An interesting article recently appeared in the Times Literary Supplement by the Ukrainian writer Oksana Zabuzhko. People in the West, she wrote, have underestimated the barbarism of the Russians. Too many Western readers have been under the illusion that great Russian writers, such as Fyodor Dostoevsky, share a humanist tradition with European writers. According to her, those readers would not have looked deeply enough into the Russian soul.
Zabuzhko believes that Russian literature is an expression of an “ancient culture of people who can only breathe underwater and therefore have a banal hatred for people with lungs instead of scales.” Only “Dostoevskyism” – an “explosion of pure evil and long-pent up hatred and jealousy” – can explain Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
Her analysis has a somewhat old-fashioned connotation. Once it was customary to attribute the Third Reich to a pathology of the German soul. The “From Luther to Hitler” thesis was popular. The seeds of Nazism had been planted before Hitler for 500 years. This crude interpretation of German history no longer has many adherents.
The same kind of ideas applied with even more conviction to Japan in the 1940s. Because Japan had no equivalent of Hitler or the Nazi Party, militarism in the 20th century had to be attributed to Japanese culture. At least Germany could rejoin the tradition of Goethe and Mozart. Japan had no such thing. There reigned the ‘spirit of the samurai’ and ‘feudalism’. And those diseases could only be cured by massive re-education.
Therefore, during the American occupation of Japan, symptoms of the alleged Japanese pathology, such as the traditional kabuki theatre, sword fighting movies, and even depictions of sacred Mount Fuji are banned. This undoubtedly caused irritation, but most Japanese already had it hard enough in the early post-war years to worry about it. Moreover, that censorship soon came to an end.
Traces of the Samurai Spirit
As in other democracies, in today’s Japan and Germany there are those who adhere to ultra-nationalist, and even fascist ideas. But that general phenomenon aside, it’s hard to see many traces of the samurai spirit in Japan, or Nazi barbarism in Germany. On the contrary, both countries are quite peaceful and Germany is more open to immigrants and refugees than most other European countries.
Does this mean that cultural re-education has succeeded? Or was there always something wrong with cultural analysis? I think the latter. After all, Nazis also loved Goethe and Mozart. And the Japanese didn’t invade China and other parts of Asia because they’d seen too many sword fighting movies. Anyone with a bit of knowledge of history knows that cruelty and murderous politics can occur anywhere, among all peoples, at any time. During the Thirty Years’ War in the 17th century, the Swedes were responsible for the worst horrors.
Humans can degenerate into barbarism if their fears and their darkest instincts are fueled by demagogues and dictators. When soldiers pass through strange and hostile countries, torture, mass murder, and rape often follow. Sometimes this is encouraged from above to terrorize the enemy. And sometimes it’s a lack of discipline when the officers can no longer keep order. Japanese and Germans know this all too well, but also Serbs, Americans, Belgians, Dutch, Russians, and many others.
Also read: Germany and Japan shaken awake by Russian invasion
History of oppression
It is a fact that some countries have a longer history of oppression than others. Russians have had little luck in this regard. It is also true that the Russian Orthodox Church has often collaborated closely with tyranny, from the Tsars to Vladimir Putin. But to claim that Putin’s (or Stalin’s) regime is an inevitable result of Russian culture is tantamount to the “Luther to Hitler” theory. Nothing is inevitable. And if there is such a thing as a ‘national character’, that can change quickly.
There is also a high risk of attempting to blame Russian culture for Putin’s aggression and invasion of Ukraine. Boycotts of Russian sportsmen, refusal to play Russian music and ranting against Russian literature play into the hands of the dictator.
No culture is monolithic, especially not Russian. Many Russian writers, composers and painters draw their inspiration from the cultures of France, Germany or England. The European Enlightenment did not pass by St. Petersburg either. Of course there is also the Slavophilic side of Russian culture, with its suspicious and resentful view of the West. This has produced spiritual and romantic masterpieces, and is also a source of violent paranoia. Both sides of the culture emerge in Dostoevsky’s novels.
The arrogant and depraved West
Putin deliberately exploits the most paranoid aspects of Russian culture. He wants all Russians to fear the domination of the arrogant, decadent, depraved West. Persecution delusions are easy to stir up, but not unique to Russians. Nazi propaganda and Japanese war propaganda were also imbued with self-pity.
Putin’s propaganda plays on the collective memory of the terrible war with Germany. But it is also personal. The end of the Soviet Union was a deep humiliation for this ex-KGB agent. But that does not make him the personification of Russian culture.
Putin wants us to see the invasion of Ukraine not as a war with his regime, but as an existential conflict with the Russians and their culture. It reinforces the paranoia he needs to keep most Russians on his side. In fact, it results in the exact same mentality that the Allies found in Germany and Japan in 1945 and which they saw as typical of deeply rooted national characters.
In order not to make the same mistake again, we must cherish the pinnacles of Russian music, literature and dance, and hold back our anger at Putin and his associates who are working hard to poison the source of that civilization.
A version of this article also appeared in the newspaper of June 18, 2022