What Went Wrong With Russia?
Russia’s genocide against Ukraine is not only the work of an insane dictator. A February 2022 Levada poll found that 58% of Russians support the war. Many are more concerned by the lack of availability of Western brands or the demonetization of their Instagram and Tik-Tok accounts than by their military’s atrocities against Ukrainian civilians. While some have resisted the war, their numbers are relatively few for a nation of 144 million. How did it happen that so few resist lies and injustice in such a large country?
Russian moralist and Nobel laureate Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn observed that whereas Germany underwent extensive “denazification” after the World War II, Russia was never cleansed of its Stalinist past. The killers of tens of millions lived openly without reproach.
Solzhenitsyn wrote in 1970:
From the most ancient times justice has been a two-part concept: virtue triumphs, and vice is punished. We have been fortunate enough to live to a time when virtue, though it does not triumph, is nonetheless not always tormented by attack dogs. Beaten down, sickly, virtue has now been allowed to enter in all its tatters and sit in the corner, as long as it doesn't raise its voice.
However, no one dares say a word about vice…Yes, so-and-so many millions did get mowed down — but no one was to blame for it. And if someone pipes up: "What about those who ..." the answer comes from all sides, reproachfully and amicably at first: "What are you talking about, comrade! Why open old wounds?"
In that same period, by 1966, eighty-six thousand Nazi criminals had been convicted in West Germany. And still we choke with anger here. We do not hesitate to devote to the subject page after newspaper page and hour after hour of radio time. We even stay after work to attend protest meetings and vote:
"Too few! Eighty-six thousand are too few. And twenty years is too little! It must go on and on."
And during the same period, in our own country (according to the reports of the Military Collegium of the Supreme Court) about ten men have been convicted.
What takes place beyond the Oder and the Rhine gets us all worked up. What goes on in the environs of Moscow and behind the green fences near Sochi, or the fact that the murderers of our husbands and fathers ride through our streets and we make way for them as they pass, doesn't get us worked up at all, doesn't touch us. That would be "digging up the past…”
But in a quarter-century we have not tracked down anyone. We have not brought anyone to trial. It is their wounds we are afraid to reopen. And as a symbol of them all, the smug and stupid Molotov lives on at Granovsky No. 3, a man who has learned nothing at all, even now, though he is saturated with our blood and nobly crosses the sidewalk to seat himself in his long, wide automobile.
Here is a riddle not for us contemporaries to figure out: Why is Germany allowed to punish its evildoers and Russia is not? What kind of disastrous path lies ahead of us if we do not have the chance to purge ourselves of that putrefaction rotting inside our body? What, then, can Russia teach the world?…
A country which has condemned evil 86,000 times from the rostrum of a court and irrevocably condemned it in literature and among its young people, year by year, step by step, is purged of it.
What are we to do? Someday our descendants will describe our several generations as generations of driveling do-nothings. First we submissively allowed them to massacre us by the millions, and then with devoted concern we tended the murderers in their prosperous old age.
What are we to do if the great Russian tradition of penitence is incomprehensible and absurd to them? What are we to do if the animal terror of hearing even one-hundredth part of all they subjected others to outweighs in their hearts any inclination to justice? If they cling greedily to the harvest of benefits they have watered with the blood of those who perished?
It is unthinkable in the twentieth century to fail to distinguish between what constitutes an abominable atrocity that must be prosecuted and what constitutes that ‘past’ which ‘ought not to be stirred up.’
We have to condemn publicly the very idea that some people have the right to repress others. In keeping silent about evil, in burying it so deep within us that no sign of it appears on the surface, we are implanting it, and it will rise up a thousandfold in the future.
When we neither punish nor reproach evildoers, we are not simply protecting their trivial old age, we are thereby ripping the foundations of justice from beneath new generations. It is for this reason, and not because of the “weakness of indoctrinational work,” that they are growing up “indifferent.” Young people are acquiring the conviction that foul deeds are never punished on earth, that they always bring prosperity.
Solzhenitsyn, Aleksandr. The Gulag Archipelago. London: Harvill Press (2002), Chapter 4.