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On Putin’s Empty Moral Imagination

Walter G. Moss is Professor Emeritus of History at Eastern Michigan University. A History of Russia (2 vols). For a list of your recent books and online publications, click here.

Moral imagination? What’s that? Among other things, it is the title of a book and the lead essay in that book by David Bromwich. He defines that quality as “the power that compels us to grant the highest possible reality and the greatest conceivable right to a thought, action, or person that is not our own and is not obviously close to us.” It implies compassion and empathy, love and mercy. It is also a quality that Russia’s leader, Vladimir Putin, lacks.

If he had it, he couldn’t go on inflicting all the tragedy; slaughter and mutilation; attacks on homes, schools and hospitals; all the pain and anguish that has rained down on the Ukrainian people for more than 150 days.

novel by Ian McEwan black dogs (1993) captures the scope of such a war tragedy well when he writes of his main character: “He was impressed by the war that had just ended. [World War II in Europe] not as a historical, geopolitical fact, but as a multiplicity, an almost infinity of private sorrows, as a pain without limits minutely subdivided without loss among individuals that covered the continent like dust. . . . He for the first time felt the scale of the catastrophe in terms of feeling; all those unique and lonely deaths, all that consequent pain, unique and lonely too, that had no place in conferences, headlines, history, and that had quietly retreated to homes, kitchens, unshared beds and anguished memories.

McEwan reminds us that Putin is not the first leader to cause such suffering, that Hitler and others have also caused countless miseries and tragedies. Moral imagination, compassion, empathy: these qualities do not usually top the list of those that characterize national rulers. But that does not excuse Putin, nor the Russians who put him in power for more than two decades, counting his time as prime minister, when he continued to exercise his authority.

Nor, and this must be absolutely clear, do NATO’s missteps justify its aggression. Take, for example, the recent defense of his war by Sergey Karaganov, a prominent Russian political scientist interviewed by The New York Times’ Serge Schmemann.

Karaganov justifies Russia’s attacks because he says that NATO was turning Ukraine into “a spearhead aimed at the heart of Russia. . . . The belligerence against Russia has grown rapidly since the late 2000s. Conflict seemed ever more imminent. So Moscow probably decided to go ahead and dictate the terms of the conflict. . . . This conflict is not about Ukraine. Its citizens are used as cannon fodder in a war to preserve the failed supremacy of Western elites.”

Karaganov goes on to say that “for Russia, this conflict is about preservation. . . the country itself. He couldn’t afford to lose. That’s why Russia will even win, hopefully.” This same political scientist, whom Schmemann has often interviewed since Putin came to power, has (like Putin) a negative view of Western democracies: “Taking into account the vector of their political, economic and moral development, the more far we are from the West, better for us. . . . The problem of canceling Russian culture, of everything Russian in the West, is the Western problem. Similar to canceling your own history, culture, Christian moral values.”

He sees the “US-imposed global liberal imperialism”, which has tried to include Ukraine in its imperialist reach, collapsing and being replaced by a “movement towards a world much more just and freer of multipolarity and multiplicity of civilizations and cultures”. . ” One of these centers of this new world will be Russia, “playing its natural role as a civilization of civilizations”.

In Russia itself, Karaganov sees a “bright spot” amid current “belligerent Western policies” toward Russia: “they are cleansing our society, our elites, of the remnants of pro-Western elements.” However, despite this, he believes that Russia “could remain one of the few places that will preserve the treasure of European and Western culture and spiritual values.”

All this is nothing new. We see similar views among 19th-century Russian Slavophiles and Russophiles regarding the moral decline of the West, its antipathy toward Russia, and the belief that Russia will “preserve” the best of Western values. We also see this same kind of thinking in some, but certainly not all, of the writings and comments of Alexander Solzhenitsyn, whom Putin once knew and praised.

In response to Schmemann’s final question about Russia’s goals with regard to Ukraine, Karaganov basically repeated Russia’s most recent statements: “The minimum is the liberation of the kyiv regime from Donbas, which is in its final stages, and then from southern and eastern Ukraine. So Russia’s goal should probably be for the territory remaining under kyiv’s control to be neutral and completely demilitarized.”

Almost all of the above views reflect those of Putin, who about a year ago also detailed his views on Ukraine in a lengthy essay.

Not all of the above Russian justifications are complete nonsense. Some prominent Western Russian pundits and former US officials believe it was foolish to encourage Ukraine’s NATO hopes. Some aspects of American mass culture are morally questionable, etc., etc., etc. But none of that justifies the Russian invasion of Ukraine and the countless tragedies it has caused. No way. If Putin had enough moral imagination, the assault would not have happened.

As an example of that quality, Bromwich cites Martin Luther King’s “A Time to Break Silence,” a 1967 anti-Vietnam War speech at Riverside Church in New York. Here are some of the words the author quotes:

What [Vietnamese] peasants think. . . as we test our latest weapons on them. . . . We have destroyed your two most beloved institutions: the family and the people. We have destroyed their land and crops. We have cooperated in the crushing… in the crushing of the only non-communist revolutionary political force in the nation, the Unified Buddhist Church. We have supported the enemies of the Saigon peasants. We have corrupted their women and children and killed their men.

Now there is little left to build on, except bitterness. Soon, the only solid, solid physical foundations left will be found in our military bases and in the concrete of the concentration camps we call “fortified villages.” Peasants may well wonder if we plan to build our new Vietnam on land like this. Could we blame them for such thoughts? We must speak for them and raise the issues that they cannot raise. These are also our brothers.

A year after King’s speech, Kentucky writer Wendell Berry in “A Statement Against the War in Vietnam” summed up King’s sentiment when he stated: “We have been driven to our present disgraceful behavior in Vietnam by this lack of imagination, this lack of perception of a relationship between our ideals and our lives.”

But it could be argued that the roles and responsibilities of a political leader like Putin are different from those of a minister or writer like King and Berry. And as the great German sociologist Max Weber already pointed out in 1918, that is certainly true. But this does not mean that leaders do not need moral imagination and have never shown it.

When John Kennedy (JFK) became aware of Soviet missiles in Cuba in 1962, their joint military chiefs urged a full-scale invasion of Cuba, but recalling how various powers had stumbled into World War I through “stupidity, individual idiosyncrasies , misunderstandings and personal complexes of inferiority and greatness”, he resisted invading.

Alarmed by how close the United States and the USSR had come to war in October,” in June 1963, at an American University graduation, JFK challenged the graduates to imagine a new approach to peace and the Soviet Union. Historian Robert Dallek has written that “the speech was one of the great presidential statements of the 20th century.”

In Putin’s own country (the USSR and now Russia), the moral imagination was also exercised by one of Putin’s predecessors, Mikhail Gorbachev, who led the USSR from 1985 until its collapse in 1991. Although most Russians now thinks ill of him, it is partly because they blame him for the collapse, which Putin has called “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century.” But most Estonians, Latvians, Lithuanians, Ukrainians and others who gained their freedom due to the fall of the USSR would not agree with that characterization.

Transforming the vast USSR after what Gorbachev called an “era of stagnation” required an imaginative leap, and the new Soviet leader provided it. His internal policy was summed up in three words, volume (openness, less censorship), perestroika (restructuring), and democracy (democratization). On foreign policy, he called for “new thinking” and indicated that his backbone was that universal human values ​​were more important than class struggle. This policy was instrumental in ending the Cold War and freeing Eastern Europe from Soviet rule, but many of those who thought like Putin were obviously unhappy with the internal or external consequences of Gorbachev’s policies.

Although there is little doubt that Gorbachev made some mistakes, a good deal of Putin’s dissatisfaction stems from his Russian nationalism and narrow-mindedness as a KGB officer. In his revealing book on soviet civilization (1990), exiled Soviet dissident Andre Sinyavsky writes that when KGB officers interrogated dissidents, they often accused them of not being “ours,” that is, not being loyal Soviet citizens. Sinyavsky also cites a source who claims that in “the last twenty-five years” he has not met a deputy of the Supreme Soviet (theoretically the main legislative body of the government) who “has shown genuine and radical social initiative.”

In short, the Soviet system never fostered the moral imagination, especially from KGB officers like Putin. Pity for the Ukrainians. Really a pity, in fact horrible and tragic. But it’s also a shame for the Russians and the rest of the world. Instead of the current horrors going on in the Ukraine, we would have peace, which Kenneth Boulding once said was “plough and sow and reap and do things. . . and get married and raise a family and dance and sing.”

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