Nikolay Epplée is an independent researcher working on international memorial culture and on the memory of Soviet state terror. He is the author of The Inconvenient Past: Memory of the State Crimes in Russia and Other Countries. He has published extensively on memory issues in Vedomosti, InLiberty, Colta, and other Russian media. He graduated from Russian State University for the Humanities (Moscow), where he studied classical philology and philosophy. He lectured on ancient Greek philosophy, and classical and medieval literature and published translations from Greek, Latin, English, German and Italian. From 2013 to 2017 he was an editorial writer for the daily newspaper Vedomosti.
On the Impossibility of Making Excuses for the Past
We are used to defining the present through the past, through historical parallels. It is a part of our normal culture of thought because the description of a current event through historical parallels seems to root it in reality. This description makes that event not random and builds logical and causal connections. Perhaps this way of reasoning has a special name, an antonym of “presentism”.
And we tend to describe our socio-political reality through historical parallels: modern repression through 1937, Putin through Stalin, etc. And I have always resisted this because I am convinced that it throws off the accuracy of analysis though this desire itself is quite understandable and probably natural.
But what is happening now, I think, should call for, among other things, a discipline of thought. The famous Historikerstreit, the dispute among historians in Germany in 1986-1987, revolved around whether the Holocaust could be seen as something historically conditioned and thus seen as a kind of a norm, or as something unique and unprecedented. The second position won out, and it was not a matter of passion, so to speak, of evaluation (not just horror, but unprecedented horror!). German intellectuals thus forbade themselves to seek a sense of what happened through something that had happened before but agreed to regard the Holocaust as the basis of a new ethical frame of reference, something that forced a departure from any comparisons and started any discussion from the ground up.
We see quite clearly how the fascination with the past works and to what consequences it leads. For years we have watched a man for whom the Second World War and its results have become so central to the historical perspective that it has become a vortex into which he is sucked, dragging us all along with him. He is liberating Kyiv from the Nazis, never mind that he is killing the people of Kyiv and that the head of the “neo-Nazis,” the Ukrainian president, is Jewish. We see the consequences of the lack of discipline in dealing with historical parallels and the use of history to explain modernity. References to the US invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan, to the bombing of Yugoslavia, have become a commonplace way to justify and “explain” anything as references to the GULAG and communism in Germany before and during the historians’ dispute were a way to justify the Holocaust.
And so it seems to me that what is happening now in Kyiv and Ukraine should become something similar to what happened during that historians’ dispute. In recent decades, the assemblage point of Russian identity has been the memory of the liberation war of the Soviet people against the Nazis (there should also have been the memory of the GULAG and responsibility for it, though it had not, but that is a separate matter). This basis of identity has now been taken away from us, but that’s not even what I mean: now the assemblage point of this very identity is inevitably different. It is permanently, if not forever, until the next paradigmatic break, linked to responsibility for what is happening now. We are no longer the nation that liberated the world from Nazism, we are the nation that transformed the liberation of the world from Nazism into the foundation for the regime that brought a new war to Europe.
The use of historical parallels to explain what is happening is now difficult, if not forbidden. Now everything else must be explained through what is happening at this moment.
February 26, 2022, Moscow
On the Responsibility Of the Russian Culture
Russia is currently experiencing a moral catastrophe, the scale of which has yet to be assessed. If this catastrophe is ever overcome, it will happen that way such catastrophes are overcome when and if it succeeds: by assuming criminal, moral, political, and metaphysical (according to Carl Jaspers’ classical classification) responsibility for what happened. To what extent this is possible is rather pointless to discuss today. But I just want to say one thing about the salvation of Russian culture and the responsibility of intellectuals, because I already see the beginning of these discussions.
Once again, it is not at all certain that Russian culture has a future after what is happening now. I am talking about this culture in the sense to which we are accustomed, as one of the world’s greatest, a bearer of values and meanings, rather than an environment that supplies content for souvenir shops for tourists and ethnographic festivals. There are just two paths, and only one of them is the path to salvation.
If now the intellectuals in opposition to the present Russian government begin to explain (to the West and to all those who want to listen) that Russian culture has always been and remains uninvolved in state crimes, that it, and not this whole thing, remains the REAL foundation of Russian identity, and Russian intellectuals are the pure and chaste bearers of this identity, who have been foreign to these folks up top and, as it happens, are not always able to reach the dark masses of the people… If the conversation goes in this direction, then it’ll mean the end of the culture.
The future for our culture will only be possible if its bearers (scientists, writers, philosophers, artists, musicians, etc.) will start talking about responsibility for what has happened, and, first of all, about THEIR responsibility.
What happened was also possible “through us” who consider ourselves intellectuals and bearers of the tradition of Pushkin, Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, Tchaikovsky and Chukovsky… Brodsky, Zverev and Grebenshchikov. And everything we will have to say now must be said through this emphasising of responsibility. Or we’ll be ruined.
We are not talking about guilt here but about responsibility. And the difference between them is not just scholastical. Guilt for the present events lies with some particular people who would dearly love to spread it over all Russians, but the responsibility is with those who are capable of realising it. As we now clearly understand, the difference between guilt and responsibility, on which both Carl Jaspers and Hannah Arendt strongly insisted, is a matter of principle that also has a very direct practical meaning. I am not talking now about the fact that the Russian culture is polluted by chauvinism, imperialism and all those characteristics that made the current situation possible. Yes, there is plenty to remember: from “To the Slanderers of Russia” by Pushkin to “On the Independence of Ukraine” by Brodsky and “The Brothers” by Balabanov (two films by Alexei Balabanov, “Brother” and “Brother 2”). This is a separate and rather special conversation that we can’t get away from. But now I am talking about something else, about the fact that thanks to its riches, its resource of rebuilding against evil and preserving itself, it is the culture that must assume an unpleasant and, probably, an unfair duty of beginning a conversation about responsibility. It must assume that duty for society and the state, which simply do not have this resource.
“Through us” is a formula from the famous Stuttgart Declaration of Guilt written in 1946. None of its authors supported the Nazis and many were in the resistance. Kneeling in Warsaw, asking forgiveness from the Jews on behalf of Germany, Willy Brandt was an active anti-fascist and resistance fighter. A very important article on Lithuanian responsibility for the murder of Jews during the war was written in 1975 by Tomas Venclova, God bless him, who was in no way personally responsible for the murder of Jews and was married to a Jewess. Examples could go on and on, that’s how it works.
“If we did everything, but what happened happened, then that ‘everything’ needs to be rethought. If a man could not jump his shadow and what happened happened, then the sun needs to be rethought. The phrase ‘what happened happened’ means, in fact, that my family not only ‘did the best they could,’ but also contributed (!) to the fact that members of other families were not considered human” (Peter Esterhazy, Corrected Version).
It only works that way. And it is very difficult and, in some ways, unnatural. But if there is anything that makes our culture valuable now, it is its ability to make such a humanly impossible leap. If it works somehow, it means that Pushkin & Сo. were not in vain.
March 8, 2022, Moscow
Of the most important things right now is not to be afraid. I see a lot of fear, it’s understandable, now there’s a feeling that it’s become really unsafe. But firstly, what does this unsafety mean? It’s not safe now for those who are being shelled or bombed, but not for those for whom the Internet has been cut off and who “may be a person they’ll come for”. Secondly, when it is unsafe, it is especially important not to lose oneself.
Fear is not bad in itself, but not resisting it is the way to do evil. Those who are seized by fear are deprived of the ability to think soberly. They are also deprived of the ability to switch off from worrying about themselves and to think soberly about who needs their help now. But most importantly, fear silences not only the reason but also conscience (Bonhoeffer wrote that the animal terror of the threat of violence supersedes the fear of God, which prevents a person from committing immoral acts).
Hannah Arendt, who wrote extensively about people’s lives under totalitarianism, followed Socrates in justifying the unacceptability of amoralism by arguing that once we commit an unworthy act, we have to live with the villain for the rest of our lives (“if I do what is now required of me in payment for participating, then I can no longer live with myself; my life will no longer be worth anything”).
How do you get rid of fear? Believers should remember that they are believers and put their trust in God. The number of martyrs and confessors will help you. Non-believers should think that peace with themselves is better than confusion. Do they want to jail you for 3 or even for 15 years? Well look, they are quite likely to collapse in the very near future. Then again, thinking about those who are in real trouble right now can help with the fear. And by the way, people from Ukraine write to me that they are in danger, but they are much less depressed and frightened than many here (in Russia). And the people who were jailed for 15 days in Sakharovo were less depressed and scared. Come on, give it up.
Welfare, comfort, and security have already been taken from us. It would be a shame to give up the only thing that allows us not to lose ourselves in these conditions. That is our self-respect.
March 4, 2022, Moscow
About the Artwork: from Katya Muromtzeva
Women in black against the war. Every Friday around the world.
In Russia, it is one of few possible protests – to wear black and go out with a flower. The word “war” is prohibited, that is why people write down * ***. But people are arrested either for the posters with the stars or just for white posters without any words. Despite that, they continue to protest against the war.
My sisters were arrested during the anti-war protest several weeks ago. They told among 42 people in their prison truck most of them were young women in their twenties. After the first detention, it is extremely dangerous to protest on the streets so they support different types of protests. Some of them participate in the Women in Black against the war movement, and some of them try to convince their parents and grandparents not to watch state propaganda. Some of them physically throw away the TV from their home.
No to war!
This article is illustrated by the Art Against War Telegram Channel: