A Cold Civil War Has Already Begun In Russia – OpEd


Many have been surprised that growing popular unhappiness with the war in Ukraine and the situation in Russia itself has not sparked mass protests and have sought to explain it by pointing to the government’s repression, the absence of a tradition of civic cooperation and of people to lead demonstrations, and the sense most have that protesting is dangerous and won’t change anything. 

All those things are true, historian Irina Karatsuba says; but to understand what is going on it is necessary to recognize that there is a distinctly Russian tradition of expressing anger and unhappiness and that it has been very much on display since Putin began his war and especially since he declared partial mobilization.

As a result, she says, it is fair comment to say that Russians are expressing their opposition in ways fully consistent with these traditions and that at the present time, “a cold civil war has already begun in Russia” (sibreal.org/a/russkoe-gosudarstvo-kak-vampir/32162906.html).

In the face of trauma and repression, Russians typically have sought to protect themselves individually either by offering to the powers what they want, passive acceptance, or by fleeing from the state as far as they possibly can, either through withdrawal into their private worlds or flight.

Both these tactics have been on view this year, Karatsuba says. Russians have withdrawn into their own worlds complaining only when their direct personal interests are affected as by mobilization but not protesting against the war itself because such actions they know from experience won’t work and may land them in trouble.

And Russians have fled the country, continuing a long tradition extending back half a millennium in which people who didn’t like what the powers were doing would leave, to Siberia or to other countries.  Hundreds of thousands have done so and that is no small thing as a form of protest.

But there are others. Russians often demand that those mobilized be treated properly because that is about something that affects them directly. Only a saintly few take the risk to protest about the war as such given the near certainty that they will be punished for doing so by the authorities.

As she puts it, “a protest about ‘making our preparation for murdering other people more comfortable for us’ also requires a certain courage. It of course is an act of sublimation, but people somehow are protesting. And the main thing is that such protests can serve as a training ground for other” more general protests in the future.

But even passive acceptance does not mean support, Karatsuba says. Her contacts with many people from Russia’s smaller cities show that “there, there is no enormous support for the war. Yes, there are Z patriots, but they are few. The majority understand the cost of what is going on, but they are silent.

They suffer from fear for themselves and those close them and a sense that any protest would fail and only get them into trouble. To use Steinbeck’s expression, “’the grapes of wrath’ are ripening,” but they are not yet fully so and ready to burst. That so many have fled and that so few are enthusiastic shows that.

She says she feels the regime has entered its final agony in much the same way that she knows that the regime of Nicholas II did after three years of a horrific war. The fact that many in the Kremlin are now obsessed about the risk of facing a tribunal shows that even at the center of power people are afaraid.

Karatsuba says that she doesn’t like the expression that history repeats itself first as tragedy and then as farce. Instead, she says, she prefers a line that belongs to Andrey Knyshev. He said that “history repeats itself three time: once as a tragedy and twice for those to stupid to understand” and must have things repeated again and again.

Paul Goble

Paul Goble is a longtime specialist on ethnic and religious questions in Eurasia. Most recently, he was director of research and publications at the Azerbaijan Diplomatic Academy. Earlier, he served as vice dean for the social sciences and humanities at Audentes University in Tallinn and a senior research associate at the EuroCollege of the University of Tartu in Estonia. He has served in various capacities in the U.S. State Department, the Central Intelligence Agency and the International Broadcasting Bureau as well as at the Voice of America and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Mr. Goble maintains the Window on Eurasia blog and can be contacted directly at [email protected] .

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