Dr. Alexander Motyl, professor of political science at Rutgers-Newark
The Russian People Are Morally Guilty
For Putinís War In Ukraine
President Putin testing a new sniper rifle. Image Credit: Russian State Media
†At least Raskolnikov had a guilty
conscience. Whether contemporary Russians do, too, remains unclear.
Fyodor Dostoevskyís tormented hero believed his
extraordinary qualities permitted him to commit murder. After killing two
women, he felt impelled to revisit the scene of his crime, eventually broke
down and confessed his guilt, and finally found redemption in prison.
The story could be an allegory for what awaits
Like Raskolnikov, some
Russians have been directly complicit in the crimes Vladimir Putin committed against his own people and other nations. They cheered him
on as he devastated Chechnya, invaded Georgia in 2008 and Ukraine in 2014, and they still cheer him on as he
commits genocide and ethnic cleansing in Ukraine today.
The majority has been blind to the crimes,
preferring to revel in the feelings of greatness that Putin engendered. Putinís
popularity has hovered in the 60-90 percent range for the last two decades,
even as he systematically dismantled Russiaís nascent democratic institutions,
muzzled the press, silenced the opposition, killed his political opponents,
extended his control over the economy, promoted corruption, surrounded himself
with toadies from the army and secret police, and transformed Russia into some
version of an authoritarian, totalitarian, or fascist state.
Although many Russians
have taken to the
streets in protests in the past
and many continue to do so in the present, the silent majority has been and
remains as largely indifferent to Putinís misdeeds as it is overwhelmingly
supportive of Joseph Stalin and his legacy. Germans began turning their back on
Adolf Hitler immediately after World War II and they decisively broke with him
sometime in the late 1960s, roughly 25 years after the end of the war. Since
then, the German government and civil society have done everything possible to
prevent that hateful legacy from reemerging.
In contrast, Russian attitudes
toward Stalin remain positive, even 69 years after his death and 30 years after
the collapse of the Soviet Union. More disturbing, Putin has consciously
adopted Stalinís mantle, insisted that todayís Russia is a continuation of the
USSR and imperial Russia, and, instead of facing opprobrium, has actually garnered still greater
Unlike Raskolnikov, who felt guilt and obsessed
about his crimes, most Russians prefer to remain blissfully unaware of the
awful weight of Leninís predations, Stalinís mass murders, Brezhnevís
repressions, and Putinís assassinations and war crimes. Russians cannot very
well claim not to have known of the crimesóas many Germans did regarding the
death campsóbecause there has been an explosion of histories, journalistic
accounts, television programs, and memoirs dealing with the Soviet Unionís
misdeeds. And, until Putinís recently imposed blackout on news in Russia, there
were ample sources on Putinís dictatorial rule. Russians only had to look, but
they chose not to.
That doesnít make them legally guilty for
Putinís or Stalinís criminal actions. There is, after all, no such thing as
collective guilt. But, like Raskolnikov, they should be tormented by guilty
consciences and desirous of finding redemption. But, unlike Raskolnikov, they
Their indifference does make
them morally guilty. The millions of
are being driven from their
homes, the many thousands who will
die as a result of intentional Russian shelling of civilian targets (including
kindergartens and maternity wards), and the many thousands of Russian and
Ukrainian soldiers who will have perished for the maniacal ambitions of a
dictatoróall of them will be on the conscience of Russiaís silent majority.
When, if at all, will Russians
wake up to the reality of their sins and seek forgivenessófrom all their
neighbors and from each other? Their adoration of Putin has already been tarnished by the huge losses the Russian army has incurred in the war
against Ukraine. But their bizarre love of a warmongering dictator will start
to dissipate with full force only after he is gone. Fortunately for the
Russians, there is growing talk among Russian and Western elites of the
necessity of a coup against Putin.
Since Putin has already
transformed Russia into a prison, Russians will be able to seek redemption
without being sent to prison. In any case, they would do well to reread Crime
and Punishment and prepare accordingly.
12 03 2022