Why Are We Talking About “Good Russians”?

The war in Ukraine has affected everyone in one way or another. In my previous column, these changes were discussed in the context of “war emigration”, its quantitative and qualitative characteristics, its evaluation by experts and public opinion, as well as the issues related to maintaining connections between those who left and stayed. However, the general result of the war against a peaceful neighbor has been the crisis of national identity; its very existence is at stake.

One of the biggest debates on how to stay Russian, especially “a good Russian”, and on what it means, took place after the announcement of a project of online verification of Russian citizens to protect their rights in the countries they emigrated to during the II Anti-War Conference by the Free Russia Forum. An idea war proposed that you deserve a decent general and bureaucratic attitude if you’re officially and openly against Putin’s regime and the war in Ukraine. It’s assumed that in the context of controversial feelings that exist towards all things Russian due to the aggression against humanistic European values unprecedented for the post-World War II period, this measure should help both the emigrants’ integration into democratic societies and their potential mobilization as part of the anti-Putin front of the Russian diaspora.

However, the “passports of good Russians” idea caused instant controversy concerning the term itself rather than the practical usefulness of the project. To better understand this controversy, I conducted a number of interviews, analyzed some discussions on social media, reactions in the media and involved several public opinion leaders.

Various definitions of “good Russians”

Who can be referred to as “good Russians”, and why? What is the history of this term, and is it relevant in the context of the current war?

On 24 February 2022, Russia cemented its status of an aggressor country. There’s an opinion that being part of a nation automatically means supporting said nation’s actions. In response to this, as a reaction to the interview with Mikhail Piotrovsky, the Director of the Hermitage Museum, critique of jingoism 1 began that allows counting all Russians as supporters, or even aides, of the war. Unfortunately, this view is not only promoted by the Kremlin via deceptive opinion polls; it’s also exacerbated by occasional support of his actions by the Russian diaspora. According to expert opinion, such people are a minority, but it’s a loud minority, and it feels even louder due to Putin’s propaganda. Those Russians who don’t agree with the Kremlin’s policies and who are actually a majority need great bravery to publicly separate themselves from the government’s official line.

Although participants of the discussion usually agree that there is no single definition of what a “good Russian” is, there turn out to be various criteria for this term’s usage. The process of finding and “averaging” them consisted of gathering information coming from various groups of people in the open media space. As a result, the approximate classification presented here will show the differences between the criteria by Ukrainians, various groups of Russians, and “third parties”, i.e. residents of other countries. The list was compiled via synthesis of statements that are the closest to one another.

Why Are We Talking About “Good Russians”?

Picture 1: Various definitions of a “good Russian”

As we can see, various groups make their own judgment based on different contexts, which is why the term’s ambiguity quickly becomes a cause of contention. However, there’s no one among my respondents who would use either definition to describe themselves.

Political analyst Kirill Alexeyev describes the basic difference as the following: “A good Russian” vs “a bad Russian” is a battle of labels; in it, the first is destined to bow his head and always apologize, while the second is a refuge for the seemingly confident: “Yes, this is who we are! So what, dammit?” Some Russian respondents have an ambivalent reaction to the “good Russians” term: on the one hand, they don’t find it problematic; on the other hand, the negative reaction of other groups forces them to keep their point of view to themselves.

What do Ukrainians think? There is an opinion on the Internet that not all Russians are bad, but there is also a widespread point of view that “good Russians” don’t exist. For example, Andriy Melnyk, Ukrainian Ambassador to Germany, admitted in an interview in Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung that he didn’t believe that there were good and bad Russians, and that they are all enemies.

“A good Russian” is the one who is not in Russia?

One of the contention points is attitude towards emigration. Garry Kasparov, a famous chess champion and Russian politician, in an interview for Current Time TV stated: “If a person stays in Russia, then, whether they like it or not, they share the responsibility for the war in Ukraine.” These words were immediately subjected to criticism by those who don’t think that staying in Russia means supporting aggression (for example, by paying taxes) and excludes resistance towards the regime. One of the people who spoke about it on the Populyarnaya Politika YouTube channel was a former coordinator of the Navalny headquarters in Novosibirsk, Sergei Boyko: “What are real fighters like? Anton, who has police searches at his place, who comes to the city council with a pin that says “no to war” not fearing a 15-year imprisonment — isn’t he a fighter?”

Such differences in criteria show that the Russian society is itself incapable to identify what “good Russians” are as a group, especially if we’re talking about an organized group with leadership. All in all, however, participants of generally democratic discussions do understand that there are Russians who support the war and those who do not, and they can be identified as “good” and “bad”.

A “good Russian’s passport” as a debate catalyst

In a Khodorkovsky Live interview, Marat Gelman, a famous Russian gallerist, gives the following reason why this idea is necessary: “Obviously, exceptions are made these days for people who can provide some proof of their oppositional activities; we want to expand these exceptions to include a larger number of people.”

Ilya Yashin, a well-known oppositional politician, voiced the opposite opinion during an interview for the vDud channel: “The idea feels like a strategic mistake to me because it’s about people caring for themselves. Not the country, not Russia, not Ukraine, not stopping the war, replacing Putin or, I don’t know, creating democratic institutions in our country. This is a story of emigrants who have gathered to make their lives easier. The main problem is that they assert themselves against others. A politician’s goal is to find points of contact and to unite people. This idea turns people against one another.”

As we can see from the passport debate, behind it there’s the issue of unity, a typical one for the opposition, now concerning those who left and those who stayed. The negative reaction of part of the society shows that there’s a wish not to let those who left the country look better than those who stayed, i.e. not to let them look like the good ones and the bad ones respectively. Maybe the project of verification (for any purpose) of those who are against the regime and the war needs input from both sides to receive support.

Differentiation of Russians by the “third party”

Apart from the “good Russian’s passport”, there is already a practice of separating Russians into groups of “good” and “bad” ones. For example, Germany makes it easier for Russians who are persecuted by the government to receive humanitarian visas. To receive one, the candidate, according to DW, “must provide convincing proof that he has been a victim of persecution”.

As for everyday xenophobia in Europe, the situation varies from country to county. The situation is better in some places and worse in others; however, any local expression of hostile attitudes towards Russians is picked up by Russian propaganda. It does not report any anti-xenophobic attitudes.

More detailed initiatives on selecting “good Russians” are also interesting. For example, Georgia – one of the places where Russians emigrate en masse – encourages these rules: “Citizens of Russia who refuse to sign a document attesting that they disprove of Russian aggression against Georgia and Ukraine can’t become customers of Bank of Georgia”. The bank’s public relations department stresses the fact that they’ve already had Russians who refused to sing the paper – and thus were refused service. However, even a country that is generally open to Russian political immigration can inexplicably deny entry to an opposition politician as prominent as Lyubov Sobol. Thus, the issue of “good Russians” remains open even for “third parties”.

Is there a future for “good Russians”?

To answer this, we have to look into the past. The events of World War II and crimes of Nazi Germany helped form a negative attitude towards war, including a strongly negative attitude towards the aggressor. As we know, this culture included the idea of “kind Germans” based on rather exceptional cases of positive communication between residents of the occupied territories and German soldiers, when eyewitnesses eagerly shared their memories about the humane minority, including stories of compassion and kindness. In the American tradition, this term has an ironic meaning, i.e. Good Germans were the Germans who said they did not support the Nazi regime, staying silent and not resisting the regime in any meaningful way.

In the beginning of the current war, some were saying that due to barbarity of the new aggression, this time by Russia, the past deeds of Germans were “forgotten”. However, even now citizens of Germany are reminded of their “dark times” when it comes to, for example, the way they don’t reduce their dependency on the Russian gas quickly enough, or when military aid to Ukraine gets delayed.

The sad conclusion is that the Russian aggression will be remembered for a long time. Russians will have to earn the goodwill of others with their pain and suffering; they will have to change their state so that it would never resemble the aggressive empire of the past. We should be ready to a long period of time when Russians will be deemed “good” or “bad” undeservedly. This is why the opposition needs not a formal unity, but, rather, a cohesiveness when it comes to working on mutual projects. Thus, during the recent debate on the channel by Alexandr Plushev Leonid Volkov and Garry Kasparov, leaders of two main groups of the Russian opposition, confirmed their willingness to work together to stop the war in Ukraine and change the political situation in Russia. The same idea was voiced in the article published by Meduza dedicated to most notable anti-war projects, many of which are examples of coordination of various initiatives, and in which “goodness” of Russians is measured by their actions.

Today, we have the situation in which the Russian opposition abroad might influence the development of the “good Russians” image due to its unprecedented development. However, it should in every way strengthen its cooperation with those who stayed in Russia and who don’t support the war; instead of pushing them away with all kinds of labels, it should use their support to realize the projects that can help change both the course of the war and the Russian society itself.

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  1. Using threats or military power against other countries under the pretext of protecting what is presented as a country’s national interests.