By Timothy Snyder / Special To The Washington Post
In his 1926 poem “Debt to Ukraine,” Vladimir Mayakovsky wrote: “It’s hard to crush people into one. Don’t raise yourself so high.” After all, the Russian poet continued: “Do we know the Ukrainian night? No, we do not know the Ukrainian night.”
But Vladimir Putin wants to crush people into one. 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; the Russian deception campaign runs far deeper. How are Russian parents altered when they deny 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 “cancelled” 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.
Timothy Snyder is the author of a half-dozen books on Russia and Ukraine, including “The Road to Unfreedom” and “Bloodlands.” He is the Levin Professor of History at Yale University.