28 February, 2022: Ukraine v. Russia; & Other stuff.

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Night’s candles are burnt out, and jocund day stands tiptoe on the misty mountain tops

Spanish life is not always likeable but it is compellingly loveable
Christopher Howse: ‘A Pilgrim in Spain’

Cosas de España/Galiza  

These are worrying times but life goes on. These are kids in strange bin-bag costumes whom I passed on Friday in one of Pontevedra’s squares, near their school:-

And this is the first jasmine flower of the year. A nice surprise but possibly premature if we have a cold snap or two. No smell as yet:-

This flaming building isn’t in Ukraine but in Pontevedra’s main square, albeit 6 years ago:-

I’ve shown it now because of reports that the issue of restoration is still going through legal and bureaucratic processes, traditionally very slow here in Spain. Meanwhile, the ruin remains an eyesore in the centre of the city. But not quite Kyev, of course.

Maria’s Beginning Over 10: Another stupid war.

Ukraine and Russia

See the first article below for an understanding of the history of this benighted country. It’ll help to explain why their resistance is so strong.

Richard Nord this morning on the battle: President Zelensky is warning that the next 24 hours could be critical, and he is unlikely to be wrong. Tides of war can change very quickly, and Putin’s entire reputation – and even his tenure in office – is at stake. With more resources thrown in, and the forces of Belarus becoming available, there is a real danger that we could soon be seeing a very different picture, as the madman casts his next throw and unleashes a rain of terror. While the Ukrainians were not to be underestimated, neither is the determination of a madman on the ropes.

Who can’t be alarmed at the reports that said madman has put the country’s armed forces on nuclear alert? Will I be writing this blog much longer, I wonder?

Putin’s fascists aren’t scared of death or privation. We are, so all we do is shriek, says  A ‘right wing’ columnist in the 2nd article below.  

AEP: On the 3rd attempt, the West is at last grasping the nettle in Ukraine. This weekend’s draconian measures come too late to deter Vladimir Putin, but not too late to inflict real pain and perhaps to set in motion the destruction of his regime. One can but hope. 

Interesting to note that Venezuela, Nicaragua and Cuba have all supported Russia’s aggression. All ex-Spanish colonies, as it happens. But that’s probably just a coincidence.

No huge surprise that the FIFA organisation, renowned for corruption, has stopped short of suspending Russia from international football, despite coming under severe pressure from several national federations. But: Sources believe that FIFA will soon have little choice but to suspend Russia when minor sports such as judo are showing more teeth.

Germany 

Putin’s insane invasion of Ukraine has achieved what many years of pressure from all Germany’s allies had failed to do and caused a massive reversal in Germany’s military/defence policy. And very probably in its energy policy too.

AEP: Germany’s decision to ship weapons to Ukraine is a strategic turning point in this crisis. In a single speech, Chancellor Olaf Scholz has dismantled decades of German Ostpolitik and embarked on breakneck military rearmament.

The USA

As if things weren’t bad enough . . . Donald Trump confirmed his grip on the Republican Party with a speech to conservatives insisting that he alone could save “our civilisation”

Social Media

How Twitter has forced us to hate. Well, perhaps not all of us. I suspect Mr Putin’s done even more than Twitter to generate global levels of hatred.

Spanish

Tanto: So much, as much: Estar al tanto de: To be aware of.

For new reader(s): If you’ve landed here looking for info on Galicia or Pontevedra, try here. If you’re passing through Pontevedra on the Camino, you’ll find a guide to the city there.

THE ARTICLES

1. Kyiv will rise again. Putin can bomb its cities — but Ukraine will endure: Dominic Sandbrook, author and historian.

As winter came to the city of Kyiv, its people waited for the cataclysm. For months the tension had been mounting. They had seen what became of other cities that defied the Mongols, but their governor had refused to surrender, hoping against hope for foreign intervention.

But now Batu Khan’s army had arrived in force, and the longed-for Hungarians were nowhere to be seen. On 28 November 1240, the besiegers set up their siege machines at the Polish Gate. The bombardment began immediately, day after day of shock and awe. On the eighth day the walls gave way, and the Mongols poured into the city, looting, raping and killing.

For hours the Kyivans fought to defend their capital, house by house, hand to hand. By the next morning hundreds of civilians had taken refuge in the Church of the Dormition of the Virgin, resting place of Kyivan princes since the days of Volodymyr the Great. So many people stampeded up the stairs towards the dome that the structure collapsed beneath their weight. There was no escape from the horror.

Nobody knows how many Kyivans died in the next few hours, though the total probably ran into the tens of thousands. Medieval chroniclers estimated that of 50,000 residents, only 2,000 survived. Formerly one of the largest cities in Europe, Kyiv was reduced to ashes. When a papal envoy visited the site six years later, he found it a post-apocalyptic wasteland. Of dozens of large buildings before the siege, just six still stood, and there were “countless skulls and bones of dead men lying about on the ground”. Kyiv, he reported, had “been reduced almost to nothing”.

Yet Kyiv endured, and Kyiv rose again.

That has been the story of Ukraine and its people since the beginning: a story of appalling suffering and indomitable courage, terrible cruelty and extraordinary resilience. Writing amid the news of Russian strikes on the Ukrainian capital, with apartment blocks in flames and civilians taking refuge in underground stations, it’s hard not to think of the resonances with the past. The gathering sense of doom, the desperate hopes for Western intervention, the unleashing of the terrible storm. Kyiv fell, and its people endured Mongol rule for more than a century. But their descendants never forgot who they were. They endured, and they rose again.

History is at the heart of today’s horrific slaughter. Vladimir Putin believes in history, apparently to the point of near-madness. He believes in his own importance as a great man, in his country’s unique nature and exceptional destiny. He is driven by a seething resentment at the ebbing of Russian power, his fury at its supposed encirclement by Nato conspiracies, his outrage at the collapse of the Soviet empire, which he believes “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century”

But Putin is also driven by his sense of Ukrainian history. To put it simply, he believes there is no such thing; or rather, that Ukrainian history is Russian history. Last summer, in an explicit warning the West utterly failed to heed, he published a 7,000-word essay entitled ‘On the Historical Unity of Russians and Ukrainians’. In the very first line he wrote that “Russians and Ukrainians were one people — a single whole”. He traced their shared origins back to the state of Kyivan Rus, founded by the Vikings in the ninth century. Again and again he insisted that Ukrainians were not really Ukrainians, but “western Russians”. Modern Ukraine, he concluded, was a fiction, “entirely the product of the Soviet era”, artificially established “on the lands of historical Russia”.

Does anybody doubt that Putin means what he says? Just listen to his chilling speech on Monday evening, his declaration of war on his beleaguered neighbour. The message was exactly the same. “Since time immemorial,” Putin said, “the people living in the south-west of what has historically been Russian land have called themselves Russians and Orthodox Christians.” Ukraine’s very existence, he insisted, was a mistake, an aberration by Lenin and the Bolsheviks in the early Twenties.

So why do the Ukrainians persist in believing otherwise? Again Putin’s answer was simple. They have been tricked by the West and misled by their masters, a gang of “nationalists and neo-Nazis”. His operation, he says, is designed to bring the “demilitarisation and de-Nazification of Ukraine”. Never mind that Ukraine’s president, the former actor Volodymyr Zelenskyy, looks nothing like a Nazi. Far from being a Ukrainian ultra-nationalist, he comes from a Russian-speaking family. His grandfather joined the Red Army to fight the Nazis. His great-grandfather was killed in the Holocaust. Volodymyr Zelenskyy is Jewish.

That tells you all you need to know about Vladimir Putin’s command of history. For he is wrong: comprehensively, utterly, inarguably wrong. It is true that Russians and Ukrainians have complicated family relations and shared historical roots. But they are not the same people, and Ukraine is not Russia.

Yes, both peoples are East Slavic, both are largely Orthodox and both look back to the ninth and tenth centuries, when the Vikings established the realm they called Garðaríki — the “kingdom of cities” — in what we now call Ukraine, Belarus and western Russia. But their paths diverged after the Mongol invasion, which is why the siege of 1240 matters so much. Imperial Russia grew out of the Grand Duchy of Moscow, one of Kyiv’s regional rivals, which flourished as a Mongol vassal.

But the lands of modern Ukraine did not belong to Moscow. To cut an incredibly contentious story short, they were eventually divided three ways. In the south, Crimea and its hinterland became an independent khanate, run by the Mongols’ Golden Horde and its successors. In the far east, the wide steppes known as the Wild Fields became the lands of the Cossacks — exiles, outlaws and adventurers, who take their name from the Turkish word kazak, “a free man”. But most of today’s Ukraine fell beneath the sway of the vast Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, one of the largest, most populous, most cosmopolitan and most tolerant countries in early modern Europe. And if you want to know why, in the last few days, Poland and Lithuania have been Ukraine’s staunchest champions, there’s your answer.

Every detail of this story is bitterly contested; to leave anything out invites fierce criticism. But here’s a foolhardy attempt at a summary. For centuries, most of Ukraine’s largely peasant people were governed by the Poles, and had much in common with their Russian neighbours. But they were not Poles, and they were not Russians. At the time people called them “Ruthenians” — a word derived from that original Viking state of Kyivan Rus. But the word Україна, Ukraine, is old, dating from at least the 12th century. It probably means “the edge, the borderland”. And that pretty much sums Ukraine up. It was the land in between.

It’s perfectly true that over time, Ukraine turned to look eastwards. By the early 19th century Poland had been destroyed, while most of modern Ukraine, including the lands of the Cossacks and the capital Kyiv, had been absorbed by the empire of the Tsars. Not the far west, though: it was taken by Austria-Hungary, which is why L’viv looks so much like Krakow or Prague. Meanwhile, in the east, in the coal basin of the river Don, Russian workers poured into the newly built mines and steelworks, which is why so many eastern Ukrainians still speak Russian.

But that’s not an unusual story. At exactly the same time, a very similar thing happened here in Britain, where English workers moved into the mines and steelworks of South Wales. Today their descendants still speak English; you don’t often hear Welsh on the streets of Cardiff. But an anglophone Welshman is still Welsh. Like his childhood friends in the steel-making city of Kryvyi Rih, Volodymyr Zelenskyy was brought up speaking Russian. But he’s not Russian. He’s Ukrainian.

So was Ukraine invented by the Bolsheviks, as Putin says? No. Just look at its cities and universities in the late 19th century, when the Ukrainian idea flourished as never before. Intellectuals, poets, historians and folklorists became fascinated by their unique past and distinctive culture, just like their counterparts elsewhere. All over Europe, from Ireland, Germany and Italy to the lands of the Czechs, the Bulgarians, the Serbs and the Poles, people were part-uncovering, part-inventing their own national stories. So too in Ukraine, where the national poet Taras Shevchenko, the son of a serf, wrote verses celebrating the peasants, rebels and outlaws of days gone by.

But of course that didn’t fit with the Russian story. Under Tsars Nicholas I and Alexander II, the Ukrainian ideal seemed a threat to the unity of the Russian Empire. Shevchenko was arrested and exiled, his poems suppressed. In 1876 the Ukrainian language was effectively banned. You couldn’t write Ukrainian books, put on Ukrainian plays or give Ukrainian recitals; you couldn’t even teach your children in Ukrainian.

Yet Ukraine endured. By the outbreak of the First World War, the national idea was probably stronger than ever. At first the Russians invaded the Austrian-held west, in Galicia, and tried to stamp out all traces of a distinct Ukrainian identity. Then they were driven back. The Russian Revolution and civil war brought chaos, and Kyiv changed hands 16 times in two years. But every rival contender — the Ukrainian People’s Republic, the West Ukrainian People’s Republic, the Hetmanate, the Directorate, even the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic — believed there was such a thing as Ukraine. That was why, when Lenin and Stalin created the Soviet Union in 1922, Ukraine joined as a separate republic. Everybody knew it wasn’t Russia.

In the century that followed, Ukraine’s history was so awful, so horribly stained with sorrow, that it feels almost indecent to write it down. A famine in the early Twenties, then another horrific famine — the Holodomor, caused by Stalin’s collectivisation policies — in the early Thirties. Occupation by the Nazis in the Second World War, then the charnel house of the Holocaust, in which some Ukrainian nationalists actively took part. Reconquest by the Red Army; years of suppression and stagnation; the nuclear accident at Chernobyl. Then the collapse of the Soviet Union, the implosion of Ukraine’s economy in the decade that followed, the Orange Revolution, the Maidan and the annexation of Crimea.

Yet amid all this, Ukraine endured. In his speech on Monday night, Putin failed to mention that in the late Eighties thousands of people took to the streets of L’viv and Kyiv to demand language rights, greater autonomy and, in the end, independence. Nor did he mention that when the Ukrainians were given the chance to go their own way, in a free and fair referendum in December 1991, a staggering 92% voted for independence. Every single oblast, even Donetsk, even Luhansk, even Crimea, said yes. Even Russian-speakers voted for it. And no wonder. They were, after all, Ukrainian.

A complicated story, then. But in a European context, it’s not so unusual. Yes, Ukraine’s borders have been fluid; but whose haven’t? Just look at a map of Germany over time; or Italy, or Poland. Yes, many Ukrainians speak Russian. But that’s not unusual either. Some Finns speak Swedish. Some Germans speak Danish. Some Italians speak German. Do the Swiss all speak the same language?

And yes, Ukraine’s history is deeply, inevitably intertwined with that of its overbearing neighbour. It always has been, and always will be. But you could say exactly the same of Spain and Portugal, Germany and Austria, Britain and Ireland. Most people in Ireland speak English. Many read English newspapers. Many even support English football teams. But Ireland isn’t England. Ukraine isn’t Russia.

For Ukraine, doomed to what appears to be unending suffering, the future seems grim. When I began this essay, opening with those lines on the fall of Kyiv in 1240, the BBC headlines talked of overnight air attacks on the city. Now, while I have been writing, Russian tanks are rolling into the suburbs. Historians love to quote Mark Twain’s quip that history doesn’t repeat itself, it rhymes. They rarely admit that sometimes it rhymes in dreadful, unbearable, heart-rending ways.

But the story of Ukrainian history isn’t just a story of endless defeat. It’s a story of endless resilience. It’s the story of a people trapped between mighty neighbours, who have always been themselves, with their own land, their own identity, their own history. You can bomb them and kill them, smash their cities and tear down their buildings, burn their books and suppress their language. But you can’t make them something they aren’t, and you can’t destroy their belief in themselves. That’s the story of the siege in 1240, and it’s the same story now. Kyiv fell. But Kyiv endured, and Kyiv will rise again. 

2. Putin’s fascists aren’t scared of death or privation. We are, so all we do is shriek: Rod Liddle, The Times

On the day that the first missiles landed in Ukraine it was reported that Britain’s spies were studying a dossier informing them that they should not use words such as “strong” and “grip” because these could “reinforce dominant cultural patterns”. They should also acknowledge their white privilege, declare their pronouns and shun words such as “manpower”.

Meanwhile, the head of the German army — having just taken part in a “day of values” discussion — reported that his men were not remotely equipped, mentally or physically, to fight a war. If only Wilhelm Keitel, the Wehrmacht chief, had felt similarly in 1939, all that previous nastiness might never have taken place.

The paradox, then. All the appurtenances of liberal western democracy, the stuff that we rightly consider valuable, render us wholly unable to fight a war and thus protect those values and lifestyles. Sure, we might be able to bully some impecunious desert satrapy entirely devoid of weapons of mass destruction, but faced with threats which are serious and actually directed towards us — threats from Russia and China — we shriek a lot but remain effectively impotent.

We are too comfortable, even the poorest of us, with too many consumer durables and holidays abroad, mortgages, 80,000 choices of coffee (I refer you to my column last week), second homes (for some) and food fads and allergies and mental health issues to occupy us. The Russian people, by and large, don’t have any of that stuff.

Then, as referenced above, there are our facile obsessions — the only things we get worked up about these days, on the left or the right. They are staggeringly trivial and meaningless, but the culture war is an agreeable war because nobody gets killed.

And above all, there is representative democracy. We cannot fight a war because too many people would object to it and would soon be screeching “not in my name!” They — we — object because we are comfortable and cossetted by a fairly benign welfare capitalism.

Peer into that moronic inferno, the internet, for a moment and check out the reactions to Russia’s invasion of a sovereign state only a thousand or so miles away. There are those who blame Nato and the US, because this is a democracy and every view must be heard, even those of imbeciles. And there are those who pledge to “stand by” Ukraine and do so by affixing the country’s flag to their user profile and maybe putting out a couple of tea lights. Je Suis Zelensky, and so on: an expression of individualism and virtue-signalling of absolutely no use whatsoever, except to the poster’s sense of self-worth.

In 1936 thousands went to fight in Spain, on either side of the country’s civil war. We have become too lulled and softened to do that now — and of course this is, most of the time, a good thing. I am not decrying western democracy at all, not even the woke stuff, merely pointing out that it ineluctably leads us to where we are now: watching in horror, particularly at the rise in gas prices, and unable to act.

The fact that Ukraine isn’t in Nato is a merciful excuse for our politicians, but it is a moral evasion. When Putin steps in to “protect” the Russian majority in the Latvian city of Daugavpils, do you really think we will move then?

We respond by financially penalising the Russians, but money is not remotely the point. Fascists — whether it be the clerical fascists of Islamic extremism or Putin’s more traditional fascism, based upon a confected, deliberately erroneous reading of his country’s history — are implacable and brook no opposition because the wars they are fighting are rooted in blind, unassailable faith. They do not worry about privation and they do not fear death. We, over here, are scared shitless of both, possibly with very good reason, given that we have enjoyed privileged, comfortable lives. So we cannot win.

If there is any hope it lies with the young in Russia, those less beholden to the notion of a recreated, very right-wing version of the USSR. The vast majority of those who have bravely protested against Putin’s savagery, in 40 towns and cities across Russia, have been overwhelmingly youngish. People who have begun to enjoy the internationalist pull of social media and do not want these freedoms curtailed and their country to retreat — as it has done countless times since its origins in Kyiv a thousand years ago — to an autocratic, backward, Asian redoubt.

They may in the end be more potent opponents of their leader than even the courageous Ukrainians who are soon to be sniping at tanks from the smashed apartment windows of their shattered capital city.