During a recent trip to Vienna to sign an agreement for part of the controversial South Stream gas pipeline with Austrian energy company OMV, Vladimir Putin was in a jovial mood. Asked how it was possible that he was elected president of Russia so often, he gave a biting reply: “Dictatorship. But a good dictatorship.”
The Kremlin jokes openly not just about its own authoritarian practices but also about European democratic standards.
That’s all very well. But the greatest threat to the European order is not Putin’s superpower politics or his rhetoric. It’s the fact that EU countries have a hard time evaluating what he says. The dictionary of Russian politics seems to have been compiled in such a way that Europeans see themselves as if looking through a crooked mirror.
On the one hand, almost every central concept in Western European rhetoric has its equivalent in Russia. There is “fascism” and “nationalism.” There is “border protection” and “multiculturalism.” And there are condemnations of anti-Semitism.
On the other hand, each of these concepts has been imbued with a meaning that differs from the original. That is the paradoxical, imitative innovation of contemporary Russian propaganda.
In Putin’s statements, fascism and nationalism are threats that belong to the past as much as to the present. They belong to the past because in the twentieth century, these two diametrically opposed ideologies led to a tragic world war. They are part of the present because today’s EU is a place where the nationalist hydra is once again rearing its head.
In the present as in the past, Russia is there to act as a shield. “My country played a vital and maybe even the decisive role in defeating Nazism,” Putin said in June in an interview with French radio Europe 1 and the television station TF1.
He expressed this sentiment more strongly in remarks at Moscow’s Victory Day parade on May 9. “It was our country that pursued the Nazis right back into their dens, dealt them the full and final blow, and achieved victory at a cost of millions of lives lost and terrible trials endured.”
From this perspective, Russia’s annexation of Crimea in March has a “logical” justification. While it may be true that “a policy of expansionism and conquest has no future in the modern world,” as Putin told French radio, in a second speech on May 9 in Sevastopol he declared that the Victory Day celebration “marks exactly 70 years since Crimea was liberated from Nazi invaders.”
Could today’s situation in eastern Ukraine be analogous to the Soviet fight against Nazism?
Rhetorically, yes. During an online discussion on April 17, Putin gave a definitive answer: “Nationalism and even neo-Nazism are experiencing a resurgence in western Ukraine.” In Kiev, the main actors of the pro-Western revolution that ousted former Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych in February were “Nationalists, neo-Nazis, Russophobes and anti-Semites,” Putin said on March 18 in a speech to the Russian parliament.
This instrumental use of the concept of anti-Semitism is the most dangerous among Putin’s ploys from the point of view of united Europe. It is, after all, difficult to disagree with sentences he uttered not so long ago in Israel: “The Holocaust was one of the blackest, most shameful and tragic pages in all of human history. Even today, our hearts still refuse to accept this monstrous cruelty that the Nazis committed.”
But because Putin uses the word “Nazis” concurrently to describe Ukrainian politicians, the sentiments he expressed do not merely play the role of a memento and paying tribute to the past. This is an instrumental approach to the Holocaust, a crime that is at the center of Europe’s collective memory. And as such, it is at the very heart of European integration.
Putin masterfully understands the time in which we are living: today, part of European public opinion is ready to believe his word games. Why?
For decades after World War II, the language of accounting for the past—repentance and reconciliation—formed an important part of European identity. This was tied to a critical approach to the past and a deep wariness of all ideological blindness.
But as the memory of the two totalitarian regimes, brown and red, fades, completely different narratives are colonizing the sites of Europe’s common culture of remembrance. A dangerous syncretism is appearing in the language of politicians and commentators.
The war’s victims are still being honored and perceived through the lens of the pernicious consequences of political extremes. But at the same time, mainstream discourse is becoming permeated with discriminatory rhetoric against minority groups that include the Roma, North African immigrants, and European Muslims.
Just consider the success of the German economist Thilo Sarrazin. His theories about the supposedly biologically grounded lower IQ of Turks compared with Germans should at most have given him the status of someone not to be taken seriously. But his books have been best sellers.
In France, the comedian Dieudonné plays a similar role. He makes jokes about the Holocaust. His success with readers and viewers gives some idea of how society’s thinking on the past has changed.
This syncretism, or inner contradiction, in the European approach to the past coincides with the fundamental geopolitical change that took place twenty-five years ago.
The simple duality of the politics of apologies and settling accounts reflects the bipolar logic of Cold War–era thinking. The fall of the Iron Curtain brought with it, on a political level, a mutually interactive world devoid of simple divisions.
And in the domain of collective memory, the collapse of Communism brought a deep pluralism. After 1991, it was not just historians and representatives of nations who spoke of the past but also—and increasingly—social and ethnic groups and individuals. Yet coming to terms with history led neither to the establishment of a European identity nor to increased self-confidence or trust in others.
That begs the question whether a European identity is possible without a strong negative point of reference.
Communism, divided from the rest of Europe by the Iron Curtain, had for decades played this role. Today, the point of reference for European identity could be Putin’s politics and rhetoric—if only the West realized the insidious nature of his toying with concepts that form the basis of the two sides’ shared culture.
The aim of Putin’s propaganda, as in other spheres of contemporary Russian politics, is to make his opponents less self-assured. It is a part of a larger strategy that aims at distracting the opponent. Europe should grasp that.
With contributions from Viktoriia Zhuhan. Translated from the Polish by Maria Blackwood.
Jarosław Kuisz, a legal historian and political analyst, is editor in chief of the Polish online weekly newspaper Kultura Liberalna. He is 2014 visiting scholar at the University of Chicago and a researcher at the Institut d’histoire du temps présent in Paris.
Karolina Wigura, a political philosopher and author, is head of the political section of Kultura Liberalna and assistant professor at the University of Warsaw.