The Russian question

Originally appeared in Ukrainian

April 2, 2022

Yaroslav Hrytsak

As a historian of Ukraine, I have many contacts with Russian historians; like it or not, the histories of our two countries are interconnected. I also know many Austrian, American, Israeli, German, Polish, and other historians who study our history. Since the beginning of the war, they have been sending me letters, asking whether my family and my students are safe, and offering help to us.

Now guess how many of them are Russian historians.

Only two: a married couple that left Russia long before the war because they risked being classified as "foreign agents."

I have a friend who is a professor of theoretical physics. He's in the same boat: Since the beginning of the war, all his Russian colleagues who had been in touch with him left Russia long ago.

I understand that history is bound up with politics. And since war is the continuation of politics by other means, my Russian counterparts may consider me an enemy. But theoretical physics has no connection to politics!

So, it makes no difference what kind of Russians in Russia — historians or physicists — we are talking about; there is something in their culture that makes the majority of even the most highly educated among them, deaf to ordinary expressions of human solidarity.

In an interview with Ukraine's Channel 24, Victor Shenderovich, a Putin critic who saved himself by fleeing to Israel, urged people not to judge all Russians harshly because all of them are hostages, and it is not entirely correct to nurse grudges against hostages.

If this is true, then this applies only to a small part of the question. The main point is that Russians themselves voluntarily surrendered to Putin.

In the early 2000s, the Harvard historian Richard Pipes wrote an article tellingly entitled "Flight from Freedom," in which he stated that Putin's rise to power was not merely the result of the ruling elites' manipulations. In reality, Russian society itself very much wanted someone like him to lead Russia. Citing data gleaned from sociological research, Pipes showed that most Russians were ready to barter freedom for order, supported the restoration of censorship, felt strong animosity toward the West, and dreamed of mighty power. By the latter, they had in mind, above all, military power that would be respected and feared all over the world.

For Pipes, a historian of Russia, the Russian desire to flee from freedom is nothing new. It is déjà vu. Despite all the conversations about the mysterious Russian soul, Russia — Pipes claimed — is quite predictable. It is a country where mentality and behavior change very slowly — if they change at all — regardless of changes in the government. Pipes saw the main cause of this stability in a mixture of geography and history: Russia is a large country, an agglomeration of tens of thousands of villages weakly connected to each other, whose populations, until not so long ago, were serfs. Hence, Russia was not a society but, rather, a community with a low level of trust and solidarity.

Pipes was challenged by Alexander Yanov, another American historian of Russia. He became an American not by choice but by compulsion because in the 1970s, the KGB "exiled" him, a dissident, from the USSR. Yanov said that in the Russian past, alongside the authoritarian gene, there was another one present, a "European" one, when Russia was moving along the same route as the rest of the West. However, the Russian tragedy resided in the fact that each brief period of liberalization and democratization was followed by a longer and more difficult period of repressions and non-freedom.

Thus, after 25 years of Alexander I's liberal reign (1801–1825), Russia was ruled by Nicholas I for 30 years, popularly known as "Nikolai Palkin" — Nicholas the Cudgeler. The liberal reforms of Alexander II in the 1860s–1870s were followed by the suffocating reaction introduced by Alexander III and Nicholas II in the 1880s–1910s. The nine months of the liberal regime in 1917 led to nearly 40 years of Lenin and Stalin's totalitarianism. After "Khrushchev's Thaw" came Brezhnev's "frosts," and the reforms ushered in under Gorbachev and Yeltsin were followed by 22 years of the Putin regime.

Yanov began the countdown of these changes as far back as the reign of Ivan II (1462–1505) and reached a total of 11 such swings of the "Russian pendulum." But Yanov got tangled up in his predictions. He believed that a slide toward fascism would be impossible under Putin. Then he claimed that if this indeed happened, it would be after Putin, and the final swing of the pendulum would be the ultimate one.

Yanov died a week before the start of the Russo-Ukrainian War, and we will never learn what he might have said today. It is easier for me, a Ukrainian historian, to make a prediction. This prediction is comforting neither to the Russians nor the Ukrainians. No matter in which direction the Russian pendulum moves, the attitude of the majority of Russians to Ukraine remains more or less identical. Even during periods of liberalization in Russia, the Russian government's attitude to the Ukrainian question was not friendly, to put it mildly. It is worthwhile reminding readers that the Ukrainian language was officially banned twice (!) during the period of Alexander II's liberal reforms; that during the "Thaw," Khrushchev strove to "convince" the Ukrainians and Belarusians that the quicker they switched to the Russian language the quicker communism would be built; and that in his private conversations, Gorbachev said that Belarusians, Russians, and Ukrainians were one family and that Ukrainians do not want their children to study the Ukrainian language.

Russian oppositionists say that Russia's essence is not her "brainless leaders" but Bulgakov, Akhmatova, Mandelstam, and others. They will remain forever — and they are Russia. Maybe so. But that doesn't make it any easier for Ukrainians. For just as the Russian government was not particularly gracious to the Ukrainian question even during periods of liberalization, it is evident that the brightest minds had a Ukrainian complex.

Even though Bulgakov lived in Kyiv, he was known for his disdainful attitude to Ukrainians. He was not the first. In 1847 Vissarion Belinsky, the lord of the minds and hearts of the Russian liberal intelligentsia, wrote the following in connection with the punishment meted out to Taras Shevchenko:

"Shevchenko was sent as a soldier to the Caucasus [in fact, to the Kazakh steppes — Y.H.]. I am not sorry for him; if I had been his judge, I would have done no less. I have a personal animosity toward this kind of liberal."

He wrote even more harshly about a friend of Shevchenko's:

"One of the brutes of the khokhol [derogatory Russian term for Ukrainians — Trans.] liberals, one Kulish (what a swinish name), published a history of Little Russia in which he said that Little Russia should either separate from Russia or perish….  Oh, my, these khokhols! Sheep, after all, yet they play at liberalism in the name of halushky and varenyky with pork fat!"

And here is a poem by the Nobel Prize winner Joseph Brodsky written on the occasion of the proclamation of Ukraine's 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

[Trans. Sergey Armeyskov; Taras Shevchenko (1814–1861) and Alexander Pushkin (1799–1837), were the national poets of Ukraine and Russia, respectively]

I can just see the inhabitants of Mariupol, hiding in cellars and dying under Russian bombardment, citing the verses of Alexander Pushkin!

At the heart of this attitude toward Ukrainians is the feeling of "how beautiful and wonderful it is to be Russian!" Yanov's book is a real treasure trove of Russian quotations illustrating this attitude. Briefly, their essence may be summarized thus: Russia is not just another country. It is a country with a special mission: to save the world from the deadly influence of the rotten and aggressive West. Thus, everything in Russia is — or should be — great: both its territory and its military might. And even the language, according to one Russian liberal genius, should be "great and powerful." Neighboring nations that refuse to carry out this mission in alliance with the "great Russian people" are at best foolish children, who must be educated; at worst — scoundrels and traitors, who must be decimated, deported, etc. Both in the former and the latter case, these nations cannot be left to their own devices to figure out their happiness.

In the nineteenth century, the Poles were this kind of people. A classic example here is Dostoevsky's "Polish complex." The great writer, who urged people to love all those who are "humiliated and insulted," could not stand Poles, even those who were sentenced to hard labor along with him. Here is a fragment from the memoirs of one Polish convict:

"Dostoevsky hated Poles because he did not like either their looks or their names, alas! […] It was annoying and painful to hear how this writer, this champion of freedom and progress, admitted that he would be happy only if all of humanity were under Russia's power. He never said that Ukraine, Volyn, Podilia, Lithuania, and all of Poland are occupied countries; he only claimed that these occupied lands had always belonged to Russia."

After the First World War, when Poland became an independent state, the Poles' place was taken over by the Ukrainians. In the eyes of many Russians, "Ukrainian sedition" — the desire of Ukrainians to live their own separate life — is more intolerable than Polish treachery. After all, the Poles were Catholic and foreign, and they fought against the Russians, but Ukrainians were Orthodox brothers, who themselves had voluntarily joined Russia. Their desire to separate is a violation of all Divine laws and history!

In the Russians' eyes, this betrayal is not natural. By themselves, Ukrainians would never want to secede! The only explanation is that Ukrainian separatism is the fruit of the Austrian headquarters, "Judeo-Masons," Lenin, NATO, and the Washington oblast committee. Thus, a good Ukrainian (a "Little Russian") is by definition a Russian or wants to be one. The obverse is: A Ukrainian who wants national independence is a primitive nationalist or a Nazi, especially if his background is Jewish, like Volodymyr Zelensky. Even the card-carrying liberal Michael Ignatieff, who grew up in the West and generally has a friendly attitude to Ukrainians, admits that Ukrainian independence subconsciously evokes in him, a person of Russian culture, the image of an antisemitic peasant in an embroidered shirt.

Every liberal tradition has its stumbling blocks. For European liberals, including Ukrainians, this was mostly the Jewish question. For the Russian liberal tradition, Ukraine is that stumbling block. As an anonymous Ukrainian saying goes (no one knows who said this first), "Russian liberalism ends where the Ukrainian question begins."

There are exceptions, of course: Andrei Sakharov, Liudmila Ulitskaia, Boris Akunin, Lia Akhedzhakova, Boris Grebenshchikov, Aleksandr Nevzorov — I will limit myself here only to the most recognizable names. Moreover, we Ukrainians respect them: It takes a tremendous amount of courage to swim against the current! Nevertheless, we do not really expect that, after this current subsides, the anti-Ukrainian complex of Russian culture will disappear; old habits die hard. In the meantime, we are experiencing firsthand how the great Russian culture is followed by the great Russian boot.

That we have a faint hope does not mean that we have lost hope altogether. Irrespective of what Pipes wrote, nations can change their mentality and behavior. The Polish example is instructive here. At the turn of the nineteenth century, the division into a "good Ruthenian" and a "savage Ukrainian" also emerged there. It is no wonder that the years from 1914 to 1947 are filled with mutual Polish-Ukrainian hatred and massacres. But after the Second World War, Jerzy Giedroyc, the editor of the extraordinarily influential émigré journal Kultura (Paris), declared that, for the good of Poland, it was necessary to recognize that Vilnius is a Lithuanian city and Lviv — a Ukrainian city. This declaration did not come easily to him, and he was cursed by the patriotic Polish diaspora for making it. Nevertheless, the Giedroyc Doctrine became the foundation of the Eastern policy of Solidarity, the anti-communist Polish opposition that came to power in June 1989, the first to do so in the communist world. It is no surprise that democratic Poland was the first state that welcomed Ukrainian independence in 1991. Current Polish-Ukrainian relations are far from ideal. But no matter how they develop, it is impossible to imagine war breaking out between Poland and Ukraine at this time.

Theoretically, one might expect that Russian culture can survive the same kind of transformation as Polish culture. Nothing is impossible in history. But for this to happen, the Russian elite would have to do its "homework" and overcome its past.

Ukrainians, too, have some unfinished homework. It involves completing the reforms that would preclude mass corruption, stabilize democratic institutions, and lead Ukraine out of poverty. We assume and hope that the war will speed up the completion of this homework, because Ukraine's existence as a stable country depends on it. The example of the Marshall Plan shows that even for postwar Europe, with its longstanding traditions of democracy, it would be difficult to deal with this assignment alone without outside help.

Ukraine, too, deserves a Marshall Plan, and we hope that it will get one. But will the successful resolution of the Ukrainian question resolve the Russian question? Hardly. Even if Russia loses the war and Putin leaves office or dies, where is the guarantee that the Russian pendulum will not swing the other way again after the latest liberalization? As Pipes states, it is not Putin who enslaved the Russians — the Russians themselves voluntarily capitulated to him. As Yanov shows, every attempt to emancipate Russian society from authoritarian rule ended with society rejecting freedom for illusory stability or even more illusory greatness. As a result, Russia remains a society with a low level of social trust and social solidarity. If Russians do not trust even their own countrymen, why should they trust their neighbors?

Standing behind Russian megalomania is a deeply buried inferiority complex. Russians cannot comprehend how, after beating Napoleon and Hitler, they are worse off than the French or the Germans. Like in Aesop's fable "The Fox and the Grapes," the constant failure "to catch up and surpass the West" leads many of them to think that "the West is not for us. Russia is not a country but a distinct civilization, and that is why 'Western rules' are not written for us." Thus, many Russians are ready to endure incredible suffering or inflict it on their neighbors, simply in order to prove their greatness to the world.

Despite all the talk about the enigmatic Russian soul, the truth is quite simple. Russians can fight well (although today's war has even cast great doubt on this). They were able to achieve short-term economic breakthroughs during the periods of late imperial or Stalinist modernization. But they never succeeded in implementing political modernization, that is, restricting the central government, separating church from state and state from church, creating independent courts, guaranteeing the rights of the opposition, and defending citizens from the selective and daily violence of the security service and the police. But without political modernization, it is impossible to unshackle the nation's creative forces and steer them toward the development of their own country instead of spreading chaos and anarchy around themselves.

We live in a modern world. Unlike our distant ancestors, when we get sick, we don't go to a fortune teller but to a doctor; we don't work in the fields from morning until evening but in factories or offices; we live longer, eat nutritiously, etc. All this is the result of modernization. But modernization has two wings: economic and political. You won't fly long on one wing, the economic one. Every attempt at such a flight will end in a peak and a crash. Citing the example of China will not help. First of all, from the historical perspective, Chinese authoritarian modernization has been in play for too short a time for us to judge its results. Second, China, along with other Asian tigers, follows the Confucian ethos. And this ethos implies automatic obedience to one's elder, whether an older brother, a father or a ruler. That is why the authoritarian scenario has better chances in China. Russian culture is not Confucian. It is Orthodox and, like it or not, European. Figuratively speaking, there is also a European gene in the Russian chromosome. Thus, Russians should also conduct themselves like the rest of the Europeans; in other words, they should learn how to fly with two wings.

The starting condition of modernization is building a plane. Nations are that plane. Empires, as history shows, fly badly; they are not up to the challenge of modernization and ultimately collapse. In other words, if you want to live longer, with a fuller stomach, with dignity, and more tranquilly, become a nation. Bottom line: this is the essence of the national question.

In the modern era, Europe had several large, unresolved national questions: German, Polish, Jewish, Ukrainian, and Russian. To one degree or another, each of them defined the contours of European and even global politics. Resolving the first three cost immense losses; unfortunately, there are few happy chapters in the textbook of history! Ultimately, however, these questions were resolved. The Ukrainian and Russian questions were not. The Ukrainian question is close to being resolved, and the resistance that Ukraine is putting up to Russian aggression is proof of this: Ukrainians do not want illusory greatness — they want a normal life in peace and freedom.

Russia's future is still open to question. I think that the Russian question must be resolved as a mirror image of Putin's plans for Ukraine. He claims that Ukraine must be denazified. Well, we will have to derussify Russia, that is, force it to repudiate its ambitions of becoming a "Greater Russia" and become a normal Russia. He seeks the demilitarization of Ukraine, but that's precisely what needs to be done with Russia, especially establishing international control over its "nuclear button." Putin is demanding that Ukraine become a neutral state, but in fact, it is Russia that should become a neutral state. He wants Ukraine to become federal. Well, we need to make sure that Russia truly becomes a federal state, not on paper but in fact.

There is a certain profound irony. As much as Russia regularly and intensely shows that it does not love the West, many Western politicians and intellectuals are besotted with Russia. The reason is often the fact that in their youth, they read Dostoevsky, listened to Tchaikovsky, or saw a Malevich painting. Love is blind, of course, and love for the great Russian culture is no exception. However, they have a serious problem with spotting the toxic gene in this culture. You need a Ukrainian or a Pole to open their eyes to this. But who in the West was ready to listen to these annoying Ukrainian and Polish nationalists?!

It would appear that the present war has opened their eyes, but not everyone's and not entirely. We will no longer find people who once urged us "to understand Putin." But a new slogan has appeared: "Understand Russia."

If those who are urging us right now to understand Russia, who truly want to understand her, they should not be satisfied by a superficial glance. They must look at the root of the Russian problem. In other words, they have to look at her globally and historically, and propose strategic, not tactical, solutions. Otherwise, they will do Russia a disservice, and at the same time, they will create new threats for her neighbors, for Europe, and for the whole world.

Read an abridged English-language translation in Time magazine.

Translated from the Ukrainian by Marta D. Olynyk