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The unconscious imperialism of a convinced anti-imperialist

The famous writer Mikhail Shishkin is one of the few well-known Russians to voice strong opposition to Moscow’s ongoing invasion of Ukraine. Despite this, many of his words and actions still play into the hands of the Kremlin, ultimately aiding in the continuation of the war.

April 28, 2023 - Tomasz Kamusella - Articles and Commentary

The Russian-Swiss writer Mikhail Pavlovich Shishkin in Tel Aviv in May 2022. Photo: Igal Vaisman / Shutterstock

An authoritarian state’s power and propaganda have reached their acme of efficacy and insidiousness when a fierce critique and opponent of the regime can espouse important tenets of its ideology without even realising it. Subsequently, this development blunts the opponent’s anti-regime diatribes and may even make him or her liable for at least partial co-option. Self-righteousness often breeds complacency that creates an opening for the regime to shame opponents living abroad into silence.

The Russian elite and the war

So terrifyingly few Russians of world renown have taken a principled public stance against Russia’s imperialist war against peaceful Ukraine that each single voice of protest reverberates strongly in the mass media across the democratic world. Mikhail Shishkin, one of the best living Russian writers, is commonly compared with Anton Chekhov, Vladimir Nabokov and James Joyce. In 1995, following his Swiss wife, he managed to emigrate to Switzerland. It was a stroke of good luck hardly available to any of his compatriots at that time. Post-Soviet Russia’s economy was then in free fall, gangsters ruled the day, and a nascent democracy was rapidly morphing into a Soviet-like authoritarian regime. Unsurprisingly, this period is known in Russian as the “Wild Nineties”, a decade of banditry and poverty (likhie devianostye). At the turn of the 21st century, Vladimir Putin was installed as a latter-day tyrant, increasingly in the likeness of a Soviet-style tsar. The Russian president swiftly subjected the oligarchs to his control. These tycoons had previously seized (or “privatised”) the country’s most profitable factories and industries. Thus, the renewed Russian totalitarian regime-in-making received a stable, but thoroughly corrupted, economic foundation.

Shishkin was lucky and with time acquired prescience that a totalitarian regime is being rebuilt in Russia. Beginning in 2013, he turned into a vocal critic of authoritarian Russia and openly dubbed the country’s government a “criminal regime”. Subsequently, the writer has regularly spoken against Putin’s rule in public, mainly to castigate its warmongering. In 2014, Shishkin lashed out after Russia annexed Crimea and invaded eastern Ukraine. Eight years later, in 2022, the writer condemned Moscow’s unjustified and imperialist full-scale onslaught against peaceful Ukraine.

This approach is clearly different to the muted condemnation of this latest war, encouraged by employment circumstances, from Russian star soprano Anna Netrebko. A decade earlier she had infamously endorsed Putin in 2012. Subsequently, the singer fell silent on the ongoing war and Russia’s genocidal atrocities in Ukraine. To this day, Netrebko has shied away from criticising openly Russia’s leadership, let alone Putin. Instead, the singer focuses on fighting in the courts over contract-guaranteed penalty fees for cancelled performances, when she had not yet condemned the war. This is only bested by the feigned surprise of the daughter of Putin’s spokesman that she should be targeted by western sanctions, given that, in her own words, she “has nothing to do with the situation”.

Language is never guilty?

Unfortunately, Shishkin’s strongly opinionated views on the Kremlin and its genocidal war on Ukraine appear to have a blind spot. In the case of lesser mortals, it might be a case of imperfect translation or a poor choice of words. The writer, however, is a master stylist in Russian and German, and in addition, he is effortlessly fluent in English. Hence, the blind spot is either intentional or unrealised. I hope it is the second here because Shishkin’s voice is heard worldwide, with his novels translated into 35 languages. Interestingly, not a single one of his books seems to have been translated into any of Russia’s 35 official regional languages. Likewise, his Wikipedia biography is not available in these tongues, either, though it features in 23 different language versions of Wikipedia.

In mid-February 2023, on the fast-approaching first anniversary of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the writer published an open letter to his “Ukrainian Friend”. This letter was rapidly translated and republished across Europe. Shishkin adopted the letter’s main theses from his longer German-language essay, in which he reflects on the striking similarities between Nazi Germany and Putin’s Russia. This text is included in the forthcoming volume of the writer’s German-language essays in English translation, hauntingly titled My Russia: War or Peace?

Assessing the situation one year after the outbreak of Russia’s war against Ukraine, Shishkin zooms in on culture. More specifically Russian culture. Dramatically, he opens the letter to his Ukrainian Friend by stating that the Kremlin “stole our language” (Они украли у нас язык). The proposition inches dangerously close to the main premise of Putin’s 2021 essay “On the Historical Unity of Russians and Ukrainians”. This argues that Ukrainians and Russians (together with Belarusians) were, are and should remain a single Russian people, bound by the same language, that is, Russian. In this formulation, Ukrainian and Belarusian are seen as mere regional (or rural) dialects of Russian.

Next, Shishkin’s diagnosis is chilling but most fitting when he says that the world now sees Russian as a “murderers’ language” (язык убийц). Obviously, the writer borrowed this collocation from Holocaust survivor Paul Celan. With his poetry Celan managed to singlehandedly “detoxify” German, earlier turned by the Nazi German regime’s genocidal policies and actions into a Mördersprache. For writing in this noxious murderers’ language and turning it back into a Dichtersprache (poets’ language), the poet paid the ultimate price of death. Troubled by post-traumatic stress disorder, he committed suicide.

What viable solution does Shishkin see to the dilemma of Russian as a murderers’ language? The writer believes that “his country can be reborn only through the total defeat of Putin’s regime” (Новое рождение моей страны возможно только через полное уничтожение путинского режима). It is a bit strange to hear how seamlessly from his language of Russian, the writer now moves in the argument to his country, Russia. Shishkin appears to forget that he chose to emigrate to Switzerland and adopted Swiss citizenship. It is Switzerland that has shielded the writer from potential repressions and grinding poverty “back home” in Russia. His actual home of the past three decades and counting has been the Alpine land of stability and prosperity, with all individual, political and social freedoms, alongside human rights, guaranteed, including that of creating fiction in whatever languages he may want.

In the conclusion of his letter, the anti-imperialist Shishkin believes that the way to a new democratic Russia is through “the amputation of the empire from the Russian man” (Империю необходимо ампутировать из русского человека). Though rhetorically radical, the method is quite vaguely sketched out in practical terms. At face value, the proposal amounts to teaching Russia’s ethnically Russian citizens to appreciate their country’s multi-ethnic character, together with the diverse cultures of Russia’s tens of ethnically non-Russian indigenous peoples, such as the Buryats, Chechens, Sakhas, Tatars, or Tuvans.

Curiously, this conclusion falls short of his opinion, voiced a year ago (2022), when the writer declared the swift breakup of the Russian Federation into multiple ethnolinguistically defined nation-states as a prerequisite for the rise of a new democratic Russia, which necessarily would be limited to Europe, where the vast majority of ethnic Russians reside. But even then, Shishkin hoped that several of these successor polities would retain Russian as an official language. It appears the writer is oblivious to the early modern Spanish imperialists’ dictum that “language has always been the perfect instrument of empire.”

Great Russian literature?

Currently, in the Russian president’s own words, this imperial principle “justifies” Russia’s ongoing war on Ukraine. After all, the Kremlin’s sole discernible goal is to impose Russian language and national identity on this country and its unwilling population by destroying Ukrainian language and culture. The “fascists” that the Russian troops target in Ukraine are none other than Ukrainians who refuse to identify themselves as Russians. That is why they persist in speaking Ukrainian, instead of switching to the imperial tongue of Russian.

So, if Shishkin’s hope for the rise of numerous successor Russophone states comes true, then even after the successful decolonisation of the Russian Federation, these successor polities will remain under a post-imperial Russia’s control or influence, be it through culture, economy or political pressure. This had been the fate of most of Latin America’s Spanish-speaking countries until the late 20th century. Spain remained the example and arbiter for language, culture and politics that was to be followed by the nominally independent states of this continent. Tellingly, the name of the French language features prominently in the term Françafrique for this type of indirect imperial domination, which to this day Paris extends over its former African colonies.

Gaining independence from an empire never comes easy or instantaneously, as the annual celebrations of a postcolonial country’s national independence may falsely suggest. Actual independence continues to be hampered long after achieving nominal independence and a seat at the United Nations. Such a situation of “half-independence” persists, especially if a postcolonial country lost or ditched its own indigenous language(s) in favour of the imperial language. The urgency of retaining and bolstering the indigenous (national) language(s) of a postcolonial state is even more urgent in Central and Eastern Europe, where Ukraine happens to be located. In this region, for almost two centuries, the main political ideology of statehood creation, legitimation and maintenance has proclaimed that language is equivalent to nation.

At present, the Kremlin has adopted ethnolinguistic nationalism as yet another instrument of imperial expansionism. The ideology of Russkii mir (Russian world) proposes that Russia’s territory must extend where Russian speakers happen to live. Furthermore, in 2016, the Russian president notoriously opined that “Russia’s borders are limitless.” This statement means that the Slavophone Orthodox empire of Russia ought to conquer and expand as long as is necessary to dominate the entire world. It is a new incarnation of the Leninist policy of world revolution, according to which communism was to spread to each land and continent, before the end of history would come in the form of a single global communist state. Now, according to the Kremlin, a new paradise on Earth is promised by the state of the Russian world.

Bearing in mind the political and ideological context, it is frightening that in his criticism of imperialist Russia, Shishkin should fall back on such a clear propaganda cliché as “great Russian literature” (язык великой русской литературы). Nowadays, hardly anyone remembers, Russian studies specialists included, that the term stems from the once official name of the Russian language in Russian. Between the 1860s and the Bolshevik revolution, it was known under the moniker of “Great Russian language” (Velikorusskii iazyk). Hence, literature written in this language became known as “Great Russian literature” (Velikorusskaia literatura). This late tsarist linguonym was banned in the interwar Soviet Union and replaced with the still current phrase “Russian language” (Russkii iazyk). But during the Second World War, when in 1941 Moscow switched sides from the fellow totalitarian power of Nazi Germany to the democratic powers of Britain and the United States, Soviet propaganda went into overdrive. Moscow dusted off the denigrated late tsarist collocation “Great Russian literature” (Velikorusskaia literatura) and changed it a bit in Russian, resulting in the laudatory clichégreat Russian literature” (velikaia Russkaia literatura).

Nowadays, in Russia and abroad people speak about “great Russian literature” and use this collocation unreflectively in English, French, German and other languages. It is a lasting triumph of Soviet propaganda, which proves so useful for “justifying” and furthering Putin’s ideology of the Russian world. A Brit would never speak of “great English literature”, a Frenchman of “great French literature”, or a German of “great German literature”. However, be it in quality or output, English, German and French literatures appear to be much “greater” than their Russian counterpart. After all, there are many more speakers of English and French than Russophones, while the production of literature in German is of a much longer standing than that in Russian.

At some subconscious level, Shishkin realises this problem. As he relates, his father was a Soviet soldier who fought in the Second World War. Afterward, he held in low esteem all things German. The future writer disagreed and kept convincing his reluctant father that the horrific deeds of Nazi Germany could not and did not cancel the beauty of Johann Wolfgang Goethe’s poetry or Thomas Mann’s novels. That German-language belles lettres still amount to “great German literature” (великая немецкая литература). Yet, such a set collocation does not exist in Russian or other languages. It is Shishkin’s ad hoc invention in emulation of the Soviet propaganda phrase “great Russian literature”.


But why does Shishkin dwell so much on Russian language and literature and their supposedly endangered future in this purported letter to his Ukrainian Friend? The Friend is from the country currently suffering as a result of neo-imperialist Russia’s attack. Ukrainians die and are maimed each day by Russian rockets raining from the sky. Russian troops flatten entire towns and cities across Ukraine. Meanwhile, with the world hardly batting an eyelid, the Kremlin unabashedly uses well-established Soviet myths about Russian language and history to justify the onslaught on peaceful Ukraine. The Russian language features as the “glue” of Russkii mir and in the collocation “great Russian literature”. Both constitute the cornerstones of Moscow’s propaganda arsenal, the backbone of its mendacious “anti-war” narrative concerning the “peaceful special military operation” in Ukraine.

This insidiously intrusive and ubiquitous propaganda of Soviet origin also won over Shishkin, without him even realising. Otherwise, he would not lavish so much attention on the murderers’ language and literature but would rather turn his gaze to the Ukrainians themselves. A year ago, the novelist noted that “the Ukrainians are fighting Putin’s army for their freedom, and ours [the Russians’].” Shishkin is a writer. So, why would he not devote some attention to Ukrainian language and culture, which is now facing an existential threat posed by, purportedly his country, or this neo-imperialist Russia and its armies?

At present, Shishkin blames his true home country of Switzerland and the West in general for extending insufficient support to the fledgling Russian democracy during the 1990s. In his view, this fact “explains” why the democratic system failed in Russia, opening the way for the rise of a neo-Soviet totalitarianism. The writer laments that even the annexation of Crimea in 2014 did not stop Swiss and western companies from investing and making brisk profits in Putin’s Russia. Now he fears that the West may go back on its resolve to both divest from Russia and sanction the country until Ukraine’s victory.

Yet, Shishkin’s admonishments sound hollow, because he did not divest from Russia, either. His books were published in Russia after 2014 and are still released in this country, following Russia’s attack on Ukraine last year. The writer’s latest collection of Russian-language essays was launched in Moscow in August 2022, or half a year after the Russian armies had invaded Ukraine. All the volumes of his growing literary oeuvre are readily available in present-day Russia’s bookstores and online.

However, Shishkin does not need this revenue from neo-imperialist Russia, his material existence is ensured, including that of all his family. The writer’s books are already available in almost 40 languages. For every copy of his books sold, he earns more from the sales of his works in Germany and Britain or elsewhere in Europe and North America than from cheaply priced books in Russia. It would be better then for Shishkin to match up his actions with his words. If he deems it morally and politically wrong for a Swiss food-producing company to remain in today’s neo-imperialist Russia, the same is true of any Russian-language Swiss writer, who allows for his books to be published in this neo-imperialist and totalitarian country. Any opposition writer who tacitly agrees to this form of collaboration is guilty of affording direct economic support to Putin’s regime. Thus, Shishkin unwillingly works in line with the Kremlin’s propaganda and becomes a pawn in the government’s hands.

Russian money tainted with Ukrainian blood stinks the same, be it in an industrialist’s fist or the pocket of a famous novelist’s elegant trousers. Why would Shishkin, who is openly critical of Putin’s murderous regime, follow in the infamous footsteps of the notorious opera diva Netrebko?

Ukrainian language and culture?

Apart from divesting from the Russian publishing market, Shishkin ought to consider bolstering the stance of the endangered Ukrainian language and culture. Should, in his own words, both German and Russian languages and literatures be “beautiful and great”, the same must be also true of Ukrainian language and literature. In the democratic world there are no “small” languages and cultures.

Shishkin mastered German to the level of becoming a successful published writer in this language. Perhaps, the least he could do for Ukraine and his Ukrainian Friend would be to start writing his new books in Ukrainian. I am sure the effort would add considerably to the style and nuance of Shishkin’s luminous prose, as it was in the case of the famous 18th-century Ukrainian philosophe Hryhorii Skovoroda. He wrote in Church Slavonic, Greek, Latin, Muscovian (Russian) and Ruthenian (Ukrainian). The philosophe did not shy, either, from melding different languages together in a single text for the sake of enhancing the beauty of his prose or poetry. This was a time when writers did not serve languages but used them as instruments and material for their own creativity.

More recently, at the turn of the 1920s, the famous Soviet Ukrainian novelist of Latvian and German-speaking extraction, Maik Yohansen, switched overnight from writing in Russian to Ukrainian. If Shishkin remains unconvinced by these examples, let us mention the contemporary Ukrainian writer Volodymyr Rafyeyenko. Until 2014, he wrote in Russian, published his books in Russia and considered himself to be a representative of Russian literature. All this changed with Russia’s annexation of Crimea and war in eastern Ukraine. Like Shishkin, Rafyeyenko had a moment of political enlightenment. The Ukrainian novelist sided with democracy and his own country, declaring that his books would not serve a Russian culture harnessed by the Kremlin’s propaganda for the sake of destroying Ukrainian language, culture and identity. It took Rafyeyenko almost three years to master Ukrainian and complete a new novel in this language. But it was worth this wait and effort.

That is an example to follow. Anyway, Shishkin the master stylist tends to work on a novel for half a decade or longer to ensure it is dazzling in plot and prose and different in style from his earlier books. Russia’s total war on Ukraine opened a new historical period in Europe, so perhaps it is also high time for Shishkin to try something new, like writing a novel in Ukrainian, or bilingually?

For the time being, when Shishkin experiments with writing in Ukrainian, he may not be able to complete his first Ukrainian-language book for a couple of years. In such a situation, as an interim measure, the novelist might ensure that all his new writing, be it originally written in German or Russian, would first be published in a Ukrainian translation. In addition, following the example of the great Austrian writer Thomas Bernhard, Shishkin must do the decent thing and ban any trade in, or the publication of, his books in Russia. I am sure that Russian-language publishers in Latvia, Kyrgyzstan or Munich would do an equally good job in this respect. However, profits generated in this way would not end up in the Kremlin’s war chest for obliterating Ukraine and the Ukrainians.

In 1988, Thomas Bernhard criticised Austria’s unrequited antisemitism in his play Heldenplatz. The near-riotous protests against his play that followed its staging caused the writer to ban any production or publication of his plays in Austria for 70 years after his death, which happened a year later. Crimes against humanity perpetrated by neo-imperialist Russia in its ongoing genocidal war on Ukraine and the Ukrainians, alongside Ukrainian language and culture, are much worse. Thus, the situation requires undertaking even more incisive symbolic and – above all – practical acts against this outrage than Bernhard’s vitriolic reaction. Shishkin knows best, as a much better connoisseur of German-language literature than me.

Toward a post-imperial future

Rightly, Shishkin predicts a democratic future only for a decolonised Russia. This is a future Russia that eventually freed its colonies and transformed itself into a normal European country. But decolonisation alone is insufficient for achieving this goal. Russian cultural and linguistic imperialism must also end. The world-famous novelist is uniquely placed to facilitate this process.

Despite the constitutional guarantees for Russia’s numerous indigenous nations, their rights are observed in breach. As we now well know, in percentage terms, more young men are mobilised for the war in Ukraine from the ethnically non-Russian nations than from among the ranks of ethnic Russians. Even worse, ethnically non-Russian conscripts are more likely to die in combat. Meanwhile, back home, their families and communities are pressed hard with administrative measures and financial sweeteners to abandon their languages in favour of Russian. As a result, Russification accelerates. In line with the ethnolinguistic ideology of the Russian world, the Kremlin seeks to overhaul multi-ethnic Russia into a homogenously Russophone Russia.

Shishkin could gather all his ill-gotten royalties obtained from Russia after 2014 and transform them into an anti-imperialist translation fund. This grant-making instrument would support the translation of world literature (including Shishkin’s own books) into the oppressed languages of Russia’s colonised indigenous nations, be it Bashkir, Chuvash, Kalmyk, Tatar or Tuvan. Obviously, it is also a must to encourage and assist the translation of the best works from these subjected national literatures into English, French, German, Ukrainian and the globe’s other main languages.

But if Shishkin and other principled Russian oppositionists fail to establish reciprocal and equitable relations at the level of cultural and linguistic relations between ethnic Russians on the one hand and, on the other, the post-Soviet nations and the Russian Federation’s indigenous nations, the prospect of building a normal European and democratic state in Russia remains highly uncertain. Beijing’s recent overtures to Putin’s totalitarian Russia show that China has the country in its sights. Democracy and respect for human rights are an existential threat to communist China’s totalitarian regime. What the Chinese seek is a vast anti-democratic zone of “fraternal totalitarianism” from the European Union in the west to the Pacific in the east, and from the Arctic Ocean in the north to Southeast Asia and Australasia in the south. In this manner, most of Eurasia would be subjected to China’s political influence and economic needs.

Depending on the outcome of Russia’s war on Ukraine, the Kremlin’s coalescing unequal alliance with China, and the choices of Russian oppositionists, Russians in the future will either be writing and reading in both Ukrainian and Russian or exclusively in Chinese. After 2017, communist China successfully suppressed the country’s 12 million Uyghurs by locking up 15 per cent of them in custom-built concentration camps. It is not inconceivable that a resurgent pan-Eurasian China would repress all of Russia’s population of 140 million by herding about 20 million into forced labour camps. This plan is nothing new. Between 1930 and 1953, Joseph Stalin incarcerated 18 to 20 million Soviet citizens in the “archipelago” of gulag camps. Hunger, overwork and bouts of industrialised killings cost almost two million inmates their lives.

Why do we need to repeat this past in the future?

Tomasz Kamusella is Reader (Professor Extraordinarius) in Modern Central and Eastern European History at the University of St Andrews in Scotland. His recent monographs include Ethnic Cleansing during the Cold War (Routledge 2018), Politics and Slavic Languages (Routledge 2021) and Eurasian Empires as Blueprints for Ethiopia (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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