Tuesday, 17 May 2016

Vladimir Put in his place by Eurovision

So let me get this right.

The Eurovision song contest, one of the frothiest and least significant of competitions around the world, has actually got the Russians riled? Even though everyone knows the result is politically fiddled, with the Russians among the main manipulators? Are they perhaps upset because the Ukrainians outmanoeuvred them?

It seems the issue is that the winning Ukrainian song was about the deportation of the Tatars from Crimea in 1944. Crimea was part of Ukraine until two years ago, when the Russians moved in with armed force. Invited, they naturally assured the world, by locals, but then, how many invaders claim to be invited by the invaded?

That difficult moment back in 2014 has left what I suppose one can only call bad blood between Ukraine and Russia. So one can imagine that getting up Russian noses might well have been a pretty significant motivation for Ukrainians to sing that particular song.

As it happens, however, at the time to which the song refers, Crimea wasn’t part of Ukraine at all. It was Russian territory, as it had been for a long time. Russian claims to the Crimea are, to be honest, quite difficult to deny; it’s the use of saboteurs and tanks to enforce them that’s harder to swallow.

What’s more, back then, in 1944, Russia wasn’t even under the control of the present allegedly democratic regime. The Soviet Union was at the summit of its power, still led by its iconic dictator, Stalin. His regime in Russia, alongside Hitler’s in Germany, had been one of the two great totalitarian powers in Europe for a dozen years, and World War II, then raging, had been largely caused by their antagonism.

Tatars loaded into cattle trucks for their deportation
Ah, so reminiscent of scenes from Germany at the same time...

In driving the Tatars out of Crimea, Stalin was merely engaging in yet another act of totalitarian brutality. Totalitarianism flows from a sense of belonging to a movement powered by some force far greater than mere men: history itself for the Soviet Union, the destiny of a people for Nazi Germany, but it can equally be some religious or other faith in different places at different times.

If you represent the force of history, you can’t be doing wrong. So treating an entire ethnic group like the Tatars as disposable is perfectly justifiable, and driving them out made perfect sense to Stalin, whatever their suffering and their losses. This particular act of ethnic cleansing affected 230,000 people, of whom probably about 100,000 died.

Most of us these days take a dim view of such behaviour. It’s not generally regarded as compatible with the highest standards of democratic values. And the present Russian leadership likes to claim it wholly conforms to values of that kind.

So here’s the question: why on earth would they be offended by a song that denounces a regime under which Russia too suffered abominably for several decades? After all, Stalin wreaked more killing on the Soviet Union than Hitler did on Germany, partly no doubt because he had longer.

Unless, of course, there’s real hankering to get back to that kind of regime again. Might Putin be not quite so committed to democratic principle as he likes to maintain? Does he perhaps long nostalgically for a state in which he was, after all, a leading functionary of its most repressive institution, the KGB?

Ah, perish the unworthy thought.

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