A border is not just the line dividing two countries or the singular form of the failed chain bookstore. To Stephen E. Hanson, borders are the crux of the historical tension and recent conflict between Russia and Ukraine.
“The starting point for this whole debate is really about borders themselves,” Hanson said. “It’s a debate, philosophically and politically, about what the borders of Russia, Ukraine, Europe, and Eurasia are, how borders should be defined, how they should be legitimated, and how they should be defended. That’s at the core of this debate, and that’s why it’s so tough to figure out.”
Speaking Monday from the Hall of Philosophy podium, Hanson kicked off Week Seven’s Interfaith Lecture Series theme of “Reimagining the Soul of Europe,” delivering his lecture, “Russia, Ukraine, and the Soul of Europe.”
At the heart of the issue, Hanson said, is a complex history revolving around the formation and collapse of the USSR and a discord in narrative between the democratic West and Russia. No progress or peace will be realized until both sides can begin to agree on the present reality of the situation, Hanson said.
“There’s no way to have a negotiated settlement to a conflict if the two sides have absolutely no starting point in common, intellectually or even factually,” he said.
Providing historical context, Hanson explained the origins of the Soviet Union. He said when Vladimir Lenin formed the commonwealth, the lines between the republics were drawn arbitrarily. However, they created republican pride among the different states, a trend exacerbated after Joseph Stalin’s rule. Eventually, a degree of independence began in the republics in that they were allowed some autonomy over governance and education.
Following this point, some of modern-day Russia’s disdain for these borders, which became today’s legal borders, can be understood in context of the once-meaningless drawing of the distinctions.
“No Russian nationalist in the Soviet era ever thought that these strange lines on the map that defined the Russian federation would ever become the borders of an independent Russia,” Hanson said. “[No one thought] that they would be legitimated borders that should be defended militarily, politically and ideologically.”
Continuing the narrative to the present day, Hanson outlined the political ascent of Vladimir Putin. He said Putin was lucky because, after coming to power during trying times for Russia, he was credited with Russia’s more recent economic success due to rising oil prices — despite the fact he had little to nothing to do with those spikes.
“Russia experienced its post-Soviet rational legal borders as a recipe for disintegration, decline and embarrassment,” Hanson said. “They experienced Putin as the person who came to power saying he would reverse all of that as the savior who made their lives better, as the person who restored the economy as the person who restored national pride.”
Given the provided history, Hanson said understanding the context is key to understanding Russia’s recent actions, which include its annexation of the Crimean Peninsula in 2014. He said doing so is not apologizing for Russia’s actions; it’s simply a step toward negotiating a conflict resolution.
“All this history is necessary today because you cannot understand the two perspectives unless you see where they came from,” he said.
Making sure not to justify Russia’s aggressive and controversial seizure, Hanson said it’s important that the grab not be recognized by the democratic West, regardless of history, because it violates the 1991 settlement declaring Ukraine as an independent state.
“If you want to have rational legal borders in Europe, you can’t just let one country annex a neighboring country,” Hanson said. “You can’t just change that through force or subterfuge.”
In closing, Hanson said, although his lecture may have come off as pessimistic, there is still hope for Europe. Global society must be ready to embrace Russia in light of its history — no matter how lofty a goal it may be, he said.
“At Chautauqua, we should be dreaming big,” Hanson said. “That’s the only way things will ever change.”