- Moscow, Maidan, and the Politics of Russia’s “Glorious Past”
It is a well-established tradition that foreign correspondents write general interest books about the country they are or were reporting on. To get the public’s attention, these books have to be written within a certain genre that prefers a personal narrative instead of a distancing scholarly voice and a personal encounter instead of a nuanced discussion of academic literature or data analysis. Authors of such books also have necessarily to build upon clichés, picking up topics quite familiar to the audience they are going to address, as Dina Fainberg reminds us in her book on American and Soviet journalists in the Cold War period.1
While reporting on Central and Eastern Europe for The Guardian, Shaun Walker wrote a book explaining how the Soviet past is remembered in Russia and Ukraine today and what role this memory plays in Russia’s contemporary politics. The literature exploring Russia’s drive toward post-Soviet nostalgia and the role of state-controlled media in this process is actually quite impressive.2 This is why Shaun Walker hardly tells something new in the first part [End Page 430] of his book, focused on remembrance politics in Putin’s Russia—the way in which state agencies have modeled public representations of the past, highlighting the country’s great achievements, above all the Great Victory in the Great Patriotic War of 1941–56, while remaining silent on the Great Famine, Stalin’s purges, or the deportations of seemingly disloyal peoples. However, what makes this part worth reading is the author’s attempt to understand and his ability to explain why people in Russia are buying the televised propaganda, why they do rewrite their past by skimming over the dark pages of their family history, and, finally, why they are longing for a past that to outsiders seems only worth commemorating, not something to be proud of.
In Walker’s second part, “Curating the Present,” he moves from the past to the present, showing how the reinvented Soviet past played out in Russia’s politics toward Ukraine in the context of the Maidan events. In doing so, he presents a multisided story explaining the Kremlin’s prerogatives as well as the perspective of people on the Maidan, the views of Ukrainian radical nationalists as well the perceptions of many people in the Donbas afraid of losing their Soviet identity and thus their “moral ground” in the new nationalized Ukraine. The strength of this part is the author’s personal account, since Shaun Walker traveled extensively at that time from one hot spot to another and talked with authorities, activists, and passersby on the streets. There is the story of Mustafa Dzhemilev, the Soviet dissident heading the Tatars’ informal parliament who was banned from Crimea for his flat refusal to cooperate with the authorities in Moscow; Vladimir, a former soldier and a failed salesman, who early on in 2014 joined the self-defense brigades in Simferopol´; or Leonid Kuzmin, a history teacher not ready to deliberately accept that Crimea is no longer part of his homeland, Ukraine. All of them have differing perspectives on the Soviet past and subsequently antagonistic interpretations of how the landscape of the present should look like. Some were eager to subscribe to a Ukraine breaking with Russia and subsequently with the Soviet past, while others were quite receptive to Russia’s televised propaganda which presented the radical national elements in Kiev as much stronger and more dangerous than they were.
In the third part, Shaun Walker uses the figure of Aleksandr Khodakovskii—before the Maidan, deputy head of the Donetsk Special Forces and, in his own understanding, a Soviet officer—to explain how the new interpretation of the past enabled or at least legitimized the escalation in Eastern Ukraine over the course of 2014, which led into full-scale war. Relying on conversations with Khodakovskii and some of his combatants, the author draws a bigger picture with rough strokes...