During recent discussions with my Western colleagues, who since the beginning of the war have called for remembering “the other Russia”, non-usage of the principle of collective responsibility, and refraining from symbolic acts of negation of Russian culture, I have clearly formulated a thought. The signature of an anti-war letter by any Russian may not be an excuse for sin, because the feeling of guilt for belonging to the nation committing genocide in Ukraine should be a normal reaction of any Russian, including a signatory of the letter. The signature is not an indulgence. Furthermore, among the signatories, there are a lot of people who welcomed “Crimea is ours” a few years ago or who support megalomania. On the contrary, the absence of the feeling of guilt is proof of guilt. Sometimes I come across statements of Russians, even not belonging to “sinless signatories”, about the dangers of protesting against Putin, the absence of guilt of Russians who don’t support him (usually, by not voting for him), and the fact that Russian soldiers attacking Ukraine are the same victims of the regime as the Ukrainians. “I want to say that Russians are an injured party, like the Ukrainians. And don’t tell me that they have been injured in a different way”, - a member of “other Russia” starts her post with these words. This relativization of the victim and the aggressor is stunning, but only for us, who see the situation from the inside. It is evident to us that if some people are not guilty, why haven’t they renounced Russian citizenship after 2014? Are they imprisoned for their views? Were they arrested, and how many times if so, during collective protests and solitary pickets in 2014, 2015, 2016 and so on to 2022?
Our fair and simple questions don’t immediately seem so behind the western border of Ukraine. I tested it on my kind colleagues who since Russian aggression in 2014 have interpreted it rightly and donated money to our army and to the victims of the war. Who have responded with solidarity letters since the first hours of the Russian invasion on the 24th of February. However, silence or one more long and sophisticated explanation was an answer to my simple questions. Or, finally, desperate “Excuse me, perhaps, I shouldn’t tell it to a person under threat”, which is not an appellation to the arguments, but to the unstable mental state of a person in distress. My words about the need for symbolic acts, that are so important to Ukrainians, were finally mentioned as wrong ones by my Polish colleague when he was talking to a journalist. Yesterday I listened to a record of a discussion of our Polish colleagues, historians from the University of Warsaw, regarding the denial of Putin’s version of history. It was a very good and reasonable talk, I can only thank them for it. However, it ended with a reference to the existence of “other Russia”, too. Nevertheless, I would like to note that active killers grew up on this version of history or similar ones. How many Russian historians have spoken against it? I know two such people, but, of course, there may be five of them… Is it indifference or absence of empathy of our Western colleagues? I don’t think so, because the aid to our refugees, for which we are so thankful, indicates the opposite. People, who call on us to abandon the principle of collective responsibility, are actively helping us at the same time.
At first glance, this situation may be assessed as our defeat in this symbolic war. Ignoring by the US Slavic studies departments, where there are many specialists in Russian studies, of well-founded public appeals, is also a sign of defeat. And the point is not the shortage of funds of Russian studies or weakening of their positions in the world (which is also important) but something much deeper, that we don’t notice from inside of our tragic and, at the same time, heroic Ukrainian situation. We are waiting for the voices of Western intellectuals of Ukrainian descent or our old friends, but, I’m afraid, we won’t hear them. Probably, there is an existential inconsistency without an understanding of which we may lose even the aid that the world is ready to give us.
It’s a pity that we take the last train when other countries reached the destination a long time ago, get used to the safe world and started to elaborate principles of co-existence that let various groups with completely different strategies and values live on the conditions of compromise. That world has many skeletons in the closet, particularly, the principle of collective responsibility and rather difficult denazification of Nazi Germany citizens. However, that world doesn’t hurry to show these skeletons to the public, because it will definitely destroy its principles that were elaborated through the decades-long complicated process. Is the West ready to put its values under threat, or even to throw doubt on them and to recall the painful past, that it tried to forget so meticulously for establishing “the united Europe”? Will the Western countries do it for Ukrainians, covered with soot and blood and traumatized by the war, who cry about revenge and collective responsibility of the aggressor? I have no doubt that they must do it. However, I’m not sure that they will do it. Moreover, I have a deep feeling that they won’t.
So, where were we defeated in the symbolic sphere? In my opinion, only the first try has failed. Therefore, we need to learn some lessons. The first one is comprehensive normalization of the thought that there is no exclusively Ukrainian side of the conflict. Russia has violated the fundamental values that are the core of European culture, and the whole system of international obligations, on which European security after World War II was based. Consequently, first and foremost, Europe is protecting not Ukrainians but itself.
The second lesson is the understanding of realism of our demands. No, I don’t mean not speaking them out. However, the risks of international isolation should be taken into account. Surely, today we may demand some opportunities that make our voices louder, such as the greater development of Ukrainian studies in the Western universities, translation of Ukrainian books with our vision of the past and the present, and increase of our representation in the Western world. Nevertheless, it will be not a privilege but a great challenge, and we should work hard to meet it. This is what we must think about.
Ukrainian Text by Natalia Starchenko, translated into English by Ukrainianvancouver team – Mar 16, 2022