Reflections on the Babchenko affair from Tallinn

Tallinn is a good place to discuss history. The modern Estonian republic, reborn in 1991, has strong links with its interwar predecessor. Delegates to the Lennart Meri Conference, the annual security shindig held in the Estonian capital, dined under the hull of the pride of the prewar navy, the submarine Lembit, suspended in the magnificent concrete hangars of the seaplane harbor, transformed into a maritime museum. On the other side of town, in the military cemetery, Soviet, Estonian, German, and British military personnel have found their final resting place, as has “Alyosha,” a memorial to an unknown Soviet soldiers. Its removal to the cemetery from central Tallinn in 2007 sparked riots and the world’s first state-on-state cyber-attack.

The conference discussions ranged from the thought-provokingly abstract to the controversially practical. Journalism is the first draft of history, so the bewildering events surrounding the faked death in Ukraine of the journalist Arkady Babchenko were hotly discussed. The mood among participants was overwhelmingly pro-Ukrainian: the Estonian president, Kersti Kaljulaid, devoted much of her keynote speech to praising Ukraine’s lively civil society and urging outsiders to support the country against Russian aggression. Later she took part in a flashmob demonstration in support of Ukrainian political prisoners in Russia.

But many also felt that the Babchenko affair is looking ever-harder to justify. As one Ukrainian participant put it, faking a death to catch an assassin (and to forestall further deaths) is one thing. The deliberate propagation of falsehood is harder to support. Ukrainian authorities immediately and explicitly blamed Russia for Mr. Babchenko’s death. That was no doubt tempting, given Russia’s history of overt malevolence and covert mischief. But it debased the operational success of the subterfuge.

Journalists now, and historians later, will try to make sense of all this. For some, the big story is that the SBU, Ukrainian’s controversial intelligence service, is finally starting to make an effort to protect journalists, who suffer grave risks. Others, such as the émigré Russian activist Garry Kasparov, say that criticizing the Ukrainian authorities for the “bizarre charade” was a distraction, when the Russian authorities engage habitually in murder and intimidation. Critics argue differently. The story around the Babchenko intrigue is becoming murkier, not more transparent. Business rivalries and political competition may have played a role; Russian state involvement has not been proved.

In this sense, the Babchenko affair is a microcosm of the wider rows about the more distant past. The most important point is not who is right and who is wrong. The point is that we are free to debate it. That is not the case in Russia, either in dealing with the day-to-day misdeeds of the Kremlin, or in that country’s weaponization of history, which obscures past crimes with imperialist bombast.

Such an approach to history is a self-made prison. In response to one session at the conference, “Who Owns History?,” panelists argued that the question was the wrong way round. We own history. Our ability to make sense of it is limited only by our mental energy. Ultimately, that determines the way we live. The present, argued one panelist, is a mixture of our experiences (and what we make of them) and our expectations.

For the past is not carved on stone tablets, to be learned and worshiped. New facts, new arguments, and new insights mean that it is always subject to revision. Kremlin polemicists often say that Russia’s critics are trying to “rewrite history,” for example in questioning Soviet behavior before, during, and after the Second World War. But as one conference panelist noted, “that’s exactly what historians are supposed to do.”

Europe's Edge is an online journal covering crucial topics in the transatlantic policy debate. All opinions are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the position or views of the institutions they represent or the Center for European Policy Analysis. 

Photo: Max Pixel

Edward Lucas

05 June 2018

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