What are we guilty of? The rage of war includes accusations, the desire to subdue someone morally, not just physically. We, Russian citizens, are not only surprised and shocked by a brutal war accompanied by internal repression, but are also a target of collective blaming. It is hard to dismiss this blame in the face of the atrocities committed by the army of the state we formally and territorially belong to. Not in our name! we said. But nationalist propaganda interpellates us, too, as “Russians.” It is obvious to everyone who knows the Russian society that it is categorically split. Russian urban educated class has for decades opposed the regime, particularly in its anti-Western and anti-Ukrainian tendencies, but it remained a minority of 10-15%, and all the channels of democratic political life were firmly closed. Should we all have just left the country, or resorted to violence? The question is open, but the morality and the rationality of both options is questionable.
Karl Jaspers, in a similar situation of the German people after WWII, distinguished among the criminal, political, moral, and metaphysical guilt. Being a German who opposed the war but remained in the country, he admitted, partly, a collective moral guilt (for belonging to the German culture with its Romantic darkness and its culture of obedience) and the metaphysical guilt of inactivity in the face of an evil force.
Nonetheless, the argument is tricky. Jaspers thought that the feeling of guilt was good for the soul. Maybe. But maybe the opposite is true: based on the discourse of sin, universal guilt makes you appropriate and personalize evil. Evil, as such, thus penetrates your soul and, dialectically, produces a sadistic moral conscience; it tempts you to further impose this guilt on others who do not yet feel it and is doomed to provoke a new radical evil in action, for instance, by someone who resists this moralization. If we look at the long period stretching from WWII to the current war, we see this dialectic played out: the self-moralization of the West in the aftermath of the German Nazi disaster gradually turns into a moralistic foreign policy which, in turn, produces Putin’s right-wing resentment. Intolerance toward oneself and toward others emerges as an extension of this guilt feeling. And, arguably, the current war that engages more and more soldiers and TV-viewers in a bloodbath pursues, among other things, the purpose of making everyone complicit in this bloodshed. Which has the same effect that the current understandable but naïve emotion against “Russians” also produces.
Perhaps, an alternative approach—let us say a humanist one—would be better. It would entail believing in the spark of goodness, in the inner force of resistance to evil, in oneself and the others, of resistance, which we trust to prevail ultimately. But this approach is flawed when you associate with someone who acts out of meanness: all of us, being good people, underestimated the bad ones. And we are guilty of our tolerance. But those intolerant toward the conservative and nationalist attitudes of impoverished populations, aren’t they also responsible for having alienated these very populations and pushed them toward the extreme right ideologies? A new theory of tolerance is needed to untie this ethical knot.
The good should not be blind. There is, in this respect, a psychoanalytic theory of guilt, which relies on the figure of the split subject. Guilty, we feel our hidden desires and fears, when they are realized, in us or in the others. Oedipus is thus guilty, in a way, even though technically he is not: he did not know he was killing his father. But why didn’t he know? He thought of himself as a good man with strong family values.
Our instance is similar to this. The justified celebration of WWII victory and mourning for Stalin’s repressions could both be covering up a message: “Do it!” “Reenact it from the bad side!” Guilt and desire go together, turn into one another. Responsible is, however, not the one who simply has such demoniac desire or provokes it in others, but one to whom it remains hidden behind the screen of moralizing until the moment when it is realized out of the blue. The moral task is then a tough one: to recognize and to contain the death wish, in oneself and in others.
Here I come to my conclusion. What are we indeed responsible for?
-Intellectually, for the underestimation of the demoniac potential of history.
-Morally, for the split between the intellectuals and the people, where we are on the guilty side of moral superiority.
Contemporary liberal democracy is essentially an ideology of Bildungsstaat, the Enlightenment educatory state. The people had to be educated into democracy and into civic public sphere. Otherwise, parliamentarism had no sense. This original doctrine entailed colonialism and was accompanied with large-scale violence. Therefore, it was partly forgotten and replaced by the Schumpeterian “democracy” of self-interested consumers. But this is not a better alternative, which in the current decades increasingly produces the scandal of “populism.” Bewildered “democrats” stare at “populists” as their unrecognized shadow: democracy minus Bildung.
So, our collective responsibility is structural. It follows not from identifying ourselves with the Russian war supporters, but, on the contrary, from separating ourselves from them. Our own type of guilt is not the same as Putin’s: it is more like the Western position of a civilized citizen whose only problem is her encounter with the common, undemocratically-minded people, from within as well as from without. The value split between the conservative majority and the 15% of the liberal minority, having been reinforced by the Russian propaganda in the mass media, led to the exclusion of the liberal-democratic group from Russian public space, already by 2013-2014. The “people” minus the intellectuals was gradually led by the propaganda to trust in the inevitability of a war between Russia and the NATO.
Are we guilty of the split? Yes and no. It is structural, but we are at the geometrical top of the structure. An obvious task is to overcome it. The failure to do so, both in international and national systems, is in part a result of the unwillingness to share, between disparate groups, their wealth and the way of life. The Marshall Plan of the USA in Germany was an important condition of the latter’s acceptance of its guilt and of its moral “reeducation.” The failure to do so in the USSR created, in the 1990s, a bitter clash between the civilizing and the populist political forces, a clash reproduced in such wars as the current one. Our responsibility is to bridge these clashing forces and our duty is to create cross-class solidarities.
Let this be on the mind of the new exodus of the Russian intelligentsia, happening exactly one hundred years after the previous one. Resist the accusation of what you never had anything to do with. But mind the collective responsibility for the divide and the exclusion that had sustained your dignity. You’re responsible for your goodness, not for meanness.