March 28-30, 2014
Historical Trigger Points
Viewing the Ukraine Crisis From
Events in Ukraine are moving
fast and faster. Dangers of economic paralysis in Ukraine and of
wider war with Russia are very real. This essay will argue that we
all need to notice our historical biases in perceiving and misperceiving
events. My own bias is anti-war. Now is not the time in human
history for geopolitical power plays and military alliances. Now
is the time for coordinated international actions on climate and economy.
I am a professor of social and community psychology at the University of
Tromsø in Arctic Norway, near the Russian border. I have no
special knowledge of Russia other than conventional sources (Google Scholar,
Wikipedia, JSTOR). My surname is Lithuanian, from my grandfather’s
emigration in 1897 when Lithuania was controlled by Russia.
James Joyce’s famous statement
that “history is a nightmare” from which we should try to awake, aptly
describes current events in the Ukraine. All nations involved in
these events are biased by the remembered, misremembered, forgotten, and
mythologized history they carry in their heads.
Chaos in Maidan Square, neo-fascists in positions of power in Kiev,
Russia annexing Crimea, these are inkblots
that everyone sees differently depending on the historical visions that
dominate their minds. Our
national memories have the passion and power to drive us blindly to hatreds
and to war. The histories we believe
set us up for easy manipulations and disastrous actions.
Hillary Clinton, on March 5,
said that Putin’s concern for Russians in
Ukraine is like Hitler’s concern for Germans
in Poland and Czechoslovakia. It is also like Ronald
Reagan’s concern for US medical students in Grenada by which he justified
his 1983 invasion of that small island nation.
Clinton said, “We can learn from this tactic that has been used before.”
That is good advice if we consider this tactic
a) personifying a nation by
its leader’s personal name and
b) then labelling that leader
This is sure way to activate
a demon in the American national memory and to mobilize the United States
to again fight evil personified by the new Hitler. John Kerry said
Assad is Hitler. John McCain said Castro is Hitler. George
Bush said Saddam was Hitler. Donald Rumsfeld said Chavez was Hitler.
The list of leaders the US has targeted as Hitler includes Allende
(Chile), Noriega (Panama), Ortega (Nicaragua), Milosevic (Serbia), Arafat
(Palestine), Gaddafi (Libya), Ahmadinejad (Iran), and Kim (North Korea).
Hitler, in fact, was defeated
by the USSR more than by the USA. After the Battle of Stalingrad
in February 1943 and the Battle of Kursk in August 1943, Germany had effectively
lost WWII. D-Day was a year later, in June 1944. Soviet armies
caused more than 90% of total German casualties. Nevertheless, Americans
remember that it was they who defeated Hitler.
Americans also “Remember the
Alamo”. In 1835, American settlers in
the Mexican territory of Texas felt threatened
by the government of Santa Anna in Mexico City, which had come to power
by coup. In 1836, the American settlers in Texas declared independence,
and later negotiated annexation by the United States. Thus, Americans
can, if they wish, appreciate that Crimeans felt threatened by the government
in Kiev, which came to power by coup, and
that Crimeans also declared independence, and also then negotiated
annexation by the nation of their origin.
However, unlike Texas, Crimea had previously
been part of Russia for 170 years.
Just as the Alamo is an iconic
historic site for Americans, so, too, is the Crimean fortress of Sevastopol
an iconic historic site for Russians. Both symbolize steadfast courage
and sacrifice in the face of overwhelming force. The Siege of the Alamo
in 1836 lasted 13 days, with 1,500 Mexican soldiers overwhelming 250 Americans
who died heroically defending liberty and independence. The
first Siege of Sevastopol in 1854, lasted two years, with 175,000 British,
French, Turkish, German, Italian, Polish and Swiss soldiers overwhelming
35,000 Russian soldiers heroically defending Russian Crimea. The
second Siege of Sevastopol in 1941 lasted one year, with more than 200,000
German, Romanian, Italian and Bulgarian forces overwhelming 106,000 Soviet
soldiers heroically defending Russian Crimea.
When Americans feel emotional remembering
the Alamo, they can begin to imagine the depth of emotion Russians must
feel remembering Sevastopol.
America experienced invading
foreign forces during its War of Independence in the 1770s, and again on
a small scale during the War of 1812. But only two foreign attacks
are seared into the American psyche with historic force. One is the
Dec. 7, 1941, attack on Pearl Harbor which lasted less than 2 hours and
killed 2,400 Americans. The other is the Sept. 11, 2001, attack on
NY City and Washington, DC which lasted less than 3 hours and killed 3,000
victims. Americans’ anger to avenge those attacks is deep and enduring,
allowing no limits of cost, no limits of law, to prevent such attacks happening
again. Thus, Americans can, if they
wish, appreciate Russia’s reactions to being attacked by foreign armies,
and can understand why Russia also will allow no limits of cost, no limits
of law, to prevent such attacks happening again.
The USA has not suffered invasions
because it is bounded by large oceans east and west, and by powerless,
peaceful nations north and south. Russia has no protective natural barriers,
and has had aggressive neighbors on three sides. Although they may
forget or deny this history, Turks, Poles,
Swedes, French, Germans, British, and Japanese have each invaded Russia
more than once. For example, in
the early 1600s, Poland twice invaded Russia
when its government was in disarray. Russians of all social classes
united in popular uprising and saved the nation. In 1613, the Romanov
Tsar instituted a holiday called “Day of Moscow’s Liberation from Polish
Invaders” which is now celebrated every November 4 as “Unity Day”.
In the early 1700s, Sweden invaded Russia
with 40,000 troops but was defeated by Peter
the Great’s use of scorched-earth retreat across vast distances.
Only the Swedish king and 543 soldiers survived.
It is not something unique in
the personalities of Tsar Peter or President Putin that drives Russia to
require non-threatening neighbors. It is the collective
Russian memory of invasion. Each era
of history has had its military super-power, and each super-power in turn
The Mongol Super-power:
The Mongol Empire was the largest in history, conquering the Chinese Empire
and Persian Empire. In 1238, the Mongols crossed the Volga River with 35,000
mounted archers backed by 70,000 Turks including Chinese siege equipment
for attacking walled cities. They conquered most Russian regions as well
as Crimea. In 1240, the Mongols captured Kiev and killed most of
its 50,000 inhabitants. An estimated 500,000 Kievan Rus’ (Russians,
Ukrainians, Byelorussians) died during the Mongol invasion. For several
centuries afterwards, regional khans continued attacking Russia.
For example, in 1382, the Golden Horde sieged Moscow, slaughtered 24,000
Muscovites, and took thousands of captives.
The Ottoman Super-power:
At the height of its power in the 1600s, the Ottoman Empire controlled
half of the Mediterranean world and all of the Black Sea and Red Sea regions.
The Crimean Tatars supplied the Ottoman slave trade by “harvesting the
steppe”, taking an estimated 2 million captives between 1500 and 1700.
For example, in 1571, a combined Crimean and Ottoman force of 120,000 invaded
Russia, burned Moscow, killed an estimated 80,000 Russians, and took 150,000
captives to slave markets in Crimea. Historians count more
than 50 Tatar attacks. The last “harvest” of Russians was in 1769.
In the 7th Russo-Turkish War, Russians conquered Crimea and finally freed
themselves from Tatar attacks and slavery. In 1783, Russia annexed
Crimea. This is the same time in history that the American colonies
finally freed themselves from oppressive British taxation.
The Napoleonic Super-power:
Napoleon harnessed the passionate ideals of the French Revolution to coercive
diplomacy and to new military tactics of massed armies and mobile artillery
and was thus invincible in conquering Continental Europe in only 9 years.
In 1812, Napoleon assembled the largest army Europe had ever seen, comprised
of an estimated 600,000 troops, including 98,000 from Poland. Although
Napoleon won battles at Vilnius, Smolensk and Borodino, the Russian strategy
of scorched-earth retreat across vast distances, including the evacuation
and burning of Moscow, starved and demoralized the invading army. Relatively
few survived the winter retreat from Moscow. Russian deaths are estimated
to have been 150,000 – 400,000 soldiers and as many civilian.
The Nazi Super-power:
Hitler harnessed the passionate ideals of fascism to coercive diplomacy
and to new military tactics of blitzkrieg and was thus invincible in conquering
Continental Europe in only 2 years. In 1941, Hitler assembled the
largest army Europe had ever seen, comprised of an estimated 3.2 million
German soldiers and about 500,000 from Italy and Romania. Although
Hitler conquered vast stretches of territory, he failed to capture Moscow,
Leningrad, Stalingrad or the Caspian oil fields. Soviet deaths were an
estimated 8 – 13 million soldiers and as many
as 20 million civilians. For example,
200,000 soldiers and 1.2 million civilians
died in the Siege of Leningrad. In contrast, total US deaths during
WWII were 418,000 military and fewer than 2,000 civilians.
The US Super-power: The
US has harnessed the passionate ideals of
democracy to coercive diplomacy and new tactics
of covert operations, advanced weapons technology and economic warfare
to achieve what it calls, “full spectrum dominance”.
Considering its own immense military resources
and those of the other 27 NATO nations it controls, plus the resources
of its Asian allies of Australia, New Zealand, Japan and South Korea, the
US commands the greatest military might the world has ever seen.
As with past super-powers, the US and its NATO allies seem to be setting
their sights on Russia. Perhaps Cold
War history causes them to confuse Russia
with the USSR and its many atrocities under the dictatorships of Stalin
(native Georgian) and Khrushchev (native Ukrainian). Or perhaps
racist perceptions of Russians as “untermensch”
are still active in Western minds. Or maybe
the vast resources of Russia are too attractive
to leave untaken.
President Gorbachev allowed the
re-unification of Germany based on promises from President Bush and Chancellor
Kohl that NATO would not expand eastwards,
and then NATO did exactly that,
even inviting Ukraine and Georgia to prepare
for membership. Georgia is closer to
India than it is to the North Atlantic. The
US has been determined to install anti-missile systems in Poland, purportedly
to shoot non-existent Iranian ICBMs, but suspiciously capable of nullifying
Russia’s nuclear deterrence. Recent
telephone intercepts show that US State Department
officials (Victoria Nuland and Geoffrey Pyatt) selected an anti-Russian
replacement government for the Ukraine when the elected, constitutional
government was still in power. Then
chaos in Kiev caused by unidentified snipers
resulted in the elected Ukrainian government collapsing.
As per US planning, the selected anti-Russian
replacement government took power in Kiev and was quickly declared legitimate
by NATO nations.
It is easy to see why Russia
would perceive these events as another super-power preparing to attack
Russia. It is perfectly predictable
that Russia would react in ways to defends itself,
no matter what the costs. It is mental manipulation by historical
trigger-words to claim that Putin is “Hitler”, or that Stalin’s “Red Army”
again threatens Europe. Because Americans
know nothing of Russian history and have no national experience of foreign
invasion, they cannot
escape the confines of their own Cold War rhetoric.
They cannot imagine history seen from a Russian perspective. Europeans,
however, know the horror of war on their own territory, and well remember
their own history of attacking Russia. In this crisis, it
is the European nations who need to stand up and shake the super-power
awake before an incident turns into conventional war turns into missile
war turns into nuclear war. Those transitions
could take 30 minutes. At this moment in human history, the world
community has more pressing priorities than re-enacting our historical
FLOYD RUDMIN is Professor of Social &
Community Psychology at the University of Tromsø in Norway. He can
be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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