26 April 2022
by Leonid Gozman, written specially for Novaya gazeta. Europe
I’ll try to manage this without getting upset and swearing. It isn’t even about Ukraine; it’s about us and what our country once was.
Our country has been destroyed. The one we loved, well aware of all its problems, its weaknesses, the crimes it committed and that were committed in its name, but which we loved all the same, is no more and will never exist again. It will be something different.
In a matter of days, the authorities destroyed everything that we have created over three decades, everything that gave us a chance to make reality the obvious fact that, to quote Catherine the Great, “Russia is essentially a European power”. Overnight, they undid the good work and dashed the hopes of those who had built a new country on the ruins left in the wake of the Communists. Of course, this isn’t just about political institutions and communication with the world. There is symbolic meaning, say, in the closure of the third runway at Sheremetyevo, which was built by real people who poured their effort and energy into it, and which is now redundant. There is nowhere to fly.
But it is not only the results of efforts put in over the past thirty years that have been destroyed. With its crazy policy, the government has wiped out all that was good in our history.
After Bucha and Mariupol, references to Pushkin and Tolstoy no longer sit well, just as references to Goethe lost all meaning after Auschwitz. They have all but wiped out the Russian language and Russian science, the Victory, and the flight of Gagarin. Everything about us now is synonymous with this nightmare that we are forbidden to call a war.
There is no place for us now where Russia once was – even if we are physically still there.
However the military action plays out, I do not believe this regime to have a future. Its external – and indeed internal – policies go against not only the interests of the country as a whole, but those of the most marginally significant socio-demographic groups. And most of them are aware of this.
The people who show their support with a gusty ‘Hooray!’ are either the most ignorant among us, who simply aren’t able to grasp the consequences of what is happening, or they are really desperate. Between economic decline, the exodus from the country of educated workers, the degeneration of all institutions, moral stalemate, and a non-existent future that is being replaced by a reconstructed past, the system doesn’t stand a chance.
Of course, it might turn into an overt military dictatorship, with rationing and labour camps. But given that resources are running out and even a land as enormous as ours cannot sustain a subsistence economy, well, that would not last long. Although they might end up killing a lot of people.
It is more likely, if there is no nuclear war, that after a series of unpredictable crises and upheavals in Russia, several new state formations will be formed with different political structures and different relationships both to each other and the wider world. The empire created by Peter the Great will disappear. There is no longer any potential to maintain its integrity — military strength, mutually understanding the benefits of a common life, identification with “the whole”. I am not calling for this. This process will likely be accompanied by upheavals and bloodshed – I just think it is probable.
So what will happen to us? Our psychological survival matters, not only for us and our loved ones.
When all this is over, and we need to build a new country (or countries) on the ruins of Russia, what this will look like depends largely on us, on how we survive today’s tragedy.
A creator must be healthy, active and optimistic, otherwise they will not create anything good.
You can react to what is happening in a variety of ways.
You can leave your country behind, and try to forget it. Dive into the problems of adapting (especially now there are restrictions for all those with Russian passports, regardless of their attitude towards the regime). You can stop speaking Russian to your children, and rejoice in the fact that, finally, you escaped. Everyone would be well within their rights to do this, of course.
You can slump into a depression and indulge all your gloomiest thoughts, scroll through the nightmarish news constantly. Some can afford to do this – if you don’t have to go to work every day and collect your children from school. This is a poor choice, pragmatically and existentially speaking. We must live and preserve, save our immortal soul, as a believer might say.
The “right” way to act and the “right” way to feel, do not exist for most of us. If you sympathize with them, then you’re not sympathizing enough. If you live your normal life, then how do you feel when they are bombed? It will no longer be possible for people like us to live well, we must realize and accept this. But depression must be resisted, not to go completely into the darkness. I understand that my words may cause some protest, that someone may consider them an insult, but I am sure that it is necessary, for example, to celebrate birthdays and not discuss the war exclusively. It must be remembered – always! But don’t only talk about the war. We must go to the theater and read books, walk and enjoy nature. You need to keep, if possible, habits that give you pleasure – running in the morning or watching a series in the evenings. And yes – remember the war! Even in Treblinka, performances were staged and weddings were held. The victims of Mariupol and Bucha will not be resurrected if you give up your life. On the contrary, you will weaken and will never be able to help anyone again – neither those who will be under attack tomorrow, nor your loved ones, nor yourself.
It is psychologically easier to survive for those who continue to struggle. Although for those who do this in Russia, objectively, it is much more dangerous. Psychological death is the loss of a sense of meaning. And the meaning is always outside of oneself – in others, in creativity, in the mission. They have all this, God give them strength.
But a person is either inclined to fight and capable of it, taking risks for the sake of a lofty goal, or not. It is not something someone can be persuaded to do. To reproach someone for not making the same self-sacrifice that someone else does pointless, even immoral. The choice to risk to life and freedom is a personal matter. One can make such a demand of oneself, but never of others. The most we can do is lead by example.
But there is also mental, internal resistance.
The authors of our apocalypse need us not just to submit to power – their power. They need us to admit that they are right, to identify with them. The suffering of the hero in 1984 ended not when he betrayed his girlfriend, but when he fell in love – sincerely fell in love! – with Big Brother.
And it’s not such an unrealistic task. Many would like to join with, and rely on, those who are strong. Hannah Arendt wrote that when Hitler came to power, people like her were horrified not by the behaviour of the Nazis – what, in fact, could one expect from criminals? – but by the attempts of many German intellectuals to find the ‘truth’ in what the Nazis were saying. After all, they argued, if people were supporting the Nazis, then this truth must exist. And some found it!
So remember, under no circumstances should that be done. Do not search for truth in what they do and say. There is none. There is malice, lies, cynicism, there is brute unthinking force and the absence of any self-imposed limitations. And do not give up what Frankl defined as the final freedom, the freedom of having one’s own perceptions about events that are happening. Mandelshtam, in a similar situation to ours, wrote, “I will not be silent, / I will not muffle the pain, / But I will write, what I am free to write!”
And as long as you preserve the ability to see the world as it is – good as good and evil as evil – you preserve yourself, you remain one of those bastions that they fail to take and which makes inevitable their defeat and our victory.