Since Ukraine appears more and more as a failed state, its very statehood in the balance, that country’s future is yet to be decided, decided either by political powers or by the force of historical events.
The word partition is now spoken in public.Especially in Poland. Poland loves the idea of a partition of Ukraine. Poland seems to see itself as modern day East European colonizers. Its leaders feel that only Poland, the second biggest neighbor of Russia, can manage the future of the land that separates West and East Europe.
Poland fears above all a Russian-German agreement on Ukraine, without a Polish role. Warsaw fears that such a bi-lateral agreement would open all of East Europe to Russian influence. In essence, that it could reestablish the East Europe of before the American-backed Maidan events in Kiev and the overthrow of the Ukrainian government.
Above all, just the mention of failed government and partition of the country in reference to Ukraine throws American plans for East Europe into disarray and raises concomitantly the specter of readjustment of the dramatic alterations of Russian territories, lands and peoples that have taken place since the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991. Yet, as US interest in Ukraine wanes, partition can be seen as the most viable exit. Better than the expense of a failed state on its shoulders, better than even pious European I-told-you-so, much better than a humiliating military defeat.
Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseny Yatseniuk attends a news conference in Kiev December 30, 2014. “Yats” was State Department intriguer Victoria Nuland’s personal pick. Though married to a Jew, the woman —a neocon—remains unapologetic about her role as incubator of Nazis in Eastern Europe. REUTERS/Konstantin Grishin
Like people, also entire lands can disperse into diaspora. Both happened to Russia in the twentiethcentury. During the tumult of the break-up of the Soviet Union successive waves of emigrations of Russian people to the corners of the world was followed by the dispersion of whole lands from the Russian motherland.
Mother Russia and those diaspora lands in proximity form a kind of transnation, close to one another, in fact adjacent, lands ripped from their roots by historical political contingencies. The USA/NATO demands that the separation between Russia and its lands in diaspora remain fixed. For Russians the diaspora is unnatural. Nor from the Russian perspective is the present historical current toward reunion as seen in Crimea to be considered expansionist; it is simply the natural flow of history toward the restoration of the greater Russian nation.
The reassembling of these diaspora lands into a whole ethnic nation (a mini-cosmonation) however did begin with the annexation of the Russian land of Crimea in March of 2014, in effect detaching it from its unnatural place in Ukraine which itself had only become an independent nation after the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991-92.
Ukraine’s claim to Crimea was weak in the first place. A gift of Soviet Moscow to one of its then republics. Even though the majority of inhabitants of the Crimean peninsula were ethnic Russians, the Soviet Union had transferred Crimea to the Soviet Ukrainian republic in 1954 as a purely internal administrative matter.
With the benefit of hindsight we now know that many Maidan demonstrations were carefully orchestrated for publicity effect, and that the West had effectively taken over the course of events. CC BY-ND by streetwrk.com
Other former Soviet lands peopled by major numbers of ethnic Russians, Russo-Ukrainians or Russians by choice, peoples who consider themselves part of Greater Russia but are still in diaspora strive to become part of the whole. Eastern Ukraine including Kiev and to the south Odessa together with the small country of Moldova, though in immediate proximity to the homeland, are likewise in the unnatural political diaspora which came about following the break-up of the Soviet Union.
In reality these diasporic lands are appendices of the homeland of Russia.
As a result of the military stalemate between US/NATO-financed Ukrainian armed forces and the forces of the pro-Russia Donbass-Novorossiya, the corruption and the general inefficiency of the new political class in the Ukraine capital of Kiev and its widely publicized political dependency on violent Nazi-Fascist elements in West Ukraine, observers have begun speaking of an upcoming partition of Ukraine.
The dividing line within Ukraine would have to be the Dnieper River (see map) or most likely even farther west and in the southeast in such a manner as to include Mariupol and Kherson in Russia. In any case, partition would mean reducing Ukraine to a small, very poor country, bordering Poland and the European Union. In such a scenario significant numbers of Western Ukrainians would most likely rebel and demand the unity of a “new” Ukraine, again part of, or in a special relationship with, Mother Russia.
The map shows that Ukraine is bordered on the north, south and east by Russian or Russian-friendly territories. A look at the map below shows Russia and Belarus to the north, Russia to the east and along the southern border of Ukraine the country of Moldova and Moldova’s breakaway, pro-Russia Transnistria (or Transdnestr) Republic.
Today, the very existence of Ukraine is truly tenuous and problematic if not unrealistic: for the simple reason that Russians and Ukrainians are basically one people.
A short study of the map below and minimum awareness of economic and cultural interplay between West and East Europe shows the most casual observer that West Europe has more to gain from a stable East Europe, which in the final analysis overshadows US geo-political objectives in this complex and moreover natural and geographic Russian zone of influence. Therefore, Polish fears of a Russo-German agreement are not far-fetched.
Recent mass protests have brought matters to a head in the country of Moldova on Ukraine’s south-western flank which now must choose between Europe and Russia. Sandwiched between Romania and Ukraine, Moldova too became an independent republic following the collapse of the USSR in 1991.
The bulk of Moldova lies between the rivers Dniester and the Prut, an area formerly known as Bessarabia, only vaguely familiar to West Europeans. The land became the Moldavian Soviet Socialist Republic, (MSSR) when the territory was annexed by the USSR in 1940 following the carve-up of Romania in the Ribbentrop-Molotov pact between Hitler’s Germany and Stalin’s USSR, the latter stalling for time for rearmament before the expected German invasion.
Nearly half the Moldovan population is Russian or Russian-speaking Ukrainians. Most are Russian Orthodox. In its capital of Chisinau—in Russian Kishinev—Russian is the street language. Some people are of Romanian descent; the Moldovan and Romanian languages are virtually identical. But most also speak Russian. A Moldovan acquaintance of friend of mine in Rome served in the Russian army.
The Moldavian Soviet Socialist Republic remained part of the USSR until 1991. There are good reasons to suspect that deals are yet to be cut here, perhaps another test for international law after the US/NATO travesty of Kosovo in Serbia. A test for capitalism, too.
Mother Russia and those diaspora lands in proximity form a kind of transnation, close to one another, in fact adjacent, lands ripped from their roots by historical political contingencies.
Moldovans should say ‘no’ to NATO and ‘no’ to absorption by Western-oriented Romania where the US is installing missile sites. Moldova should limit its cooperation with the European Union, too. For now however Moldova is on the frontline in the underground battle between Russia and the USA.
When in 1990 it became clear that the Moldovan SSR (about four million population) would achieve independence from the then disintegrating Soviet Union, the long strip of land along its eastern periphery, populated chiefly by pro-Soviet separatists, ethnic Russians or Russian speakers, broke away from the Moldavian SSR and formed the Transnistrian Republic, hoping to remain within the Soviet Union or in any case part of Russia.
However, neither Moscow nor Chisinau (the capital of Moldova in Romanian) recognized the self-named “Pridnestrovian” Moldavian Soviet Socialist Republic (PMSSR). So in 1991, Transnistria (in reference to the Dniester River) assumed the name Pridnestrovian Moldavian Republic. Such are the endless complexities of this corner of East Europe, its uncertain ethnicities, its many names and designations in its various languages—Russian, Polish, Romanian, Ukrainian, German, Yiddish—so that the population itself has no clear idea of who they are or where they want to belong. Many would doubtless welcome a solution to the riddle.
The rise of a fierce neofascit regime in their ancestral cradle, supported by Washington, as well as manufactured troubles in other areas justly regarded as within Russia’s sphere of power, has provoked a defensive wave of Russian nationalism. This decal proclaims, “We’ll do it again!” Fucking the Nazis, that is.
So this mishmash of peoples, ethnicities, cultures, religions, languages and lands reaching from Poland to the Black Sea, peoples looking for a nation or something to adhere to, maybe something to believe in, too, stagger around like children playing the game of blind-man’s bluff, their hands held in front of them as feelers, their vision of the future uncertain. They remind me of a Polish writer, a dedicated Communist, I once interviewed in Warsaw in the Communist era who wrote in Polish but did not really know what language was truly his. I interviewed him switching between German and the Italian he had learned as correspondent in Rome.
West Ukraine tilts heavily toward “Europe”, and cities like Lviv are notorious for their open support of fascist and ultra-nationalist formations. This parade commemorates a collaborationist Ukrainian Nazi SS Division.
Recently, months of anti-government protests in the Moldovan capital of Chisinau reached a head when tens of thousands of people of stormed the parliament building, and police used tear gas against the protesters, resulting in dozens of injuries.. The protesters chanted “We Are the People” and “We Want our Country Back” and “Down with the mafia” in both Romanian and Russian, and demanded that the president, prime minister, and parliament all resign, and new elections be called. Protesters are demanding the investigation of the “theft of the century” – the disappearance of$1.5 billion, 15% of the country’s GDP, from three national banks
There are two major ideologies in Moldova, the pro-Europe side and the pro-Russia side. Since 2009, the pro-Europe side has governed, but since the corruption scandal broke a year ago, voters have become increasingly disgusted with all sides.
The recent prime minister is still nominally on the pro-Europe side.
Pro-Russian candidates are favored to win in new elections, with a pro-Russian Prime Minister. Both pro-Europe and pro-Russia groups accuse the present government of corruption. Widespread riots are in the making, riots similar to the Maiden riots in Kiev, the capital city of Ukraine.
However, the Moldova crisis presents opportunities and dangers for Russia.
Map of Moldova highlighting Transdniestria / Transnistria province (Economist)
The strip of land on Moldova’s border with Ukraine is the province of Transnistria. Polls in Transnistria indicate that people there would like to secede from Moldova and join the Russian Federation, in the same way that happened to Ukraine’s Crimea peninsula and the same as is happening in Novorossiya in SE Ukraine. During the events leading to Russia’s annexation of Crimea, it was widely believed and many hoped that a Russia invasion would continue on to the port of Odessa and then on to link up with the secessionist Transnistria province of Moldova.
That never happened, as Russia did not invade Ukraine while Russia faced Western sanctions and falling oil prices.
Now there is a new opportunity for Russia. If there are new elections in Moldova, and if, as expected, the pro-Russia factions win, then Russia will have a political change of government in its favor that will give it influence over Moldova without firing a shot, without the cost of a military invasion.
In a Cold War atmosphere, foreign correspondents in the Crimea like to show Russian warships in Sevastopol and Simferopal and Russian soldiers patrolling Crimean streets. And sometimes, reluctantly, maps are displayed showing the divisions of Ukraine: pro-Western Ukraine, Middle Ukraine including the capital, Kiev, Pro-Russian Ukraine, and Crimea and peripheral areas reaching southwest to Moldova and Transdnestr.
From time to time you hear military experts repeat the analogy of Russia’s power play in the Crimea with the US occupation of Kosovo and its separation from Serbia and its recognition as an independent nation by most of Europe.
While Russian President Putin plays his power game skillfully, US Secretary of State Perry roams around making stupid statements about defense of America’s interests (thousands of miles away).
One day I spent some hours reading the comments of my some 40-50 Russian Facebook friends—university professors and students, journalists, chiefs of various public organizations, city employees, Kremlin employees, politicians from various parties, both pro-Putin or anti-Putin. Their voice was unanimous: ignore the USA; ignore West Europe; hate for the Nazis-Fascists-Banderovtsi (followers of the WW II traitor Stepan Bandera, a violent Ukrainian nationalist who led several regiments of West Ukrainians in Nazi SS uniforms against Soviet Russia, killing Poles and Russians and serving as the most brutal executioners of the Jewish population; scorn for petty nationalistic intrigues; great Russian nationalism tempered however with non-hostility toward their Ukrainian cousins of East Ukraine and Crimea. “Finally”, one wrote, “Russia shows its strength.”
Here I have included excerpts from my political novel, Lily Pad Roll, which shatters the myth that America is invading countries and building foreign bases in order to defend the US homeland and to secure oil supplies. The deeper motive for this slaughter of hundreds of thousands of our fellow human beings and the resulting near-bankruptcy of the USA is brutal geopolitics: the desire of our ruling elite to weaken one of their chief rivals, Russia.
My protagonist is in Bulgaria in East Europe where he meets the new woman of his life, Antonia, who accompanies him on a trip through territories bordering Russia, lands hardly known to West Europeans.
EXCERPTS FROM THE NOVEL LILY PAD ROLL by GAITHER STEWART
I want to get to Moldova, and especially to the Transnistrian Republic that so recalls the recent history of Kosovo … except from a Russian point of view. If America could militarize Kosovo and nearly bring Moldova into NATO, why should Russia not do the same there in its own former territories? And after Moldova, Odessa is waiting for me personally—if only to see those monumental Potemkin Stairs, the giant staircase entrance from the Sea into the heart of the city.
Each day I’m more astounded at this varied life only one thousand miles east of Berlin, totally different cultures and peoples. Mysterious territories. Impossible borders and belongings and names. And they are all Europeans—about whom we Westerners know nada. Or we discount them. Look down on them…
“Military lily pads. That’s what they call the American military bases across the world. Like the American bases in your country. (Bulgaria) That soldiers can hop from one to the other, like green frogs with black goggles … hopping from one lily pad to the other. NATO wants one in Moldova.”
“According to Bulgarian newspapers, Russians also want a base there, “(Antonia says). “If America can put a military base right in Russia’s face, why should Russia not build one too? Does America want another war? Iraq and Afghanistan are not enough? What is enough? But I never heard them called lily pads. I don’t know the Russian word for it. Still, I don’t understand why they spend all that money on their … their stinking military lily pads.”
“Well, we’ll see. Odessa is, well, another story. I want to see that staircase.” Though Antonia hasn’t seen Eisenstein’s film and can’t understand my romantic curiosity about the staircase, she understands instinctively what is happening in the world. People here have more political awareness than in West Europe … I’m sure much more than in America. In Bulgaria, they overestimate American power because of the chain of lily pads and the soldiers in their cities but I’ve concluded that innocence and naiveté are not Bulgarian characteristics, and I’m just at the start of my adventure. I’ve already seen that social consciousness and the sense of reality are sharper in East Europe than in the West….
The next afternoon we’re in the capital of independent Moldova. The ambivalent atmosphere is immediately palpable. After all the historic changes, new and old borders, new and old masters, after being part of Romania, then Russia, Moldovans don’t know where they belong.
“Life must seem like a dream to the Moldovans,” I mutter.
Antonia cocks her head and looks at me expectantly.
“As if they’re just waking from a dream. Maybe for some, from a nightmare. And they don’t know where they are … or what to do now. Over six hundred thousand of their four million live abroad.” I ramble. I doubt Antonia can follow me. This breakaway state from the former USSR is courted by the West and also ideologically undermined by Western moles…. One of those East European areas almost impossible for Westerners to disentangle or pinpoint as to where it really belongs or even of what nationality its people are. West Europeans still call it Moldavia. Moldova? What’s that? A country? A people? A language? If its name is unclear, its existence must seem unjustifiable. Still, Russia, Romania and NATO all want it.
“They know what they want,” Antonia says. Again instinctively she understands their situation. “It’s a poor country. Some of them might miss their past and still speak like Russians but most want what Westerners have.”
“Yes, but many nations claim or want Moldova. I’ve read surveys showing that many Moldovans want to be annexed by someone. Even by Romania, although they know Romania is a poor country too.”
“Maybe. But they have even less than Romanians. Some of them come to Bulgaria to work. And we’re not rich either.”
“Well, Russia would love to have it back … for strategic purposes. Keep the Americans out. West Europe wants it in the EU and in NATO in order to pressure Russia. The USA wants to put a lily pad base here … right smack in the belly of Russia.”
As we walk through the downtown I put my arm around Antonia’s shoulders. “I feel like I’m in Russia,” I say.
The next morning the feeling of the proximity of Russia is accentuated in the Transnistrian Republic. After exiting from Chisinau we’re soon on a three-lane highway lined by modern gas stations on the 80-mile jaunt to breakaway Moldova’s own breakaway republic, called Transdnestr. Just as Moldova broke away from the USSR when it folded, Transdnestr has broken away from Moldova. The self-declared republic is located on the east bank of the great lazy Dniester River that runs through the double breakaway capital city of Tiraspol and flows into the Black Sea creating that cold counter current toward the Aegean Sea.
For the international community the breakaway republic doesn’t even exist….. I keep thinking of the Kosovo corollary. If the U.S. could fight a war against Serbia, bomb Belgrade for three months, overthrow its government, break up the nation, detach Kosovo, the very heart of Serbia, declare it a republic, recognize it and then build one of Europe’s biggest military bases there, why could Russia not do the same here? …
In Moldova the language issue is complex—40% per cent of the population is Russian or Ukrainian and many others speak Russian, even though the official language is Moldovan, actually Romanian, and is written in Latin script. I have Moldovan acquaintances in both Rome and Berlin who speak Russian; one in Rome did military service in the Russian army. But in the Transdnestr Republic language is a political statement. The chief language is Russian. Even the Moldovan language is written in Cyrillic as it was in Soviet times and is only one of the three official languages. Romanian is not even an official language and Latin script is banned.
Strolling along the uninviting streets of the capital city, arm in arm, almost carefree, I notice the office of the Russian-language newspaper, Dnestrovskaya Pravda. Antonia reads the plaque on the door: the republic’s oldest newspaper. On a hunch I lead her inside where I introduce myself as a foreign journalist and ask to see the editor-in-chief. The youngish-looking, middle-aged woman, Tatiana Rudenko, who receives us, is visibly relieved when she hears Antonia speak Russian. If there is hesitation about whether to speak in Russian in Chisinau, that is not the case in the Transnistrian capital of Tiraspol—here you speak Russian first of all.
Madame Rudenko relates the history of her city, starting with its foundation in 1792 along the Dniester River east of Chisinau…..
As she spoke, I saw before my eyes the unfolding of a story lying outside official history. Outside European time. Actually, much of East Europe is like that for many of us. I, as a European, see also that the upstart USA could never begin to grasp, much less resolve such old hates and loves, defeats and victories, borders and boundaries and the languages and histories of peoples who themselves are uncertain as to who they are or even in what language they think. Their sense of nationality is vague and volatile. Like the cultural city of Chernivitsi, today in Ukraine not far from here, on which I spent time in my map studies. Its many names in its different languages confuse the foreigner. Chernovtsy in Russian, Czerniowce in Polish, Tshernovits in Yiddish, Cernauti in Romanian, Czernowitz in German…. How can one grasp this bewildering region? Is it part of Europe? If not, then where is it? And who are these peoples?
After a long silence, embarrassing for me because the history Rudenko recounts makes me feel presumptuous, I go back to my original query …. in her opinion, would Transdnestr succeed in remaining independent?
Rudenko peers at me for a moment as though I’m crazy ….“If America opens bases in former Soviet republics, Russia must counter each one of them. In Russian territory, but right along the line of the American military bases surrounding Russia. On the front, so to speak. After the collapse of the USSR, Russia was weak. No longer. Today, Russia guarantees our independence. Though our republic broke away from the Soviet Union, we realize that the stronger the Russian military presence here, the better for us. Russia commands here today. We look toward Russia. Much easier to go to war—cold or hot—over the Transdnestr Republic than over Kosovo.
“Now there are only 1500 Russian troops here. Here to protect the weapons warehouses of the army of the former Soviet Union. It’s a symbolic force. For now. You hardly see them. They stick close to their bases. For us however it’s logical that Russia deploys any weapons necessary to neutralize U.S. missile systems. Needless to say that we too are sensitive to the U.S. missile bases spread all over East Europe, in the Caucasus and in Asia. Russia’s gas is a powerful weapon. But it’s not enough. It’s true that a Russian base here would aggravate matters between Moldova and Transdnestr, also between the USA and Russia. Still, what is Russia supposed to do? Just sit back and watch the USA take us over, and take over Russia too? And that, my German friend, is what Washington wants: to scare the shit out of Russia. Crush it. Dissolve it. Break it up into little countries like ours. We hope the Russian base here will help stop the American advance across the world. The greater the American presence in East Europe, in Moldova itself, the greater should be the Russian response. Strengthening Russia’s military presence in Transdnestr has been unnecessary thus far since Moscow continues to dialogue with Moldova, which has not wanted to use military force against our breakaway republic.
“Remember that Russia can aim just as many nuclear missiles pointed at the West as the U.S. can mount from its bases in East Europe. Washington launched a strategic military thrust on Russia’s borders, installing its missile sites and Air Force bases in Poland, Rumania, Turkey, the Czech Republic and Bulgaria and expanding its bases in former Soviet republics in Central Asia. Those missile bases encircle Russia … only minutes away from Russia’s heartland. Washington-NATO has launched economic and military operations against Russia’s trading partners in North Africa and the Middle East. The NATO war that ousted Gaddafi in Libya has nullified multi-billion dollar Russian oil and gas investments and arms sales and substituted a NATO puppet for the former Russia-friendly regime. And now it aims at other commercial partners of Russia.
“Finally, Russia has reacted and threatens to aim its medium-range missiles at Berlin, Paris and London.”….
Arm in arm we stroll along the wide street leading toward the city center … though I’ve begun thinking there is no real center as such. Indistinct and uncertain architecture, some buildings in marble, some in concrete slabs, of no specific style. They don’t actually line the street but rather emphasize the many blank green spaces. Looks like a new city, a city yet to be completed, a Slavic Brasilia in evolution. Despite the wide avenues, not even a suggestion or pretension of grandeur. As if nothing were complete or would ever be complete. I feel the same nostalgia I used to feel walking the streets of former East Berlin. I try to picture the small town on which this new one was built. I imagine its former unsmiling peasants; dark, bearded and longhaired, pulling loaded carts down muddy roads near the river. They are men who atavistically fear devious and untrustworthy foreigners. They are men who love the joys of celebrations, men who know the difference between war and peace, between evil and good, and who worship the Orthodox resurrected God rather than the Catholic crucified one. These men however, I learned from my readings, also had a cruel streak in them, the human stain, that made them intolerant of other faiths that they blamed for their sufferings. Those anti-Semitic people must have vanished with the old town. In my imagination the new population consists of relocated individuals, not peoples, with little sense of who they are. They are stragglers, a new race, transplanted here beyond the River Dniester to cut out a new destiny for themselves. Nonetheless, the absence of the expected crowds today creates an eerie atmosphere, almost contagious….
The kiosk is a dilapidated structure made of metal and wood. Behind the stacks of newspapers on the front counter stands a grinning fat guy, red-faced and with thin gray hair, talking affably with his customers, taking money and giving change, while automatically stroking a big black and white cat lying placidly in front of him. Evidently newspapers have just arrived from “abroad”. Komsomolskaya Pravda from Russia seems to be the most popular.
“Is everyone here Russian?” I ask in German, louder than intended….
“I am,” says a guy with a tiny dog on a leash. “I come every day to get my newspaper.”
“I’m Russian too,” says an elderly lady.
“I’m Ukrainian but I read the Russian papers,” says another.
It turns out they are chiefly Russians. A few Ukrainians buy Ukrainian papers, and there is one old, Russian-speaking Moldovan, who says with pride that he’d served in the Red Army….
On the spur of the moment I hire the taxi and ask the driver to show us the city. We turn into a square at the far side of which stands the bus and rail station. A huge Che Guevara poster stares out of the show window of what the driver says is a youth club. On the corner are big portraits of Russian leaders, Putin and Medvedev. At the entrance to the Heroes Cemetery we stop before a parked Soviet tank morphed into a monument. Later, the driver proudly points at a cognac factory. Soviet style architecture dominates this town full of Communist symbolism, a longing for the past, at least for something different from the present.
This is neither modern Russia nor the bigger Americanized countries of East Europe striving toward capitalism. The same sad torpor hangs over Tiraspol as over Chisinau; a hopeless weariness glued irremovably to its obscure existence….
Yet after my short experience here, I think that, no, East Europeans—in elegant Prague and Budapest or in the backwaters of Chisinau and Tiraspol—have a natural quality of universality about them, a quality we in the West have lost. In comparison to their largeness of spirit, we are the provincials. Maybe I had to see Moldova to understand.
“I feel so provincial here,” I say.
“You, provincial?” Antonia says in her most ironic manner.
“Ja, ja, I mean in comparison to the … uh, to the largeness of spirit here in the East. Our Eurocentrism in the West is too powerful for our own good.”
Antonia has more than urbanity and universality; her natural elegance is without a trace of artificiality, an innate assumption of her femininity … and a fragrance of flowers adorns her. Antonia who, I’m certain, in her thoughts, in her inner world, lives the same real life as in her everyday world. In her world doubt seems suspended, if not rejected….
….As we approach the staircase, I don’t permit myself to be tempted by partial views or even mere glimpses of the historic site. I close my eyes. Playing blind I hold Antonia’s arm tight and ask her to guide me. She thinks I’m crazy. I walk with my eyes tightly closed, without so much as turning my head. I want the full impact from film and history, all at once.
Then, I open my eyes. And there it is.
“I can hardly believe that I’m standing at the top of the Potemkin Stairs,” I whisper to Antonia. I’m in awe. Reverence. It was so close all the time and I didn’t realize it. Maybe the stops in Burgas and Varna, in Chisinau and Tiraspol, had also shortened the distances. Prepared me for the dramatic reality. Maybe that contortion of geography, the time and space distortion, the footprint mania, lies at the heart of the lily pad idea. Shorten the world. Link it. Shake it. Mix it. Make it one. But I think that those mad planners still do not realize the real distances, the separations and disjunctions, the diversity and the multiplicity of the peoples, the cultures and the customs involved. They confuse one with the other on their lily pad roll. Only to them it makes no difference. Other peoples do not count. These other peoples, the indistinct peoples like those of Tiraspol and Chisinau and Chernivitsi do not count. They have never counted….
Clearly The Battleship Potemkin is a propaganda film, even though the protest that provoked the bloody reaction turned out to be a real mover of history. At the Brussels World Fair in 1958 it was named the greatest film of all time. For cinema historians the Eisenstein’s film is still a landmark of cinematography.
“The giant staircase appears like a formal entrance into Odessa from the Sea,” I read aloud. “The stairs are the symbol of the city. They were designed to create an optical illusion. From the top the steps are steep and practically invisible. A person looking down from the top sees only the landings from the Sea. But a person looking up from the bottom sees only steps. One hundred and ninety-two steps and ten stair flights. A secondary illusion creates a false perspective since the stairs are actually wider at the bottom, 21.7 meters, than the top where the first step is 12.5 meters wide. The whole staircase is only 27 meters high, but extends for a distance of 142 meters, interrupted by landings every 20 steps. Altogether the staircase seen from below gives the illusion of even much greater length. Looking up the stairs makes them seem longer than they are and looking down the stairs makes them seem much shorter.”…
“This is the site of the horror scene where Tsarist troops, shoulder to shoulder, march down the stairs from the top firing point-blank on the people of Odessa on the staircase. At the bottom, mounted Cossacks wait, slashing and hacking down the fleeing people with their long swords.
Reading the history and the film sequence, I slide into a momentary trance…. I lift my head upwards, half close my eyes, and drift backwards in time and into Eisenstein’s atmosphere. The white tunics, the wide belts and black boots of the soldiers in a tight line across the width of the top of the staircase, their identical faces blank, expressionless reflections of blind power, their rifles upright in front of them, their officer with his sword held high, row after row of soldiers in identical formation behind them ready to fill up the spaces as the staircase gradually widens. They begin their methodical descent toward us, the officer’s shouted command on the level above Antonia and me, rifles now lowered, row after row of soldiers behind. I drag Antonia down to the next level, shouts of bewildered people around us, terror in the eyes of all, a mother urging her small son to hurry down toward the obscure Sea, the boy stalling, wanting to see the soldiers, their uniforms, their boots, their rifles. The officer with the sword now pointing downwards, a volley of fire, people falling around us, screams, people scrambling down the stairs, another volley of fire, an invalid without legs propels himself with his hands downwards faster than we can run. Now volley follows volley, the boy loosens his mother’s hand, she is swept downwards by the terrified mass of bodies, bodies now piling up on each level, along the steps, along the lateral parapet, no way out of the inferno, no emergency exit, only downwards, down, down toward the Cossacks and fatal Sea. The mother, now near us, tries to run to her child against the current of human bodies hurtling downwards in a death descent, ever downwards. Her son lies on the steps above, she reaches him, picks him up in her arms, cries for help to the advancing soldiers of the vacuous, identical faces and blind eyes of power. Another volley and down goes the mother with her son, upside down goes the invalid, a nearly blind woman wearing thick eye glasses looks upwards toward the source of the fire until a bullet smashes through her left eye, row after widening row of soldiers, officers with swords pointed at the people-targets. Now screams from the bottom of the stairs, “Cossacks, Cossacks” goes up the cry, as the savage cavalry slashes and rips and cuts swath after swath among the trapped people, helpless in the mortal grip of uniformed, armed power. We stand on the penultimate landing and observe the carnage of the people of Odessa dying under the rifles of the faceless soldiers and savage Cossack swords. Blood everywhere. And upwards, up toward the horizon, steps, steps, ever more steps, endless steps. …
I raise my eyes; I see only stairs, climbing and vanishing somewhere above us. I shake myself back to the present. I’ve read a lot about this film. The theory behind the film author’s story is simple. For Eisenstein the sailors rising up against their officers and the Tsarist troops massacring the people were emblematic of the Marxist interpretation of the class conflict driving history. The thesis is the eternal clash of the bourgeoisie with the proletariat; the revolt on the Potemkin and the crushing of the demonstration on the stairs create the antithesis; the ultimate victory of the people which results in the synthesis of a classless society. Hence its classification as a propaganda film. But it was the director’s creative genius that produced “the film of all time”. Eisenstein harnessed the popular frenzy of that day in Odessa with his art, used here for revolutionary purposes, the realization of the dream of political writers. The inherent propaganda took nothing away from the genius of his art, which combined with history achieved what Eisenstein said, “sends the spectator into ecstasy.” With that film alone he raised the bar high for true art while stimulating class-consciousness and prompting the viewer to take up arms in resistance against injustice. Unfortunately, in the West, the same technique used to sell capitalist values was easier to achieve than the transmission of values engendering revolution….
The revolt of the people of Odessa and the massacre symbolize the thesis of the clash of the bourgeoisie and the proletariat. The mutiny on the Potemkin: the antithesis. The revolution and the overturn of the old society, and the attempt at a new society: the new synthesis. You can’t miss it. You can’t misinterpret it, underestimate it, devalue it. Eizenstein’s art co-exists with his message.
Standing at the bottom of the Potemkin Stairs, looking up the staircase and then out to the Sea, I mutter that Russia is not as distant and exotic as I once believed.
Antonia looks blank. “Distant? Russia? What do you mean? It’s right next to us. We drove here in the car. We’re in Russia … more or less. Even if Odessa is part of Ukraine today. But everybody’s still Russian here. A real Russian city. The home of famous Russian writers, Babel and Akhmatova and Pasternak. We’ve read them all at school in Burgas.”
Then after the dissolution of the USSR, Odessa became part of Ukraine. Nonetheless, it remains a very Russian city….
“Now I see Russia is much more part of the West than I realized. Part of us.” “For Dostoevsky—that’s my major lit course this semester—Russia is a better West … a better Christendom too.”
We check into a four-star hotel near the top of the Staircase…. “Herr Viktor, uh Mister Viktor! Can you …” I say to the concierge later, reading from the brass nameplate on his desk.
“Ja, bitte schön, wie kann ich Ihnen behilflich sein?” he answers, a wry smile at the corners of his mouth. “Just call me Viktor,” he adds, still in German.
My hesitant “Herr” establishes my German nationality, at times still embarrassing even to my generation. Besides, as I learned in my hotel living with Katharina, concierges everywhere are especially perceptive and insightful. Magically, they are able to read into your innermost self.
“I wanted to ask what we should see here in Odessa? What are the chief points of interest for tourists?
“Are you a tourist?” he asks looking me straight in the eyes. “You and your lady friend make a striking couple. But you don’t behave as tourists … nor like our nouveaux riches, especially not like the Ukrainians.”
“But aren’t you Ukrainian too?” “Well, by nationality, yes,” Viktor says, lowering his voice. “But I’m Russian, through and through. If we Russians here in Odessa had a choice, we would vote to reunite with Russia. Today’s Ukraine is far from us.”….
“…. You might visit the catacombs, the great tunnels spread under the city. Once used by bandits and smugglers. During World War II, Partizans hid there. For months and months of cold, showing that Russians can bear things that would kill a Westerner … like they did in Stalingrad and Leningrad. But for real sights you might see the Opera and Ballet Theater, famous for its acoustics, and some of the great city mansions like the Tolstoy Palace … Lev Tolstoy loved the city and was an honorary citizen. And of course the Passage, something like the Galleria in Milano. Herr Leonhard, Odessa is a beloved city of Russia, always was. In Imperial Russia it was the nation’s fourth city, after St. Petersburg, Moscow and Warsaw”….
Only a few young people milling around a stage. Theater? Cabaret? What does a Russian club do in Ukrainian Odessa? Seems like a West European kind of thing. But you never know. Dissent ferments anyplace. Nobody pays us any attention. Antonia asks around. Is there someone who would speak with a Western journalist?
Robert meets us in an alcove behind the stage, pronouncing his name “Row-Bear”. About Antonia’s age, he’s more interested in her than in me, the foreign journalist. Anyway when he comes round to being interviewed and sees that I want to record the interview, his interest is aroused and he launches into a rambling discourse, showily displaying his political aspirations for which the social club must be his jumping off point.
That evening I write up a condensed version of the interview-monologue.
Like Viktor Konstantinovich, Robert says he is Ukrainian only by nationality but Russian by descent, predilection and choice. “If we could vote on our nation,” he repeated, “I would vote for Russia like most Odessites. Russia is our motherland. Not Ukraine with all its Fascists over in the western regions. We Odessites were never Ukrainians. Why should we be now?
“Western Europeans do not know that Ukraine is split between the eastern and southern parts on the one hand and its western regions on the other. The West and the East here will never be compatible. Still, Ukraine has fifty million people—the France of East Europe. Since the collapse of the USSR, Europe has pushed its eastern borders up to the frontiers of Russia. Weak post-Soviet Russia was unable to stop that advance. Not only the ex-Soviet satellite countries in East Europe from Bulgaria to Poland changed sides, but also parts of the USSR itself—Lithuania, Estonia, Latvia and Ukraine. The major problem here is Ukraine’s two souls. The eastern soul holds Ukrainians close to their big brothers, the Great Russians; their western soul led rabid nationalists to collaborate with Nazi Germany against Soviet Russia. Ukraine’s western soul aspires to become part of Europe; its eastern soul prefers a privileged relationship with Russia. In 2004, the American- sponsored Orange Revolution swept pro-Westerners into power in Ukraine. A year later, Russia’s nominee won out in the country’s first free parliamentary elections and became Prime Minister. The elections were a fatal flop for the western-looking part of Ukraine and a confirmation of the traditional division of the country.
“Three currents compete in contemporary Ukraine: the linguistic, historical, pro-Russian soul; the nostalgic, big nation, central planning, pro-Soviet soul; and a free market pro-western soul. Still, for many Russians and Ukrainians, the two peoples are nearly one and Ukrainians are referred to as Little Russians.
“Russia is alarmed about the rapid move westward of big and powerful Ukraine. In the 1990s, Ukraine contributed troops to so-called peacekeeping in Kosovo in the Balkans. It sent troops to Iraq. The Ukrainian government’s desire for membership in United Europe, NATO and WTO, was the last straw for Moscow.
“Western Ukraine has close historical ties with Europe, particularly with Poland. Ukrainian nationalist sentiment has always been strongest in the westernmost parts of the country. But it’s a different story in eastern Ukraine. The Ukraine was the center of the first Slavic state, Kievan Rus, the cradle of Russia. Something like Kosovo for Serbia. During the tenth and eleventh centuries Kievan Rus was the largest state in Europe. Kievan Rus also laid the foundation for Ukrainian nationalism. A Ukrainian state was established during the seventeenth century. Then, during the latter part of the eighteenth century, the Russian Empire absorbed Ukrainian ethnographic territory.”
Robert continually reminded me that a big minority of the population of Ukraine are ethnic Russians or speak Russian as their first language, particularly in the industrialized east and south of the country, where the Orthodox religion is predominant. Odessa and the Crimea were long part of Russia.
“Democracy here is as elusive as is the formation of a unified nation. Since the 2004 Orange Revolution, the ancient divisions in Ukraine between East and West have continued to stall efforts for the formation of a unified nation. The western-backed coalition government dissolved because the east and south of the nation prefer Russia and Ukraine’s past. Russia is still Ukraine’s largest trading partner. And Ukraine is the link on the pipeline for Russian gas exports to Europe.
“Russia retreated from West Europe for fifty years. Now with its gas as its weapon its retreat has ended. Since much of Europe’s economic future depends on Russia’s gas, European efforts at democratizing Russia have stopped. Only friendly relations count. Europe no longer pushes hard for Ukrainian links to the West. Not so America, which wants Ukraine in NATO and wants military bases here. Russia’s gas scares Uncle Sam. America thinks it’s unfair that Russia has all those resources in Siberia and wants to get its hands on them.
“Today, the tide in Ukraine has turned eastwards. The impulse toward the West of the last fifteen years has stopped. But Ukraine needs good relations with both East and West. Were Russia to raise gas prices or cut supplies, the scene would change. Keep this in mind: in a contest over Ukraine between Russia on the one hand and Europe-USA on the other, Moscow in a fair battle will always win.
“Arrogant American foreign policy is also a reason for the turnabout. For Russia, a Ukraine in the camp of the USA would be like Canada taking control of New England, or Mexico taking over Texas. Then also the European Union needs association with Ukraine. The European Parliament urges neighboring states to respect the democratic choice of the Ukrainian people and avoid any type of economic or other pressures with the goal of changing the political and economic status of Ukraine. At the same time the European Parliament has called upon future governments in Kiev to consolidate Ukrainian commitment toward general European values, to advance democracy, human rights, civic society and the rule of law, to continue market reforms and to overcome political divisions in Ukraine.
“Of course, this all rings friendly and cooperative—to western-oriented Ukrainians. To Russia and eastward-looking Ukrainians it sounds threatening, with an underlying note of economic blackmail.
“That’s why Russia supports pro-Russian government leaders in Ukraine. Otherwise, the threat is revolt in the eastern and southern parts of the Ukraine like here in Odessa. But then, there is Russia’s gas on the one hand which Ukraine needs, and again, America’s military bases on the other, which Ukraine does not need….
Still, though a weak Russia is a danger for the world balance of power, a strong Russia worries Washington. But a strong Russia to counter uncontrollable America appeals to much of the world. For many people in the world, Cold War at low risk is better than hot war in Iraq …or nuclear threats launched at Iran.
“America is never friendlier with Russia than when it is divided, poor, its economy in shambles, its empire dismantled. But Washington cannot control China or India, nor, we Odessites believe, can it contain Russia even though it aims at dividing it and crushing its influence.”
….he (Eisenstein) might show America’s lily pads as the thesis, the growing revolt of people everywhere to their presence and the resulting suffering as the antithesis, and a world uprising against capitalist exploitation as the synthesis.
My mental rambling calls to mind my university seminars on political theory and the famous quote from Marx: It is not the consciousness of men that determines their social being, but their social being that determines their consciousness. The Potemkin film is a reminder that theory becomes a material force as soon as it has gripped the masses. Strange that I’d never carried such thoughts outside the classroom until now.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Senior Editor Gaither Stewart serves as The Greanville Post European correspondent. A retired journalist, his latest novel is Time of Exile (Punto Press). He’s also the author of several other books, including the Europe Trilogy, of which the first two volumes (The Trojan Spy, Lily Pad Roll) have been published by Punto Press. These are thrillers that have been compared to the best of John le Carré, focusing on the work of Western intelligence services, the stealthy strategy of tension, and the gradual encirclement of Russia, a topic of compelling relevance in our time. He makes his home in Rome, with wife Milena. Gaither can be contacted at email@example.com. His latest assignment is as Associate Editor with the Russia Desk.
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