POLITICS

Russia’s collective responsibility? Looking for comparative case studies

May 10, 2022
By Marlene Laruelle
Marlene Laruelle on how should we discuss the question of Russia’s collective responsibility and what are the comparative case studies to think of for generating a non-moralizing discussion.
The question of collective responsibility will now be a central and painful element of many discussions on Russia. It is a multifaceted one that includes recognition of state violence in the current war against Ukraine, memorial difficulties in addressing the Soviet past, and a colonial/imperial mindset (the nuances between the two terms still having to be thought through) toward the region.

The question of collective responsibility—at least some aspects of it—is not a new one the Soviet regime – due to its duration over seven decades and multiple internal political transformations – did not allow for a clear, black-and-white picture with easily identifiable groups of executioners and groups of victims.
"The Soviet regime – due to its duration over seven decades and multiple internal political transformations – did not allow for a clear, black-and-white picture with easily identifiable groups of executioners and groups of victims."
Many people who had been part of the Soviet political system at one time became its victims later.

Today, many Russian citizens find themselves in a situation of collective cognitive dissonance, unable to accept the idea of Russia being the aggressor in Ukraine while trying to look past all the information seeping through the new informational iron curtain put up by the Russian authorities that indicates the human cost of the war. Many others do accept the war, or at least the “special operation” version they are told about, in the name of defending the motherland against Western/Ukrainian aggression.

While very few Russians are exalted by the war and hope to use it to rejuvenate the nation, many prefer not to see it and to go on with their lives. One could refer to Hannah Arendt’s “banality of evil” idea that people, even when disengaged ideologically, may commit awful acts or let them happen without resistance. Her concept has been challenged by the literature since then, however, and many new approaches, including anthropological and psychological, have helped us to rethink how people internalize power hierarchies and learn to live in repressive regimes.

Comparing today’s Russia to Nazi Germany appears to me too extreme and largely counterproductive. Nazism embodies absolute evil, which resulted in an absolute crime, the Holocaust – it is more an exception than the norm for countries at war and authoritarian/dictatorial regimes. Consequently, the transformations of Germany’s collective identity after the war have been as radical as the violence it committed during the war, and a new, fundamentally different definition of “living together” emerged. Thus, the applicability of Germany’s transformation of its collective guilt is limited by the exceptional nature of the Nazi experience. Russia would benefit from comparisons with other countries where the transformations have been less radical.
"Thus, the applicability of Germany’s transformation of its collective guilt is limited by the exceptional nature of the Nazi experience. Russia would benefit from comparisons with other countries where the transformations have been less radical."
Post-war Japan could be one of these more nuanced examples, as phases of “amnesia” alternated with phases of recognizing war crimes. Tensions with South Korea and China have escalated regularly, sparked by Japanese textbooks being too shy on colonialism and aggression, the Yasukuni Shrine, the “comfort women” and Japanese territorial ambitions. Today, Japanese memory vacillates between owning up and forgetting. The International Military Tribunal for the Far east, set up with the idea of achieving justice for victims and punishing individual war criminals, does not seem to have been enough to ensure a social transformation and reckoning with the past.

Post-Francoist Spain offers another good comparative frame for Russia. The way Spain chose to reckon with the Francoist past was the “Pact of Forgetting” to avoid the risk of a new civil war, which might flare up if the legacy of Francoism was confronted too directly. This ambiguous choice did not prevent Spain from becoming a vibrant democracy and member of the European Union and NATO. The decision to exhume Franco in late 2019 from the Valley of the Fallen to dampen public veneration of him has reopened the debate, bringing to a close the memory transition period. Many lessons from the nuanced management of Spain’s difficult past could guide us when thinking about Russian society’s own memory deal.

South Africa has become a role model for its Truth and Reconciliation Commission. It was criticized for shielding the higher echelons of the military and having sacrificed justice in the name of reconciliation; still, it was a global milestone and helped forge a new, unified South African nation. While Russia’s war crimes and crimes against humanity committed during the war against Ukraine will be adjudicated by the competent international organs, the need for such truth and reconciliation commissions on the Soviet past could be welcome, but after so much time has elapsed the discussion may have to happen in different formats.
Stamp of Algeria, 1952. Source: Wiki Commons
Looking at the experiences of other postcolonial countries would also be very valuable to the discussion. France appears as an obvious case because of its colonial past in the Maghreb, as well as the still very painful memory wars regularly disrupting French-Algerian relations. Even in a democratic setting such as in France, society needs decades to move away from acceptance of the colonial past and the civilizing destiny of the nation. The painful debate about the Third Republic – the flagship of the French republican idea of the nation, offering democracy for all (men) and secular public education for all – and its virulent colonialism still haunts political debates both inside the left and right.

Modern Turkey’s trajectory offers obvious parallels with Russia and its quest for a new greatpowerness restauration. The Kemalist revolution – focused on modernizing and breaking with the imperial Ottoman past – has now been replaced by a restorationist ideology centered on nostalgia for past grandeur, religion and conservative values, and authoritarianism.

Closer to Russia, the case of Serbia suggests other obvious similarities: the difficulty of letting the Yugoslav past go (for Russia, the Soviet past), of accepting that key historic places and events have to be shared with other nations (the Battle of Kosovo and Kiev/Kyiv as the “mother of Russian cities”) and of showing repentance over committed state violence.
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