As Kremlin Bulldozes The Russian Dream…

Orwell, like the authors of the other negative utopias, is not a prophet of disaster. He wants to warn and to awaken us. He still hopes – but in contrast to the writers of the utopias in the earlier phases of Western society, his hope is a desperate one. The hope can be realized only by recognizing, so 1984 teaches us, the danger of a society of automations, who will have lost every trace of individuality, of love, of critical thought, and yet who will not be aware of it because of ‘doublethink’. Books like Orwell’s are powerful warnings, and it would be most unfortunate if the reader smugly interpreted 1984 as another description of Stalainist barbarism, and if he does not see that it means us, too.
– 1984 by George Orwell, Afterword by Erich Fromm

When I first visited the Red Square in Moscow as a journalist, it was a sparkling, chilly night, and it seemed that I was living a dream. The beautiful St Basil’s Cathedral stood shining in splendid splendour, even as priests in ornamental robes burnt incense sticks, while in the pebbled expanse next to the River Moskva flanked by the walls of the Kremlin, all the memories of Soviet Russia which I had read as a student flashed by in a cinematic kaleidoscope.

In the morning I joined the long queue at Lenin’s Mausoleum, with mostly Chinese tourists, even as soldiers paid solemn homage to the martyrs of the ‘War against Fascism’ nearby. Lenin was dressed in a black suit and tie. He was too still young and exhausted, when he died.

The night train took me to St Petersburg, formerly Leningrad (Lenin’s City), where the protracted and epical battle against the Nazi siege took place for months. Did 20 million people of Soviet Russia die fighting against the fascists, or many more? I think many, many more died defending their land, and the idea of revolution, with General Secretary Joseph Stalin at the helm.

Beyond the great art museum of Hermitage next to sublime River Reva in St Petersburg, the Tsarist palaces were on display, including the golden peacock. There are oral traditions of how the Bolsheviks entered the palace for the first time. You have to imagine the obscene opulence of the palaces to understand how the peasants and working class, oppressed, crushed and suffering, had no other option but to rebel.

This obscenity was multiplied a thousand times in the sprawling summer palaces near Peterhoff , next to the sea shore with Finland in the distance – glossy Italian architecture and the infinite luxury of cruel kings and queens who thought they were eternal and immortal. Indeed, if you read Russian literature of the times, especially Fyodor Dostoevsky and Leo Tolstoy, you can measure the contrast between the existential suffering of ordinary times, the entrenched injustice, and the vulgarity of this unsurpassed hedonism before the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917.

My visit was soon after the post-Gorbachev era; the times were heady, confused, liberating, with the economy having crashed. Soviet Russia had broken up. Glasnost and Perestroika was still in the air. Thousands of youngsters were crowding public places, drinking beer under the statues of Pushkin, and other greats, and next to the opera house where they would still play exquisite ballet; the young would talk incessantly, falling in love, celebrating a different kind of high. People could speak and loudly so, without the fear of being picked up, or spied upon.

Suddenly, I saw four communists, all elderly women in humble clothes, chanting slogans with a red flag at the Red Square – my heart skipped a beat. They were collecting donations in a tin box. I gave my bit – in American currency. They said, in a chorus, Red Salute! I repeated, surely, Red Salute Comrades!

At the Red Square, among the other revolutionaries, both Leon Trotsky and Stalin were missing. Bang opposite, a flashy mall loomed – it’s a new capitalism in Russia between the crony, the corrupt and the oligarch, the dead dictators and the latest, body-builder incarnation of the Tsar, a former KGB agent, ex-confidante of Mikhail Gorbachev and Boris Yeltsin. Now, a superstar. A new Stalin.

In her incredible collection of memories, footnotes, diaries, text, silences and anecdotes in the book, Second-Hand Time, writes Noble Prize-winning journalist, Svetlana Alexievich: “Twenty years have gone by… ‘Don’t try to scare us with your socialism’, children tell their parents… From a conversation with a university professor: ‘At the end of the nineties, my students would laugh when I told them stories about the Soviet Union. They were positive that a new future awaited them. Now, it’s a different story… Today’s students have truly seen and felt capitalism: the inequality, the poverty, the shameless wealth. They’ve witnessed the lives of their parents, who never got anything out of the plundering of our country. And they’re oriented towards radicalism. They dream of their own revolution, they wear red T-shirts with pictures of Lenin and Che Guevara.’”

She writes: “There’s a new demand for everything Soviet. For the cult of Stalin… A new cult of Stalin in a country where he murdered at least as many people as Hitler…Old-fashioned ideas are back in style: the great empire, the iron hand, the ‘special Russian path’…. The Russian president is just as powerful as the general secretary used to be, which is to say, he has absolute power. Instead of Marxism-Leninism, there’s Russian Orthodoxy…” (That she was born in Ukraine, tells a story.)

So does no one read anymore the stories of the Siberian death/labour camps under Stalin, as in that epical short novel called One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, by Alexander Solzhenitsyn? Is it so, really? Does no one read such literature anymore? Certainly, The Gulag Archepelago, they must have read that?

Or, do they read Dostoevysky, Anton Chekov, Anna Akhmatova? Nadhezda and Osip Mandelstam, the great poet  – how did he die in the labour camp at Vladivostok in Siberia, and what was his crime? Why was Akhmatova hounded?

Writes Eric Hobsbawm in the Age of Extremes: The Short Twentieth Century – 1914-1991: “In turning himself into something like a secular Tsar, defender of the secular Orthodox faith, the body of whose founder transformed into a secular saint awaited the pilgrims outside the Kremlin, Stalin showed a sound sense of public relations. For a collection of peasant animal- herding peoples mentally living in the Western equivalent of the eleventh century, this was almost certainly the most effective way of establishing the legitimacy of the new regime, just as the simple unqualified, dogmatic catechisms to which he reduced Marxism-Leninism, were ideal for introducing ideas to the first generation of literates… Nor can his terror simply be seen as the assertion of a tyrant’s unlimited personal power. There is no doubt that he enjoyed that power, the fear that he inspired, the ability to give life or death, just as there is no doubt that he was quite indifferent to the material rewards that someone in his position could command…”

Writes Ivan Krastev, from an East European perspective (The Guardian, September 4, 2022), “The German poet Hans Magnus Enzensberger labelled him ‘the hero of retreat’. But does retreat produce heroes? For most westerners, what is difficult to grasp is that the man who destroyed Soviet communism was one of the few genuine Marxists in the Soviet leadership.” “I still see Lenin as our god,” Gorbachev confesses in Vitaly Mansky’s film (Gorbachev. Heaven)

Krastev writes: “…He freed us from the psychological abyss that tomorrow is nothing more than the day after today… He did not free us, but he gave us a chance to taste freedom… There are groaning shelves of volumes written by political scientists, dissecting ‘what constitutes open and closed societies. Far less is written about the striking difference between coming of age in a society that is opening its shutters and coming of age in a society, even a relatively open society, in which the air smells of fear and stagnation. This first Gorbachev was not the hero of retreat, he was the angel of opening…”

Imprisoned several times, playright Vaclav Havel, who led the second Prague spring and became the first elected president of the Czech Republic, said, “Sometimes when I sleep I feel that I will wake up in a prison cell… Either we have hope within us or we don’t; it is a dimension of the soul… It is an orientation of the spirit, an orientation of the heart; it transcends the world that is immediately experienced, and is anchored somewhere beyond its horizons.”

Ukraine Crisis: A Diplomatic Opportunity for India

India’s External Affairs Minister, Dr Subrahmanyam Jaishankar, has had to deal with a very difficult foreign policy challenge for India that arose from the Russian invasion into Ukraine. However, his deft handling of the situation has proved his mettle. The diplomatic challenge needed juggling several interests and conflicts at the same time. So far, Indian Foreign Ministry has handled the issue with skill without coming under any pressure from the parties pulling in different directions, including USA, Russia and China as well as other smaller groups.

The 2+2 dialogue between India and the United States of America combined with the video call between Prime Minister Narendra Modi and President Joe Biden is significant for various reasons. It provided an opportunity for India and the US to better locate concerns of the other party vis-à-vis the Russian invasion.

For India it is important to pacify the world community about its reluctance to vote on numerous occasions on the Russian aggression, at the United Nations. Though India professes a neutral stand, it is part of a group with North Korea, Iran and China. This causes apprehensions among the US and its NATO allies as India has acquired respectability and status due to its economic strength and recently due to its efforts to mitigate the effects of COVID 19 pandemic. However, during the current situation, India has also maintained that any form of armed aggression upon another sovereign nation is unacceptable.

The 2+2 dialogue may have been an apt platform to clarify to the US, the reasons behind India’s neutral stand on Russia’s aggression. On the other hand, it is common knowledge that India’s defence sector and its numerous weapons systems are structurally dependent upon Russia’s arms and weapons industry. It is estimated that Russian arms equipment and weapons systems account for close to 70% of India’s defence supplies.

Against this background, it is perhaps easy to comprehend India’s neutrality and its absenteeism on crucial votes against Russia in the UN, which has wrongly been perceived as pro-Russia. The pressure, nevertheless, on India from the US and in general the West, has been unrelenting since the invasion began. India, though, has stuck to its position, bearing in mind the consequences thereof and the options it may possess. During this difficult period, however, the Indian establishment’s deft diplomacy and strategic autonomy has prominently been on display.

At the centre of this tumultuous and testing period for Indian diplomatic establishment, Dr Jaishankar has shown exemplary geopolitical acumen. Under his leadership the MEA anticipated Western response to India’s position and has crafted befitting and optimum rejoinders. Since the beginning of the Ukraine crisis, statements from the MEA have been measured and calibrated to pacify the international community.

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India has maintained that any act of violent aggression against a sovereign state is deplorable and have urged the warring parties to resolve the crisis diplomatically. Such astute stance and demeanour have in turn led the international community to recognize that it is national interest that has driven India’s voting behaviour at the UN, the precise message that India wanted to convey.

In the contemporary world, any event of such magnitude like the Russian invasion of Ukraine has a ripple effect on the entire world. India’s recent proclivity toward the United States and the new alliances in the Indian Ocean and the Indo-Pacific region has also felt the tremors.

The formulation of the term Indo-Pacific and the subsequent implementation of a counter China strategy through the Quadrilateral Dialogue (QUAD) have been gradually gaining strength in the recent years. Ukraine Crisis and Indian response brought the QUAD and its members to reassess the situation, which is visible in the visits of Heads of states to New Delhi. The Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida visited New Delhi for an Annual Summit meeting under the ‘Special Strategic and Global Partnership’, but a large part of meeting was devoted to the Ukraine crisis. India accommodated Japanese concerns on the crisis in the statement issued after the deliberations.

Immediately after the Indo-Japan Summit, the Australian PM Scott Morrison also held a virtual summit with Prime Minister Modi. The Aussie PM, while condemning the Russian actions in Ukraine, elicited an understanding of the Indian stance. Further, he elaborated that “he and Modi were of the opinion that the conflict could not be a reason for diverting attention from issues of the Indo-Pacific region”. This indicated that the relationship is not affected. A subtext hidden in the outcome and statements of both summit meetings is a clear indication that geographical distance from an international event still matters. The location of the crisis at the western end of the Eurasian landmass and away from the Indo-Pacific space remains instrumental in geopolitical thinking of Japan and Australia.

The aforementioned summits and their timing point to India’s rising significance in the international system and particularly in the Indo-Pacific. It was only befitting that the Chinese Foreign Minister, Mr. Wang Yi visited New Delhi soon after. This holds tremendous weight in the wake of the ongoing crisis in Eastern Ladakh since the summer of 2020.

It was understood that the Chinese FM was here to invite and persuade the Indian PM to join the BRICS summit in China to be held later in the year. Under the circumstances, Indian diplomacy under the leadership of Dr. Jaishankar has been steadfast and clear in conveying to the Chinese that normalization of relations between the two Asian giants is possible only after complete disengagement at the LAC in Ladakh. Hopefully, before the BRICS Summit, negotiations on the issue will bear results.

Therefore it can be said that the Ukraine Crisis has been turned into a diplomatic opportunity by the Indian diplomatic establishment. The 2+2 summit, Modi-Biden virtual Summit, Indo-Japan Summit, Modi-Morrison virtual summit and finally the visit by the Chinese FM are a testimony to clarity in India’s diplomacy since the crisis began. Moreover, the British Prime Minister Mr. Boris Johnson and the President of the European Union, Ms. Ursula von der Leyen have also visited India in the last week.

Whether it is India’s stand on the crisis or its India’s economic strength or the West’s need, India has become the go-to-destination in the face of deep Russia-China partnership. India has been able to drive home the point that India’s national interests take precedence over international linkages and alliances under the able leadership of Dr. S. Jaishankar, the Minister of External Affairs. This perhaps is the proverbial feather in the cap for Modi government as the top diplomat was elevated to the post of External Affairs Minister in May 2019.