Support The Bulwark and subscribe today.
  Join Now

The Torn Loyalties of Russian Liberals

Plus: Three criteria for telling whether someone is a true supporter of Ukraine’s cause.
December 9, 2022
The Torn Loyalties of Russian Liberals
This aerial picture taken on December 7, 2022 shows experts and employees of the prosecutor's office examining collected remnants of shells and missiles used by the Russian army to attack the second largest Ukrainian city of Kharkiv, amid the Russian invasion of Ukraine. (Photo by Aleksey FILIPPOV / AFP) (Photo by ALEKSEY FILIPPOV/AFP via Getty Images)

In the past week, a media controversy tangentially related to Russia’s war in Ukraine has pitted people who broadly belong to the same side of the issue—that is, the pro-Ukraine, anti-Putin’s-invasion side—against each other in often-bitter debates. The dispute is over a Russian TV station in exile and the Latvian government’s decision to take away its broadcasting license because of comments deemed too sympathetic to Russian soldiers. But it also raises broader and often uncomfortable questions about Russia and the free world. Are Ukraine and its allies at war with the Putin regime or with Russia itself? Should Russia’s liberal opposition be treated as friend, foe, or ambivalent sometime ally? Should our vision for the postwar future include a free, modernized, democratic (and strong) Russia or a weakened and defanged Russia, perhaps reduced to a rump state shorn of its autonomous republics populated by ethnic minorities?

The proximate cause for this debate is Dozhd (or “TV-Rain”), it was Russia’s last independent TV news channel until it was banned in Russia in March, shortly after the start of the war. It eventually found a new home in Latvia—but that has now ended. On Tuesday, Latvia’s National Electronic Media Council (NEPLP), the country’s media regulator, revoked Dozhd’s broadcasting license on the grounds that it constituted a threat to “national security and public order.” The channel has been ordered to stop broadcasting on December 8; while its programming will continue on YouTube, which accounts for the majority of its audience, the decision imperils its future on TV.

The ban came after an on-air comment by one of Dozhd’s anchors, Alexei Korostelyov, caused a firestorm on pro-Ukraine Twitter. During a live broadcast on December 1, Korostelyov asked viewers to send information to the channel’s tip line about the predicament of mobilized Russian soldiers who are often dumped on the frontlines with hardly any training, no medical care, inadequate food, and shoddy basic equipment. Then he uttered the fateful words: “We hope that we have been able to help many servicemen, among other things with equipment and just with basic comforts on the frontlines.”

The effect was explosive. Many took Korostelyov’s words literally, to mean that Dozhd was raising funds and buying supplies for Russian soldiers in Ukraine—a charge that editor-in-chief Tikhon Dzyadko immediately denied, and that there isn’t a shred of evidence to support. It seems fairly clear that Korostelyov (who reportedly made the incriminating comment at the end of a 90-minute broadcast when he was asked to fill five more minutes of airtime and had to improvise) meant something very different: that reporting by Dozhd, which has some 13 million viewers in Russia, had encouraged soldiers’ families to send them such essentials as blankets and warm socks and perhaps prodded bureaucrats, politicians, and military commanders to help out.

Amid the outcry, Korostelyov was fired; two other staffers, including the producer who had been in charge of the program, resigned in solidarity. This move did not save the channel, which had already been fined and warned twice by the media council since it began broadcasting from Latvia in June: once for displaying a map of Russia that included annexed Crimea, another time for referring to the Russian army as “our army.” On the third strike, it lost its license after a half-hour hearing in which Dozhd representatives could not participate because they were not provided with a Latvian interpreter. Their previous conferences with the media council had been conducted in Russian, but such courtesy was no longer granted.

To Dozhd’s defenders, such as expatriate Russian journalists Viktor Shenderovich and Yulia Latynina, the move to shut down the channel’s TV broadcasts is not only a disgraceful attack on freedom of speech but a gift to the Putin regime in more than one way: Not only does it kill or at least drastically curb a dissident media outlet that has a large and growing online audience in Russia and is a principal source of independent news, it also boosts the Kremlin’s claims that Western rhetoric about freedom is self-serving and hypocritical. (Indeed, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov responded to the Dozhd shutdown by musing that “some people always think that there’s freedom somewhere else and no freedom at home” and that Dozhd’s fate evidenced “the error of such illusions,” while the pro-government newspaper Vzglyad gloated that “nobody likes traitors.”)

The channel’s detractors in Ukraine and other former Soviet republics, such as former Estonian President Toomas Hendrik Ilves, take a very different view: they believe Dozhd and its supporters exemplify an arrogant, self-centered imperial mentality prevalent even among Russian liberals who are shocked and offended when former colonies refuse to do their bidding. This harsh view is shared by some Russian dissidents: onetime leading TV journalist Yevgeny Kiselyov and former Russian Journalists’ Union president Igor Yakovenko have accused Dozhd of being tone deaf and failing to comprehend the new reality in which Russia is a de facto terrorist state and its soldiers, even unwilling ones, are widely seen as war criminals.

Does Dozhd believe in helping the Russian Army in its war against Ukraine? As someone who has often watched Dozhd programming on YouTube since the February 24 invasion, I would say that the answer is clearly no. One person who agrees is Mykhailo Podolyak, a top adviser to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and a regular Dozhd guest, who has said that Dozhd’s position is “clearly anti-war and pro-Ukraine.” (The same may not be true of Korostelyov: his apparent past tweets—I say “apparent” because his account is now protected and the only evidence comes from screenshots—suggest that his anti-war stance is of the “all killing is bad” variety that makes little distinction between invaders and those fighting back.)

The Dozhd fiasco raises several tangled issues. One is whether, and when, it is appropriate to feel sympathy for soldiers conscripted to fight in a criminal war.

My Soviet family lore includes stories of my maternal grandmother, who survived tremendous hardships during World War II (including the loss of her father, who died from malnutrition), scandalizing neighbors not long after the war’s end by being friendly to German prisoners of war who were employed in building roads and other heavy labor near my family’s summer cottage. To the neighbors, the captive Germans were people who had come to their country to kill and enslave them; to my grandmother, they were just kids who had no choice but to go where Hitler sent them. It has always seemed self-evident to me that my grandmother was in the right; but is also worth noting that the German soldiers to whom she showed sympathy were POWs from a defeated army, not active fighters in an army still waging an unjust and brutal war. To give water to a POW employed in road construction is to show humanity; to help an invader in a way that makes it easier for him to kill is to abet a war of aggression.

In that sense, I broadly agree with Yakovenko when he says that, while one can certainly feel compassion for hungry and cold Russian mobiks (mobilized soldiers) in Ukraine, the only ethical way to help them is (1) to persuade people who get conscription notices to evade the draft and help them in doing so, and (2) if they do get sent to Ukraine, to encourage and help them to surrender to the Ukrainian Armed Forces as quickly as possible. But there are other issues that complicate the question of how Dozhd should talk about the Russian Army. Reaching persuadable Russians who were previously apolitical or passively “patriotic” but could be turned against the war and the Putin regime as Russia’s situation worsens is a delicate task. How do you tell your viewers that the war their country is waging is their responsibility too without having that message come across as, “You’re all monsters and your sons need to die”? Dozhd defenders argue that the channel’s sympathy for conscripts—which coexists with no-punches-pulled coverage of Russian atrocities and unambiguous condemnation of Russian tactics such as the targeting of civilian infrastructure—is a key part of connecting with the audience.

A more fundamental issue is how Ukrainians—and more generally the free world—should see Russia and Russians, including those who are anti-authoritarian and anti-Putin. The Dozhd controversy is only the latest cycle in polemics on the “Russia question,” which have included debates on whether Russian culture should be seen as profoundly infected with imperialism and other toxic attitudes and whether it was appropriate for Ukrainian human rights activists to share the Nobel Peace Prize with Russian and Belarusian ones. These polemics also manifest themselves in biting sarcasm about “good Russians” who think their hands are clean just because they don’t cheer for the war. But they also manifest themselves in bitter skepticism about the possibility, ever, of a “good Russia.”

In the early months of the war, Zelensky adviser Oleksiy Arestovych raised some eyebrows when he suggested that a democratic Russia led by currently imprisoned dissident Alexei Navalny, with a multiparty system, an effective government, a thriving economy, and good relations with the West was ultimately worse for Ukraine than the Putin regime, because it would be a stronger country and would pose a greater danger of political and cultural expansionism to Ukraine. Arestovych, who does not shy away from difficult conversations, later clarified his views in an interview with Navalny associate Lubov Sobol, explaining that, in his view, the interests of Russia and Ukraine are in many ways fundamentally at odds because of “geopolitical conflicts,” that only a truly visionary leaders could transcend geopolitical self-interest and he was wary of Navalny’s ability to be such a leader. (Navalny, it should be noted, had antagonized many Ukrainians by voicing support for Russian control of Crimea even while he condemned Putin’s illegal annexation of the peninsula.)

But the relationship between Ukraine’s defenders and Russian liberals is complicated and nuanced. Arestovych is a regular guest on the YouTube shows of Russian dissidents such as Latynina and Mark Feygin, sometimes making self-deprecating quips about his penchant for talking to “good Russians.” And his position seems to have evolved at least to the extent that, in an interview with Latynina on Wednesday, he described the relationship between Ukraine and Russian liberals as a strained and wary alliance over a common goal: the removal of the Putin regime. He also acknowledged that Russia and Ukraine will eventually have to coexist as neighbors—while noting that today, on a purely emotional level, many Ukrainians would vastly prefer not to.

Many Dozhd-friendly Russian liberals can sympathize, especially in the aftermath of horrific Russian war crimes in occupied territories. In his discussion of Dozhd, Shenderovich noted that one can fully understand the anger and pain of people whose countries have suffered from Russian imperialism for generations and who would like nothing more than to see all of Russia “hermetically sealed off under a rusty bowl.” But even aside from the fact that Russian liberals—including those who, Shenderovich stressed, “fully support Ukraine’s victory”—are appalled by such a scenario, the fact is that it’s simply not plausible. In the end, said Shenderovich, “We’ll have to talk to each other no matter what.”

For now, Dozhd’s fate remains uncertain; the channel is appealing the loss of its license, and it’s unclear how the TV ban will affect its existence on YouTube. Disturbingly, some of its critics have called for its staffers’ Latvian visas to be revoked, which could mean deportation to Russia and into the lion’s den. Оn the other hand, the Latvian Journalists’ Association issued a statement in defense of the beleaguered channel, arguing that revoking the broadcasting license was disproportionate to its transgressions.

As for the larger debate, the polemics and the acrimony are unlikely to die down. Who deserves sympathy in this debate—beyond the plain fact that Ukrainians are innocent victims of savage aggression—is a vastly complicated question. Should Russians themselves, as poet, novelist and pundit Dmitry Bykov has suggested, be seen as residents of a “conquered country” seized by a gang of plutocratic terrorists, or are all of its citizens, including those who do not support the war, complicit in the crimes of their government? Does the answer lie somewhere between those two extremes? Can Russia liberalize, and can a liberal Russia be trusted by its neighbors? (Arestovych’s talk of geopolitical rivalry seems to ignore the modern experience of liberal capitalist democracy in which onetime rivals can peacefully manage their conflicts and diverging interests.) Will even a liberalized and modernized Russia remain under suspicion for the foreseeable future as a country always a few steps away from backsliding into imperialism and state terrorism?

All these are valid if thorny questions. The Russian “imperial mentality” is real, and it is very true that many Russian liberals make little effort to see things from the perspective of former captive nations that endured brutal oppression under the Soviet and Russian yoke. To some extent, this may well be true of Dozhd, whose past lapses also included talk of controversial memorials to World War II-era Soviet soldiers in the Baltics as monuments to “liberators” (to the Baltic nations, they are occupiers). But it is also true that many critics of “the good Russians” seem to be constantly waiting to pounce on any stray remark which supposedly proves—often out of context or with a distorted meaning—that every Russian liberal harbors an inner imperialist.

Korostelyov’s ill-considered comment certainly became such an occasion; Ukraine’s culture minister cited it as evidence that “good Russians” and “bad Russians” are the same. Last month’s Exhibit A in the same indictment was a tweet by “Team Navalny” commenting on the “monstrous video” in which “Ukrainian soldiers shot dead twelve Russian soldiers who had surrendered.” (The video cuts off when a soldier in the Russian group opens fire, and it’s unclear whether the rest were executed or killed in the resulting crossfire.) One can argue, as Yevgeny Kiselyov has done, that journalists who are Russian citizens should refrain from opining on such a situation; one can say that the “Team Navalny” social media account was guilty of a rush to judgment in a tweet that was later deleted, even if a subsequent tweet in the same thread noted that “war always means blood, horror and death, and we cannot forget who unleashed this war.” But no one who closely follows either Dozhd or the Navalny team’s YouTube channel, Popular Politics, can doubt that they are staunchly pro-Ukraine and anti-Kremlin in their overall coverage.

The “it’s not Putin, it’s Russia” rhetoric—some of it coming from Russian exiles who have conspicuously repudiated their former homeland—can easily enough cross over into something more disturbing: a gleeful trashing of Russia and all things Russian as a toxic cesspit in which nothing good exists or can exist. (Some exponents of this view, such as former Russian TV journalist Aleksandr Nevzorov, are recovered Russian nationalists.) Past a certain point, it can also cross into bigotry. As Bykov recently suggested, making ethnic identity paramount is always wrong—whether it’s to portray Russians as superior carriers of spirituality and holiness or as innately morally corrupt carriers of an imperial mind virus.

Collective responsibility is a painfully complex issue, and it easily gets mired in double standards and contradictions. People who insist that Russians must take responsibility for the crimes of the Putin regime also assail Dozhd for having used the phrase “our army”—which is key to responsibility-taking. Critics of Russia who argue that the optimal scenario would be the Russian Federation’s dissolution, with full sovereignty for republics populated by ethnic minorities such as Chechnya, Buryatia, or Dagestan, do not seem to extend the principle of collective guilt to the numerous soldiers from those republics who are currently fighting in the Russian Army in Ukraine. People who will not forgive Navalny’s past support for a Russian Crimea are looking past the fact that Ivars Abolinš, the Latvian official who revoked Dozhd’s license, posted a series of tweets in 2013 praising Putin as a leader who “protects Russia from chaos” and opposing Ukraine’s integration into the EU. Abolinš told the Latvian website TVNET that he has changed his views and regrets his old comments.

To paint either Dozhd or Russian liberal exiles as the victims in today’s situation, when Ukrainians are dying in Russia’s war, surviving the horrors of occupation, or dealing with power and water disruptions caused by Russia’s deliberate attacks on the country’s civilian infrastructure, would be unpardonably tone deaf. There is a horrifying and senseless war for which the Russian regime, with at least passive support from a large share of the population, bears responsibility. Wariness toward Russia, and even Russian dissidents whose loyalties may be in question, is fully justified.

But the question of where we go from here, and what we want to see in a postwar and hopefully post-Putin Russia, remains relevant—even if, right now and for the foreseeable future, Ukraine and Ukrainians must clearly have top priority.

The war has already changed and radicalized the Russian liberal opposition, making the “imperial mindset” so often deplored by citizens of former Soviet republics far more unacceptable than before. The shift includes attitudes toward Crimea: opposition figures such as former oil tycoon and political prisoner Mikhail Khodorkovsky, who had long opposed Crimea’s return to Ukraine, now unequivocally state that “Crimea and Donbass are part of Ukraine.” Navalny’s spokesman Leonid Volkov has expressed the same view.

Maria Popova, a political scientist at McGill University who has written extensively about the post-Soviet states and about Ukraine’s revolution in particular, has proposed a three-prong test for Russians who can be considered genuine allies to Ukraine:

This seems like a good place to start, leaving aside emotionally charged demands for personal contrition, disavowals of sympathy for Russian conscripts, or denunciations of Russian culture.

If regime change comes to Russia, a reluctance to trust liberal reforms in a country that started the first foreign war on the European continent since World War II will be entirely rational: As Arestovych has said, a liberal Russian state can quickly devolve into an authoritarian and imperial one. But that doesn’t mean the West should give up on normalization in Russia.

In the meantime, some principles should always be defended, even in the midst of war. In particular: Demonizing or dehumanizing any group is wrong, even if that group is associated with an aggressor state. And ruthlessly punishing even minor, inadvertent, or misunderstood verbal transgressions is bad, even if in defense of a noble cause.

Cathy Young

Cathy Young is a writer at The Bulwark, a columnist for Newsday, and a contributing editor to Reason. Twitter: @CathyYoung63.