Russian culture is deeply rooted in two fundamental questions: “Who is to blame?” and “What is to be done?” These inquiries, originally posed by Fyodor Dostoevsky and Nikolay Chernyshevsky in the mid-19th century, continue to shape Russian decision-making processes at both personal and societal levels. Avoiding blame for one’s actions has become ingrained in the cultural code, reflected in the traditional Russian drinking toast that wishes for unlimited gains without consequences.
The aggressive foreign policy pursued by Russia has resulted in the first full-scale war in Europe in the 21st century. Since February 2022, discussions surrounding Russian guilt and reparations have emerged among politicians, media outlets, and political and social scientists. Similar to the aftermath of World War II, another dispute on these matters deems inevitable.
In the postwar period, philosophers extensively discussed the issue of German guilt. German philosopher Karl Jaspers played a pivotal role in shaping the post-war consciousness of Germans. He believed that the recognition of national guilt was essential for Germany’s moral and political revival. Jaspers argued that those who committed war crimes were morally guilty, and those who tolerated them without resistance were politically guilty. This conclusion leads to the concept of collective guilt, where everyone shared responsibility.
Efforts to apply the idea of collective guilt after World War II were short-lived, as the United States, Great Britain, and the USSR quickly realized its ineffectiveness. Sociological research published in 1946 revealed that about 75 percent of ordinary Germans did not know about concentration camps. Even if they had heard of them, they believed they were small-scale and less severe. Germans employed various forms of psychological self-defense, claiming that they were powerless against the intimidating state that emerged under Hitler’s rule. Consequently, they believed they could not be held accountable.
The “collective guilt” and “denazification” programs were discontinued in 1949, shortly after the war’s end. It was unsurprising given that, in 1945, 8.5 million Germans were members of the NSDAP, technically classifying them as Nazis. However, many of these members did not actively participate in or even knew about Hitler’s atrocities. In 1951, ex-Nazis constituted the majority of civil authorities in Bavaria (94 percent of judges and prosecutors and 77 percent of finance ministry employees). A similar situation occurred in East Germany under Soviet rule, where thousands of ex-Gestapo members continued their service with the German secret police, the Stasi. It took a full generation for Germany to publicly condemn Nazism, a process that began in the mid-1980s.
The idea of collective guilt blurs individual responsibility. Collective responsibility promotes collective thinking, which is impersonal and devoid of accountability. This was precisely what Jaspers opposed. Collective guilt prevents individual accountability, hindering the possibility of atonement. A collective mentality fosters collective irresponsibility.
For many experts collective mentality seems natural for Russians. One might assume that the remnants of serf consciousness persist among many Russian citizens, although it has been more than 150 years since its abolition. In 1861, serfdom was officially abolished through a manifesto, but its effects lingered.
Just six decades later Stalin widely introduced an idea of a kolkhoz (a collective farm) in the Soviet Union, which resembled the abolished serfdom. Collective farmers lacked passports and were tied to their farms, similar to peasants under landlords. They often worked for minimal compensation or even for free, with the sole incentive of having a small plot of land for personal use. Peasants were only issued passports during Khrushchev’s time, and the opportunity to leave their villages and control their destinies came even later due to strict registration policies. Thus, the collective mentality of serfs did not disappear in 1861 but rather continued with kolkhoz, which only ceased to exist in the 1990s.
The Russian mentality places significant importance on communal living. Throughout Russia’s history, communal life has been vital due to challenging natural and military conditions. The ideology of Orthodoxy, which views the nation as a family and the Tsar as its head, further strengthened collectivist attitudes. During the Soviet era, collectivism found formal expression in transformative initiatives such as industrialization, collectivization, and the cultural revolution. These initiatives gave rise to social formations like collective farms, state farms, and factory brigades.
Contemporary Russia, though, seems to reverse the collective tradition. Researchers Vladimir Magen and Maksim Rudnev have observed the growth of “pro-individualistic tendencies” in Russia. They have also found that the transition from a Soviet to a capitalist society has increased “aggressive adaptation individualism,” with approximately 30 percent of Russians identifying as individualists according to data from the 9th round of the European Social Survey. Additionally, Esteban Ortiz-Ospina and Max Roser’s findings indicate a substantial decline in citizens’ trust among Russian citizens, dropping from 34.7 percent in 1993 to 23.3 percent in 2022. This low level of trust highlights the high degree of social atomization in Russia.
Recent opinion polls prove the same. Despite ongoing protests in Russia since 2012, people seem unaffected by events such as the “Wagner” mutiny, as indicated by a mere 1% increase in calmness reported by FOM, even in the presence of the “Prigozhin” incident near Moscow. Individuals may have perceived these events as mere power struggles between different factions, unrelated to their personal lives. However, the level of anxiety increased to 70% during the fall mobilization. Russian society seems to lack a sign reading: “Stay out – hazard.” Yet, the current events seem to have little impact on the lives of ordinary citizens who are preoccupied with their day-to-day survival.
The Russian political mentality has inherited the sacralization of power and paternalism from the turbulent Soviet and Tsarist pasts. Throughout Russian history, various factors such as international dynamics and societal norms have contributed to the increasing role of the state in public and cultural life. Paternalism stems from the sacralization of state power, with the Russian people considering themselves secondary subjects in social life, subservient to the state.
Significantly, there is a deep-rooted sense of alienation from politics within the mass consciousness. Putin spent 20 years successfully re-implanting it into Russians This attitude leads to a refusal to accept responsibility for what transpires, placing the full weight of accountability on those in power.
This sentiment, expressed as “We have nothing to do with it,” serves as the primary mechanism for the passive adaptation of the masses to the repressive state and its crimes. Paradoxically, there is also indignation and resentment toward the sources of moral and legal sanctions. This rejection of responsibility and the preservation of social infantilism and loyalty to power are inherent consequences of the paternalistic and dependent consciousness nurtured by living in a closed society.
Russians now enjoy a psychological state of “the witness syndrome.” This syndrome refers to individuals who do not directly participate in hostilities but observe them, leading to the development of post-traumatic symptoms. The syndrome manifests through emotional detachment and depersonalization, where individuals perceive events as detached from their own lives. This results in reduced involvement and a sense of powerlessness.
One might say that Russians are guilty that the Russian Army now kills Ukrainians. We should remember though that Russians tried to protest against Putin’s policies,. Numerous protests taking place since 2012 resulted in thousands being imprisoned, criminally prosecuted, and media outlets shut down, all witnessed by the European public.
We should acknowledge that Western politicians often remained silent and indifferent, conducting business with the Russian government. Insufficient support from abroad, combined with the lack of significant domestic protest mobilization, contributed to the perpetuation of the status quo. And not only remaining silent but the West helped Putin fight with his opposition by supplying special police pepper spray and electric shockers to Russia.
Russia likes to think it is unique, and it is not. It is by all means special but not unique, being part of global geopolitics. It is crucial to acknowledge that the ongoing political crisis in Russia may not be an isolated anomaly but rather a dangerous pathology. Many countries worldwide are experiencing a renewed movement towards authoritarianism and national self-interest. The voters of Trump, Marine Le Pen, and those who approve of or accept war in Russia share similar thinking patterns. Russia’s neo-imperial disgrace could well be a shared, generally hazardous phenomenon. So, Russia may need help not ostracising.
The collective guilt of kolkhoz, when everybody is guilty means that no-one is guilty, does not help solve the problem. It is nothing more but a seemingly simple solution to the problem. Russian culture and history are intertwined with questions of guilt and responsibility. The notion of collective guilt blurs individual accountability, while the remnants of serf consciousness and a communal mindset continue to influence societal attitudes. Our recent history has shown that the concept of collective guilt does not work. It took Germans 35 years to publicly repent and re-create their society. If the West develops a sound plan we may not need so much time for Russia in the 22nd century. A successful re-creation of Russia may be a vital step in coping with similar right and authoritarian tendencies in Western countries as well.