I spent about a month with 2 friends in Russia in 2016. We had a great time, mostly in Moscow, where we started the trip and in St. Petersburg where we finished up. My two friends left earlier than I did. I'm an intrepid solo traveler and, don't tell them, but that was the best part of the trip. I met a soccer player who had hurt his leg and couldn't play (soccer) and that was awesome and could have never happened with my two friends around. And I went to visit the Grand Choral Synagogue. First I want to share a couple of things about Russian soccer, although:
a- no, I do not have a photo of the guy and
b- I don't remember his name, although I remember that it was a common Russian name like Ivan, but it wasn't Ivan, Yevgeny, Dmitry, Pavel, Anton, Maxim, Ilya, Fyodor... wait, wait... it was Alexei (like Alyosha in Brothers Karamazov, who he resembled in some ways). No, I think his name is Igor. Damn!
Sorry for the tangent. Alexei (or Igor), who loves rap and dreams of moving to Miami Beach, was drunk a lot and got angry at me when he asked me if I like Petersburg or L.A. better and I said L.A. He says he hates America. He learned to in school. Did you know that Russia has been encouraging extreme violence around football matches in Europe? It's a thing and Putin denies any involvement but a prominent member of the Duma, Igor Lebedev, deputy chairman of the Russian soccer foundation urged the hooligans on Twitter to "keep it up." The phrase they chant during the violent episodes-- Russkie Vperyod! (Forward, Russians!)-- happens to be emblematic of the brand of throwback patriotism that emerged from Putin's run for re-election in 2012. Ahead of that vote, the Kremlin decided that the only way to galvanize a surly electorate was to play on the old Russian fears and prejudices from Cold War days. (It worked: Putin's popularity rose along with animosity toward the West.) What I learned from Alexei or Igor is that ever since, a series of crises in Russia's relations with the West-- and this is way before the current crisis in Ukraine, obviously-- have helped the state's powerful propaganda channels [including high school curricula] nurture a national siege mentality, portraying Russia as the victim of a bullying and treacherous West whose primary aim is to bring the country to its knees. Alexei or Igor was screwed up in the head.
One day he went to watch his team practice and I went to the Grand Choral Synagogue. I'll tell you why in a minute but first let me say something about the synagogue's glorious history. Tsarist Russia was ultra anti-Semitic and between the late 1700s and 1917 almost all Jews were pushed into the Pale (rural Ukraine, all of Belarus, Lithuania and Moldava. Only wealthy Jews could get permission to live in Moscow, St Petersburg and Kiev. In 1869 a rich Jewish financier, Joseph Günzburg, asked Tsar Alexander II for permission to build a synagogue in St Petersburg, the capital and with lots of demeaning stipulations, permission was granted. They started building in 1880 and it was consecrated in 1893, one of the biggest and grandest synagogues in the world.
My grandfather left Russia in 1905 after a series of pograms had killed thousands of Jews across the Pale including the in the area his family lived in. When he got to St Petersburg, still a teenager, to board a ship for America, the Grand Choral Synagogue was 12 years old and the second largest synagogue in Europe. My grandfather wasn't any more religious than I am but he had never been in a grand building of any kind before. He prayed at the synagogue before leaving for America. I did the same on the afternoon I visited.
A little over a week ago, Tim Snyder did a guest piece for
the Washington Post I found fascinating, By denying a Ukrainian culture, Putin flattens his own., especially as a fan of Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, Chekov and Pushkin. Ukraine is considered, at least in part, the spiritual home of Mother Russia. But Ukraine is the second largest country in Europe-- bigger than California, nearly as big as Texas-- with a population of 40 million, slightly more than California. It was the most populous and most industrialized part of the Soviet Union, as well as the country's bread-basket. The tsars prohibited the use of the Ukrainian language by the end of the 17th century.
Putin, wrote Snyder, wants to deny that there even is a Ukraine and "crush" it into Russia, as in Tsarist and Soviet times. "He says God told him that Ukrainian souls are Russian. History revealed to him that Ukraine strives to be one with Russia; the very language he speaks entitles him to invade any country where Russian is spoken. An official Russian news service removed any ambiguity a few days ago, publishing a text advocating the complete elimination of the Ukrainian nation as such. And so Ukraine must be crushed, and anyone who thinks or speaks of Ukraine must be eliminated."
By way of these deep misunderstandings, Putin has placed the Ukrainian nation at the center of world history, for everyone to see. A Ukrainian actor, Volodymyr Zelensky, is now one of the most recognizable people on Earth. Putin’s invasion made visible not only that courageous, democratically elected president but also functional institutions, an impressive civil society, and journalists, activists and musicians who appear on our television screens and in our newspapers.
Matters are murkier in Putin’s Russia. A war based upon a big lie is also hard on its culture of origin. Everyone is looking at the Russian nation-- or perhaps, rather, for it. What does it do to a society to invade a neighbor, which it claims to love, on the basis of bottomless self-deception? Americans have not yet recovered from the lies they told about Iraq two decades ago, and the Russian deception campaign runs far deeper. How are Russian parents altered when they deny to their children in Ukraine that any war is taking place? What sort of nation makes war and then forbids the use of the very word?
This is Putin’s war, but it is far too simple to say that it is only his war. It is made in the name of Russia, and the killing and maiming and abducting and deporting of Ukrainians are being done by tens of thousands of Russian citizens. As north-central Ukraine is liberated by its own citizens, hundreds of corpses of Ukrainian civilians are found in Bucha and other towns, in positions that suggest atrocities including rape, torture and execution. “This is how the Russian state will now be perceived,” Zelensky said. “Your culture and human appearance perished together with the Ukrainian men and women to whom you came.” Massacres seem to be a normal Russian occupation practice. Even as Russians are committing war crimes that violate Ukraine’s right to exist, Russians are told (and often seem to believe) that they are refighting the Second World War and resisting Nazis. That is a very big lie, and big lies do lasting damage.
The active suppression of freedom of speech and assembly turns a culture toward the abyss. It takes labor to produce unceasing televised propaganda and suppress other media. The last few sources of actual war reporting in Russia have disappeared. It takes violence by thousands of Russians to suppress those with a mind and the will to speak it in public. Russians reading poems are arrested. Russians who carry signs with Bible passages are arrested. Russians who carry signs with only asterisks are arrested. Russians wearing hats in blue and yellow, the colors of the Ukrainian flag, are arrested. Russians who carry anti-fascist signs are arrested.
Putin’s police know that anyone talking seriously about fascism is talking about him. Fascism claims to glorify the nation, but it moves a society toward entirely generic behavior, stimulated by a pattern of threat and release from threat. In regime propaganda videos, the police are the protagonists: First their presence inspires fear, then you are meant to feel relief as you realize that the police are on your side so long as you conform in advance to the regime’s demands. In one such video, police sprint from their van toward a group. The viewer is supposed to feel alarmed: The officers are going to beat the crowd! Instead, police and civilians all lock arms to form a giant Z, the symbol of the invasion. Good: The senseless violence is not directed against you but against Ukrainians. Everyone relax.
Is that culture?
Like Hitler’s swastika, the Z the Kremlin uses has no inherent significance. It functions as a stand-in for culture: You display this meaningless symbol to buy time for excuses for mass murder that you will think up later. You pin ribbons with the symbol on your clothes so you do not have to say anything with your mouths. You form a letter with your bodies as an act of loyalty to an undefined cause. You are expressing your readiness to accept that definition, whatever it might turn out to be — you are obeying in advance. You write the Z on the doors of people who think otherwise in order to threaten them.
The rest of us can measure the staggering courage of individual Russian protesters and dissenters against that silencing violence of empty ritual. These Russians create culture by expressing themselves and acting unpredictably, and so they are immediately repressed. Public culture has collapsed as the talented flee or are punished. Educational culture is under threat as schoolchildren and university students are fed war propaganda and as aspiring teachers are denied courses in social sciences and world literature.
Ukraine is a bilingual country where people switch freely between Ukrainian and Russian. At present, Ukraine is the world’s most important shelter for Russian-language creativity. A single line of one of Zelensky’s appeals to Russians has more vitality than the entirety of Russian television since the war began. Putin is not protecting Russian speakers, as he claims; he is killing them. Most of the possibly thousands of Ukrainians killed in the total destruction of Mariupol spoke Russian as a first language. Putin has claimed that Russians in the West or those who somehow think like Westerners are scum, traitors and insects. What then is left? When culture isolates itself, it ceases to exist. The associated procedures of denunciation, persecution and conformism generate a culture of sorts, but a sadly generic one that has nothing specifically to do with the country where they take place.
A culture has to involve unpredictable encounters. Russian culture up to now has been deeply involved with Poland, with Germany, with the United States, with everything that it now defines as alien and untouchable. Putin complains that Russian culture has been “canceled” by the West. “They’re now engaging in the cancel culture, even removing Tchaikovsky, Shostakovich and Rachmaninoff from posters,” he said. “Russian writers and books are now canceled.” He has reached peak tyranny, and therefore peak irony.
It is true that some Western performances of Russian works have been canceled. Yet this is a reaction to an entirely unprovoked war of destruction. And the word “canceled” trivializes what Putin himself has done to Russian culture by silencing his own country, seeking to destroy Ukraine and calling Russians abroad scum. Culture arises from contact, and contact requires humility. In the poem by Mayakovsky, who was Russian, culture arises when we understand our haughtiness toward others as a mask of ignorance. An encounter is only an encounter when we do not know just how the other person will react. Freedom of speech does not mean that everyone in your country starts to make giant alphabet shapes with their bodies when you say so. Putin’s freedom of speech is not violated if Ukrainians act according to their own convictions and resist him.
The actions of Ukrainians during this terrible war have inspired respect-- and humility. Would we be so calm, so articulate, so resolute? Americans and the West in general have been right to listen to the Ukrainians-- to their desire to exist as a nation and as a state, to their conviction that they can prevail. This is an encounter, one that we did not expect, one whose consequences are unpredictable. In this sense, we all owe a debt to Ukraine.
So does Russia. Much as American culture is unthinkable without English culture, Russian culture is unthinkable without Ukraine’s. Kyiv and Chernihiv, cities that Russia is shelling, were homes to schools that provided educated priests, professionals and bureaucrats to a Russian empire where such people were in high demand. All of Russian literature, goes the saying, came from Gogol-- and Gogol came from Ukraine. Russia will now owe an even greater debt to Ukraine. The sooner Ukraine wins this war, the greater the chance that Russian culture will survive.