Good Russians and where to find them
Translated by Iryna Kostyshyna, Natalka Onyshchenko
Edited by Natalka Onyshchenko
The West is currently trying to blame Putin for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. However, for this to be possible, Russian people should look at least a little better than their leader.
“This war is Putin’s war”, claims Olaf Scholtz, German chancellor, from a tribune in Bundestag. According to his speech, it is the Russian President but not his people who are responsible for the full-scale invasion resulting in the deaths of thousands of Ukrainian and zero Russian civilians.
Ben Judah, a British journalist, and researcher at The Atlantic Council has written a melancholy text dedicated to “the Russia we have lost” and his liberal Russian friends with whom he had frequented fancy Moscow bars. Today his friends are sending him panic messages saying Putin “has actually done it”. Judah has no doubts that Putin is the one solely responsible for the “loss” of Russia, that it is Putin who made his friends flee. The author has been comparing those liberal friends with contemporary Decembrists, who might have led Russia towards a democratic future — if only they had been lucky enough. Judah also recalls listening to Alexei Navalny during the protest at the Bolotnaya Square in Moscow and Navalny’s claims of how “Russia would be free”. Well, bad luck.
Meanwhile, the German PEN club stresses that even “often deceived and always poorly equipped Russian soldiers who die fighting for Putin’s power fantasies and paranoia” are likewise victims of the war. The Germans are no less concerned with calls for the cultural boycott of Russia, as such measures would hit not only the regime’s supporters but also those who “oppose Putin’s unscrupulous tyranny and this war”. All this, they think, will lead to the loss of humanity and the triumph of madness. They summarize this eruption of humanism with the quote of PEN club’s president Deniz Yücel: “The enemy is Putin, not Pushkin”.
These statements are not isolated. After the West overcame the initial shock of the biggest war in Europe since 1945 started by Russia, numerous voices from all the spheres possible – like politics, journalism, art, and science — have suddenly begun speaking in unison that the main culprit is Putin and not the Russian people, especially liberal activists, scientists, artists and, for some, even soldiers that were so cynically deceived that they cannot help but resort to war crimes.
Immersive installation, “The Road of Memory” museum at the Russian Armed Forces temple complex
However, the majority of the Russian people support the aggressive actions of their leader, no matter how Mr. Scholz would like to believe the opposite. According to a CNN poll held the day before the invasion, half of the Russian population supported military action against Ukraine to stop it from joining NATO. Only a quarter of the population was against the idea. Of course, the surveys organized by the Russian state show even more appalling figures.
Ukrainians having relatives in Russia could be all but surprised with these numbers. Any attempts to show the photos of bombed houses are met only with talks about “zombification” by NATO’s propaganda. This is the point where all the communication with the kinfolk usually comes to a halt. And in case you don’t have any family in Russia, you can just look up a #мненестыдно (I am not ashamed — translator) hashtag on Facebook and read why thousands of relatively young and progressive Russians, along with Putin’s speaker Dmitry Peskov, are not ashamed of their army killing Ukrainians. Unfortunately, this fact has not influenced the frequency of the customary Western mantra “it’s only Putin, not the people”.
Well, maybe then the Russian liberals, so dear to Ben Judah’s heart, have the slightest chance of doing better? Doubtfully. The British journalist states that his friends are even reluctant to call Putin by the name, using a “He” pronoun instead (yes, a capitalized “He”) and a “it” instead of calling a war a war. “He’s actually done it”.
A car race in support of the “Z” special operation
Even Navalny himself, though being vocally anti-war now, is much more concerned with the impoverishment of Russian citizens and the Instagram ban than with the fact that his country has been engaged in an act of military aggression and is committing war crimes. In the past, he broadcasted blueprint Russian propaganda narratives regarding Ukrainians and the sovereignty of their state. He has once notoriously compared Crimea to a sandwich that would never be given back. The opposition politician believes that Crimea should stay as a part of Russia and would never become Ukrainian again. He has also stated that even had he become a president instead of Putin, he “would not solve the Crimea question”. And finally, like Putin, Navalny believes Russians and Ukrainians are effectively one nation.
Despite these claims of fraternity, the Russian liberals are not that eager to rescue “brothers” from their fellow citizens. Russian anti-war protests have been neither mass nor vigorous. The protests in the Ukrainian city of Kherson, occupied by the Russian army, have gathered thousands of people, fearlessly heading to the streets while armed only with Ukrainian flags against the Russian tanks. Meanwhile, footage from Russia shows people participating in single pickets with blank sheets of paper. They don’t resist detainment. A video of a small crowd of protesters running in silence (shouting is forbidden) from a single policeman with a baton was enough for Ukrainians to understand that they should not expect Russian protests to exert even the slightest pressure on the Kremlin. Looks like the “discontent” part of Russia’s population is much more concerned with the Instagram ban and an imminent decrease of living standards within Russia than with the crimes perpetrated by their state.
Russians are much more likely to flee the country than to engage in any protests. Human rights activists from the “OVD-Info” organization tell that anti-war manifestations in roughly 60 cities across Russia on March 6th resulted in approximately 5,000 detained. In comparison, by March 7th more than 20,000 people have moved out from Russia to Georgia since the beginning of a full-scale invasion. The number of runaways looks disproportionate compared to the number of people ready to be put in a police car for their principles. Yet even this mass exodus began not right away after the invasion of Ukraine, but a few days later when it became obvious that the Russian economy would be hit heavily by sanctions and Vladimir Putin might impose martial law and total mobilization. Attack on Georgia, Russia’s war crimes in Syria, the annexation of Crimea and the war in Donbas — none of these have caused such a determination to leave the country and stop paying taxes.
Journalists and media previously considered “independent” and “democratic” by the West do not leave much room for hope either. The notorious Meduza, although having relocated its headquarters outside Russia, has not ceased to add a disclaimer about a “foreign agent” status even after having officially been banned in Russia. “Novaya Gazeta”, whose editor-in-chief has been recently awarded a Nobel prize for peace, in full accordance with the award has stated they would comply with the authorities’ decision installing censorship and has deleted the articles on the war in Ukraine from their website. At this point the State Duma might as well pass a bill obliging anyone to take off their shoes before writing an article — looks like all the oppositional journalists would obey it no matter if someone were watching or not.
Meanwhile, the existing Russian anti-war movement is not only weak but also mostly self-centered, rather than in search of a way to stop the war. At best, protesters utter a vague “no war” statement, as if we were dealing with some natural disaster. It may seem that the only aim of the protests is to avoid responsibility for the war crimes, not to stop them. You can hear that Putin is not equal to Russia and “we have not chosen him”. Yet curiously the number of calls to topple the current president is next to zero. This is likewise justified with a “There is nothing we can do” mantra.
This desire to absolve responsibility becomes even more visible outside Russia, where numerous charity foundations, hastily created by both famous and not-so-famous Russians are much more involved in proving they are “other”, “better” Russians than actually in gathering funds for Ukrainian refugees or humanitarian aid.
“A better kind” of Russians never stop at absolving themselves of responsibility. They often stress that they are victims of their political regime along with the denizens of Mariupol. It is hard for them too – they might be beaten by the police; they suffer from the sanctions. This is the reason for them to flee Russia even though the majority does that without even attempting to protest.
However, the urge for a quest to find “good Russians” is so great that many European bleeding hearts find this enough to equal “victims of Putin’s regime” to Ukrainian refugees fleeing from the shellings, bombings, murders, and rapes perpetrated by the “deceived” Russian military men. This urge also somehow justifies the discussions about the aid mechanism for the former alongside the latter.
Moreover, Western media have started publishing texts regarding the threat of “Russophobia” summoned by “Putin’s war”. Their messages are usually based on scattered evidence of “threats” received by Russians, as well as on statements of Russian embassies on the topic. There is nothing new about this: each aggressive move of the Kremlin had been followed by accusations of “Russophobia”. It happened many times before, during the annexation of Crimea, at the beginning of war in Donbas, and after the downing of the MH17 plane. Here it goes again. Interestingly, both the Kremlin, his critics, and those pretending to be “not involved in politics” are unanimous in their complaints about Russophobia.
Russian citizens, a mosaic at the Temple of Russian Armed Forces
Today everyone seems to be talking about the hate towards everything Russian, from outright bonkers Head of Roskosmos Dmitriy Rogozin to Yevgeniy Lebedev, a respectable and Westernized owner of The Evening Standard and The Independent (but also a son of the Russian oligarch/former KGB officer Alexander Lebedev). These voices are well heard by Western journalists and politicians. Who, if not the son of KGB apparatchik and oligarch, introduced to the House of Lords by Boris Johnson himself despite the warnings of his security service, should be speaking about the discrimination of Russians outside their homeland? And how can British journalists ignore his words if this “wretched” Russian owns their media outlets?
Western humanism is capable of reaching unbelievable heights as it allows for compassion not only to the Russian liberals whose protest was limited to a “no war” stance and an immediate escape from Russia but even towards Russian soldiers participating in the invasion of Ukraine. And while attempts to sympathize with Russian opposition and ordinary citizens are somewhat understandable, crocodile tears for people who easily confess to receiving and carrying out orders to hit civilian targets give an impression of trying to be holier than the Pope.
Considering calls for sympathy for Russian Kindersoldaten, staunch resistance to the isolation of Russia in culture, science, and sports is not surprising. It’s “above politics”, they say, “a bridge between countries”, “the war should not kill the culture, science, sports (pick yours)”. Some, such as the German PEN club, talk about the “loss of humanity”, some speak of cancel culture.
However, it gets harder for sympathizers of Russian culture, science, and sports to defend their point of view. Because representatives of this culture compare themselves to Jews in the 1940s and record songs about it. They also defiantly refuse to distance themselves from Putin’s politics. Rectors of Russian universities and students alike make collective appeals in support of the war while Russian athletes compete at international sports arenas with the letter “Z” depicted on their uniforms, demonstrating their approval of military aggression against Ukraine. Western intellectuals would love to separate art, sports, and science from politics when it is convenient for them but Russians simply do not leave them a chance.
Well, if contemporary Russian cultural figures do not meet the expectations, does it mean we should cancel the Russian cultural heritage altogether? Pushkin cannot be the enemy, right? Yes, fortunately, the greatest Russian poet will never take the AK and kill anyone. However, in his poem “To the Slanderers of Russia” one can undoubtedly come across the very ideas voiced a couple of centuries later by the Russian propagandist Vladimir Solovyov. Those ideas are the feeling of superiority towards the West and the call to engage in a war against it. Another iconic poet Joseph Brodsky’s poem “On the independence of Ukraine” would hardly spring to mind of a Western connoisseur of Russian culture. But it’s noteworthy. After all, not that many Nobel prize winners managed to produce such an imperial, chauvinist work, filled with contempt and hate towards people of a former colony, and remain a cult figure for a Western reader. I might be mistaken but I know only one. Not to mention the iconic in the West “Crime and Punishment” by Dostoyevsky, which, while probing the deep and mysterious Russian soul, showed very well that this soul can justify in its own eyes any crime, no matter how horrible and absurd. Here we mentioned only the most popular names in classic literature, known to almost everyone in the West, without going deep into the Russian subconscious.
Still, do we really need to cancel Russian culture? Of course not! It should be studied thoroughly to understand how Russia reached the point where most of its population yell in unison that they are not ashamed when their tanks crush those very same Ukrainians they were supposed to save from “the Nazi”. We should not substitute critical studies with exalted admiration paid by another Russian mini oligarch, and we should not cooperate with those ready to spread hatred under a thin veil of freedom of expression, pluralism of thought, or staying away from politics.
Can Russians be discriminated against just for being Russians? Never. However, if even in times of mass killings perpetrated by your compatriots you cannot condemn it and call a war a war, there’s no place for you among the civilized people. If a Russian organization did not condemn a war, it should be ostracized. If Russian citizens did not condemn a war, they should be ostracized. It is not Russophobia, it’s minimal responsibility.
Can we diminish the efforts of those Russian who dared to stand against the war and help to reduce the harm caused by the war? Absolutely not. But we still can’t consider these people heroes except in the cases when their life, health, or freedom were truly sacrificed. It’s normal to stand against injustice, especially when one’s life is not in danger. It’s normal to help those in need, especially knowing it’s your fellow citizens who caused the suffering. It’s worthy of approval, but enthusiastic admiration of such acts looks as appropriate as cheering a capable adult for being able to visit a bathroom and clean after themselves. If most Russians were able to do it, the world would not have to deal with their shit right now.
Can we blame the Russian people for everything? Well, not everything. But if Putin lies and issues criminal orders and most Russians gleefully support him and carry out the orders, it means responsibility should be placed not only on Putin. And not only on a soldier who pulls a trigger either. A journalist who easily shuts up when told so is responsible, too. Freedom and responsibility always go hand in hand. If you give up your freedom, you’re going to be responsible for the actions of the one you gave it to.