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Learning from history

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Halvor Tjønn
Halvor Tjønn is a historian from the University of Oslo and worked as Aftenposten's correspondent in the former Soviet Union for several periods in the 1990s. He has previously, among other things, written Muhammed – as the contemporaries saw him (2011), Russia is created (2015) and The Russian Empire (2020).
WAR / What will I do on the day the war is over and Russia is forced back behind the borders that applied before Putin in 2014 first went wild on Ukraine?

If we want to ensure that something like this never happens again on European soil, we must be picked up Russia into the modern democratic world. Not through naivety and illusions, as we did in the 1990s and early 2000s, but through realism and genuine understanding. In short, we must understand why and how Russian society at the beginning of the 21st century could be taken over by a group of corrupt KGB officers and ruled by them for a couple of decades, without anyone other than the intelligentsia in Moscow and St. Petersburg from time to time protested. On this basis, we must start the difficult work of democratizing Russian society. Above all, it is important that Russia gets rid of the imperial way of thinking. The ultranationalist Vladimir Zjirinovskij once told me – in the blink of an eye – that for Russians it was natural to rule over other peoples. He had no problem understanding that as a Westerner I found that thought somewhat strange, but it was important that I, as a Western correspondent in Russia, understood that most Russians thought this way.

Here is something of the core of the problem: While we in the West abandoned the imperial mindset in the time before and just after the Second World War, this ideology still holds the grip of the majority of the Russian people to this day. Not all, but far too many Russians believe that it belongs to the order of nature that the so-called Great Russians, that is to say those with their capital in Moscow, rule over the so-called Wesler Russians, those with their capital in # Kyiv. That people in Georgia, Belarus and Kazakhstan did not allow themselves to be directed from Moscow is something that is not natural. The natural state can be restored by Moscow using force. Using such power is something Russia has a right to based on its greatness and its superior culture and based on its history. Those who stood up to Russian power are on the wrong side of history, if one is to listen to the house philosophers with whom those in power in the Kremlin agree.

Now there is no problem – not for me and not for the very, very majority of those who support Western, liberal democracy – to acknowledge that not everything the West has done in the last 50-60 years has been equally successful, by far . The war in Vietnam, where one was tempted to save a corrupt regime from communist tyranny, turned out to be crooked right from the start. The war in Iraq from 2003 onwards was a gigantic mistake. The 20-year effort to save Afghanistan from the Taliban's dark regime did not seem to bring the results we hoped for either. On the other hand, if one is ever so critical of the West and the West's use of power in other parts of the world, one must recognize that the Western societies of recent generations have gone through a profound democratization. More voices are being heard, and more groups are being included in society in all western countries. This has not happened in Russia. Apart from the chaotic period towards the end of the 1980s and into the 1990s, Russia has continued to be a deeply authoritarian society. Changing this, so that Russia joins free Europe, will be one of the biggest challenges in the coming decades. It will not be an easy process. But it will be absolutely necessary. Europe cannot live with a totalitarian Russia.

Not all, but far too many Russians believe that it belongs to the order of nature that the so-called Great Russians, that is, those with their capital in Moscow, rule over the so-called Wesley Russians, those with their capital in Kyiv.

Mikhail Gorbachev

During the so-called March Plenum in 1985 in the Soviet Communist Party, 54-year-old Mikhail Gorbachev elected as the new party leader. Many felt that the Soviet Union was entering a new era. Two or three years later, Gorbachev was in the process of reforming the entire Soviet state. He understood that the Soviet Union had become a technologically backward, isolated power compared to the United States. The entire consumer goods industry in the Soviet Union was in deep crisis. Compared not only with Western people, but also with people in many of the communist satellite countries in Eastern Europe, most Soviet citizens were poor. The recipe that Gorbachev launched was to open up debate and discussion, so-called glasnost, openness. Then one should start rebuilding and modernizing Soviet society, so-called perestroika, reconstruction, was his message.

What Gorbachev had not counted on was that the national feelings of people in the Soviet Union would come to the surface. As soon as people realized that you were not sent to prison for going out on the streets and speaking your mind, the demonstrations took off. In 1989, the Ukrainian national democratic movement Rukh was formed, based primarily in Western Ukraine. The leadership of the Communist Party in Ukraine was tempted to stand against the nationalist movement for a long time, but in 1991 the party also began to falter. When the leadership of the Soviet army and the KGB tried to carry out a coup d'état in Moscow in August 1991, they effectively killed what was left of the Soviet Union. On 24 August, the Supreme Soviet of Ukraine decided that the country was once again an independent republic. The decision was almost unanimous. That the many members of the Ukrainian Communist Party would vote for the resolution was not a matter of course. The coup attempt in Moscow and the temptation to rebuild the Soviet Union led to the communist cadres also understanding that there was no other way but the declaration of independence. On 1 December 1991, the Ukrainians supported the declaration of independence in a referendum. Even in Donbas and Crimea, where the everyday language is Russian, the majority voted in favor. This was the final signal that the Soviet Union was dead. At a meeting in Belarus with the Belarusian, Ukrainian and Russian presidents on 8 December, a declaration was adopted stating that "the Soviet Union as a geopolitical reality has ceased to exist". On December 25, Mikhail Gorbachev resigned as Soviet president. The Soviet flag was flown over the Kremlin in Moscow.

Independent state

Ukraine was now an independent state, but the old communist nomenclature continued to rule the state. In the communist era, they had set fire to the communist party. Now they took to serving themselves, their own deep pockets and the pockets of relatives and friends. Ukraine soon got a class of super-rich oligarchs, who each had their own representatives in parliament. These oligarchs and their people in parliament were mostly connected to Russia and to the oligarchs there. The entire political system in Ukraine, from the top down, was riddled with corruption and abuse of power. Those in power became unimaginably rich, while ordinary people became increasingly poor. Even in the Soviet era, there had been a gap between those who ruled and those who were ruled. But with what happened after Ukraine became an independent state in 1991, Ukraine came to resemble a developing country more than a modern European state.

The first open uprising against the Russian-friendly elite came in late autumn 2004.

The first open uprising against the Russian-friendly elite came in the late autumn of 2004. The corrupt president, Leonid Kuchma, was tempted to pass on presidential power to his protégé, Viktor Yanukovych, a man who in his youth was twice convicted of violence and received a total of five years in jail. In the 1990s, he began to climb up the political system, and in 2002 he became prime minister in the administration of Leonid Kuchma. At the presidential election in late autumn 2004, he was declared the winner, but for most it was clear that the election had been manipulated. After large demonstrations on Sjølvstendeplassen – Majdan – in the center of Kyiv, it was announced that new elections would be held. On 26 December 2004, Yanukovych lost to the opposition candidate, Viktor Yushchenko.

Viktor Yushchenko and his political partner, Yulia Tymoshenko, came to power on a program that promised a fight against corruption in Ukraine and a Ukraine that was turned towards the West, not towards Russia. Otherwise, the two were unable to cooperate. The reigns of President Yushchenko and Prime Minister Tymoshenko looked more and more like one long dog-and-cat fight. As the 2010 presidential election approached, the two had squandered much of the political capital they had acquired in 2004 and 2005. The result was that Viktor Yanukovych, Moscow's man, won the election with 49 percent to Tymoshenko's 45,5 percent. Under Yanukovych, corruption in Ukraine rose to new heights. One example was the son of the president, Oleksandr Yanukovych. When his father was elected president in 2010, according to Forbes magazine, he had a fortune of seven million dollars. After his father had been president for three years, his fortune had grown to 510 million dollars. Then came autumn 2013: President Yanukovych refused to sign a negotiated free trade agreement with the EU. Instead, he tried to link Ukraine to the so-called Eurasian Economic Union, which was led by Russia. People then took to gathering for protests in Majdan Square. The demonstrations got bigger and bigger. In the winter of 2014, they turned into a general protest against the corrupt system, against the connection to Russia. Those who protested wanted a Ukrainian state that was part of Europe, not a state that was de facto included under the Putin regime in Moscow.

Gradually, the situation on Majdan became more and more acute. In the clashes between police and demonstrators, many were killed. On 21 February, Yanukovych fled Kyiv and eventually came to Russia.

Vladimir Putin

At the time, Vladimir Putin had been in power for a decade and a half in Russia. After 2007, he had embarked on a more aggressive course and declared openly that the goal for Russia was to stand up to the West and gradually take control of as much as possible of what had been the Soviet Union. After Yanukovych fled, for a while no one had control in Kyiv or over the Ukrainian armed forces. Putin used the opportunity to send his own soldiers – without flags or other distinguishing marks on their uniforms – into the Krym peninsula. In a short time, Putin took over control of Krym. At the same time, Russian-backed separatists began taking over official buildings in Luhansk and Donetsk counties. Ukrainian forces gradually attacked them to restore law and order. The answer from the Kremlin came in August 2014, when the Russian military launched a regular invasion of Donbas. The war, which was expanded with a large-scale attack on the whole of Ukraine in February 2022, had taken place.

However, no one must believe that the Putin regime intends to surrender.

The rest of what has happened is part of the daily news coverage from recent years. Perhaps the most important thing is that the Ukrainian people became aware in the spring of 2014 that the Putin regime in Russia did not want them well. While as recently as 2010 a Moscow-friendly president had been voted in, the vast majority of Ukrainians understood in the spring and summer of 2014 that the country had its back against the wall. The Ukrainians realized that they would be taken over by Vladimir Putin and his oligarchs if they did not stand together.


In Kyiv, the time was now up for those politicians who claimed that in the future Ukraine should be closely linked to Russia. In May 2014, the Moscow-critical chocolate billionaire Petro Poroshenko was elected president of Ukraine. The promises he made in the election campaign were that he would end the war with Russia, bring Ukraine closer to the EU and get rid of corruption in Ukraine. Several major corruption scandals during his presidency meant that he had little hope of meeting the voters again in 2019.

The man who ran against Poroshenko in the next presidential election was the then 41-year-old comedian and TV star Volodymyr Zelensky. From 2015, he had rolled across the television screens in Ukraine as the star of the series The tenar of the people.17 One had hardly seen a more merciless – and comical – hanging of the dark sides of the Ukrainian state and Ukrainian society.

Skepticism was of course great in many circles – not least among journalists both in and outside Ukraine – when a shoe player and comedian was elected president. Then it turned out that Zelensky, the shoemaker, as president was a communicator of God's grace. Without his ability to communicate and without the courage he showed when, during the Russian attack, he rejected the USA's offer to help him out of the country, the war could have gone in a completely different direction than he did. Volodymyr Zelenskyj stayed at his post and told Ukraine and the world that it was useful to resist the Russian invasion army. He gathered the people, and he gathered the western countries to give support to Ukraine. The most important thing was that he showed the whole world that Ukraine was a nation and that the Ukrainians were one people, firmly convinced that they wanted to live in an independent state.

At the time of writing, in mid-September 2022, the Ukrainian army is on the offensive. On many front lines, the Russian soldiers throw away their weapons and uniforms and flee from the advancing Ukrainian forces. However, no one must believe that the Putin regime intends to surrender. But whether the war develops this way or that, Ukraine has seen that a European democracy, once again, can assert itself against a totalitarian state also on the battlefield.

Democracy is not dead. Ukraine is not lost.

This is an excerpt from the book War in our time, by Halvor Tjønn, reproduced with permission from the author and publisher Dreyer.


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