Russians cannot tell good from evil.
Many people were shocked when a large majority of Russians named Stalin “the greatest Russian”. In 1988, 8% of the citizens of the Soviet Union deemed Stalin acceptable. In 2016 the dictator’s approval rating among Russians was 54%, and in 2018 his support had increased to 70%.
A researcher at the Moscow Carnegie Institute, Andrey Kolesnikov, explains that the annexation of Crimea has encouraged patriotic and imperialist ideas and raised Stalin to the top of the popularity stakes. Admiration for Stalin has become a morally justified social norm for the masses. This is made easier by the fact that, in the eyes of the young, Stalin is as distant in the history books as Ivan the Terrible. Stalin’s popularity is a sign of the people’s inability to find their way in the confusion of modern times. It offers simple solutions to difficult problems. It is also a protest against the disappointment of the Putin government gone wrong. Stalin is the opium of the Russian people: an unattainable dream of justice and well-being.
Kolesnikov admits that, if a promising future is built on a promising past and its legitimacy is found within, then Generalissimo Stalin is waiting on the doorstep.
And behind all this is fear. The 2018 surveys show serious frustration and growing fears among the population. People dread a world war, the authorities’ arbitrariness, the police and the mafia, and even mass repressions.
The current tense and unhealthy nationalist feeling has shaken the very foundation of the Russian intelligentsia. Since the 19th century this has founded its intellectual and moral existence on a vision of a European-minded, enlightened Russia. Now it seems that the whole idea of the Russian intelligentsia has shattered.
These ideas were closely linked to Christian morals and humanism. In his day Leo Tolstoy idealised a simple peasant, a yokel and his Christian nature. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn also had high hopes for the morals and faith of the people.
The biggest shock has been brought upon the people by themselves. The current situation has made the intelligentsia take a new and deep look at morals and the Christian faith in Russia.
The poet and philologist Olga Sedakova states in her 2019 book Вещество человечности (The Substance of Humanity) that the annexation of Crimea removed her last shred of illusion. Now there is complete darkness. Even in the 2000s, you could think that people and power opposed each other. Now it appears that power and the people are one, encouraging aggressive politics and warlike hysteria.
Sedakova is seeking a reason for the current crisis in the deep structures of Russian civilisation. She thinks that Russians have a special relationship with evil—the inability to tell it apart from good. In the West, the relationship with evil is unambiguous, but in Russia it’s vague: nothing is declared definitively evil. Complicated explanations lead to making friends with evil. Dostoyevsky’s global response or compassion also covers the insincerity towards ethics. Forgiveness entails the inability to distinguish evil.
For Russians, conspiracy theories and paranoid fantasies beat logic. Moral expression is intuitive, not logical. The inability to distinguish evil fits well with intolerance of dissidents and minorities.
With calculated vagueness, they begin to weigh the amount of good and evil in something. It is believed that good can be done only with the help of evil. The ends justify the means because you can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs. This is how supporters of both Stalin and Putin explain the inevitability of evil.
In Sedakova’s opinion, all this comes from the traumatised post-Soviet society, which is saturated by the hypnosis of violence and of kneeling before the evil. The wider public adores personalities such as the motorcycle gang leader called the Surgeon or the eastern Ukrainian terrorist gunman Motorola. (The latter was killed in 2016.—Ed.)
There is currently no one in Russia with the moral authority of, say, Andrey Sakharov or Dmitry Likhachev. Moral choice is easier now than in the years of uncertainty: corruption is evil and the annexation of foreign territory is evil. It seems as if we are back at the end of the Soviet system, when everything was clear. And once again, somebody has to pay for their freedom with their life.
Sedakova appeals on grounds of simple moralism: good is good, evil is evil, and these are not to be confused with sophisms. It is enough when “the truth echoes, otherwise we sink more and more into a hellish lie”.
How to manage the past—regret or pokayaniye—was forgotten during perestroika. Sedakova says that Russia disregards the topic of its guilt when addressing recent history. The reasons behind the destruction of the Soviet Union were never explained to the people, which has left a void filled by unhealthy populism. If a national decision had been taken at the time and an assessment of the country’s past approved, the collective consciousness might have been refreshed.
The death of morality is shielded by the understanding that Russians are special, different. Sedakova asks what this means: does Russia not have rightfulness and lawfulness, but only arbitrariness? What happens to Russia when it is disconnected from mankind, when its connections to Europe have been disrupted and there aren’t any with Asia?
Anthropologically Russians are the same as Europeans, claims the poet. The outpouring of national aggressiveness is a familiar phenomenon in history that has been experienced elsewhere many times.
In Sedakova’s opinion the voluntary aid movement spreading through Russia demonstrates a real rebirth of humanity: the freedom to do good of one’s own volition. No wonder the authorities persecute it, as they hate private initiative.
Andrey Zvyagintsev’s movie Loveless, recently screened in Finland, shows the same process in a touching manner: volunteers looking for missing people are the only ones to represent active, sincere selflessness.
Sedakova was part of the orthodox renaissance that was born in the University of Moscow in the 1970s, in which the Byzantine philosopher and researcher Sergey Averintsev became a guide for an entire generation. The group supported being ecumenical and for half of the 1980s distanced itself from the hierarchy of the Russian church over its nationalism and dependence on the KGB, but has maintained its influence. Sedakova has received the Vatican prize for poetry.
Sedakova complains that the Russian church has abandoned the ideas of orthodox authorities such as Saint Nil Sorsky and theologian Alexander Schmemann. She says that detaching from the West means a final separation from Christian humanism, disassociation from generally approved norms of justice, everyday life and cohabitation. She cannot explain to herself the desire to choose violence and evil.
Sedakova appeals to the global meaning of the Russian culture: the Russia that is loved in the world is not a supremely warlike country. Russia is loved thanks to what it has given the world: Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, Mandelstam, Akhmatova, Pasternak and Solzhenitsyn.
The best Russian-ness is an important part of our general humanism, the poet reminds us: These Russians are big, because they are global not national personas of limited importance.
This article was published in ICDS Diplomaatia magazine.