Guilt, filth and responsibility

June 10, 2022
  • Sergey Zenkin


Sergey Zenkin explains the current moral and political isolation of Russia as a new rise of the archaic idea of defilement, and opposes against it an active civic responsibility
Destroyed russian military equipment in Bucha, 2022. Source: Wiki Commons
The war between Russia and Ukraine has triggered arguments about collective guilt: does it exist at all? How does it emerge? And how can you get over it – if not by a specific practical action, then at least at the level of general moral attitudes and inner work? Abstract reflection on such questions is difficult now with the casualties, suffering and losses mounting every day; however, it’s necessary for the future, perhaps even the near future.

First and foremost, the leaders of the Russian state, its propagandists and people directly servicing the war machine are to blame for the cruel and senseless aggression against Ukraine. But it’s easy to rationalize the guilt of other, ordinary people living in Russia, reproaching some for complicity and passive collaborationism and others for the fact that, though they’re against the war, they didn’t do enough to prevent it (or perhaps they tried but failed, they weren’t powerful enough – is this their fault?). Not only adults are brought into the orbit of evil, but also children, whom the authorities look at as a reserve for their policies and sometimes even directly use for propaganda (for example, as extras in militaristic performances).
"Those who left Russia can’t avoid the accusations either, since after all they previously lived there and indirectly but in fact were part of the processes that led to the catastrophe."
Perhaps not without blame are those who were born and have lived all their lives abroad but have relatives in or other connections to Russia: they constitute the “Russian world,” in whose name the aggression is being justified. Even long-dead people can be accused of something – for example, classic writers and other figures of Russian culture are charged today with crimes committed allegedly on behalf of that culture…

This seems like a vicious, absurd logic, which can lead only to a rotten infinity: the stream of mass accusations will stop nowhere but only unfurl outward. Yet ready to follow this logic are not only impetuous social media warriors, but also serious institutions, communities and states, which are breaking off all relations with Russia (which itself isn’t lagging behind, withdrawing from one international agreement after another). It’s hard to argue with this cruel, wartime logic, which hits indiscriminately – it’s convincing in its own way. Still, this isn’t the logic of guilt as such, but of something else.

Everything Russian is “toxic” today: here is an expressive, new word that explains a lot about what is happening. Toxic literally means “poisonous,” something that is dangerous to come into contact with. The severing of ties with Russia is not necessarily due to hatred toward or a desire to punish the country; in many cases (for example, in the business sphere) it’s rather a fear of getting oneself dirty, of ruining one’s reputation. It’s as if some evil substance has contaminated the whole country, and contact with it leaves behind an unclean stain, which, in turn, can make those who come into contact with it “toxic.” This is a very ancient view of evil: in the words of French philosopher Paul Ricœur, ”every evil is symbolically a stain. The stain is the first “schema” of evil”. And from the religious tradition there is a word that expresses such an archaic idea of evil: “filth.”
An anti-Russian slogan on Aleksey Tolstoy's book The Road to Calvary (Хождение по мукам), Powstańców Warszawy Street, Gliwice, Silesian Voivodeship, Poland, March 2022. Source: Wiki Commons
Anthropologists say that filth isn’t entirely guilt; rather it’s something like an infection that can be caught even unintentionally: for example, by eating forbidden food out of ignorance, accidentally coming into contact with a dead body or another impure, contaminated person. Such exposure through proximity or contact happens by itself, without the participation of a subject; it doesn’t presuppose personal free will whatsoever. The one to whom it happened becomes an outcast, avoided and isolated, not because he’s guilty of something, but so as not to get infected by him.
"War brings to the fore the habits of tribal thinking that have been repressed by civilization."
And here the rational idea of personal guilt gives way to the archaic idea of filth, which in fact is called “collective guilt.” Today's Russia is tainted by the evil of war, and we pass this diffuse infection to each other even during the most banal interactions: when we buy food, we are paying taxes to an aggressive state; when we speak Russian, we are sharing this language with apologists of lies and violence.

The infection sticks to everyone, even to “good Russians” openly outraged at the regime’s policies. To take a recent example, a Russian TV editor who staged a defiant protest against the war on live television faces hostility and distrust, especially in Ukraine, where she is remembered less for the protest and more for her hitherto work for the state propaganda machine. And though the Gospel of Luke says that “in the same way there will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over 99 righteous persons who do not need to repent,” the war requires a return to a different, Old Testament morality, where instead of repentance and forgiveness there is only merciless revenge “for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generation.”
"Guilt cannot be collective – it is always individual."
TV and radio host Vladimir Solovyov, described "as a fanatical pro-Putin propagandist", 2022. Source: Wiki Commons
But carriers of filth, “rotten fascist scum” become all the people of an enemy country and everything that one way or another comes into contact with it.

This logic was first applied by the Russian state itself long before the war, when 10 years ago it adopted the law on “foreign agents,” who are to be deprived of their rights not for a specific offense, but simply for having dealings abroad and receiving money from abroad – no matter how much, no matter for what. Today, a boomerang effect: all Russian citizens are viewed as “toxic,” stained by evil. This is a traumatic experience. Used to being proud of your country – the memory of another, great war, even the sport victories of recent years – now you’re suddenly faced with international sanctions and distrust, even hatred by neighbors. Frustration from undeserved punishment (“why me?”) is the flip side of patriotic feelings. Everyone has them and, like religious belief, they depend little on conscious convictions; however, these feelings are deceptive, more easily fueled by pride than shame (hence propaganda so readily plays on them, seducing people with glory and greatness) and hardly assuming negative solidarity, or common, collective sin, which burdens the national conscience. Finding no escape from shame, some might even gravitate toward the regime, which cynically flaunts its shamelessness ("we aren’t ashamed"). Is there another way out?

In tribal societies, cleansing and redemptive rites were performed to get rid of sin and filth, including ritual bathing and sacrifices. In modern civilization, based on personal freedom and responsibility, even if such rites are possible, they are insufficient: the path to overcoming political guilt/filth lies in the personal realization of collective responsibility for our country. Guilt is purely negative, while responsibility should be positive and active. In our case, this is not just repentance for the evil committed in the name of Russia, but also the obligation to correct it, to protect our country not only from external threats, but also from our own rulers, who are ready to turn Russia into a pariah, feared and shunned by everyone.

What exactly should be done for this is a question everyone must find and answer for himself, with the general principle that conscious patriotism is responsibility – not “love for your homeland,” to which it is mistakenly reduced.
"Love is a spontaneous feeling and can’t be owed to anyone. It itself doesn’t create any debt or obligations; another thing, however, is responsibility for someone or for something."
Suppose a teenager got into some sort of mess – for instance, he stole and crashed a car. Compensation for the material damage can be laid on his parents not because they love their son, but because they took responsibility for his upbringing and behavior. Perhaps they took on that responsibility not very consciously, but that doesn’t change the matter. Perhaps they even tried to keep bad ideas out of their child’s head –they aren’t to blame for bad ideas getting in, yet they’re still responsible. Responsibility is determined neither by love nor guilt. The same is true in politics: if your country behaves indecently, a patriot can’t pass on judging it with a tongue-in-cheek phrase like “my country, right or wrong;” a responsible citizen would say, “this is my country, and it is wrong.”

Unlike filth, responsibility is not impersonal: one can be responsible only in relation to someone. The same parent is responsible for his children, but not to them – but to other people, to society. In a similar way, a citizen is responsible for his country not so much to those who live there (for this, a special morality isn’t needed, if need be, they themselves will energetically hold those responsible to account according to their own customs), but to neighbors and foreigners, to distant ones, not close ones. If today foreigners condemn Russia for the crimes committed by its army, even resorting to discrimination and boycotts, then this must be bravely endured without exaggerating our own misfortune (other, the true victims of war have it worse) and without mixing responsibility with guilt. If you personally aren’t to blame for anything, this isn’t reason to be indignant at mistrusting or even hostile attitudes toward you, as since you’re a patriot, you’re responsible not only for yourself.
"You must identify yourself with your country not with blind enthusiasm, but with a sober understanding that you’re connected to it and can be tainted by its sins."
Someone must pay for the broken dishes, even if you yourself weren’t drinking; only in this way will you be able to settle accounts and reconcile yourself with indignant people from other countries, will you be able to freely look them in the eye.

Society (and humanity as a whole) strives toward solidarity. That is, it simply strives to be a society and not a bunch of selfish loners. But there are two types of solidarity, which can be likened to two gestures, two positions: “elbow to elbow” and “eye to eye.” They are complementary even in the literal, bodily sense: it is difficult to touch elbows with another person and meet his gaze at the same time. They are also complementary in the figurative, ethical sense: it is one thing for everyone to struggle together, overcoming obstacles while striving for a common goal, but another thing to look into each other, weighing norms of behavior, principles and ideals. These are two different relationships: the solidarity of struggle and the solidarity of conscience.

They can alternate in everyday, as in social and political life. Sometimes the task is, certain that you are right, working together for a common cause, while sometimes it is finding a difficult agreement, through criticism, doubt and even repentance. It is only necessary to distinguish between the two gestures and not be deluded by the lies of propaganda, which switches one solidarity for another with peppy calls like “we must unite and we’ll get through.” Today, to regain their agency and cleanse themselves of anonymous filth, Russian patriots must realize their moral duty to their neighbor nation and to all of humanity – ask themselves whether we’re really co-citizens, whether we’re honest with ourselves and others, whether we’re deceiving them or even ourselves.

Looking each other in the eye, there’s no danger of getting dirty.
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