Russia and the limits of national culpability in the Ukraine war

An author cancels her novel because of its location, but can a whole place and all its people be guilty?
Elizabeth Gilbert's now indefinitely postponed novel The Snow Forest is set in Siberia. Photo by Hans-Jurgen Mager on Unsplash

So it’s not just a person or persons but the place to which they belong that can be deemed guilty. It’s fair to surmise this from the Eat Pray Love author Elizabeth Gilbert’s decision to cancel publication of her new novel because its Russian setting could add to the “grievous and extreme harm” already being experienced by Ukrainians.

This makes me think of the notion of collective guilt and collective punishment. What are the limits of national culpability? Are there any? Should there be any?

American novelist Rebecca Makkai put it as follows: “Wherever you set your novel, you’d better hope to hell that by publication date (usually about a year after you turned it in) that place isn’t up to bad things, or you are personally complicit in them.”

As this is an emotive and testing issue, I want to explain at the outset that this is not to say Vladimir Putin alone or his regime is culpable for the Ukraine war and that the world should give all Russians a pass. After all, Mr Putin enjoys significant popularity in Russia and he has long been seen by many of his people as a strong and unwavering protector of Russia’s identity and posture on the world stage.

In fact, Mr Putin’s popularity has generally been boosted in the moments he took decisive, aggressive, sometimes brutal action. (Remember the levelling of the Chechen capital Grozny?)

And it’s also worth pointing out the interview Der Spiegel conducted in January this year with Lev Gudkov, scientific director of the still independent opinion research institute in Russia, the Levada Centre. He acknowledged that after 11 months, Russians were increasingly worried the Ukrainian military operation was taking so long and that their country might suffer a defeat. However, said Mr Gudkov, the war itself was not being questioned. “No, the attacks on Ukraine and the massacres play no role. The Russians have little compassion for the Ukrainians. Almost no one here talks about the fact that people are being killed in Ukraine,” he said.

In the interests of clarity, I also want to stress that I’m not suggesting that all Russians lack compassion or that there’s something particularly unfeeling about the Russian people. What I am saying is that countries and peoples do sometimes develop particular pathologies at particular points of time.

Consider Israel and the collective punishment often controversially meted out to Palestinians. As I write this there are reports of a major aerial and ground Israeli offensive into the West Bank city of Jenin, its biggest military operation in the Palestinian territory in years, and the UN’s resident humanitarian coordinator, has expressed “alarm” at the “scale” of Israeli forces’ actions. Meanwhile, a spokesperson for the Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, called the operation “a new war crime against our defenceless people”.

How do you measure Israeli (and Palestinian) collective responsibility and guilt?

Consider India today, where a muscular new Hindu rashtra (or nation) is being built. It would be wrong to say that Prime Minister Narendra Modi (he who remains supremely unmoved and sans remorse about the deaths, on his watch, of thousands of Muslims in the 2002 Gujarat riots) is the reason for India’s changed mindset. No, he and his Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) are not the sole reason for many Indians’ increasingly hard-eyed view of their fellow Muslims. (There are many instances of Muslim lynchings, mobs pulling out a Muslim man’s beard as he writhes on the ground, city authorities sending bulldozers to demolish the homes of alleged Muslim offenders. UN special rapporteurs have reportedly condemned the demolitions as “collective punishment” of Muslims). Mr Modi and the BJP are a consequence of the changed mindset but not the reason for it. Indians themselves must bear some responsibility for what they have become/allowed to happen in their name.

So how to address the idea of collective responsibility? Some years ago, in an essay I contributed to a book Making Sense of Modi’s India, I looked at this issue by pointing to the work of the American non-profit ‘Facing History and Ourselves’. It has spent nearly 40 years, I said, “teaching school students in the US and increasingly in other parts of the world (Northern Ireland, South Africa, Israel, China, among other countries) that history is more than a list of dates and battles. ‘It is the collective result of every individual’s thoughts and actions’.”

That seems a possible sensible point at which to call time on the notion of shared responsibility?

Also read:

A writer cancels her novel set in Russia. Is this outrage taken too far?

Eat, Pray, Love author’s damnatio memoriae for Russia

Eat, Pray, Cancel: Was it ok for Elizabeth Gilbert to pull novel set in Russia?