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Stop Blaming the Russian Soul

To view the Ukraine war as a conflict not only with Russian President Vladimir Putin’s regime but also with Russian culture is a great gift to the Kremlin. It strengthens the persecution complex Putin needs to maintain popular support.

NEW YORK – In an interesting recent article in the Times Literary Supplement, the Ukrainian novelist, essayist, and poet Oksana Zabuzhko took Western readers to task for not recognizing Russia’s barbarism. Too many people, Zabuzhko argued, believe that the great Russian writers, such as Fyodor Dostoevsky, expressed humanistic European values. They have not looked deeply enough into the savage Russian soul.

Zabuzhko believes that Russian literature represents “an ancient culture in which people only breathe under water and have a banal hatred for those who have lungs instead of gills.” Russia’s invasion of Ukraine can be understood only through the prism of “Dostoevskyism,” defined as “an explosion of pure, distilled evil and long suppressed hatred and envy.”

This type of cultural analysis has a rather old-fashioned ring. It used to be common to interpret the Third Reich as a sickness of the German soul: “from Luther to Hitler,” the thesis went, implying that Luther’s anti-Semitism sowed the seeds of Nazism some 350 years before Hitler was born. But few people nowadays take such a crude view of German history.

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