Prof. Andrzej NOWAK: The West is the key to ensuring that the Russian imperial Reconquista is no longer effective

The West is the key to ensuring that the Russian imperial Reconquista is no longer effective

Photo of Prof. Andrzej NOWAK

Prof. Andrzej NOWAK

Historian, Sovietologist and member of the National Development Council. Lecturer at the Jagiellonian University. Full Professor at the Institute of History of the Polish Academy of Sciences. Winner of the Lech Kaczyński Award, Chevalier of the Order of the White Eagle.

Ryc.Fabien Clairefond

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Russia can only be changed—or saved from itself—by eliminating its capacity for re-imperialisation. And this can only be done by reducing Russia’s territorial capabilities, says Professor Andrzej NOWAK in an interview with Mikołaj CZYŻ.

Mikołaj CZYŻ: Are the roots of Western sympathy for Russia longer than they may seem? Do they go back to the 18th century, to Peter I?

Professor Andrzej NOWAK: One could draw three lines along which this phenomenon develops. The first, probably the oldest, is connected with the hope of converting the Orthodox Moscow, the “Third Rome,” by the Catholic “first” Rome.

As early as in the 15th and 16th centuries, the dream of the popes to convert the main, political centre of Russian Orthodoxy to some form of union with Rome handed many tangible advantages to the grand dukes of the Kremlin, who cynically exploited this dream. In the name of this illusory hope, the papacy often decided to sacrifice the fate of other nations within the Republic.

This phenomenon occurred with varying intensity and, sadly, it is apparently being revived today. Not only in the form of Pope Francis’ unfortunate statements but also in the form of another entirely different ideology that dreams of “converting” Russia. Western liberals often insist that to win Russia to the “world of modern values,” we only need to remove geopolitical obstacles, that is, agree to a Russian sphere of influence in Eastern Europe . . .

The second line is of an economic nature. It originated in trade contacts between Ivan the Terrible and Elizabeth I, the Queen of England. In 1555, the Muscovy Company, an English merchant partnership, was founded and focused only on the profits provided by the access to the Russian market of raw materials. Back then, it was wood. Today it is gas, which since 1981 has been strongly linking Germany, for example, first with the USSR and later with Putin’s Russia.

From the times of Ivan the Terrible till this day, Russia has been trying to present itself to the Western power as the perfect economic trading partner. Moscow insists that “small states” (Poland, Ukraine, etc.) are basically the only obstacle between the West and the fabulous contracts offered by Russia. All other matters should be subordinated to the trade—it’s a highly compelling argument.

The third thread paradoxically links the first line to the second. Its prelude can also be found in the agreement between the Orthodox ruler of the “Third Rome”—as Ivan the Terrible saw himself—and Elizabeth, the queen of Protestant Europe. They were united by a common struggle against the same enemy: the papacy, the Catholic Church, whose main support in eastern Europe was the Polish-Lithuanian-Ukrainian Commonwealth (in the 17th century, Cromwell called it “the horn on the head of the papal Beast”).

A new basis for connections between Russia and the West was provided by the unusual modernisation carried out by Tsar Peter I at the dawn of the 18th century. Peter and his successors in the 17th century (including Catherine II) emphasised that Russia would become Europeanised but on one condition— it must “physically” enter the centre of Europe and gain direct contact with it. What they meant was a common border with the West, a starting point of which was Germany (also according to the European thought). Tsar wanted the West to accept his empire’s expansion in that area, as it allowed Russia to “come closer to Europe.” We should note that Peter decided to follow the example of northern Europe (Netherlands, Prussia, England) and reach an agreement with Protestant Europe against the south, that is, the Latin, Catholic world. This line is very characteristic.

Russia chose northern Protestant Europe as its model, continuing, to some extent, an old anti-Catholic orientation of the “Third Rome”. This peculiar mixture of three lines made imperial Russia—entering the Republic by force of arms at the end of the 18th century—an exemplary student in the eyes of the representatives of the “enlightened West.”

The anti-Catholic phobia of the most influential part of the Enlightenment salons headed by Voltaire, similarly to Cromwell in the 17th century, recognised the Republic as a dangerous agent of Catholic “infamy”—as Voltaire called the Papacy—that had to be destroyed. By destroying the Republic, imperial Russia carried out a work of Enlightenment and progress, a work of a “decatholicisation” (it’s the first practical use of the “denazification” ideology that Putin invokes in his current expansion into Ukraine).

That is how it was presented by the agents of Catherine II, such as Diderot, Voltaire and Baron Grimm, whom she bribed with money. With their help, Catherine advocated the notion of Russia as a guardian of the Enlightenment in Eastern Europe. Naturally, the Polish Republic was then presented as a “black hole” on the map of the Enlightenment, which should be taught order, modernity and modernisation with Moscow’s bayonets. That, of course, was far from being true; it was propaganda paid for with Catherine II’s tsarist roubles and made up by servile propagandists in Western Europe, who repeat only one thesis in various ways. A thesis that the entire Eastern Europe should be placed under the patronage of the modernising, anti-Catholic Russia so that the continent might enjoy the victory of the progress (as defined in the models promoted by the Salon in Paris ).

The same pattern was followed in the 20th century when the progressive Salon of Paris (Jean-Paul Sartre) and the leftists’ Salon of the whole West claimed that it was necessary to return Eastern Europe to the progressive Red Army, even if it entailed some “small crimes”—because that is the price of progress, again represented by Russia (this time Soviet, Stalinist).

Mikołaj Czyż: History shows that no matter what the system of power in Russia was, Moscow’s attitude towards Poland has been the same. If there is any shift of power in Russia now, for example, if the war in Ukraine leads to such an enormous economic crisis that it wipes Putin off the political stage, could Moscow’s attitude towards Warsaw finally change?

Professor NOWAK: Among the representatives of the political and intellectual elite, although not many, there are nonetheless such Russians as Mikhail Khodorkovsky, who served 10 years in prison for his mistake of supporting Putin while trying to remain independent, an eminent director Alexander Sokurov, maker of wonderful films used by Putin in his propaganda of Russia’s opening up to the West, or Sergei Lebedev, a brilliant writer of the younger generation. They all emphasise that replacing Putin with another leader, even if it was Navalny, and not some other KGB colonel, will not change Russia.

Besides, Navalny’s programme represents the same aggressive imperialism as Putin’s. Russia can only be changed—or saved from itself—by eliminating its capacity for re-imperialisation. And this can only be done by reducing Russia’s territorial capabilities.

– Mikołaj CZYŻ: How and by whom could this be done?

Professor NOWAK: Of course, this can only be done by the West and its firm stand on the side of Ukraine, the country that has just put a damper on the re-imperialisation of the post-Soviet zone. The West is the key to ensuring that Russian imperial Reconquista is no longer effective—because it has been so far! And thanks to the West, which did not act when Russia entered Donbas and Crimea in 2014. Germany or France, for example, saw “no problem” in it.

Vladimir Putin declared war on the West in February 2007 at the Munich Conference, stating it openly. The following year, he sent tanks into the capital of the sovereign country of Georgia and tore a large chunk of territory from it. There were no repercussions back then. Only Lech Kaczyński and several presidents from our part of Europe urged to do something about it. Western Europe was not interested in any sanctions, which could have stopped Russia even then, nor did they want to show the Russians that their “commander” was not that effective. Yet, until 2022, he was—thanks to the West.

We can stop Russia’s neo-imperialist project if we realise the most important point of the Giedroyc Doctrine. This doctrine is usually reduced to a Polish alliance with Ukraine, Lithuania and Belarus. But its essence is to consolidate the Warsaw-Kyiv geopolitical axis and to make Ukrainian sovereignty so strong that Ukraine will never again have to capitulate before Russia. As a result—and most importantly—Russia, with its re-imperialisation potential ultimately blocked, will accept that it is no longer an empire and will never be one again. Such Russia is a dream of the aforementioned Khodorkovsky, Sokurov, Lebedev or Kasparov, the potential elite of the changed country. However, for such a concept of Russia to have a chance of winning at home, a consistent stance is needed from the West against any agreements with imperial Russia.

– Mikołaj CZYŻ: In the case of Belarus, the West has the courage to push President Lukashenko to the margins of international politics—is this feasible with regard to Vladimir Putin, and does the West want it?

Professor NOWAK: I think that, with few exceptions, such as President Macron, consistent in his extreme pro-Russian, even pro-Putin, approach, most Western leaders would prefer not to talk to Putin anymore. The danger I see in Western politics is not a pro-Putin stance or accepting Putin as a usual partner. This line has clearly been crossed, and apart from the French elites, who are most subservient to Russia, [other countries – translator’s note] and Washington has clearly shown that they don’t want to talk to Putin. It is not easy to come back to the discussion table with a leader after you called him a murderer. Germany, too, has clearly revised its policy.

The danger we face lies in Putin being replaced by someone else, such as KGB colonel Navalny, who would say: “Now, let’s get back to business as usual, because evil Putin is no more”. The key is for the West to recognise that Putin is not the problem. Putin realises the dreams and aspirations of most of the current Russian elite. In order to turn Russia into a safe partner for its western neighbours, its imperialism, deeply rooted in Russian history and culture, must be stopped. It is, therefore, necessary to put an end to the fatally false hopes of the West that Putin is bad while Russia, even the imperial one, is good.

These hopes are highlighted, for example, by the words of Pope Francis, who said that the Russian boys going there [to Ukraine – translator’s note] to rape and kill are the most important—after all, the Pope mentioned them firstand not the Ukrainian women and men who are raped and killed. Anything to avoid offending the “wonderful” Moscow that may eventually be converted.

Obviously, the economic aspect is even stronger today. With a vision of the day when cheap gas will once again be brought from Russia, influential European Union Commissioners are scrambling to get back to the Green Europe project, which is, in effect, based on Russian gas. Without this cheap Russian gas, Commissioner Timmermans will not be able to implement anything from his ideological project “Fit for 55.” The European Union elite dreams of returning to “normal” relations with Russia as soon as possible—they just want to get rid of Putin so that Russia could still be the most essential partner.

We should also note the third aspect that is constantly present in the Western narrative: “Russia is important; it has created such a wonderful culture;” it’s not “tiny and primitive” like Belarus or Ukraine—as it was usually said contemptuously about the countries of our region. Russian imperialism argues that Russian culture is Europeanising and worth “a hundred times more” than all the countries located between Russia and Germany. That suggestion is very much instilled in the mentality of the Western elites.

It is worth quoting here the shocking article accompanying the admission of Poland, the Czech Republic, Hungary and Slovakia to the European Union, written by a renowned American intellectual Perry Anderson and published in The Sunday Times Magazine, where this intellectual expressed his indignation at the “terrible mistake” of admitting these countries to the Union, because, according to him, their cultural contribution is nil compared to that of Russia’s. Naturally, this man knows nothing about the culture of Poland, the Czech Republic or Hungary. I guess he has never listened to Chopin, Bartok or Dvořák, and never heard of Copernicus, Conrad or Miłosz . . .

Obviously, I’m being a bit ironic. Still, Anderson’s text represents typical thinking of Western elites: “But why, Russia is the country of Tchaikovsky, Dostoyevsky, Chekhov. We must love such a country and take it back. Those small countries, like Belarus, Ukraine or Poland, are unimportant to us.” We must fight against this mentality, so successfully transplanted into the Western elite by Russian imperial culture. Mentality perfectly expressed, for example, by the terrible poem by Joseph Brodsky, the great poet and winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature, who greeted the restoration of Ukrainian independence with a poem full of contempt and hatred for Ukraine as a barbarian tribe. This subtle, liberal Russian poet, admired by the West, argues that Eastern Europe has only one great culture—Russian—and that the rest is barbaria, enlightened only by Russia: Chekhov, Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy or Tchaikovsky (incidentally descended from Ukrainian Cossacks by the name Tchaika). And the West buys it. These days, however, it’s hard not to notice that the Ukrainians are not the Russians, that they have not come to terms with a situation in which there is no Ukrainian nation and no Ukrainian culture.

I think that regaining a sense of subjectivity in our countries, showing that we have something to say in our own language and that we are no less valuable part of Europe than this idealised Russia—that is our fundamental task at the moment. It will allow us to overcome the myth of Russia as the only important partner for Europe situated east of Germany.

Mikołaj CZYŻ: But is there any way for Poland to build friendly relations with Russia?

Professor NOWAK: With a non-imperial Russia, yes. Poland can establish friendly relations with Russia if it understands that there is no going back to Kyiv, Kharkiv or Crimea. However, if Russia remains imperialistic, the conflict between our countries is inevitable, fundamental and enduring. For imperial Russia, the only way that conflict could be solved is for us to surrender, raise both hands in the air and say: “Come and rule us.” Then imperial Russia will “make peace” with Poland, just as it did during the rule of the Soviet system.

Unless we accept our status as the western periphery of the great Russian empire, we will never have good relations with imperial Russia. The only alternative is for Russia to cease being an imperial country. It is a good alternative, one that we should aim for.

Mikołaj CZYŻ: As far as Europe’s attitude to these concessions is concerned, it is worth recalling Lord Curzon’s vision of the Soviet Russia’s border, set out during the Polish-Soviet War. The vision entailed accepting an extremely limited Polish border and ending the war as soon as possible. The same is said in the context of the war in Ukraine: if there can be any peace after that war, it will involve the West forcing Ukraine to accept the annexation to Russia of the lands it has occupied so far.

Professor NOWAK: That is criminal appeasement thinking. I described it in detail in my book The West First Betrayal using the example you gave, namely the Curzon Line. Lord Curzon had, in fact, nothing to do with it. It was drawn by British Prime Minister Lloyd George in 1920 when the Bolshevik army was approaching Warsaw. Lloyd George wanted to sacrifice Poland as a whole, not only to the aforementioned line, as long as it would stop Bolsheviks from crossing the German border. That was the essence of the current British Prime Minister’s offer to Lenin and Stalin. Fortunately, we defended ourselves against this concept. It was, however, the first example of appeasement, that is, a concession to a criminal, totalitarian regime based on expansion and imperial conquest—a concession by Western powers at the expense of smaller countries that were left to be devoured by aggressive imperialism on the assumption that “imperial Russia will feed on these scraps.”

Similarly, it was later believed that Adolf Hitler’s imperial Third Reich could also be fed with such “scraps.” So it was given Czechoslovakia, Austria and the Rhineland in the hope that it would “swallow them and be satisfied.” It seemed that the folly of this policy had been exposed once and for all by the Second World War. It is impossible to satiate an imperial appetite with concessions. Russia will not be content with Lugansk, Donetsk and Crimea or Ukraine after it has been devoured in the next stage. Nor will it be content with Poland or the entire former Soviet camp. It will only be satisfied when it has subjugated the whole of Europe. Until the elites in Paris or Berlin understand this, they will keep returning to the temptation of appeasement, that is, selling out smaller neighbours to aggressive Russian imperialism.

Mikołaj CZYŻ: Józef Mackiewicz drew the world’s attention to the threat posed by communist Russia. Does Poland have the tools to convince the world of everything you have mentioned, namely that Russia, not Putin, is the real issue?

Professor NOWAK: Let us make one correction. In my opinion, Józef Mackiewicz was fundamentally wrong because he believed communism was the only source of the problem, that Russia was utterly, “immaculately” innocent, and that Russian tradition never held any danger for its neighbours. This passionate defence of Russian tradition, which is completely at odds with historical reality, is falsified today. Vladimir Putin does not represent communism, he represents Russia. He emphasises this at every step and thus appeals to millions of Russian people who support him. Vladimir Putin refers above all to the traditions of the Russian empire and the traditions of Catherine II, Ivan the Terrible or Marshal Alexander Suvorov. He refers to Stalin as the creator of the greatest Russian empire.

I think it is Putin himself who is helping most in the belief that this is the reality, that this is the problem we face today. The actions of Russia in 2022 in Ukraine demonstrate the brutality of Russian policy. It is impactful that this brutality reveals all elements of the deep-rooted tradition of Russian imperialism, centuries older than the extremely criminal communist regime installed there in 1917. It helps weaken the pro-Russian propaganda that has until now been very strong in Paris, Berlin and other capitals of Western Europe. After all, how can one justify the mass rape of women, the mass deportation of civilians into the depths of the Russian empire or taking children away from their parents? Yet these are the methods that Ivan the Terrible used when he conquered Kazan, Astrakhan and Novgorod. These are the methods that Catherine II used when she displaced whole peoples (for example, the Kalmyks after the Pugachev’s rebellion or the Crimean Tatars after the conquest of the Crimea). And these are the methods used against the Poles after the partitions of the Republic.

.Showing this brutality of Russian policy on worldwide television is now the best tool for reminding us of the historical truth, which the West has always brushed aside, saying: “It is only Polish Russophobia.” Well, now you see what imperial Russia is all about. Are these rapes and everything else that Putin’s troops are doing in Ukraine just our invention, our bloody fantasy? No. That’s the reality. It can be understood through history, but it must not be blurred in the name of any ideology or interests.

Interview by Mikołaj Czyż

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