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Elizabeth Kiem Headshot

Am I a Russian Chauvinist?

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I am forty-three years old. Five foot two. White. Anglo-Saxon. Protestant. Female. I write novels for teens. I write earnest advocacy about youth literacy, girl empowerment, child survival ... that kind of thing. I am indifferent to domestic politics, the mildest of news junkies, an erratic practitioner of yoga. Sometimes I lift weights. They are 7.5 pounds, tops.

Do I sound like a war-mongerer?

No. The answer is no, I don't. And no, I am not.

So why then do I keep finding myself on the wrong side of the Dnieper these days? Why am I - a Russophile more out of habit than conviction - strangely stirred by the footage of armored vehicles lumbering down the Don Highway and hanging a right at Rostov?

Maybe it's all theLyube I listened to in the 1990s. Maybe it's my retro taste for mid-century military - an aesthetic preference for tanks over drones. Maybe I saw a movie once about General Lopatin's boys pushing back the Panzers and retaking Taganrog. But I don't think so; I think it's just an I told you so - type of thing.

Because on March 2, when all the Sunday morning news shows wondered if Putin would brazenly grab Crimea, I jerked my chin in surprise, furrowed my brow and said to the TV: What? Crimea? How about Crimea and Zaporozhiya and Donetsk and Sverdlovsk, and Kharkov? How about all of Novorossiya?

Let me be clear. In the present conflict in eastern Ukraine I don't for a minute consider the Russians the good guys. I have no regard for the cooked-up Kremlin stories of Nazis menacing the simple folk of Slavyansk and Donetsk. On the contrary, I consider Putin's strategy a 21st century Anschluss. Hillary Clinton was clumsy when she said so last month, but she was not wrong.

Nor would I argue that Russia's opportunistic response to Euromaidan's brief window of opportunity was well executed. I am as nonplussed as the rest of the world by the brazen lies, the clownish provocations and the bravado of ignorant lunkheads who seize television stations and appoint, among other de facto authorities, a "supreme commander of the information front for Rus."

Rus - not Russia and not even "Novorossiya." This bit of chauvinism implies that eastern Ukraine is more than a coveted appendage; it is a vital organ. After all, before Mirgorod was the birthplace of Gogolian satire, before Lugansk was the birthplace of Valery Brumel, and before Zaporozhiya was the birthplace of the auto Sovieticus, Kiev itself was the birthplace of Rus.

My sympathies for Russia's covetous relationship to the disputed region do not go so far - to the utterly alien ninth century and Rurik and the birth of Christianity in Russia. This is how bloody ethnic wars are perpetrated, with single named forbears and allegiance to yellowed, mistranslated annals. But my sympathies do go somewhere. They travel along the Don Highway, a 1,500 kilometer-long artery that serves today as Moscow's long arm. The highway parallels Ukraine, yes. But it also marks the site of a human catastrophe - the spine of the Eastern Front, which strained beyond belief in WWII but didn't break.

The Ukrainian Prime Minister may have thought hyperbole would be effective when he said Russia was looking to start World War III; I rather think he was identifying a deep-seated desire to relive a moment of unequivocal national pride. There are so very few left to Russia.World War II - known to Russians as the Great War for the Fatherland - is one of them. That is why even Russian rockers-turned Buddhists use the imagery of the Eastern Front to argue that their countrymen are good, brave souls who have the grit to reject unjust wars. After all, they have fought the most just war in history.

I would like for the tanks on the Don Highway to turn around. But I know they will not. I would like for Moscow to embrace diplomacy. But I know it will not - certainly not during the first week of May, which is booked solid for chauvinism and militarism.

I would like to promise that I will not tune in to the Red Square parade on May 9, but I know that I will, shaking my head in wonder at the unrestrained propaganda and somewhere, in the back of my head, whistling Dva Tovarishcha: "the bullet whizzed by, my comrade fell, aga..." It comes from a 1968 war movie, a buddy movie, about the Soviet Army's seizure of Crimea in 1921.

Princeton's Stephen Cohen has been labeled an apologist for calling Ukraine Russia's "brass ring" and for arguing "any Russian leader who has legitimacy at home would have had to do some version of what Putin is now doing."

I have to agree with him. But I think perhaps my reasons for doing do not brand me an apologist. Worse, I fear they identify me as a romantic.

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