One of the many interesting details in Josh Kovensky’s podcast interview with independent Russian journalist Mikhail Zygar was the discussion of what often seems like Vladimir Putin’s very American culture war politics. To Americans, these statements by Putin can come off as almost a kind of trolling or part of some common rightist, authoritarian playbook. Zygar argued that they are, for the most part, not aimed at Putin’s domestic audience. In short, Putin decided over the last decade that he needed new international allies. And those allies were less a set of particular countries — or not only that — than the right and far-right in North America and Europe. As an example, Zygar argued that Russia’s recent crackdown on trans rights had very little grounding in Russia’s domestic political dialog. It’s not that Russians are pro-trans rights. It just isn’t something that has much salience either way. The crackdown was more something Putin did to deepen his bond with the global right.
Regardless of whether this perspective is accurate in all its particulars, it got me thinking about the way the Ukraine War has polarized the two countries’ global images in line with the worldwide conflict between authoritarianism and civic democracy. It’s not quite right-left. But it certainly has dimensions of that, as each country has tried to present itself to different global constituencies as embodiments of these visions of the future: civic, democratic and pluralist vs. authoritarian, traditionalist, ethno-nationalist. This isn’t new for Ukraine. A major part of Ukraine’s more-than-decade-long conflict with Russia has been about the desire of at least half the country to integrate with the economy and political culture of the European Union, the “West.”
I don’t know enough about either of these countries’ internal realities to know how much of this is real, rooted in the countries’ present realities, or having a transformative effect on each country. But wars and revolutions often do have profoundly transformative effects on countries and not simply in the obvious ways of reacting to and improvising in response to the traumas and dislocations of war. The ideological justifications for wars and revolutions often have transformative effects that far outlast the conflicts or disruptions they were devised or embraced to navigate.
There are many examples of this. One is the American Revolution itself. The rise of the modern historical profession in the late 19th century coincided with America’s rise to global power. This led many historians in the United States to search for the roots of the country’s egalitarian impulses which made it distinct not only from Great Britain but Europe more generally. So were the roots of the American Revolution in the origins of the British North American colonies themselves? This was and will likely always remain a central question in the study of the American colonies. But historical research, especially in the late 20th century, began to focus on different reality: in many ways the colonies were becoming more stratified, less equal, more British in the decades prior to the American Revolution. So whatever we make of the ideological roots of the American Revolution they seem much more like a disjuncture rather than a continuity with the colonies and the young country’s past. There’s a way of looking at American history in which the leaders of the young republic glommed on to a package of radical traditions which had a logic in the revolutionary tumult and the years of war that followed and then got embedded in the country’s national political culture in ways that were difficult to tame or control.
So is this impacting Ukrainian political culture and, if so, how? Is it real on the ground at all and, if so, how durable is it into the future? Poland is a key neighboring ally, which has been particularly militant in its support of Ukraine in the conflict with Russia. But the trajectory of Poland’s own political cultural has been in a more authoritarian direction. The same goes for neighboring Hungary, though it’s been much less clearly supportive of Ukraine during this conflict.
These are all basic questions to ask as we try to make sense of the impact of this war over time for the region and the world.