What Hostages Can Do
July 13, 2023
  • Sergey Zenkin

Sergey Zenkin describes the moral situation of Russia’s anti-war community – both inside and outside the country – and offers “hostages” of the war a number of ways they too can resist peacefully.
Since the start of the full-scale Russia-Ukraine war, the anti-war part of the Russian society has been divided into “leavers” and “remainers”, the former joining the ranks of the latest Russian emigration wave, the latter staying in their homeland, either because they had to or by choice. They do not get along well, and occasionally emotional skirmishes flare up where the sides accuse each other of collaborationism or desertion.

“Leavers” and “remainers”

From a sociological point of view, they must define themselves in different ideological situations, in relation to different reference groups: “leavers” deal with the indignation of the European, and especially Ukrainian, public, outraged by Russian aggression, while the “remainers” face noisy military propaganda and the ambiguous silence of the majority, who either approve of the state’s policy or passively submit (not the same thing!). Psychologically, in these disagreements, everyone tries to justify the place that has fallen to him in life – and the more accidental, the more forced that place is, the more fiercely it is defended.
The disagreements between leavers and remainers are as fruitless as blaming each other is pointless.
Support for political prisoners has not stopped despite serious risks of punishment. In the photo: supporters outside a Moscow court that ruled to jail playwright Evgenia Berkovich and director Svetlana Petriychuk. May 2023. Source: Twitter
The point here is not guilt – everyone can take some amount of personal guilt or responsibility for what has happened in the country, but everyone together cannot be judged in this way. There is no blame for the fact that there were too few of us, like, for example, at the anti-war demonstrations of 2014, when it was still not too late to stop the catastrophe.

“Leavers” and “remainers” are not connected by guilt, but by something else: they are equally powerless against the Russian authorities and equally compromised by the war (if you like, someone else’s fault), which has eroded trust and respect in the world toward Russia. You cannot escape this through "internal emigration" or leaving the country, because you still have to take your origin with you. Everyone in society depends on historical forces beyond his control and experiences alienation; the latter reaches a critical point when the actions of the state come into direct conflict with the beliefs of the citizen, making him an outcast or an exile. This alienation I elsewhere called hostage-like, and in this sense all opponents of the war are its hostages, even if they are in unequal danger and enjoy unequal freedom of expression.

Like all hostages, they (especially those in Russia) are at risk of catching "Stockholm Syndrome,” an unconscious compromise with the authorities; they are often suspected of this by people from the outside. It is difficult for them to directly influence the outcome of the war – today it is not so much the power of persuasion that decides things, but the power of arms, and not everyone is ready to engage directly or indirectly in armed struggle: some lack the strength and resources, some are stopped by the threat of repression, some others by moral constraints. Participation in the war promises the opportunity to stop being a hostage. But what can the hostages themselves do; what is their duty?

Resisting the war

Firstly, support each other, which is very important both from a moral and political point of view. Both “leavers” and “remainers” often think that there are no more free, responsible citizens around – only loyal conformists, quarrelsome internet trolls or indifferent philistines. It is not so much direct political agitation (it has other, pragmatic tasks) that makes it possible to cope with despair, but rather the opportunity to see each other's faces, to be assured of one's collective presence. We are not isolated losers – there are many of us both outside and inside the country, we only need to remember that, and one day this consciousness of our collective strength will be needed in real action; our job is to preserve and develop it.

Secondly, help the victims of the war. Today, it is primarily Ukrainian refugees, whose numbers are not falling on either side of the front line and who need support in terms of money, logistics, orientation in unfamiliar lands; many of us have been doing this since the very beginning of the war, and it is the minimum that Russian citizens can do to partially compensate for the suffering inflicted by their state on their neighbors. Besides refugees, targets of repression also need help – political prisoners, participants in anti-war protests; this is one form of civic solidarity opposed to the state not following its own laws.

Thirdly, remind our compatriots about the war. Today in Russia it is almost impossible to do this publicly – the very word "war" is still censored, though recently the man who started it has begun to use it reluctantly, as if by indiscretion. But practically everyone, no matter where he lives, has private contacts; there are relatives, friends and acquaintances who, perhaps, avoid uttering the forbidden word but generally would like to have a serious conversation about what is happening. Many of them, disapproving of the war, accept it as inevitable, and today it makes no sense either to denounce them or convince them of its injustice – they involuntarily reject this dangerous idea, fearing to break away from their imaginary national unity. It is better to talk to them about how this war is devastating for Russia itself and its people – with its losses, hopelessness, the international isolation of the country and the weakening of the state (which was shockingly demonstrated by the recent mutiny). So, should self-interest be appealed to instead of conscience?
Yes, that's why war is war, that it divides people, from all sides; it is collective selfishness, when only we matter, only us, and we don't care about others.
So, for the time being, we must live with such a mood, as much as possible replace unconscious selfishness with rational selfishness, and moral accounts can be settled later, when the chauvinistic darkness ends alongside the war.

Finally, fourthly – this applies primarily to intellectuals, of whom there are many in the anti-war milieu – convey what we are experiencing to thinking people from other countries. Our bitter experience is our misfortune, but it also contains the possibility of solidarity, a chance to restore the battered mutual understanding with the world. In the political disaster that has befallen us, we are not alone, as today in the world in general there is a growing movement toward identitarian narrow-mindedness and aggressive conservatism.

Trump and Le Pen voters (speaking about only Western countries, though there are also Asian powers) are not so different in their thinking from the advocates of the so-called “Russian world:” they all cling to “traditional values,” they all see the existential threat coming from somewhere outside – some fear an invasion of immigrants, others the expansion of NATO. Thus, from the point of view of political culture, the shameful situation that Russia has slipped into is not a unique, monstrous exception, but a generally dangerous pathology. We just historically “lucked out,” finding ourselves on the front line of a catastrophe that threatens everyone, facing a disease in its most acute and severe form from which no nation has natural immunity.

Such a generalization of one’s experience is not self-justification, not an attempt to blur one's responsibility, referring in the spirit of Russian propaganda to the fact that "everyone is like that." Once again, we are not talking about guilt or justification at all, but about the duty that lies with us and that “leavers” and “remainers” can do together, precisely because they hear each other across the border (today, in fact, across the front line); meaning they can pass on what they have heard. As we consider the post-war order, we must think and invite others to think about the challenge that our common civilization now faces, which some call "Western" and others "Christian." To warn the world against the misfortune that has happened to one's country is also a worthy mission of a conscious hostage.
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