago. And, as a consequence of this, we are unable and unwilling to see Ukraine as it truly is — a deeply divided state ruling over a deeply divided set of nations that has failed to overcome some of the darker historical pests the West tolerated as a bulwark against Communism.
In sum, the West has quite actually sleep-walked itself right to the very edge of nuclear annihilation and into the depths of an international crisis — blindly following US ambitions — and is unable to see the danger of the present because it is fixated on the fears of the past. Europe is accelerating to a precipice and it thinks it has its eyes on the road ahead while staring fixedly in the rear-view mirror. Russia may well be a danger. The United States most certainly is a danger. But what is certain beyond all doubt is that we in the West will never see what danger Russia may or may not be while we remain transfixed by a Russia that no longer exists — that probably never really existed.
Jason Michael McCann, M.Phil. (TCD) Conflict Studies The author holds a postgraduate degree in Race, Ethnicity and Conflict from the University of Dublin, Trinity College, and an academic fellowship in the study of conflict from the University of West Flanders. He has published on the history of the Auschwitz-Birkenau extermination camp and the murder of the Hungarian Jews in 1944.