Notes From Away: Quislings, Sieges and Neutrality

By Tom Lamia

It didn’t take the Republican Party long to find within its ranks of what used to be called “rock ribbed” loyalists a multitude of quislings. Not so rock ribbed it seems when it came to turning their backs on democracy, decency and political consistency. Seemingly out of the blue came volunteers willing to look the other way when Trump pointedly suggested that their future in politics might depend on it. What had been clear became cloudy and commitment to principle and the Constitution was replaced by commitment to (and fear of) Trump.

ALL IN FOR THE BESIEGED; will American character prevail? Photo by Susan Lamia.

The Russian character is well known from centuries of historical literature. It is a character molded by the violence of war and territorial conquest. That character has been impressed on Europe through a series of confrontations and armed struggle, most recently in the Crimean War in the mid-19th Century and in World Wars I and II in the 20th Century. Russian novelists have dissected and explicated that character many times over. War and Peace and Doctor Zhivago deserve mention but they are but islands in a vast sea of brilliance. A singular aspect of that character is now seen in what has become the Siege of Ukraine, only this time (unlike at Sevastopol, Leningrad and Stalingrad) the Russians are on the other side; besiegers not besieged.

Finland resisted when Russia invaded in 1939, doing what Ukraine is now doing (and what Tecumseh did when America pushed westward into Native American lands); resisting nimbly, and bravely with astonishing tactical brilliance, sacrificing land and lives while sticking a wrench in the gears of the invaders. A peace was achieved in each case, but at the price of a lesson well taught—that armed resistance destroys lives and livelihoods. And that future neutrality without abject surrender is preferable to a valorous defeat.

These thoughts come to me in the backwash of news and opinion overload that each day causes anxiety and outrage with no avenue for relief. In this daily flow of news historical comparisons are often used to simplify the message. They provide a context for the story as an aid to understanding. Historical comparisons can also be editorial dynamite where enlightenment and deception are at odds.

Take the Quisling example: Vidkun Quisling was a Norwegian politician enthroned as Prime Minister by the Nazis in WWII to do the bidding of Hitler’s government. He was executed for treason by firing squad in Norway in 1945. The term ‘quisling’ became a synonym for traitor or turncoat. Quisling paid the price of eternal ignominy for his political expediency. When you change horses in midstream your new horse must not stumble before land is reached or you will pay a price. In every political lifetime there comes a moment for message clarification. If only clarification you will survive, but there is a limit. When only dishonesty or duplicity can explain the before and after messages, there will be a price. Not death by firing squad, but vengeance in some form. It may be an overstatement to describe MAGA Republicans as quislings and yet it is the word that comes to mind as I follow events.

The Russian character in literature and war is one of indomitability and ruthlessness. Assuming this is accurate, is this praise or condemnation? Russian novels are full of moral crises for individual characters as well as for the Russian society in which the action takes place. Can it be acceptable for a culture to be both cruel and yet admirable for its ability to survive adversity? Russia’s origin is European. It differs from other European countries in that it has explored, conquered and occupied enormous land areas and indigenous peoples to the east and north of its European origins over centuries pursuing a manifest destiny of its own. Under Tsars and Soviets it has conquered, explored, and settled or abandoned vast areas. It is less developed than most any European country, but still holds political, military and cultural power over many peoples. Its territorial expansion stretched eastward through a frozen wilderness of thousands of miles, ultimately crossing oceans and reaching, if not colonizing Alaska and our West Coast. The Russian story is not just one of serfdom and tyranny.

Count Leo Tolstoy is exemplary as an avatar of Russian character: military hero, stubborn genius, insufferable patriot, and brilliant novelist. I no longer remember the work of history that first brought to my attention Tolstoy and the siege of Sevastopol during the Crimean War, but the impression it made was sharp and lasting. Tolstoy’s exploits at the siege of Sevastopol as a Lieutenant of Artillery is reminiscent of the Civil War service of our own young men of genius: Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. and Walt Whitman. Tolstoy was a 26-year-old junior officer in the Russian Army defending Russian Sevastopol against a siege by the British and French over 11 months in 1854-55. The Russian defenders were without supplies or hope of rescue and suffered extraordinary losses and yet held their positions until an orderly and life-saving withdrawal could be negotiated. Tolstoy wrote of his experience during and immediately following the Russian surrender. War and Peace followed in serialized form in 1865-69.

Now the Russian shoe is on the other foot in Ukraine where it is Russia besieging Ukrainian cities with artillery and Ukraine under threat of investment and surrender. The scale of the destruction is such that pleas are being heard from allied nations for cease-fires, concessions and peace at any cost. To survive while seeking a negotiated peace Ukraine will need what Russia had at Sevastopol and, more recently, at Stalingrad. There is Russian character on each side so cruelty, violence, and stubborn resolve can be expected.

It is thought by many that neutrality could be a basis for stopping the war. The experience of Finland in 1939-1942 is suggested as a template for resolution of the war and a basis for future relations, with Ukraine remaining nominally independent and neutral. This is not likely; Finland and Sweden (another positive neutrality example) have applied for NATO membership, a status inconsistent with present or future neutrality if granted. Neutral status worked as a lever for peace with the Soviet Union when Stalin needed to clear his decks for a German invasion. Unlike Finland, Ukraine cannot expect any Russian deck clearing so long as sanctions can be tolerated and nuclear weapons remain a Russian option.

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