Great Russian trouble

June 29th, 2009
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One of the most memorable afternoons I spent in Ottawa last year was on the steps of Parliament Hill, attending a commemoration of the Ukrainian famine, the Holodomor. It was an emotional experience.

Ukraine’s president Yushchenko (he of the attempted poisoning) was on a state visit to coincide with Canada’s recognition of the great crime perpetrated by Stalin against the Ukrainian people. A large crowd heard prayers by an Orthodox priest, a stirring traditional choir and moving speaches by the president, and then Minister of Multiculturalism, Jason Kenney.

Many participants were moved to tears, not just those whose families and former countrymen had suffered under Communist tyranny. All present recognized the importance of the moment, despite rumours that Canadian officials had cautioned government representatives to use muted language. Concern was apparently expressed about references to Stalin, lest latter day foreign dignitaries be offended. Whatever.

I couldn’t help recalling this event when revelations of anti-Ukrainian comments by Michael Ignatieff came to light. Of course, the leader of the opposition insisted these were taken out of context. Ultimately, only he knows what he really thinks in his heart of hearts about Ukraine and its long-suffering people.

I will only add one observation. I had an weird sinking feeling some years ago when I heard almost identical remarks from two prominent Russians about their country’s position in the world and relationship to its neighbours. One commentator was Prince Michael Romanov, head of the old royal family in exile in an interview with William F. Buckley. The Prince had been (I believe) born and raised outside of Russia and lived most of his life in Switzerland. The other was Vladimir Zhirinovsky, leader of an ultra-nationalist movement in Russia.

Both gentlemen insisted, among other things, that Russia’s “natural frontier” was the Baltic; and Prince Michael addedthat  the small Baltic states were really unable to govern themselves and needed “Russian guidance” in their affairs. Small comfort to the Letts, Lithuanians and Estonians I’m sure.

What struck me was the similarity between the geopolitical views of two men on, ostensibly, quite different parts of the political spectrum. What did this say, I wondered, about the Russian self-image for them to share these opinions?

Neither were asked, nor did they volunteer any opinions about Ukraine, but one can imagine what they might be.

My experience of reality of eastern Europe is that such views are literally imparted with mother’s milk. One must therefore suspect that, whatever Mr. Ignatieff’s actual views, it is no coincidence that they bubbled up at an inconvenient moment.

Ukrainians, and Ukrainian-Canadians might be well served to ask some probing questions of the Liberal leader, given that his views on international politics are generally well formed. One may hope that they do so before the next general election.

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By John Weissenberger