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The imperial mentality of unapologetic Russian oppositionists

A proposed ban on Russians entering the EU is now being discussed across the continent. While Moscow wages a bloody war in Ukraine, Russian citizens continue to take advantage of the opportunity to visit the bloc. The EU must now speak with one voice by enforcing the ban in support of a besieged Ukraine.

August 26, 2022 - Tomasz Kamusella - Articles and Commentary

Photo: Alena Mostovich / Shutterstock

“Russia is not part of degenerate Europe”

For half a year already Russia has waged an unprovoked genocidal and imperialist war on Ukraine, seeking to rebuild the Soviet Union or even the tsarist empire. The human cost does not matter to most Russians, as long as it is exclusively Ukrainians and Russia’s ethnically non-Russian soldiers who are dying. The Kremlin takes good care to shield the country’s elite in Moscow and St. Petersburg from any fighting on the front or gruesome images of the war. De facto censorship of all the country’s mass and social media has worked well so far. So, residents of Russia’s two largest cities can now enjoy summer, which for them could include visiting Spanish beaches, Parisian shopping centres, or even their foreign properties strewn across Europe. In addition, they can drop by some beloved Russian culinary and architectural haunts abroad, be they in Rome or Cyprus. Russians continue to visit the European Union, so vilified by the Kremlin and its propagandists. This includes numerous leading cultural figures. In Moscow’s view, today’s Europe is the seat of all evil, the home of same-sex marriage, LGBT+ rights, democracy, respect for human and individual rights, and above all, “Russophobia”.

Over the past two decades, the Russian Federation has engaged in much celebrated strategic alliances with totalitarian China, theocratic Iran and autocratic Turkey. For that matter, they have also cooperated with Syria and the Central African Republic, where Russian money and mercenaries support the countries’ bloody dictators. The Kremlin often promotes Russia’s unwavering support for “healthy conservatism” and “traditional values” so typical of Asia and Africa. In practice, this means the systemic persecution of sexual minorities and the customary trampling of human rights. Yet, members of the Russian elite do not flock to these supposedly family-friendly and pro-Russian places, which are sunnier than any Mediterranean beach in apparently Russophobic Europe. These countries are also more conservative (that is, authoritarian) in their politics and mores than even dictatorial Hungary in the EU.

In late July, Ukraine proposed that the European Union stop issuing visas to Russian citizens. Finland and the Baltic states immediately supported this initiative. In early August, these countries proposed that the EU as a whole ban visas for Russians, while some EU member states had stopped issuing several kinds of visas to Russian citizens even earlier. This is true in the case of Bulgaria. So far, Estonia has introduced the most far-reaching ban on visas for Russian citizens. A proposed EU-wide ban quickly gained crucial support from the EU’s current Czech presidency. A viral video of a Russian tourist in Austria, who taunted a couple of passing Ukrainians by claiming that Moscow would win the war, helped promote the idea of a comprehensive visa ban. Denmark, the Netherlands and Poland soon joined this initiative. On August 30th, the EU’s foreign ministers will discuss this potential tourist visa ban for Russian citizens at a meeting in Prague.

But is Russia not a European country?

However, Berlin is once again dragging its feet just like when its bureaucracy promised deliveries of essential military hardware to Ukraine. On August 11th, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz said that “this is Putin’s war” and emphasised that sanctions “should not be imposed against innocent [Russian] citizens”. But is it the Russian president who is fighting on the front or hundreds of thousands of Russian citizens, supported at home by millions of their kin and friends? If the second option is correct, one cannot say with a clear conscience that it is “Putin’s war”. After all, the vast majority of Russians support this war actively or with their silence.

Unfortunately, the sitting German chancellor’s stance reflects his party’s unabashedly pro-Kremlin view. Indeed, the SPD decided not to expel former Chancellor Gerhard Schröder for his close personal and economic ties with Russian President Vladimir Putin and his kleptocratic and murderous regime. The Russian narrative won the hearts of Germany’s top politicians and is now promoted as the gold standard in European “moderation”.

Thankfully, Estonian Prime Minister Kaja Kallas knows better than this. After all, she has first-hand experience of Soviet totalitarianism and the current Russian regime. On August 9th, she tweeted, “Stop issuing tourist visas to Russians. Visiting Europe is a privilege, not a human right.” The looming ban touched a raw nerve in the Kremlin. The Russian president’s Press Secretary Dmitry Peskov responded to this proposed ban by saying that “any attempt to isolate Russians or Russia is a process that has no prospects.” Former Russian President and Deputy Chairman of the Security Council of Russia Dmitry Medvedev launched another of his bizarre anti-western attacks against the Estonian leader. From these reactions, it is apparent that this visa ban for Russians may work much better than anyone could hope for. This is in spite of Berlin’s reservations.

However, many members of the Russian elite – who remain silent on, or somewhat oppose, the war – took offence. On social media viral posts immediately appeared that strangely suggested that the potential situation facing Russians was like that of the Jews persecuted in nazi Germany. The Russian Duma supported this narrative and even suggested that the EU’s actions were akin to those of apartheid South Africa. Somehow, this situation is “proof” that it is the EU that is “guilty of fascism” and not Russia. Russian scholars and experts now argue that the potential travel ban on Russian tourists will make Russians into the “new Jews of the 21st century”.

Setting the record straight

Hypocrisy and the cynical reversal of meanings enabled by propaganda and enforced through censorship have long been the Kremlin’s instruments for shaping public opinion at home and abroad. So, let us set the record straight. Russians as a nation are not persecuted in Russia, so unlike Jews in nazi Germany, they have no need to flee the country for their lives. Likewise, the EU cannot be an oppressive fascist dictatorship if some Russians – that is, oppositionists closely watched by the Kremlin – intend to seek political asylum there. Of course, the average Russian also badly wants to vacation there. The first group actually fear repression in Putin’s fascist (rashist) Russia, while the second do not find their own country sufficiently attractive for sightseeing.

The efforts of Russian intellectuals and putinists to portray Russians as this century’s “new Jews” are beyond laughable. It is an insult to Holocaust victims and the Jews themselves, while also an attack on reason. In the late 1930s, all the world’s countries sadly imposed quotas or bans on Jewish immigrants from Germany and elsewhere in Europe. However, even after the introduction of an EU visa ban, Russians will still be able to travel to 170 other countries, including Moscow’s close allies. At 7,500 and 4,200 kilometres, Russia shares the longest stretches of its state frontier with Kazakhstan and China respectively. In comparison, the country’s 2,400-kilometre-long border with the EU is negligible. In light of these facts, Moscow and the Russians should get their travel priorities right, so that they can better adapt to the country’s geography and politics. Let them enjoy their Russkiy mir, or Russian world, of the Kremlin’s propaganda.

I repeat, there is no plan on the part of the EU or any other polity to exterminate the Russians as a nation. Actually, it is Russia that is waging a full-scale war on Ukraine. Moscow officially seeks to exterminate the Ukrainian elite and destroy Ukrainian language and culture. It ultimately hopes to erase the Ukrainian nation and state from the political map of Europe. I do not remember reading anywhere about Germans and Austrians complaining that visa restrictions hampered their travel plans to Britain or the United States during the Second World War. Meanwhile, the EU has accepted over seven million and counting Ukrainian refugees, who are fleeing Russia’s tanks, bombardments, rockets and marauding, genocidal soldiers.

Imperial mentality

On behalf of all Russians, including the country’s elite who may be slightly inconvenienced by an EU visa ban, Moscow’s army now kills and destroys in Ukraine on a scale not seen in Europe since 1945. In this situation, the Russians (that is, Russian citizens) forfeited any right to enter and enjoy the EU, as long as this war lasts. Believing otherwise amounts to imperialist arrogance and blindness, to valuing Ukrainian lives less than Russian ones, and to denying the same rights to Ukrainians, who now have no chance to enjoy safety, let alone summer holidays.

Yet, numerous Russians remain impervious to such common sense arguments, which shows the blatant insolence on their part. Their selfish and cold-hearted attitude stems from the toxic legacy of Russian and Soviet imperialism. Unfortunately, even Russian democrats share this untenable position with the average Russian citizen and Kremlin propagandist. Political systems in Russia fall or are dramatically altered, but one way or another they all have remained linked to unrepentant imperialism over the past six centuries. To this day, Russian imperialism remains the same and unaltered, a typical Russian’s sole credo of faith and life.

At present, it is Ukrainians and Ukraine who need urgent protection. Ukrainians are now dying from Russian shrapnel, gunfire wounds and torture. Hunger, thirst and a lack of medicine are also affecting the country. Hundreds of medical facilities have now been purposefully razed by Russians. Instead of thinking selfishly about their own pleasures, the Russian elite, intellectuals, democrats, oppositionists and well-to-do should rather think about how they could improve the tragic lot of the Ukrainians and stop this imperialist war. Currently, the only entitlement that the Russians have is their duty to make amends for the genocidal mass killings, destruction and chaos wreaked by Russia in Ukraine.

Complaints are off the menu. Russian inconveniences are utterly incomparable with Ukrainian deaths, suffering and the loss of limbs and homes. But intellectuals and scholars are creative people and individualists, who prefer not to work with refugees and aid organisations. In most cases, they are not surgeons or psychologists specialising in PTSD either. Fine, I understand. But has any Russian musician composed a concerto or opera on the genocidal acts of Russian troops in Bucha? Can I read a Russian-language novel or epic poem devoted to Ukrainian sufferings during this unprovoked and unjustified war, and also to the unpalatable roles played in it by Russian marauders, robbers, torturers and murderers? Is Russian literature and culture not up to the task of facing up to this challenge of portraying and analysing the tragic fate of Ukrainians during this Russian war? And if not, what could be stopping Russian writers and composers from engaging with such topics? Could it be loyalty to Putin, rashism, or their love of Russian imperialism?

For a moment let us think outside of the box. Why could a Russian writer not show their middle finger to the Kremlin by switching to writing in Ukrainian? If Andreï Makine (Andrei Sergeevich Makin) or Vladimir Nabokov could reinvent themselves as renowned writers of French and English belles-lettres respectively, then mastering kindred Ukrainian for writing fiction should not be beyond any talented Russian author. I am sure that readers would follow if such fiction and poetry would be interesting and inventive. After all, many Russians have learned the much more difficult English to improve their employment prospects and gain access to world literature. So, should they want to shed Russian nationalism by mastering Ukrainian, they could do it faster and more easily.

The same is true of Russian journalists, including those working for Russia’s last independent television channel Dozhd, which the Kremlin closed down in March 2022. Afterward, the team found safe haven in Latvia, where they obtained a broadcasting licence valid for the entire EU. Quite a welcome, eh? The channel began to broadcast again in mid-July. Unfortunately, this channel fully agrees with the Russian elite and the Kremlin that the EU visa ban is a clear sign of the West’s Russophobia. But if the West is Russophobic, how is it possible that TV Dozhd now operates from Riga and not Moscow? Perhaps this television channel remains wedded to its team’s unrealised imperial attitudes that Russians can and should be permitted to do more than people of other nationalities and ethnicities. If I am wrong on that, why would TV Dozhd not start broadcasting at least also in Latvian and Ukrainian? In this way, respect would be shown to the channel’s new home country and the victims of the Russian military aggression in Ukraine. On the other hand, such a forward-thinking decision would expose Russian intellectuals and dissidents to the day-to-day practice of the EU’s tolerant multiculturalism, which is in very short supply in Putin’s Russia.

Acknowledging the fascist (rashist) nature of the current Russian regime, the EU must now do its best to protect the Union, its citizens and Ukrainian refugees on EU territory from Moscow’s undercover operatives, assassins or agents provocateurs. All these are hallmarks of how today’s Kremlin engages in international relations in Europe. The Russian government would not try this in China. Beijing’s reply would be swift and painful as it is a fellow totalitarian state. In Putin’s eyes the democratic West is weak because it follows the rule of law and democratic values. It is now high time that the EU showed unity and slapped a tourist visa ban on Russian citizens in order to protect and practice the very values on which the Union has been built. After all, in the opinion of former Duma Deputy Ilya Ponomarev, 98 per cent of the people leaving Russia this year were not in danger but left “just because it’s uncomfortable for them”. Brussels has no responsibility to worry about their comfort. Ukrainian lives and democracy must take precedence.

On August 16th, 2022 prominent Russian historian and independent public intellectual Andrey Zubov gave TV Dozhd a momentous interview. First, in his opinion fellow Russians’ silence on their country’s unjustified war on Ukraine amounts to their conscious complicity in this crime against humanity. Second, Zubov emphasized he understood the EU’s position and would accept whatever Brussels may rule on EU visas for Russian citizens. Last but not least, Zubov’s determination to stay in Russia is a conscious decision. As a Russian citizen, the historian wishes to continue displaying a principled and ethical position against the war and the Kremlin’s other crimes. Zubov clearly realises that his stance may cost him imprisonment or even assassination.

I thank the Slavic-Eurasian Research Center at Hokkaido University, Sapporo, Japan for support and making it possible for me to research and write this essay. The opinions and arguments presented in this essay are the author’s, and do not represent any official position on the part of the Slavic-Eurasian Research Center.

Tomasz Kamusella is Reader (Professor Extraordinarius) in Modern Central and Eastern European History at the University of St Andrews in Scotland. He initiated and co-authored the monograph Eurasian Empires as Blueprints for Ethiopia: From Ethnolinguistic Nation-State to Multiethnic Federation (Routledge 2021). His reference Words in Space and Time: A Historical Atlas of Language Politics in Modern Central Europe is available as an open access publication.

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