The museum of New Russia’s ambitions - FT.com:
'via Blog this'
“Do we look like terrorists?” the rebel fighter who called himself the Caribbean asked, leaning in with a smirk. “We’re normal people: we offered you coffee and tea.”
The forty-something volunteer fighter and I could have been talking on the front lines of east Ukraine. But this time the self-declared Donetsk People’s Republic has come to me.
In St Petersburg, Russia’s window to the west and the city where I studied Russian close to a decade ago as a student, a new museum has opened up dedicated to Novorossiya, or New Russia, the tsarist-era term for the area of Ukraine that Catherine the Great won from the Ottomans and the Cossacks. Pro-Russia activists declared more than a year ago that the Novorossiya territory, which stretches from Odessa to Kharkiv, should be returned to Russia together with Crimea. Yet this goal has proved more elusive than some expected.
While Vladimir Putin himself was one of the first people to reintroduce the term Novorossiya to the Russian lexicon, using it in a speech last April, the president has since dropped the term from his vocabulary suggesting that Moscow has abandoned any plans to either annex east Ukraine’s Donbass or help it develop into a truly autonomous region.
Against a backdrop of western sanctions and a worsening Russian economy, most people have accepted the reality that east Ukraine will not be re-emerging as part of the Russian empire. But not everybody.
At St Petersburg’s newly christened Novorossiya Museum it is back down the rabbit hole with my two hosts: the Caribbean and a fellow volunteer fighter Sergei. Both were injured fighting in east Ukraine over the past year and are now temporarily back in Russia’s second capital. The Novorossiya Museum has become their go-to hang-out spot. “It’s not just a museum. It’s a meeting place for the rebels,” Sergei explains.
A grizzled firefighter who was born in Soviet Ukraine but grew up in Russia’s far north, Sergei reinvented himself as a rebel soldier last year. His friend the Caribbean is a self-described social activist from St Petersburg whose real name is Konstantin. The nom de guerre, he says, comes from the time he spent stationed on the Caribbean Sea for the Soviets in the 1980s.
Their list of grievances runs long. There are conspiracy theories about the US consumerist cult; the state department official who handed out cookies to Kiev protesters, embodying the witch from Hansel and Gretel; and about Britain, the master manipulator which for decades has used the US as a geopolitical “surgical tool”.
Some of the complaints are directed against the Baltic countries, which they say lived like royalty during the Soviet period, yet show nothing but ingratitude to their Moscow overlords. “They had marmalade in tubes, electronics, dairy products,” the Caribbean says. “They wanted freedom, but they lived like kings.” Now they are suffering for joining the EU, he claims. “They’re like Detroit. Or New Orleans after the hurricane.”
The two men’s wonderland has come to life in the Novorossiya Museum, proof that although Russian state television may have toned down its anti-Ukraine rhetoric, its visions are living on in the minds of many. Inside, exhibits detail the battles of the past year’s war. The most troublesome focuses on the enemy the rebels are fighting: the people of Kiev and west Ukraine, whom they confusingly claim are the same ethnic people as Russians, but also the ideological descendants of Nazi Germany.
The Caribbean conducts the tour. “Do I need to explain what this cross is? It’s an analogue of the iron fascist cross. We didn’t get this from the rebel side.” He moves on. “This is a fascist helmet!” he says pointing at a display case. “Is this a sign of peacefulness?”
Next to the fascist helmet are fascist suspenders and a package of soup with English lettering on it, proof that the Americans are providing extensive military help to the Ukrainian side, according to Sergei. Dressed in a green camouflage uniform and decked out in his Novorossiya medals, the fighter says he is planning to return to Donetsk for more military action as soon he receives the doctor’s blessing. “People do different things well. Some people can drive well. Some people are good at writing poems,” he posits. “Russians are good at fighting.”