Following the Soviet Union's collapse, I was asked by Victoria University's Professor of Russian to speak on whether there was any hope for Russia. Protesting that being an occasional visitor since the 1960s hardly made me an authority fell on deaf ears.
They were despairing so I trotted along and pointed out that Russia was scarcely Haiti and would come again, befitting its enormous size, mineral wealth and highly educated populace, the sole meritorious legacy of the appalling communist experience.
Then came the oil-price explosion and Russia began to find its feet. Despite its scarcely unique problems with numerous ethnicities, corruption, alcoholism and emigration, Russia was again becoming a significant power, whereupon a strange thing happened.
The Cold War was over but at times it was hard to believe as relentless and often outrageous Western criticism of Russian affairs became voguish.
Consider recent events. Some half-witted masked women pranced about shouting obscenities in Moscow's main cathedral during a service. As would have occurred had they done the same anywhere else, they were arrested for hooliganism and duly imprisoned.
In Saudi Arabia, Iran et al, they'd now be minus their heads, which wouldn't matter as they're not using them anyway. They called it a political protest yet are free to protest in Red Square, as occurs regularly, but chose instead to offend. That's their claim, not mine, as borne out by the celebrity appearance in New York at a public concert of one of their members recently.
For this she was ejected from the group who reminded her that their role was not to be nice but to offend.
Yet in the West the Pussy Riot group became martyrs akin to Mandela with calls at the highest level for their release. So, too, after protesters invaded and took over a Russian oil exploration vessel and were duly arrested, exactly as they would be anywhere else.
Initially charged with piracy, this was amended to hooliganism after Putin ridiculed it but again this was represented as Russian tyranny with endless demands from on high for their release, which duly occurred.
Then came the Sochi Olympics, a source of great pride in Russia. The previous Russian Olympics were wrecked by the West's absence for, ironies of ironies, Russia's responding to the Afghan government's request for help fighting the Taliban.
Throughout last year the Western press rattled on incessantly about what a fiasco the Sochi Games would be. In the event they were hugely praised by the athletes and in my view, the most memorable ever.
Now we have Crimea which, like numerous territories, declared itself self-governing after the 1991 collapse. Crimea is beautiful and since the ancient Greeks held it almost 3000 years ago, it has been claimed by various empires until over 200 years ago it became part of Russia. Its Tartar population fought with the Nazis in the war for which afterwards Stalin shifted them in huge numbers to Kazakhstan, thus its population is predominantly ethnic Russian.
In 1954, Khrushchev, an ethnic Ukrainian, to the anger of its inhabitants, arbitrarily declared Crimea to be part of the Ukraine.
Seizing the opportunity with the chaos in the Ukraine, the Crimean Parliament voted unanimously to join the Russian Federation, this overwhelmingly confirmed in a subsequent referendum. This has meant a sizeable uplift in material wellbeing for Crimeans, now subject to Russian Federation wage and salary scales and pensions. Yet every Western cartoonist, editorial and commentator has drawn ludicrous parallels with Hitler's seizure of Czechoslovakia.
All of these issues have nuances, but my salient point is the pervading wrong-headed anti-Russian Western sentiment. We still have the concrete battlements on Wellington's hills, erected when our nation was barely a decade old. Why? Because the Russians were coming, this absurdity founded on our British forebears' sailing thousands of miles to Crimea to engage Russia in a war over nonsense.
Conversing with friends on this past week, one trotted out that popular Western myth that the Russian economy depended solely on oil and gas. "Most of their material goods are imported," he said. "You mean like New Zealand," I responded. "The Ukrainians had no say in the devolution," another offered. "You mean like the English, Welsh and Northern Irish with the forthcoming Scotland referendum," I replied. "Crimea is not attached to Russia," said another. "You mean like Alaska," I posed. "They invaded Georgia" was then proffered. Not true, rather their army went to the rescue of independent South Ossetia after Georgia invaded and shelled its capital, Tskhinvali, in the process killing large numbers of Russian peacekeepers stationed there. So the Russian army drove them out and, to prevent a recurrence, their air force destroyed northern Armenian military bases. For this, all during the dishonestly justified West's invasion of Iraq, Russia was again slammed.
"They've doubled Ukrainian gas prices" was raised, again not true. Rather, they've stopped subsidising them given Ukraine's rejection of their trading bloc deal. "They're homophobic" is another claim, this because of a law which would gain support everywhere, prohibiting the promotion of homosexuality to children. When Russia loaned billions of dollars to Ukraine it was slammed in the Western press as a bribe but when the European Union gave a lesser sum it was called aid.
I'm no apologist for Russia but it's long overdue for a more balanced perspective on events and an end to the constant unfair abuse.
National boundaries nearly everywhere are a mess, paying little regard to geography and ethnicity. But they're not carved in stone and self-determination should be the sole consideration. Remember that when the land grab accusations fly as predominantly Russian eastern Ukrainians understandably seek alignment with the mother country to escape Ukrainian anarchy over the coming months.
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