Russia’s tongue-tied society:
Chechnya, Syria, now Ukraine.


by Alissa Ordabai

What emboldened Putin in Ukraine? Was it Russian society’s silence following Russia’s war crimes in Chechnya and Syria? Its indifference toward Putin’s military escapades in Moldova, Georgia and Donbass? Its apathy to the fact that Russian troops only a month ago suppressed a popular uprising in Kazakhstan? While Ukrainian hospitals, kindergartens, and nuclear power plants are getting bombed by the Russian army, Russian opposition and intelligentsia continue to grapple with empathy-eroding nationalism among the general populace as well as its own ranks. 



Empathy became the biggest driver of virtue this week in societies across the world. Millions across the globe are grieving for Ukraine's slaughtered children, civilians, and soldiers, while admiring the brave men and women who are standing up to the torrent of Russian army's onslaught. Huge crowds are demonstrating against the Russian invasion of Ukraine across all major cities of the world — from New York to Prague. 


By contrast, only several thousand people at most have come out to protest in major Russian cities. Those who do, are being detained by the police. 


But as time goes on, an increasing number of ordinary people across the world are asking why the few of those brave Russians are not joined by their compatriots in trying to stop their country's attack on Ukraine. Which leads many to another question: Do ordinary Russians really support Putin's actions in Ukraine?


Earlier this week a poll by a Russian state-run Public Opinion Foundation (FOM) revealed that trust in Putin has gone up since the invasion: from 60% to 71%. Another Russian poll conducted by the Levada Centre claims that a third of Russians don't support Putin's actions in Ukraine, and that this figure goes up to 50% in major cities. Results of a CNN poll released on February 24 showed that 50% of its Russian participants said that use of force would be justified to prevent Ukraine from joining NATO, while 25 percent said it would be wrong. But, of course, when the regime turns increasingly dictatorial, many are afraid to respond truthfully to polls — whoever they are conducted by. 


Meanwhile, Russian intellectuals are telling us that they are dealing not only with grief for the Ukrainians who are getting killed, raped and displaced by the Russian army, but also struggle with feelings of regret and guilt. Russia-born academics teaching at Western universities have been most vocal in resisting the general anti-Russian sentiment which now gathers momentum in societies of their host countries. Appealing to values postulated by the Russian classics such as Leo Tolstoy and Fyodor Dostoyevsky, they point out that Russian culture is humane and represents universal human ethics and mores. But what they really talk about here is the Russian culture of the 19th century. While many in the West want to know about the culture and the values of today’s Russia.  


Not only Ukrainians respond to expressions of remorse coming from the Russian society with a curt "We don't believe you." Other critics in the former Soviet states point out that anti-Western, anti-American, and xenophobic sentiment has been prominent in the Russian political culture and public discourse over the past 20 years, and especially during the past few years. 


Many observers believe that the shift happened in 2020 — when Russia voted for amendments to its constitution allowing Vladimir Putin to remain in power after 2024. This is when even former dissidents and free-thinkers — veterans of the human rights movement in the USSR — have begun to side with the Russian state propaganda narrative about "the imminent collapse of Western civilization.” The explanation they gave coincided with what the state media was preaching:  "Because Western governments work to ensure the safety and equality of LGBTQI+ people and promotes concepts such as female equality and multiculturalism.”


Well-known men and women of letters, veteran human rights activists, prominent cultural observers — all aged between 50 and 70 — who had before called themselves “liberals” were now castigating Black Lives Matter and Me Too, portraying Greta Thunberg as a bane to society, mocking LGBT movements, and vilifying George Floyd as "nothing but a drug addict" who "got what he deserved." What is surprising is that those were the same people who had historically represented the most active part of the anti-Putin chorus in Russia. 


While these attitudes are not widely shared by the younger generations, some younger critics of the Kremlin still see nothing wrong when their leader Navalny refuses to speak about Russia's war crimes in Chechnya, fails to condemn the annexation of Crimea, or calls the Georgian nation "rodents". It is as if each generation has its own way to express its xenophobia. 


But Russia’s war crimes in Chechnya deserve a special mention in this context. Failure of the entire Russian society (apart from the precious few) to denounce them and to demand their investigation now haunts those who say they feel "ashamed" by Russia's current actions in Ukraine.


What drives this indifference is as much xenophobia as the result of the 70 years of Soviet rule with its propaganda and its education strategies. Prominent Soviet political scientist Ilya Zemtsov wrote in his seminal 1989 book "The Realities and Facets of Perestroika": "The tools of [Soviet] propaganda are aggressive in their nature, but they also has defensive goals: to stop and delay the spread of democratic and humanistic ideas in Soviet society.”


And it’s the humanistic ideas that were dealt the most heavy blow not only by the Soviet rule, but also post-Soviet mores and attitudes. 


While I am re-reading Zemtsov's words, Maxim Galkin — a well-known Russian comic — is not only being derided by the Russian state media for speaking out against the war, but is also feeling the burnt of popular disapproval: his gig in Arkhangelsk is about to get canceled because people are returning their tickets in protest against his anti-war views. 


People in Russia are frightened. A new draft law has just been enacted imposing a prison term of up to 15 years for anyone who calls this war a war, never mind condemns it.  Appeals by the Ukrainian media and the Ukrainian military to Russians to take to the streets and help them bring Putin to his senses are falling on deaf ears. How much of it is fear, and how much — genuine support for Putin, remains to be seen. 


What is clear now, however, is that it is not enough for Russian citizens to condemn the war in Ukraine. Russia needs to look into its own recent history, to investigate and condemn the war crimes it committed in Afghanistan, in Chechnya, in Syria, to show penitence for its invasions of Moldova and Georgia. It needs to examine and condemn its suppression of popular uprisings in Berlin, Budapest, Prague, and — most recently — Almaty. And it needs to find a way for the humanistic values of its own 19th century culture — values of compassion, authenticity, and self-worth — to be incorporated into the life of its society of today. 

- New York, March 4, 2022.