Don’t Blame Dostoyevsky

From The Atlantic:

Culture, too, is a casualty of war. After Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, some Ukrainian writers called for a boycott of Russian music, films, and books. Others have all but accused Russian literature of complicity in the atrocities committed by Russian soldiers. The entire culture, they say, is imperialist, and this military aggression reveals the moral bankruptcy of Russia’s so-called civilization. The road to Bucha, they argue, runs through Russian literature.

Terrible crimes, I agree, are being committed in the name of my people, in the name of my country, in my name. I can see how this war has turned the language of Pushkin and Tolstoy into the language of war criminals and murderers. What does the world see of “Russian culture” today but bombs falling on maternity hospitals and mutilated corpses on the streets of Kyiv’s suburbs?

It hurts to be Russian right now. What can I say when I hear that a Pushkin monument is being dismantled in Ukraine? I just keep quiet and feel penitent. And hope that perhaps a Ukrainian poet will speak up for Pushkin.

The Putin regime has dealt Russian culture a crushing blow, just as the Russian state has done to its artists, musicians, and writers so many times before. People in the arts are forced to sing patriotic songs or emigrate. The regime has in effect “canceled” culture in my country. Recently a young protester faced arrest for holding a placard that bore a quote from Tolstoy.

Russian culture has always had reason to fear the Russian state. In the saying commonly attributed to the great 19th-century thinker and writer Alexander Herzen, who was sent into internal exile for his anti-czarist sentiments—and reading “forbidden books,” as he put it—“The state in Russia has set itself up like an occupying army.” The Russian system of political power has remained unchanged and unchanging down the centuries—a pyramid of slaves worshipping the supreme khan. That’s how it was during the Golden Horde, that’s how it was in Stalin’s time, that’s how it is today under Vladimir Putin.

The world is surprised at the quiescence of the Russian people, the lack of opposition to the war. But this has been their survival strategy for generations—as the last line of Pushkin’s Boris Godunov puts it, “The people are silent.” Silence is safer. Whoever is in power is always right, and you have to obey whatever order comes. And whoever disagrees ends up in jail or worse. And as Russians know only too well from bitter historical experience, never say, This is the worst. As the popular adage has it: “One should not wish death on a bad czar.” For who knows what the next one will be like?

Only words can undo this silence. This is why poetry was always more than poetry in Russia. Former Soviet prisoners are said to have attested that Russian classics saved their lives in the labor camps when they retold the novels of Turgenev, Tolstoy, and Dostoyevsky to other inmates. Russian literature could not prevent the Gulags, but it did help prisoners survive them.

The Russian state has no use for Russian culture unless it can be made to serve the state. Soviet power wanted to give itself an air of humanity and righteousness, so it built monuments to Russian writers. “Pushkin, our be-all and end-all!” rang out from stages in 1937, during the Great Purge, when even the executioners trembled with fear. The regime needs culture as a human mask—or as combat camouflage. That’s why Stalin needed Dmitri Shostakovich and Putin needs Valery Gergiev.

Link to the rest at The Atlantic