Tough Times Ahead for Russian Studies
Russian studies are at a crossroads. Putin Russia’s genocidal war against Ukraine has raised difficult questions that Russia specialists will have to confront and answer, if they want to retain their integrity as scholars and, ultimately, as human beings.
They’ll have to start with the most fundamental of questions: How should Putin’s Russia be categorized—as fascist, genocidal, and imperial or as something else? Words obviously matter. If Putin’s Russia is fascist, genocidal, and imperial, then it merits comparison with Hitler’s Germany and deserves the opprobrium of good people everywhere. If, instead, Putin’s regime is merely authoritarian, cruel, and overbearing, then some form of modus vivendi can presumably be found.
Since the 1960s, Russianists have generally given the USSR and its successor, the Russian Federation, a pass on these terminological issues. Back in the 1940s and 1950s, the Soviet Union was considered to be “totalitarian”—and thus similar to Nazi Germany in its violence, use of terror, single-party rule, control of public space, and secret-police dominance. The nomenclature changed in the 1960s, after Nikita Khrushchev abandoned Stalinism’s worst features and the Soviet Union looked like it was morphing into a modernizing autocracy like many other states in the third world.
Since then, Russianists have preferred to abjure controversial terms such as fascism, genocide, and empire in discussing the USSR and Russia. Putin’s regime has often been described as “Putinist,” a less than helpful term that smacked of tautology. The mass destruction of regime opponents was never genocidal. And regime violence against non-Russian peoples was merely a function of Russia’s need for geopolitical security.
All these happy assumptions must now be reconsidered. The Putinist regime has all the hallmarks of Mussolini’s and Hitler’s. Fascism looks like an accurate way of defining all three. The deliberate destruction of Ukrainians—in Mariupol, Kharkiv, Bucha, and scores of settlements—the kidnapping of thousands of children, and the destruction of Ukrainian culture all smack of genocide. And Russia’s expansion into Transnistria, Georgia, and Ukraine, its bellicose threats to Kazakhstan and the Baltic states, and its near-absorption of Belarus all look like empire building.
The next question that Russia specialists must then confront is this: How could Russian political culture have made Putin, his regime, and its war and genocide against Ukrainians possible? The conventional wisdom among students of the Russian arts and sciences is that Russian culture is “great.” The problem is that, while there are surely great individuals within Russian culture, the culture as a whole cannot avoid responsibility for Putin and his regime’s crimes.
After all, Putin is not quite an anomaly. Imperial Russian and Soviet history is full of bloodthirsty tyrants who committed what we would today call genocide. Vladimir Lenin and Joseph Stalin were mass murderers. Nikita Khrushchev was implicated in the 1930s’ Great Terror and the Ukrainian genocide-famine, the Holodomor. Leonid Brezhnev was a tyrant. All these leaders enjoyed popular adulation. As does Putin. Indeed, over 80 percent of Russians support the war. No less telling is the latest Russian fashion craze—tee shirts stating the “I am not ashamed.” (Really? One is tempted to ask. Aren’t you a mite troubled by mass killings?)
Something is decidedly wrong with a culture that is proud of genocide. Russianists will not be able to avoid examining themselves and their Russian cultural icons for harbingers of the present catastrophe. What does it mean that Fyodor Dostoevsky was a Russian chauvinist? That Nikolai Gogol and Anton Chekhov were Ukrainian? That Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn was an unvarnished imperialist? That Aleksandr Pushkin was a troubadour of Russian imperial greatness? May these writers still be read without one eye on the ongoing atrocities in Ukraine?
Finally, Russianists will have to answer why Putin and so many Russians have such an animus against Ukrainians. For starters, Russianists will have to realize that Imperial Russia and the Soviet Union were empires that oppressed the non-Russian nations. Violence, aggression, and war were the lifeblood of these states, as they are of Putin’s realm. Peter I and Catherine II weren’t just building states and streamlining bureaucracies. They were actively killing hundreds of thousands of people in their rush to greatness.
And Poles and Ukrainians had a special place in the mad schemes of Russian czars and Soviet leaders. The Poles were Muscovy’s main rivals for several centuries, and it was Russia that then took part in three partitions of Poland in the 18th century and a fourth in 1939. Ukrainians, meanwhile, challenged the historical myths invented by the czars in the 18th and 19thcenturies. Russians claimed lineage with the ancient Kyivan Rus state, despite the fact that Moscow wasn’t more than a speck on the map when Kyivan culture flourished over a millennium ago. The Ukrainian claim to that lineage—which resembles Italy’s claim of continuity with Roman Italy—explodes the Russian myths, destroys Russia’s claim to greatness, and therefore serves as an existential threat to Russian identity.
Can Russianists introduce a perestroika of their profession and their assumptions? Chances are they will resist, if only because Putin enjoys a remarkable degree of support among Slavics professors. Moreover, many Russian studies centers have institutional and financial ties with Russian partners and oligarchs. Finally, Russianists will, like all people, prefer to disregard painful questions that threaten to upend their life’s work.
But change will come nonetheless. The public atmosphere has changed. Much of the world now recognizes Putin as a monster and Russia as a force for evil. Public opinion will be hard to ignore. In particular, students will ask their professors just what they were doing during the Russo-Ukrainian War. Evasion won’t work, and professors will have to fess up to their shameful roles in sustaining Putin’s Russia.