Aleksandr Podrabinek: On lessons of the ‘Russian World’ – and the law of violence

16 March 2022

by Aleksandr Podrabinek

 Source: Radio Svoboda

When the cannons are rumbling, it’s no time to worry about the arts. When apartment houses are being bombed, it’s too late to discuss the struggle for peace. There’s a time for everything, and feeling bad won’t help matters. But it’s never too late to think about what was done wrong.

The lion’s share of responsibility for the aggression against Ukraine rests, naturally, on Russian society, which through its political passivity and indifference to its own freedom and its own security has brought the country to a point where the regime can do whatever it wants with impunity. How we got here and why we didn’t offer the proper resistance to Vladimir Putin’s authoritarian dictatorship is a separate question. Someday we will have to explain this to ourselves, that is, if we decide we want to live in a normal civilized state.

Today, though, Russia is not living behind an iron curtain, in an information vacuum, or in economic isolation. The country is connected to the outside world by thousands of threads. This is especially obvious now that the threads are breaking, summoning up chaos in Russia in virtually every sphere of life, from finance to culture. Russian statehood is, in fact, a subject of concern not only for Russian society but for the outside world as well. Because there cannot be cooperation without responsibility. There cannot be mutual benefit without shared rules. Good relations cannot be established with just anyone. This is fair when it comes to both each individual person and each state.

Yes, we often shut our eyes to other people’s sins, are condescending toward other people’s weaknesses, and continue to support friendly relations in the hope of something better. But sometimes this ends with a scandalous rupture, or even genuine calamity. Taught by bitter experience, we become more cautious in our personal interactions. But when something like this happens between entire countries, then this isn’t just a calamity, it’s a catastrophe.

This is exactly the kind of catastrophe we’re seeing today. For more than 20 years, the West has been shutting its eyes to the outrages going on in Russia. In 1996, the Council of Europe accepted Russia ‘on account,’ shutting its eyes to the disparity between Russian human rights practices and European standards. The violations began right away. The death penalty was not excised from the Criminal Code, Protocol No. 6 repealing the death penalty in peacetime was not ratified, and the law on a moratorium has not passed to this day. Russian troops were not withdrawn from Transnistria. Russia’s membership in the Council of Europe should have been stopped back then, rather than being allowed to continue blithely for a quarter of a century.

Now that the Russian army is rampaging in Ukraine, Western countries have finally imposed truly effective sanctions on Russia. But this should have been done 20 years ago when Putin began his attack on freedom of speech and civil society. In 2001 NTV was shut down, then the wave of repression rolled on, impacting ever more areas of the life of society. If the West had responded appropriately at that time – with today’s sanctions – there would probably have been no war with Georgia, no annexation of Crimea and no current invasion of Ukraine. The authoritarian trend would have been cut short at the outset, and a significant part of Russian society would have supported the effort. But what did Western politicians do instead? In June 2001, a few months after the shuttering of NTV, US President George W. Bush in Ljubljana ‘looked in the eyes’ of Vladimir Putin, ‘got a sense of his soul’ and saw in him ‘a very straightforward and trustworthy man.’ What sanctions could there be after that!

The ‘straightforward and trustworthy man’ has led an authoritarian revanche and destroyed civil society in Russia. Parliamentary and presidential elections have been systematically rigged, repressive laws restricting rights and freedoms passed, the repressive apparatus of the military and police built up, and political opponents and independent journalists fined, imprisoned and sometimes killed. Any one of these instances should have seen the imposition of the strongest sanctions, such as we see today. Why was this not done? Why did the West patiently forgive Putin things for which any politician in their own countries would not only have been thrown out of office, but thrown in jail? Why did the West watch, aloof and lethargic, responding only sluggishly, as civil society in Russia was flattened under a steamroller?

Unfortunately, there is one answer, and it is very simple: Western countries do not strive for peace; they merely want there to be no war. Most of them have not grasped Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s notion that the antithesis of peace is not war, but violence. If violence triumphs, even in a single country, it means there is no longer peace. Events will inevitably turn into a hot war as a continuation of the repression, violence in another form. Almost 50 years ago, Solzhenitsyn prophetically wrote: ‘And one hostage grabbed and one aircraft hijacked are just as big a threat to peace as a gunshot on a state border or a bomb dropped on another country’s territory’ [Peace and Violence, 1973].

This may seem strange, even exaggerated, but only at first glance. History teaches that once violence has gained strength and been consolidated in one country, it will inevitably break out and fall on neighbouring countries. This is the nature of despotic regimes. If this is ignored, if we allow despotisms to mature and strengthen, war becomes inevitable. This is the current lesson of the ‘Russian World.’

Now the West will have to pay a high price for its dismissive attitude towards human rights in Russia: the risk of a Third World War, problems with millions of Ukrainian refugees and confrontation with the growing solidarity among authoritarian regimes and dictatorships. But it is never too late to draw conclusions. Now, by the way, is a good time to realize that by feeding communist China with investments, strengthening Beijing’s economic and military might by trade, the West risks creating problems ten times worse than those the democratic world is facing today in the form of Russia.

Translated by Marian Schwartz and Simon Cosgrove

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