B.ombed-out Ukrainian cities and the corpses of children are not shown on Russian TV. Brave young people in Russia who protest against the war are being beaten up and arrested, while most people remain silent – there are no mass protests, no strikes. It hurts to see that many of my fellow citizens support the war against Ukraine: they put the Z on their windows at home and on their cars.
Russian television now repeatedly shows an interview with the famous actor Sergei Bodrov, a cult figure in Russia. “During a war one cannot speak poorly of one’s own,” he says. “Even if they’re wrong. Even if your country is wrong during the war, you shouldn’t talk poorly about it.” And that’s what people do, willing to support “their own” even if they are shooting at Ukrainians.
The modern world is separated from most Russians by a revolution, humankind’s most important: the transition from the supremacy of the collective consciousness to the priority of the individual. People identified with the tribe for thousands of years and were completely dependent on the pack leader – the chief, khan or tsar. Only in the last several centuries did a fundamentally different human social order begin to emerge, one in which the individual is free. Before the famous text that begins with the words “We the people” could be written, a new humanity had to emerge and it had to be aware of its human dignity.
This huge gap in civilization has not yet been bridged. This is the drama of my homeland: a small number of my compatriots are ready for life in a democratic society, but the overwhelming majority still bow before power and accept this patrimonial way of life.
If, over the course of generations, everyone who thinks for themselves is wiped out, the only qualities that will prevail will be silence and satisfaction with the authorities. But can you blame these people if that was their only survival strategy? Where do those who don’t remain silent end up today? They go to jail. Or they need to emigrate before it’s too late.
Two attempts to introduce a democratic social order in Russia have already failed. The first Russian democracy, of 1917, lasted only a few months. The second, in the 1990s, lasted a few years with great difficulty. Every time my country tries to build a democratic society by establishing elections, a parliament and a republic, it finds itself in a totalitarian empire.
Do a dictatorship and a dictator give birth to a slave population or does a slave population give birth to a dictatorship and a dictator? The chicken and the egg. How can this vicious circle be broken? How can a new Russia begin?
Hitler’s Germany found its way out of the vicious circle of dictatorship. Germans learned a lot about dealing with the past and coming to terms with guilt, and were able to build a democratically oriented society. However, the rebirth of their nation was predicated on total, crushing military defeat. Russia needs this zero hour, too. A new democratic start in Russia is impossible without paying a price and acknowledging national guilt.
There was no de-Stalinisation in Russia and there were no Nuremberg trials for the Communist party. Now Russia’s fate depends on de-Putinisation. Just as the “ignorant” German population was shown concentration camps in 1945, so “ignorant” Russians must be shown destroyed Ukrainian cities and the corpses of children. We Russians must openly and courageously acknowledge our guilt and ask for forgiveness.
The German writer Georg Büchner wrote this in a letter to his bride in 1834: “What is it that lies, murders, steals in us?” Only that question can accelerate this most important revolution of humankind in Russians: the realization that the responsibility lies not with your superiors, but with you.
Neither Nato nor the Ukrainians can de-Putinise Russia. We Russians must clean up our country ourselves. Are my people up to the task? After the war, the world will help Ukraine to rebuild. But Russia will be in economic ruins. The collapse of the empire will continue in full force. Other peoples and regions will follow the Chechens towards independence. The Russian Federation will disintegrate. But the centrifugal force of the peoples and regions in the world’s last empire can be purifying and rehabilitating as well as destructive. The Russian consciousness must learn to accept that there can be several states with Russian as the state language. The empire must be removed from minds and souls like a malignant tumour. Only then can new states push through reforms.
But can a democracy establish itself without a critical mass of citizens, without a mature civil society? “The beautiful Russia of the future” (this is Alexei Navalny’s motto) should begin with free elections. But who will carry them out, and according to what rules? The same tens of thousands of terrified teachers who carried out the rigging in the country’s Putinian elections? And can one be sure that in truly free Russian elections, the “national traitor” from the democratic opposition will win, and not the “patriot” who fought against the “Ukrainian fascists”? A population hoping for a benevolent tsar cannot be turned into responsible voters in an hour. And who will implement democratic reforms? Officials who have become tainted with corruption and crime under the Putin regime must not be allowed to build a new state. And they are all tainted.
The world is calling for a “Russian Nuremberg”. But who in Russia will organize and carry out these legal proceedings? Who will make this great reappraisal of the past? Who will uncover the crimes and punish the guilty? The criminals themselves? One can remove and replace Putin, but how can one suddenly replace millions of corrupt officials, mercenary police officers and compliant judges?
A long, painful rebirth is the only way forward for Russia. And all these sanctions, the poverty, and the international outcasting will not be the worst thing we encounter along the way. It will be more terrible when there is no inner rebirth for the Russian people. Putin is a symptom, not the disease.
Mikhail Shishkin is a novelist, and the only author to have won the Russian Booker, Russian National Bestseller and Big Book prizes
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism