From Republic.ru, Oct. 20, 2022, https://republic.ru/posts/105726. Complete text:
Russian society is experiencing a catastrophe on an unprecedented scale. Hopes are being dashed, achievements are being nullified, families and careers are falling apart, [and] faith in justice and self-respect are crumbling. However, it seems impossible to discuss this total destruction alongside demolished Mariupol [see Vol. 74, No. 20, pp. 6‑8] and continuing missile attacks against Ukrainian cities.
This is all the more difficult since such discussion is only possible on social networks and in independent media, where Russians are constantly crossing paths with Ukrainians, which inevitably serves as a constant reminder that [Russian] society’s problems are “irrelevant” compared to those that [we] have caused our neighbors. It also results in self-censorship as well as refusal by many [people] to discuss anything.
Nevertheless, a conversation about Russian society is necessary and very important.
First and foremost, in the absence of a substantive discussion, we are witnessing moral stigmatization or the settling of scores between those who left [Russia] and those who remained; [between] the disillusioned and those who have not lost hope; [and between] those who consider themselves guilty and those who do not.
Social analysis is often replaced by military propaganda from different sides, while internal evaluations are replaced by external ones. Interpretation of public opinion polls has become an important field of debate: Does the majority support the war, and what does the word “support” mean here? However, even this debate is digressing to issues of morality, guilt and responsibility – in other words, ethical discourse is supplanting practical discussion.
I would venture to suggest that by 2022, most Russians were not politicized to such an extent that they had their own stance on Ukraine. They did not call for war, but nor did they call for peace when the war began [see Vol. 74, No. 8, pp. 9‑13] – not because they supported the war, but because they were unable to formulate their stance. A study by [Russian journalist] Shura Burtin this past April showed that people lack the language to coherently articulate their stance. The only language for talking about Russian-Ukrainian relations was the one used by [Russian] TV propagandists.
However, the crisis is forcing people to resort to this language and apply to themselves the narratives devised by the ruling establishment and the opposition. In this context, these narratives are assuming the form of “for” or “against.” For this reason, public discussions of the situation in Russian society have a programming effect: What group would the majority of Russians, frustrated by the government’s extremism and shaken by the [military] mobilization [see Vol. 74, No. 38, pp. 3‑6], identify with?
This is why I consider it harmful to publicly promote stereotypes that purport that [most Russian] people actively support the war, are antidemocratic, dislike liberals and will never support the opposition. These are not just self-fulfilling prophecies, but they are literally modeling the future: When the “awakened” people listen to what this part of the liberal elite is saying, they will discover that it is saying the exact same thing as the establishment: You are all pro-Putin, and that’s all you will ever be.
On the other hand, it makes sense to get a clear vision of the current situation where people are horrified by the war and are waiting for a return to normalcy. This vision is not in conflict with anything: Just like the above narratives, it programs reality but does not describe it.
Furthermore, any sensible person would have to subscribe to the postulate that Russians are victims of the Kremlin regime. This should not be viewed as some kind of “self-justification.” Yes, it is important to remember that Ukrainians continue to be killed a stone’s throw away, but this is not an argument against such a conversation. A Russian activist who was given a long prison sentence has suffered no less than a Ukrainian refugee who fled to Europe. A Moscow poet who was raped at a police station suffered more than a Kiev resident who had to sit in the basement. Even a mobilized village boy is a victim of the regime until he starts to carry out criminal orders.
Russians have already paid a price for the Kremlin’s reckless misadventure with the destruction of everything that each of us has built over the years – and we are continuing to pay for it with thousands of deaths, [and] with the transformation of mobilized personnel into either killers or casualties. Moreover, the next generation is already doomed to pay for the crimes that are being committed right now.
So it seems to me that a conversation about Russians as victims of the ruling regime is an important conversation that should not be interrupted by self-censorship or peremptory commands from the outside. And no, it is not a conversation about the collective West taking pity on Russians. The purpose of such a discussion is to understand the situation in Russian society [and] to come to the realization that the current regime is hostile toward [Russians] – therefore, it is wrong to identify oneself with [this regime]. This conversation needs to be louder. It is our domestic Russian conversation.
A separate question is who can participate in this conversation, understands the problem, [and] has the resources to be heard and a chance to enlist [public] support. [Oppositionists] Aleksei Navalny and Ilya Yashin are trying to hold precisely this kind of conversation from behind bars. So did [former Yekaterinburg mayor] Yevgeny Roizman – until he was forced to shut up [see Vol. 74, No. 34, pp. 10‑11]. Their example shows that the Russian authorities are afraid of politicians who call things by their proper names; they clearly see the danger of society consolidating around this truth, not around the propaganda of special operators on TV.
I would suggest that in addition to politicians, professional associations could also become – and are in fact becoming – centers of such discussion. In a country where horizontal structures were intentionally destroyed over a long period of time, professional “horizontals” remained as a small but important exception to “vertical” rules. This is precisely why professional associations were the first to oppose the war as early as Feb. 24. Scholars, journalists, physicians, IT specialists, architects, psychologists [and] filmmakers wrote collective protest letters. Right now, some of these communities are trying to save their members from mobilization. These tactics are understandable, but while they can divide society, they can also consolidate their efforts. Mobilization is an attack on society by the state bureaucracy; it makes society a collective victim of criminal policy. I believe that this viewpoint could become the focus of the much-needed conversation that I am writing about.