Works of Pushkin, Dostoyevsky, and Tolstoy as shields for Putin’s army
Today I roamed the pages of the European poets I know, and read what they were posting. My thanks to everyone who’s supporting Ukraine, who is attempting to help in some way, who understands what we are dealing with right now. Your support and help are truly invaluable; believe me, Ukrainians know how to be grateful. But if you think Europe is unanimous in supporting Ukraine, you are seriously mistaken. For instance, some of the Italian and Serbian poets I know object that the conflict in Ukraine (yes, "conflict"—they don’t see the war even up close) is not enough of a reason to boycott Russia, especially its culture. And they don’t intend to tolerate these "roller coasters" of politics and cancel culture. And no one is going to tell them whom they should or shouldn’t love.
At a time when Russia is cruelly bombing Ukrainian cities and villages, and killing civilians (and their bombs are not avoiding children, no, they are aiming them quite wonderfully, isn’t that amazing), some of the Italian scientists I know are joking, do they have to give up Russian salad and Russian snoring now? At a time when Ukrainian universities, galleries, and libraries are burning, when people are dying, some European cultural figures are posting on Facebook their conviction that Ukrainians deserve this, because of their bad attitude toward Russians, because how can you behave like that toward Pushkin, Tolstoy, Brodsky, etc. (using fake evidence from Russian propaganda). This propaganda is written by people raised on the works of Pushkin, Dostoyevsky, and others, who quote them freely and arbitrarily, who hide behind them.
For these European colleagues, I am an unreliable source, a representative of a fake country; photos and videos of Russia ruining and shelling Ukraine are not convincing, they don’t fit their value scale, they are not suitable. Several of my Swedish and German acquaintances, in order to support Ukraine "in this crisis," are calling for joint poetry readings with Russian poets in an action "against the war." Against some abstract war: no one knows who started it, no one knows whose fault it is, this war that came to Ukraine from somewhere, like a natural disaster, and will еnd with the wave of a magic wand (people will be resurrected, cities and villages will rise from the ruins—we just need to apply some healing quote from great Russian literature, say, the one about "a quivering beast.") [Translator’s Note: This is a reference to Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment: "Am I a quivering beast, or do I have the right?" (to kill, presumably)]. It’s a pretty picture: how we will now stand shoulder to shoulder with Russian poets and be brothers, find peace somewhere in the middle, forgive each other. The majority of Russians are against the war, the Swedish organizer of my readings tells me, mixing reality with wishful thinking. If the majority of Russians are against the war, then why can’t they influence Putin’s policy in any way? Where are the real protests, not by a few individuals, but by thousands of principled people? Where are the joint letters by Russian cultural institutions? Europeans, don’t delude yourselves. From the beginning of Russia’s war against Ukraine, only one Russian poet has written to me, and he’s been living in Germany and condemning Russia’s policies for a while from there.
The rest, meanwhile, have started to speak against the war only since the total boycott of Russia began, threatened by the prospect of being banned from the European cultural space. The majority of these proclamations are exclusively for export, they are not voiced or broadcast inside Russia (and have never been broadcast widely). Even among relatives and friends of these people, who from the very first days were philosophically discussing in Facebook posts what day Ukraine would surrender (I saw it with my own eyes), were making bets, were analyzing different options of how it might endanger them.
Russia’s aggression against Ukraine began not nine days, but eight years ago. Weren’t these eight years enough for Russian authors to voice their protest against the policy of their president and the direction of their country, or at least to publicly condemn it? Until recently, you wouldn’t get fifteen years in prison for that, even in Russia; you could still influence public thinking in some way, or at least explain your views to your fellow Russians. Do you really think it was easy for us to participate in all our acts of protest, that it didn’t cost us anything to defend Ukraine’s freedom?
My magnanimous Europeans, you who are still not ready to boycott Russia, do you really not understand that offering Ukrainian artists the chance to speak out with poets from Russia who "just want peace" is something like offering Jewish authors during World War II a forum for joining their voices with writers who didn’t publicly condemn fascism but hid behind empty slogans of "peace"? Peace on whose conditions—ours, or yours? This is precisely how you eliminate any chance that I, and the centuries-old Ukrainian culture, may have to live and function. Our culture is being physically destroyed right now, together with those who transmit it, while you are observing and discoursing on the lofty human and democratic values of a great culture.
Do you really not understand that the works of Pushkin, Dostoyevsky, and Tolstoy have long been misused, that the majority of cultural institutions in Russian spaces have been integrated into Russia’s official policy and are responsible for the creation and spread of its narrative? They function in the West as shields for Putin’s army, as Trojan horses on your turf, from which sabotage and intelligence units emerge at night and quietly conquer you. Today, the mythical breadth of the Russian soul is not leaving us a single "green corridor" to evacuate the wounded from Shchastya, Starobil’sk, or the dozens of other cities that are 80 percent destroyed, where people are hiding in basements for the ninth day in a row, under attack, without electricity or heat, without food, water, or medicine. In the last nine days, we’ve understood this perfectly, while you have not managed to, it seems. Pushkin, Dostoyevsky, and Tolstoy are now the dead souls of Russian culture. They don’t affect anything there, they only create that mysterious image of Russia that is so appealing to you, and that misinforms you about what Russia really is right now.
Yesterday, during the shelling, my friend’s schoolteacher died. He taught Russian literature, but not a single book from his vast library protected him—not Pushkin, not Dostoyevsky, not Tolstoy. But you don’t want to know this, otherwise you wouldn’t have been inviting Zahar Prilepin, the ideologist of Russian aggression, or Elena Zaslavskaya, the bullhorn of one of the fake terrorist republics on the Russian-occupied territory of Ukraine, to a bunch of European literary events for the last eight years. Nor would you have listened to her, from your squares, as she read her revolutionary "Brodsky, let’s fight like beastsky" or something more lyrical, about "the fallen Russian boys."
I’m also against the war, but that doesn’t stop it from killing us. I know clearly who the guilty party is and who started it against us. And I know how long this war was smoldering in your sight, but you only fed it with your interest. And now, it’s killing thousands of people—with your tacit agreement, while you are deeply into Dostoyevsky’s books, while you philosophize about some abstract "war and peace" and "crime and punishment." While the former greatness of Russian culture blinds you to the murderous might of Russian weapons.
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