By Leonidas Donskis
Norman Cohn (1915-2007), the recently deceased British historian, argued in his book Warrant for Genocide that the Nazis, and the Holocaust they committed, somehow overshadowed some earlier genocidal events and atrocities in Europe that unquestionably were of smaller scale, yet were nearly as sinister and cruel on the ground as those initiated by the Third Reich.
Cohn described the earlier politics and practices of hatred as unnoticed fascism. He meant a series of horrible anti-Semitic pogroms orchestrated by the Okhrana (or Okhranka, as it was called by the masses) - the secret political police of the Russian Empire. These pogroms stretched from the infamous Kishinev pogrom in 1903 through the massacre of the Jews by the Whites during the Civil War in Russia, claiming the lives of several hundred thousand Jews.
Had the sinister and murderous anti-Semitic ideology that fuelled the massacre remained the unparalleled phenomenon of this sort in the 20th century, it would have doubtlessly merited the name of fascism, especially referring to the Union of the Russian People (Soyuz Russkogo Naroda), commonly known as the Black Hundreds, a fanatical terrorist hate group skillfully manipulated by the Okhrana.
Small wonder then that National Socialism made humanity forget its predecessors, with all their imperfections and inconsistencies. Whatever the case, we know for sure who manufactured the two major anti-Semitic forgeries that were used to fuel bigotry of the masses and to boost the morale of soldiers before the pogroms, including the Kishinev pogrom, namely, The Protocols of the Elders of Zion and The Grand Rabbi Speech. The former was crafted by Pyotr Ivanovich Rachkovsky, the sinister head of the foreign branch of the Okhrana in Paris, whereas the latter was nothing more than a Russian journalistic adaptation of the Rabbi speech to the twelve tribes of Israel, an excerpt from Hermann Goedsche’s sensationalist novel Biarritz based on a 19th-century conspiracy theory.
Yet a deja vu feeling arises when watching Andrei Nekrasov’s and Olga Konskaya’s (1964-2009) film Russian Lessons (2009). After the fall of the Berlin Wall, the West was convinced that the epic struggle between liberal democracy and totalitarianism, no matter whether the latter was disguised as a rival civilization to the West or as a legitimate heir to, or another version of, the Enlightenment, was over. That was not to be.
When the war in the Balkans broke out and the West revealed the shocking barbarity and hatred deeply embedded in the former Yugoslavia, the country that once was thought of as the most civilized part of the communist system seemingly based on a peaceful federation, Slobodan Milosevic firmly monopolized and embodied the evils of post-Communism. More than that, he and the Balkans in general became a reference point when dealing with the unholy trinity of the post-Communist condition, namely, uncertainty, unsafety, and insecurity, resulting in attempts to rewrite history, to redraw the boundaries, and to establish a single historical memory regime.
The horror of Srebrenica, where Serbian militants exterminated, in two days, around 8,000 innocent civilians before the eyes of the shocked and demoralized Dutch military, and where the most awful war crimes since the end of World War II were committed, in the middle of Europe, overshadowed the horror of both Russian-Chechen wars, not to mention the ethnic cleansing, looting, and organized violence in Abkhazia.
The slaughter of civilians in Chechnya was put into the category of the internal affairs of the Russian Federation. After 9/11, the extermination of Chechens, like the smashing of this tiny and long-suffering country from the face of the earth, received a new and firm legitimacy. This time it was a “noble” cause, rather than just a war over oil or gas pipeline: namely, the fight against terrorism.
And now we watch Andrei Nekrasov’s Russian Lessons, co-directed by Olga Konskaya, who passed away shortly after the film was finished. The images are disturbing. As Nekrasov showed, providing the undisputable evidence, the alleged Georgian planes that bombed Tskhinvali were, in fact, Russian planes bombing the city of Gori in Georgia. Yet these images were used in Germany and other EU countries as official coverage of the Russian-Georgian war. Vladimir Putin, talking as a mentor and lecturing a noted German journalist, reveals the full scale of cynicism of Russia, and the self-inflicted blindness and cowardice of the West.
“They know that we lie, and we understand that they know that we lie” – this is the Russian dissident and human rights defender Stanislav Dmitrievsky’s formula for the Kremlin’s attitude to the EU concerning the condition of human rights in Russia. Two years ago, Andrei Nekrasov made his earlier film, Rebellion: the Litvinenko Case, for Cannes. The film sent a powerful message to the world that the Kremlin can poison with impunity its critics and adversaries in a foreign country, whose citizens they happen to be.
The Russian state that has waged war against its best people, from the times of Pyotr Chaadaev, is now targeting and assassinating dissenting journalists and human rights activists and defenders, from Yuri Shchekochikhin and Anna Politkovskaya, to Natalya Estemirova. All in all, the new Russian fascism went unnoticed. Do we need one more wake-up call? Didn’t we have enough of it?
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