How to overcome “Russian” psychological complexes

The Kremlin in Moscow. Be Michael Parulava at Unsplash

Former Lithuanian prime-minister Andrius Kubilius, MEP and Standing Rapporteur on Russia, has started the year with the publication of a very detailed article about what he calls “’Russian’ psychological complexes”.

He says that Europeans and citizens of Baltic states behave too emotionally regarding their approach to the Russian Federation and the future of Russia. According to Kubilius, emotions and psychological complexes prevent Europeans from using more wisdom in terms of creating and implementing some efforts in the geopolitical sphere.

In his article, Kubilius has identified six issues that, in his opinion, can fuel the psychological complexes of Europeans. And this is absolutely the correct approach. Because recognizing and putting the complex into words is the first step of treatment and therapy. But, the following steps should be reflecting on the complexes, rethinking them, accepting what cannot be changed, and changing what can be changed.

Compatibility of Russia with democracy

Andrius Kubilius suggests that Russia will someday become a democracy. This is an absolutely crucial thing for the security of the EU because only this can make Russia predictable for the civilised world. In my humble opinion, the real question is not when Russia will become a democracy but how it can happen.

The Constitution of the Russian Federation, adopted in 1993 and changed recently to keep Vladimir Putin in power forever, says:

Russia is a democratic federative law-governed state with a republican form of government;

The supreme direct expression of the power of the people shall be a referendum and free elections;

The Russian Federation shall guarantee the rights of the tiny indigenous peoples according to the universally recognized principles and norms of international law and international treaties and agreements of the Russian Federation.

However, in reality, the Russian Federation has officially been declared a state-sponsor of terrorism. It is being ruled as an empire by a person who considers himself the tsar of a nation that denies any other nationalities except Russia on the territory of the federation.

Back in October 2001, Stephen Holmes, a professor at New York University School of Law, published his view on Putin’s “consolidation of vertical power”. That was the result of the new social contract between Vladimir Putin and the Russian society that gave people security and order in exchange for the authoritarian rule of one person.

Since then, this social contract of Putin’s power vertical has been working very well, and there are no any signs that either of the parties is willing to break or change this contract. Besides, the power vertical is not only Putin himself but also hundreds of thousands of people in government, security and law enforcement domains, who have to be lustrated if we want Russia to become democratic.

I wonder, what can make Russian society break the existing social contract with Putin, and where is the proposal for the specific alternative?

Putin’s power vertical makes Russia not a federation and republic but a pure empire with colonies that two specific features can characterise.

Firstly, the elections in Russia play only a ceremonial role, and all the representatives of the so-called Russian opposition recognise this. Power in Russia is not a product of people’s will but a kind of gift from God that cannot be changed or passed to another person.

And this feature is reflected in family traditions in Russia, where domestic violence was officially decriminalised. If a husband beats his wife, then this is not a crime but an internal affair of the family. Because a husband is a kind of reflection of God. The same logic is being implemented in the relationship between Vladimir Putin and the nation.

Secondly, according to public sources, out of 160 nationalities living in Russia, at least 75 of them have at least 10.000 people belonging. The Russian Federation inhabits a population of more than 100 mln people. This data is not accurate because of the way Russia conducts the census and how people identify themselves. To be successful in Russia, you have to be Russian.

If you are Chuvash, Altaian, Khakass, Yakut, Abkhaz, Adyghe, Kabardian, Circassian, Dagestan, Chechen, Ingush, Avar, Lezgin or Ossetian, of course, you can live in your region and even speak your language at your kitchen table. But, you can use only Russian in courts to defend your rights. Only Russian identity and language are acceptable for education and the “power vertical” mentioned above.

To make the Russian Federation democratic, one has to make elections truly open and free not only in Moscow or big cities but also in the more than 80 regions of the federation. Who can afford to do that? Who has the power and supporters to conduct lustration procedures for thousands of Putin’s managers before the election campaign and, at the minimum, change the situation in the Central Election Commission of the Russian Federation? Who in the free media does Putin’s power mainly kill that can make sure that the election campaign can be absolutely free? Who can make different nationalities living in Russia feel that they can choose their way and their leaders?

Most public Russian opposition speakers avoid discussing these questions when assuring us that someday the Russian Federation can be democratic. There is a proverb in the Russian language that says, “if you repeat the word “halva” dozens of times, it is doubtful that you will taste sweetness in your mouth”.

Russians deserve democracy

Experienced parliamentarian and politician Andrius Kubilius is sure that “there are different people among Russians, just like among the Lithuanians”. However, in my humble opinion, there is a trap in this approach to the discussion. Because Lithuania is a mostly monoethnic nation without big differences between its regions.

There are 160 nationalities with their identity and languages living in more than 80 local regions with their economy, traditions, political movements, and religions. When talking about democracy in the Russian Federation, we cannot ignore the fact that other identities were suppressed by the federal vertical power and federal political parties who did not want any local competition.

When we say that Russians deserve democracy, why don’t we proceed with statements that Chechens earn to rule their land as they want it? Or Ingrians? Or Tuvans?

I am totally sure that Russians are fit for democracy. Because all the people in the world are fit to run their own lives by their own decisions. However, the lands of the Russian Federation and its citizens of the Russian Federation were never ruled under this political system. And, in my humble opinion, it happened for a reason. Because one cannot preserve and practise vertical power in such an extensive and diverse territory as the Russian Federation without suppressing people’s will and identity in those territories.

A democratic republic in Russia can only exist after implementing real federalisation and decentralisation of power and the ability for different identities to leave the federation and be independent.

The ability of Russians to fight for democracy

When justifying the absence of protests in Russia, Andrius Kubilius again compares Russians with Lithuanians, saying that “during Brezhnev’s time, Lithuanians who were mobilised into the Soviet Army did not protest or run away from the army or from the mobilisation when the Soviet Army occupied Czechoslovakia or invaded Afghanistan”.

However, as the Russian Federation has invaded Ukraine, it would also be logical to compare the civil activity in Russia with Ukrainians, who stopped the Russian tanks with their bare hands. Or remember the 2014 Revolution of Dignity in Kyiv, when protestors went with wooden shields against sniper rifles?

But, we are not here to measure who is braver or who made more extensive protests. The core question that should be discussed is the use of violence as an instrument to preserve democracy against authoritarianism and imperialism.

In May 2022, one of the leaders of The Free Russia Forum in Vilnius, Garry Kasparov, publicly said that “the only chance to defeat Putin’s fascism is to raise the Ukrainian flag in Sevastopol, Crimea”. However, this can be achieved only by killing a certain quantity of Russian troops. The same happened with democracy in Moscow. It can be achieved only with violent actions against the authoritarian rule of Vladimir Putin. The readiness to use violence as a tool is absolutely vital for achieving the ruination of Putin’s power vertical.

However, another Russian opposition figure Ilya Ponomaryov was banned from participating in the Free Russia Forum by its organisers because he was supporting violence as a tool to fight Putin’s authoritarianism.

Anyone can like Ilya Ponomaryov or dislike and criticise him for what he was doing earlier in his life. However, one cannot support capturing Sevastopol and stay reluctant to violence simultaneously. Because this is not how democracy will appear in an authoritarian and terrorist state. One cannot expect Middle Eastern countries to become democratic without first eliminating ISIS and the Taliban.

This is why the real problem is not in Russians going or not going to protests. The so-called Russian opposition cannot decide whether they are ready to fight or whether the Ukrainian Army has to do the whole job for them, and then they will take a seat in the Kremlin.

Collective guilt vs shared responsibility

The comparison of blaming all Russians for the invasion of Ukrainian soil with the “collective guilt” of all Germans for Nazi aggression is another issue that has to be clarified. If we respect the rule of law, then guilt should lead to punishment. And collective guilt somehow foresees a collective punishment.

Collective punishment not only goes against the values and standards of civilised society and legislation. The so-called Russian opposition leaders always stress the point that there are many Russians in European countries who are against Putin’s regime and “secretly” support Ukrainians. So, they were punished for no reason with the blocking of bank accounts and banned from entering the EU states, while they are not to blame for Putin’s decisions.

However, in my humble opinion, the key issue in the discussion after the start of the full-scale invasion of Ukraine was about shared responsibility for this tragedy and not about collective guilt. These are totally different concepts. And the discussion about shared responsibility was deliberately turned into the discussion of collective guilt.

Yes, collective guilt seeks the punishment for those who are guilty. And collective punishment will not return hundreds of Ukrainian children’s lives. At the same time, “shared responsibility” is the concept that not only all Russians but also all Europeans and even Ukrainians have to recognise mistakes that were made in the last 30 years. Because they have led us to this horrible tragedy. They are the appointment of Vladimir Putin as the Russian tsar in 1999 and sending the wrong signals to Putin by letting “Nord Stream 2” start, and even the refusal to incorporate Russia into NATO.

It is essential to recognise this responsibility because otherwise, we do not have any chance to avoid repeating the tragedy. For example, former German chancellor Angela Merkel refused to discuss her responsibility for what has happened with Europe after she decided on “Nord Stream 2”.

Russian journalist Ilya Zhegulyov has published two articles about the former most powerful family in Russia: the daughter of president Boris Yeltsin – Tatiana (Diachenko) Yumasheva, and her husband, former Chairperson of the Presidential Executive Office, Valentin Yumashev.

In March 2019, Zhegulyov published a big story about Valentin Yumashev on the Russian opposition website “Meduza”, where Yumashev openly said that he feels responsible for bringing Vladimir Putin to power in Russia.

But, in October 2022, the same Zhegulyov published a story about the same people on the website of the “Wilson Center”, mentioning that the family is not ready to recognise their responsibility for what is happening with Russia because Putin in 1999 was a completely different person. Those who are to blame are the ones who gave him unprecedented, unlimited power.

This is the core distinction in the discussion about guilt and responsibility. Sharing responsibility makes you obliged to take some actions to change the situation and prevent its repetition. This is why I do not think that Russians must be punished regardless of who they are and what they do. But, in my opinion, if a person identifies himself as Russian, he or she has to carry responsibility for what is going on in Russia and work to change it.

“Marshall plan” for democratic Russia

According to Andrius Kubilius, Lithuanians might fear the economic strength of the Russian Federation. However, people are not afraid of large sums of money. They are afraid of how those large sums of money can be used. If they are used for producing more arms and spreading more propaganda – then imperialism in Russia can only be strengthened with the “Marshall plan”.

In a certain sense, this happened to TV Dozhd, whose licence was recently revoked by the Latvian National Council for Electronic Media (NEPLP). This broadcaster is also banned in Ukraine by the decision of the National TV and Radio Broadcasting Council. According to some open sources, European taxpayers funded TV Dozhd in the amount of 19 million euros by the decision of the European politicians only in the last period of time. Now, they are going to court against the institutions of the EU country, and the EU taxpayers are also paying the legal services for this court.

We in Ukraine witnessed how TV Dozhd journalists quoted Russian propagandist media, promoting the narrative that the Ukrainian army “bombed Donbas again” and promoting the political position of the so-called DNR and LNR. TV Dozhd quoted Eduard Basurin, a Russian propagandist in Donetsk, giving him more media coverage. TV Dozhd seriously based the narrative on the quote of the minister of defence of the Russian Federation, Sergey Shoigu, saying that the “Ukrainian army is armed worse than Taliban army”.

Instead of banning these people from the information field as done by the BBC’s standards toward the IRA topic, they fueled the disinformation they spread.

All these efforts, paid for by European taxpayers, were consciously or unconsciously oriented toward promoting Russian disinformation narratives. And this is why Latvian and Ukrainian independent regulators banned them. This is an example of a situation where it does not matter how much money you invest. It is very important how it is being used. Of course, to prevent economic catastrophe and another refugee crisis on the European borders, we must consider what life in today’s Russian territories will look like after the Ukrainian victory.

However, it would be logical if all sanctions lifting and the “Marshall plan” were linked, not to the moment when Vladimir Milov, Garry Kasparov or Mikhail Khodorkovskiy sit in the Kremlin. But, with the result of free and democratic elections in all the regions of Russia and the punishment of those who suppressed the free media and robbed Russian citizens for the last 30 years.

A fence around Russia is not an effective instrument

We need to support this issue raised by MEP Andrius Kubilius totally.  Instead of closing our eyes, hoping that Russia will disappear, we have to work together to transform and reconstruct the Russian Federation into something else – more democratic, more predictable, more decentralised and prosperous, so people do not steal toilets and washing machines from other countries, killing everybody they see. The highest fences around Russia will not save Europe from kamikaze drones and supersonic missiles.

However, we must rethink our “complexes”, as Mr Kubilius suggests. We must accept them as part of us and understand why we have them and what we should do to overcome them. And the way to do this is to work together to make Russia obey its own constitution – to be a federal, decentralised country where people in the regions can make their own decisions, create their own parties and vote for them, and to have the ability to leave the federation without being bombed like Chechnya in the 1990s. That will be the most important topic of the Free Nations of Post-Russia Forum on deimperialization and decolonisation of Russia that will take place in Brussels on January 31st.

Dmytro Zolotukhin is a former deputy minister of information policy of Ukraine from 2017-2019. Now he is lecturing at the National University Kyiv-Mohyla Academy and running an NGO, “Institute for Postinformation Society”.

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