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After the Bell: Russia and South Africa — countries out of time

After the Bell: Russia and South Africa — countries out of time
A man poses for a picture in front of a poster depicting Russian President Vladimir Putin being brought as a prisoner before the International Criminal Court in The Hague by Ukrainian General Valerii Fedorovych Zaluzhnyi (L), in Kyiv, Ukraine, 9 May 2023. (Photo: EPA-EFE / Oleg Petrasyuk)

It’s important to realise that the country SA is cosying up to thinks of history in a different way. And what does that say about SA’s ruling class? I think it says they too are a group out of time.

My perspective on the Russian invasion of Ukraine is that it’s a despicable, shameful war and that its perpetrators should be — and trust me, they will be — tried for crimes against humanity at some point. There is no justification, moral or even strategic, for the invasion. Russia twice confirmed in treaties Ukraine’s border integrity and has run roughshod over these cruelly and without the vaguest logical reason.

But the journalist in me asks a different question: Why did Russian President Vladimir Putin actually do it? Why did he hit the go button? And why are so many Russians going along with his plan? And I wonder — in the midst of the ANC’s obvious enchantment with this diplomatically abhorrent, economically dysfunctional regime — whether we have made sufficient effort to honestly understand why it has happened. 

Both sides have reportedly been losing an average of 200 people a day for longer than a year now and the body count is over 350,000.

Some of my questions were answered by, inevitably, a writer, in this case, Mikhail Shishkin, who has just written a book called My Russia: War or Peace? Shishkin is the only writer to have won the three big Russian book awards.

To say this book is timely would be an understatement. It starts with the famous old Winston Churchill quote: “Russia is a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma”, which Shishkin disparages as a very Western view of Russia: people befuddled by the incomprehensibility of it all. Like me! 

But Shishkin said in one of his interviews about the book that Russia is not incomprehensible at all; it’s a country that has fallen out of time. And it is hard to think of a better person to provide real insight than Shishkin. His father is Russian, his mother is Ukrainian, and he lives in Switzerland. That last bit is a crucial aspect of the mix because, as he points out, silence in Russia is not a choice, it’s a survival technique. And that has a very long history.

If I understand it correctly, Shishkin’s view is that there are two Russian peoples: the disillusioned and the disaffected, who are victims of a kind of “slave mentality” history that goes back to Tsarist times and beyond. And yet another Russia is struggling to emerge, of people who embrace European values and do, in their own way, stand up against oppression.

Do dictators and dictatorships breed slave populations or do slave populations breed dictators? Shishkin asked in an article in The Guardian

“Ukraine was able to escape from this hellish circle, to escape from our common, monstrous, bloody past. For this reason, it is hated by Russian impostors. A free and democratic Ukraine can serve as an example for the Russian population, which is why it is so important for Putin to destroy the country,” he wrote.

For Westerners, the hero of Russia was Mikhail Gorbachev, the moderniser and realist. For Westerners, Soviet leader Joseph Stalin is despised as the autocratic leader who killed millions of his own — and plenty of other — people. 

But for Russians, Gorbachev is hated and Stalin is still revered, at least by some. The reason, says Shishkin, is that Russians believe in the notion of the “good Tsar” and the “bad Tsar”: the good Tsar delivers military victory, and Stalin, for all his other sins, delivered victory in World War 2. Hence, he is loved. Gorbachev, for all his other virtues, delivered defeat in the Afghan war. Hence, he is hated.

To be a member of the former camp, Putin has to deliver military victory — such is the way Russia is caught in a time trap.

“I see only one explanation: my country has fallen out of time. In the 21st century, the modern man himself is responsible for deciding what is good and what is evil. And if he sees that his country and his people are waging a despicable, shameful war, he will be against his country and his people. But most Russians mentally live in the past, when people associated themselves with their tribe. Our tribe is always right, and the other tribes are our enemies and want to destroy us,” explains Shishkin.

This may be true, or true-ish, or absolutely not true. But it’s important to realise that the country SA is cosying up to thinks of history in a different way. And what does that say about SA’s ruling class? I think it says they too are a group out of time.

And you can see this not only in their revisionist history and outdated economics but in their affection for and hero worship of a culture that has long passed its sell-by date.

History has an odd way of dealing with people out of time; it just rolls over them. It’s brutal. It consigns them to, wait for it, history. And there is great hope in that. DM/BM

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