Right to Shame: Why Educated Russians Criticize Russia

May 10, 2013
'I don't want to support this regime in any way' ... Mikhail Shishkin. Photograph: Yvonne Boehler

Award-winning author Mikhail Shishkin withdrew from Book Expo America 2013, an annual book fair held in New York, in protest of the Russian government’s human rights abuses. Shishkin, who had originally accepted the invitation to appear, wrote an open letter to the fair’s organizers saying that Russia has become “a country where power has been seized by a corrupt, criminal regime [and] where the state is a pyramid of thieves…By taking part in the book fair as part of the official delegation and taking advantage of the opportunities presented to me as a writer, I am simultaneously taking on the obligations of being a representative of a state whose policy I consider ruinous for the country and of an official system I reject.”  Here, Sergei Medvedev explains the dilemma of being an intellectual in contemporary Russia. — Ed.


Introspection regarding one’s own image in the world is characteristic of many countries catching up on development.

In the old days, there was a joke about a Soviet person’s sixth sense – “the sense of deep satisfaction” in reading materials from the latest Central Committee plenary. Those times have passed, and with them, that satisfaction. Nowadays a sense of shame is increasingly claiming its role as the sixth sense for Russians.

In that vein, Mikhail Shishkin has spoken out in refusing to represent Russia at the book fair in New York, according to The Guardian:  “What is happening in my country makes me, as a Russian and a citizen of Russia, ashamed… a country where power has been seized by a corrupt, criminal regime, where the state is a pyramid of thieves, where elections have become farce, where courts serve the authorities, not the law, where there are political prisoners, where state television has become a prostitute, where packs of impostors pass insane laws that are returning everyone to the Middle Ages – such a country cannot be my Russia.”

In our cynical era, some consider Shishkin’s statements to be self-promotion and laying the ground work for a Nobel Prize; others challenge the author over his place of residence (Shishkin has lived primarily in Switzerland for the last 15 years); they imply that he shouldn’t criticize Russia if he has not experienced all those leaden charms of Russian life himself. But besides the pragmatism and the geography of the statement – who may be ashamed, where, and with what purpose – no one has disputed it in essence.

The debates around Shishkin’s statements have exposed an important layer of Russian culture: criticism of Russia as a special genre of Russian thought, with the ensuing accusations of the critic of lack of patriotism and Russophobia.

Shame for Russia has deep historical roots going back at least to our first contacts with the West and definitely to Peter the Great’s modernization. Pyotr Chaadayev was the first to formulate this feeling. After him came all of our Westernizing up to its extreme variant, the Bolsheviks: Lenin and Stalin constantly emphasized their hatred toward backward peasant Rus’.

Russia in that sense is not alone. Shame for your country is characteristic for countries catching up to modernization, for example Poland (Witold Gombrowicz ), Turkey (Orhan Pamuk) or even Germany (from Thomas Mann to Gunter Grass). In that sense, Russia’s double is Finland – another northern country with suspiciousness and an inclination to self-searching: often you have only to hoist a few glasses in a company of Finns to hear the question raised, “Is it true we are bad? What do they say about us?” And then there’s the famous joke about what each nation thinks when looking at an elephant: the American thinks “elephants and money;” the Frenchman thinks “elephants and love”; the German “elephants and an army” and the Finn looks at the elephant and thinks, “And what does the elephant think of me?”

At the same time, however, such introspection is virtually absent in the leaders of world capitalism in the last centuries – the Netherlands, England, and the United States.

In America, systemic critics like Noam Chomsky or Michael Moore can be found only in left-liberal university circles but they do not represent the mainstream. In Russia, it is the opposite: as a result, patriotism is government-organized or mass in nature during national wars, but in peace time, the norm is to have shame for the empire: “unwashed Russia,” “prison of peoples,” “sovok” [homo Sovieticus], “ragged Rashka,” and “this country.”

The discourse of shame is characteristic above all for the educated class, whether in Turkey or in Russia. Moreover, the capacity for a critical view (not only toward your own country but toward yourself) is a social and cultural marker. And here, the problem is likely that beginning in Peter’s time, the elite has felt itself alien in its own motherland because it lives by imported ideas, institutions and sometimes simply imported goods. Shame for Russia is not yet shame for one’s own restlessness in “this country”; both the Russian revolution and Russian literature grew out of this feeling.

Shame is not the Russophobia of the cultural elite, but a special form of Russian introspection (I almost wrote “of melancholia”), a capacity for critical thinking and sober self-assessment.

If Shishkin receives a Nobel Prize someday, he will continue the tradition of Russian men of letters – Bunin, Pasternak Solzhenitsyn and Brodsky (and let us not forget Sholokhov, who described the tragedy of the defeat of the Cossacks) — who looked with pain at their motherland because they loved her. You can be ashamed only for the one you love, about whom you suffer and to whom you belong. In Putin’s Russia, shame for the country is a far more patriotic pride and much more needed in the historical perspective.