by Bella Rapoport
translated by Olga Andreevskih and Olga Pokrovskaya
This text is not for people who are being bombed, but at the same time, it does not mean that this text does not have the right to be written.
On February 24 we woke up in a new reality. Vladimir Putin’s government did what it has planned ever since Ukraine overthrew a pro-Moscow president and started to build a new society. The ‘educational’ gesture with Crimea has only strengthened Ukraine’s identity. That’s probably why denying any possibility of what must now be referred to as a ‘special operation’ was blindness.
But also blind are all those cries “we never thought this could be possible in 2022.” There are, indeed, still countries and communities that have been living in a state of war. They are merely remote enough — off somewhere in the Middle East — that what is going on there has never been acknowledged as significant or shocking either by Western countries or by the Russians.
In any case, we woke up in a world where it is, indeed, possible to bomb towns, the citizens of which many of us have been in touch with all the time. The cityscapes are so familiar to us that there is no easy way of looking away from what is going on. It re-emerges right in front of our eyes and gnaws under our skin.
That’s the reason why many of us Russians find it easy to believe that we — as a society and as each individual member of it — are guilty, that we didn’t do enough to prevent this. We hear this message coming at us left, right and center. Indeed, we’re told not just that we haven’t done enough but that we have done nothing at all, that we have simply been approving everything in silence and so we are to be held directly accountable — and punished.
Since Soviet times, opposition protests have always looked favorably toward the West. It was a message conveyed in print and in music and in consumerist dreams (anything ‘imported’, as they used to say back then, was considered better quality and more valuable — hard to disprove, but not always true). The Western experience was held in high regard, and ‘European values’ (or ‘American democracy’) became not just synonyms, but actual definitions of the striving for freedom, of the highest moral principles, everything most human, ethical, and honest.
The representatives of the liberal-leaning part of society got used to identifying themselves through the idea of ‘European values’ opposing themselves to some ‘other’ Russians, who make up the majority. They see them as ‘backward’, ‘uneducated’ and hindering Russia’s quest for the bright western path. More often than not, this image was constructed by liberals themselves, because it was a nice background to stand out against and to feel like a ‘better person’. We might quote the surveys by the Levada Center, a popular reference point for the liberal media: the surveys
aimed to define Russians’ attitudes toward LGBTQ or Jewish people, though it never seemed to occur to them that LGBTQ and Jewish people are Russians, too, which has a lot to say about the sociologists themselves. This is also why the liberal-minded can think that the sanctions targeting random Russian citizens can be perceived as are well deserved and legitimate: they are used to seeing the West which is exercising this punishment as wiser, more honest and knowing best.
The fact that Western countries also launch devastating wars is often left ‘behind the scenes’. Their empires, the way we understand them traditionally, had begun to unravel after World War I. But, the relationships and connections between countries, peoples, and ethnic groups determined by old empires have persisted and continue to evolve along with geopolitical developments. Consequently, the term ‘colonialism’ has evolved too, transforming into a tool for analysis of cultural and economic influence. Many philosophers, sociologists, and political analysts, including those in Western countries, critique west-centered mentality as a colonial mentality. Stuart Hall understands ‘the West’ as an idea or a concept filled with certain qualities, such as, for example, technological progress (hence, Japan has become a part of ‘the West’ thanks to its technological advancement). Even global consumption patterns are ideologized in this way, set following the patterns in the countries that initiated them. People in the countries that have joined the existing global order later are eager to consume what they cannot afford (or can barely afford) because the prevailing consumption patterns have formed in richer countries with wealthier populations and higher prices, which are usually quite similar globally. From this perspective, Russia (at least its large cities) is almost completely obsessed with the West, and it would be naive and likely counterproductive to ignore it.
In some cases, the colonial perspective means that the viewers think all societies are built in the same way – according to the Western model (even though there co-exist different systems and models in the Western world), which leads to the perception of societies that are somehow different as sick and wrong. This also justifies the above-mentioned conviction that citizens (in particular those citizens who represent big business and politics) of those countries know all about freedom and democracy and can ‘cure’ those incorrect societies. The citizens of those countries share the same opinion as well (which of us, prior to Ukrainian events, have not heard those questions, arrogantly asked by expatriates and Western colleagues: why don’t you protest?).
The methods of ‘treatment’ very often go beyond the fundamental principles of human rights, which the so called Western World seems to represent. We can mention the bombing of Baghdad, performed by the US, or what Israel is doing on the West Bank, proclaiming themselves the sole “island of democracy” in the Middle East. But those methods are considered “necessary” and in compliance with democratic principles.
In case of Russia those ‘methods’ are a rash and disorganized process called ‘sanctions’. The statement ‘sanctions are necessary’ became above criticism. Few wonder how the sanctions can bring peace or make any positive change to the internal Russian situation. Former US Ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul tweets that he “spent the majority of his time trying to integrate Russia into the world
” and also threatens that “Russians will live in isolation from the other world if you don’t stop this war
”. He also says that Russians will have to spend their vacation in Teheran and Tskhinvali, as if it was something ever so bad, and also scares us with lack of foreign equipment, cars and cell phones. His peacemaking efforts are focused on creating a list of companies that are still operating in Russia, so he can force them to stop.
In other words, we are ‘punished’ by being excluded from the ‘West’ and denied the ability to consume as Westerners. Taking this ‘Western human status’ from us, they refuse us consideration as humans in general. Yale economics professor Jeffrey Sonnenfeld, in his interview for Russian liberal outlet ‘Meduza
’ says calmly and confidently that ‘very soon Russia will have no technology, no drugs, no chocolate for kids’. He also says that many Russians will be homeless soon, as if it was a normal and adequate measure. A Yale bioethics professor, no less, Dr. Arthur Kaplan mentions
in a reputable medical magazine (which means the article was peer-reviewed and accepted for a publication) that pharmaceutical companies should stop their operation in Putin’s Russia. He also says that medications should not be sold as Russians should be deprived of access not only to McDonald’s but also to products they use for their well-being)
Psychological Associations stop their cooperation with Russian psychologists, scientific magazines stop publishing Russian scientists, Visa, MasterCard, PayPal turned Russians off from SWIFT. This sanction cut many charity organizations (helping people with cancer, spinal traumas
, heart diseases, animals
-victims of human violence
etc), non-profit workers, activists both inside of Russia and the ones that ran from a regime to overseas from any source of income.
As for blocking websites, in this case it became impossible to identify what was blocked by the regime and what was blocked by the owners of social media. For example, Instagram blocked the account
of the Feminist Anti War Resistance Group for posting “aggressive” content (before later unblocking it), though social media provides a means for protesters to consolidate their efforts and get information free from propaganda.
This isn’t the limit of the sanctions’ negative impact on those who can hardly be suspected of connection to the war effort. They are ruthless towards Russian women: for example, to mothers (as if pressuring mothers could lead to group effort which could result in a political change). As if it were not enough that, due to having kids, mothers are particularly vulnerable before the regime (kids can be used for blackmail), as well as before the economic turmoil, this double vulnerability will now be coupled with being deprived of basic necessities. And all this in the situation of no support whatsoever from the Russian state.
The problem of “menstrual poverty” (including the lack of access to personal hygiene products making it impossible to continue work and studies) is widely discussed
on a global scale; tampons and sanitary pads are included into lists of goods supplied as humanitarian aid to poorer countries, whilst producers of such goods are leaving the Russian market en masse, and the price of a pack of ‘Always’ pads has already reached 500 roubles (for example the waiter’s waige at the average cafe in Saint-Petersburg is about 120 roubles per hour) ; actually, it’s became almost impossible to find them in stores, though second-hand dealers are selling them in the Internet. Children’s painkillers, Insulin, thyroid hormones and other drugs necessary on a daily basis have already disappeared from the drugstores completely. Even pet food has disappeared.
At the same time, it is easy to note that Putin and the officials closest to him have disappeared from the ‘sanctions’ rhetoric; targeted instead are Russians, transformed into a unanimous nation united by the same attitudes and positions. The process of recasting us as this mass followed the same track used by state propaganda.
But then why do the ‘pillars of democracy’ act see us just like the regime does? Similarly to the regime, they ignore protests within Russia as an inconvenience, and they also continue what the regime has started, i.e. the project of lowering the living standard of the population and depriving the population of the access to basic necessities and information. Aren’t there enough hospitals shut down by our authorities, isn’t there enough ‘optimization’ of media professionals’ work; aren’t there enough restrictions on import of medicine, enough pressure on teachers and the whole system of education, enough cracking down on media, enough persecution of journalists?
This convenient rhetoric is repeated by those Russians who have fled the country where they enjoyed quite a few privileges. Thus, a Yandex employee who spent ten years in the company, an ex-editor of media outlet Afisha, Il’ya Krasil’shchik, published a New York Times column
(also appearing in the Russian ‘Kholod’) where he speaks for the whole Russian people and states that we have failed as a nation.
This social Darwinism has reached “national” proportions not only with regard to Russia. Lithuania refused
to supply COVID-19 vaccine to Bangladesh because of the Bangladeshi government’s position during the UN vote on Russia, which is difficult to interpret as other than a crime against humanity.
Here, societies which are far from prosperous are blamed for the decisions of those who deprived them of prosperity in the first place, and as a result are punished further through more poverty and deprivation.
Looking back in history: do we condemn Spanish people who spent 36 years of their life under Franco’s regime because the regime ended only when the dictator’s life did? Did the Americans fail, when the USAF bombed Somalia? It is especially painful and devastating to watch the powerful protests in Belarus following the rigged presidential elections of 2020, and Belarussians being ‘canceled’ together with the Russians. Are the citizens of a country that still enforces the death penalty, who were tortured and gunned down in the streets, to be found guilty of not being ‘successful’ in putting down the Lukashenko regime? The list can go on, but we can get a hint by asking ‘Are we really to blame for being arrested on the grounds of a Tweet?‘. Even apart from the two hundreds ethnic groups living in Russia and their multiple cultures also have very complex colonial relations with each other.
Since the dynamic of colonial power relations only allows for “humanistic values” to be imposed, introduced, imprinted, and implemented from the outside, it is convenient to declare, as many foreign social media users do when they are watching Russian protests, that this is all a result of the sanctions which awakened the political conscience of Russian people. Politics of exclusion works in such a way that those excluded start to believe that they are capable of nothing and never did anything, that they themselves are to blame for the violence that is being committed against them.
However, I categorically declare that the in case of Russian society this is all simply not true.
Through 22 years of Putin’s rule, the people of Russia have been practically the only people who did fight, even as Western governments courted this regime, received resources from it, came to attend the Olympics, world cups and economic summits – after the 2014 events, too. Only now have they woken up; and even then, unlike the exponentially growing sanctions targeted at Russian society, the process of banning oil and gas exports has been arranged step by step and still going on
. At least since 2015, European countries, Germany and France in particular, have been selling weapons and protest-breaking
techniques to Russia. But now Russians are accused of their own wrongdoing: it is supposedly Russians who woke up only when the the almighty West threatened to deprive us of Ikea meatballs.
But all this time Russian men and women have been protesting against every inhuman initiative – from the “gay propaganda law” to the “Dima Iakovlev law” cutting ties with Americans; they have been protesting against Russia’s aggression in Georgia and in the Crimea; they have been taking to the streets to support protests in Belarus and Kazakhstan; they have been holding antifascist protests in memory of assassinated antifascist activists Markelov and Baburova (also Russians, by the way); Russian men and women have been creating various NGOs and support groups, have been disseminating information on HIV, have been monitoring elections and have been informing the public of the offences committed, have been working in the media despite the censorship, murders of journalists and civil rights activists, despite political persecution, despite the information about tortures in prisons and police stations, despite having children and elderly parents to look after.
Russian long-haul truck drivers have been on strike
; the mothers of Beslan have not been silent. It is the ‘ordinary’ Russians who put out Siberian forest fires and who rushed from all parts of the country to volunteer in Krymsk after the flooding, while the governor of the region could not be bothered with it. There were cases when protests and other activities made a difference: oppositional journalist Ivan Golunov, who was charged with possession so that he would stop inconveniencing the authorities, was released; the joint effort of feminist lawyers resulted in Dmitry Grachev, who had cut off his ex-wife Margarita’s hands with an axe, getting 14 years in jail.
Of course, yellow-and-blue T-shirts at the Balenciaga fashion show look much more impressive than a picket with a blank sheet of paper, but if the sheet of paper is a guarantee of arrest, which gesture requires more courage? To be honest, it is us who can teach Western activists how to survive, how to consolidate effort and to continue being politically active in the circumstances of censorship and political persecution. And if there was any chance for this regime to be destroyed from within, bottom-up, it would have been destroyed ages ago.
Yes, there are Russians who support the government and its actions, and not only a handful of them. That being said, people might have had different reasons for supporting the invasion: intrusive TV propaganda, post-Cold War trauma, and nationalism, to name a few. Not to mention that the notorious 80 percent supporting the war is as surely fabricated as the percentage of Putin voters in presidential elections (one may find tons of videos in the internet showing how these fabrications have been arranged). Since 2014, however, the number of people living in poverty has grown – appending Crimea did nothing good for our economy – as has the number who stopped believing in Putin. Russians who were kids back then have grown up and developed sharp and clear political views: mostly thanks to the Internet and the information it provides aside from pro-Putin propaganda. Faced with violent, well-armed people in uniforms on guard for the regime, we don’t have the ability to bring it down, but that doesn’t mean we’re doing nothing.
Hannah Arendt in her Banality of Evil voices an idea which is quite difficult to comprehend: that in the Third Reich evil lost its primary attribute – the ability to be tempting; on the contrary, what was seen as falling into temptation were such choices as not to kill, not to report on your neighbors, not to betray (in the end, she sarcastically highlights that Germans learnt to resist the temptation masterfully).
The peaceful protest of Russian men and women which is universally condemned, this mass manifestation of discontent, this frequently silent statement is evidence of the fact that, despite the current authorities trying to do a similar trick to our conscience, we so far have managed to resist precisely this temptation to make evil a foundation of our everyday thinking.
The other day, for the first time I saw a parked car with the letter Z on its windscreen and all other sorts of paraphernalia; I’ve seen an endless multitude of anti-war graffiti and stickers. Perhaps it is time for some Russians to stop constructing some homogenous 'savage’ majority comprised of other Russians. Rather, they might ask themselves if this majority might actually be in the same room with us. And for the people of the West – to realize that the strategies of the heads of corporations and the politicians which they defined as democratic can be not just anti-democratic, but inhuman.
– Bella Rapoport is a Russian feminist and LGBTQ activist, and left-wing political writer and sociologist.
– Olga Pokrovskaya is an activist and radical feminist, originally from Russia, currently resides in the US.
– Olga Andreevskikh a university lecturer, LGBTQ-rights activist, translator and proofreader.