Open letter to Gabriele Krone-Schmalz on the question of how to understand Russia

Apr 30th, 2015 | By | Category: Book reviews, Open Letter

Dear Ms. Krone-Schmalz,

You have published a book, titled beautifully How to understand Russia1 .

I’m someone, who since being a student of Slavic Studies 1978 and up to the present day, already as a Professor of Slavic Philology at the University of Göttingen, could be called a person who tries to understand Russia. I spent many months of my life in Moscow, Petersburg and Russian province, I publish now almost exclusively in Russian, and with my various colleagues teaching at 20 different Russian universities from St. Petersburg to Chelyabinsk I have not only just professional, but also friendly relations. My love for Russia was born out of love for Russian literature, which is a unique combination of deep philosophical ideas with artistic mastery. And just because I love Russia, the events since the annexation of the Crimea don’t let me sleep anymore. These events and the media background music from the State-run media of the Russian Federation inflict an almost physical pain onto me. You, as an expert on Russia among the media scientists, have surely followed the official Russian coverage of the Ukraine events. I ask you then – what is there to understand? Even if one strictly accounts the causes of the war in an absolute neutral way, even if we pragmatically talk only about interests and spheres of influence, and not about democracy and human rights – even then this kind of reporting is unbearable. In the Brezhnev era, I was a graduate student in Moscow for a year, and I know quite well what was Soviet propaganda. But it was nothing compared to the current mixture of lies and hatred in Russian mass media. Does this make you, as a media researcher, wonder? Why does it not upset you, as a journalist? Do you talk about it in your media-scientific courses? And last not least: doesn’t it make you think about what could be called “understanding” Russia?

I have an idea about what is going on in Russians’ hearts, work-related of course, most of all in the hearts of Russian intelligentsia. Indeed many of them do not join in the western criticism of Putin’s policy. But this attitude is not due to a solidarity with the Government. A characteristic of Russian life is a mixture of resignation, fear and focus on the everyday things. People are automatic looking away from the political scene. My Russian friends advise me “don’t read so much newspaper”, when I write to them, how much Russia’s war against the Ukraine distresses me. To understand Russia for me means to understand not Putin, but this attitude! And this attitude plays into the hands of a political leadership, which was chosen by the people, and is acting in the name of these people. “In your name people are killed in the Ukraine”, I write to my Russian friends, but as you know as well as I do, Russians see their relationship with the Government differently. It is rather imposed on them as an inevitable evil. We knew this attitude as the attitude of the Soviet people, and we had the illusion, it would change after the end of the Soviet Union. Civil rights, citizenship, personal responsibility, social equity initiative, all of this could hardly be developed even after the end of the Soviet Union. The latest movement of Ukraine, the Maidan protest movement is even more surprising. Didn’t your journalistic heart bleed, when activists for a liberal and democratic society on the Maidan were vilified in Moscow as fascist gangs controlled by the West?

You and I, we both try to understand Russia. If we get different results, it is not at the level of information or due to a different political background. It’s because we sympathy different sides, you the political leadership in the Kremlin and I the Russian people. But let’s try what from my point of view is in fact improper, let’s try to understand not the people but the political leadership of Russia. In this case, the most common argument is that the West had “won the Cold War”, because Russia was weak after the collapse of the Soviet Union, but now it will be able to return to old strength and claim back its old sphere of influence. Yes, France also had its problems with the collapse of its colonial empire and engaged in war with Algeria. How do you, as a historian, identify the war with Algeria? Was it a fair or justifiable war?

At one point I agree with Putin. Yes, the West won the cold war. This happened for two reasons. First, the model of a multinational union of socialist soviet republics never really worked. The other republics of course perceived Russia as a colonial power. If such a power shows weakness, the colonized people take the opportunity to rebel. The problem is – how can one protect himself in front of the possibly resurgent colonial power? I need to find powerful allies. For example, between 1918 and 1939 Poland found France and England, Czechoslovakia, having been abandoned by France and England in 1938, had a reliable ally in the United States of America. After 1989, the “satellites” and former republics of the Soviet Union found the NATO. But who did not find any strong ally in time, now is betrayed and sold. Is there any stronger argument possible for NATO? Or is the transatlantic alliance seen as a compulsory community under the thumb of the United States? Why has no one ever tried to escape from it, even over-confident de Gaulle? Not even the Erdogan-Turkey? This is quite strange!

Yes, the West won the cold war, but for a different reason. In addition to the two “hard powers” economy and military, that a state can have, there is also a “soft power”, the attractiveness, which, as the Harvard political scientist Joseph S. Nye points out, is rather underestimated. Russia simply hasn’t got any attractive model of society, therefore, on the territory of the mostly ethnic Russians Crimean peninsula, the party which openly promoted the affiliation to Russia had only 5% voters for the regional Parliament – of course before it took over the parliament by force. Many ethnic Russians in Estonia and Latvia are quite satisfied with the model of society in the EU and have no desire for repatriation, even if it is economically worse for them, than in the Soviet Union. Russians are more pragmatic than our stereotype of the Russian soul lets us expect. Of course people in the Donbass feel culturally closer to Russia than to the Western Ukraine, but if the Ukraine will have the chance to become a functioning democratic state, with a restrained corruption – would they still want to go? Or doesn’t Russian pop and Russian language television fulfill the needs of their Russian souls? The Ukraine was not a tinderbox. As in Russia, the people in the East Ukraine were fixed on their everyday problems and didn’t want to have anything to do with politics. It didn’t actually matter to them, whether they belong to the Ukraine or to Russia. And now, suddenly, they are willing to fight for it with guns? This certainly does not come from the Russian pop. Because Russian pop is always about love.

Ms. Krone-Schmalz, my profession is employed for teaching, understanding and dialogue. And as a passionate admirer of Russian culture, I must say that the current political leadership in Russia mixed all ideals of this culture with dirt: Tolstoy’s pacifism, Dostoevsky’s sense of responsibility, Chekhov’s sincerity, Pushkin’s Europeanism, Turgenev’s solidarity with little people, Gogol’s moralism… In the face of the current cynicism in the Kremlin even the Soviet ideology was more pleasant. Boasting Russian nationalism and the attitude of an offended superpower I cannot convey to anyone here and I don’t want to. Russia stands for me for other values. To promote these values – this is what it means to me to understand Russia. Don’t you agree with that?

With kind Regards,

Matthias Freise


Translated from German by Natalia Taubert and Matthias Freise


  1. Gabriele Krone- Schmalz: Russland verstehen. Der Kampf um die Ukraine und die Arroganz des Westens. (Understanding Russia. The struggle for the Ukraine and the arrogance of the West) C. H. Beck, München 2015. []

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