What kinds of actions should we expect?
If the Russian leadership acknowledges all of these events, that is, if they admit that this is a war and not some warm and fuzzy mission to liberate [Ukraine], then martial law will go into effect — with consequences to match: general mobilization, wartime economy, liquidation of property. It’s possible that the destruction of the economy will be blamed on “internal Nazi agents,” we may see the return of the death penalty. Naturally, borders will be closed — after all, there’s a war on, we’re in a state of exception.
So, what can be done?
Life will be different in the possible future I’ve just sketched out, so strategies will change: we’ll see underground resistance and partisan battles with all the associated risks and consequences. The current situation is approaching a turning point — either the outcome will be what I described earlier, or there will be a surge of discontent from the ground up. We already see that discontent escalating…
Well, it’s escalating, but more slowly than the armed conflict.
Yes, it’s escalating too slowly, but it’s escalating, nonetheless. We’re seeing more and more public figures speaking out against [the war]: MPs; various associations; celebrities, who, even as they try to keep silent, are still coming out against the war in greater numbers than not. This may not be much, but it’s already something.
If the trend of speaking out jumps from sub-elite circles to elite ones, circles that are closer to the Russian leadership, the risks for Putin are obvious. The whole thing starts to look like an unhinged escapade with terrifying consequences and inescapable defeat on the horizon. Which is why we’re at a turning point: the world we’re living in right now won’t survive for very long at all…
Maybe an hour or two.
Yes, maybe even that little.
Granted, this is the first time Russia has found itself in this kind of situation. Even so, can you, as a sociologist, try to make some predictions? What are the chances that this turning point will produce a more favorable outcome, versus one that is less favorable? Do you have hopes for the talks that began on February 28?
This is an unprecedented situation in world history — there has never been anything like it before. Right now, the whole world stands on the brink of a monstrous catastrophe, because there is no logical knowledge on which we can rely.
The whole world is already realizing that February 24 marked the end of an entire huge postwar period, and now we’re living in a new era. The German chancellor, Olaf Scholz, was right to say that this era will see a new Germany, one ready to assume new responsibilities.
Today we are on the brink of an immense war. Its potential participants possess nuclear weapons, which certain people are already threatening to use. Words like “Nazi” or “de-Nazification” are far from harmless — in current discourse, they have the potential for total dehumanization and set the stage of all kinds of “final solutions.” And we shouldn’t exclude the possibility that the response will be in a similar vein…
The closest analogy [to the present moment] is 1938–1939. However, at that time, the world was divided and doomed, whereas now it’s coming together. Not totally, of course, but with every passing day people realize more and more that the situation is really serious. Which is why I think we’re all standing at a fork in the road that will determine [our collective future] for decades to come. This goes especially for Belarusians, Russians, and Ukrainians — three peoples who have fallen hostage to those who point their weapons at them and try to pit them against one another.
It’s important to understand that this isn’t a war of Russia against Ukraine. This war is being waged by a faction that has amassed a bunch of weaponry, gotten into the habit of using it for purposes of intimidation, and which has now transitioned into open hostilities against all three of these peoples.
In this moment, do you feel like more of a human being or more of a scholar? Or is that the stupidest question ever? Let me rephrase: Do we analyze or flee?
No, it’s not stupid at all; it’s a pretty logical question [to ask] in a decisive historical moment. It’s important to understand that these two positions coexist within every researcher and must partly coincide. You have to know what you believe in and what you’re analyzing for: if you analyze to no specific end, just because you were ordered or asked to, you’ll end up like Elvira Nabiullina [the head of Russia’s Central Bank]. You risk becoming a war criminal.
You think Elvira Nabiullina is a war criminal?
Albert Speer was a war criminal.
She’s not a victim of circumstance?
In that case, wasn’t Adolf Eichmann also a victim of circumstance? I’m being totally serious right now — at some point you have to stop thinking of yourself as just a cog and find some foothold that can become the basis for a moral position. And from that point forward, your analytical capacities have to serve that position, but at the same time you also have to be able to gain some critical distance, figure out how to maintain your cold reason and not lose self-control. But it’s really important not to lose your moral position — especially in critical moments.
What would you yourself prefer right now — to leave or to stay?
There are some red lines for me. I know for absolute certain that I will under no circumstances go and fight in this insane war, the most pointless war in all of Russian history. It’s worse than the Crimean War and will end in either catastrophe for the entire world or just for my favorite country. Putin is acting against Russia’s interests, and I will under no circumstances wage war against Russia.
How much should we expect each person to find their foothold? And what has to happen to make Elvira Nabiullina or, say, Sergei Shoigu behave differently?
That’s between them and their God. You know, right now we’re in a moment that, for all its uniqueness, nonetheless recalls the events of the 20th century. Hannah Arendt, I think, very rightly said on this point that there are times when you have to accept your powerlessness to change the world as a whole and figure out what you’re personally responsible for — in such a way that afterwards you’re able to live with yourself, that you can stand to look at yourself in the mirror.
That’s the most important question each person has to answer for themselves, with the understanding that the situation could, and likely will, develop according to a worst-case scenario.
And how do you overcome your fear in that moment?
There are certain foolproof methods: small actions with a clearly measurable effect. That’s the best remedy for fear, and every single time it turns out that the devil’s not so black as he’s painted. If you take a principled position, if you don’t fail to rise to the moral challenge, if you don’t pretend that nothing is happening or that you’re powerless, but instead understand that you’re in a situation where the moral challenge is enormous, that everyone will be called to answer for, then you won’t be able to remain just a passenger. You have to believe that you can do something at the level of an act with some measurable effect.
Theodor Adorno, quoting the playwright Christian [Dietrich] Grabbe, once said that only despair can save us. Today, it’s common for Russians who are pained by what’s happening to feel self-recrimination and shame; they try to justify themselves or apologize. These are understandable and kind-hearted feelings, but they can’t lead to action. At the end of the day, this is not a war that the Russian people is waging against Ukraine. Russians will get nothing out of this war, they will lose in the most monstrous possible way, it will be an immense catastrophe for the country — all we’ll get is global hatred, a destroyed economy, a crushed society, and possibly a defeated army.
And finally, we will lose that unshakeable basis for respect that historically evinced reverence from people all over the world: we will lose our image as a liberator nation, a hero nation — the victor in the worst of all wars. And that is why we must stop this catastrophe, why we have to unite with Ukrainians and Belarusians. Circumstances are such that Ukrainians are resisting in their own way, whereas Belarusians and Russians have to find a different means. One that won’t prevent them from looking themselves in the eye afterwards.
Is there any way of knowing what will happen next?
Imagine the worst possible scenario, all possible sanctions and countersanctions. That will simplify things because there won’t be any nasty surprises. [Thinking that way] will prevent you from getting distracted by the ongoing avalanche of news, it will enable you to maintain that principled position you worked out in advance: What should I do in this or that situation, where is my moral responsibility.
Is that the principle you live by?
I do my best. That’s what makes principles principles — you can’t necessarily follow them to the letter. But they help keep you afloat.
But you teach. Have you had any problems stemming from your moral position — for example, after that protest where you got beaten up?
This isn’t the first day I’ve occupied this position, and I’ve been so lucky with the people around me, with my colleagues, that it hasn’t caused any problems. Which of course doesn’t give me any guarantees in this new world, where the old rules won’t apply.
They already don’t.
I’ve read many times that Russia has a problem with historical memory. Is that right?
There are problems with historical memory everywhere — that’s the gift the 20th century gave to nearly every society and culture. Everyone is still trying to overcome their memory problems somehow.
Is there any way of predicting what will happen to our collective memory when all of this is over?
That depends on how things end. At the moment, we’re kind of circling the drain — if we don’t end up liquidating the planet and manage to emerge, we might find ourselves in need of a total overhaul.
If we exclude the possibility that absolute evil will triumph — if we ever get past feelings of offense, anger, and vengefulness, past the certainty that only brute force matters — then afterwards, it will again turn out that many of us “didn’t know anything,” that “everything was decided for us,” that we were just “following orders,” that we weren’t “responsible” for anything, and so on.
But this isn’t just Russia’s problem, we shouldn’t fixate so much on Russia and fall into self-flagellation. The whole world is facing a challenge; that fact is beginning to dawn on everyone. Corrupt elites are the same the world over, they all think only of themselves. And yes, the current situation is that this challenge emanates from Russia, and we have a special role to play.
I know that this may be a strange question to ask you in particular, but in light of the events of February 27, how high is the likelihood of nuclear war?
There’s some likelihood of nuclear war. But judging by Putin’s statements, I wouldn’t consider it an immediate or imminent threat. For now, it’s just an act that occurred in parallel with the talks — talks that are unquestionably decorative and not real — but in any case, the declaration about nuclear weapons is more likely a form of blackmail meant to create a basis for negotiation.
But the very fact that this threat occurred, especially against a background where Putin and his team made clear that they’ll stop at nothing to get what they want, brings up the nuclear question in a real way. And finally, we shouldn’t forget the dangers of using tactical nuclear weapons.
I always thought that humans are motivated, above all, by survival instinct. But the decision to use nuclear weapons is suicidal — and that’s putting it lightly.
Human beings are pretty interesting creatures. Many thinkers defined humans precisely by their capacity for suicide. A person is capable of saying, for whatever reason, “I say ‘no’ to my physical being.” That reason could be a feeling that their continued existence is impossible, or it could be a desire for prestige and fame — historically, things like that have pushed people to suicide.
Of course, we didn’t used to have access to the nuclear button — but what does that change, at the end of the day? Those who commit nuclear suicide are, after all, still people, which means they’re capable of it.
Sorry, I have to go — I’m getting a call from my wife, who has almost certainly been arrested at an anti-war protest.
Interview by Svetlana Reiter
Translated by Maya Vinokour.