The road for
every Russian

Russia’s brutal bombardment of Ukraine is in its second year yet Vladimir Putin faces almost no internal dissent. In his new book, Mikhail Shishkin explains why

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What is it with the Russians? Why do they allow the Kremlin to wage an unprovoked war against Ukraine? To everyone living outside the nation that has the biggest land mass on earth, its people’s apparent support for the invasion is unfathomable.

Incomprehension of Russia is not new, however. Back in the 1930s Winston Churchill confessed that he too was baffled, and famously defined the country as “a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma”.

So we require a Russian to help us understand Russia – to explain the riddle, unwrap the mystery and decode the enigma – and there are few people better qualified to do so than Mikhail Shishkin, one of the country’s most prominent authors.

In his new book, My Russia: War or Peace? he rejects Churchill’s head-scratching assessment. “Russians are neither puzzling nor mysterious – there is only ignorance,” he writes. As a consequence, he argues, the West has always failed to understand the country’s history, culture and mindset.

Shishkin uses just two words to define the complex Russian psyche that has enabled the ruthless assault on Ukraine. The words are “Russkiy mir”, which, he says, encapsulate an innate state of mind that has its origins in medieval Russia. The word “mir” stands for a peasant village community.

He writes: “If [a villager] cried, ‘They’re beating our people!’ everyone would come running out armed with sticks and pitchforks, without stopping to think whether ‘our people’ were in the right. Thus Putinist propaganda has been crying for years that ‘they’re beating our people in Ukraine.’”

According to Shishkin this village mindset explains why so many Russians who live in the West are still prepared to support the president, Vladimir Putin, and his war. They may physically live in Zurich, London or Larnaca, he says, but mentally they are in the Russkiy Mir.

Shishkin is a notable exception to this state of mind. He has lived in exile since 1995 and is one of Putin’s most outspoken critics. Speaking over Zoom from his home near Basel in Switzerland, he explains why Russkiy mir – first invoked by the Bolsheviks following the 1917 October Revolution to gain the support of the people – has also become the watchword of Putin ideology. Effectively, it is playing the nationalist card, which Putin knows will resonate with a large portion of the population.

“We call ourselves Russians but we are two absolutely different nations in mentality,” he says. “One small section has European values and belongs to contemporary humankind, but the majority belong to the past. Most Russians won’t take responsibility for [the invasion of Urkaine]. They will say it is Putin’s war, not our war, and we were just trying to help the Ukrainians to get rid of the Nato Nazis.”

This is the modern-day manifestation of a paranoia about the West that has existed for more than a century, and which has led the Russian people to demand the reassuring protection of strong leaders.

A congenital desire for omnipotent tsar-like figures crops up again and again in the book. In one chapter Shishkin recalls playing a childhood game called Mountain Tsar in winter, piling up a huge heap of snow that had a slide on one side, the aim being to climb to the top and keep everyone else off by fair means or foul.

“Russian history has been playing this game for a thousand years now,” he writes. “The only difference is that in this version, blood is shed and sometimes inundates the entire country.”

Shishkin echoes the 19th century Russian writer and thinker Alexander Herzen, when he says that the Russian state has consistently ruled its people like an occupying army. It is something most of the population have learned to live with in return for strong tsarist security. But, he goes on, in order to be tsar-like in the eyes of the Russian people presidents need to have a war, adding: “Not just a war, but a victorious war.”

And so in 1994 Putin’s predecessor, Boris Yeltsin, “to prove he was a real tsar”, ordered a military invasion of Chechnya to restore control over the republic that had so recently been part of the Soviet Union. But Yeltsin miscalculated and lost, thus failing the test of being a tsar and paving the way for the ascendency of Putin, who also had to have wars to prove that he was a successful tsar.

By then, Shishkin says, it should have been manifestly clear to the West that Putin was not going to liberalise Russian society, as had been hoped, and adopt a friendlier attitude in its relationships with Europe and the United States, since his background was steeped in the Soviet brutalism that was a hangover from the regime of Stalin.

Above: Mikhail Shishkin has lived in exile since 1995 (Photo: Evgeniya Frolkova). Main image: Putin at a Moscow rally. Shishkin says Russia can only be saved by “de-Putinisation” (Photo: Maxim Blinov/Shutterstock)

After the collapse of the Soviet Union and fall of the Iron Curtain in the early 1990s, Shishkin points out that there were no Nuremberg-like trials for members of the Communist Party who had committed horrific crimes against the Russians.

“Russia was never de-Stalinised. And look who was in charge of building democracy? I mean, can you imagine in 1945 the Allies allowing people from the Gestapo to create a new democratic Germany?” he laughs.

“So what happened in Russia in the 1990s was that people from the KGB and the Communist Party were left in charge of building up a democratic society, and it was just a matter of time before a new dictatorship would be in place.”

Shishkin believes that Russia can only be saved by “de-Putinisation”. Just as, in 1945, the Germans who “didn’t know” were confronted with the concentration camps, the Russians who “don’t know” have to be confronted with ruined Ukrainian cities and the bodies of dead children.

“We Russians must openly and bravely acknowledge our guilt and ask for forgiveness. Every Russian has to go down this road. But will Russia get down on its knees in Kyiv, Kharkiv and Mariupol?”

He is not hopeful. “In 1945 the Germans tried to justify themselves, arguing that, yes, Hitler was a vile and evil criminal, but they, the German people, didn’t know anything about it – that they, too, were Hitler’s victims. The moment the Russians use the same argument, and claim that Putin’s criminal gang took the people hostage, that he did wage a criminal war against Ukraine but ordinary Russians didn’t know that and thought it was about liberating the Ukrainians from fascists, that they, too, were Putin’s victims – the moment this happens, de-Putinsation will fail, and a new Putin will be born.”

However, Shishkin takes a more optimistic view when asked about the prospects of nuclear war. Most people in the West have lived with the threat of all-out conflict with Russia for more than six decades, so will Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin – after a year of nuclear sabre-rattling – be the person who finally pushes the red button and causes global catastrophe?

He answers by again referring back to Nazi Germany and Adolf Hitler. “Imagine that in April 1945, with defeat almost certain, Hitler had an atomic bomb. Would he use it? Of course he would, because these dictators believe that if they must die then the whole world must die with them. I have no doubt about that.

“But because of the way things work in Russia Putin cannot do it alone. He has a chain of people who have to fulfil his order to start an atomic war, and for these people, if he has found himself in that hopeless situation, he will already not be a real tsar. Why should they die following the orders of a failed tsar? That is why there will be no atomic war at all.”

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