In recent years a new archetype has arisen – the ‘self-hating Russian.’ A well-educated person with liberal political opinions, the root of his or her hatred of Russia lies in his or her dislike of Vladimir Putin’s government. This requires him or her to deny that there is anything positive about modern Russia. Furthermore, since the Putin government appeals to history to support its legitimacy, the self-hating Russian has to deny anything positive about Russian history as well. Dislike of the existing order thus translates into contempt of everything to do with the person’s own country.
A striking example of this appeared in last Saturday’s New York Times in the form of an article by novelist Mikhail Shishkin, entitled ‘How Russia Lost the War’. It is a very poor article, not only because of its rambling, ranting nature, but also because what appears to be the central argument – that victory in the Second World War was really a defeat for Russia – reveals a remarkable lack of concern for historical context.
‘What would constitute a victory for my country?’, asks Shishkin, adding that, ‘Each one of Hitler’s victories was a defeat for Germany. And the final rout of Nazi Germany was a victory for the Germans themselves, who demonstrated how a nation can rise up and live like human beings without the delirium of war in their heads.’ Perhaps it seems like that to Shishkin now, but I am sure it didn’t seem like that to Germans at the time. Defeat meant over seven million German dead, the destruction of most of Germany’s major cities, the loss of significant amounts of territory, the forcible deportation of millions of Germans from the surrendered lands, and perpetual national shame. This was hardly a ‘victory for the Germans themselves.’
Moreover, by saying that defeat was good for Nazi Germany, Shishkin implies that defeat would have been good for Russia too. Speaking of his father, who served in the Soviet Navy, Shishkin opines that, ‘He and millions of Soviet soldiers, sailors and airmen, virtual slaves, brought the world not liberation but another slavery.’ This is a remarkable piece of historical revisionism. Faced with a genocidal threat of unprecedented magnitude, the Soviet people were quite literally fighting for their lives. Defeat in the Second World War would have been catastrophic for them. Not just Russia, but all the nations within the European boundaries of the Soviet Union, would have ceased to exist in any meaningful way. To be sure, because of its flawed economic system, the Soviet Union subsequently did a poor job of reconstruction after the war compared with Western Europe. But that does not mean that it lost the war, or that winning it was a bad thing. ‘The fruits of this victory were less freedom and more poverty,’ writes Shishkin. No they weren’t; they were survival.
Shishkin’s inability to see this says a lot about the ineptitude of contemporary Russian liberals, who seem to be unable to find a way to express opposition to the current government without simultaneously expressing contempt for their own country. Given this kind of talk, it is no wonder that they are unable to gather more than a couple of percentage points of support in national polls.
The views expressed by Shishkin represent the attitudes of a tiny minority of the Russian population. Far more representative are the 500,000 Russians who marched in Moscow on 9 May carrying pictures of relatives who died in the war (the ‘Immortal Regiment’). There is a serious lack of mutual understanding between Russia and the West at this point in time. Overcoming that problem requires that both Russians and Westerners listen to the voices of the other side, which means listening to those who best represent prevailing public opinion rather than just those who echo one’s own prejudices. Why then does The New York Times always choose to print the opinions of the latter but never of the former? Shishkin’s diatribes about living in ‘a country where the air is permeated with hatred’ serve only to spread misunderstanding further.