The "Good Russians" Debate Is Back — And My Rage Just Grows Deeper
A Ukrainian journalist considers the controversy over the shutting down of exiled, independent Russian television station TV Dozhd. Can Russians be opposed to Putin's war and yet support the troops?
What's been unfolding in Latvia this week is minor compared to the brutality that continues every day in Ukraine. Still, it is telling, and is forcing us to try to imagine what will happen in the future to Russia, and Russians, and the rest of us in the region.
What has been a largely respected and independent Russian television channel, TV Dozhd ("TV Rain") was forced off the air in Latvia — where it's been based since being forced into exile at the start of the war in Ukraine — after Alexei Korostelev, one the channel's main anchors, said on live TV that Dozhd viewers could help the Russian army soldiers and urged viewers to write about mobilization violations.
Korostelev was immediately fired, and the television's management reiterated its absolute opposition to the war and repeated calls for Moscow to immediately withdraw its troops.
Nevertheless, the next day Latvia — a fierce Ukraine ally — revoked the channel's license to broadcast
It is a rude return to the "good Russian" debate, which spread across independent newspapers and social media in the weeks after Moscow's invasion. What must we demand from Russians who are opposed to the war and to Vladimir Putin? Should we expect that they not only want an end to the fighting, but should also be pushing for the defeat of their own nation's military?
In the midst of the television station controversy this week, Ukrainian journalist Roman Tsimbalyuk posed the question this way: "Do you sympathize with the Russian army because these are poor, hungry Russian boys?"
Many Russian independent journalists answered "Yes," and began writing articles and recording clips supporting Dozhd, which draw a line between the state and the country, to separate Putin and Co. and their actions from the responsibility of all Russians.
They are vehemently opposed to Putin’s international and domestic politics, and have stood up against the war. Many had indeed been labeled "foreign agents" by the Kremlin, and had to flee their country under the threat of imprisonment.
But being opposed to the blatantly "bad guy" Putin does not mean you lose your instinctive desire to want to protect ordinary Russians on the front lines, even if they are the invaders.
Putin's war, after all?
When the concept of the "good Russian" emerged it described a citizen of the country who does not take part in the war and even condemns it. He or she is not only not responsible for the war in Ukraine, but are themselves victims of Putin's regime.
Justice ended when tanks rolled across the Russian border.
"When 'good Russians' help 'bad Russians' ... can the world finally understand that they are all the same?," Ukrainian Minister of Culture and Information Policy Alexander Tkachenko wrote on social media. "The Dozhd TV channel was trying to help the occupiers who are having some troubles while fighting on our soil."
Perhaps to a foreign reader, accusing the entire nation for the actions of a group of people seems obviously unjust. And yet justice ended when tanks rolled across the Russian border into the Chernihiv region of Ukraine; notions of humanity and forgiveness find no place in the ruins of Mariupol.
War removes halftones, and only black and white remain, only friend or foe.
The TV Dozhd studio
TV Dozhd got burned
And so, can we Ukrainians have Russian friends? We can, indeed, but they must join our fight to defeat Moscow's invasion. Take Russian writer Alexander Nevzorov's reaction to the TV station controversy.
"So that's it. Dozhd is over. Got burned on absolute bullshit. I hate to admit it, but the channel was a werewolf. The broadcast of Dozhd had been calling for help for Putin's occupiers and openly ‘cried’ about their lack of comfort and convenience," Nevzorov wrote. "At the beginning of the war, it dutifully ´laid down its arms’ and remained suspiciously silent for five bloody months, and now, lo and behold, it's ‘talking.’ It's not even worth trying to figure out whether Dozhd was bought or intimidated."
When the question is life or death, to be for peace, light, love, and pink ponies is not just ridiculous. It is complicity in a crime. Of course, sympathy for a man without food or warm clothes sleeping in a wet hole is by definition humane. But if that person is part of a heavily armed invading army, the sympathy must be directed toward the men and women without food or warm clothing that the invader is aiming at.
Another writer that fits my limited definition of a good Russian is journalist Mikhail Sheitelman: "Ukrainians don't care if you are supporting or against Putin because they don't care what happens to Russia after the war. Will there be Putin, Patrushev, Navalny, civil war, liberal democracy, or nuclear desert? Ukraine has no plans to build any relations with Russia in the next decades," Sheitleman writes. "Ukraine plans to join NATO, host U.S. and British military bases, and build fortifications along the border."
How will Ukraine and Russia be neighbors after the war?
The source for this bitter future is our shared past. As a journalist and a Ukrainian, something very stubborn inside tells me that the number of Russian opponents of the war, both fellow journalists and ordinary citizens, would have been much smaller if Putin's armies had the lightning victory the Kremlin had predicted.
After all, very few Russians were particularly opposed to the seizing of Crimea in 2014; there were no mass protests or a hunt for the media. A few complained briefly, and went on with their work.
We will have to do something with our national trauma that is channeled into hatred for Russians.
The anger and bitterness that is building inside Ukraine, and inside all of us Ukrainians, is a real problem. I know this. When the war ends — and I am convinced with all my heart and brain that it will end with the victory of Ukraine — we will have to do something with our national trauma that is channeled into hatred for Russians.
For better or worse, we cannot change geography. And the world, unfortunately, has seen more than once how such enmity between neighboring states can poison generations upon generations.
At the same time, this war is unlike others that have come before it. We are living it online. (It's worth noting that TV Dozhd will continue on YouTube, where it's always had most of its viewers.) So I do not know if or how the way we communicate today will heal the wounds this war has caused, or when we can forgive those who killed and humiliated us. I think the recovery process will be unique, the first of its kind in the history of the modern world.
We have crossed the point of no return. We have every reason to hate and no reason to trust. Walls have grown between us: of concrete, iron and missiles, but also of history and language. At first, they will protect the borders of our country, and live inside every Ukrainian heart. Only time will tell how long they will stand.
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