Collective guilt and responsibility have been major issues for young Russians since the start of Russia’s so-called “special military operation” in Ukraine and the backlash from the international community.
Many began to wonder if they should share responsibility for the misdeeds of the state.
The Moscow Times spoke to nearly three dozen young Russians about how they perceive their national and ethnic identity and how they assign responsibility for Russia’s actions.
“I feel pain for the Russians. I see very clearly that we are infinitely stupid and infinitely unhappy people,” Vasya, 22, told the Moscow Times. He works in one of the Moscow art centers.
He went on to say that the irreversible damage Russia has caused to the Ukrainian people “is a fact that cannot be erased.”
As of March 9, the UN refugee agency, UNHCR, estimated the total number of Ukrainian refugees at between 2.1 and 2.2 million.
Reuters reported that 1,170 civilians in Ukraine have been killed in the besieged eastern city of Mariupol alone since the Russian invasion began.
Vasya, like many others, is ready to share the responsibility, but he does not associate it with his ethnic identity: “I identify with Russia, but I don’t think of it in terms of ethnicity.
In conversations with young people, they made a clear distinction between culture and people on the one hand and state and ethnicity on the other. Few people considered themselves ethnically Russian (russky). Instead, they described themselves as Russian citizens (rossiyanin).
“I associate myself strongly with Russia, but it’s important to separate the state and Russia,” Sonya, 24, a product manager at an IT company, told the Moscow Times. After the start of the “special military operation” in Ukraine, she decided to move to Israel.
“I’m very upset to have to leave. I don’t feel like an Israeli. I’m a Russian citizen and always will be.
Asked about her feelings, Sonya said she felt “not individual guilt”, but sadness that her participation in the protests did not affect anything and that “what is happening in Ukraine is so horrible”.
Lana, 24, who works as an artist and designer, said something similar. “I won’t hide that I’m from Russia when I’m abroad. I did the best I could,” she said.
Of 32 young people interviewed by the Moscow Times, 21 are active in the anti-war movement both in Russia and abroad. For many interviewees, “national guilt” is eclipsed by the individual responsibility they are willing to shoulder.
Fedor is 24 years old and he specializes in Russian literature. He grew up in southern Russia, where cultural and blood ties to Belarus and Ukraine are closer than anywhere else in the country.
When the war started on February 24, Fyodor was ashamed. But he soon started volunteering and “was no longer ashamed, only angry”. Anger against the authorities and supporters of the “military operation” was expressed by many anti-war activists with whom we spoke.
“I don’t have the same collective responsibility as people who paint the letter ‘Z’ on their stuff,” says Mark Pekarev, 24, a professor at a top Russian university.
The letter “Z” is a newly adopted symbol of support for the Russian military after it was seen painted on the side of tanks heading towards Ukraine.
Mark has been actively involved in opposition protests since 2019. He has decided to stay in Russia and continue to voice his anti-military stance.
“I wouldn’t be surprised if no Ukrainians shook my hand for many decades, but at least I know that I didn’t remain silent or actively participate in the war.”
Some names have been changed to protect the speakers.