search
James R. Russell

The Big Lie, Revisited

“This baby must be strangled in its cradle,” said Winston Churchill of the Russian Revolution. Britain and the US then invaded newborn Soviet Russia. The euphemism employed was “intervention”. It was a useful term: a decade and a half later, when the Spanish Republic was fighting for its life against Hitler and Mussolini, the Western democracies declared a policy of, this time, “non-intervention”. That meant in practice an embargo on arms to the Republic while Standard Oil helped fuel the Luftwaffe, which practiced its new tactic of terror bombing on Madrid and Guernica. Non-intervention graduated a year or two later to appeasement, with the sellout of Czechoslovakia to the Nazis. A number of American and Canadian kids, many of them Jews, volunteered to fight for Spain in the Lincoln Battalion. Many never came home; and those who did were blacklisted as “premature antifascists”.

When Hitler invaded the USSR in June 1941, breaking the non-aggression treaty Molotov and Ribbentrop had signed two years earlier, Churchill signaled that Britain would offer the Soviets every assistance. When questioned about this ideological deviation, he quipped “If Hitler were to invade Hell, I should be sure to make favorable mention of the Devil in the House of Commons.” Premature fascists joined the armed forces. My Dad lost some older friends who had joined the Lincolns. Dad enlisted in the US Navy. He had tried a few times, lying about his age. But when he was old enough, he got in. I was raised on Spanish Civil War songs and the understanding that on this planet the United States Navy is second in holiness only to, well, to what? The Beit ha-Mikdash, I guess.

After the war, in which more than twenty million Soviet citizens died, it was back to business as usual: the US founded NATO, Stalin asked to join, on condition of a reunified and neutral Germany (which might have been a good idea), and the West said no. The world then enjoyed some four decades of the Cold War and Mutually Assured Destruction (with its suitable acronym, “MAD”). The USSR lost that war and broke up in 1992 without a shot being fired: the fifteen Union Republics went their own way, as did the former members of the Warsaw Pact. The first Bush Administration promised Boris Yeltsin that reunified Germany would not be in NATO. But it was. Okay, at least assure us, said the Russians, that NATO won’t expand eastward. Of course, said the Americans, and promptly went back on their word. Putin came to power, offered the US support after the 9/11 attacks, and suggested Russia join NATO. After all, there’s no more Communism and Islamist terror is a danger to us all. The US laughed in his face and said no once again.

I served for years on the executive committee of the center for Russian research at my university, and one afternoon was shocked when a colleague, in an interview for the daily news program of National Public Radio, said that the aim of American foreign policy should be to reduce the borders of the Russian Federation to Moscow and its suburbs. One could scarcely imagine a more ignorant, provocative, and unhelpful statement. But it was an eye-opener.

The non-Russian countries of the Socialist bloc were happy in 1992 to be rid of totalitarian domination, and that makes sense. But they were not angels either. The nationalist movements in the Baltic states and the Ukraine had participated enthusiastically and proactively in the Nazi Holocaust, volunteering for the Einsatzgruppen and often outdoing the Germans in their brutality. Poland, where most of the Nazi death factories were built, resisted Hitler heroically, but again there are shadows. The prewar Rydz-Smigly dictatorship and the Endecja party had enacted savagely anti-Semitic policies, and there were pogroms against Jews, by Poles, both before and, astonishingly, after the war. The new Eastern European party line is that Hitler and Stalin were equally evil and, whatever the facts of wartime collaboration and participation in mass murder, the Ukrainians, Latvians, Lithuanians, and Estonians are also victims. 

This relativization of history shrouds the reality of the Holocaust in a fog that is very convenient to the perpetrators. And it is just a short step from there to self-justification: Ukrainians and Poles have instructed one over the years that of course what happened to the Jews was bad, but we brought it on ourselves by being Communists. (Felix Dzerzhinsky, the founder of the Cheka, later to be called the KGB, was an ethnic Pole; ethnic Latvians were prominent in the Cheka, too. But so what. We all know Если в кране нет воды, значит, выпили жиды, “If there’s no water in the tap it means the Jews drank it all up.”) These are classic strategies: An anti-Semite will always identify himself as the victim and assert that the Jews bring our sufferings and misfortunes upon ourselves. And that is the Big Lie, which the Nazi propaganda chief Joseph Goebbels prescribed.

No, no matter how pressed to the wall he felt, Vladimir Putin should not have invaded the Ukraine. No, there is no conceivable justification for the massacre at Bucha and the horrific destruction of Mariupol. However one does not accept that there is justification, either, for the Ukraine’s embrace of the neo-Nazi “Right Sector”, or for Lithuania’s deification of the Nazi war criminal Jonas Noreika as a hero of national liberation, or for the dynamiting of World War II memorials in Latvia and Estonia, or for the revision of Polish law in such a manner as to suppress the historical record of very widespread anti-Semitic violence and collaboration with the Nazis. In the West we are being asked, on pain of social ostracism, of “cancellation”, to ignore all that. But the war is not a Manichaean struggle between absolute good and absolute evil. It was brewing for years, and there were very many opportunities to forestall it that were missed, sometimes inadvertently perhaps, but more often intentionally.

This seems to be a proxy war in which the USA is an indirect combatant with Russia. The Americans are trying, often in these pages, to bully Israel into falling into step, to the detriment of its vital interests. The Russians, by stepping up their belligerent cooperation with Iran, Syria, and North Korea, are also sending Israel heavy-handed threats. The US is the big brother here, so we Jews cannot say “A plague on both your houses.” The Israeli government is in a difficult, unenviable position.

And meanwhile, the war is causing worldwide economic convulsion and threatening the most vulnerable with famine. The veteran diplomat Henry Kissinger was all but shouted down when he suggested a few months ago that the only way out of this mess is a peace conference at which each side will have to make concessions to the other. Is Kissinger a Kremlin stooge? No. But at this point anybody who suggests a de-escalation of the conflict from the threshold of thermonuclear war is likely to be shouted down and silenced.

I know from considerable experience in Internet debate, including here in the Times of Israel, that this essay will inevitably generate ad hominem attacks. I would like to make it clear that I will not afford such abusers the human regard of a reply. For the record, then, I speak Russian fluently and have been to the Soviet Union and the Russian Federation many times. I have dear friends in Russia whose company I miss terribly. I consider myself a friend of Russia and hope to go there again. I serve on the editorial boards of five or six scholarly journals in St. Petersburg alone. But no, I do not receive remuneration of any kind from anybody there. I have no ties to the government of Russia or any other country. I do not approve of the repression of dissent and the imprisonment or worse of opponents of the administration of president Putin. Neither do I approve of the “critical race theory”, “wokeness”, “cancel culture”, etc. that have killed liberty here in the US. That places me firmly in the middle, which is sometimes the moral place to be: “The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity,” wrote William Butler Yeats in his poetic vision of apocalypse, “The Second Coming”. But I do not lack conviction; and I believe, with passionate intensity, that this entire war is not worth the blood of a single child and therefore, by God, it must stop. I ask my brothers and sisters, the Children of Israel, to devote our common energies to seeking peace. We of all people know in our bones that the unthinkable is all too thinkable, even likely.

About the Author
James R. Russell is Mashtots Professor of Armenian Studies, Emeritus, at Harvard University, and has served as Distinguished Visiting Professor of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Associate Professor of Ancient Iranian at Columbia, and part-time Lecturer in Jewish Studies and Biblical Hebrew at California State University, Fresno. He serves on the Editorial Boards of the journal Judaica Petropolitana, St. Petersburg State University; the journal Linguistica Petropolitana, Russian Academy of Sciences; and the journal Homo Loquens, Russian Christian Humanities Association, St. Petersburg. He is a founding member of the International Association for Jewish Studies, chartered in the Russian Federation. He holds the PhD in Zoroastrian Studies, from the School of Oriental Studies of the University of London; B.Litt. (Oxon.); B.A. (summa) (Columbia). His recent books include "Poets, Heroes, and Their Dragons", 2 vols., UC Irvine Iranian Series, 2020, and "The Complete Poems of Misak Medzarents", CSU Fresno Armenian Series, 2021.