On Putin’s Empty Moral Imagination

Walter G. Moss is professor emeritus of history at Eastern Michigan University, editor of HNN, and author of A History of Russia (2 volumes). For a list of his recent books and online publications, click here.

Moral imagination? What is that? Among other things, it is the title of a book and the main essay of this book by David Bromwich. He defines this quality as “the power which compels us to grant the highest possible reality and the greatest conceivable claim to a thought, action or person which is not our own and not close to us. obviously”. It involves compassion and empathy, love and mercy. It is also a quality that is sorely lacking in the Russian leader, Vladimir Putin.

If he possessed it, he could not go on inflicting all the tragedy; murder and maiming; attacks on homes, schools and hospitals; all the grief and sorrow he rained down on the people of Ukraine for over 150 days.

Ian McEwan’s novel black dogs (1993) captures the magnitude of such a war tragedy well when he writes of its main character: “He was struck by war recently [World War II in Europe] not as a historical, geopolitical fact, but as a multiplicity, a quasi-infinity of private pains, as a boundless pain minutely subdivided without diminishment among individuals who covered the continent like dust. . . . For the first time he felt the magnitude of the catastrophe in terms of feeling; all those unique and lonely deaths, all those consecutive pains, unique and lonely too, which had no place in lectures, headlines, history, and which had quietly withdrawn into homes, kitchens, unshared beds and anguished memories.

McEwan reminds us that Putin is not the first leader to cause such suffering, that Hitler and others also caused countless miseries and tragedies. Moral imagination, compassion, empathy: these qualities do not usually top the list of those that characterize national leaders. But that does not excuse Putin, or the Russians who put him in power for more than two decades, including his time as prime minister, when he continued to exercise his authority.

Nor do NATO’s missteps justify – and this should be perfectly clear – its aggression. Look, for example, at the recent defense of his war by Sergey Karaganov, a prominent Russian political scientist interviewed by The New York Times’ Serge Schmeman.

Karaganov justifies Russia’s attacks because he says NATO was making Ukraine “a spearhead aimed at the heart of Russia.” . . . Belligerence against Russia has grown rapidly since the late 2000s. Conflict was seen as increasingly imminent. So, probably, Moscow decided to anticipate and dictate the terms of the conflict. . . . This conflict does not concern Ukraine. Its citizens are used as cannon fodder in a war to preserve the failing supremacy of Western elites.

Karaganov goes on to say, “For Russia, this conflict is about preservation. . . the country itself. He couldn’t afford to lose. That’s why Russia will even win, hopefully. This same political scientist, whom Schmemann has often interviewed since Putin came to power, has (like Putin) a negative view of Western democracies: “Given the vector of its political, economic and moral development, the further we move away from West, the better for us. . . . The problem of the cancellation of Russian culture, of everything Russian in the West, is the Western problem. Similar to the cancellation of its own history, its culture, its Christian moral values.

He sees “the global liberal imperialism imposed by the United States”, which has tried to include Ukraine in its imperialist reach, as collapsing and replaced by a “movement towards a world much more just and free of multipolarity and multiplicity of civilizations and cultures. “One of these centers of this new world will be Russia, “playing its natural role as a civilization of civilizations”.

In Russia itself, Karaganov sees a “bright spot” among the current “belligerent Western policies” towards Russia: they are “cleansing our society, our elites, of remnants of pro-Western elements”. Yet despite this, he thinks Russia “could remain one of the few places that will preserve the treasure of European and Western culture and spiritual values.”

All this is not new. We see similar views among 19th-century Russian Slavophiles and Russophiles regarding the moral decline of the West, its antipathy toward Russia, and the belief that Russia “preserves” the best of Western values. We also see this same type of thinking in some, but certainly not all, of the writings and commentaries of Alexander Solzhenitsyn, whom Putin once met and praised.

In response to Schmemann’s last question about Russia’s goals regarding Ukraine, Karaganov essentially reproduced Russia’s most recent statements: “The minimum is the liberation of the kyiv regime from Donbass, which is in its phase final, then southern and eastern Ukraine. Second, Russia’s goal should probably be that the territory left under kyiv’s control should be neutral and fully demilitarized.

Almost all of the views above mirror those of Putin, who about a year ago also detailed his views on Ukraine in a lengthy essay.

Not all previous Russian justifications are completely nonsense. Some prominent Western Russian experts and former US officials believe it was foolish to encourage Ukraine’s NATO hopes. Some aspects of American mass culture are morally questionable, etc., etc., etc. But none of this justifies the Russian invasion of Ukraine and the countless tragedies it has caused. Certainly not. If Putin had enough moral imagination, the attack would not have happened.

As an example of this quality, Bromwich cites Martin Luther King’s “A Time to Break Silence,” a 1967 anti-Vietnam War speech delivered at New York’s Riverside Church. Here are some of the words the author cites:

What is the [Vietnamese] the peasants think. . . as we test our latest weapons on it. . . . We have destroyed their two most cherished institutions: the family and the village. We have destroyed their land and their crops. We cooperated in the crushing – in the crushing of the nation’s only non-Communist revolutionary political force, the United Buddhist Church. We supported the enemies of the Saigon peasants. We corrupted their wives and children and killed their men.

Now there’s not much left to build on except bitterness. Soon the only solid-solid physical foundations left will be in our military bases and in the concrete of the concentration camps we call “fortified hamlets”. Peasants may well wonder if we plan to build our new Vietnam on such land. Can we blame them for such thoughts? We need to speak for them and raise the issues they cannot raise. They are also our brothers.

A year after King’s speech, Kentucky writer Wendell Berry in “A Statement Against the War in Vietnam” summed up King’s sentiment when he said, “We were driven to our present disgraceful behavior in Vietnam by this lack of imagination, this failure to see a relationship between our ideals and our lives.

But one could argue that the roles and responsibilities of a political leader like Putin are different from those of a minister or writer like King and Berry. And as the great German sociologist Max Weber already noted in 1918, this is certainly true. But that doesn’t mean that leaders don’t need moral imagination and never have.

When in 1962 John Kennedy (JFK) learned of the existence of Soviet missiles in Cuba, his joint military leaders called for a full-scale invasion of Cuba, but remembering how various powers had stumbled in the First World War by “stupidity, individual peculiarities, misunderstandings and personal complexes of inferiority and greatness”, he resisted the invasion.

Alarmed by the proximity of war between the United States and the USSR in October, “in June 1963, at an American college debut, JFK challenged graduates to imagine a new approach to peace and the Soviet Union Historian Robert Dallek wrote that “the speech was one of the great presidential pronouncements of the 20th century”.

In Putin’s own country (the USSR and now Russia), the moral imagination was also exercised by one of Putin’s predecessors, Mikhail Gorbachev, who led the USSR from 1985 until his collapse in 1991. Although he is now frowned upon by most Russians, it is partly because they blame him for the collapse, which Putin called “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century”. But most Estonians, Latvians, Lithuanians, Ukrainians and others who gained their freedom because of the fall of the USSR would not accept this characterization.

Transforming the vast USSR after what Gorbachev called an “era of stagnation” required an imaginative leap, and the new Soviet leader provided it. His domestic policy could be summed up in three words, Glasnost (openness, less censorship), perestroika (restructuring), and demokratizatsiia (democratization). In foreign policy, he called for “new thinking” and said the backbone of it was that universal human values ​​were more important than class struggle. This policy was essential to ending the Cold War and freeing Eastern Europe from Soviet domination, but many who thought like Putin were clearly unhappy with the domestic or foreign consequences of Gorbachev’s policies.

While there’s no doubt that Gorbachev made mistakes, much of Putin’s displeasure stems from his Russian nationalism and narrow-minded background as a KGB officer. In his insightful book on Soviet civilization (1990), exiled Soviet dissident Andre Sinyavsky writes that when KGB officers interrogated dissidents, they often accused them of not being “ours”, that is, of not being loyal Soviet citizens. Sinyavsky also cites a source who claims that in the “past 25 years” she has not known a single deputy to the Supreme Soviet (theoretically the main legislative body of government) who “has shown genuine social initiative and radical.

Simply put, the Soviet system never encouraged moral imagination, especially on the part of KGB officers like Putin. Too bad for the Ukrainians. Truly a pity, in fact horrible and tragic. But also too bad for the Russians and the rest of the world. Instead of the horrors that are happening in Ukraine now, we would have peace, which, according to Kenneth Boulding, was “to plow, to sow, to reap and to make things. . . and get married and raise a family and dance and sing.

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