opinion | H.D.S. Greenway

In Far East and Russia, the past is never far behind

Russian President Vladimir Putin went to Crimea on Friday for the first time since Russia annexed the peninsula from Ukraine in March.
Russian President Vladimir Putin went to Crimea on Friday for the first time since Russia annexed the peninsula from Ukraine in March.

President Obama finds himself trying to cope with the rise of malignant nationalism in the Far East and in a would-be resurgent Russia, forces not unlike those of 100 years ago when Europe raced toward self–destruction. Today the grip of warring historical narratives feeding tribal resentments shows that, no matter how it’s paved over, the past keeps springing up between the cracks, like toxic weeds, to poison the present.

Ukraine is an obvious example of a country that cannot escape its history. The name itself means border land, and as such it has been divided and fought over for centuries. It is no coincidence that the present split between Russian–influenced eastern Ukraine and the European Union-leaning western Ukraine lies approximately along the lines of the 17th-century partition between Russia and Poland on the Dnieper River. Western Ukraine carries the influences of its Lithuanian, Polish, and Austro-Hungarian past in its blood, while the East has been longer in the tidal pull of Russia. Kiev, now the hotbed for pro-EU forces, is considered by Russians to be the cradle of their nation, making dueling histories and nationalisms even more complicated and powerful.

You can say that cynical and unscrupulous leaders manipulate history to feed the red beast of nationalism for their own ends, and you’d be right. But that doesn’t mean that these leaders don’t believe it, or that their populations aren’t ready and willing to eat it up.


Vladimir Putin, in a recent press conference, used the term “Novorossiya’’ (New Russia) to describe southeast Ukraine and the Crimea, which the Russians took from the Turks centuries before. “Kharkiv, Lugansk, Donetsk, Odessa were not part of Ukraine in Czarist times; they were transferred in 1920,” he said. “Why? God knows,” he said. Putin means to put history right, which in his terms means that much if not all of Ukraine should be a moon to planet Russia.

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Ukraine has its own historical narrative. Time after time over the centuries the Ukrainians have sought and fought for their own space. At the dawn of the 18th century parts of Ukraine joined the Swedish invaders against Peter the Great to assert their independence, just as some Ukrainians joined Hitler’s invaders in the 20th century. Western Ukraine’s desire to forge closer links to the EU precipitated the present crisis, and in Putin’s eyes the European Union and NATO are similar to Sweden under Charles XII in the 17th century, and Germany in the last: hostile forces ready to pull Russia apart if given a chance.

In the Far East the United States is trying to manage a growing split between a new, nationalistic China and a newly nationalistic ally, Japan, both of which are dredging up their histories with a vengeance. With Communist ideology a thing of the past, China needs nationalism to bind its people together, and being against a Japan that humiliated China in the 19th and 20th centuries is an easy way to achieve it. The history of World War II, the massacres such as happened in Nanking, and indeed the whole century of subjugation under the West and Japan are now red-hot issues. Historical grievance is being wielded as a sword in China’s cause.

The father of post-Mao China’s prosperity and power, Deng Xiaoping, said that squabbles over rocks, shoals, and islands in the South China and East China seas were something that could be put off until another generation. But now that other generation has arrived, and whereas some three-quarters of Chinese had a favorable impression of Japan in Deng’s day, now 90 percent are opposed. This is complicated by the fact that Japanese factories in China employ ten million Chinese.

Japan, in turn, instead of playing down World War II, now sticks it in its neighbors’ eyes with new revisionist theories of how Japan didn’t really behave that badly in the war, and with the propensity of Japanese politicians to visit a shrine to Japanese war dead where war criminals are honored. History, again, can’t be buried by either China or Japan. Dangerous nationalism, the engine that drove the world to war 100 years ago, is back.

H.D.S. Greenway’s column appears regularly in the Globe.