On Russia – Past and Present – A Personal Call to Action

Some things cannot be fathomed. So they need to be told, over and over. I am very glad books exist, that we have a written tradition through which generations can be connected. That I can get to know so many things, which my neighbour, my teacher, my family doesn’t know anything about.

But I’m also very sad, that we need these written manifestos to testify to that what cannot be said. I’m referring now to the book on the Gulag Archipelago written by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, who died almost six years ago. In 1970 he received the Nobel Prize for Literature, “for the ethical force with which he has pursued the indispensable traditions of Russian literature” (see link).

The Russian Soul
One thing that is clear from the start: there is something wonderful about being Russian. There must be. Everyone is so incredibly proud to be Russian. This is more than nationalism or patriotism. It feels very sincere.

But there is clearly something going on here that is very disturbing. This love for everything Russian has been abused in many ways. The law system involved, the political games. Solzhenitsyn describes it in detail, how it went from at least 1918-1950. How being acquainted, having shaken a hand of someone who turned out to be disloyal to the Russian spirit, would be enough to be arrested. There were no trials.  They would ask you why you were arrested, and if you would say ‘I did nothing’, this would be enough to send you to a hard labor camp for ten years. Because insinuating the Russian State made a mistake, would be counter-revolutionary in itself. And the examples go on and on.

Present Russia
Did something change, is this all in the past, can we forget about how the Russian people was cleansed of its thinkers, its writers, its intellectuals for many generations? And let’s leave aside the question about what people were left, what spirit is left, what the historical influence is of this process on the present Russian soul. Let’s purely focus on what is happening, what we can see. As if nothing has happened, did something change?

I fear not. Personally, I haven’t been to Russia (yet). My deep interest in everything Russian started when I read Dostoevsky, Tolstoi, when I travelled through Ukraine, when I had a Russian study friend, when I encountered the many Russian emigres in Israel. It got deepened through some very good documentary-travel broadcasts by Jelle Corstius (@JelleBC).

In these personal, non-generalisable, encounters, one thing emerged very clearly. The country is one, and one doesn’t complain. When I tried to explain my Russian friend the concept of ‘prophets’, or ‘manifestations of God’, she eventually smiled and nodded that she had understood what I meant. ‘So what you’re saying, Jesus and Muhammad are just like Putin!’. I didn’t know what to say next. I still don’t.

This is something that Solzhenitsyn explains very well. There is no good and bad. There is just one party to vote for, and abstaining or not voting is not wrong, it is just not done. Thinking in categories of good-bad, having any notion of morality is just beyond the Russian situation. They are not unmoral. But questions of what it means to be human are beyond what is possible to think. Which makes it impossible to judge the situation, in a way. If something is the case, and everything works in order to work, how could we pronounce this wrong?

So what to think when reading about the feeling of Russians in Ukraine, that they want to be part of the Motherland? Should we remind them about the time, in which the returning soldiers – who had risked their lives for that Motherland but were captured as Prisoners of War – who returned to Russia, were sent to the Gulag straight and without trial, simply because they had shamed Russia by being captured instead of dying?
Are we to forget the history of Ukraine itself, and the reason for so many people from Russian origin living in that country in the first place?

Small issues
Sometimes we read about some issue in Russia. Homophobia, maffia, corruption, drugs use, alcohol abuse, poverty. But we hardly ever read anything about what lies behind these thoughts. I am afraid that these things are not simply issues in which some harm is done in comparison to ‘our’ Western ideals. I fear that they are signs of far-reaching differences, that are not just threatening the world and the idea of freedom present in the West. They are dangerous, precisely because they do not stand on their own, they are part of a full history of dictatorships that have eliminated everyone who dares to even raise their eyes.

Personal objective
First thing to do, is not to remain silent. To confront people with thoughts. Presently one can find Russians everywhere. (Apparently having been in a foreign country is not by itself a reason to be given a ‘tenner’ anymore, as was the case in the time of Solzhenitsyn.) Why not ask them about these things? And not because we are interested in what they think about Ukraine, about the EU-boycot, about the political situation. But simply in order to see, whether the fact they are part of the survivors of the last century of Russian history, has made them to be exactly what was expected of them.
Or not.

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn