On the snowy city square, the head of the Pushkin statue was seen removed, with some onlookers in winter clothes
Statue of Russian poet Alexander Pushkin removed in Dnipro, Ukraine, December 2022 © Mykola Myakshykov / UkrInform / Avalon

Last month, I stood on the corner of what used to be Pushkin Street in Kiev. After Vladimir Putin’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in 2022, the street was renamed Yevhen Chykalenko Street after a key figure in Ukraine’s independence movement in the early 20th century.To lovers of literature and opera, cancel Alexander Pushkin, poet and writer Eugene Onegin, Might seem like overkill. Putin, yes, but why Pushkin?

For Ukrainians, however, who are fighting an existential struggle for their independence against Russia’s recolonial wars, Pushkin is a symbol of Russian imperialism, which has long denied Ukraine’s right to an independent state. Pushkin was a great poet, and a poet of Russian imperialism, just as Rudyard Kipling was a great poet, but also a poet of British imperialism.

Pushkin’s Poltava Depicting Ukrainian Cossacks gettleman Ivan Mazepa stars as the capricious traitor to the heroic Russian Tsar Peter the Great, who ultimately triumphs over the Swedes at the Battle of Poltava in 1709 and formally establishes the Russian Empire 12 years later.

When Russian troops bombed Ukraine last year, an official video showed Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov recite A line from Pushkin’s poem “To the Detractors of Russia” severely condemns the West’s support of the Slavs against Russia. A montage of photos of US President Joe Biden and the G7 summit made that message clear.Pushkin’s billboard when Russian troops captured Kherson deployed In a propaganda campaign declaring that Russia “has always existed”.

No wonder some Ukrainians are now referring to the “Pushkinists” who launched missile attacks on their cities on social media. For example: “Pushkinists do not allow us to sleep well – Kiev is very noisy”. (After a few late nights in a bomb shelter, I myself am not so kind to the Pushkinists.)

There is a bigger story behind Ukraine’s rejection of Pushkin. In hindsight, we can see that the decline of the Russian Empire was one of the important driving forces of European history over the past 40 years. If we have the foresight, we should expect it to remain one of the biggest challenges facing Europe for at least the next 20 years, if not 40.

After the Russian Revolution of 1917, the Russian Empire continued in a rather peculiar form, the Soviet Union. When the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics was formed in 1922, Lenin decided that there should be a nominally equal state among its republics. (Stalin, like Putin a century later, wanted Ukraine to be part of the Russian Federation.) After World War II, this newfangled empire dominated the countries of Central and Eastern Europe until an Iron Curtain stretched across Central and Eastern Europe. Germany. From Warsaw to Washington, it was seen as both the Soviet Empire and the Russian Empire.

Bundles of books, mostly hardcover, with Russian text on the covers and spines

Bundles of Russian-language books await pulping in the cellar of a Kiev bookstore © Timothy Garton Ash

In the 1970s, the imperial superpower still seemed a formidable competitor to the United States, even in parts of Africa and Latin America, but by the 1980s it had clearly declined. Between 1989 and 1991, Mikhail Gorbachev’s reform attempts culminated in the most spectacular peaceful collapse of an empire in history. This collapse not only unraveled Soviet/Russian control over Central and Eastern Europe, but also the long-standing imperial ties between Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus. Unusually, precisely because of the complex relationship between the Soviet Union and Russia, the final mover was Boris Yeltsin of Russia, the leader of the core imperial state.

Foolishly, many Westerners think that’s the end of the story, but fallen empires don’t just give up without a fight. The first signs of resistance came already in 1992, when Russian troops seized the breakaway territory of Transnistria at the eastern end of the newly sovereign state of Moldova, and two brutal subsequent wars to conquer Chechnya inside the Russian Federation.

The empire then fought back decisively on its international borders, seizing two large swathes of Georgia in 2008, annexing Crimea in 2014 and starting a war in eastern Ukraine, with a full-scale invasion of Ukraine on February 24. 2022. The Russian leader has made very clear in his speeches and articles that his main point of reference is the Russian Empire. Surprised by his boss’s decision last February, Foreign Minister Lavrov reportedly murmured to a friendly oligarch that Putin had only three advisers: “Ivan the Terrible. Peter the Great. And Ekaterina.” Great Emperor.”

Even if Ukraine regains every inch of sovereign territory, including Crimea, this history will not end. Belarus remains, a country of more than 9 million people who saw one of the most enduring civil resistance movements in modern history at the turn of the century against the increasingly authoritarian rule of President Aleksandr Lukashenko. There are post-Soviet independent states such as Moldova, Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan, as well as countries in Central Asia. In the Russian Federation there are Chechnya, Dagestan, Tatarstan and other republics. Currently, Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov is one of Putin’s most loyal followers, but if Russia enters a “time of trouble”, Kadyrov may start to make other calculations.

We in the West should not delude ourselves that we can “manage” the decline of this nuclear-armed empire in the same way that European powers could “manage” the decline of the Ottoman Empire in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Western democracies have long tended to overestimate their ability to influence the domestic politics of authoritarian regimes. In Russia today, an individualistic dictatorship in an advanced state of paranoia and repression, our direct influence is especially unlikely. After Putin and his immediate successors, we should have the possibility of more constructive engagement, and we should be prepared for it. But it will be a long time before Russia finally admits that it has lost an empire and begins to find its role.

In the meantime, what we can and must do is ensure that those nations that seek a better future beyond the fading Russian Empire can do so in peace, security, and freedom. Geopolitics, like nature, abhors a vacuum. Bringing Ukraine and its smaller neighbors into the EU and NATO, thereby securing them from any future attempts at recolonization, would also be in Russia’s interest in the long run. With the gates of empire finally closed, it can begin the long march to nation-state. However, this path will be particularly difficult because Russia has no historically, geographically or constitutionally well-defined states to return to, unlike established European states such as France and Portugal, which first acquired overseas empires , and then lost these empires.

An alternative post-imperial future is possible. The works of Ukrainian and other postcolonial writers could have enriched Russian-language literature, just as the works of South Asian, African, and Caribbean authors have enriched English-language literature. Putin tried to restore the “Russian world” by force, but destroyed it. In May 2013, 80% of Ukrainians said they had an overall positive attitude towards Russia. Last May, only 2% of Ukrainians were still reachable by pollsters gave that answer. Pushkin Street has been renamed. Putin did a lot for Pushkin.

Only when Ukraine is firmly embraced by Western geopolitical powerhouses such as the European Union and NATO, can the Ukrainian people, like Estonians and Lithuanians, sleep peacefully in their beds, untroubled by nighttime attacks by “Pushkinists”.Then Ukrainians may even start reading again Eugene Onegin pleasure.

Timothy Garton Ash is the author of Homeland: A Personal History of Europe

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