Opinion | The Russian soul is guilty – there is something wrong with that cultural analysis

An interesting article recently appeared in Times literary supplement by the Ukrainian author Oksana Zabuzhko. People in the West, she wrote, have underestimated the barbarism of the Russians. Too many Western readers have been under the illusion that great Russian writers, such as Fyodor Dostoevsky, share a humanistic tradition with European writers. According to her, those readers would not have looked deep enough into the Russian soul.

Zabuzhko believes that Russian literature is an expression of an “ancient culture of people who can only breathe underwater and therefore have a banal hatred for people with lungs instead of dandruff.” Only “Dostoevsky” – an “explosion of pure evil and long-confined hatred and jealousy” – can explain Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Her analysis has a somewhat old-fashioned connotation. Once upon a time it was customary to attribute to the Third Reich a pathology in the German soul. The “From Luther to Hitler” thesis was popular. The seeds of Nazism had been planted before Hitler for 500 years. This rough interpretation of German history no longer has many followers.

The same kind of ideas applied with even more conviction to Japan in the 1940s. Since Japan had no equivalent to Hitler or the Nazi Party, militarism in the 20th century had to be attributed to Japanese culture. At the very least, Germany could rejoin the tradition of Goethe and Mozart. Japan had no such thing. The ‘spirit of samurai’ and ‘feudalism’ prevailed. And those diseases could only be cured by massive re-education.

Therefore, during the American occupation of Japan, symptoms of the alleged Japanese pathology, such as the traditional one kabuki theater, sword fighting movies and even depictions of the sacred Fuji mountain are forbidden. This undoubtedly caused irritation, but most of the Japanese already had it hard enough in the early post-war years to worry about it. Moreover, that censorship soon came to an end.

Traces of the Samurai spirit

As in other democracies, in today’s Japan and Germany there are those who adhere to ultranationalist and even fascist ideas. But apart from the general phenomenon, it is difficult to see many traces of the samurai spirit in Japan or Nazi barbarism in Germany. On the contrary, both countries are quite peaceful, and Germany is more open to immigrants and refugees than most other European countries.

Does this mean that cultural re-education has succeeded? Or was there always something wrong with cultural analysis? I think the latter. The Nazis also loved Goethe and Mozart. And the Japanese did not invade China and other parts of Asia because they had seen too many sword fighting movies. Anyone with a bit of knowledge of history knows that cruelty and murderous politics can occur anywhere, among all peoples, at any time. During the Thirty Years’ War in the 17th century, the Swedes were responsible for the worst horrors.

Humans can degenerate into barbarism if their fears and their darkest instincts are driven by demagogues and dictators. When soldiers pass through foreign and hostile lands, torture, mass murder, and rape often follow. Sometimes this is encouraged from above to terrorize the enemy. And sometimes it’s a lack of discipline when the officers can no longer keep order. Japanese and Germans know it all too well, but so do Serbs, Americans, Belgians, Dutch, Russians and many others.

Also read: Germany and Japan are shaken up by Russian invasion

History of oppression

It is a fact that some countries have a longer history of oppression than others. The Russians have had little luck in this regard. It is also true that the Russian Orthodox Church has often cooperated closely with tyranny, from the Tsars to Vladimir Putin. But to claim that Putin’s (or Stalin’s) rule is an inevitable result of Russian culture is tantamount to the “Luther to Hitler” theory. Nothing is inevitable. And if there is such a thing as a ‘national character’, that can quickly change.

There is also great risk in trying to blame Russian culture for Putin’s aggression and invasion of Ukraine. Boycott of Russian athletes, refusal to play Russian music and quarrels against Russian literature play into the hands of the dictator.

No culture is monolithic, especially not Russian. Many Russian writers, composers and painters draw their inspiration from the cultures of France, Germany or England. European enlightenment did not get past St. Petersburg either. Of course, there is also the slavophile side of Russian culture with its suspicious and outraged view of the West. This has produced spiritual and romantic masterpieces and is also a source of fierce paranoia. Both sides of the culture emerge in Dostoevsky’s novels.

The arrogant and corrupt West

Putin is deliberately exploiting the most paranoid aspects of Russian culture. He wants all Russians to fear the arrogant, decadent, depraved rule of the West. Persecution delusions are easy to evoke, but not unique to Russians. Nazi propaganda and Japanese war propaganda were also imbued with self-pity.

Putin’s propaganda plays on the collective memory of the terrible war with Germany. But it is also personal. The end of the Soviet Union was a deep humiliation for this former KGB agent. But that does not make him the personification of Russian culture.

Putin wants us to see the invasion of Ukraine not as a war with his regime, but as an existential conflict with the Russians and their culture. It reinforces the paranoia he needs to keep most Russians on his side. In fact, it results in exactly the same mentality that the Allies found in Germany and Japan in 1945, and which they saw as typical of deeply rooted national characters.

In order not to make the same mistake again, we must cherish the pinnacle of Russian music, literature and dance and hold back our anger on Putin and his associates who are working hard to poison the source of that civilization.

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