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A pacifist picks a side in a war…


Ismail Lagardien is a writer, columnist and political economist with extensive exposure and experience in global political economic affairs. He was educated at the London School of Economics, and holds a PhD in International Political Economy.

Putin’s saving grace, should he become a victim of his own war, is that his death would be more prominent and promising than his life has been. Should he survive, he would be transferred from a world in which he was becoming increasingly irrelevant to one in which his complete irrelevance will be his greatest achievement.

It’s one thing to have principles, it is yet another to stick to those principles.  Fully aware of the complexities of life, I sometimes just walk away from a situation, as if things were in simple black or white terms. There are some things not worth arguing over and some people may at some point have inspired you, but their presence has become revolting… So you throw principles out the window, and you walk away. I’m not sure all that’s relevant, but… 

I want to make the claim at the outset that Vladimir Putin is a dangerous man who has taken on the mantle of the Americans in the 20th century, and whom Norman Mailer described in Fire on the Moon as “the most Faustian, draconian, progress-oriented and root-destroying people on earth”. Turn the mirror ball slightly and we may see that Putin is attempting to emulate Mark Twain’s hero in A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, in wanting to destroy Ukraine and cut it off from its past and its traditions. He has become a “root-destroying” person, as Mailer may have said, that wants to destroy Ukraine. I am a pacifist, then, who has picked a side in a war. 

Some context is required before I explain the violation of my principles of ahimsa (the ethical principle of not causing harm to any living thing) and effectively picked a side. Let me step back… By the middle of 1976, my schooling had been disrupted and I had engaged in several clandestine activities; nothing of any significance or cause for celebration. I would like to lie and make out that I was a hero or something, but that would be, well, a lie. Anyway, fast-forward to about 1980 and I became a pacifist. I surrendered all political affiliations and within a couple more years I abandoned all other identities that had been handed to me since childhood. Identifying others is so often a precursor to persecuting and at the extreme end, killing “them” en masse.  

Nonetheless, there were two things that I clung to and that would serve as moral guideposts as I went into early adulthood. 

The first was to always treat people as ends in themselves, and never as a means to an end. I’m not sure I always got that right. The other was opposition to war. I became a pacifist. If it weren’t for my love of meat I’m convinced I would have become a Jain (see ahimsa above), but that’s an entirely different story. Having witnessed conflict as a journalist in the 1980s and early 1990s, and briefly in Somalia, Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia, my hatred of warfare — and especially the identity politics that inevitably preceded conflict — was only strengthened. I have, since, been opposed to every war. 

Russia and imaginaries of greatness 

Here I am, then, picking a side. Russia is the aggressor; the invading force that seeks to destroy Ukraine, rip up whatever roots remain, and supplant it with Russian imaginaries of greatness and destiny. Struggling with the emergent obsolescence of its historical pre-eminence during the bipolar global order of the past century, Russia, and the grandiosity of the tsarist era (which, Tolstoy remarked, could only be maintained by violence), may condemn itself to irrelevance. This makes Russia dangerous for the world. That country has a significant stockpile of nuclear arms, and Putin warned anyone who stood in his way that he would unleash “consequences that you have never experienced in your history”.  

Looking back at the history of the West, which is in effect whom Russia is threatening, there have been periods of gruesome wars, pogroms and the Holocaust. The one thing that the West has not experienced “in their history” has been a nuclear war. It is fair to ask whether Putin’s is a threat of nuclear war, which would be a disaster for societies beyond the boundaries of Europe, Western and Central Asia and probably South Asia, too.  

No longer satisfied with having to kowtow to “the last remaining superpower” — among others, it was the US which ultimately rubber-stamped Russia’s membership to the World Trade Organization, arguably the most powerful institution of global governance — and feeling increasingly irrelevant (BRICS is only a little more than a wayang kulit), Putin is using this war as a means (also) to consciously reinvent the great Russia of the tsars and the Bolsheviks.

Putin’s saving grace, should he become a victim of his own war, is that his death would be more prominent and promising than his life has been. Should he survive, he will be transferred from a world in which he was becoming increasingly irrelevant, to one in which his complete irrelevance will be his greatest achievement.  

Just by the way, when I listen to Putin, or when I read his statements and wild claims about Russia, I am always reminded of the way Richard Wagner was praised for his faith in the “German spirit” that was so apparent in his Der Ring des Nibelungen — that would become such an inspiration to “the vilest regime in human history [the Nazi regime of Hitler]”.

Though Wagner was not the origin of Hitler’s vile regime, his music helped to shape Hitler and Germany’s destiny. (I’m not sure of the page number, but this can be gleaned from The Cambridge Companion to Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen.) Nonetheless, Thomas Mann wrote in 1949, “It’s all there, in Wagner’s boasting, his constant lecturing, his desire to deliver monologues on every possible subject, an unspeakable immodesty — all that a role model for Hitler — certainly there is plenty of ‘Hitler’ in Wagner.” 

There’s a touch of Wagner in Putin. But I’m taking a chance on that. With his “root-destroying” war, Putin wants to reel back Viktor Yushchenko’s 2005 announcement to have Ukraine join Euro-Atlantic (the European Union and Nato), and maintain the Soviet era’s erasure of Ukraine’s history. Ten centuries of Ukrainian history are traced in Mykhailo Hrushevsky’s History of Ukraine-Rus’ and are a refutation of Kyivan Rus’ as the birthplace of modern Russia, to the exclusion of the other East Slavic peoples (like the Ukrainians and Belarusians). Hrushevsky provided a Ukrainian history, ostensibly for Ukrainians. 

During the Soviet era, this history was almost completely erased and incorporated into Moscow’s (Soviet) orbit and was worsened by the famine of 1932-33; the Purges; the impact of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, which saw Ukraine’s western territories incorporated into the Soviet Union; and horrific conflict between nationalist German soldiers, the advancing Soviet army, the local Polish population, and local Ukrainians.  

When it comes down to it, Putin is exploiting Ukraine’s constant efforts to affirm its national history (as recorded by David Marples in Heroes and Villains: Creating National History in Contemporary Ukraine) by dividing the country into regions that are “ethnically”, “culturally” or “linguistically” Russian. Putin is also taking tactical advantage of divisions within Ukraine where Orthodox communities spread literature that Ukraine does not exist, but only a “united Russia” does, with its centre in Moscow. In the meantime, the Tatars live in a liminal space from Crimea to Kyiv that is constantly targeted because of imagined association with Islamic fundamentalism. What seems to be completely ignored is the way that the Tatars and the people of Crimea, in general, were persecuted by Russia’s Empress Catherine II, and when Moscow established a protectorate over Crimea in 1774, then annexed it in 1783. 

In his imagination, Putin maintains the idea of a united Russia in which Ukraine is no more than a vassal of Moscow and Volodymyr Zelensky a mere satrap. If Putin has his way, Ukraine, with all its flaws, fissures, history and futures, will disappear like chalk on a blackboard. DM


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  • Kanu Sukha says:

    This elegant and well researched article captures exactly what I believe in, except that it provides several details I was not aware of . It is a salient reminder of the aphorism … to those who want to be ‘neutral’ … that in the struggle between the powerful and less powerful … is to side with the powerful (or at least those like Putin who think they are ‘powerful’) ! Locally our leading light in that regard was Arch and his disciple Madiba. These were our heroes who would have unambiguously called out viciousness from whatever quarter it came. Unfortunately those who were supposed to take up that mantle, have lost their way. In their place the cronies of Putin in the red overalls here (and several on CR’s exco) are finding their ‘voice’. This is the tragedy of humankind, that there are numbers of people who believe in and have been taken in by their messiah like message/mantra. Well articulated Ismail !

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