Timothy Garton Ash
Dec 17, 2022
The Kremlin’s imperial war has made its own culture and language a common enemy for people across its former empire
The time has come to ask whether, objectively speaking, Vladimir Putin is an agent of American imperialism. For no American has ever done half as much damage to what Putin calls the “Russian world” as the Russian leader himself has.
This thought came to me recently when I was in the Ukrainian city of Lviv, talking to Ukrainians made refugees in their own country by Putin’s war. “I was a Russian speaker until 24 February,” said Adeline, an art student from the now Russian-occupied town of Nova Kakhovka, referencing the date of Russia’s full-scale invasion earlier this year. Russia has failed to take over Ukrainian culture, she said, so now it has set out to kill it. Several other Ukrainian students told me they find “the spirit of freedom” in Ukrainian literature, but of subservience to power in Russian literature.
Tetiana, a refugee from the ruthlessly bombed and destroyed city of Mariupol, had suffered without heat, light or water in a cellar under constant bombardment, seen her best friend killed by a Russian missile, and then had a traumatic odyssey of escape. Tetiana not merely speaks much better Russian than Ukrainian; her mother is actually from Russia, as are her parents-in-law. The Russian president would consider her a Russian. So I asked her for her message to Putin. She replied that she would like to kill him.
Wherever I turned, in every conversation, there was a total rejection not just of the Russian dictator, not merely of the Russian Federation as a state, but of everything and almost everyone Russian. Polling by the Kyiv International Institute of Sociology shows that some 80% of Ukrainians had a positive attitude to Russia in 2013; by May 2022, the figure was just 2%. A university lecturer told me that his students now write “russia” with a small initial letter. “I don’t correct them.”
This may be unsurprising in Ukraine, a country suffering from a Russian war that is now primarily directed against the civilian population. But the same thing is happening across much of the territory of the former Russian (and subsequently Soviet) empire – which, since the early 2000s, Moscow has tried to reimagine as the russkiy mir, or Russian world.
In Georgia, a strong resentment of neoimperial Russia is more than understandable, since Russia has occupied roughly a fifth of the country’s sovereign territory (in Abkhazia and South Ossetia) since 2008. But following the invasion of Ukraine, that hostility has enveloped almost all Russians. Ironically enough, this impacts the many tens of thousands of Russians who have
fled to Georgia precisely to avoid being conscripted into fighting in Putin’s war against Ukraine. Georgians ask: why don’t you protest back home? Or as one banner put it, “Putin is killing people in Ukraine while Russians eat khachapuri in Georgia.” (Khachapuri is the distinctive Georgian cheese bread.)
The revulsion is also found in central Asian states that still have very close ties to Moscow. On YouTube, you can watch a magnificent excoriation of the bullying Russian ambassador to Kazakhstan, Alexey Borodavkin, delivered in fluent Russian by the Kazakh journalist Arman Shuraev. “Russophobia is all that you have achieved with your stupid actions,” he says. If Russia invades Kazakhstan as it has Ukraine, “the entire Kazakh steppe will be strewn with the corpses of your conscripts. You are idiots. You are cannibals who eat themselves.”
“Borodavkin,” he concludes, directly addressing the ambassador, “if you want to see Nazis and fascists in Kazakhstan, look in the mirror and you will see the main Nazi and fascist. Glory to Ukraine! Forward Kazakhstan!”
When Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine on 24 February, the Ukrainian journalist Olha Vorozhbyt tried to explain to an Indian public what was going on. “Could you imagine a Britain that claims India is in its empire?” she wrote in the Indian Express. “That is what Russia is doing now.” One can extend the analogy. Imagine that a revanchist, militarist British dictatorship instrumentalised the cultural notion of an “English-speaking world” to justify its reinvasion of India. That’s exactly what Putin has done.
The notion of russkiy mir was revived and repackaged in the late 1990s as a kind of Russian soft-power initiative (mir means peace as well as world). In 2007, the Russkiy Mir Foundation was created by presidential decree. This was presented as a Russian counterpart to the British Council or Germany’s Goethe-Institut, but the concept was then weaponised by Putin to justify his war of recolonisation in Ukraine. He explicitly mentioned the term in a speech justifying the annexation of Crimea in 2014.
The entirely predictable result – revulsion against his recolonisation wars – has extended to the whole broader notion of a Russian-speaking world. Obviously, a comparison with the English-speaking world points up big differences as well. Britain’s empire was overseas, Russia’s a contiguous land empire. The ideology of a Russian world was always closely associated with the Russian imperial project, the Russian Orthodox Church (now headed by the ecclesiastical warmonger Patriarch Kirill) and autocracy. But if Britain had reinvaded India, the British Council wouldn’t be very popular either. Those who justify their wars in terms of culture will find their culture treated as an enemy.
Russian culture is thus a collateral victim of Putin’s self-devouring cannibalism. There was an alternative future in which Russian-speaking culture, like today’s English-speaking culture, may have become multiculturally enriched by authors and artists from all its former colonies. What would contemporary English-language literature be without authors from India, Africa and Oceania? And, after all, fine contemporary Ukrainian writers such as Andrey Kurkov write – or should I say wrote – in Russian.
But we must keep our eyes on the main tragedy. Putin is trying to recover parts of the Russian empire by brute force and terror. He recently boasted that the Azov Sea has become an internal Russian sea, adding that even Peter the Great “had still to fight to gain access to [it]”. About 14 million Ukrainians, a staggering one-third of the country’s population, have been made homeless. Europe has seen nothing like this since 1945.
Even in Lviv, in the far west of Ukraine, I encountered frequent multi-hour power cuts, because Russia has destroyed about 50% of the country’s energy infrastructure. (You can donate to help Ukrainians get through the winter here.) What does Ukraine need most? Every single person I spoke to gave the same answer: weapons, weapons, weapons. Give us the tools, they say, and we will finish the job. And so we should.
In the end, Vladimir Putin will go down in history not merely as the man who failed to restore the Russian empire, but as the destroyer of the Russian world.
Timothy Garton Ash is a Guardian columnist