The Price of Conformism: Do all Russians deserve the sanctions?


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Оne of the powerful moments of the High Holidays liturgy is the vidui prayer, when all the Jews in the congregation, rhythmically beating themselves on the chest, ask forgiveness for terrible crimes most have never personally committed: “We’ve betrayed, we’ve robbed, we’ve slandered, we’ve deceived …”. As human beings we are all interconnected and responsible for one another. And as we go through the list of offenses, the feeling of collective guilt becomes more and more personal. Even if I haven’t deliberately committed any of those sins, how many times have I remained indifferent when someone else’s life or dignity were assaulted?

The Russian cultural, religious and ideological master narrative is quite different. Despite the canonical values of humility and repentance, Russians have tended to blame external forces for their transgressions, portraying themselves as victims rather than as perpetrators. During centuries of various authoritarian regimes people got used to delegating most important decisions to their rulers. “But we didn’t know … No one asked us…. What can we do anyway?…” are common mantras. So today, just a week after the introduction of unprecedented economic sanctions against Russia, many wonder why they deserve such collective punishment.

While compared to what Ukrainians have been enduring since February 24 this may seem trifling, sanctions have indeed impacted the life of average Russian citizens. Many have seen their life savings plummet as the rouble lost nearly half its value overnight.

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The foreign travel to which people became accustomed during the post-Soviet decades suddenly appears an uncertain prospect. Entrepreneurs have been abandoned by their foreign partners, and thousands of employees will lose their jobs as Western companies move out. The world-renowned maestro Valery Gergiev and soprano Anna Netrebko have seen their foreign engagements cancelled.

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Russian athletes are no longer admitted to any world competitions. International scientific and business collaborations have collapsed. Foreign electronics and spare parts for cars and other equipment will now be hard to come by. And the prices for almost all products will inevitably rise.

Those who happened to be abroad at the time when dozens of countries suddenly closed their airspace for flights in and out of Russia had to resort to complicated and costly travel arrangements to return home. Those who live or work abroad can no longer access Sberbank, Rostelecom and other sites of state-owned companies, which prevents them from paying their utility bills, communal charges, and taxes for property in Russia. This may seem like a minor annoyance, but “absentees” could eventually lose their apartments, along with family heirlooms and personal belongings. Grabbing neighbors’ property has been a Russian sport for at least a century: when the Revolution sent 2 million people into exile, their houses were immediately “nationalized” and redistributed. During the Great Terror of the 1930s, there was an easy way to deal with the shortage of housing: you could anonymously denounce your neighbor to get him arrested – and move into the vacated living quarters. In early 1942, my own great-grandmother declined a precious opportunity to evacuate from besieged Leningrad along with her daughter and granddaughter in order to stay behind and “guard” the apartment from unlawful seizure. Amazingly, she survived despite starvation and daily bombardment and saved her home for a dispersed family to return to after the war.

To make a long story short, world leaders can congratulate themselves – the sanctions are working and hurting the Russian people both inside and outside of the country.

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But will the sanctions achieve the intended goals of stopping the war in Ukraine and removing Putin from power? If those who orchestrated them assumed that depriving Russian citizens of creature comforts will make them overthrow their government, they should think twice. Not because Russians are any less materialistic than the average person. But it’s enough to turn to history to understand that they can adjust to almost any hardship.

And the ruling elite will be effected last. Putin and his circle are well prepared: the billions they have stolen from the state budget over the decades have been safely stashed away under the names of various proxies. Even if a couple of yachts and villas are confiscated here and there, the “state” will generously reimburse their patriotic owners out of our own pockets. The limitations on imports may even benefit them. After the annexation of Crimea, select businessmen got rich as a result of the “import replacement” program – they received budget allocations to create domestic equivalents, and this also provided all the parties involved with further opportunities for money laundering. Even Belarus got its piece of the pie, supplying “French camembert” to the Russian market – identical to its original namesake in everything except taste and smell. A few days after the invasion, in his address to the nation,  Putin was already promoting a fantastic opportunity to “develop new competences”, to manufacture our own high-tech products, aircraft, etc. And China will supply the rest. If the quality turns out to be worse, people will get used to it. And the elite will continue draining the wealth that still remains in the country while feeding people with stories of Russia’s territorial greatness and military might.

The West’s attempts to isolate Russia offer a gift to Putin, and he may even help, locking it from the inside. Already calls have been made to reintroduce Soviet-era “exit permits” for Russian citizens wishing to cross the border. The iron curtain is good for dictators who can unleash repression without any annoying witnesses or foreign reporters. The country’s only independent radio station “The Echo of Moscow” was shut down a few days ago. Severe sentences have been introduced for spreading any “fake news” about the war – which includes using the word “war” itself, now officially banned in favor of “special operation” (Russian social sites hoaxers reacted promptly by proposing a new title for Tolstoy’s masterpiece: Special Operation and Peace).  Turning off the global Internet is planned for March 11. And the locked-up population, whose collective brain is already polluted by years of toxic militaristic propaganda, will completely lose orientation and rally behind their leader.

Only an extended anti-war movement involving millions of people across Russia could make the Kremlin budge. But so far, there have been bigger crowds at IKEA, soon to leave the Russian market, than demonstrating in the streets. Russian scientists who have signed various letters of protest are courageous people who put their career and security on the line. Those who have been coming out at sporadic anti-war demonstrations, including ca. 5,000 who were arrested on March 6, are true tzaddiks. But they do not form a critical mass in this country of 140 million. The majority is passive and silent. A great many have been sufficiently brainwashed to actually believe that the Russian army is liberating Ukrainian brethren from a fascist junta, headed by the Jewish Führer (!) Volodymyr Zelensky. Others think that everyone is lying anyway, so why even bother figuring out which side is right. Some who consider themselves to be refined intellectuals are convinced that discussing the political situation is mauvais ton: they are “above politics”, like the “eternal student” Petya Trofimov from Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard was “above love.”

Of course many are against the invasion. But the instinct of most educated and wealthy people has been to leave Russia as soon as the war broke out and to wait in the security of quasi emigration. The Israeli embassy in Moscow will now experience a surge in applications for aliyah, as many Russian citizens have decided to dig for possible Jewish roots. And some, many indeed, are understandably afraid – to lose their jobs, to expose their children and families or to have their bones broken by the sadistic riot police if they join the protesters. An important factor is that the opposition has been almost entirely stamped out, so there are no popular leaders who could inspire people to fight for their future.

The sanctions are meted out to all of us, irrespective of our personal position. Whether this collective punishment is fair or unfair in each individual case is beside the point. We will all have to pay the price.

For conformism.

For condoning grotesque corruption.

For ignoring the first signs of Vladimir Putin’s style of leadership: in 2000, as the crew of the Kursk submarine were slowly suffocating on the bottom of the Barents sea, the President continued his vacation, cruising on jet skis and reluctant to accept foreign assistance – it seemed more important to keep secret the design of the flagship submarine than to save 118 human lives.

For looking the other way when Boris Nemtsov was gunned down in front of the Kremlin or when Alexei Navalny was first poisoned and then put in jail.

For remaining indifferent when the courts lost their independence, the Constitution was basically suspended and when the puppets in the State Duma voted unanimously to “write off” Putin’s years in power, clearing the way for his potentially indefinite rule.

Most importantly —  for not shielding our minds from all the trash pouring out of the propagandistic TV shows.

Sadly, transforming one eighth of the earth’s land surface into a gigantic North Korea is quite feasible now – sanctions and Kremlin efforts together can accomplish it in no time.  People unable to think and decide for themselves are doomed to act out a script of someone else’s making.

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About the Author
Maria Rubins is a Professor of Russian and Comparative Literature at University College London. Born and raised in Russia, she studied at Saint Petersburg State University. Later she moved to the USA, where she received her Ph.D. from Brown University. Her books include Crossroad of Arts, Crossroad of Cultures; Russian Montparnasse; and Redefining Russian Literary Diaspora, 1920-2020. She has translated into Russian novels of Elizabeth Gaskell, Judith Gauthier, Irène Némirovsky and Arnaud Delalande and contributed to various media outlets, including BBC, Radio Liberty, NTV, Voice of Russia, Los Angeles Review of Books, Mosaic, The New Review, and Zvezda.
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