Russia’s Problems Go Far Beyond Putin
Because our history is interlinked, it’s not surprising that I am Ukrainian historian. I am also acquainted with many American, Israeli, German and Polish historians. Since the outbreak of the war they have written me to inquire about the safety and well-being of my family members and students and offer their assistance.
Guess what? Many of the people who reached me were Russian.
In fact, only two—a married couple, who left Russia long before the war began as they faced the threat of being termed “agents of foreign influence.”
My friend is a professor at theoretical physics. He experienced the exact same fate: Since the start of war, his only Russian friends who reached out were those from outside Russia.
It is all about politics. Because war is simply a continuation or other forms of politics, Russian historians might regard me as an enemy. But theoretical Physics is not related to politics.
There is something in Russian culture today making most Russians—even highly educated people—incapable of simple manifestations of human solidarity.
Viktor Shenderovich (a Russian critic of Putin) spoke out on Ukrainian TV to urge us to not judge Russians harshly as they are only hostages. You can’t blame hostages.
It is possible that this statement is partially true. Truth is, the Russians surrendered to their captors and took them hostage voluntarily. Before Putin came to power in 2000, opinion polls in Russia showed that most Russians were ready to trade freedom for order, were openly hostile to the West, and dreamed of a strong hand—primarily of a military force that would be respected and feared by the world.
Also, the collective Putin is the Russian people behind Vladimir Putin. Moreover, Putin is not just collective—he is repetitive. Russia has seen many periods of liberalization over the last two centuries. Every one of these period was immediately followed by another of oppression. It suffices to mention that Putin was elected after Yeltsin and Gorbachev’s reforms.
This phenomenon is called the Russian pendulum by historians. Russia has never been able to create a society made up of citizens because of its swings. Russians have remained largely an isolated group of people with limited trust in their government and little solidarity. Why should Russians show solidarity when they have none in relation to their neighbours?
Continue reading: How Ukraine can win the war
Ukrainians’ past and present give them a special insight into Russian history. The Russian authorities view on the Ukrainian problem was hostile even during democratic periods. Alexander II’s liberal reforms made it illegal to speak Ukrainian. Gorbachev stated that Ukrainians did not wish to teach Ukrainian language to their children.
Russian oppositionists believe that the essence of Russia does not lie in its “brainless leaders” but in Bulgakov, Akhmatova, Mandelshtam, Brodsky and other geniuses of Russian culture. They are Russia’s true Russia, in that their legacy will last forever.
This might be the case. It’s just that it doesn’t make much of a difference for Ukrainians, not then and especially not today. Many of Russia’s brightest minds seem to suffer from a Ukrainian complex as well.
Examples abound. Here is the most recent one: a poem by Joseph Brodsky, the Nobel Prize winner, written on the occasion of Ukraine’s declaration of independence in 1991:
God rest ye merry [Ukrainian]Cossacks, Hetmans and Gulag Guards
But mark: when it’s your turn to be dragged to graveyards,
You’ll whisper and wheeze, your deathbed mattress a-pushing,
Not Shevchenko’s bullshit but poetry lines from Pushkin
(translated by Sergey Armeyskov; Taras Shevchenko (1814 – 1861) and Aleksandr Pushkin (1799 – 1837), were, respectively, the greatest Ukrainian and Russian national poets)
It is so clear to me that I can see Mariupol’s inhabitants whispering Pushkin lines while they are being bombarded by Russia!
After the liberation of Bucha from the Russian Army in Ukraine in April 2022, a photo depicts the destruction that took place in the Bucha area.
Wolfgang Schwan-Anadolu Agency
At the heart of this attitude towards Ukrainians is the sense of “how wonderful it is to be Russian.” In the minds of many Russians, Russia is not just another country. It is a country with a great mission—namely, to save the world from the corrupting influence of the spoiled West. For this reason, all things Russian must be great: its territory, its army, even its language has to be (as one Russian genius put it) “great and mighty.” Neighboring nations who reject this great mission are, at best, silly children in need of education, at worst, scoundrels and traitors who must be decimated, deported, and so on. It is impossible for them to make their own decisions about their own happiness in either of these cases.
The inferiority complex is a hidden component of Russian megalomania. Russians can’t understand how they live worse than French and Germans after defeating Hitler and Napoleon. Similar to Aesop’s fable of the fox and the grapes, the constant failure to “catch up and overtake the West” pushes many to conclude that “the West” is not for them. Russia is no country, but a separate Civilization, to which “Western rules” do not therefore apply. Accordingly, many Russians are prepared to suffer privations themselves or inflict equal suffering on their neighbors, if it proves Russia’s greatness to the world.
Learn More: Ukrainians Blame Russians For the Invasion
Despite all the talk about the mysterious Russian soul the truth is very simple. Russians have the ability to fight, even though their war is putting that into serious doubt. Their short-term economic success may have been due to Stalinist and late Imperial modernization. They never achieved a political revolution, which would have meant that they could limit central power and create separate churches and states, independent courts, provide safeguards for citizens, and protect them from violence.
This isn’t a unique Russian problem. This is not unlike the Russian, Polish and Jewish issues. Each of these problems were solved with many bloody wars and great suffering. These nations were able to form their own functional democracies and have relative economic success. Now it is the Ukrainians’ turn. After thirty years of wandering in circles, exhausted by the corruption of their elites, they’re as close as they’ve ever been to completing the political modernization of their country. They do not wish to be part of a passive community with delusions of grandeur—they are fighting for their right to live in a normal society.
Just that it is so, the Marshall Plan case shows us, postwar Europe with its democratic tradition had difficulty coping with its problems. No country can “do their homework” without external assistance.
Ukraine also deserves a Marshall Plan and, hopefully, will get one. However, will the Ukrainian issue be resolved by a similar success? Even once Russia loses a war, and Putin steps down or dies, what’s to stop the Russian pendulum from swinging the other way again, following another liberalization.
In my humble opinion, the Russian question can be resolved by mirroring Putin’s plans toward Ukraine. He demanded “denazification” of Ukraine—well, Russia will have to undergo “de-Russification.” That is, it must abandon its ambitions of becoming a “Greater Russia” and become a normal country. Russia needs to follow the example of Ukraine: it must hold political reforms. This will ensure that no Putin, whether individual, collective or repetitive, can be achieved. Russia would have to do this by itself—but with outside support, or even outside supervision, in exchange for the lifting of sanctions.
When those calling for Russia’s understanding should not only look at superficial impressions, but also consider the implications. Russian history is deeply intertwined with the present. It requires strategic and not tactical solutions. We risk doing great damage to Russia, its neighbours, and the whole world.
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