Russians Take Themselves Too Seriously

If you were to measure Kiev's independence on the basis of how badly its relations have soured with Moscow, then it would be safe to say the Ukrainian state has now achieved full autonomy.

Kiev and Moscow have been at each other's throats ever since Ukraine's Orange Revolution took place 3 1/2 years ago. Now we are witnessing the latest surge in hostilities, and the bone of contention is again Crimea and, in particular, Russia's naval base in Sevastopol.

Mayor Yury Luzhkov traveled to Sevastopol on May 11 to commemorate the 225th anniversary of the foundation of the Black Sea Fleet. During Luzhkov's speech, he said the Crimean port city belonged to Russia.

Luzhkov seems to be unable to come to terms with Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev's decision to cede Crimea to Ukraine in 1954. But Khrushchev also expanded Russia's territory when he dissolved the separate Soviet republic of Karelia and incorporated it into the Russian republic. This was a more controversial decision from the standpoint of Soviet constitutional norms. Of course, the Karelian capital, Petrozavodsk, was never one of Russia's legendary cities, in contrast to Sevastopol.

To Our Readers

The Moscow Times welcomes letters to the editor. Letters for publication should be signed and bear the signatory's address and telephone number.
Letters to the editor should be sent by fax to (7-495) 232-6529, by e-mail to oped@imedia.ru, or by post. The Moscow Times reserves the right to edit letters.

Email the Opinion Page Editor

Not surprisingly, Luzhkov's latest incendiary speech in Sevastopol hit a raw nerve in Moscow and Kiev, resulting in a threat by Ukraine to expel the Russian fleet from the Black Sea.

The most striking aspect of this conflict is that, despite all of Kiev's terrifying stories about the Soviet-induced Holodomor, the 70-year "Soviet occupation" and Moscow's other evil deeds, the anti-Russian mood in Ukraine is much weaker than the anti-Ukrainian mood in Russia. Although Ukraine's citizens are accustomed to the ongoing conflict with Moscow, they treat it with a large dose of lighthearted irony. As a result, it has proven difficult for Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko to inspire the people to support the nation's membership in NATO, much less to send Ukrainian soldiers to Iraq, Sudan or other global hot spots to die for U.S. interests.

The Ukrainians' skeptical -- and at times contemptuous -- attitude toward the authorities is not at all limited to the eastern regions, which have traditionally held closer ties to Russia. In fact, such attitudes are even stronger in central Ukraine than in the east.

Compared with the Ukrainians, Russians take themselves far too seriously. They are deeply offended over the Crimea question, and they become upset when they hear about the latest publication of some anti-Russian caricature or lampoon that nobody in Ukraine pays much attention to.

These divergent attitudes explain our politicians' interest in the Crimea question and their expressions of concern over Russian schools in Kharkov. Russian politicians and bureaucrats know how to cater to voters' tastes. They direct their fiery speeches not to listeners in Sevastopol or Kharkov, but to television cameras that will carry their bombastic "patriotism" to Russian citizens.

Zbigniew Brzezinski might have been right when he said Russia could never become an empire again without controlling Ukraine. In any case, Russian leaders who either whip up anti-Ukrainian hysteria or use it to their own advantage are doing everything in their power to make sure that Russia never becomes a global superpower.

Still, things are not so bad. The people of Moscow and St. Petersburg are, of course, more susceptible to nationalistic hyperbole than are the locals of Kiev, Kharkov or even Lviv. But when jingoism and demagoguery are overused ad nauseum, they lose their effect on the targeted audience. And since the leaders of Ukraine and Russia will never allow this to escalate into a military conflict, the war of words between the two countries becomes nothing more than a lot of hot air.

Boris Kagarlitsky is the director of the Institute of Globalization Studies.