Professor of History Paul Josephson has been publishing books about Russian history for decades. He was in Moscow a week before the Russian military presence in Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula earned global attention, and he has been tapped by the media as an expert on the situation since then.
I’ve tried to understand Putin’s psychology. From a political point of view, it’s not as if he really needs to crack down domestically or annex Crimea. I think these things will ultimately hurt him—that he’s writing the wrong legacy.
Putin is a former KGB agent, and he has great power aspirations. Those people who support him in Russia believe he’s restored its honor that was so tarnished during the 1990s. And so any way that he can appear to be a big power guy, as the Soviet leaders were, is kind of helpful for him.
So you think his motivation is mostly ego?
Ego has a lot to do with it. There are economic reasons as well. For example, he’s pushing this new Eurasian Union, which he hopes would have some power, wealth, and opportunity for countries of the former Soviet Union. I’m not sure he really believes it would rival the European Union as an economic zone, but he’s hoping for something powerful, with educational, scientific, and other components and exchanges.
It seems like most of the countries of the former Soviet Union would be wary of that proposal.
That’s one of the reasons this Crimean escapade will turn out badly for Putin. He goes after Crimea as a way to assert Russian influence and regain some control in that region, and he’s in a way punishing Ukraine for having suddenly, in the midst of these demonstrations, gone back to Europe. At this point only Belarus, Europe’s last dictatorship, and Kazakhstan have joined the union. Other countries are going to be quite leery of joining [Putin’s Eurasian Union] if Russian troops are going to facilitate it.
You were last in Russia two weeks ago?
Yes. Maidan [the Kiev protests] had been going on for months. What I noted when talking with my Russian friends was that they seemed to be buying the [Russian] government’s story—that Ukraine needed big brother Russia’s help in order to overcome its difficulties and that there were fascists involved. In Russia, “fascist” is a code word for Nazi—the Russians remember well World War II, the most important event in their history. So a lot of my educated friends were already buying into the story and rhetoric that the Putin administration and the media have planted.
Does the presence of right-wing nationalists in Ukraine lend credence to the Russian government’s discussion of fascism?
The fascists were a very small group of people. They exist in every country, and the Russian government used their existence to claim that this was what the whole movement was about. It’s not. It’s about disgust with a corrupt Ukrainian government that in the final analysis decided to show its corruption by going toward Moscow and the oligarchic capitalism that exists there. So the fascist story is a bunch of crap.
There have been right wingers, as there are right wingers everywhere, who take advantage of situations. But the people—and I have friends both American and Ukrainian who have walked through Maidan since the autumn—the people who were in that protest region were students and grandmothers, and the vast majority of them are looking toward Europe. They don’t want to go back to Russia in any way.
“We’ll begin classes by talking for five or ten minutes about what’s going on. I try to point out how the historical lessons that we’re considering have importance.”
-Professor of History Paul Josephson
Has this situation in Crimea crept into your course work at all? Your conversations with students?
It has. They really want to know what’s happening. We’ll begin classes by talking for five or ten minutes about what’s going on. I try to point out how the historical lessons that we’re considering have importance. For example, in 1944 Stalin accused the Crimean Tatars of collaboration with the Nazis and forced two-hundred-forty thousand of them to march to Uzbekistan. One-hundred-ten thousand of them died. The Russians are yet to say, “We’re sorry.” History like that has got to be a part of the conversation.
Why do you think students are interested in this?
Our students are interested in justice and the mistreatment of minority groups. They’re fearful of war, as they should be. They have some vague notion about the Cold War, and so these things strike them as being of great importance. To see what they must consider to be a two-faced and aggressive behavior on the part of the president of Russia has got to be shocking and frightening. So they are interested, out of curiosity, anxiety, and out of a hope, to learn enough to prevent such a thing in the future.