‘In other countries, it was more terrible’: Why Russia won’t heal itself

William Echols

“Healing does not mean the damage never existed. It simply means the damage no longer controls our lives.”

Healing, in its multifarious forms, is something which often runs victim to self-help fetishism; an obsession that things can simply be left behind, forgotten, gotten over, relegated to the dustbin of history. But any false sense of closure, which denies the damage ever existed, will set individuals and nations alike down a perilous path.

There is a strong argument that that which we do not assimilate, we sublimate. And that which we sublimate, can be manipulated by those who understand us better, perhaps, than we understand ourselves. It is an idea at the heart of my latest article for Russia! Magazine, ‘Russia Has Weaponized Its National Trauma.’

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In 2007, a provincial history teacher, meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin, railed against the notion that Russian history could ever give cause to “self-flagellation.” It was a moment for Putin to step in as a statesman and offer Russia a chance to begin coming to terms with its deeply complicated, at times brutal story as a nation. Putin, it turns out, found a muse for his own resentment, arguing “in other countries, it has been said, it was more terrible.”

“We have not used nuclear weapons against a civilian population,” Putin said. “We have not sprayed thousands of kilometers with chemicals, (or) dropped on a small country seven times more bombs than in all the Great Patriotic (War).”

Regarding the purges of 1937, he added: ”We had no other black pages, such as Nazism, for instance,” he said.

In Oliver Bulloughs historical travelogue ‘Let our Fame Be Great’,  he argues that “Russia’s actions in the Caucasus —independent of the politics or beliefs of its rulers over the centuries —have been destructive, murderous, brutal, and cruel.” The Circassian Genocide in 1864. The deportations of the Chechens, Ingush, Crimean Tatars and mountain Turks during the Second World War. Two brutal wars in Chechnya, which resonate throughout the region to this day.

It wasn’t just the Caucasus. Nineteenth century Siberian regionalists argued that imperial Russia’s actions in the region “had taken on genocidal proportions.”

And yet, one thing set Russia apart from other such European encroachments which left a trail of tears and blood. Nearly 70 years after Yermak kicked off Russia’s Siberian conquest, a legal amendment was introduced in 1649 (and yet another in 1658) which made many Slavic Russians themselves slaves in all but name. In this regard, Russia’s ruling class was perhaps slightly more ecumenical in turning his fellow man into property.

Bulloughs therefore argues that the suffering of Russia’s minorities is not well-known in Russia, “perhaps because Russians themselves have suffered so terribly that they prefer not to remember the horrors they have imposed on others.” 

This conflicted historical position of being both repressor and oppressed can only lead to a certain sense of cultural schizophrenia. The descendants of serfs now wave the Imperial Standard (actually, it’s the Flag of the Russian Empire for “Celebrations” but that’s an entirely different matter); the grandchildren of GULAG survivors herald the glory of a decontextualized Soviet Union that, like Imperial Russia before it, is reduced to nothing more than a symbol of greater Russian chauvinism.

Their greatness is a collective phenomenon that they, nor their ancestors, have necessarily benefited from in any concrete way. The private misery that accompanied it, on the other hand, was all theirs, to be suffered in silence.

And that unresolved suffering, which was never recognized in any substantive way, has now been repressed and channeled in ways that are often self-destructive.

The authorities have long attempted to channel that unassimilated fear, aggression, and shame through a state sanctioned cause. This time around, Ukraine has become the drainage ditch.

But even as nationalist rage allows for temporary displacement, the damage lives on. Generations of people whose neurons were reconfigured through trauma, and, who in turn, passed down that trauma behaviorally (if not epigenetically), have shaped their children in a pain long since divorced from its origins. All along, the government continually triggers that trauma, summoning imaginary wolves to the gates, creating a siege mentality, making sure the damage controls their lives.

It is abuse on a massive scale. It is heartbreaking.

Ultimately, we can forget history, but history does not forget us. To burn up the past is to create the fallow ground through which it will live again. Plant seeds in a cemetery long enough and you’ll get some strange fruit. It’s why Moscow is so terrified of spring.  It’s why Russia may be in for a long winter.

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2 thoughts on “‘In other countries, it was more terrible’: Why Russia won’t heal itself

  1. Pingback: My Russian trauma trilogy, and a thought experiment with Putin’s United Nations speech | Russian Avos

  2. Pingback: Doomsday and urban decay: In Russia, the end of the world is now  | Russian Avos

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