The Self-Hating Russian

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.

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24 thoughts on “The Self-Hating Russian”

  1. Beautiful piece of observation that you picked out the moment of peak mendacity:

    ‘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.’

    That is a sickening bit of tautological “reasoning” and bombast.

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  2. An excellent piece, Paul, that effectively captures the impossible-to-please liberal self-loathers of Russia. The incongruity is that they actually believe they are Russia’s unsung and unloved heroes, and that Russia would be a better place for all if only it would listen to them.

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  3. “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 former but never of the latter? Shishkin’s diatribes about living in ‘a country where the air is permeated with hatred’ serve only to spread misunderstanding further.”

    Surely you meant to write: “Why then does The New York Times always choose to print the opinions of the latter but never the former?”

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  4. The phenomenon of the “self-hating Russian” is nothing new. It dates , probably, as early as early XIX century. Alexander Pushkin nailed down this type of human… being in his verses:

    Ты просвещением свой разум осветил,
    Ты правды чистый лик увидел,
    И нежно чуждые народы возлюбил,
    И мудро свой возненавидел

    – 1831

    This verse, and ” Клеветникам России ” were written after the Polish Rebellion of 1831, when quite a lot of Russian “liberals” honestly wished the defeat to their own armies. Pushkin, who had very unfriendly relations with Russian monarchy and authorities, who had a lot of Decembrist friends, nevertheless, wrote “shockingly” patriotic poetic works at that moment. For which, naturally, liberals cursed his name.

    This kind of pattern then has continued – so-called Russian liberals cursed their own country and army during the Crimea war and were actually glad by their defeat. Russian liberals (in)famously sent telegrams to Japanese Emperor, congratulating him with victories during Russian-Japanese war, etc. Since Herzen (quite well to do noble and serf-owner) Russian liberals were dead sure that entire Russia is a “country of slaves” – except them, of course.

    Russian so called “liberals” are bastard children of the Westernization and Russia itself. They don’t belong to Russia, which they despise with all their… soul. Neither do they belong to the West, which they idealize and worship without any measure – only to be regarded by it as some curiosities or useful tools for political/propaganda efforts in any confrontation with Russia – but hardly as the equal fellow “civilized” beings.

    One very important note. It’s really rather telling, that this article was written by the co-called “Russian liberal”, because it has this phrase:

    “…who demonstrated how a nation can rise up and live like human beings…”

    You know, some Westerners were very confused by this turn of phrase, when I introduced it to them. “How can you wish to live like a human being if you are already a human being?” Obviously, they are unfamiliar with Russian liberals, who view their fellow citizens as wallowing in dung sub-human ” bydlo “, and themselves – as the innocent victims, who deserve much, much better by the virtue of them being, well, “liberals”. It’s rather telling that the so-called Russian liberals have neither plan nor any idea of how to introduce said “normal human life” in Russia. For them “this country” is hopeless. Unless, of course, 85+% of its population, that doesn’t share their views are made disappear… somehow.

    And, yes, so-called Russian liberals most of the time call Russia just “this/that country” – but never “my/our country”.

    To sum up, the attitude of the so-called Russian “liberals” can be described by slightly paraphrasing the immortal words of Isaac Babel:

    Everyone makes mistakes. Even God himself does… Was it not God’s mistake to settle LIBERALS in Russia where they suffer like in Hell? Would it be any worse if we lived in Switzerland now, where the constitution is good, parliament is excellent and every single person around is Frenchmen? But everyone makes mistakes. Even God.

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    1. This indeed goes back a ways. Dostoevsky parodied it in the character of Smerdyakov:

      “In 1812 there was a great invasion of Russia by Napoleon… and it would have been a good thing if they had conquered us. A clever nation would have conquered a very stupid one and annexed it. We should have had quite different institutions”

      But the issue of WW2 is quite a bit different. Losing the Crimean or Japanese wars did not mean Russia would be destroyed as a nation. The stakes were not nearly as high.

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  5. By Shishkin’s Orwellian reasoning (Defeat=Victory), the Carthaginians should be overjoyed that they lost the war to Rome.
    Oh wait… there aren’t any Carthanigians any more… because Rome killed them all..

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  6. Very apt to expose this strange level of Russianism. It is easy to put Kasparov in the same category (whose comments in the Munk debate were embarrassing). And to confirm your last comment on the NY Times, I was disappointed to also find a weird long article by Gary Steyngart, also Russian emigre but a very good writer, who somehow agreed to a strange stint of Russian TV binge watching and ended up coming close to the Shishkin line. Maybe there is such wide water between Russian thought and Western ideology that it is easier to completely denounce roots than to make a concerted effort at synthesis.

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    1. Maybe there is such wide water between Russian thought and Western ideology that it is easier to completely denounce roots than to make a concerted effort at synthesis.

      Pardon me my ignorance, but I can’t recall any “Western ideology”, that both on the official, governmental level, and among the people themselves, “glorifies” everything negative in thier own country’s past (and present), while slavishly extolling the virtues of another country.

      And when said so-called “Russian liberals” emigrate, they continue their tearful preaching about “how everything is bad and getting worse in Russia” ™. While being totally ignorant about their own new Homeland’s drawbacks (as demonstrated by Kasparov recently)

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  7. “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. ”

    So is Russia Today going to stop only interviewing Westerners like Noam Chomsky and George Galloway who echo their own prejudices (“everything is the United States’ fault; Russia is just defending herself etc….), and start interviewing those who really represent public opinion in the West?

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    1. This will happened on the same day, when Radio Free Bullshi Europe, CNN and Co start interviewing someone other than Kasyanov, Kasparov and Khodorkovkiy

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  8. We all know too well which opinion was prevailing in Nazi Germany after 1933. If Kremlin simply does what the majority wants, Russia will end up in a catastrophe, just like Germany did. The “self-hating” Russian intelligentsia is the only social force that promotes critical thinking, warns against the rise of new dictatorship, and prevents us from falling into obscurantism.

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    1. I could take this seriously if I thought Russian “liberals” (who are actually quite authoritarian-minded) were actually promoting critical thinking, rather than behaving like an ideological sect or cult.

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    2. It is presumptuous to limit the identity of Russian intelligentsia to those that favor the self-hating Russian view, and the only ones able to think critically. It is easy to dismiss the entire patriotic segment of Russian society – who then also, in larger fringes, dip into just as much vitriole about Western leaders as does the West – into a vast mass of people that are being led by some conniving power class. What is clear is that any American freedom-meddling has consistently stirred up sections of society which were then not helpful for their version of democracy-building (Ukraine, Syria, Afghanistan,…) – and you are correct that the vast majority of Russians are currenlty located a bit to the right of Putin, proving again the point that it is its missiology that America needs to abandon, while reexamining the domestic implementation of its own guiding principles. The level of critical thinking within Russia, even within the right, middle or left is sufficiently strong and diverse to not support a similar messianic role in the world.

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    3. We all know too well which opinion was prevailing in Nazi Germany after 1933.

      Actually, we don’t. You see, in 1933 besides Nazis a lot of leftists (even the DREADFUL communists) still had a lot of influence on the people of Germany. It took Nazis a “Reichtag Fire Plot” to purge the only viable opposition to them, and then the process of reshaping the national perception went smoothly.

      The “self-hating” Russian intelligentsia is the only social force that promotes critical thinking, warns against the rise of new dictatorship, and prevents us from falling into obscurantism.

      Should I provide some chosen quotes from Novodvorskaya, Latynina, Chubays, Khdorkovkiy, Koch, Pozner and other “Paragons of Russian liberalism” or you know them already?

      Because so-called “Russian liberals” have no desire for the implementation of the actual liberalism – they want power for themselves, and, more often than not, try to transfrom their own “parties” into totalitarian sects.

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    4. UPD
      If Kremlin simply does what the majority wants, Russia will end up in a catastrophe, just like Germany did.

      No. That’s not true.

      Nazi Germany met its end in 1945 primarily because it had been wrecked by another country with another where the “prevailing opinion” of the “majority” was rather different. “Not being subjugated and/or enslaved” was a distinct, if not the crucial, part of said “opinion”

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  9. I just read “Frontline Ukraine” from Richard Sakwa and well, if a Pole effectively urges the west to dial back the Russophobia a bit, then the west kind of has a problem.

    Back on topic, it is unfair to the Russian intelligensia to associate them all if the “self hating Russians”. The old Soviet fact, that secret agents were usually the people with the most interesting things to say, is probably still true.

    My own introduction to what I believe to be some pretty low level govermental analysts aligned with probably the SVR (too humorous for the FSB I think, but then SVR theoretically doesnt do Analysis so who knows) came, in true Soviet fashion, from me telling a political joke they found amusing.
    I lamented that the quality of Soviet products greatly declined after the collapse, and that this decline was nowhere more obvious then in the quality of dissident production.
    This is especially omnious since the quality of American dissident manufacturing has actually become quite good, even though certain American gender ideosyncracies render an important segment of that output somewhat unsuitable for the Russian market.

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  10. Concerning Napoleon, he does offer the instructive lesson that Russia is beatable outside of its home turf.
    This also held true in WW1, where the largest Russian defeats took place outside of Russian territory (f.e. Tannenberg), and in WW2 the crushing initial defeats happened in Polish/Baltic soil.

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