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Imagine telling a Jew during WWII that “yes, Germany should be condemned for murdering Jews BUT there are also good Germans.” This is how I feel as a Ukrainian today, every time someone sympathizes with me, but also claims “there are good Russians out there.”
My people have suffered six weeks of Russia’s constant bombardments, pillaging, murders, rapes, blockades, and other unspeakable crimes that some scholars already classify as genocide. At the beginning of the war, many were wondering as to Russians’ purpose of bringing along their own mobile crematoriums and tens of thousands of body bags. People initially thought it was because the Russian government had intended to conceal the heavy losses sustained on the battlefield. Now we know why: it has been part of the deliberate plan to commit mass murders and conceal them from the international community. This is what they are doing this very moment in Mariupol—burning bodies in mobile crematoriums.
Despite what I regard as obvious parallels with Nazi Germany, I still find it very hard to break the wall with my international colleagues who urge us Ukrainians to remain open to dialogue and even sympathy with ordinary Russians—the good Russians—who they say are “also victims of Putin’s regime.” Musicians who organize concerts in support of Ukrainian children do not understand why it is inappropriate to perform classics by Russian composers. Universities that generously offer scholarships do not understand why it is offensive that they offer them to both Ukrainians and Russians. Some academic associations have ignored our calls for temporary suspension of Russian scholars who are affiliated with Russian universities that have openly endorsed war and continue to invite them to academic conferences.
This insensitivity cannot be explained by sheer ignorance because a lot of academics know the region very well. It can be explained probably by the emotional and physical distance they have in relation to the war. People who promote “peace and dialogue” simply are not inside the situation, where their loved ones are at dire risk of death and their country faces a very real possibility of not surviving.
Preaching to Ukrainians that there are “good Russians out there who are also victims of Putin” is the same as saying “all lives matter.” Yes, Russian people live today in a totalitarian regime, and yes, there are people who oppose it. But comparing their situation with what Ukrainians are experiencing right now in their own land at the hands of those “good Russians’” government is just cruel. Genocide is not the same as facing a 15-day detention for participation in a protest. Witnessing your mother being raped and killed in front of her children is not the same as not having Instagram.
We hear that tens of thousands of Russians, mostly the creative class, who are appalled by the actions of their government have left Russia. Where did they go? What are they going to do? I understand their disgust at living in a totalitarian regime but their massive exodus means that there will be no people left to continue the resistance. Meanwhile, it is Ukrainians who are fighting Putin, who are dying every single minute. While Russians are afraid to go out to protest the war, Ukrainians are protesting the occupation in Kherson, Melitopol, small villages—literally facing Russian tanks and enduring shelling.
The discourse “all lives matter” also perpetuates a cultural privilege that Russians have been enjoying for decades. As Daria Badior noted, Russian culture has long been celebrated in the West—even when the artists thought of themselves as Ukrainians, not Russians. As Badoir shows, contemporary Russian artists, scholars, and filmmakers, have been reaping the benefits of this colonial heritage and “saluted for signing open letters and risking participating in anti-war protests.” At the same time, Ukrainian scholars, like myself, cannot apply for certain scholarships without explaining in detail how our research relates to Russian studies; indeed, even though we are now facing not only the destruction of our homeland and genocide of our people, we also sometimes face accusations of “Russophobia.”
It is hard to believe that after all the painful experiences of the twentieth century that we still need to insist on a principle of collective responsibility. It seems pretty clear that the vast majority of Russians think that Ukraine should be destroyed, and that Ukrainians are just “Little Russians.”
But even those Russians who do not support the war should acknowledge their responsibility for contributing to the regime with their taxes and allowing the rise of fascism in their country. And even if we Ukrainians may in the future feel more tolerant, today, in the midst of a war, when our own musicians and scholars are displaced or on the frontlines, we do not want to hear Tchaikovsky at concerts or have Russian supporters of Putin given a platform at international academic conferences.
Mariia Shynkarenko is a PhD Candidate in Politics at The New School for Social Research, a Visiting Scholar at the Center for European, Russian, and Eurasian Studies at the University of Toronto, and a Visiting Scholar at the Jordan Center for the Advanced Study of Russia at NYU.