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Deconstructing Putin on Ukraine

President Vladimir Putin’s September 4th interview with Russian state broadcaster Channel One and the Associated Press cast a bright light on the incompetence of his public relations office and on his own antediluvian notions about Ukraine.

Whoever translated the official Kremlin transcript showed a striking ignorance of the English language—the translation is wooden—and of elementary political-historical terminology. Several sentences stand out, both because the translation is shockingly bad and because, when dissected, they reveal a great deal about Putin’s mind-set.

In response to Channel One correspondent Kirill Kleymenov’s question about Russia’s relations with Ukraine, Putin says the following (my translation from the Russian): “You know, regardless of what happens and where Ukraine goes, we will still meet sometime and somewhere. Why? Because we are one people.” Here’s the official English translation: “You know, no matter what happens, and wherever Ukraine goes, anyway we shall meet sometime and somewhere. Why? Because we are one nation.”

Putin explicitly says “people” (narod), and not “nation” (natsia). As an ex-KGB officer well-schooled in Leninist dialectics and Stalinist nationality policy, he knows that the Russian and Ukrainian nations cannot constitute a nation. But they might constitute a “people,” a lower-level, ethno-cultural agglomeration that doesn’t have all the objective characteristics of a nation as defined by Stalin in 1913. Back in Soviet days, Russians, Ukrainians, and all the other nations were supposed to be “drawing together” to form a “new community of people”—the “Soviet people.” Since the language and culture of the Soviet people were essentially Russian, non-Russian dissident critics of Soviet policy argued, not incorrectly, that the Soviet people was just a smokescreen for a policy practiced by the czars—Russification.

Putin is not only drawing inspiration from Soviet theory and practice, he is also explicitly basing his views on those of Russia’s reactionary czarist forces. As he told Kleymenov in reference to the bloody Civil War between anti-Bolsheviks and Bolsheviks in 1918–1921 (according to the official translation): “Both the White movement and the Red one were fighting against each other to death, millions of people died during the civil war, but they never raised the issue of separation of Ukraine. Both the Reds and the Whites proceeded from the integrity of the Russian state.” Indeed, they did. Some left-leaning Sovietologists used to insist that Lenin and the Bolsheviks supported the liberation struggles of the non-Russian nations, but Putin is quite right to say that the only thing the Reds had in common with the Whites was the continued maintenance of the Russian imperial state.

The line immediately following the one ending with “from the integrity of the Russian state” is especially revealing. My literal translation from the Russian reads as follows: “As far as this part, Ukraine, is concerned, it is a land and we understand and remember that we were born, as I said, within a common Ukrainian Dnipro [River] baptismal font, Rus’ was born there, and we all come from there.” Putin’s translator wrote the following: “As far as this part of Ukraine is concerned, it is a territory and we understand and remember that we were born, as I said, from the unified Ukrainian Dnieper baptistery, Russia was born there and we all come from there.”

The nuances require some elucidation. First, it’s clear from the grammatical structure of the above two sentences that Putin is saying “As far as this part [of the Russian state], Ukraine, is concerned” and not “As far as this part of Ukraine is concerned.” Willfully or not, Putin is claiming that Ukraine is a part of the Russian state. His translator kindly removed that undiplomatic sentiment from the English version.

Second, Putin says Ukraine is a “krai”—purposely avoiding the Russian word for country, strana. I’ve translated it as “land”—which is the way it frequently appears in patriotic Russian verse or songs—while the translator prefers “territory,” which, while more prosaic, also conveys the non-state quality of Ukraine. Either way, Putin comes across as believing that Ukraine is just a place, populated by people who resemble Russians, and not an independent state with a national identity of its own.

Finally, Putin knows that the state whose capital was ancient Kyiv and which adopted Christianity 1,025 years ago was known as Rus’. As a Soviet-era apparatchik, he would never have called it Russia, as the translator did (and as some historically challenged Western scholars still do), although he obviously believes that, inasmuch as Russians were “born” there, so too Russia, the state, must be able to trace its lineage to that political entity. (By the way, the Russian version of Russia—Rossiya—shows that Russia’s seeming terminological derivation from Rus’ is apparent only in English.) While many Ukrainians also trace the lineage of their statehood to Rus’, the fact of the matter is that Rus’ is to Ukraine and Russia as ancient Rome is to Italy and France. While all four countries can trace their roots to their respective big states, none can claim to be identical with them, even though Italy and Ukraine can insist on some geographic priority by virtue of having the same capitals as those states.

By the same token, even though the French and the Italians can trace their origins to the “baptismal font” in ancient Rome, no one would suggest that they are therefore the same people or the same nation. Nor would the French claim that Italy is a borderland or territory of France.

So what’s the bottom line? Putin should fire his translators for making him sound like a wild-eyed Russian chauvinist. He’s not. He’s just a run-of-the-mill neo-Red, neo-White neo-imperialist.  

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