Deeply ingrained in popular Western views of Russia, these are the stereotypes and misconceptions that can lead to the greatest misunderstandings in U.S.-Russian affairs.
A statue of Soviet Union founder Vladimir Lenin is seen at the central square in the town of Donetsk, eastern Ukraine, Wednesday, Sept. 17, 2014. Photo: AP
If you think that Boris Yeltsin was one of the greatest democrats in modern Russian history or that the Moscow-backed Eurasian Union is a secret plot to bring back the Soviet Union, then you probably also believe that Ukraine is a united country deeply opposed to Russia or that Russian President Vladimir Putin is an all-powerful autocrat in charge of a country in deep economic and demographic decline. Unfortunately, these myths – for whatever reason – have assumed the status of fact in the Western foreign policy establishment.
Below, here are the eight most dangerous myths about Russia and the former Soviet countries, debunked.
Myth #1: Ukrainians form a single united country.
In reality, Ukrainians from different parts of the country have very different political, cultural, and historical outlooks, not just with regard to Russia, but also among themselves. Most of the people in Ukraine self-identify as "Ukrainians," although the idea of "what it is to be Ukrainian” varies from region to region. Much has been made about an even "East-West" divide in Ukraine. However, there are technically four distinct regions in the country.
Southeastern Ukraine (including the Donbas) is largely Russian-speaking and pro-Russian politically. It has a mixed Soviet and Russian cultural heritage. It encompasses the country's major industries, its entire Black Sea coast, and its largest cities including Kharkov, Odessa, Donetsk, and Dnepropetrovsk. The area comprises 45 percent of Ukraine's total population.
In Central Ukraine, the locals in the countryside speak Surzhyk, a catch-all term for mixed Russian-Ukrainian dialects. In the cities, they speak Russian. Politics throughout the region tend to be competitive between pro-Russian and pro-Western candidates, though pro-Western candidates have been recently edging ahead of their pro-Moscow rivals ever since the 2004 Orange Revolution.
Ukrainian-speaking Western Ukraine is the nationalist heartland of the country. Centered on the city of Lviv, it has a large Catholic population and Polish linguistic and cultural influences. Here, pro-Western candidates win by landslides. Stepan Bandera, known as a wartime collaborator with the Nazis throughout the rest of Ukraine, is regarded as a hero in this region.
Finally, in the far western corner of Ukraine is Zakarpattia (or Carpathian Rus'). Nestled in the remote Carpathian Mountains and bordering four foreign countries (Poland, Slovakia, Hungary, and Romania), the people in this region speak their own unique East Slavic language, Rusyn, and form their own distinct area within Ukraine. Their electoral politics are likewise mixed between pro-Russian and pro-Western candidates.
Myth #2: Boris Yeltsin's tenure as Russian President represented a truly democratic epoch in Russian history. Yeltsin's democratic advances were subsequently reversed by the autocratic Putin.
In reality, Yeltsin did much to subvert democracy in Russia. It was Yeltsin who halted Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev's perestroika reforms by unilaterally dissolving the Soviet Union as a state with his Ukrainian and Belarusian counterparts Leonid Kravchuk and Stanislav Shushkevich at Belavezha.
It was Yeltsin who instituted Russia's notorious "shock therapy" capitalism, leading to the de-modernization of Russia and the impoverishment of the vast majority of its citizenry while the privileged elite enriched themselves and organized crime gained influence. It was Yeltsin who shelled the Russian White House in October 1993, killing thousands of people according to non-official sources. He subsequently put in place a strong presidential system in Russia.
In 1994, it was Yeltsin who invaded the Caucasus republic of Chechnya, launching a highly controversial war and creating a dangerous precedent for the treatment of human rights in the region. Such "achievements" can hardly be described as "democratic" and merely set the tone for Putin's subsequent tenure. In fact, although there are certainly actions for which Putin can be rightfully criticized, he has still managed to reverse Yeltsin's worst excesses.
Myth #3: In their quest for independence, the Chechen rebels were fighting for a liberal and democratic Chechnya.
Initially, Chechnya's rebels were actually Chechen nationalists whose ethnic chauvinism and discriminatory policies drove away many ethnic minorities from the republic, including Russians, Armenians, Ukrainians, and others.
After the first Chechen war, the rebel movement, under the influence of foreign jihadists and Saudi missionaries, gradually became Islamic extremist in orientation. It also evolved from focusing on Chechnya exclusively and more to focusing on the North Caucasus as a whole, spilling into Dagestan and other regions.
Myth #4: Former Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili was a truly democratic leader who presided over an era of prosperity and reform. By contrast, his political rival, the billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili, is a pro-Russian puppet.
Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili. Photo: Reuters
Saakashvili can be given credit for restoring Tbilisi's authority over the Black Sea region of Adjara and for tackling low-level corruption. However, his economic policies had little effect on improving the lives of the people of Georgia, where unemployment and poverty remain widespread today.
The Georgian leader also exhibited authoritarian tendencies, relentlessly cracking down on opposition forces and attacking opposition media. Systematic abuses of human rights emerged, including the infamous Gldani prison scandal in 2012.
Saakashvili had a penchant for starting grandiose schemes and investing large sums of money in them. Taking a page from Peter the Great's playbook, the eccentric Georgian sought to build Lazika, his own costly "window to Europe" on the Black Sea, a project that was eventually cancelled.
He also sought to move the Georgian parliament to Kutaisi, which involved destroying a celebrated World War II monument dedicated to Georgian Soviet soldiers. In the process of demolition, a young mother and her seven-year-old daughter were accidently killed. Regardless, a new expensive parliament building was opened in Kutaisi.
He further systematically refused dialogue with Abkhazia and South Ossetia, even as their leaders indicated an interest in talks. Instead, convinced of NATO and U.S. support, Saakashvili sought a military solution to Georgia's breakaways, a policy ending in disaster with the South Ossetian war in 2008. His erratic behavior and his unapologetically anti-Russian rhetoric only contributed to the conflict.
By contrast, Georgian billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili, Saakashvili's chief political rival, is neither pro-Russian nor pro-Western, but pro-Georgian. A pragmatist, he recognizes Georgia's status as a small state and thus plays the Great Powers off one another in the pursuit of securing Georgia's best national interests.
Myth #5: The Moscow-backed Eurasian Union is part of a secret scheme to revive the USSR and challenge Western democracy and the "civilized world."
The Western press has been rife with reports like this, emphasized by statements by Western officials and politicians like Hillary Clinton, who claim that the Eurasian Union is a "new Soviet Union."
However, the truth is that it is neither a neo-Soviet nor a neo-imperial conspiracy. Instead, the idea is the logical conclusion of integration efforts that have been underway since the 1990s to retain the economic and cultural ties that already unite the former Soviet states.
The idea has its origins before even Putin's accession to power. In 1991, through the New Union Treaty, Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev envisioned something along the lines of the Eurasian Union: a reformed Soviet state based on social democratic principles.
After the Soviet collapse, the concept of a federation disappeared and Yeltsin instead sought to bring together the former Soviet republics through the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), though the three Baltic republics did not participate.
Integration efforts in the post-Soviet space gained new momentum in 1994 from Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev who proposed more of an EU-style supranational union, devoid of communism, at an address at a Moscow university. Since then, the idea eventually developed into the present-day Eurasian Union of Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Russia, with prospective memberships for Armenia, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan.
Infographic by Natalya Mikhailenko. Source: eurasiancommission.org.
One of the great long-time advocates for integration among the post-Soviet states has been Mikhail Gorbachev.
"The Eurasian Economic Union (EaEU) is a promising project. The Soviet Union and the EaEU are two different things; they have different foundations and memberships," he told the Russian News Service in May 2014. "A good core has already been formed, comprising Russia, Kazakhstan and Belarus."
Earlier, in a 1994 interview with American scholar Stephen F. Cohen, Gorbachev spoke in support of a Eurasian Union-style initiative among the ex-Soviet states, maintaining that, "If there is a process of new integration, it won't be the old type of union government. It will be a real union of states and, at first, it will be a sphere of economic influence."
Noting American associations of such an idea with a "new Soviet Union" and "communism," Cohen then asked Gorbachev, "What do you think will be the reaction in the United States if any kind of new 'larger Russia' union, confederation, association begins to emerge?"
Gorbachev responded by asking "But why? But why? But why is it that Washington ought to decide what relations there should be between the former republics of the Soviet Union?"
Myth #6: Russian President Vladimir Putin is an all-powerful autocrat, comparable to Joseph Stalin.
As surprising as it may seem to the outside Westerner, Russia actually does have internal political debates. Putin balances his decisions between advice from pro-Western, liberal-leaning elites (like Dmitry Medvedev) and more nationalist, hardliner ones (like Dmitry Rogozin), in a sort of continuation of Russia's historic Westernizer-Slavophile debate.
On Ukraine, Putin decisively sided with the hardliners when it came to Crimea, but sided with the liberals on the issue of whether or not to invade Ukraine proper. However, under mounting pressure from the hardliners, Putin approved crucial military assistance to the rebels in August.
Myth #7: Ukraine's war in the Donbas is "good for democracy."
A Ukrainian flag is seen over a government building in the city of Slovyansk, Donetsk Region, eastern Ukraine Saturday, July 5, 2014, with a statue of Soviet Union founder Vladimir Lenin on the left. Photo: AP
The war in the Donbas is neither "good for democracy" nor is it in any sense "democratic." If the post-Maidan government in Kiev really wanted to pursue a truly "democratic" option, it would have opened negotiations with the Donbas rebels and sought a peaceful settlement. Instead, it labeled the rebels as "terrorists" and attacked the region, precipitating a military conflict in which thousands have died or been wounded.
These include large numbers of civilians killed in indiscriminate shelling by rogue "volunteer militias" with far-right insignias, like Azov Battalion. The same shelling has also turned infrastructure to rubble and left lives shattered in the region.
Over a million people have been displaced, fleeing to Russia or to other parts of Ukraine (primarily to the Central and Southeastern regions). The situation can only be described as a "humanitarian catastrophe" and proposals by hawks in the West to "arm Kiev" for the "sake of democracy" do more to subvert and undermine the growth and development of democracy in the former Soviet space than help it.
Myth #8: Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko was elected by the vast majority of Ukrainians.
While the vast majority of citizens in Western Ukraine and many in Central Ukraine participated in the 2014 Ukrainian Presidential election, voter turnout was low throughout the entire Southeast and in the remote region of Zakarpattia (Carpathian Rus') as well.
Some Central regions too, like Kirovograd oblast, also recorded lower turnouts. To illustrate the contrast, in Lviv oblast, turnout exceeded 80 percent; however, in Donetsk oblast, it was virtually nonexistent.
The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.