Ekaterina Degot on Saying No to War in Russia

The war hasn’t ended: it’s only getting started. The war is on and that means all of us—people who write, talk, and think—are walking on a minefield. On a minefield of words. We have to be very careful about what we say, to make sure we don’t let the war slip into our words and thus become its accomplices.

Anti-War Protest in Petersburg
Anti-War Protest in Petersburg

Today things are said that provoke in me an instantaneous reaction of protest, rage, and the desire to struggle. Because I know what is behind such words. Or, at least, what such words might mean. Even if the danger is hypothetical, it is wrong to talk that way all the same. There are moments in history when seemingly neutral words—for example, “Russian” or “Jew”—cease to be neutral. The political context strips them of their neutrality, and these are moments when naively ignoring this context is a crime.

The heck with that word “Russian.” What I hate most of all is the phrase, “We have lost the informational war.” This is how the devotees of the god of PR talk, the people who believe that everything in the world is for sale or is being advertised. But this is also the way postmodernists talk, people who are convinced that everything is a matter of interpretation. Today, it is these absolute relativists, these amateur spinmeisters who control our minds, just as the professional spinmeisters control our country.

But I begin to boil when I hear a completely different phrase that has now become quite common, although, seemingly, it is uttered by completely different people—not relativists, but universalists. The folks for whom war is terrible because human life is an absolute value, while all the rest is unimportant. Only this absolute value is ringed round by exceptions and contains a hierarchy all the same. It is this phrase: “The people I feel most sorry for are the Ossetians.”

If you feel sorry for some people more than for others, then you feel a little less sorry for those others. If the first group is the Ossetians, then the second group is obviously the Georgians (or, perhaps, the Russians). Then where do we rank the Dutch cameraman who got killed by a Russian shell? Does he end up on the sidelines of history because he doesn’t fit into a clear ethnic picture? How are we to deal with the involuntary xenophobic subtext of any division of people by ethnicity and race, which is only exacerbated by tidy distinctions such as, “Of course not: there are also good folks among the Georgians”? And how are to make sure that the naïve phrase, “War is so awful that there are no words for it,” doesn’t lead to a situation where there really are no words at all.

There have to be words.

On August 13, I was at a seminar in neutral Switzerland. My foreign colleagues, who in recent years have become trained to suspect they’ll find a patriot in any Russian they meet, tactfully talked about the weather. It was me who provoked to ask questions.

They didn’t ask me why Russian was bombing Georgia or about the pipeline. None of them asked me things that were beyond my competence. They asked me about something that was in my power: do people in Russia criticize Putin’s Georgia policy? When I began replying with relief, Yes, of course we still have freedom of speech, I was asked: What he is criticized for?

What could I say? That he is criticized mainly for his slightly disproportionate response to the actions of the madman Saakashvili?

Praised be geography. Saakashvili isn’t my president, and I can allow myself to have no opinion about him and not feel responsible for his actions. Russia and Georgia are both guilty, but even the most cautious observers believe that Saakashvili followed the scenario that Moscow for some reason needed him to follow.

And it is for this that all of us—Russian citizens—are responsible. All of us who knew that the authorities had long ago started handing Russian passports to the residents of South Ossetia for no obvious reason. All of us who have felt the effects of the Russian propaganda machine in the past months. Alas, it is true that Russia attacked Georgian military bases (and, unavoidably, the civilian population) because Russian society wouldn’t have accepted any other turn of events. We are that Russian society. We are all collaborationists with the image of a “strong Russia,” which acts from a position of wealth and power, doesn’t pay heed to anyone’s opinion, and has armed itself with demagoguery.

This Russia is like a caricature of America, but there are also other historical parallels. It has already been noted that the logic of defending an oppressed related minority was the same one that Hitler employed at the beginning of WWII. This comparison isn’t just a talking point. It should remind us that the situation is serious as never before. A war with Ukraine over the Crimea no longer seems an impossibility. We shouldn’t console ourselves that Georgia (like Ukraine) is a small country and nothing threatens those of us who live in Moscow’s Garden Ring. Russia—and this is a fact that we will have to come to grips with—has already, at very least, entered into a “cold war” with the rest of the world. With our tacit consent.

We have no experience of struggle against war. Because for decades the members of the thinking class refused to consider themselves citizens, preferring the role of passive victims who allegedly weren’t allowed to emigrate. Because now, when it is possible to emigrate, the members of the thinking class don’t want to emigrate, having acquired material comfort at home. But they still don’t consider themselves citizens.

We have no experience of antiwar actions and antiwar thoughts, but we need to acquire these skills, just as Americans did during the Vietnam War. Like a mute person who learns to talk, we have to repeat “Say No to War” again and again, while also trying to understand what this should mean for all of us.

Ekaterina Degot, “What ‘Say No to War’ Means,” OpenSpace.Ru 20 August 2008

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