Monday, March 13, 2023

‘Before the Face of Catastrophe’ -- Putin Era Gets Its ‘Vekhi’ and Its ‘Iz-pod Glyb’

Paul Goble

            Staunton, Mar. 12 – For more than a century, Russian intellectuals have evaluated the challenges they and their country has faced in a series of remarkable collections of essays including Vekhi (1909) and Iz-pod Glyb (1976). These books which have brought together some of the most significant Russian thinkers have appeared when many felt Russia was at a dead end.

            Now a new one has been published as the Putin era enters its third decade and Russia is experiencing unprecedented isolation and a lack of faith in the future. Just how dire its authors view the current situation in Russia since the expanded invasion of Ukraine  is highlighted by the book’s title, Before the Face of Catastrophe (in Russian; Berlin: 2023).

            Edited by Nikolay Plotnikov, a specialist on Russian intellectual history at the University of Bochum, and published abroad because it could not be printed in Russia, the book assembles the reactions of Russian thinkers from within Russia and around the world to the consequences of Vladimir Putin’s decision to expand the invasion of Ukraine a year ago.

            All of them, Plotnikov tells Radio Svoboda’s Andrey Arkhangelsky, were and to a large extent remain in “a state of shock” that Putin took such a decision and that he was able to get so many people inside the Russian Federation to go along (

            All those he contacted to participate said they felt in shock by what Putin has done in expanding the invasion of Ukraine, and some people refused to take part because they said that “they literally could not find the words to describe what has happened,” not only the violence but the damage Putin has done to intellectual life by refusing to allow people to call this a war.

            Plotnikov says that Putin’s action in that regard recalls that of Tsar Paul I  who in 1799 came up with the idea of banning the word “society” and using instead the word “state.” That was equally absurd and didn’t last long as Paul was assassinated and replaced only a year or so later.

            The editor goes on to point out that most of those he contacted are used to posting on social media but seldom write things for published materials like this almanac. It seems to some of them “old fashioned,” but in fact, it is critical to demarcate and then overcome the division between the personal and the public.

            In parts, he says, “our collection recalls most of all [Solzhenitsyn’s] From Under the Rubble as that volume too was organized using authors both living in Russia and those living outside.” But now those taking part are even more concerned with defining who they are in a world that Putin has turned upside down.

            What all of the authors are concerned about is that Putin has gone beyond the old debates of the slavophiles and the westernizers, both of whom saw Russia as part of a larger civilization but disagreed on how it should relate to that. Putin, Plotnikov argues, wants to break off Russia from everyone else, the West only in the first instance.

            That leaves Russia and Russians in a new and unprecedentedly dangerous place that the country and its people are going to have to overcome after Putin passes from the scene. The task is so large but so important that it is useful to start thinking about what to do, and many of the authors in this collection are doing just that.

            Plotnikov concludes his interview with the following observation: “We must not forget about what is the main thing: the condition of any conversation about the future, ethnical, political and simply human, requires a recognition of the reality of that nightmare which is occurring now: a bestial and wild war unleash by the Putin regime against Ukraine.”

            “Because of the constant presence of the war in the consciousness and on the screen, this reality is blurred and becoming part of a horrific daily way of life. But our duty is to remember that nothing can redeem the sufferings of the Ukrainians and the destruction of tens of thousands people” except by a sense of shame and repentance and a drive to overcome this reality.

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