The Russian myth of Europe

eu_flag_bombs WORKER.png

Can the current Ukraine crisis unite Europe in facing down the threat of war? на русском языке


Mikhail Shishkin
28 July 2014

Europe. The word is a homonym. Homonyms sound the same but have different meanings. How many? I am afraid that no dictionary covers it.

For which Europe did Ukrainians turn out on Maidan?  Some of the 'Heavenly Hundred', sons, husbands and fathers, gave their lives for Europe. Would the civilians of Brussels, Strasbourg or the Hague be prepared to die for the EU? Personally, I doubt it. It is a question of different Europes. 

'The Siege of Sevastopol' by Franz Roubaud. Few Europeans can be expected to repeat this sacrifice.

I grew up in a country of slaves; my parents were slaves, and I inherited the same fate. We were separated from Europe by barbed wire. Europe was a fairy-tale, a myth. For Russians, Europe represented the myth of a civilised life. For the generations of educated people hidden behind the Iron Curtain, Europe above all meant European values: the priority of individual rights, respect for human dignity, freedom. Europe was everything we did not have.

For Russians, Europe represented the myth of a civilised life – the rights of the individual, human dignity, freedom.

It is for this Europe that Ukrainians gathered on Euromaidan: not for the EU, but for a civilised life at home; they rose up against the criminal gang, which ruled the roost in Kyiv, and continues to call the tune in Moscow. 'For our freedom and yours'. It is this that the dictator in the Kremlin cannot forgive Ukraine. And never will.

Different perceptions

That is why for Russian television, Europe means fascism; and the tens of millions of Russians, for whom the state channels are the main source of information, believe that the West is using Ukraine for a war with Russia. The regime has turned mass media into a weapon of mass destruction. Propaganda affects souls and brains, and people are turned into zombies. The ‘zombie box’ (TV) hammers a very clear picture of the world into their heads: ‘Holy Rus’ surrounded by enemies. The enemy is the West. Europe is fascism: our grandfathers fought it and now it is incumbent on us to defend the motherland.

From inside, of course, Europe is entirely different: for the Europeans it is a knot of problems, financial crises, government debts, and dominated by bureaucracy. European bureaucrats telling the peasants what to grow in their field and how to grow it. Europe drowning under waves of migration from Asia and Africa.

The perception of Europe as the common European home, which gave such joy to its founders who had survived the Second World War, has disappeared over time. This happens with any new big house. After the communal house-warming party, the sense of community gradually fades; everyday problems and squabbles are an obstacle to good neighbourliness and alienate those living close by. Neighbours are also just, well, neighbours. Some leave litter in the entrance hall, some make a noise at night, others do not pay their rent, yet others hark on about the general regulations that everyone is sick of. What is there to love such neighbours for? Or such a Europe? The break-up, the centrifugal energy is just a natural reaction. I do not want to be in Europe, says Europe.

I do not want to be in Europe, says Europe.

We only notice the air when there is not enough of it. European values are the air that Europe breathes. Even if Europeans do not appreciate their real wealth – the  freedoms, rights, democracy, separation of powers, the independent judiciary and genuine elections that are not rigged – things still do not look so bad. Financial crises are illnesses with which society can live. There is enough medication and it works.

A possible bonus

As for the lost sense of ‘European community,’ this ‘Ukrainian’ and indeed ‘Russian’ crisis could offer Europe a chance, strange as it may sound. The crisis, the danger and the threat compel the continent to redefine itself, to understand its own constituent parts, where its boundaries lie and whether they even exist at all. This gives Europe the chance to unite in the face of a threat of war, because in the 21st century localised and distant wars no longer happen. Every war will be European. And this European war has already begun.

Every war will be European. And this European war has already begun.

Almost two years ago, I wrote an essay on the future of Europe. I compared Europe to a ‘teremok’ – a little house from a Russian folk tale. It is a short tale. Little wild animals live in the forest in small, cosy cabins – teremki. A croaking frog comes along for example and knocks at the door and says: 'Knock, knock! Who lives in the cabin? Let me live with you!' The frog is allowed in, and all the animals there are cosy and happy. The small bounding hare and little sister fox are also allowed in – there is enough space for all. Then a bear comes along. All attempts to squeeze the fairytale bear into the teremok of course come to nothing. The bear flies into a rage, sits on the teremok and squashes it. And that is where both the teremok and the tale come to an end.

A wooden Russian teremok in winter.

A Russian teremok in winter. CC A Savin

The future has already begun

I wrote about the future but it appears that this future has already begun. All the countries that escaped from the Soviet barbed wire and were geographically trapped on the same continent, rushed to live in the cosy European teremok. Ukraine also wanted to be in the European teremok but Russia did not allow Ukraine to join.  

The main conclusion that the Kremlin imposter has drawn from Maidan is: if the Ukrainians managed to get rid of their criminal gang, then what is to stop Russians from doing the same? There has been fear at the heart of all Russian politics recently: the fear of a lonely ageing man, who understands clearly how dictators meet their end. Retiring with honour is a luxury he can no longer afford. The usurper in retirement is a nonsense; prison is what awaits him. He must fight to remain in power until the end, whatever it takes. And he also knows that the only life-giving elixir for dictators are enemies and war. Human lives – immaterial to him whether they are Russian or Ukrainian – are no more than slops.

There has been fear at the heart of all Russian politics recently.

The Kremlin will do everything it can to keep Kyiv out of the European house. The Putin regime has bound Ukraine to Russia by civil war and blood. This is its revenge on the people who tried to stand on their own two feet.

The annexation of Crimea brought Putin a wave of patriotism. This wave will break sooner or later, and then he will need another. It is not military operations that are important to the dictator, but the state of being at war. Then all enemies of the regime can be declared ‘national traitors.’ À la guerre comme à la guerre. Life under the laws of war makes controlling one's subjects easier.

And there is always the important trump card stashed away in a pocket: a large terrorist act within Russia itself – brutal, with many victims. Putin's mass disinformation media have already identified the ‘Right Sector’ as the organiser, and are busy turning it into the new Taliban. The wave of patriotism is guaranteed: fighting in distant Donbas is one thing, the ‘Right Sector’ killing our children at home is something else. These are fascists supported by Europe. It was logical to wage war on Taliban terror in Afghanistan; the war on ‘Right Sector’ terror brings us into Europe. 

The Great Migration 

Whatever happens, the Putin regime in the coming years will be sustained by creating grey areas, beyond justice and the rule of law, in the territory of Ukraine, the collapse of the Ukrainian government, and stoking war hysteria. Years of war in Yugoslavia and instability in the Balkans resulted in mass migration into European countries. Europe can expect an incomparably bigger wave of refugees from Ukraine. And within Russia, the oxygen supply is being cut off to all the malcontents: those who do not like living under Putin’s system are explicitly invited to leave the country – the borders are open. We are standing on the threshold of a new Great Migration of peoples – one that has already begun. In the coming years, hundreds of thousands of people will pour out of Ukraine and Russia. It will not be easy for Europe. 

The Europe of the 21st century has become too small for each European country to stew in its own juice and think only of itself. They have to liberate themelves from narrow, national ways of thinking before it is too late for the ‘little wild animals’ of Europe. This is the only way of solving the global problems, which confront Europe – and the whole of mankind. Our ‘teremok’ is the whole of our planet.

Author's afterword: I had already written this piece when the Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17, was shot down in Ukraine, bringing death and grief to hundreds of families. War has come to Europe. 


Get oDR emails Occasional updates from our team covering the post-Soviet space Sign up here

Related articles


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData