My dear Russians – the Ukrainians are fighting Putin’s army for their freedom, and ours | Mikhail Shishkin

The real Russia is a country of literature and music, not the bombardment of children. Putin’s war brings disgrace on us all

  • Mikhail Shishkin is a Russian novelist

I’m a Russian. Vladimir Putin is committing monstrous crimes in the name of my people, my country, and me. Putin is not Russia. Russia is hurt and ashamed. In the name of my Russia and my people I beg the Ukrainians’ forgiveness. Yet I realise that nothing being done there can be forgiven.

This war did not begin just now but in 2014, with Putin’s seizure of Crimea. The western world refused to understand the gravity of this and pretended nothing terrible was going on. All these years I’ve been trying in my statements and publications to explain to people just who Putin is. It hasn’t worked. And now Putin himself has explained it to everyone.

Whenever one of my articles is published in the press in Switzerland, where I live, the editors receive letters of outrage from people at the Russian embassy in Berne. They’re silent now. Maybe they’re packing their bags and applying for political asylum?

I want to return to Russia. But which Russia? In Putin’s Russia it’s impossible to breathe. The stench from the policeman’s boot is too strong. I will return to my country. As I wrote in an open letter when I refused to represent Putin’s Russia at an international event back in 2013, before Crimea was annexed: “I want to and will represent another Russia, my Russia, free of impostors, a country with a state structure that defends not the right to corruption but the rights of the individual, a country with free media, free elections, and free people.”

The space for free expression in Russia was restricted to the internet long ago, but now even there we see military censorship. The authorities have announced that all critical statements regarding Russia and its war will be considered treason and punished according to martial law.

What can a writer do? The only thing he can: speak out clearly. Silence means support for the aggressor. In the 19th century, rebellious Poles fought Russian tsarism “for your freedom and ours”. Now the Ukrainians are fighting Putin’s army for their freedom and ours. They are defending not only their own human dignity but the dignity of all humanity. We must help in every way we can.

The regime’s crime is also that the stain of disgrace has fallen on the entire country. Now Russia is associated not with Russian literature and music but with children under bombardment. Putin’s crime is that he has poisoned people with hate. Putin will go away, but the pain and hate may linger in people’s souls for a long time. Only art, literature, and culture can help overcome this trauma.

Sooner or later, the dictator’s foul, useless life will end, but culture continues as it always has and as it will after Putin. Literature does not have to be about Putin. Literature does not have to explain war. War can’t be explained. Why do people order soldiers of one nation to kill those of another? Literature is what opposes war. True literature is always about the human being’s need for love, not hate.

What lies ahead? At best, there will not be a nuclear war. I fervently hope the madman will not be allowed to press the red button or that one of his flunkies will refuse to carry out this final order. But this is seemingly the sole good thing in the offing. After Putin, the Russian Federation will cease to exist on the map as a country. The process of the empire’s collapse will continue. Chechnya’s independence will be followed by that of other peoples and regions.

A struggle for power will ensue. The populace will have no wish to live in chaos, and the demand for a firm hand will strengthen once again. Even in the freest elections – if there are any – a new dictator may come to power. And the west will support him because he will promise to watch over the red button. And who knows? One day this may happen all over again.

  • Mikhail Shishkin is a novelist, and the only author to have won the Russian Booker Prize, the Russian National Bestseller, and Big Book Prize


Mikhail Shishkin

The GuardianTramp

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