Author Grigory Yudin

Another Russia Is Possible: On the Moral Responsibility of Western Leaders for the War in Ukraine

Translated by Ross Wolfe and Alex Gendler

July 1, 2022



I stand in a comfortable subway car of the Moscow Metro, reading military analysts’ prognoses about the course of combat operations on my phone. A stranger comes up to me and, embarrassed, says “thank you.” Ever since the war started, this has been happening to me on a regular basis.

I’m a researcher, and my average day is spent at home on the computer. I don’t go out into the street that often, and in recent months have begun to do so even less frequently. But since the war started—every day, without exception—strangers have come up to me on the street and on public transportation in order to say “thank you.” This occurs wherever I happen to find myself: in Moscow and Vienna, in Yerevan and Berlin. What are they thanking me for? Simply for the fact that I publicly spoke out against the war from the beginning.

This produces a strange sensation. It’s as if you are a member of some sort of invisible order, a vast and silent opposition just waiting for its moment. Suddenly something is revealed to me, something many people are unaware of: that they are not alone. That there are people all around who have kept a sound mind, a sense of compassion and responsibility for their country. Yet they approach me one at a time, utter the word “hope,” and then depart, dreary and desperate.

The indestructible force

I know the name of this anguish all too well—it’s called “atomization.” When the ties between us are corroded, when it feels stupid and awkward to talk about “dangerous topics” in any company, when the only source of information about our neighbors turns out to be public opinion polls, everyone feels surrounded by a dull, hostile, and embittered mass. You can merge with it and lean on its strength, or you can distance yourself from it and feel an air of superiority and sophistication. If you gather the nerve, you can even resist it. But it’s impossible to speak with, much less contradict it. It presses against everything. It surges and threatens. It appears to be an indestructible force, despite the fact it doesn’t exist.

Every day I get new messages from foreign journalists, all wanting to know the same thing: how can it be that eighty-some percent of Russians support this war? I hear astonishment and indignation in their question. Before their eyes arises the same old dreadful mass of merciless Russians, who as a single horde want to rob, rape, and kill. I start to type an answer into my phone: “Understand that this is not how it works. If on February 24 Vladimir Putin had announced that, for some important security reasons, he was transferring the territories of the Luhansk and Donetsk People’s Republics to Ukraine, his approval rate would be exactly the same…” I shake the stranger’s outstretched hand and scan the subway car, reflexively trying to project onto its passengers the question of my journalist, who asks about them from afar.

I’d like to answer the journalist in such a way that he does not have to explain to his audience: “You see, the Russians are completely different; everything is arranged otherwise for them.” Because this is untrue. Because, in order to understand how Russians think, it’s enough to figure out how Gerhard Schröder,1 François Fillon,2 or Karin Kneissl3 thinks. None of them appears a bloodthirsty killer. None of them wants the suffering of the Ukrainian people. They simply want to live well and in such a way that they are left alone. They want the war to end as soon as possible so they can get back to “normal life”—the one where you can make decent money and be a respectable person.

Masters of this world

Regretfully, there’s nothing particularly sinister about the Russians. Because if this were the case it’d be enough to simply isolate them, fence them off forever and safely shield the planet. Alas, it’s not about the Russians. The fact of the matter is that Vladimir Putin has understood all too well how the contemporary world works. He recognized its vulnerabilities, and the levers that need to be pulled in order to manipulate it. The social order he’s constructed in Russia is a radical variant of contemporary neoliberal capitalism—where greed reigns, where everything is measured by private wealth, and where cynicism, nihilism, and irony lend one a salutary sense of carefree superiority.

Putin didn’t suddenly emerge from the Siberian forests; he has corrupted financial and political elites for years. His oligarchs have enjoyed unbridled luxury and flattery around the world for so long that they’ve decided, not without foundation, they are masters of the world. He’s so successfully perverted politicians from dozens of countries, including them on his boards of directors and openly sharing blood money with them, that he has every reason to consider them weaklings. Putin offered Russians the very principle that the powerful of this world have learned so well: “If you can’t buy something with money, you simply didn’t offer enough money.”

My foreign correspondents wonder how Russians can be so “brainwashed by propaganda.” But I look around and don’t see any idiots. Instead, I see lots of people who’ve thoroughly internalized the main lesson: Don’t try to contradict Putin; the world is set up in such a way that he always wins anyway. I look at those who tried to stave off the current catastrophe, who risked their freedom and lives, and saw every time that Putin’s money decides everything. That after each crushed uprising Putin comes out of it with new contracts worth billions, his oligarchs get richer still, and his “European friends” get new positions on new boards of directors. That international tech giants are prepared to make any concessions to earn income on the Russian market—from Google, which is ready to remain silent about physical threats to its top management by Russian special services, to Nokia, which helped Putin construct a total system of surveillance against his opponents. Every time these fearless Russians started over, again and again. They’ve been waging this war with Putin for a long while, only without antitank missiles4 and howitzers. And every time they heard: “No one will help you anyway, Putin has bought everyone.” Today many of them have at last come to believe it.

My friends who work for international corporations tell me, one after another, about how their foreign management reacts to the war. Strictly speaking, no one reacts to the war. Not a word is said about it. By contrast, general aggravation is elicited by the notorious “sanctions,” which force them to directly limit their revenue on the lucrative Russian market. And if in American and British companies it is necessary to conceal this discontent, so as not to anger their global leadership, then German and especially French firms almost candidly say that they do not understand what they have to do with the war in Ukraine or why they should lose money on account of it.

Where hope can spring

In an interview for Der Spiegel, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz explains that Masha Gessen’s book The Future is History [2017] influenced his understanding of Russia. Over the course of several hundred pages, this book advances a single thought: Russia never changes. Its past, present, and future is totalitarianism; any effort to alter this is futile. Vladimir Putin and his liberal critics have long concurred on this point: Russia can’t be changed anyway. Scholz gives me the impression of a man frightened by this Russian peril, the peril of a fearsome horde which is impossible to deal with.

I look around my Moscow subway car again. Heavy stares, fixed on the window or the floor. Russians are famously unsmiling. Hope will not spring here until the world acknowledges that Vladimir Putin and his war are the inevitable result of all global development in recent decades. Not until global business feels a sense of responsibility for the lives of Ukrainians, and not just the dividends of its shareholders. Not until the world realizes we’re all riding in this Moscow subway car. Not until Chancellor Scholz believes another Russia is possible.

  1. Chancellor of Germany from 1998 to 2005 and former leader of the Social Democratic Party. Had close ties with Putin, and is involved with numerous Russian state-owned firms including Nord Stream ag.↩︎
  2. Prime Minister of France between 2007 and 2012. Later unsuccessfully ran for President, before being convicted of embezzlement in 2020. Until recently a member of the Board of Directors at the Russian petrochemical company sibur Holding (he resigned from the post following the invasion of Ukraine).↩︎
  3. Minister of Foreign Affairs in Austria from 2017 to 2019. Putin attended her wedding. She currently blogs for Russia Today.↩︎
  4. Yudin writes nlaw, which stands for “Next generation Light Antitank Weapons,” mostly shoulder-fired missiles.↩︎