Updated: Apr 18
Cross to bear: can Russia ever atone for Putin’s sins? - 16.04.22
‘The photographs of murdered civilians, their hands tied behind their backs, shot in the head and tossed like animals on to the street… we will not forget, and no one will let us forget,’ wrote Russian journalist and author Yevgenia Albats last week. ‘The guilt for this will lie on our children and grandchildren. Bucha, Irpin, Motyzhin – we will now have to live with them for ever.’
Powerful words and moving nostra culpa for Russian atrocities in Ukraine. But they raise a vital question. Who, exactly, is the ‘we’ who is to bear the blame, guilt and punishment? All Russians? The 70 per cent of Russians who official polls claim actively support the war? Russian soldiers responsible for the atrocities? The commanders who ordered, or at least condoned, them? Or is it just Vladimir Putin and the very tiny clique who conceived and launched the invasion?
Yevgenia Albats is one of the very few Russians who have written publicly of her whole people’s need for ‘repentance’, ‘guilt’ and ‘shame’. But she is also one of the very few Russians who has passionately and publicly opposed the war – and spent a career, as editor of the now-banned New Times independent newspaper, exposing the brutality and corruption of the Putin regime, in particular its venal and murderous secret police. If any Russian is free from guilt by association, it’s Albats and people like her.
The Russians who are actually most responsible are the ones who feel the least guilt. The nihilists and the cynics, the conspiracy theorists and the my-country-right-or-wrong crowd. Russians’ self-delusion comes in a rainbow of dirty colours – from the ‘all media is lying’ and ‘guilt on both sides’ to the outright Russian patriots who believe that their country’s historical destiny is to protect and dominate little brother peoples on the peripheries of the old empire.
Crisis is a great revealer of people’s true nature. And as it turns out, all kinds of surprising old Russian friends – people whom I had thought bohemian, charming, international, well-informed – have shown themselves to be obnoxious apologists.
‘This Bucha looks too perfect, at least the way it was produced,’ writes one Muscovite who has lived in Europe for 20 years. ‘Bodies clean? Moving hands? Cars burned and clean beside each other? I am not saying it didn’t happen, but they should focus on what has happened to all the villages cancelled from the map…’
She meant the villages of Donbas supposedly wiped out by Ukrainian forces after the 2014 war. I pointed out that indeed two million out of the pre-2014 three million-strong population of Donbas moved away in the wake of the separatist war, which left some 14,000 dead. But that was eight years ago. I add links to UN reports – signed off on by Russia – of recent civilian casualties in Donbas. The death toll for 2021: 25 civilians on both sides of the line of control, mostly killed by unexploded ordnance.
‘Owen, have you seen any of the content, blocked by every country but Germany, of what is really happening in Ukraine? Hundreds of civilians tortured for years?’ is her reply. ‘Five bodies cannot become the end of the world after everything that the world has been doing for years. Sorry… It is about fair conflict: Russia against everyone.’
And the video evidence of the Bucha massacre – fake or not?
‘Most people who work in the [media] industry noticed the same, so we are not drugged strangers,’ she claims. I send a video conclusively debunking the Russian conspiracy theory that corpses in Bucha supposedly moved their hands and sat up. The YouTube link features the now infamous image of a dead woman’s hand with painted fingernails emerging from the ground.
‘Darling, it is not about perfect nails,’ comes the answer, followed by a smiley face that makes me choke with fury.
This conversation continues for some days, my now former friend leaping like a retreating frog from one conspiracy to another. In the end we get to the heart of the matter. She is Russian. She believes (rightly) that the world is against her country. And she will defend it, against all evidence, because she believes that her nation is an essential part of her self-worth.
That’s the key to understanding why so many Russians believe the outlandish propaganda that the Kremlin media machine puts out. Not because they are unusually stupid or gullible people. Not because they don’t have access to alternative information (which, despite internet access bans, is accessible through free VPNs or secure phone apps like Telegram).
Owen Matthews writes about Russia for The Spectator and is the author of Red Traitor.