Letter From Crimea: Is the Ukraine War a Pogrom?

This is the second in a series about a journey, by train and bicycle, across Russia to Crimea shortly before the war began.


A picture of a painting in the Tretyakov State Gallery, Moscow, called A Village Easter Procession, which indicates that some of the monk-priests had more a sip of the confessional wine. Photo: Matthew Stevenson.

Most of what I did on my first day in Moscow was get the hang of bicycle riding in traffic that is a perpetual motion machine.

I had read that Moscow, as a way of alleviating its car congestion, had laid down some bicycle lanes around the city, but when I went in search of these segregated paths I found that many ended abruptly at the steps of underground passages that pedestrians use to pass beneath the city’s multi-lane boulevards. In order to cross busy streets, I often had to carry the bicycle down and up long staircases, as if portaging a canoe from one Wisconsin lake to another.

Elsewhere around Moscow did I see any signs of the genocidal Russian rage that manifests itself in the suburbs of Kyiv?

Tretyakov Gives His Art to Russia

As I always do in Moscow, I headed first to the Tretyakov State Gallery, an art collection from the nineteenth century that was once the property of a wealthy merchant family of the same name.

Pavel Tretyakov’s purchases (many from artists unknown at the time) constitute one of the great collections of Russian landscape art and portraiture. He died in 1898 and in his will wrote:

I have inherited from my father a total capital of 108,000 in silver rubles including property; my wish is for that capital to be shared between my brother and sisters equally. As for the amount of 150,000 silver rubles, I bequeath that to organizing an Art Museum in Moscow.

Initially the works were housed in Tretyakov’s mansion. After the 1917 revolution, the collection was nationalized, and now it is spread over a series of more modern buildings, all of which I find attractive.

Whenever I am traveling in Russia, I use his paintings as if they were guidebooks. On this occasion, for example, I spent a lot of studying Fyodor Vasiliev’s In the Crimean Mountains, wondering if my small bicycle would make it up such sharp hills.

Mostly the works are what I would call Russian realism and impressionism. Many of the paintings have a nearly photographic starkness in depicting village and rural life—one of the best glimpses that we have, outside the writings of Chekhov or Tolstoy, of life on the steppe.

What I love about the Tretyakov Gallery is that it can be seen in detail in about two hours. In that time I am free to wander into riverside churches (see picture above), small town markets, awkward marriage ceremonies, military formations, and tsarist palaces.

In particular I love gazing at Issac Levitan’s Above Eternal Peace, which shows a small chapel on a bluff that is pointing down a river of epic proportions, such as the Volga or the Ob. It could be a quiet landscape in the vastness of the Russian steppe, except that Levitan once wrote to a friend about such a setting:“Eternity, a formidable eternity, in which generations have drowned and will drown yet…. What a horror, what a fear…”

Power Politics Imitating Art

After Russia attacked Ukraine with tanks and cruise missiles, I tried to draw a connection between the art on the Tretyakov’s walls and Vladimir Putin’s decision to lay waste to a landscape that is shown in many of the paintings as a variation on the gardens of Eden.

For all that the Tretyakov collection has numerous pictures of horse-drawn sleighs traversing snowy fields, there are enough discordant notes in some of the paintings to suggest that Russia has always had a violent, imperial past (as, I might note, does the United States).

Take, for example, some of Vasily Vereshchagin’s canvases from the Russo-Turkish War of 1877-78, one of the templates of Putin’s Ukraine invasion.

In one of his paintings of the battle of Shipka Pass in the Bulgarian mountains, Vereshchagin shows Russian forces in a long white line, celebrating the battle’s end by throwing their caps in the air as officers carrying regimental colors ride up and down the battle formation.

It could well be a painting showing the Russian victory over Napoleon in 1812, if not the expected triumph of Putin’s special military operation in Ukraine, except that in the foreground of the canvas are the scattered remains of both Russian and Ottoman war dead, who form their own nearly endless line of casualties to the horizon of the picture.

But this painting is mild compared with Vereshchagin’s The Apotheosis of War, which is nothing more than a pile of skulls being picked over by vultures.

Everywhere Life (and Death)

In Ukraine, we are numb from the photographs of the corpses in Kyiv’s bloody suburbs, lined with shattered apartment blocks, the scattered toys of displaced children, and hulking remains of destroyed Russian armor.

But I am sure that Vereshchagin’s paintings from the 1877 war (which was an earlier push to expand Russian hegemony, at that time into the Balkans and Turkey) were among the earliest depictions of dead Russian soldiers in the field—something the tsars, much like Putin, would rather hide from the local population.

Another taboo subject on display in the museum is a painting that shows the ethnic cleansing—to use a modern phrase—of a community somewhere in Russia.

The picture, Everywhere Life by Nikolai Yaroshenko, is a close-up of a sealed train, its window covered with bars. Inside the freight car is a mother and child, and behind them are members of their family or village (although they look like the three wise men disguised as Russian peasants)—all in the process of deportation or incarceration.

The mother is wearing a black head scarf and her child, less than two years old, is distracted and amused by the presence of pigeons feeding outside the caged rail car. (Hence the idea that life goes on, even behind bars.)

The painting is the nineteenth century equivalent of today’s photographs showing children in tears as they flee Kyiv or Odessa in a more modern railroad carriage, clutching a stuffed animal.

The painting echoes a Renaissance madonna-and-child, although in this case the message isn’t the renewal of the generations, faith in our fathers, and the power of god on earth, but the suggestion that civil government in Russia is prone to devouring its own.

Lubyanka’s Shadows

From the Tretyakov I rode (well, pushed my bike) through Red Square and headed toward the somewhat new Jewish museum in a neighborhood several miles north of the Kremlin.

I didn’t take the most direct route but wandered back and forth through old city neighborhoods lined with upscale restaurants and cafés (with lots of SUVs with tinted windows parked out front), wondering if I should stop for lunch before coming to grips with the Russian Pale of Settlement.

At one point I detoured to ride in front of the former headquarters of the KGB in Lubyanka Square—in which it is always darkness at noon.

The building, built in 1898 and once the headquarters of an insurance company, now houses the Federal Security Service, the successor to the KGB and Putin’s alma mater, if not the shadow government of the Russian state. (In his celebrated novel, Arthur Koestler wrote: “We whip the groaning masses of the country towards a theoretical future happiness, which only we can see.”)

The Art of the Confession

Leaving the square in front of the infamous building (it’s a prison as well as an office building), I tried to think if a country other than Russia had made such an obsession—both in its art and politics—of torture.

From Dostoyevsky to Solzhenitsyn, from the tsars to Vladimir Putin, it struck me that extracting confessions has been one long Russian national pursuit. Nor did it really matter whether what was being confessed on various racks of pain was true.

I thought of this bike ride when later I listened to Vladimir Putin’s declaration-of-war speech in which he explained that he was invading Ukraine to rid that country of its “Nazi” government.

By extension, he would later imply, only a confession from the Zelensky government to these crimes of collaboration would end the genocidal violence across Ukraine.

Like all European countries today (including Britain, Switzerland, and Germany), Ukraine does have an element of right wing politics, but it is still a leap of Putin’s inquisitorial imagination to think that national socialism of the Hitler variety is what is driving the Ukrainian government. (In Putin’s mind, the West has become synonymous with the Third Reich, and its offers of friendship with the emerging Ukrainian government are the equivalent of the 1941 German invasion.)

The Ukraine government might be inefficient, corrupt, heavy-handed, and oligarchic (often more Soviet than Jeffersonian), but I would not describe it as totalitarian, as it allows for the election of its presidents.

Nevertheless, Putin’s goal—like some Lubyanka interrogator—is to force Zelensky to confess to crimes that he has not committed.

Beyond the Pale of Settlement

The Jewish Museum and Tolerance Center opened in 2012. When I got there it was near to closing time.

The clerk on duty at the modernistic front desk said it was too late for me to purchase a ticket, but she encouraged me to have a quick look at some of the exhibitions near the entrance and to eat lunch in the elegant museum restaurant. (Lunch in Russia is an all-day affair.)

I was there to learn more about the Pale of Settlement, that zone in western Russia (essentially in what is now Ukraine) where the tsarist governments consigned Jews to their ghetto lives.

In my quick inspection tour, I found one map of the Pale, showing that it stretched from what is now Poland and Belarus down to the Black Sea (Odessa) and parts of Moldova. It gave the dates of the Pale from the late eighteenth century to about World War I, after which western Russia and Ukraine emerged briefly from their tsarist state of siege. By the 1920s, however, much of the Pale was back under the control of Soviet Russia.

In 1939, when Stalin and Hitler concluded their non-aggression treaty, it was essentially a declaration of war against the Pale of Settlement, and the subsequent invasion divided the Jewish lands between the Nazis and Soviets.

I didn’t stay long at the museum, but often during the Ukraine war I have wondered why so few have made mention of Ukraine’s Jewish antecedents and asked whether there is a link between tsarist pogroms of the nineteenth century (in places such as Kiev) and Putin’s own war of annihilation in what historian Timothy Snyder has called “the bloodlands”.

To what extent has anti-Semitism played a part in Russia’s attempts to wipe out Ukrainian independence and culture?

In his excellent case study of a Russian pogrom, Pogrom: Kishinev and the Tilt of History, historian Steven J. Zipperstein writes about the long continuum of violence against the Jews in Russia:

Had the same events [the pogrom in Kishinev, now Chișinău] occurred a few hundred miles to the east, it is unlikely that they would have had a comparable impact; the details would have been reported on fleetingly and peppered with fewer updates, and the tragedy, like others then and later, would have almost certainly been mourned locally without much resonance beyond the town itself.

Bear in mind: “a few hundred miles to the east” of Chișinău is Ukraine.

Next: Solzhenitsyn and Putin. Earlier installments can be found here.

Matthew Stevenson is the author of many books, including Reading the Rails, Appalachia Spring, andThe Revolution as a Dinner Party, about China throughout its turbulent twentieth century. His most recent books are Biking with Bismarck and Our Man in Iran. Out now: Donald Trump’s Circus Maximus and Joe Biden’s Excellent Adventure, about the 2016 and 2020 elections.