Stop blaming the Russian soul

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In a recent interesting article by Times Literary Supplement, the Ukrainian novelist, essayist and poet Oksana Zabuzhko criticized Western readers for not recognizing Russian barbarism. Too many people, according to Zabuzhko, think that great Russian writers, like Fyodor Dostoyevsky, expressed European humanist values. They did not sufficiently deepen the Russian wild soul.

Zabuzhko believes that Russian literature represents “an ancient culture in which people breathe only underwater and have a banal hatred for those who have lungs instead of gills”. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine can only be understood through the prism of ‘Dostoevskyism’, defined as ‘an explosion of pure, distilled evil and long suppressed hatred and envy’.

This type of cultural analysis sounds rather old-fashioned. It was common to interpret the Third Reich as a disease of the German soul: “from Luther to Hitler”, according to the thesis, implying that Luther’s anti-Semitism sowed the seeds of Nazism some 350 years before the birth of Hitler. But few people today have such a crude view of German history.

Many applied similar ideas with even greater conviction in Japan in the 1940s. As Japan had no dictator like Hitler or a Nazi-like party, critics blamed the country’s culture for its 20th-century militarism . While the Germans could be taken from their murderous cult of racism to the European tradition of Mozart and Goethe, Japan was meant to be different. There, only massive rehabilitation could cure an ancient cultural disease linked to the samurai spirit and “feudalism”.

After World War II, the American occupation authorities banned symptoms of this so-called disease, such as Kabuki plays, sword fight dramas, and even images of sacred Mount Fuji. This angered many Japanese, but most were struggling enough to survive the harsh post-war years to push back against the bans, which were quickly lifted anyway.

Germany and Japan still have far-right groups strutting around in combat gear, but so do most Western democracies. Otherwise, it is difficult to find the slightest trace of the samurai spirit in today’s Japan or of racial barbarism in contemporary Germany. On the contrary, both countries are remarkably peaceful, with Germany being more welcoming to immigrants and refugees than most other European countries.

This does not mean that the cultural re-education worked. Rather, it suggests that the cultural analysis has always been wrong. After all, the Nazis read Goethe and also listened to Mozart. And Japan’s war in Asia wasn’t the result of watching too many sword fight dramas.

Even a cursory examination of world history shows that savage behavior and murderous regimes can occur anywhere. Some of the worst atrocities of the Thirty Years’ War in the 17th century were committed by Swedes.

Highly civilized people can turn into barbarians when demagogues and dictators exploit their fears and trigger their most atavistic instincts. Rape, torture and massacres often occur when soldiers invade foreign countries. Commanders sometimes actively encourage such behavior to terrorize an enemy into submission. And sometimes that happens when the officer corps loses control and discipline breaks down. The Japanese and the Germans know this, as do the Serbs, Koreans, Americans, Russians and many others.

It is true that some countries have a longer history of political oppression than others. The Russians were unlucky in this regard. You could say that powerful elements of the Russian Orthodox Church have been complicit in the oppressive regime, from the czars to President Vladimir Putin. But to claim that mismanagement by Putin (or Stalin, for that matter) is a natural and inevitable result of Russian culture is to fall into the same trap as the theorists “from Luther to Hitler.” As post-war Germany and Japan showed, nothing is inevitable and “national character” can change quickly.

Fetishizing Russian culture as the savage root of Putin’s aggression and brutal war in Ukraine is as dangerous as it is misguided. Canceling performances by Russian composers, excluding Russian artists and tennis players, or ranting against Russian literature plays into the hands of the Kremlin dictator.

No culture, let alone Russian culture, is monolithic. The European Enlightenment came close to Saint Petersburg, and many Russian writers, composers and artists sought inspiration in France, Germany and Great Britain. Then there is the Slavophile side of Russian culture, suspicious and resentful of the West, which has been the source of great romantic and spiritual art, as well as violent paranoia. Dostoyevsky’s novels are a mixture of the two.

Putin channels the paranoid tendency. He would like all Russians to feel that the arrogant, decadent and depraved West is there to dominate them and crush their proud spirit. It appeals to a persecution complex that is easily aroused but not uniquely Russian.

Nazi and Japanese World War II propaganda was steeped in self-pity. Putin’s version feeds on the traumatic memories of the terrible German invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941, and is also deeply personal. As a former KGB officer, he views the demise of the Soviet Union as an affront to everything he stood for. But, while he would be flattered by the idea, Putin does not represent Russian culture.

Viewing the war in Ukraine as a conflict not only with Putin’s regime but also with Russian culture, and treating all Russians as existential enemies, is a great gift for the Kremlin. This reinforces the persecution complex that Putin needs to keep the Russian people on his side. Moreover, it promotes the kind of attitudes that the Allies took in post-war Germany and Japan as markers of an essential and unchanging national character.

We must avoid making this mistake again. Instead, we should celebrate the masterpieces of Russian art, music, dance and literature, and reserve our condemnation for those, like Putin and his entourage, who poisoned the well who produced them.

—Project Syndicate

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