Bad medicine. Valery Panyushkin — on cruelty

10 February 2024

by Valery Panyushkin


The words paediatrician Nadezhda Buyanova said to the mother of her young patient, whose husband had died in the war, were fair but cruel. A soldier really is a legitimate target in a war and it really would be good to understand that but why say it to a widow? The insight won’t make things easier for her, or for her child. So why? 

What happened next – a report to the authorities, a criminal case against Buyanova,  a violent search of her flat  – was both unfair and cruel. In all honesty, no words, not even cruel ones, should entail either a criminal case or violence but it is hard to refrain from cruelty, particularly when that cruelty is encouraged by the authorities and the television. 

I am afraid that cruelty has become the norm. It is displayed by both the aggressor and the victim. By those who are in the right in this conflict and those who are to blame. Cruelty is a response to pain. I accept that there are people in the world who derive pleasure from cruelty but that’s not most people. Most people display cruelty because of pain.

I don’t understand ressentiment but I accept that many people in Russia feel pain because their country has ceased to be as great, as strong and as frightening as it used to be. In response to pain, people have displayed cruelty – the country’s leaders started the war but a substantial proportion of the population supported it. 

But this did not make the pain of ressentiment go away. Instead it is demanding greater and greater cruelty.

Cruelty is bad medicine. It seems that if one wreak vengeance, and, what’s more, do so as cruelly as possible, the pain will subside. No. The pain will still be there and it will demand more and more acts of cruelty.

When Russia invaded Ukraine, I felt pain. I wanted to wreak vengeance but I attempted to restrain those feelings. I don’t know to what extent I’ve succeeded but I do know that the pain would not have gone away. Cruelty would merely have spun in an endless vicious spiral, would have grown in me, would have summoned reciprocal cruelty from those I hate, would have demanded ever more cruelty.

And no, I’m not preaching non-violent resistance to evil. The soldiers attacking the country must, of course, be stopped by force of arms. But stopping them, killing them even, can be done without cruelty. Even killing when necessary can be done not with pleasure but with revulsion for the act itself.

I am not denying the Russian people’s collective responsibility for this war. I think the war can only abate, but not stop, until we recognise that, meaning to or not, we have had a hand in it. I didn’t start this war but nor could I have prevented it and I want to be forgiven. But I think that causing the aggressor pain (and even more so the widow and child of an involuntary soldier in the aggressor army) will not facilitate the recognition of collective responsibility. The people who have caused the pain should  not themselves suffer the same pain in response but should be horrified at the pain they have caused. 

Cruelty in response to pain — is a natural reaction but a problematic, harmful one

It is written in a certain Wise Book that it’s easy to love your friends but a person becomes what he is predestined to be when he begins to love his enemies. Well, if not love them, at least to pity them and to show mercy – as a start. 

Translated by Melanie Moore

Leave a Reply