The Russian Patient How Much Blame Does Society Bear for Putin’s War Crimes? Source: Spiegel International

Posted by
Timofey Neshitov (front right) with his family in St. Petersburg shortly before he emigrated in 2004.
Timofey Neshitov (front right) with his family in St. Petersburg shortly before he emigrated in 2004. Foto: Privat

The Russian Patient How Much Blame Does Society Bear for Putin’s War Crimes?

Many Russians have fled their country as a result of Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. DER SPIEGEL reporter Timofey Neshitov, born and raised in St. Petersburg, recently visited his fellow compatriots in exile. A personal journey to the origin of evil.

23.08.2022, 13.12 Uhr

On the morning the first bombs began falling on Kyiv, I bought a head of white cabbage in a village store in Siberia.

I didn’t need the cabbage. I was traveling through a country, chain-smoking as I went, that was in the process of launching a war of aggression in Europe, I was trying to capture the mood. At the counter next to me was a woman with a deeply wrinkled face. She looked at the cabbage on the shelf and asked the saleswoman to weigh the smallest of them. As she spoke, I saw that she had no teeth. She counted out the coins in her hand. She didn’t have enough money, so I paid for her. DER SPIEGEL 32/2022

The article you are reading originally appeared in German in issue 32/2022 (August 6th, 2022) of DER SPIEGEL. SPIEGEL International

Back out on the street, I asked her what she thought of this war. We were standing in front of a large pile of snow some 4,000 kilometers east of Moscow, she with her net bag in her hand, me with my iPhone. She said her father had been killed in the war.

Then she asked me: “Or which war do you mean, my son, not the one against the fascists in Kyiv?”

Feb. 24 was a sunny day. I watched her as she walked off.

Whenever I see footage of missile strikes in Ukraine, I still see that woman’s hunched back and can hear the snow squeaking beneath her galoshes.

On that day, I thought something irretrievably cursed had happened in Russia, the country where I was born and raised. The people here are not only destitute, I thought, they have also stopped thinking. They have stopped feeling.

The people. For me, it was this woman without teeth. And my own great uncle, who lives in the countryside not far from St. Petersburg.

A few years ago, he began regularly watching TV – in his garage, where he would go to escape his wife. As she aged, my great aunt became convinced that her husband cheated on her every time he left the house. My great uncle is over 80, yet she would still scream at him: Go to your whores!

My great uncle was born in western Ukraine and it was marriage that brought him to St. Petersburg. Today, he believes everything that is shown on Russian state television. He has lived in Russia for 60 years now, he was a sergeant in the army, but he never had to go to war. He thinks Putin is ridding Ukraine of Nazis.

  • I have lived in Germany for 18 years. My great uncle used to ask me to bring German razor blades and pumpkin seeds, but now he doesn’t want “that Nazi stuff.” His wife has since died, and he watches television alone in the living room. He no longer answers when I call.

I used to think that there were people like him, and then people like me, who grew up after the fall of the Berlin Wall. People who were cosmopolitan, multilingual and networked. I have never trusted Putin. I left Russia back in 2004, after my studies and his first term. I was 22 years old at the time.

I became a journalist in Germany, I wrote about gold mines in the Congo, theater in China, Islamic State in Berlin. Occasionally, I wrote about Putin, like when he annexed Crimea, but I didn’t warn about him the way you might warn against cancer. He was more like a splinter in your foot – he was annoying.

Many Russians have emigrated over the years. They preferred to pursue their research somewhere else, to start their companies somewhere else, to raise their children somewhere else.

Since Feb. 24, though, I’ve been wondering: Should I have stayed in Russia?

My brother, who is a year and a half older, told me at the time: One of us has to stay, what will become of us if everyone leaves?

He stayed.

Today’s Russia is not made up of deluded old people buying cabbages and smart young people with their iPhones. It is a society that has failed. It looks as though we Russians in 2022 are responsible for the biggest rogue state on the planet. A country that fires missiles at hospitals and puts opponents of war in prison camps.

The Western view of Russians has never been particularly relaxed. The Russians are coming, that was always the fear. Now, the Russians really are coming. And in 2022, the West typecasts its Russians into two categories: The evil Russian commits murder in his neighboring country, the good Russian burns his passport on the market squares of Europe.

  • Millions of Russians seem to have fallen silent since the beginning of the war. Others have fled. To Tbilisi, Riga, Istanbul, Yerevan, Belgrade, Limassol, Tel Aviv or Berlin. Hundreds of thousands are estimated to have gone into exile. It is an historic exodus, comparable to the wave of migration that followed the October Revolution in 1917.

Many of my compatriots in exile who I visited on this trip did in recent years that which I did not. They stayed in Russia, warned about Putin, took action against him. They tried to stop Putin.

I wanted to find out from them: How could Bucha and Mariupol have happened? Who’s to blame? What should happen next?

In June, I met with young journalists from the newspaper Novaya Gazeta in Berlin’s Friedrichshain neighborhood. Its editor-in-chief, Dmitry Muratov, was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize last December. He auctioned off his Nobel medal and donated the proceeds, $103.5 million, to Ukrainian children. The newspaper was forced to close in Russia, yet Muratov stayed in Moscow. His editorial staff has been producing an online newspaper, Novaya Gazeta Europe, since April in exile.

In Berlin, they were sitting outside on wooden benches drinking craft beer when I joined them. One attempted to speak German, saying “Putin ist Schwanzsauger,” the wrong word for “Putin is a cocksucker,” before someone else corrected him: “Schwanzlutscher.”

The bar belongs to an antifa collective from Moscow, they said, with part of the proceeds going to the Ukrainian army.

Many at Novaya write anonymously in exile because they have family in Russia.

Alina Danilina had just arrived in Berlin that same day. In the evening, she rolled one cigarette after another and placed the stash on the table next to her mobile phone. She said I could quote her by name, that she wasn’t afraid. She’s 25.

She was a toddler when Putin came to power, and when she reached voting age in 2015, she no longer had a choice – at least not one offering any alternative to Putin. Putin couldn’t be voted out, he was already a given, like the weather.

Alina’s father died of a heroin overdose when she was 10. He mother, an elementary school teacher, votes for Putin.

I asked her why she turned out so different from her parents. She looked at me as if I were a turtle. I sat there, hunched over at attention, nodding in cigarette smoke, struggling to keep up with her.

She said she first took to the streets in protest because of Alexei Navalny. Like many teenagers, she had read his posts about corruption, about state contracts flowing to Putin’s longtime friends from the KGB or his judo club, or to his dacha neighbors.

“We could have gotten rid of Putin,” she says today, “if only more people had turned out back then.” After the rigged parliamentary elections in 2011, she joined the “March of Millions.” But the protest was quashed. She was in ninth grade at the time.

Alina Danilina in July 2022

Alina Danilina in July 2022 Foto:

Marzena Skubatz / DER SPIEGEL

“That was the last chance. We failed.”

I only began taking notice of Navalny as a political figure later. I didn’t pay much attention to the protest movement of 2011-2012, I was busy with the Arab Spring. Today, I admire Navalny for his courage. I like his humor, and I think he has refreshingly little self-pity for a politician who has never been allowed to hold office. At the same time, though, it isn’t difficult to find Navalny great. He is, after all, the world’s most famous political prisoner.

Danilina has a different view of the man who once awakened her political consciousness. Her view is colder, more sober than mine. She says that Navanly is charismatic, but that is a dangerous characteristic in Russia. “Navalny’s supporters are ready to follow him blindly. That almost never ends well. Russia doesn’t need followers. We need citizens.”

There have been many generations in Russia who believed in luminary figures and raved about a bright future, first communist, then democratic. Danilina has a scathing view of herself and others, reminding me of the hero from Lermontov’s “A Hero of Our Time,” a romantic character from the early 19th century, disappointed by life, with no idol, no illusions and no hope.

Danilina left Russia with her cat Gera at the end of April 2022. She flew to Riga and then onward to Berlin. She left because she works for a newspaper that calls war war, which can result in a 15-year prison sentence in Russia.

On that evening in Friedrichshain, she spoke less and less, reading news instead. Five Russian missiles fired at Kyiv. Wales beating Ukraine in the World Cup qualifier.

She put her phone away and began to cry.

The worst images of war are the ones that don’t make us cry.

I remember how an entire city was wiped out before my eyes. I could turn on our TV every day in St. Petersburg and watch Russian planes and artillery raze homes, hospitals and schools in a faraway country. I saw dead bodies, old people with suitcases and dogs that had gone mad.

  • I followed the heaviest bombing of a city since World War II. December 1994. I was 12. The Russian army, then under the supreme command of President Boris Yeltsin, attacked Grozny, the capital of Chechnya.
  • Chechnya, I knew at the time, was in the Caucasus, an Islamic country with mountains and oil reserves. The czars had colonized it, and now the Chechens wanted their freedom back. Moscow said no.

But I was only watching the war from the sidelines. I was doing the crossword puzzles on the couch, waiting for “Terminator 2.” I quickly forgot about this war. I was in love.

In April 2022, the images came back to me.

I saw the ruins of Mariupol and wondered: Why didn’t I feel that pain back then, 28 years ago, this stinging shame, this snake in my stomach? Was I too young? Why weren’t there mass protests in Russia against the war?

What was wrong with us, five years before there even was a President Putin?

In summer 2022, while traveling through Russia in exile, I talked about this with Viktor Shenderovich, a satirist who, before Putin came to power, had been a television star. He has been living in Warsaw since January. For decades, he has been putting everyday Russian life into aphorisms, into sentences like: “The wheel of time isn’t fit for our streets.” Or: “When sons of bitches come to power, a dog’s life begins for everyone.”

When I was in school, Viktor Shenderovich wrote the scripts for “Puppets,” the most popular satirical show in the country. They appeared in our living room every weekend, the familiar silicon faces: the crumpled President Yeltsin, his chubby-cheeked prime ministers, the young political star Boris Nemtsov. For politicians, it was an honor to be one of Shenderovich’s puppets.

When we met in Warsaw this June, he was recovering from knee surgery. He walked with a cane, but he kept forgetting that he was walking with a cane, stopping in pain and laughing at himself. He’s 63.

I asked him how it could be that a democratic country, not all that long after the fall of communism, is waging a war of aggression and no one is protesting.

There were independent courts in Russia in 1994 and Shenderovich was allowed to make fun of the national leader on the most watched private channel. The same channel showed the atrocities of war every day. Shenderovich replied: “No society is free just because it has freedoms.”

He says the Russians were not free in 1994. That they had become nostalgic for the Soviet past after only three years of freedom.

I remember yellow ration cards for bread in the early 1990s, and lines for milk and sugar that lasted for hours. Our neighbors on the sixth floor kept chickens on the balcony. I remember a fight at my school that started with someone saying: I’ll privatize your gum. The government privatized gigantic state-owned enterprises at the time in such a way that a handful of Russians became extremely rich overnight. President Yeltsin surrounded himself with oligarchs and drank. Hypnotists appeared on state television, and people playing shell games squatted in front of metro entrances. Looking back, the early 1990s seems like one big shell game.

Viktor Shenderovich in July 2022

Viktor Shenderovich in July 2022 Foto: Corinna Kern / DER SPIEGEL

In elementary school, we read a fable about an old monkey with poor eyesight who comes into possession of several pairs of glasses. The monkey doesn’t know where to put them. He presses a pair of glasses against his forehead, puts another pair on his tail and then throws them on the floor.

“We Russians are like this monkey,” Shenderovich said. “We did with our freedom what the monkey does with the glasses.”

The “evil empire,” as Ronald Reagan famously called the Soviet Union, suddenly didn’t seem so evil to the Russians at the time. Nor was it as dead as it seemed. There was no closure in Russia after seven decades of dictatorship, no trials of executioners and propagandists, no dismissal of officials. Shenderovich says the return of Homo sovieticus wasn’t much of a surprise. And that the species had nothing against a war of aggression.

And later nothing against Putin.

Shenderovich compares the Soviet mentality with that of serfs in czarist Russia. Their owner whips them and impregnates their daughters, but they are proud of him because he owns more land than the others. “This has been going on for centuries. The Soviet Union was just a red overcoat. Beneath it was the same old, hairy, smelly body.”

Shenderovich reproaches himself, saying he shouldn’t have relaxed in 1991, and that he should have raised his voice against it in the media. “That was our biggest mistake,” he says. “We thought after the collapse of the Soviet Union that it was over. But it was just the beginning.”

I never wanted to go back to the USSR. I don’t want an empire. But I also didn’t cry when the bombs fell on Grozny. I lived in a Soviet-era prefabricated apartment block 2,500 kilometers away. I had never been there and only knew an exotic Caucasus from the books and movies. Daggers, ravens, honor, shish kebab.

The Chechens were strangers.

These cursed days we have counted since Feb. 24, 2022. The first day of war, the fifth day of war, the 122nd day of war. Now, we are counting months. Looking back, though, it has actually been years.

  • Another person could have become a Putin as well. Putin isn’t an orator or a moral authority. He wasn’t even a superior KGB agent, otherwise they would have sent him to Bonn, West Germany, during the Cold War and not to Dresden. Seen in this light, his rule appears to be a historical inevitability and all attempts to stop him as footnotes.

This fatalism is part of the process of coming to terms with guilt in the generation of Viktor Shenderovich. Otherwise, it would just be too bitter. They warned against Putin, they voted against him, they took to the streets and they were sent to prison. The world has changed, Saddam is gone, Schröder is gone, glaciers have melted, but Putin is still there.

In my eyes, early warning is at least as important, if not more important, than late courage. Shenderovich was one of the first to warn. On Jan. 30, 2000, an episode of his “Puppets” was shown on television that I found oppressive at the time and prophetic only a few years later. The episode carried the title “Little Zaches,” after the fairy tale from E. T. A. Hoffmann.

In Hoffmann’s work, a fairy meets a wayward farmer’s son and takes pity on him. The dwarf can neither walk nor talk, he growls, meows and eats too much. The fairy combs his shaggy hair and she enchants him so that everyone will think that he is handsome and smart. The secret power of his charm lies in three fiery red strands of hair.

Empfohlener externer Inhalt

An dieser Stelle finden Sie einen externen Inhalt von YouTube, der den Artikel ergänzt und von der Redaktion empfohlen wird. Sie können ihn sich mit einem Klick anzeigen lassen und wieder ausblenden.

Externer Inhalt

Ich bin damit einverstanden, dass mir externe Inhalte angezeigt werden. Damit können personenbezogene Daten an Drittplattformen übermittelt werden. Mehr dazu in unserer Datenschutzerklärung.

In Shenderovich’s version, the dwarf looked like Putin. Putin was interim president at the time and had only been in office for a month. He spoke of democracy and civil rights, wearing suits that wrinkled at the shoulders. His puppet had the dimensions of a child and a broad, worn face. The Russian Zaches went on a rampage at the dinner table, said he wanted to “kill everyone in the toilet,” and he squawked a popular song – with the other puppets believing he was singing Puccini’s “E lucevan le stelle.”

Until someone tore the three magic hairs from his skull.

Russia’s history can also be seen in this way: as the fairy tale of an evil dwarf that many are too late in recognizing as such. Some people didn’t wake up until Feb. 24, 2022. Others still haven’t.

The question of guilt then becomes a question of eyesight. How could Russians not see what Putin has always meant by democracy?

In 2003, he sent entrepreneur Mikhail Khodorkovsky to prison for 10 years. In 2006, the journalist Anna Politkovskaya was shot dead on Putin’s birthday. In 2008, Putin launched a war against Georgia. In 2014, he annexed Crimea and the MH 17 commercial flight was shot down over eastern Ukraine. Politician Nemtsov was assassinated near the Kremlin in 2015 and, in the ensuing years, Russian bombs fell on Syria. In 2020, Navalny narrowly survived a poison attack.

Shortly after the broadcast of “Little Zaches,” someone broke into the Shenderovich family’s home in Moscow and left a boot print on the window sill. The police saw no reason to investigate. In April 2001, the police raided the station’s editorial offices.

  • I was studying journalism in St. Petersburg at the time, and once a week I took part in compulsory military training. My specialty was called psychological warfare. Firearms training consisted of firing AK-47 rifles at tin cans on a rainy afternoon. I became a lieutenant in the reserves.

Many of Shenderovich’s colleagues moved to Kremlin stations at the time. The money was good. Overnight, Yeltsin advisers became Putin advisers. They call this “slipping into new shoes” in Russia. Even the director of the Hermitage, the world-famous museum in my hometown, a shawl-wearer with fine manners and keeper of Leonardo and Matisse, slipped into new shoes. In an interview this June, he said: “War is blood and murder on the one hand, and on the other, it’s how people and nations assert themselves.”

  • Shenderovich remained in Russia all these years. He turned down offers from state media and instead did broadcasts on Ekho Moskvy, one of the few radio stations that still criticized Putin, wrote books and went on tours with them. What he was doing was damage control and issuing ever-louder warnings.

In February 2014 during the Sochi Olympics, he compared Putin’s games to Hitler’s games in 1936. A few weeks later, Putin declared the annexation of Crimea. Shenderovich was declared a “traitor of the people” by his former station, supporters of Putin sued and threatened him several times. He celebrated New Year’s Eve 2021 with his family in Budapest. Shenderovich’s lawyer warned that he would go to prison this time. The most recent criminal case had been brought personally by one of Putin’s confidants. Shenderovich didn’t return to Russia.

Those who have dropped out of the Putin system in recent years now like to talk about an early, democratic Putin and the late, evil one.

But those to whom one would most like to listen remain silent. People who paved the path for Putin’s entry into the Kremlin and later served as his advisers. For example, Anatoly Chubais, Putin’s envoy for relations with international organizations. He left Russia in late March and was photographed at an ATM machine in Istanbul and later in shorts in a supermarket in Cyprus.

Viktor Shenderovich in July 2022

Viktor Shenderovich in July 2022 Foto: Corinna Kern / DER SPIEGEL

  • On July 31, he was taken to a hospital in Sardinia in critical condition, with symptoms of a rare neurological disease. According to his wife, he couldn’t feel his legs and arms. Specialists in chemical protective clothing reportedly examined the room where Chubais had suddenly fallen ill.

Putin’s spokesman wished Chubais a speedy recovery.

In Germany, I read a lot about the mistakes of the governments led by Gerhard Schröder and Angela Merkel. The question of guilt here is about pipelines, cubic meters of natural gas and the electricity bills. Winter is approaching.

I’m not there yet. I wonder why, back then, no one in political Berlin listened to the warnings. Shenderovich wasn’t alone. While researching this article, I read a Human Rights Watch report on the Second Chechen War, Putin’s first conflict. The organization published the report in June 2000.

I thought of Bucha when I read it. At the time, the Russian Defense Ministry responded, much as it does today, with the following statement: “These assertions are nothing but a concoction not supported by fact or any proof. … (And) should be seen as a provocation whose goal is to discredit the federal forces’ operation against the terrorists in Chechnya.”

Shortly thereafter, in September 2001, Putin flew to Berlin and gave a speech before the federal parliament, the Bundestag. He spoke German, with then-Chancellor Gerhard Schröder, German President Johannes Rau, Angela Merkel and other major political figures sitting in front of him. “The main goal of Russia’s domestic policy,” Putin said, “is first and foremost to ensure democratic rights and freedom, to improve people’s standard of living and security.”

They listened to him as if he were singing an aria by Puccini. In the end, they gave him standing ovations.

I find that applause even worse than Germany’s dependence on Russian gas. No Spanish head of government bombing the Basque country would have been welcomed with applause in the Bundestag. The United Nations declared Grozny the most destroyed city on the planet.

  • In my darkest hours, I ask myself: Are Russians in reality primitive? Despite Tolstoy and Tchaikovsky? Why, if they are not primitive, would they be applauded in the 21st century for being satisfied with a war in the Caucasus instead of turning their eyes westward?
  • After the Holocaust, when people tried to understand how the Germans, the nation of Schiller and Goethe, had allowed Hitler, they spoke of a Zivilisationsbruch in Germany, a collapse of civilization.

I think we Russians are experiencing our own Zivilisationsbruch.

There are more than 143 million Russian citizens. Thousands, perhaps tens of thousands, are now admitting their guilt, speaking in Berlin or Prague about missed opportunities. In Russia, however, many millions are still suffering from Stockholm syndrome. They’re offended and think the man who robbed them of their future is great.

Is anyone still resisting Putin?

I traveled to Vilnius to meet a man who knows the Russian resistance well.

I don’t like to travel to former Soviet republics. In the Baltic states, in the Caucasus and in Central Asia, I feel like a guest who actually deserves to be banned from entering the house. The Lithuanians were the first to proclaim their independence. Mikhail Gorbachev sent tanks in response. Today, a street in the capital Vilnius bears the name of Loreta Asanavičiūtė, a 23- year-old seamstress who was run over by a Soviet tank. One of 14 dead.

In recent years, Lithuania has received several waves of regime opponents in exile. I met Sergey Smirnov here, the editor-in-chief of Mediazona, an online newspaper that reports on torture in Putin’s prisons, on electrocution, heating coils placed in victims’ anuses, on show trials and, earlier, on protests – at least back when they still took place. Zona also means jail in Russian.

Mediazona has millions of readers. Smirnov fled Moscow in April because he was afraid of ending up in one of the prisons he spent years reporting on.

I met him in a bar in the Old Town. He showed up late. He’s 47 and recently became a father. In his youth, Smirnov was a hooligan, traveling throughout the former Soviet republics and getting into fights with local soccer fans. He wanted the empire back. It was Putin, of all people, he said, who cured him of that. “When Putin started his war in Chechnya, I suspected he was only in it for himself, which was sobering.”

But millions of Russians remained stuck in nationalism at a time when they could afford better cars, better food. They didn’t see what Smirnov saw: that the sudden prosperity was not Putin’s doing. It was a product of rising oil and gas prices.

In spring 2014, when Putin grabbed Crimea, Smirnov had long since been cleansed and was writing for a liberal newspaper. That same year, two young women founded Mediazona in Moscow. They were world famous. They had organized a punk prayer in the Cathedral of Christ the Savior, within walking distance of the Kremlin.

“Mother of God, Virgin, expel Putin!”

  • Putin sent the women of Pussy Riot to a penal camp. After almost two years, they were released and spoke of 16-hour workdays, of a young woman who, in desperation, tried to cut open her stomach with a saw.

Smirnov has turned Mediazona into a leading media organization in recent years, one that is financed largely by reader donations. More and more Russians want to know: What can I be sent to prison for? And what will happen to me there?

Sergey Smirnov im Juli 2022

Sergey Smirnov im Juli 2022 Foto: Marzena Skubatz / DER SPIEGEL

Today in Russia, you can go to prison for anything and for nothing. For the phrase “I oppose war” that you post or repost on a social network, for a blank piece of paper that you hold up in the air on the street, for putting quotation marks around the term “special military operation” that Putin uses instead of “war.”

That’s the reason, Smirnov told me, that there are no antiwar demonstrations. It’s why the few opposition politicians who have remained in Russia are either in jail, in pretrial detention or face arrest every day. We were drinking Lithuanian beer, but didn’t do any toasting that evening. The terrible thing, Smirnov said, is that people are no longer talking about political prisoners. “Today, you’re one of many, you’re on a very long list. At most, people are talking about Navalny.”

Smirnov said he sees the real Russian resistance elsewhere today. Not on the streets, not on YouTube and not in prisons. “More and more Russians are radicalizing underground,” he said. It’s hard to tell how interconnected they are, he said, or what it might lead to, but this level of desperation is new.

In March, two young men from the city of Omsk in Siberia were arrested in Moscow’s Pushkin Square. They were carrying Molotov cocktails. On the way to the station, they tried to commit suicide, having packed methadone for the eventuality that they were taken into custody.

In May, a man in a suit and tie set fire to a paddy wagon in front of the Bolshoi Theater. The man has a degree in philosophy and is the father of three children.

Around the country, Russians have set fire to nearly 30 official military buildings since the war began.

“A cold civil war has begun in Russia,” Smirnov said during our conversation. One day, Russian partisans might start killing like Ukrainians do in their occupied cities. Smirnov has something childishly soft in his face. We were sitting under a dim pub lamp and I wasn’t able to determine whether he was horrified or delighted at the prospect of partisan war.

I was tired when I left Lithuania, tired of this journey to myself. I was sleeping less and less, wanting to finally wake up in a world where Russian missiles were no longer killing Ukrainian children, Russian police officers no longer beat protesters and Russian prison guards no longer tortured anyone. I didn’t want to be disappointed by life like Alina Danilina. I didn’t want to look in the mirror and see the hairy monster, the eternal serf that Viktor Shenderovich talked about. I sat in the cab to the airport, thinking of my family in St. Petersburg and refusing to believe in a civil war.

I flew to the Caucasus.

In Georgia, I wanted to meet a man whose fundamental approach to life is one I admire: sustained confidence. The man’s name is Ivan Pavlov, and he’s Russia’s most famous lawyer. He has spent more than 20 years defending people accused of treason by the state – officers, researchers, journalists – and all this in a country where acquittal is virtually impossible, with a probability of less than 1 percent.

As a budding lawyer, he had to watch as Putin took control of the judiciary, how lawyers increasingly became court inventory. Last year, Pavlov tried to defend Alexei Navalny’s anti-corruption foundation. According to Pavlov, the search warrant for Pavlov’s apartment was signed by the intelligence chief himself. After that, the Clooneys advocated for Pavlov. He left the country because he wanted to stay useful.

Pavlov celebrated his 51st birthday in exile. I wanted to know from him why he hadn’t stopped believing in the law all these years.

I visited him in a bright, empty apartment in Tbilisi. He was in the process of setting it up as an office space and he showed me the shady garden he is allowed to share, quite a bonus given the heat. We sat on two freshly unpacked office chairs. Pavlov opened a high window, it was raining quietly, I smelled the clean parquet, I could have fallen asleep.

Pavlov told me about his first victory against the FSB secret service. It was in the late 1990s and he was defending a naval captain who had made public how the Russian Northern Fleet was polluting the seas with its nuclear waste. The FSB wanted to send the captain to prison for 20 years for treason. The trial lasted several years, and the FSB saw three men come and go as its directors. Pavlov, the lawyer, was shadowed, threatened and once, he said, unknown assailants stopped him at his front door, threw his lawyer’s ID on the floor and said: Stay away from this one.

Ivan Pavlov in July 2022

Ivan Pavlov in July 2022 Foto: Nanna Heitmann / MAGNUM PHOTOS für DER SPIEGEL

One of the FSB chiefs at the time was Vladimir Putin.

The court acquitted the Navy captain on Dec. 29, 1999. “It was the last time,” Pavlov told me, “that a Russian court listened to arguments and not to the FSB.”

  • Three days after the verdict, Putin moved into the Kremlin. Putin has a degree in law. With him began what Pavlov calls “the great judge purge.” Judges who didn’t listen to instructions from above lost their posts. “By 2006, it was over,” Pavlov said.

Ivan Pavlov was also the name of a Russian physician, a Nobel Prize winner in 1904. The Pavlov of those days described how a dog could be conditioned so that even a sound would cause it to salivate.

The Pavlov of today has a Telegram channel called “The Pavlovian Dog.” In it, he posts news about arrests and sentences, about judges who have learned over the years to respond to subtle signals. “No one in the Kremlin calls judges today,” Pavlov said, “they know themselves what is expected of them.”

Russian judges are expected to send a Moscow district councilor who opens a session with a moment of silence for Ukraine to a penal camp for seven years.

They are expected to issue an arrest warrant for a terminally ill physicist in Novosibirsk whom the FSB accuses of high treason for giving a lecture in China four years ago. They are expected to have him flown out to Moscow. The physicist died two days later.

They are expected to sentence a bread saleswoman in Sochi to seven years in prison for looking out of a bus window to see a column of Russian military vehicles rolling toward Georgia and writing two text messages about it.

That last trial was seven years ago, and Pavlov defended the bakery clerk at the time. Thanks to him, the woman was released after two years. Putin pardoned her.

“There was a time,” Pavlov said in his apartment in Tbilisi, “when you knew you had no chance in court, but the cases are so absurd, maybe you’ll achieve something if you make them public, so that even Putin will say: Come on people, this is too ridiculous.”

Pavlov managed to wrestle three pardons out of Putin.

That was long his recipe for success, he said. Fight in court with legal means, then go public and always maintain a sense of humor. “Today, there is no public,” he said. “And humor doesn’t work either.”

All that’s left is the law. Parliament has recently passed unconstitutional laws, but the constitution still applies, and you have to know it, Pavlov said, comparing Russian courtrooms to operating rooms. “We lawyers are like surgeons who have had their scalpel taken away. We provide palliative care. Sometimes just holding someone’s hand helps.”

Last year, Pavlov lost his license to practice law. He now advises lawyers in Russia from a distance, but he is no longer allowed to defend anyone. I had hoped a visit with him would do me good, but I didn’t feel any better afterward, rather more like a patient in a very large hospital.

The Russian patient.

In Tbilisi, I got into a shared cab and was driven across the winding roads to Armenia. Out of seven passengers in the car, three were Russians, with me four, the trio was on vacation in the Caucasus. They talked about mountains, lamb kebabs, PCR tests, but not a word about the war. I hated their tanned thighs.

What I was most irritated about was the fact that the trio and I were a we. I thought about our collective guilt, about whether Ukrainians can ever forgive us Russians: me, the trio, the satirist in Warsaw. I have friends in Ukraine, for them I am not an enemy, but for millions of Ukrainians, I am. How will we Russians ever atone for our collective guilt, I was thinking in that car, when three out of four Russians here are unaware of any guilt at all?

I was paralyzed by this feeling of guilt. In Yerevan, I met a woman who is making something better out of her guilt.

Mariyka Semenenko, 35, used to run a trendy bar in Moscow before the war that was popular with the opposition. Navalny came by, and so too did the police – repeatedly. Semenenko is half Russian, half Ukrainian, but that didn’t matter for a long time. She was born and raised in Moscow. On Feb. 24, it was still dark when she woke up.

She couldn’t breathe when she read the first news, she told me in Yerevan. “First came the cigarettes, the fear. Then the shame and the guilt.”

We ordered grilled sulguni in a restaurant with a cooling mist system on the patio, she let the cheese get cold and drank black coffee. “There’s a difference between paying taxes and your state is only raping you,” she said, “and when your state is killing children in a neighboring country.”

She felt Ukrainian after the outbreak of war, she said, suffering along with the people in her father’s country of origin, the Russian in her didn’t know how to face this Ukrainian. She felt the same way I feel to this day.

In March, she brought this useless sense of guilt with her to Yerevan. She looked for a boxing club for women, but found none. She read Hannah Arendt. “Then I understood,” she told me, “there is a difference between guilt and responsibility.”

Hannah Arendt wrote after the Holocaust that there is no such thing as collective guilt or collective innocence. The concept of guilt only makes sense when it is applied to individuals.

What Mariyka Semenenko feels now is collective responsibility. She says her Ukrainian father knows the foreign minister in Kyiv and she could probably get a Ukrainian passport, but she doesn’t want it now that it has benefits. She doesn’t want to sneak away. She’s not done with the Russians yet.

Mariyka Semenenko in July 2022

Mariyka Semenenko in July 2022 Foto: Nanna Heitmann / MAGNUM PHOTOS für DER SPIEGEL

That is the difference to Hannah Arendt’s times. The crimes Arendt wrote about were years in the past. The crimes of the Russians are ongoing. Arendt spoke of an “unresolved past.” We are living in an unresolved present, it just feels like a horrible parody, you have the Führer cult in Moscow today, the idiotic Z symbol, half a swastika.

Semenenko’s Ukrainian grandfather was a soldier in the Red Army. The Germans captured him near Kharkiv in 1942, and he died in Auschwitz. His son, Mariyka’s father, was chairman of the Ukrainian Community of Russia until a few years ago. He lives on the outskirts of Moscow, some of his neighbors now call him “Nazi.” But he remains in Russia, he is 82.

His daughter remembers how he taught her Ukrainian. She said he one day sat her on a high cabinet in their Moscow apartment and said: You’re not coming down here until you tell me what this is.

He showed her a handkerchief, she recalls. Handkerchief is called hustotchka in Ukrainian. In Russian it is called platochek.

“I said platochek. I wanted to be normal, like my friends at preschool. He turned around and left. I shouted after him: Platochek, platochek, platochek!”

Today, she’s glad she knows Ukrainian.

She has rented a warehouse in Yerevan for clothes and medicines, the donations go to Ukraine. She keeps in touch with Ukrainian families in the occupied territories, helps them to leave for Western Europe. She is helping Ukrainians who were taken to Russia to leave the country again.

Every Wednesday, she goes to the botanical garden. She says she has a guilty conscience because Russia also colonized Armenia. She hauls soil, trims bushes, plants sage, lavender, mint.

That is her way out of the guilt trap.

After my trip, I stopped hoping to wake up to find it was all just a nightmare. What is happening is reality. A reality that Viktor Shenderovich warned about. That Alina Danilina describes in her newspaper. From which Ivan Pavlov still tries to protect those few people in Russia who dare to call this reality by its name: war.

No one knows how many Russians support this war; there are no reliable polls in dictatorships. But I fear that many Russians do want the total special military operation.

On Feb. 24, I hoped this war would lead to Putin’s end. I thought: No one can go that far. But yes, Putin can, he has been preparing the Russians for this for over two decades. Propaganda works. In Germany back then, six years was enough.

The West hasn’t been prepared. The Russians I met on this trip draw two conclusions from this. First, the West must supply weapons. Not just any weapons, but heavy ones, and it must continue to do so until Putin is no longer able to wage wars.

Second, the West will have to send money to Russia. Billions of euros and dollars. We need a kind of Marshall Plan for the time after Putin, so that my compatriots from Kaliningrad to Vladivostok realize that life is better without Putin. So that after Putin there are no more revanchists. As Sergey Smirnov told me in Vilnius: “This is a war of the retired and the rural poor.”

This may come across like a call for help from the enemy trenches, but we Russians can’t make it on our own.

The longer the war lasts, the more another certainty fades in my mind: That this is a war between Kyiv and Moscow, a conflict on the edge of Europe, a geostrategic legacy that NATO and the EU now have to deal with. I thought we were witnessing a belated disintegration of the Soviet Union, the last convulsions, especially in the mind of one man.

A man in the Kremlin, I thought, who was stuck in the 20th century, or perhaps in the 18th century, was a misunderstanding. Now, I think Putin, in his own way, fits perfectly with the times. In the same way that Donald Trump and Xi Jinping fit in with the times.

No, Ukraine is not about geostrategy. It’s about definitions. Will we live in a world where black can mean white?

I don’t know when I will be able to travel to Russia again. I don’t know what the country will be like or the feelings I will have. I do know that I don’t have a home. And that I have never missed it more than I do now.


Mehr lesen über

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s