Yaroslav Hrytsak (born 1960) is a Ukrainian historian and publicist. Professor of Modern and Contemporary History at the Ukrainian Catholic University in Lviv.
His commentary was published in the Ukrainian weekly Novoe Vremya and was first published in Time magazine. As a Ukrainian historian, I communicate a lot with historians in Russia, because the history of our countries is interconnected.
I also know many Austrian, American, Israeli, German, Polish, and other historians who study our history. Ever since the war started, they have been writing to me, asking if my family and students are safe, offering help.
And now guess how many Russians called me?
Only two. A married couple who left Russia long before the war began for fear of being stigmatized as “foreign agents.”
I have a friend, a doctor of theoretical physics. The same thing happened to him: since the beginning of the war, only those of his Russian colleagues who are outside the Russian Federation had been looking for him.
I understand that the whole story revolves around politics. Since the war is a continuation of politics by other means, my fellow historians in Russia may consider me an enemy. However, theoretical physics has nothing to do with politics.
There is something in modern Russian culture that makes most Russians – even the highly educated – incapable of ordinary manifestations of human solidarity.
In a recent interview with Ukrainian television, Putin’s fugitive Russian critic, Viktor Shenderovich, called on us not to judge all Russians too harshly because they were only hostages. And it is wrong to blame the hostages.
If this is true, it is only partial. The whole truth is that the Russians surrendered and voluntarily became hostages. Until Putin came to power in 2000, opinion polls in Russia showed that the majority of Russians were ready to replace freedom with an order, were openly hostile to the West, and longed for a firm hand, especially a military force the world would respect. and which he will be afraid of.
In other words, behind the real Vladimir Putin is the collective Putin of the Russian people. Besides, Putin is not just collective – he is repetitive. In the last two hundred years, Russia has gone through several periods of liberalization. Each of them, unfortunately, was followed by a period of repression. The fact that Putin came to power after Gorbachev’s and Yeltsin’s reforms is enough.
Historians call this phenomenon the “Russian pendulum.” Because of its swinging, Russia has never been able to create a civil society. To a large extent, the Russians remain a community of vassals with low mutual trust and low solidarity. If it is not enough in their relations, then why should they be in solidarity with their neighbors?
The past and present of Ukrainians give them a special view of Russian history. Even in periods of democratization, the view of the Russian authorities on the Ukrainian issue was not friendly. The Ukrainian language was officially banned twice during the liberal reforms of Alexander II. Gorbachev claimed that the Ukrainians themselves did not want their children to learn Ukrainian.
Russian oppositionists believe that the essence of Russia is not in its “brainless leaders”, but in Bulgakov, Akhmatova, Mandelstam, Brodsky, and other geniuses of Russian culture. Their legacy was eternal, and in a sense, they were the real Russia.
It may be so. But this did not matter much to Ukrainians then, nor now. Many of Russia’s brightest minds also seem to suffer from the Ukrainian complex.
There are many examples. Here is one of the most recent: the poem by Nobel Laureate in Literature Joseph Brodsky, written on the occasion of Ukraine’s declaration of independence in 1991. I quote the last stanza:
With God, eagles, Cossacks, hetmans, whirligigs!
Only when you come to die, bulls,
will you wheeze, scratching the edge of the mattress,
lines from Alexander, not Taras’s lie.
Goodbye, eagles, Cossacks, hetmans, and cops.
Just know, as soon as the dying woman knocks you over,
he will snort from his bed and the ignorant woman
verse of Alexander [Pushkin], not of Taras [Shevchenko] chatter.
Well, that’s exactly how I see it – the people of Mariupol whisper verses from Pushkin as they perish under the Russian bombing.
At the heart of this attitude towards Ukrainians lies the feeling “how wonderful it is to be a Russian!”. In the imagination of many Russians, Russia is not just another country. This is a country with a great mission: to save the world from the destructive influence of the rotten West.
Accordingly, everything in Russia must be great: both the territory and the army, and even the language must be (as one of the Russian geniuses said) “great and powerful.” Neighboring nations renouncing this great mission are, at best, unreasonable children to be re-educated, and at worst, scoundrels and traitors to be exterminated, deported, and so on. In both cases, these nations should not be left alone until they realize their happiness.
It seems that under the Russian megalomania lies a deep-rooted inferiority complex. The Russians cannot comprehend how, after the victories over Napoleon and Hitler, they live worse than the French and Germans.
Like Aesop’s fable of the fox and the grape, the constant failure to “catch up and overtake the West” leads many to think that “the West is not for us.” That Russia is not a country, but a separate civilization, so the “Western rules” do not apply to them. Accordingly, many Russians are ready to endure incredible suffering or inflict it on their neighbors, just to prove their greatness to the whole world.
Despite all the talk about the mysterious Russian soul, the truth is quite simple. The Russians can fight well (although the current war calls this into question). They can achieve short-term economic success with late imperial or Stalinist modernization.
However, they never managed to carry out political modernization, that is, to limit the central government, separate the church from the state, create independent courts, guarantee the protection of the opposition, to protect citizens from violence.
The Russian question is hardly exclusive. It coexists with German, Polish, Jewish, and other European policy issues. All of them were resolved with often bloody conflicts and indescribable suffering. But in the end, these nations managed to create their states with functioning democracies and whatever economic prosperity.
Now it’s the turn of the Ukrainians. After 30 years in a circle exhausted by the corruption of their elites, they are closer than ever to completing their country’s political modernization. They do not want to be part of a passive megalomaniac community – they are fighting for their right to live in a normal society.
However, as the history of the Marshall Plan shows, even post-war Europe, with its long democratic traditions, would not be able to deal with its problems alone. No country can do its homework without outside help.
Ukraine also deserves the Marshall Plan, and we hope it will. But will the successful solution to the Ukrainian question solve the Russian one as well? Even if Russia loses the war and Putin resigns or dies – where are the guarantees that the “Russian pendulum” will not swing after another liberalization at the other end?
In my humble opinion, the Russian issue can be resolved in light of Putin’s plans for Ukraine. He demanded the denazification of Ukraine. All right. Then Russia will have to go through “de-Russification”, that is, to give up its ambitions for “Greater Russia” and become a normal state. But first Russia must do what the Ukrainians are doing: carry out political reforms, after which Putin will no longer be possible, individual and collective. Russia must do it alone – but with external support or even external supervision in exchange for lifting sanctions.
If those who are calling for an understanding of Russia want it, they should think twice, but abandon the superficial perception. The Russian question is deeply rooted in the past. He needs strategic decisions, not tactical ones. Otherwise, we risk causing great harm not only to Russia and its neighbors but to the whole world.
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