Russian academic: 'I'm angry at my country'

Opinion: Natalia Booth was born in Russia and says she feels angry at her country for falling into the trap of imperialism. Again.

Natalia Booth holding up a Ukrainian flag.
Natalia Booth is Russian and angry about the war in Ukraine. Photo: Elise Manahan

On 24 February 2022, the Russian Federation started a war against Ukraine.

My colleague asked, “You must have been shocked?”

I said, “No. I was angry.”

I am from Russia but of mixed ethnic heritage. Reflecting on my identity, I consider myself 100 percent Russian, 100 percent Korean, and 100 percent New Zealander.

I felt angry at my country for falling into the trap of imperialism. Again.

Georgia, Moldova, North Ossetia-Alania, Tajikistan, Azerbaijan, Chechnya, Dagestan, Ukraine, Syria, Central African Republic, Belarus and Kazakhstan. All these countries have felt the boot of a Russian soldier since the establishment of the Russian Federation in 1991.

Like many other empires, the 300-year-old Russian empire has nearly completed its cycle and is now in decline. However, it is still trying to devour more lands and people to prolong the agony it inflicts. The danger of this war is that it sets another historical precedent where crude force trumps justice. It changes the perceptions of the world order where watchdogs like the UN appear toothless. Furthermore, it questions the values underpinning our societies.

Aotearoa is not in direct danger from this war; the effects are significant but primarily economic and geopolitical. However, there are three value-based points that this war has made salient, and I would like academics and activists in Aotearoa to consider them.

First, the war in Ukraine has strong parallels to gender-based domestic violence. For brevity, let me present it as a simple analogy. She (Ukraine) tried to separate from an abusive partner. He (Russia) wanted her to stay and used bribes (cheap oil and gas before 2014) and punishment (annexation of territories in 2014). She had enough and packed her bags (move towards the EU and NATO). He tried to use force, but she resisted (the war). He decided that, “If I can’t have you, no one else can” (carpet bombing of the cities, indiscriminate killing of the civilians).

Seeing the war from this perspective helps to understand why an argument like ‘there is a long and complicated relationship between these two countries’ is atrocious.

In Aotearoa, we would not accept that gender-based domestic violence can have any excuses. The same comes to relationships between countries. Nothing that happened in history can justify an attack on another country.

Especially outrageous is when Westerners accept that Putin’s war is ‘understandable’ because Ukraine was gifted to Russia in a verbal agreement with NATO. Would we even listen to a claim that the wife belongs to the husband because he paid a bride-price?

The war in Ukraine has strong parallels to gender-based domestic violence.

Natalia Booth, Faculty of Medical and Health Sciences University of Auckland

Secondly, the Russkiy mir paradigm (loosely translated as a Russian worldview) influences perceptions of Ukraine despite accepting that Ukraine is a sovereign state with its own culture and language.

Russkiy mir is the domination of internal and international discourse with ideas of Russian superiority and presentation of other cultures in the presumed Russian zone of influence (including Ukraine) as subservient and dependent. These cultures are silenced, and the world only sees them as a reflection in the mirror of Russkiy mir.

For years, the Soviet Union and then the Russian Federation have been rewriting the history books minimising the merits of other nations and reassigning victories to Russians. There is even a Russian joke about this: ‘The world has an unknown future. Russia has an unknown past.’

Not only history but academia in general has been used as soft power to shape the unconscious attitudes where the Russian voice is given more weight. Ukrainian academics, for example, reported instances when Western universities invited Russian scholars to present on Ukrainian issues.

To draw a parallel, discourse about Māori in Aotearoa used to be dominated by Pākehā. It is widely accepted now that ‘nothing about Māori without Māori’ is the only way to reverse the harm of colonisation. It is a political decision with long-lasting consequences whenever universities decide whose voices to hear and let be heard. Will we amplify the voices of Ukraine?

Russian propaganda keeps abusing the freedom of speech and the freedom of expression in Western societies to undermine these societies.

Natalia Booth, academic University of Auckland

Thirdly, the effectiveness and power of the Russian propaganda machine inside and outside Russia deserves very close examination.

Initially tested during the American elections in 2016, the Russian propaganda keeps abusing the freedom of speech and the freedom of expression in Western societies to undermine these societies. Aotearoa is not immune to the sharp power of Russian propaganda. There is evidence that some Russian immigrants and even New Zealanders not connected to Russia support Putin and his war.

The example of the anti-vax/anti-mandate protests at Parliament’s grounds earlier this year shows that such events fuelled by disinformation can quickly get out of control. I believe it is the role of academics to activate the discussion on what are the limits to the freedom of speech concerning this war. Academics, students and activists should take time to think about the war in Ukraine. This seemingly faraway war is not that far, since being a global community means the free flow of information has a worldwide impact.

Let’s ponder, what are our values? Whose voices shape our understanding of this war? What should drive the political decisions around the war in Ukraine?

Because one thing is for sure – this war is more than just pain at the petrol pump. It’s a painful piece of history that Russia will no doubt distort in its telling in the future. We need to tell it honestly.

Natalia Booth is a research fellow in the School of Population Health at Waipapa Taumata Rau University of Auckland.

The views in this article reflect personal opinion and are not necessarily those of the University of Auckland.

This article first appeared in the July 2022 edition of UniNews