I have neither the desire nor expertise to weigh in on geopolitics. But here I need to throw in my bit. The views expressed here are my own, not those of etc. etc.

What Americans are hearing from their government and from American news sources of all political stripes about the situation in Ukraine is simplistic, to say the least. Contrary to what these are reporting, there are no guys in white hats and guys in black hats. Above all, the ignorance of history shown by the American government and media is appalling.

Or is it in fact ignorance? Could it be something else?


A New, “Old” Take on History

President Obama has been quoted as saying that the Russians, in seeking to annex the Crimea, are on the wrong side of history. German Chancellor Angela Merkel criticized Russian president Putin for using 19th- and 20th-century tactics.

Such comments betray a view of history that itself is rooted in the 19th century. This view dislikes the maxim that history repeats itself, and opts instead for a progressive, evolutionary outlook that treats the past as irrelevant. Human society, indeed, human nature itself are getting better and better, says this creed, more and more peaceful and civilized. Those who act contrary to this progressive ideology are some kind of throwbacks, social neanderthals, who deserve to be ostracized. Ironically, this take on history has much in common with the Marxist evolutionary ideas of progress that prevailed in the Soviet Union.

Only such an ahistorical conception can explain how Germany, who invaded Russia in 1941, at an immense cost of blood on both sides, can now criticize Russia for a rather peaceful annexation of its own former territory—even daring to compare Putin with Hitler. Or how Britain and France, who in the 1850s fought Russia on Russia’s own Crimean turf, can now pretend moral superiority in their condemnations of the Russian annexation of its former land.

Detail of Franz Roubaud's panoramic painting The Siege of Sevastopol (1904) copy

That was then, they feel. This is now. Our own shady history has no bearing on the present. We’re now enlightened. We’ve moved beyond our barbarous past and cannot be held responsible. We’ve evolved. Only today matters.

Is this progressive view of history correct? As a Christian theologian, I voice an emphatic no. Our Lord and His prophets and apostles tell us that there will be wars and conflicts to the end of this age. As a Lutheran, I am bound to believe what the Book of Concord says on the basis of Scripture, namely, that human nature is not improving, but growing ever weaker.

The hard evidence since the 19th century, when the evolutionary views came into being, more than abundantly supports the deterioration of society and humanity. Technological progress hasn’t brought about a corresponding progress in peaceful relations among nations and individuals. Nor will it ever. It is quite the reverse, as any sane bystander can see. Only when the King of kings returns will there be peace on earth. Until then, borders will be drawn and redrawn with blood. That’s just the way it is. So, in order to understand how and why things are, and what to do about them, we’d better learn from history instead of pretending the past doesn’t count, and that all that matters is our romantic, utopian view of how the present should be.

I’m neither defending nor condemning what has happened in the Crimea or is now happening in eastern Ukraine, but only wish to show a different side of some things from a right historical perspective and from the standpoint of Russians.

History 1: Ukraine

Ukraine itself—until recently known in English as “the Ukraine”—has always had close ties with Russia. Kiev is the cradle of Russian culture and religion. Ukraine used to be known also as Malorossia, “Little Russia.” The name “Ukraine” is actually an alternate form of a word meaning “outskirts” or “border.” That’s why in English it had “the” attached: “the outskirts.” Of what? It’s not hard to guess. Russians themselves traditionally speak of being “on” the Ukraine, that is, on the edge, not “in” Ukraine. Both geographically and psychologically, the two countries were virtually inseparable, though distinguishable.

Nikolay_Sergeyev_Apple_blossom_in_Little_Russia copy

In the 1990s, after the dissolution of the USSR, for the first time Ukraine became an entirely separate entity, in some instances being bitterly opposed to Russia. The reasons for this are complex. They include a growing nationalism and a desire to distinguish Ukrainian language and culture from those of Russia. A telling factor in all this is Stalin’s having included within the borders of Ukraine, after World War II, some territory that was historically never part of the Russian Empire, but rather of eastern Europe, and so was always pro-European and anti-Russian. Like his successor Khrushchev, Stalin held to that evolutionary ideology which taught that Communism would dominate the world, and that these national borders would cease to matter—especially as all peoples abandoned their dark-age religions for the enlightenment of Dialectical Materialism. Like his successor, Stalin has thus far been proven wrong.

For centuries there was huge crossover between Russia and Ukraine, so that today the two peoples, who were related from the beginning, are quite mixed. In addition, during Soviet times many ethnic Russians went to live and work in Ukraine. In 1991, when the Soviet music stopped, many were left standing in front of chairs they didn’t want to sit in. In other words, they found themselves suddenly citizens of a country that they weren’t ethnically or culturally part of, and that didn’t like them much, now that the country accentuated its independence from Moscow and its cultural uniqueness. All these facts help explain the deep divisions existing within the borders of present Ukraine between militantly pro-western and pro-Russian groups.

History 2: Crimea

Torelli2 copy

In the 18th century the Crimea became part of the Russian Empire. It wasn’t then part of the Ukraine. Yet in 1954—with no one’s consent—Khrushchev as a gesture gifted the region to the Ukraine, from whence he came. All this was fine as long as the Soviet Union existed. In the 1950s it seemed to the Soviets that their union would last perpetually. Khrushchev should have learned from history that empires welded together out of different nations, cultures, languages, and ethnicities don’t hold together forever. The Soviet Union was no exception.

With the breakup of the Union, the majority Russian population in the Crimea found itself part of a nation with which it now had little sympathy. The pro-Russian sentiment there is no invention of the Russian government to justify its actions. Nor was the vote to leave Ukraine forced at gunpoint, as some in the West are saying or implying.

History 3: The Soviet Breakup

2000px-Russian_Empire 1866In 1991 there was a Union-wide referendum in which the Soviet people had a chance to express their wishes on the future existence of the USSR. When asked if they would like the Union to stay together if they had a constitution guaranteeing their rights, the majority voted yes. Yet their leaders ignored the voice of the people and dissolved the Union anyway. Many in Russia, even Christians, remain unhappy about what they see as a betrayal. (This is the context of Putin’s infamous comment about the Soviet Union’s breakup being a great modern tragedy. It’s not about the ideology. It’s about the territory. It’s about border security.)


Svetitskhoveli Cathedral, Mtskheta, GeorgiaThe dissolution of the Soviet Union has created artificial and unstable boundaries. What happened in Georgia a few years ago and what has just happened in the Crimea are not simply attempts of Russia to amass more territory. They are, one might argue, inevitable sortings-out. Just as a dammed-up river, when the dams are not maintained and disintegrate, will find its natural course once again, so like ethnicities and like cultures will gravitate toward like. Of course, the strong will take advantage of the weak, and Russia is the strong player in this game. That’s just the sinful way of the world, and America too is far from free of guilt, although our way of going about it is usually a little different. It’s hard to say what will happen next, but the border-shifting is probably not over yet.

If all this is hard for Americans to understand, let me give a hypothetical illustration. Imagine that you were given a choice: keep America together, or separate into two nations, Orangeland, which contains the traditional capital, and Purpleland. The majority say, “We want to keep the union intact.” But contrary to the popular vote, the leaders divide the nation into two geopolitical units.

Now, say, you’re an Orange, living in an orange county or state, in the middle of Purpleland. The Purples don’t like you and yours. They do everything they can to eliminate the differences and turn you into them. Then all of a sudden your territory has a chance to be part of Orangeland. Your region wants to remain orange. Wouldn’t it make sense to jump at the chance? Wouldn’t it be natural for Orangeland to want to defend and annex its own kind, who are being persecuted in Purpleland? After all, historically your orange territory, now part of Purpleland, was governed from Washington D.C., not from Breakneck Falls or wherever Purpleland decides to put its capital.

A Gray Picture

Because from the beginning the United States has been a nation of diversity, we expect everyone else around the world to be the same as we are. They aren’t. They haven’t agreed to what we have agreed to. Their histories are different. They don’t welcome diversity. We cannot successfully force them to accept our values and be like us, much as we’d like to. Our attempts at doing so haven’t panned out very well. Nor are they likely to in the future.

The West needs to consider the given histories and face the realities. And it needs to reevaluate its own role. According to the predominant version of the whole story here in Russia, the West funded and equipped the protesters in Ukraine who a few months ago unseated their lawfully elected president, because he was pro-Russia. Is this true? Based on the past history of America’s actions, it probably is to some degree. Our government always denies its covert operations, but years later they come to the surface. Why should this time be any different? If this is what has happened now, the Russian annexation of the Crimea could be seen as a counter-move in a geographical game of chess. Likewise with the current unrest in eastern Ukraine. Here the West is quick to accuse Putin of aiding and abetting the protesters there, while denying its earlier similar actions, if there were in fact any, in Kiev. When it comes to the Crimean annexation, the West cries foul, but is curiously silent about its support of a Ukrainian administration whose own legitimacy is in question after the removal of a lawfully elected president by a militant few. Russians cannot help but see a kind of hypocrisy of the West’s position here, and for them that doesn’t lend credibility to western claims.

European Union on Europe copy

Indeed, the whole situation in Ukraine is symptomatic of the struggle for influence in eastern Europe. In a sense, Ukraine is a pawn in a power game between East and West. Yet it is no neutral party. The divisions within the borders of Ukraine are real, and they give both sides pretexts and justifications for doing what they are doing.

Russians feel that their nation is in the right, simply because these territories have been traditionally within their sphere of influence, even part of their own lands. Why should unilateral decisions about borders made by tyrants like Stalin and Khrushchev, decrees which no one else approved, be perpetually binding? Russians disapprove of the West’s trying to bring their nation’s historical territories into its own sphere instead.

What to Do?

When discussing such matters, Russians traditionally ask two questions: Who’s to blame? and What to do? We’ve dealt somewhat with the first. Everyone’s to blame. Now on to the second.

What is the answer? No one knows. Economic sanctions are not likely to work well against Russia. History should teach us that the proud people who burned Moscow rather than deliver the keys of the Kremlin to Napoleon, who suffered starvation and disease rather than yield Leningrad to the Nazis, is not going to capitulate to the comparatively mild punishment of economic hardships.

The stiffer these sanctions become, the higher the danger that the West, rather than making Russia comply, will simply isolate her, if Russia believes that her interests are better served by securing her borders. In the long run this isolation would not be a good thing for America, for Russia, or for the world.

There is really no insurmountable barrier now to a reasonably smooth cooperation between Russia and America. It was one thing when the Soviet ideology of world domination reigned. That is no longer in play, despite what some American news sources say. In fact, those who suspect that the old ideology lives on here among the leaders would do better to look closer to home. I see a lot more signs of life for Communism in America than here in Russia. Russians have already tried that. There’s no longer the same agenda of world domination, which from the western standpoint used to be the real “cold” in the Cold War. Have we forgotten this?

Yet there continues to be a lack of trust on both sides. Russia sees NATO as a threat to its security, just as Europe and America see Russian “expansionism” as a threat to theirs. In fact, both sides are probably less interested in aggression than in defense. On the part of Russia, the intent is not to restore the Soviet Union, but to have secure borders. Rather than all the rhetoric and propaganda that is being thrown around now, it would be better to recognize this and to explore ways of cooperation. Both parties need to work harder at building trust.

American foreign policy, regardless of which political party is in power, seems to view a strong Russia as a threat to American security. I don’t claim to be an expert here, but would point out that, historically, a weak Russia has not been in the best interests of America. In every major conflict, Russia has been our ally. Would it perhaps be better to forge trust, cooperation, and avenues of mutual strength?

There will probably never be a natural alliance between Russia and America. I’m not sure why, but suppose it has something to do with location on opposite sides of the world. It has something to do with who our neighbors are. To some degree our respective interests will always be at odds. This need not be bad. Having two large, strong nations who are in friendly tension, or tense friendship, could actually be a good thing for the world.

Space Race

For this to happen, the Cold War rhetoric needs to fall by the wayside. Each side accuses the other of maintaining it, and both are guilty. To get rid of the rhetoric, all need first to abandon the Cold War mentality. This will be harder to do, as long as those who hold power have living memories of that terrible time. In this fallen world, the suspicions won’t be gotten completely rid of. But would it hurt to make conscientious efforts in that direction? All the talk of a relationship “reset” at the beginning of the Obama administration has long since given way to the same tired old patterns. It’s time for less talk and more action.

Again, this reshuffling of territories isn’t the simple case of right and wrong that most news sources and government spokespersons are making it. From the standpoint of Christian theology, no one is righteous. All are liars. True to that, this crisis holds no shining beacon of truth anywhere, and one looks in vain for it. In any event, we can better deal with the situation only with better understanding. We can only gain this understanding by knowing the history and taking it into account.

Evaluating the present and future in light of the past: that’s the only way to be truly on the right side of history.