Notes of a Russophile
by Justin E. H. Smith
On War and Moral Certainty
I think I can remember the last time I was morally certain.
In the spring of 2003 I was teaching at Boğaziçi University in Istanbul. Erdoğan’s AK party had just come into power, and many of my secular, liberal friends had helped this to happen, believing that the new president’s soft Islamism was preferable to the ossified Kemalism of unprincipled hacks periodically shuffled out of office through coups of the deep state — this is incidentally the first context in which I ever heard that term, and the fact that in the Trump years it became common to speak of US intelligence agencies as a “deep state” of our own was for me yet another respect in which we had got stuck, as was said by someone, with our first “Central Asian president”.
At a distance I always quite admired Atatürk, at least iconographically, and had especially appreciated, among other aspects of his legacy, the introduction into the Latin alphabet, with the comprehensive Turkish language reform of 1928, of the undotted i. I did not have much to say to my Turkish friends, however, concerning their judgments of the viability of Kemalism in the twenty-first century. I had been in Rome a few months earlier, and there some right-wing Catholic party had plastered their disapproval of Turkey’s candidacy —at the time still a real possibility— for membership in the EU: Turchia non è Europa, they said, as if appealing to a (mostly correct) geographical fact could ever itself settle a question not about present facts, but about future projects. I do recall thinking that if eighty years of a form of Turkish republican laïcité that outdid even France —I recall seeing young women compelled to step into a changing booth set up for them at the edge of our university campus in order to remove their headscarves before setting foot on government property— was still not enough to demonstrate real commitment to the experiment with modernity that Europe claims to lead, then perhaps it was time to consider a different model of community as the basis of political life. But again, I just didn’t know.
What I did know, and what still stands out to me as an instance of exceptional clarity in my long doubt-ridden existence, is that the looming US invasion of Iraq was wrong, wrong. Like the whole world, in the early spring of that year Istanbul was convulsed by demonstrations against the war that had not yet happened, but that with each passing day appeared more and more as a fait accompli, as the Bush administration kept pretending to lay down new ultimatums with shifting criteria that Saddam Hussein was clearly unable or unwilling to meet. At some point some pro-Ba’athist communist student organization or other (I’m sure there are tankie connoisseurs out there who could tell me which one) slipped leaflets under my door depicting Saddam in classic socialist-realist glory, like Stalin in a cornfield with a glowing halo of electrical lines behind him. I thought at first this was a gesture of hostility towards me, as a known American, but soon enough the same students assured me that it was intended only as a warm invitation to join them at the weekend’s march on İstiklal Caddesi — an invitation I happily accepted.
I have a sharp memory of being sixteen or so, and mixed up with a local peace organization in Sacramento during a march and rally against apartheid. We ended up lying down in the lot of a suburban gas station, blocking access to the pumps: “Free South Africa! Boycott Shell!” was the chant. What I remember most vividly is the teenage boy who worked there, panicked, trying to reach his manager on the phone, utterly confused as to the causes of this sudden infestation. I will not say that I was like George Orwell who went to Spain to “shoot fascists” but ended up spotting with his rifle only weak and confused human beings. But I did have the sharp sense at that moment that “the enemy” is an abstraction and as such perpetually evasive of the concretization of political resistance in the form of a street protest, and that the adolescent pump-attendant was not only not the enemy, but not even a suitable symbolic stand-in for the enemy. I hated apartheid. I also hated lying on the concrete at the gas-station, in part because I sensed, unlike my cohort of peaceniks, that this gesture really had nothing at all to do with apartheid, that we were not just missing our target, but failing even to understand what sort of thing our target was.
Yet there I was on İstiklal Caddesi, some years later, marching with my students against the impending attack on Iraq. My students were not peaceniks; they were pro-Saddam, supporting even his use of chemical weapons against perceived domestic enemies (and their families and neighbors). It didn’t matter. What mattered was we opposed the US invasion of Iraq; we knew that it would cause vastly more suffering and death than non-intervention; and we knew that it had been entirely trumped up through a disinformation campaign exploiting anti-Muslim and anti-Arab public sentiment in the wake of September 11, for no other reason than the basic greed of the war’s principal American orchestrators. It was a patent fraud, for which the timing was just right.
Americans had not been able to last for more than a decade or so without a full-time enemy. I recall the truck bomb that exploded beneath the World Trade Center in 1993. For some days American public opinion favored blaming “the Serbs”, and even when it was established that the masterminds behind the attack had been to al-Qaeda training camps in Afghanistan, an inertial preference for godless enemies kept us indifferent. They tried to get our attention again a few years later in Dar es Salaam and Nairobi, still with little success. Everything changed in 2001, and suddenly it was possible to swing back around to old godless enemies like Saddam Hussein, still supported specifically in view of their godlessness by radical-left students in Turkey far better informed than the American public, and to “take them out” with “shock and awe” simply in view of the broad ethnocultural identity they were supposed to share with the Islamists responsible for 9/11.
At the end of 2002 I had quit my secure position at a Midwestern university —a place of frat-houses, Abercrombie & Fitch, generous 401k’s— in order, quite literally, to save my own life from the depression that had overtaken me in that setting and to go somewhere that “mattered”. In part because of the rise of Erdoğan, new rules instituted in the Turkish ministry of education, known only by its acronym as the dreaded “YÖK”, prevented me as a foreigner from accessing the salary I had been counting on. And so I lived in Istanbul mostly on charity and on credit, but at least I was somewhere that mattered. A student took me walking around the Rumeli Hisari (the tower of the “Romans”, i.e., the Greeks) just outside the campus, on a hill on the European side of the Bosporus. She was a devout Muslim, a sort of born-again from a secular liberal family. She wanted me to know that the incendiary weapon known as “Greek fire” (Rum ateşi in Turkish), a mixture of naphtha and quicklime that spreads over the surface of water and incinerates all floating vessels, is misnamed, as it was the secret weapon that in fact ensured the Ottoman’s victory in the siege of Constantinople in 1453. The Greeks, she said, never knew what hit them.
When I had left the Midwest practically every grown-up with any position of authority had taken to wearing American flag lapel-pins. The imperative to do so had trickled down, from Bush and Giuliani and Wolfowitz, to the senators and the congresspeople and the state assemblies, and from there to the Midwestern university presidents, and soon enough from them to the deans, the associate deans, the associate vice-deans, and so on down the scale of being. A wall still held up keeping this shibboleth off the chests of mere faculty members, but I couldn’t count on it holding forever, and knew I had to get out quick. If the wall held out for that long, this is in part because of the strong “liberal” identity that shaped the life-world of the local professoriat, who defined themselves equally against the upper administration, the preppy students, and the unwashed townies. They affirmed their place in the social scheme, against the students, by despising Abercrombie & Fitch; against the deans, by despising flag-pins; and against the townies, by listening to NPR on their commute in from the C-list city where they lived an hour or so away, so that, upon arrival, they could satisfy the not-too-rigorous demands of the art of conversation by saying to any colleagues they might meet throughout the day: “Did you hear that one NPR story about the new ‘hip-hopera’ that’s coming out?” “Did you hear that one NPR guy with the accent [they always meant Andrei Codrescu] talking about the first time he went to a baseball game and didn’t understand any of the rules?”
Yet while it still kept the Ph.D.’s safe from the townie drop-outs with their Rush Limbaugh and their Lee Greenwood, by the end of 2002 one could no longer rely on NPR to help keep up the barricade against the flag-pin crowd, as even that bastion of bien-pensant “liberalism” seemed to be falling in line with the new patriotic consensus — that there are some things polite society just doesn’t make noise about; that it’s ‘impolite’ to call the administration’s bluff and state what should have been obvious: that ‘WMD’ were not the reason for the war, but a hasty pretext for it. No place seemed safe from the rising tide of patriotic bullshit. If NPR could fall to the flag-pins, then the non-admin faculty who shaped the bulk of their public identities around what NPR made sayable were surely next. I determined I had to get out of the country, quick. Other than temporary stays, I have not lived in the United States since.
Although I was at the beginning of a life of self-imposed exile, I did not feel at all alone, but in fact my sense of political community was more heightened than ever before or after. As we marched in Istanbul I felt a kind of clarity and global solidarity that seemed to me something more than just an effect of the current historical conjuncture. We were out of power, and yet simply knowing who “we” were, and being certain that “we” were right, and being able to experience the “we” so liberally (in the proper sense) as to include every other human being who knew the war was wrong: all of this felt as if it were itself a sort of power.
I have been left literally speechless by the Russian invasion of Ukraine. I try to conjure words, but whatever I manage to say sounds to me so inadequate as to border on obscenity. I read the takes on Twitter and I feel they should be outlawed. They are either reckless, inadvertently shaping reality under the pretense of being “mere speech”; or they really are mere speech, and their impotence alongside the real violence underway can only come across as an advertisement for violence, and a case against mere words. Restraint is what is needed, all around; restraint at its most magnificent can save the world, and at its most personal can help us to maintain our individual dignity.
A week ago I unrestrainedly used the phrase Слава Україні!/Glory to Ukraine!, and a few friends and readers were surprised to see me resorting to jingoism, even if for a country not my own. This struck some as particularly inadvisable, since the phrase is associated in some of its expressions with far-right Ukrainian nationalism, and with the handful of people in Ukraine who minimally justify Putin’s claim to be undertaking a campaign of “de-Nazification” there. The first time I used the phrase was in 2014, at a rally in Paris in support of the Maidan demonstrators in Kyiv, among a Ukrainian diaspora that was resolutely pro-democracy and worlds away from any far-right sentiments. But a rally is one thing, an essay another, and as the week wore on I admit my use of the phrase echoed in my mind, and came to feel increasingly like a mistake.
I have been taken aback by the sudden proliferation of blue and gold bicolor flags, the appearance ex-nihilo of a whole new class of people suddenly passionate about Ukraine’s freedom, people who appear able to think only in slogans, and far too impatient to bother to follow out the geopolitical consequences of any given strategy for reestablishing this freedom. I find it sooner terrifying, the way public sentiment can shift so quickly, new consensuses exploding onto the scene and at once freezing in place like lava when it cools. It strikes me now that the jingoist phase of my support for Ukrainian freedom lasted about as long as my unconditional support for BLM in the week after George Floyd was murdered, before I began to see the establishment forces channeling this revolutionary moment’s initiative towards its own ends, and everything in our culture began to look like Nancy Pelosi sanctimoniously kneeling with a kente cloth over her shoulder. In about the same amount of time, the Ukrainian flag has come to look like the kente cloth: a charged symbol that far too many people are throwing up without thinking about what they’re doing, so certain that it offers them a shorthand sign of their own basic moral goodness that they become insensate to any call for caution or any spirit of defeasibility.
It may at least be said that the war has delivered us that “vibe shift” the young people had been predicting for a few weeks prior to the invasion. It has made old preoccupations seem irrelevant, drafts of essays begun before the invasion seem unfinishable. Those who feel no need for caution in their enthusiasms have been able to embrace this change, and to shift their ways of speaking with a quickness equal to the speed of history itself. Bartenders are pouring out Russian vodka at nightclubs, professors are cutting Dostoevsky from college syllabi, friends are accusing those of us worried about the escalation that would surely ensue from a no-fly zone of being “modern-day Chamberlains”, as if no additional factors had been added to the geopolitical calculus since the beginning of the nuclear arms race. The dilemma here is an objective one, not a mere artifact of non-committal thinking.
War changes the vibe, and casts us in a different light than before. The foolhardy now appear brave; the cautious appear cowardly. Many readers will know, or know of, the intrepid Vladislav Davidzon, a Paris-based journalist, bon-vivant, and friend of mine whom I admit I have long been able to tolerate only in small doses. Vlad is an extremely colorful character, aggressively untimely, vainly defending ideals of dress and of honor that belong to a lost era, up to and including the gentlemanly art of dueling. The first time Vlad and I met was for a man-date at the Tribunal de Justice on the Île-de-la-Cité, where that day the Norwegian white supremacist and convicted murderer Varg Vikernes was facing a hearing on charges of hate speech. “Do you think I could take him?” Vlad kept asking me. “Varg looks pretty strong but I bet I could knock him out.”
I don’t typically go on the kind of outing that ends in contests of strength, so, again, over the years I have mostly liked the idea of my friend Vlad, while actual interactions with him have been rare. But, again, war shows us all in a different light, and Vlad has been nothing if not eager to step into that light. He is currently reporting from inside Ukraine; as he wrote to me, this is his “finest hour”. I see him on CNN and he looks valiant, dashing even — the exact same fellow whom I don’t believe I’ll offend or surprise if I acknowledge that in peacetime he had long struck me as a goofball. Everything is topsy-turvy right now, I mean. We’re the same people as before, but the vibe-shift was total, and some who were ridiculous now have the occasion to be sublime, while others who were full of confident language really just do not know what to say.
One thing it is perhaps worth saying is that I love Russia, and I want no part of an anti-war movement that makes its case by contrasting the virtuous Ukrainians with the vicious Russians.
I was made uncomfortable a year or so ago when I happened to read a list of Putin’s ten most recommended books. On it was one of my own regular “faves”: Ivan Turgenev’s Записки охотника/Notes of a Hunter of 1852. Putin seems to have found the sketches the author makes of “authentic” Russian characters favorable to his own Sonderweg-nationalism. But one thing this judgment overlooks is that Turgenev’s narrator speaks as an aristocrat in the presence of serfs, tied to the land and subject to the arbitrary power of their local lords. There is no more a single Russian character in Turgenev’s work than there is a French character uniting both “le peuple” and “le monde” in Proust.
But Turgenev himself represents a widespread concern in nineteenth-century Russia to diminish the gap between these two worlds through humanism and liberalism. These strains of thought were largely imported, along with science and other markers of modernity, from the German-Baltic world in the period of Russian history beginning with Peter the Great and ending with V. I. Lenin (who once referred to Ukraine as “Russia’s Ireland”). In its first several decades of functioning, the Saint-Petersburg Academy of Sciences, founded in 1725, was roughly 90% German-speaking. Some decades earlier than that, before the great importation of German brain power had begun, Russia remained roughly as unfamiliar, from the point of view of Western and Central European society, as Ethiopia: both Muscovy and Abyssinia, in fact, are frequent contestants from the late Middle Ages for the status of the homeland of Prester John’s Oriental Christian kingdom.
Throughout the 1690s G. W. Leibniz wrote repeatedly to correspondents in and travelers heading toward Moscow: Can you please tell me what books the Russians read? What is this work called the Paterikon that spells out their history and their accomplishments? Do they retain a knowledge of Plato from Byzantium? And so on. Russia was a black hole. And then the Tsar himself took an interest in Leibniz’s queries, and asked him to help build an academy in his new eponymous capital city in the marshlands from which the Finnic tribes had to be cleared. Peter asked Leibniz to help him promote “the sciences” in Russia, but from the Tsar’s strategic point of view by “sciences” he principally meant “naval architecture”, and Leibniz repeatedly had to remind him that there are also sciences such as physics, astronomy, and others that are not entirely a waste of time.
Russian modernity is almost entirely imported, sometimes openly and proudly, as in Peter’s era, but more often with some measure of shame and regret. There is nothing aberrant or unusual in this process of importation — no nation is an island (not even island nations). What is exceptional about Russia is how long its political culture has remained conflicted about this interdependency and integration with Western Europe. By the nineteenth century the Saint-Petersburg Academy had a relatively greater number of ethnic Russian members, and in this same century the “importation” continued and expanded, not by bringing in individual Germans, but by the circulation of ideas from Germany, France, England, and even the United States.
In a curious 1882 treatise, Сибирь как колония/Siberia as a Colony, the Siberian independentist and pioneering Turcologist N. M. Yadrintsev argues that ethnic Russians in Siberia have a status somewhat similar to that of the English settlers of North America, and like these settlers they are on their way to breaking from the motherland and establishing a North Asian liberal democracy, shaped like that of the US by the traditions and life-ways of the Indigenous people who preceded them in the same territory. Yadrintsev’s title page features a translated quotation from none other than Chapter 7, “On Colonies”, of Book IV of Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations of 1776: “The colony of a civilised nation which takes possession either of a waste country, or of one so thinly inhabited that the natives easily give place to the new settlers, advances more rapidly to wealth and greatness than any other human society.”
As it turns out, wealth collected in Boston and Manhattan, rather less so in Omsk or Irkutsk, and the conditions never obtained for Russia’s massive eastern territories to break away and to not just survive on their own but to surpass the colonial homeland as a model of modernity. Instead “Siberia” remained globally synonymous with “punishment”, a connotation immediately familiar from the Gulag but in fact reaching back as far as the defeat of the Swedes at the Battle of Poltava in Ukraine in 1709, after which many Swedish officers were exiled to Siberia both to diminish their military threat, but also, the plan went, to get them to contribute with their vast educations and technical know-how to the building of modern infrastructure in these far-flung regions. But the fact that in the 1880s an ethnic Russian could plausibly dream of a Jeffersonian Siberia reminds us, like Turgenev or Alexander Herzen, or that Vladimir Nabokov’s father (also Vladimir), a liberal member of the pre-revolutionary Duma who coined circa 1905 the first Slavic-rooted term for “homosexual” —равнополый/ravnopolyï—, not in order to condemn or marginalize, but simply in order to keep up with the times: all of this reminds us that there are many paths Russia did not follow, yet could have, and may yet.
I am too well attuned to the contingency of Russian imperial history, and too skeptical of the project of separating ethnies out into homogeneous nation-states, to be much interested in the question whether Ukraine is, or ought to be, a country. We often forget when we entertain this question that post-Soviet Russia remains a federation of autonomous republics, generally carved out as homelands for ethnolinguistic minorities in the Soviet period, and generally exercising nearly full sovereignty over everything other than defense. There is no inherently good reason why the Mari El, the Komi, or the Tuvans should have more or less self-governance than Moldovans or indeed Ukrainians.
I have sometimes expressed a cautious admiration, two cheers out of a possible three, for the Soviet model of multiculturalism, which, however top-down and constraining, at least did a good job of institutionalizing minority identities, standardizing minority languages, stimulating a literary culture in them, and so on. Where the political integration within the federation is not in doubt, as for example the Tuvan Republic, Putinism tends to retain the Soviet model by inertia. Where an ethnic or national minority begins to pose a threat to the strength and unity of the empire, Putinism turns from Soviet multiculturalism to straightforward negationism. This move is made easy by the fact that most oblast’- or republic-level minorities have their political boundaries recognized as a result of mere historical flukes, and within any such boundaries we never find ethnic homogeneity, but only fluidity and ever more fine-grained distinctions that might in turn serve as new pretexts for demands for recognition.
The greatest artist of late-Soviet multiculturalism was surely the Armenian-Georgian director Sergeï Paradjanov, who was assigned the monumental and never-completed task of making a film for each of the republics of the USSR, capturing its distinct cultural spirit. Paradjanov was arrested for obscenity long before he could get to the final installment, but the Ukraine feature, 1965’s Тіні забутих предків/Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors (based on Mikhaïlo Kotsyubynsky’s 1911 novel of the same name), gives us a good idea of the project as a whole. Delirious Soviet psychedelia of the best sort, Shadows represents not Ukrainians in general, but rather the mountain-dwelling Carpathians who share a common culture with inhabitants of the same range in Poland and in Romania. The great Polish anthropologist Bronisław Malinowski, who hailed from the Carpathians himself, would write in 1962’s Sex, Culture, and Myth of the “semi-savage Carpathian mountaineers”, and would compare his native village to an island of Melanesia in measuring its relative proximity to European modernity. Paradjanov captures one of countlessly many expressions of the Ukrainian national essence, but the people he chooses for this representation are themselves essentially stateless: like the Zomian Highlanders, people for whom political maps can mean very little, if only because they don’t show elevation.
Paradjanov celebrated Ukraine, but in a way that seemed to obviate rather than enhance the relevance of flags. Never a flag-burner myself, in the early 2000s I developed a visceral contempt for fellow Americans displaying our own flag, whom I felt were doing so for cynical reasons. And now another country’s flag is quickly becoming a de-rigueur semiotic accessory in ways that I also have trouble affirming, even if the cause is just. The Russian invasion is wrong, and has triggered the righteous bravery and patriotic fellow-feeling of many Ukrainians and their supporters around the world. The global vibe has shifted in favor of all those who held on, unzeitmässig, to martial ideals of honor. Those of us who never had those ideals, and cannot pretend to conjure them, still have an important role to play in the present moment, even if it does not involve providing material or military support to the resistance: to continue to celebrate Russia, among other things, its composite and fluid nature, to know its history and its potentials, the respects in which it really does have a Sonderweg in this world, and the respects in which claims to a special path and destiny are just a bluff to leverage advantages.
I was morally certain of the injustice of the 2003 US invasion of Iraq, and found myself as a result in the strange company of others with whom often I shared very little else politically. I am morally certain of the injustice of the 2022 Russian invasion of Ukraine as well, but I find myself rather less certain about the utility and the wisdom of “onboarding” with the opposition. One significant change over the past twenty years is that today the way we express our political commitment is often largely by entering into the pseudo-public sphere known as social media and inserting our “views” into an algorithmically determined system, so that to “say what you think” is in fact something more like “upvoting”, “giving an algorithmic boost”, rather than, say, articulating reasons.
It is therefore not because this time around I am not a citizen of the aggressor state that I find myself less than morally certain about how even to express my opposition to Russia’s invasion, but because I don’t think, say, the question of setting up a no-fly zone is the sort of thing that’s best resolved by upvoting or downvoting. The fact that all social movements, from urban-combat resistance in Ukraine to anti-police-brutality protests in the US, are fated to be quickly swallowed up into this gamified system, means that while twentieth-century great-power politics are still more relevant than we had become accustomed to thinking, we now have some additional and distinctly twenty-first-century problems that have to be navigated in parallel to the ones we have inherited.
About the Author
Justin E. H. Smith is an author and professor of philosophy in the Department of History and Philosophy of Science at the University of Paris. The Internet Is Not What You Think It Is, will appear in 2021 from Princeton University Press.
Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors (1965).