Zeitgeist. Dostoevsky as a reason for war

Ostap Ukrainets
11 min readMar 18, 2022

I am sure that Western Academia uses the argument of “innocent Russian culture” not due to lack of knowledge or understanding of respective contexts but as a means of psychological protection. The approach is akin to what we see in “good Russians” who support peace but at the same time “are not sure because they say different things on TV.” A discussion regarding Russian culture and its place requires a complex revision of everything it has meant to us before.

They say Russian culture is impossible after the Mariupol. But it was already impossible after the Holodomor, after the Cleansing, after the dissident movement, etc. History knows tons of occasions where humanism demanded acknowledging Russian culture as impossible or at least in dire need of a revision. Human culture had survived such revisions more than once, even before the Holocaust. But now, some dare to say, our experience is not untrivial enough to allow for such a revision.

Mariupol theatre after the bombing. 1200 civilians were hiding inside.

The logic of this revision is simple. We cannot ignore the lies of Russian propaganda anymore. However, despite lacking consistency, Russian propaganda has a “theme tune.” This theme is found both in state-funded patriotic cinema and in “immortal classics”. And this theme is what justifies the war.

The list looks like this: exclusive rights to a thousand-year history based in Kyiv, Russia’s historical mission, its “unique way,” rule of force based on the Old Testament spirituality, an incoherent system of values which at the same time detests Western trends and tries to appropriate them. These views and images are so common in Russian mass culture that it’s hard to drive them off as a sheer coincidence.

Sure, I do not suppose that all contemporary Russian mass culture, from the “Kadetstvo” series to the “Viking” movie, is created as a part of a grand clandestine plan. That would be a conspiracy theory. However, the concurrence of themes, ideas, and images present in otherwise different products point to a particular Zeitgeist. The Spirit of Time is far more powerful than any ideological agenda. The latter can change its story every day, adapting to momentary needs. Zeitgeist, however, defines the framework to discuss specific topics within.

A poster to the movie “Crimea” (2017), which glorifies the annexation. The subtitle says “Don’t break up with your loved ones.”

So Russian movie-makers and showrunners make what they make (alongside direct contracts with their Ministry of Defense) because it conforms. It concurs with the environment it is made for. Add huge grants such conforming movies often receive. Grants under totalitarianism tend to have a side effect: the state that finances them is likely to spend the money on something that agrees with the “official view.” Hence, the creators are encouraged to perpetrate state propaganda as it becomes the best way to succeed.

“American New Wave” was about anti-war sentiment, paranoia and absurd of post-American-Dream society. That was the Zeitgeist, reflected in thousands upon thousands products. And if we take a look at contemporary Russian culture, we shall see many red flags of its Zeitgeist almost wherever we look.

First of all, it’s about the military cult. This military cult is post-soviet, including nostalgic adoration of baggy uniform, just cause of a Russian soldier and Soviet army traditions. The “Soldiers,” “Kadetstvo,” and “Trainees” series (three top-rated sitcoms covering all the spheres of Russian military service), as well as countless military movies, helped shape the aesthetic and tone of this approach. We are looking at the idea of military service as an ultimate life goal, a must for “everyman” in a country that has never waged a defensive war but regularly attacks its neighbors. This is fascism.

Boris Korchevnikov as a poster child for a soldier career in the “Kadetstvo” series (left) and as one of the top media advocates for war and genocide in Ukraine (right).

Secondly, it’s about the way Russia presents itself to others. There is Russian classics and there are Russian movies and TV series. The latter, exploiting western trends, has created an archaic and nostalgic picture appealing specifically to those within a post-Soviet world.

Any attempt to emancipate from this cultural world meets fierce resistance. We faced it more than once as Russia was constantly trying to impose its language and culture, eschewing our own media as “Nazi” jest because they were in Ukrainian. The thing is, Russians often don’t understand Ukrainian literature, cinema, and other media. We were forced to understand theirs. It is a colonizer-colonized dynamics that any contemporary humanities scholar understands. That these dynamics even exist should be enough to revise familiar Russian narratives.

Russia has its image of Ukrainians — it’s a soft-bodied sucker and silly but cunning woman. One could think they have a quota on this character in military series. A clumsy but friendly “Ukrainian” Russian soldier or a trainee per series, but only one (sometimes with a family) is allowed. This is how colonial exoticism works. It won’t be an exaggeration to say that such an image is what most Russians know about Ukraine at all. “My Wonderful Nanny” series, a Russian version of “The Nanny,” features a Ukrainian starlet from Mariupol in Moscow. According to the narrative, she (and thus “the Ukraine” for Russians) feels completely one with the “Russian world.” In the real world, the Russian army is bombing and starving the city, which refuses to surrender.

A stereotypical Ukrainian turned Russian in the Russian military (from “Soldiers” TV series)

It is a trivial example of exoticization and appropriation of other’s space. At the same time, acting against the colonizer’s expectations imposes aggressive alienation. In this case, the colonized is pronounced not “the other” but “the enemy” that interferes with the rightful brotherly union. That’s how you use gaslighting as a tool in foreign affairs.

Maybe some refuse to revise Russian culture thinking “If I ignore it, maybe it will go away.” But at least as likely is the explanation proposed by Belarusian poet and translator Anton Bryl: “the way part of the West is nerding over “Great Russian literature” should be finally recognized as one of the last examples of Victorian orientalism.” I believe it is a precise understanding of this problem. The West understands only bits and pieces about Russian contexts, and even these bits and pieces are often a result of a post-war Soviet influence in European Slavic studies.

Russian media almost have a quota on silly Ukrainians, but we were lucky here. It was a mere mockery, which we were nevertheless allowed. More than a hundred stateless ethnic groups incorporated into Russian Federation have no such luxury. Russian mass culture, which propagates a military cult, is deeply racist. Although many occupiers that attacked Ukraine belong to non-Slavic ethnic groups, Russian military media lack Turks, Sino-Tibetans, or indigenous peoples of Northern Siberia.

That is the implicit racism that Slavoj Zizek noted, and it is somewhat responsible for how Western countries viewed Russia over these years. Europe helps Ukraine partly because it is “their own,” but there’s more to it. Russia kept its distance from Western culture on purpose. She didn’t try to avoid exoticization — she embraced it as a smokescreen for aggravating internal issues. The problem is that hundreds of different peoples are caught within these exoticized constraints. And we tend to neglect their lack of voice as it fits the standard “Russian” narrative.

Sure, Russian culture, per se, is not guilty of the current war, and it would be weird to blame Tolstoy or Saltykow-Shchedrin for bombing Kharkiv. But we must understand that this culture has a prominent place in Russian ideological matrix. No matter “what did the author wanted to convey,” this classical Russian culture nowadays is deeply integrated into a fascist way of thinking. So before we even start talking of culture being “beyond politics,” before declaring that our enemy is “Putin, not Pushkin,” we must realize how Pushkin works within the ideology that approves of killing civilians. One would think such is the intellectual responsibility of every person with proper education and adherence to any democratic ideals and humanism.

I’ll limit myself to just two media pieces. To my mind, they fully represent that “Russian way,” which is ironically (I hope so) called a “mysterious Russian soul”: “Crime and Punishment” by Dostoevsky and the “Viking,” financed by Cinema Foundation of Russia.

Dostoyevsky is one of the “faces” of Russian literature abroad. We know the general interpretation from our school classes, and this broad view was copied and pasted in every Russian literature department, and Western interpretations, more often than not, are based on Russian studies.

The simplified interpretation of “Crime and Punishment” goes like this: describing the immense depth of human fall, the author still finds a place for some deep psychologism, exploring humanity where we are used to noticing none. This interpretation is a standard school view, and the same understanding, if somewhat more complex, prevails in universities. No wonder, as every curriculum in the USSR was to follow the general narrative. Yes, there is psychologism. Yes, there is proto-existentialism. But they work within a strict moral framework: people still show humanity even in their worst. Such is a set hierarchy of values.

This explanation has always seemed insincere, despite being intuitive. The moral is there, but the surrounding “rock bottom” looked more grotesque. But it makes much better sense if you try reading Dostoevsky as a literal grotesque, hyperbolic mockery of all the social vice. The “Idiot” became the key to understanding “Crime and Punishment.” It is a story of a man who believes in something and has a nurtured set of his own values. This man enters the “common” Russian society, and it crushes him because the society cannot help it. Personal aspirations don’t matter because Russia as a whole is destructive by its nature. Dostoevsky’s diaries support this perspective: “The main, root problem of Russian people is their need to suffer, eternally and unwaveringly, always and everywhere.” If we accept this view, the hierarchy changes: yes, these are regular people, and it’s easy for us to recognize them as such. But the hellish circumstances they are in are created and perpetuated by their actions and choices. Moreover, there is no choice to offer us a way out. Dostoevsky offers us bewilderment from normality. It is not a Hegelian philosophy of Law, where recognizing humanity behind the crime is crucial. On the contrary, every crime is technically justified as long as we remember that a criminal is also a human. Somehow Russian discourse around their war effort in Ukraine provides more than enough support for this interpretation.

A shot from the movie “Down House” (2001). An interpretation of “The Idiot” that depicts Myshkin as a weird one, debilitated by Western trends.

Now let’s take a look at the “Viking” movie. Volodymyr the Great as a historical figure is a “forefather” of both Russia and Ukraine. The histories of both countries center around Kyiv. Sure, we’re not talking about some concrete bloodline during the last millennium. The medieval state was multi-ethnic, with different influences in different regions. But such a nuanced view doesn’t matter in the founding mythos.

The myth of Volodymyr matters because it is a rebirth myth. A cruel pagan who achieves power by crime is later blessed by God’s Grace and decides to baptize everyone else with fire and sword. It is a typical image of a medieval “barbaric baptizer,” not that different from the image of Clovis I. However, Germany and France do not deny each other’s existence based on Merovingian history. So this issue with Volodymyr is at least more problematic.

The story of Volodymyr in medieval sources is a vita, a typical genre in Eastern Orthodoxy. A male vita follows either the life of Jesus (divine vocation since childhood) or the life of Paul (adult vocation/sinner reborn). Volodymyr, like most German kings, belongs to the latter. Here it is crucial to remember that we are dealing with religious literature. In Russia, where orthodoxy and religious education are state-forced, it is reasonable to treat vitae as moral lessons.

How this moral translates into the mass culture? Volodymyr is depicted as a barbarian wildling. He murders innocents, rapes women, and commits other atrocities. Hardly an icon for a loved ruler. But he (in the movie) becomes one as soon as God touches him. This choice of Orthodoxy is a pivotal moment for Russian ideology, an illustration of an eternal schism between the West and “Russian World.” However, it should be noted that this Grace is no personal achievement of a hero. He suffers no life-changing transformation except for this Grace ex Machina. All this happens just because Volodymyr choses the right God. This grace brings no redemption; on the contrary, it legitimizes all the previous crimes as achievements.

Epiphany moment is the “Viking”.

This story is not read as a spiritual transformation from ugly to good. Good and ugly become two morally equal parts of Volodymyr’s life. This cinematic orthodox epiphany is something we’ve already heard from Putin: “We, as martyrs, are going to heaven, while others will simply perish.” From a Russian orthodox standpoint, the main achievement is the Grace itself, which guarantees absolution despite any actions. I’m not sure if Europe has seen such policies since Albigensian Crusade.

And now we’re back to problems with Dostoevsky. He was familiar with vitae as a genre and composed his “Crime and Punishment” according to its typical plotline. Whereas the “Viking” shows us a specific moral, adapted for a ruler Putin openly wishes to associate with, Dostoevsky provides the same adaptation for a classic “small man” of Russian literature.

This small man fulfills himself only through violence as he doesn’t know better. Similarly, he can be redeemed only through God’s interference, as if this world was inherently too evil for personal good will even to exist. This interference does not change things for the better, does not cause any moral rebirth, and does not make one question himself and evaluate personal responsibility. At no point of this external punishment can we talk of an internal atonement. The world around the hero is still damned; that is the default condition. Blithe, however, grants acceptance of this state of affairs.

A collage by Andriy Hryshchuk. Dostoevsky peering into Ukrainian kindergarten through a shell-hole.

The state of blithe is essential both in Russian culture and ideology. In religious terms, it’s about one’s ability to see God’s grace even in the most profound depth of inhumane and immoral. From this perspective, a madman is a saint, with God’s gift to see goodness even where none exists. This is the “mysterious Russian soul” of Dostoevsky’s humanism. Darkness, desperation, obscurantism, and violence don’t even matter if we put on the shades of Grace. This Grace never changes the world for the better and never solves any pivotal problems; it makes us accept it all as part of a plan.

Once again, it doesn’t mean we should cancel Dostoevsky or Russian culture itself into oblivion. But the writing is on the wall: Russian culture works as another source of soft power and propaganda right now. In many cases, it justifies fascist policies and aggressive warmongering. Cultural canon can exist within totalitarianism only as a servant of the regime. We’ve already revised Wagner, Hamsun, and other names associated with Nazism not that long ago. That’s not to mention thousands of authors, reinterpreted under post-colonial optics.

Russian part in WWII prevented this revision in the 20 century, shaping Slavic studies in Europe. But without a proper post-colonial revision of Russian culture, we can’t even begin to hear hundreds of colonized and half-assimilated voices springing through this war-imposed “brotherhood.” Without this revision, we can’t seriously say that we understand Russian culture to any degree. No author is personally responsible for this. But such is an intellectual responsibility of any scholar or critic.



Ostap Ukrainets

Ukrainian writer and translator. Author of historical fiction novels, exploring imperialism in Ukraine’s past. Popular humanities communicator.