The Crimean spring is upon us once more, and Russians see themselves as the most innocent people on earth; their consciences unsullied. Russians believe that all through their country’s history they have always been the victims – a martyr people, a suffering people, an icon-bearing people.
In their imaginations, Russia is surrounded by predatory and despicable peoples to whom they open their hearts, and are bitten and insulted in return. Their list of grievances against their neighbours is endless. These neighbours are in debt to Russia for access to its “great culture”, for Yuri Gagarin, for the Russian mystique. Russians, on the other hand, don’t owe their neighbours a kopeck. And so, should the need arise, Russians will happily strike back, because they feel slighted by everyone.
A reconciliation with the past…
Guilt is an unpleasant thing. It is hard to live with. The Germans, for example, stubbornly resisted it for a long time. As historian and theoretician Aleida Assman writes in ‘The New Discontent with Memorial Culture’, recently published in Russian, it was easier for Germans to invent excuses, however flimsy, for their actions, than to admit to their being just wrong.
Russians see themselves as the most innocent people on earth
At one point, for example, it was popular among political writers to present the National Socialists as unbelievable monsters. The Nazis, these terrifying, bloodthirsty ogres who had set off a global bloodbath. Ordinary Germans had nothing to do with it.
In another approach, Germans remembered all the atrocities caused by the Nazis: the millions of people killed, the ancient German towns devastated, their country’s occupation and division into two states. Then there was their reputation; after the Nazis, Germany could no longer be seen as just the homeland of Martin Luther. The Germans’ suffering under the Nazi regime supposedly put them on a level with Jews who had survived the Holocaust. And after the evil National Socialists were strung up, Germans could confidently embrace the peoples who also suffered under the Nazi yoke. The Germans were victims — just like everyone else.
Some tried to suppress everything, refusing to even discuss it and pretending that the past should remain in the past. One should just live in the present and let sleeping dogs lie, said many in the first years of the post-war occupation. Sevastopol, August 2014. Photo: (c) Alexander Aksakov / Getty Images. Some rights reserved.Another option was to reject one national identity and adopt another. As Assman writes, this is what young Germans began to do at the end of the 1960s when they found out what their parents had been up to during the Nazi years. In the most repellent cases, young people would convert to Judaism to avoid sharing their parents’ responsibility for the Holocaust and the mass slaughter on both fronts. They refused to be part of the German nation, to even countenance being one of the guilty.
Some people also claimed that responsibility cannot be collective, only personal. Everyone has to answer for themselves. In other words, if there was no proof of guilt that would convince a court, then there was no guilt at all. To be guilty you would, for instance, have had to have joined a party, made a career, added your signature. If none of that took place, if a German disapproved of what the National-Socialists were doing and avoided participation in their doings, then their just being German would not imply any guilt on their part. The generation of Germans born after 1945 couldn’t by definition take any responsibility for what happened before they were born.
But somehow, despite all the evasion and error, the Germans did accept their guilt.
…that Russia refuses to contemplate
A similar process seemed to be happening in Russia after the demise of the Soviet Union. It did make some attempt to acknowledge its past as it really was. And not just the Communist past, but the old Tsarist Empire that lived off the exploitation of its colonies.
To judge by its expression today, Russians’ collective memory has functioned in a very different way from that of Germans. The Butovo firing range, Moscow’s main killing field where more than 20,000 political prisoners were shot during Stalin’s reign of terror; the horrific film ‘The Chekist’ [Secret Police Officer] , made in 1992 but set soon after the Bolshevik revolution, and the writings of Solzhenitsyn and Shalamov may have uncovered the horrors of the time, but they have not had the intended effect.
Russians believe that they have nothing to do with crimes committed during the Soviet era. These were committed by the Communists, and Communists aren’t Russians
Firstly, Russians in general believe that they have nothing to do with crimes committed during the Soviet era. The crimes were committed by the Communists, and Communists aren’t Russians. Estonians, Jews, Georgians and Chinese people were responsible for it all. They were financed by the German General Staff and a global cabal of some sort. Let them take the blame.
Likewise, Russians are not to blame for the deportation of the Crimean Tatars in 1944. The way the Tatars still moan about this is tactless, at the very least. Russians suffered no less than Tatars. From their perspective, when Tatars complain about their sufferings at the hands of the Russians, they should also mention the sufferings of the Russians at the hands of the Communists. Otherwise, Russians believe, they are just lying and trying to be provocative. Memorial to those murdered at the Butovo firing range, Moscow, 2007. Photo: A. Bocharov / Flickr. Some rights reserved.Besides, no crimes were committed anyway. It was simply harsh, shall we put it, military necessity, and it would have been better to forget about it long ago.
Most importantly of all, the suffering of Russians is seen as the result of their being bad Russians. The only salvation can be in more autocracy, state Orthodoxy, Cossacks, anti-Semitism, wars and annexations. The Russia of the Romanovs failed because it was too soft — it stopped being itself. Hence the conclusion that Russians should not stray from their special path. And that special path is to be a superpower. All that Shalamov, Solzhenitsyn and so on have done is to teach Russians that they need to become an Empire again — and go all the way with it. If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.
Thus the Butovo firing range [now turned into a monument to Stalin’s victims – ed.], which was supposed to defend Russians from a return to the past, in the same way as the Holocaust protects Germans from a return to National-Socialism, has become a portal leading to a yet more distant, even bloodier past. Starting with the recollection of Red repression, which was bad, Russians are awaiting a new, White repression, because this is good.
In their collective celebration of their conquest of Crimea, Russians are not only celebrating their triumph, but their lack of guilt. There may not be a distinction.
This article originally appeared in Russian on Colta.ru. oDR is grateful for Colta's permission to translate and re-publish this article here.
Get our weekly email