Opinion / 22 March 2022

Is Russia Orient?

Focus: Ukraine

Ilja Jefimowitsch Repin: Reply of the Zaporozhian Cossacks

Just a few months ago, the East began within the boundaries of European family; it was set up on the borders of Poland and Hungary. Beyond it, the West, the ground zero of global morality, looked down at barbarian hordes, good for cheap labor, but otherwise disgusting masses of neo-Nazis, homophobes, chauvinists and misogynists, anti-vaxxers who mistreat refugees. In faraway Ukraine, where armed conflict – a conflict we didn’t particularly care about – began in 2014, in which more than ten thousand people lost their lives, Zelensky ruled; a president we considered a corrupt supporter of neo-Nazis and oligarchs.

Then the unity of our community was saved by the ultimate villain from the even farther East, coming from a land at the very edge of our consciousness - this villain was Putin with his criminal invasion. Poland suddenly became an example of solidarity with refugees. We ignored the racism towards African and Asian at the borders, Polish neo-Nazis beating darker skinned people. Zelensky is a hero we needed but didn't deserve - a defender of the Western liberal order. Soon he will be portrayed in a Netflix series starring Idris Elba.

Opinion leaders on Twitter announce a new vision of a world in which Putin is worse than Hitler. But Hitler, too, had previously played an important role in the collective consciousness. Centuries of colonization and genocides outside of Europe could easily have fallen on his shoulders because he carried out colonization and genocide within Europe. His imminent evil easily washed away the distant evils of others.

It is similar with Putin. The North Atlantic Alliance, led by the imperial power of the United States, has caused millions of victims in a few decades and did horrific war crimes – remember, for example, Fallujah – destroyed homes, started civil wars and dusted the economies of relatively prosperous countries such as Libya, Iraq, Syria. It spread the perverted gospel of democracy, just as Putin now carries the banner of denazification. The West has first used Hitler to suppress it's own crimes and is doing that now again by using Putin.

It can calm its consciousness – it has long been concerned with where to place Russia, this ambiguous country between Europe and Asia, in relation to which we define our identity. Similar as it is with the Judeo-Greek-Christian identity in relation to Turks and Arabs who were invaders in a distant past; it has, obviously, nothing to do with Arab university, translations of Greeks, architecture (when we admire the great buildings of the West, we blink with one eye), literary forms, centuries of Mediterranean trade. We managed to successfully push all this out of the illuminated part of our map. Thus we watch the bombings of people with slightly darker skin with a lighter conscience. Damn, as the heir to Bosnian-Turkish Islam, I can speak in the first person. This is us – we too are whiter, more European, more NATO than the Arab brothers and sisters we are ashamed of. And given our responses, it is obvious that Ukrainian refugees are much more concerned about us, Bosniaks, than people from Syria or Afghanistan.

Just as we want to believe European culture has nothing to do with the Arab and Ottoman legacies, we want to believe Dostoevsky and Russian classical music have nothing to do with the development of our literature or music. Russia is the Orient.

We live in an age of tearing down monuments of colonialists; in an age of university programs that boast about their postcolonial studies. And yet – apparently in the leading media it is still acceptable to distinguish between blue-eyed and blond-haired refugees and others, to talk about "relatively civilized, relatively European" victims who, unlike Iraqis and Afghans, are not used to being victims.

Darkness is coming with the Russian tanks. But twilight is also descending from the West.