Aleksandr Podrabinek: National Guilt and Personal Responsibility

8 April 2022

by Aleksandr Podrabinek

This English translation was first published by Desk Russie and is republished here by kind permission. You can find out more about Desk Russie here. The article was originally published by Desk Russie in French on 25 March 2022.

Today, an ordinary “person in the street” in Russia has only a very blurred notion of where their fault lies with regard to what is happening in Ukraine, and they try to banish this idea completely since having a sense of responsibility encourages action. The majority of the population retreats to the terrain of moral impassivity and innocence.

“Me?? What for?!?” indignantly exclaims a freshly minted “enemy of the people” on his first arrest in The Gulag Archipelago. It is the usual reaction of an innocent person who knows for certain they have done nothing against the law. Many people in Russia these days react in a similar way when they begin to feel the effects of Western sanctions.

People who have become unused to freedom, or who were never used to it, lose their sense of responsibility. This is natural because if a person makes no political decisions, they are not responsible for the consequences. We cannot even elect deputies or the president because there are no normal elections, so how can we be responsible for their decisions? I have never even voted for Putin, ordinary people like this think, so why are these sanctions affecting me? They quite genuinely think it is not fair.

I have to disappoint these people. Not because I support the idea of collective responsibility or deny the presumption of innocence, but for far more prosaic reasons. No, we did not elect this government and, yes, we are deprived of voting rights and of most other civil liberties. But we maintain this government with our taxes. Even if we hide our profits from the tax inspectors and get our salaries in brown envelopes, even if our small business operates in the black market and everything we earn is in cash, even if we pay no income tax or social security premiums, we still pay VAT every time we buy a loaf of bread, medicine or film tickets. These sums of 18% or 20% on each purchase add up to about a quarter of all the federal government’s tax revenue. And that’s on top of all other taxes that some people pay and others don’t.

It is legitimate to ask how to avoid both paying taxes and responsibility for the atrocities of the government. By not going to the store, the drugstore, or the cinema? By joining a monastery, building a hut in the taiga or otherwise breaking away from civilization? These can hardly be recommended as universal solutions that would suit everyone. The rest of us will have to admit that the authorities are waging war against Ukraine with our money, so part of the overall responsibility falls on almost everyone.

The responsibility falls on everyone, but not on everyone equally. In addition to, shall we say, “fiscal responsibility” there is political and moral responsibility. Political responsibility is very easily transformed into accountability before the courts, which has already been repeatedly demonstrated to the world by international courts and ad hoc tribunals. Enemies of humanity such as Slobodan Milošević, Ratko Mladić, Charles Taylor and others have been able to experience this for themselves. Vladimir Putin and his inner circle, who he demonstratively assembled just before the start of the war with Ukraine at a special session of the Russian Security Council, remain undisputed candidates for the dock. It is one step from political responsibility to judicial accountability, and the top Russian leaders have already taken it.

Moral responsibility is also of importance. It is primarily the responsibility of those who are able to influence and shape public opinion by their views, their words and their actions. “For unto whomsoever much is given, of him shall be much required”, says the apostle Luke. Those who have been given the talent or gift of persuasion, those who have access to a microphone on the radio or a camera on television, have the greater responsibility.

This is a painful topic in Russia. If everything is clear so far as the responsibility of the person in the street or a pro-government politician is concerned, things are much more complicated when talking about the leaders of public opinion. These are people in the public eye, they are listened to, they want to be imitated. They are an important factor in public life. They create the public atmosphere and the power of their influence is greater on the whole than that of the country’s political leadership. At the same time, they have no formal obligations, they can make mistakes, they can be disingenuous or deliberately mislead. And of course they are not all the same.

Those who spoke at Putin’s obscene gathering on 18 March in the Luzhniki stadium differed greatly in terms of their influence among the general public. The editor-in-chief of Russia Today Margarita Simonyan and Russian Foreign Ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova have well-deserved reputations as obliging propagandists who happily satisfy their masters’ whims. On the other hand, the actors Dmitry Pevtsov and Vladimir Mashkov, who welcome the aggression against Ukraine, are certainly not untalented people. This is precisely the kind of case when more is demanded of them.

But what can we expect from Kremlin courtiers when hypocrisy and cynicism have always been plentiful, even among Putin’s political opponents, and including those who think of themselves as Russia’s liberals! This is the time to remember all those who paved the way for Putin to come to power and then supported him wholeheartedly — or in a manner most profitable for themselves.

In 1999 the Union of Right Forces, then represented by Boris Nemtsov, Irina Khakamada, and Sergei Kirienko, voiced their support for prime minister Vladimir Putin. Mikhail Kasyanov and Andrei Illarionov, who later became Putin’s critics, both supported Putin in the first five years of his presidency — one as prime minister and the other as a presidential advisor.

Popular Russian cultural figures became members of the Public Chamber, lending a hint of decency and humanity to Putin’s authoritarian regime. Among these were actors of theatre and film Aleksandr Kalyagin and Konstantin Raikin, actress Chulpan Khamatova and film director Pavel Lungin; the writers Daniil Granin and Leonid Borodin (incidentally, a former Soviet political prisoner); the singer Alla Pugacheva, the lawyer Genri Reznik and the historian Nikolai Svanidze; Holocaust Foundation president Alla Gerber, economist Evgeny Yasin and gallery owner Marat Gelman. These are among the most famous of those whose names usually command respect among democratic public opinion. They will probably say they did nothing wrong as members of the Public Chamber. Quite right. They did nothing at all, only giving a human face to Russian authoritarianism, misleading the public, and putting a cosmetic covering of humanity on the ugly face of the authoritarian monster.

Those human rights defenders who lent seriousness and meaning to Putin’s hollow human rights rhetoric did no less. Many of them were members of the consultative Presidential Human Rights Council. The very fact that representatives of, for example, Memorial or the Moscow Helsinki Group were members of the official presidential structure put a brake on the adoption of harsh measures by international organizations and Western governments against Putin’s authoritarian regime.

Take the journalist Leonid Nikitinsky, who writes such very correct articles on human rights in Novaya gazeta and simultaneously sits on Putin’s Council. This surely means that not all is so bad with human rights in Russia! After all, if things were really that bad, such an honest journalist as this would hardly be seen dancing to the dictator’s tune?

And then there is Liudmila Alekseeva, a former dissident who called herself Russia’s senior human rights activist. Not only did she sit on the Human Rights Council, she also maintained friendly relations with Vladimir Putin. Things went as far as Alekseeva receiving the dictator at her home and humiliatingly kissing his hands before the cameras of Russian state television. How can the Western public demand tougher sanctions against Russia, if such a well-known human rights activist kisses the hands of the dictator? The journalists must be lying when they say how bad human rights are in Russia! They’re just making things seem worse than they are! So what’s the point of sanctions?

The public atmosphere is very important. Not only for the democratic opposition, which is seeking popular support to oppose the regime, but also for the regime itself, which tries to appear reasonable and tolerant and undeserving of harsh measures.

When the favorite of the Russian public Mikhail Zhvanetsky bends over backwards to receive a government award from Putin, it is a brick in the making of the authoritarian fortress. When Chulpan Khamatova calls on people to vote in the ‘elections’ for Putin, this is her contribution to the future war and repressive policies. Their responsibility is great, far greater than that of the ordinary citizen who buys bread in the shop and is forced to pay the state the VAT included in the price.

When we think of our responsibility for the bloody slaughter in Ukraine, we cannot fail to mention the creators of Soviet nuclear weapons. It is with these weapons that Vladimir Putin is threatening the entire civilized world today. It is because of these weapons that Western countries are now afraid to get involved in the confrontation between Russia and Ukraine. All these talented scientists who armed the Communist regime with the atomic bomb could hardly have imagined what sad consequences their scientific activities, theoretical and applied, could have. But they were either devoid of a sense of responsibility or deliberately ignored it for the sake of their own peace of mind. Of this entire brilliant group of nuclear physicists, only one, Andrei Sakharov, attempted in any way to remedy the consequences of their detrimental work to strengthen the inhuman regime.

Today’s average Russian “person in the street” has a vague feeling of guilt for current events but drives these thoughts away by every possible means. After all, a sense of responsibility motivates action. Most seek refuge in a realm of moral calm and innocence. Political emigrants collect signatures on petitioning Visa and Mastercard not to block the bank cards of “ordinary” Russians. Russian military service personnel in Ukrainian captivity complain they were forced to go to Ukraine without being asked, understood nothing of what was going on, were told only there would be “exercises” and were not responsible for anything. The most honest ones say they were just carrying out orders. If they tell us to shoot, we shoot. If they tell us to bomb, we bomb. If they tell us to sleep, we sleep. Mere machines for carrying out orders, with no responsibility whatsoever. This is how totalitarian regimes work.

An ability to recognise national guilt and take personal responsibility for it is the basis for a country and a society to have a future. After Germany’s defeat in World War II, the famous German philosopher Karl Jaspers wrote: “We Germans, all of us without exception, are indeed obliged to be clear on the question of our guilt and to draw conclusions. Our human dignity obliges us to do this. We cannot be indifferent to what the world thinks of us; for we know that we are part of humanity, we are people first, and then Germans… The question of guilt, rather than being a question others ask us, is even more a question for us to ask ourselves. Our present understanding of the world and our very identity depends on how we answer this question in the depths of our souls.’” [1]

I can only add that all this applies to Russians no less than to Germans. We are also people first and then Russians. And we, too, have many questions we must ask ourselves.

[1] Karl Jaspers. “The Question of German Guilt” (1947) in Die Schuldfrage (1946) 

Translated from the Russian by Simon Cosgrove

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