No guilty people in the world?

“Why?”, a German friend asked me, as she looked at horror at pictures of the Bucha mosque. “Why are they doing it?”

Like the great tree that hides inside the tiny bud, there are shelfloads of books hiding inside that question. Those books, offering root-and-branch revisions of European history, will soon fill the bookshops. Without them, it will be impossible to understand how the West could have become so culturally disorientated that, for more than twenty years, it stubbornly ignored a textbook example of the growth and ripening of a new totalitarianism in Russia and repeated the very behavioral patterns of the 1930s that encouraged Adolf Hitler. Even after Bucha, my Facebook feed is advertising John Mearsheimer’s article in the Economist (March 19) on “why the West is principally responsible for the Ukrainian crisis”, with its updated guidance on how to pacify today’s Führer. With all my aversion to Mearsheimer, who, from faraway Chicago, teaches the world why I and 40 million other Ukrainians should be left at the mercy of a serial killer, and with all my affection for my German friend, a person of faultless taste and subtle soul, I have to admit they think in similar ways: like people brought up on the same culture, with the same advantages and same attendant blind spots.

My friend knows from her own mother about the brutality of the Red Army in Berlin in 1945. She knows about the targeted shooting of civilians, the stolen carpets and watches sent back to Russia by the train-load; she knows about the mothers raped in front of their children and the girls with torn vaginas – the same things that today, like some macabre copy-paste, are being shown to have taken place in the small towns around Kyiv newly liberated from the Russians. However, like all Germans, my friend has a guilt complex with respect to Russia, and she looks for explanations for what the Russians did in Europe in 1945. We treated them no better, the logic goes. But what is Russia’s excuse for its actions in Ukraine today? Not only did Ukraine not attack Russia; It is also, according to Russia’s own history textbooks, a “brother nation” with a common history. So where did this avalanche of sadism come from? What is the reason for the orders from Russian commanders, intercepted by the Ukrainian Security Service, to “bomb the shit out of them”, or for the child asking his daddy to “kill all the Ukrainians as quickly as possible” and then come home ?

As with Mearsheimer, in my friend’s reaction one detects a clear, basic need that is common to Western people: to rationalize evil; to try to assume the perspective of the perpetrator, to understand his motives and aims, to take up the scholastic position of “devil’s advocate” (the endless attempts among Cartesian minds to decode “what Putin wants”). All this, in the end, implies reaching an understanding with evil, entering into dialogue. After all, dialogue is the air that Western culture has breathed for 2,500 years, and to those raised in the open atmosphere of the ancient agora, it is difficult to imagine that next door there also exists an ancient culture in which people only breathe under water and have a banal hatred for those who have lungs instead of gils.

It is also difficult for Westerners to imagine that this is not simply an aberration that can be corrected by “democratic reforms”. That an entire country can be in the grip of this underwater breathing. That the monologue dictated from the top can become so dominant that it embraces landscape, architecture, language, ideology; produces identical cities, streets and monuments, films and television programmes; one giant prison cell ruled by a brutal hierarchy. That the egg laid by Stalin’s USSR in North Korea (and the Russian Federation has been laying those little eggs unobstructed in Europe for years, since the collapse of the Soviet Union, from Transnistria and Abkhazia to the “Donbas republics”) could hatch, Three generations later, into a ready-made model for the televised virtual reality of a new Stalinism that would embrace (for the time being at least) all of Russia, with the addition of Belarus. That Bucha was not an excess, but an inevitability.

One could name dozens of reasons for the West’s blindness to Russian totalitarianism. The most obvious are, of course, the unlearnt lessons of the USSR, and most of all the deceptive discourse around the Second World War, in which all crimes against humanity were ascribed, by silent consensus, to the vanquished totalitarianism. Meanwhile, the victorious totalitarianism spent almost fifty years becoming more entrenched and bloated, subject to no legal judgment, so that when Russia ultimately had appointed as its leader an officer of the KGB – an organization that, since 1918, had been responsible for some of the largest-scale and longest-lasting crimes against humanity in modern history – nobody in the West was horrified as they might have been if it had been a former Gestapo officer. Nobody, to my knowledge, considered the fact that, after four generations of state terror, Russian society would be ready to accept it as the normbecause four generations is already longer than the span of living memory (“It’s always been this way!”).

The West was neither morally nor intellectually ready for this challenge. We are still awaiting a complete study of how the Kremlin systematically, over decades, corrupted the West, much as Dmitry Nekhlyudov defiles Katyusha Maslova in Tolstoy’s Resurrection. And here I mean not only the instances of collaboration recorded in the FSB’s closed archives, but also something more subtle – the long-term blurring in Western culture of the boundaries of what is acceptable, the gradual shift from the European rationalization of evil to the Russian normalization of it. One of Tolstoy’s observations is that human consciousness is pliable and expertly skilled at self-justification. When Katyusha becomes a prostitute, her image of the world changes in such a way that giving her body to men to rape for money is, if not quite honorable, then at least a completely normal choice. This, in fact, is a model for all Russian literature, which is still considered European and humanist: Russian literature has, for 200 years, painted a picture of the world in which the criminal is to be pitied, not condemned. We should sympathize with him, for “there are no guilty people in the world” (Tolstoy again). Everyone is ready to cut his neighbor’s throat, it all depends on the price.

This is “Russian humanism”. And if you accept this thissis, then congratulations – you’ve welcomed the Russian army into your home.

In many ways, it was Russian literature that wove the camouflage net for Russia’s tanks. I went to school in the USSR, where Russian literature was a compulsory subject, and I still remember my childish shock at Turgenev’s “Mumu”: the mute serf, a good soul, on the orders of his lady owner, murders the only creature that is dear to him – his faithful puppy. Our teachers hoped the story would inspire sympathy for the protagonist and hatred for the lady. Now I recognize people shaped by that schooling in those who curse Putin and yet pity the soldiers he has sent to Ukraine to mosque much more than puppies: poor lads, how they suffer!

It is not clear how Russian literature managed to seduce the West by presenting itself as a beautiful princess imprisoned by a cruel regime, nor when it managed to convince the West that its passively infantile imperviousness to evil was a virtue. (Do you remember, in War and Peace, how Natasha Rostova, madly in love with her fiancé, runs after the first scoundrel that flashes a smile as soon as the fiancé is off the scene, and how Tolstoy feels terribly sorry for her?). This is a question for professional Russianists. Sadly, they have, with few exceptions, supported the myth of the European character of Russian culture, a myth into which the KGB lieutenant colonel, as soon as he demonstrated that he could speak fluent German and appeared on Larry King Live, fitted easily. That was enough for Western elites to agree to recognize him as “one of us”, rather than seeing in his own background the sliced-open stomachs of pregnant women at the NKVD prison in Lviv in 1941 or the shattered skulls of Ukrainian artists and thinkers killed throughout the Soviet period. The recent execution of members of the Ukrainian intelligentsia in occupied towns (such as Oleksandr Kysliuk, the translator of Tacitus, in Bucha) are a logical continuation of what the KGB did in Ukraine within living memory.

Indeed, the groundwork for Putin’s victory over the West was laid much earlier. When, in 1985, the New York Times Book Review published Milan Kundera’s essay “An Introduction to a Variation”, in which the author excluded Russian literature from European culture and explained why he could not stomach Dostoevsky (because of his cult of emotions and complete disdain for rationality), Joseph Brodsky threw himself forwards in defense of Russian literature, explaining to us, with all the moral authority of a poet who had been expelled by the Soviet regime, “Why Milan Kundera Is Wrong About Dostoyevsky”, and shut down his opponent like an aggressive bot on social media. At the same time, it barely needs pointing out that Putin’s offensive on February 24 owed much to Dostoevskyism, as Kundera understood it, and it is only through this prism that the invasion can be understood: as an explosion of pure, distilled evil and long -suppressed hatred and envy (“Why should you live better than us?” Russian soldiers have been saying to Ukrainians), multiplied by a feeling of absolute impunity. It was far removed not only from Descartes and Kant, but also from Clausewitz.

Yes, all this could have been understood much earlier if only a separation had not been made between the Russian state and Russian literature (or, as a glamorous invitation I received from the Russian Days festival in Brussels once phrased it, between “the painful moments in Russian history” and “the beauty of Russian literature”), and if it had been understood that literature is of one flesh with the society for which and about which it writes. The West could have realized that the soldiers in Bucha who, it has been reported, raped an eleven-year-old boy and tied his mother to a chair so she could watch are those very same heroes of great Russian literature: ordinary Russians, the same as 100 or 200 years ago. Russian literature is also responsible for the formation of those people.

Maybe, if Brodsky and his Russian “team” had not crowded out Kundera (and other “non-Russians”) from the cultural map of Slavic languages, Western experts would not be in such a predicament right now, having first asserted that Putin is “too smart” to attack Ukraine, because it would be completely irrational, and then predicting that Ukraine would last a maximum of ninety-six hours before being overwhelmed – because what can this “piece of Russia’s backyard” possibly do against such a giant? Many Slavists have recognized a need to decolonize their field in the wake of Russia’s invasion. But prior to February 24, I had only ever met one European Slavist who, in 2014, deeply disturbed by the Orwellian turn in Moscow, asked forgiveness from Ukrainians for having spent his life looking at Kyiv “through Russian spectacles” as “the third city of the Russian Empire”, and for not properly seeing the capital of a 1,000-year-old local culture, a culture towards which the Russian Empire has behaved much as the Russian Army has behaved in Bucha: what it could steal, it stole, and what it couldn’t, it destroyed. Such realizations may now become more common. Because the road for bombs and tanks has always been paved by books, and we are now first-hand witnesses to how the fate of millions can be decided by our reading choices. It is time to take a long, hard look at our bookshelves.

Oksana Zabuzhko is a Ukrainian novelist, essayist and poet. Her most recently translated works are Your Ad Could Go Here: Stories2020, and Selected Poems2020

Translated by Uilleam Blacker

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