After a year of war in Ukraine it has become commonplace among western commentators to argue that the war is deeply rooted in the “Russian mentality”, history and culture. Russians, it is said have an imperial mindset.
Russian citizens share a collective responsibility, regardless of their personal positions. They failed to stop Putin and Putinism, and now have only themselves to blame. The only way the Russians can learn is for Russia to be defeated. Defeat will foster repentance.
In Russia, a common narrative has also emerged, on which acceptance of the war rests – even if there isn’t outright support. The frame is that the west is against Russia and determined to cut it off from Europe.
Putin may not have needed to start the war, but as the current situation offers no way out, Russia has to plough on. Even many of those who initially opposed the war have accepted this.
One reason for this is a lack of an alternative story to which the Russian public can relate. It is not about media bans and shutdowns.
State media dominates – but YouTube and Telegram offer platforms for the Russian opposition, as well as access to Ukrainian channels and western news. Use of virtual private networks (VPN) to access banned sites is widespread, despite the government’s warnings.
The problem is that those who follow these outlets find them increasingly hard to swallow, as both sides are trapped in a dynamic of polarisation. The Ukrainian narrative is outright hostile – “Russianness” itself is a problem, and the country should be renamed “Moskovia” to symbolically “cancel Russia”.
Ukraine is defending itself in a brutal war – and a desire to undermine the enemy by word and image is understandable – but few among the Russian public can subscribe to its messaging.
Wanted: a credible opposition narrative
The Russian opposition in Europe has been largely unsuccessful in offering a credible alternative. Some call from exile for violent resistance inside Russia, but this carries enormous risks. Others, like Garry Kasparov, believe change should come through a Ukrainian military victory.
However, calls from abroad for “Russia’s crushing defeat” hardly resonate among Russian citizens. It’s hard to expect many Russians to wish to see their own army defeated, even if they oppose the war. The war in Afghanistan was not popular, but nobody welcomed the slaughter of Soviet conscripts.
Likewise, the expressions of joy in the west when about 300 Russian soldiers were killed in Makiivka by a Ukrainian strike as they sat down for a New Year’s Day meal makes one doubt whether any humanity is left anywhere. Any loss of life is a tragedy.
The lines that have formed are remarkably devoid of nuance. Many things are wrong with Russia – and the war certainly is – but not everything Russian is wrong. Not that pundits agree. For many, the whole of Russian society is infected with imperial syndrome. It destroys itself and others around it. It is hard to love and impossible to build relations with.
These are terrible times – and making them blacker only serves to alienate both sides. Unless the opposition comes up with ideas that offer hope, it risks being confined to an insular and aggrieved group, focusing on their own squabbles, as the interest in the war in the west wanes.
Don’t isolate ordinary Russians
Discourse from the west, Ukraine and the Russian opposition leaves the Russian public feeling hounded from all sides and trapped. Russians I have met believe it is too risky to speak Russian in public in the west and that they would be hated if they were to travel.
Physically isolated from Europe, and cut off from academic and scientific collaboration, Russians feel persecuted as a nation. Though sympathies exist in Asia and elsewhere, Russia is a European country and Russians are European people. As a prominent journalist and the chair of the Council for Foreign and Defense Policy, Fedor Lukyanov writes:
Russia for the future, as long as it is populated by those who live there now, has been, is and will be a country of European culture and European tradition. Regardless of whether it confirms it or denies it, whether it struggles with it or rejoices, it does not matter. Our worldview is shaped by the influence of Europe and by the perception of Europe as a landmark.
Europe’s ostracism matters – but only in the sense that it serves to disempower society and makes it go along with the state, but not as an aspiring influence. Black and white narratives are convenient to justify wars – but a more complex narrative is needed to search for peace.
In time, the war will end, and Russians and Ukrainians will find their ways of dealing with each other. And it will be for the Russian people to rebuild their country – more likely when the Putin era draws to a close – and come to a reckoning how a country which gave the world Tolstoy and Tchaikovsky, also produced the war crimes of Bucha and Iprin.
Russia would rejoin a European path, but Europe would need to reach out, however difficult this might be. Helpful perspectives that the public in Russia can rally around and which do not project an image of Russians as eternal villains will be essential for getting to a better future.