[Marxism] What Vladimir Putin chooses not to know about Russian history - latimes.com

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Sun May 4 16:57:14 MDT 2014


Patricia Herlihy
May 1, 2014, 5:04 p.m.

KGB agents are apparently not taught history, or so it would seem from 
Vladimir Putin's recent statement that only "God knows" how a portion of 
southeastern Ukraine ever became part of that country. The Russian 
president refers to the region as "New Russia," an old idea that has 
always been — and remains — an aspiration rather than a fact. Luhansk, 
Donetsk, Odessa and other New Russian cities have been a part of Ukraine 
for nearly a century. And even before that, they were never truly Russian.

It was Empress Catherine II who first articulated the ambition that this 
territory, which she acquired from the Ottoman Turks in the latter half 
of the 18th century, would become "Novorossiia." Catherine wanted her 
subjects to settle the new, mostly vacant land, and she did her best to 
lure Russian nobles into the area. But few were willing to take chances 
on "the wild fields," no matter what kind of deals she offered. Next, 
she posted fliers in Europe promising cheap land, religious freedom and 
exemption from taxes and military service to those who would settle in 
the area. Mennonite and Catholic Germans, Italians, Jews, and some 
Swiss, among other nationalities, accepted the invitation.

Later, Catherine's grandson, Czar Alexander I, recruited dissidents from 
the Ottoman Empire — Albanians, Serbs, Bulgarians, Moldavians, Greeks, 
Armenians and even some Turks — to settle in New Russia as an anchor 
against any Ottoman attempts to reclaim it. Some of the pockets of 
foreign settlement were even exempted from Russian czarist rule and 
allowed to preserve their national languages and customs. In the end, 
Catherine's New Russia became home to many more non-Russians than Russians.

The area's major cities also had distinctly non-Russian roots. Luhansk 
was founded in the late 1700s by an Englishman, and Donetsk was 
established in 1865 by a Welsh entrepreneur, who built a steel mill and 
opened coal mines. For almost a century after its founding, the 
settlement was known as Yuzkovo (as close to the name of its founder, 
John Hughes, as the residents could manage) before being changed to 
Donetsk in 1961.

Early European governors of Odessa, New Russia's largest Black Sea port, 
helped by the czars, did much to develop its economy and welfare. But by 
the mid-19th century, Russia was suspicious of the city because of its 
foreign population. Greeks, Bulgarians, Poles and Ukrainians formed 
secret societies. Jews made up an increasing percentage of the 
population. And Nicholas I, who ruled from 1825 to 1855, called Odessa 
"a nest of conspirators."

Fearing the perceived lawlessness and tumult of this cosmopolitan city, 
Russian czars began to appoint military governors to oversee the area, 
and they quit paying for infrastructure there, turning instead to other 
Black Sea ports. Had Odessa been more Russian, it might have fared better.

Even in Soviet times, Odessa was a city low on the pecking order. Again, 
as in czarist days, its residents weren't given to taking edicts from 
the Russian government all that seriously. One never could be quite sure 
of Odessa's Marxist orthodoxy — after all, this was where Leon Trotsky 
had gone to school and where Mensheviks flourished before 1917. After 
the 1917 revolution, it took several years for the Bolsheviks to subdue 
the city.

The Soviet regime increased Russian presence in the region, but Odessa 
never fully embraced Moscow, and it remained a poor cousin to other 
Soviet cities. Food and goods were in shorter supply than elsewhere, and 
first-rate opera and ballet companies rarely played the gorgeous Opera 
House designed by Austrians in the 1880s.

On Easter Sunday this year, a Russian Orthodox group in Odessa 
proclaimed the formation of a Novorossiia Republic centered in Odessa. 
The small band named Valery Kaurov, head of the Union of Orthodox 
Citizens of Ukraine, president of this imaginary, religion-based 
republic. Taking refuge in Moscow because Ukrainian authorities have 
launched a criminal investigation of him, Kaurov addressed the group 
assembled in Odessa by Skype, imploring them "to promote this historical 
name, to say and write that … our land is Novorossiia — an important 
part of the Holy Russia."

Ironically, in the 19th century when there actually was a Novorossiia, 
Odessa was known for its ungodly ways. There were fewer Orthodox 
Churches per capita there than in any other large city in the Russian 
empire. And the members of a Jewish synagogue there shocked more pious 
Jews by installing a pipe organ. A Yiddish expression held that the 
fires of hell burned around the city for its lack of piety. Worldly, 
materialistic, commercial, impudent, entrepreneurial and ethnically 
diverse, Odessa was an exceptionally cosmopolitan and non-Russian city.

It's easy to understand why Putin would covet and wish to annex Odessa 
and other southeast Ukrainian cities, but calling them Russian cities 
evokes a history that never was. In the 1920s, when Vladimir Lenin made 
the region officially a part of Ukraine and granted the Ukrainian 
Socialist Republic a veneer of autonomy, he said he was doing so "to 
avoid Great Russian imperialism and chauvinism." Vladimir Putin clearly 
sees nothing wrong with these traits.

Patricia Herlihy is a professor of history emerita at Brown University 
and an adjunct professor at the Watson Institute for International 
Studies. She is the author of "Odessa: A History, 1794-1914" and "Vodka: 
A Global History."

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