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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Putin has tainted Russian greatness



President Vladimir Putin of Russia is applauded as he arrives for his inauguration for a fifth term in Moscow on Tuesday, May 7, 2024. (Nanna Heitmann/The New York Times)

By Serge Schmemann


Many years ago, in the 1980s, I went to Brooklyn’s Brighton Beach neighborhood, then in its heyday as a district of newly arrived Soviet Jews, to celebrate the first year (there would not be many more) of the lively local Russian-language weekly, The New American. It was a grand event, rich in humor and tinged with nostalgia. I asked a middle-aged partygoer for his thoughts on his lost homeland, and his reply has stayed with me: “I hate Russia, for forcing me to leave her.”


It was an apt summary of what waves of émigrés from Russia and the Soviet Union since the early 20th century have felt: a sorrowful sense of loss for a motherland — what Russians call “toska po rodine” — coupled with resentment at the autocratic powers that forced them out. My grandparents were among the “White” Russians who fled the Revolution and moved to Paris in the 1920s. A second wave of emigrants left in World War II. The third, Soviet Jews, started leaving in the 1970s. Vladimir Putin has now created another wave of people fleeing Russia, and many of them may still believe, as my forebears did, that they will one day return to the homeland.


Most probably will not.


It’s hard to say precisely where Russian exiles stand, politically or in their sense of attachment to Russia. The waves of emigrants differ widely one from another, and in the United States, they have not behaved like immigrants from Italy, China or Poland who formed hyphenated-American communities and organizations that have persisted over generations. Russian immigrants to America have, by comparison, melded quickly into the general population. Brighton Beach is one of the few places with any Russian flavor in the United States.


Still, the prevailing attitude I’ve encountered among Russian émigrés is the love-hate expressed by my interlocutor in Brighton Beach. It’s the love of an extraordinary culture, a deep attachment to the expanse of steppes and taiga, along with contempt for the chronic misrule, adventurism, imperial illusions and corruption of the leaders.


At least, that was the attitude before Feb. 24, 2022, when Putin ordered the full-scale invasion of Ukraine. Now, I more often encounter, and feel, a new attitude: shame.


The émigrés I grew up with, and those I came to know in America and as a reporter in Israel, rarely felt troubled by the sins of their motherland. Why would they? There were no politics in the usual sense in the Russia they came from, no sense among the vast majority of the population that they had any say in what their self-perpetuating leaders did for them or to them from behind the Kremlin ramparts. The Gulag was not their doing; their Russia was the culture, the scramble for scarce goods, the anecdotes told around vodka in steamy kitchens, the shashlik by a lazy river. Most Russians concentrated on protecting their lives from “them,” as people in the Soviet Union would refer to the leadership and its secret police, a finger pointed to the ceiling, and to survive. Or leave.


The Russian invasion of Ukraine — so cruel, so pointless, so devastating — has changed all this, at least for those not mesmerized by Putin’s recidivist claptrap. It’s hard not to feel shame at the evidence of Russians killing and raping people who did them no wrong, people who share so much of their history and culture.


And it has become difficult to feel pride in all the things that Russians can genuinely boast about — the great books, the Bolshoi, the hockey stars, the spirituality — when Putin is dispatching waves of boys to kill and die for his false version of Russia’s manifest destiny and his personal grievances against the West.


This is not necessarily a logical reaction. Tolstoy or Tchaikovsky are not to blame for Mariupol. And most Russians are not directly complicit in Putin’s malice. But Putin rose to power pledging to restore greatness to Russia, and the key to that is the desire among ordinary Russians to feel, again, a sense of belonging to a globally respected power. Russians may have been too caught up in Putin’s chimera to recognize that the seizure of Crimea or the incursions into Donetsk and Luhansk were a precursor of much worse.


When the Russian tanks began their grim parade toward Kyiv on Feb. 24, 2022, Russians, too, were in shock. “We, the Russians living inside and outside of the country, will have to bear the shame of this situation for years to come,” wrote Anastasia Piatakhina Giré, a psychotherapist in Paris, shortly after the invasion. She grew up in the Soviet Union, and many of her patients are displaced Russians. “We can do very little to turn down the volume of this feeling, no matter how many Ukrainian flags we display on our social media feeds or either publicly or privately in our daily lives.”


A year later, another expatriate, Anastasia Edel, author of “Russia: Putin’s Playground: Empire, Revolution and the New Tsar,” wrote a syndicated column about trying to come to grips with the shame and confusion: “As someone who was shaped by Russian and Soviet literature, I have been made to feel like an unwilling partner to Russian crimes. That is why, since last February, I have abandoned any pretense of being a cultural envoy. I have been an envoy of nothing — just another immigrant who came to America in search of a better life.”


That is the tragic irony of Putin’s war. His attempt to “restore Russian greatness” through violence and hatred has tainted Russia’s real greatness for years to come, just as his attempt to quash Ukrainian nationhood has steeled its foundations. We know from the Germans’ postwar history that restoring a battered national identity is a project of decades, maybe more.


In the end, Tolstoy and Tchaikovsky will survive, as did Goethe and Bach, and Ukraine will be rebuilt and incorporated more closely in the West. But for Russians and those of us who identify even a little bit as Russian, something elemental has been destroyed, and a lot of painful soul-searching lies ahead.

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