Are Russians ‘collectively guilty’? Should they be punished as a national group?

Alleyway in Tbilisi, Georgia, with graffiti saying ‘no Russians allowed’. August 2022

Even before the 2022 Russian invasion of Ukraine, people discussed the culpability of ordinary Russians for military aggression since 2014 (and in Georgia in 2008 too, presumably). Now today with the Estonian PM suggesting EU countries stop issuing tourist visas, the issue gains new visibility.

“when a new russia invasion of ukraine starts i will personally blame each and every russian citizen who is not on the streets right fucking now showing putin there are going to be severe consequences for his plans of a new ukrainian genocide. хватить молчать, гайз.”

Maksym Eristavi in January 2022

I criticized these comments, among other things saying, ‘individual people (who cannot influence politics or take decisions of state) cannot be held to account for state crimes. They can be held to account for their own crimes. Russian soldiers should desert and avoid service.’ To which an anonymous account on Twitter replied: ‘This is simply not true and you are well aware of this, if not, read some history. You are basically absolving everyone of any responsibility to promote change.’

If as a citizen of a country with a dictator you do nothing to change the situation but instead fulfil your part in society that allows the dictator to continue to build his power, are you partially culpable for the actions of the dictator?

Carl Jung’s writing popularized the term ‘collective guilt’ after 1945. Karl Jaspers thought that collective guilt applied to all Germans: not only those who actively participated in Hitler’s project, but also those who passively accepted their place in German society. A contrasting position is taken by Holocaust survivor Viktor E. Frankl. “I personally think that it is totally unjustified to hold one person responsible for the behavior of another person or a collective of persons.” Projection of guilt onto others as groups, according to humanistic thinkers like Frankl, is a barrier to our overcoming of suffering and may lead to ressentiment (suppressed feelings of hatred and revenge) – precisely the psycho-social state many accuse the Russians of. (Ironically, Frankl is central to the Russian psychology curriculum today.)

Jaspers would counter that only an acknowledgement of national guilt would allow victims of an aggressor to accept the moral and political rebirth of that nation. Moreover, the Jaspers argument would be that that no one escapes and that indeed, taking responsibility is part of moral growth. While those directly taking part in war crimes are morally guilty, those who offered no resistance are politically guilty – and share collective guilt.

So, what can we learn from the ‘global gold standard for guilt’: post-war Germany? Historians point out a more convoluted and complicated path – the political manipulation by both Israel and Germany itself of gradations of responsibility. Engert points to the long absence of public ‘confession’ in Germany even after 1951, about how political responsibility was questionably ‘decoupled’ from ordinary people, and how a reparations law took nearly 10 years to come to pass. Surprisingly, a full political ‘confession’ of German guilt, addressed to Israel, came only in 1979, and a plea for forgiveness only in 2000.

Other historians take issue with collective guilt on the grounds that resistance-collaboration is an impossible distinction to draw for the majority of citizens in an aggressor state or those occupied by it. Could Dutch railway workers have obstructed the transportation of Jews they knew were being sent to their deaths? What about actions where reprisals were out of all proportion (as they were in occupied territories in WWII)? Is the decision not to shoot a Nazi as good as collaboration?

Some would see further historical parallels: like in Germany, the active political opposition has already been destroyed and its leaders locked up or forced to leave. Nonetheless, like in Germany, many people of different political beliefs but united in opposition to the regime and war engage in small acts of defiance. Further, it is not enough to excuse the rest, who ‘did not keep their distance from the cheering masses’. While no one is free of scrutiny of the security services and coercion can be brought to bear at will, authoritarian ratcheting since 2018 does not explain the lack of active resistance today. We should not give anyone a free pass, the argument goes. ‘How can one imagine a “theory of small deeds,” say, in the Third Reich? All conscientious Germans left Germany in the 30s’.  And this latter comment from earlier in the war seems to be gaining traction, even among some Russians. It’s supposedly black and white. Active or passive consent is enough to keep a regime going, and a ‘functionalist’ account (Fritzsche) of dictatorship makes everyone complicit.

Alasdair MacIntyre, my favourite living philosopher, attacks individualism and defends collective accountability in terms of ‘debts and obligations’. He goes on to illustrate with the argument white Americans are often confronted by: ‘I didn’t own slaves, how can I be responsible?’ In other words there is a healthy irony towards the liberal assumption that guilt is voluntary and based on individual actions. We can’t escape living in states and bearing some responsibility for the actions of the societies we are members of. However, others find this inconsistent pointing to the weak ascriptions of (morally significant) collective identity today. If we accept that nations are political entities and not real collective identities, then shouldn’t we reject collective guilt? Indeed, isn’t collective guilt the expression of the spirit of European totalitarianism itself: from its scapegoating of Kulaks to Jews. Other identities make claims to ‘cancel out’ the national-historical. Such that even discussing ‘apologizing’ for the Russian invasion strikes socialist unionizers there today as absurd and even dangerously misguided. Their socialist activism in opposing the Russian state ‘trumps’ their identity as Russian citizens. Is this identity splicing self-defeating?

Now, one of the few visible forms of self-defining ‘resistance’ among Russians is to emigrate, something they are being actively discouraged to do.  Hence many people’s criticism of pronouncements like those of the Estonian PM (because tourism visas are the only realistic instrument for leaving permanently). Should collective responsibility be reserved for active collaboration with, and support for war-making regimes? Does signalling like that from the Estonian PM encourage Russians to reflect and resist, or does it make them ‘double-down’ on a victim narrative based on national identity as the ‘bad’ Europeans?

4 thoughts on “Are Russians ‘collectively guilty’? Should they be punished as a national group?

  1. Alex Ge

    A noble sentiment but nonetheless a ludicrous take. Russia “invaded” Ukraine to intercede a Ukrainian offensive that began on February 16 (source: OSCE report). Kiev shelled Donbass for 8 years without any remorse from Ukrainian citizens who referred to the dead civilians as “Pro-Russian” or “Russia-backed”, as if that excused their slaughter. Putin’s “brutal” invasion has so far killed 5,000 civilians, one third the number Kiev did in preceding 8 years. And the cause of these civilian deaths is largely the Ukrainian use of human Shields.


    1. Estragon

      “one third the number Kiev did in preceding 8 years”

      In fact the one-third number (c. 14,000 deaths) refers to all deaths from war in the Donbas, on all sides, both civilian and military. The number of civilian deaths from shelling was about 4000 (source: United Nations).


  2. Pingback: on Russian war enthusiasm, indifference, militaristic sentiment, and more | Postsocialism

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