Living in the culture of individualism makes the very notion of collective responsibility sound odd, if not primitive. The moral dilemma confronting democratic countries remains unresolved and is only becoming increasingly complex as Russia persists in its genocidal war against Ukraine. The call for complete isolation of Russia faces opposition, deeming such measures discriminatory against ordinary citizens – even if it is these very citizens who empower the politicians. Discussions about the position of Russians, even those abroad, often take a peculiar turn, portraying them as unwitting victims trapped in the bloody business of Putin. Collective responsibility, it is said, finds no place in the civilised world.
Interestingly, it is especially in the matters of collective responsibility that we strongly uphold individualism. Collective pride, on the other hand, is a celebratory emotion that is more often than not encouraged. That is to say, we like to take credit for the good things done by other people from our community, but we hate to be associated with them if they did something we don't approve of. I have a pack of British Mr. Porky scratchings beside me on the desk as I write, and it boldly proclaims itself as 'the nation’s favourite'. While I doubt that every Briton participated in a survey to determine their preferred pork scratchings, it illustrates how, even in the age of individualism, we use the concept of nation to positively highlight our belonging to a broader community.
According to most definitions, national identity reflects how an individual chooses to classify themselves, while a nation is the result of national aspirations of a group of people who share a collective identity. If we agree that responsibility refers to the ability to accept the consequences of a choice, then we should also agree that choosing to classify oneself as a bearer of a certain national identity comes with the consequences of what has been done on behalf of that nation. If one takes pride in the achievements of the nation they say they belong to, then they should be willing to take the responsibility for its crimes as well.
While collective responsibility is a debatable topic to explore, collective trauma is an undeniable reality regardless of one’s political views and moral judgements. Any debate surrounding the immense psychological implications of Russia's invasion is rooted in the challenge of addressing millions of people whose trauma has common origins but various forms and levels of brutality. The war has brought for Ukrainians heavy psychological consequences that affect the entire population – not only those who directly experienced loss, rape, torture etc, but every Ukrainian, and will haunt their children for centuries to come. Research has shown that trauma can imprint a chemical mark on a person’s genes, which can be transmitted to future generations.
It is estimated that at least 50% of Ukrainians are at risk of developing mental disorders because of the war and will need psychological or psychiatric treatment. Children who have been forced to flee face an additional challenge that significantly impacts their recovery: some of them must interact with Russian children in their new schools abroad. It is deeply unsettling for Ukrainian children and their parents to seek alternative schools in order to reduce the likelihood of interactions with Russians and create emotionally and, at times, physically safer environment.
Despite the atrocities committed by Russian soldiers and the unprecedented losses of Russian army, all of which is deployed in Ukraine, there is no real anti-war movement neither in Russia nor among Russian diaspora abroad. On the contrary, polling data continues to demonstrate an overwhelming majority of Putin’s supporters, while so-called Russian liberals display imperialistic views occasionally wrapped in a few neutral or anti-war statements. One of the most known opponents of Putin, Ksenia Sobchak, says that she recognises Russia’s mistakes, but she will never wish her country to be defeated or decolonised. Pro Russian demonstrations around the world are now combined with anti-Jewish campaigns under Russian flags and Putin’s portraits. Still, the notion of collective responsibility is deemed unacceptable in Western communities, even in the face of massive collective trauma.
In 2018, The Washington Post published an article titled "The Putin Generation: Young Russians are Vladimir Putin's Biggest Fans." The piece included interviews with young Russians elucidating their support for Putin. A 20-year-old journalism student expressed, "What the Russian soul demands is that there be one strong politician in the country who resembles a czar." It is astonishing that, despite being the most globally connected generation in Russian history, with unprecedented access to information, the youth are aiding Putin in consolidating his authoritarian regime. Yet, Western universities continue to welcome Russian students, offering them support, grants and scholarships: Queen Mary University of London offers financial aid to 'anyone affected by the invasion of Ukraine, including Russian and Belorussian students.’ Despite the ongoing pro-Putin demonstrations in Berlin, Freie Universitat encourages Russian students to apply saying that they are ‘well aware that the current situation is very difficult for [Russians].' Such attitude conveys a dangerous message – that one can endorse a genocidal war and applaud mass murder, yet when faced with discomforting repercussions, play the victim and exploit the sympathy of the civilised world.
Much has been said about collective responsibility since the end of WWII. Philosophers, psychologists, and religious leaders have actively studied the question of whether all Germans should carry the guilt for the Nazi crimes. Shortly after the end of the war an outstanding German philosopher Karl Jaspers delivered lectures to German students known as "The Question of German Guilt", where he explored the four concepts of guilt: criminal, political, moral and existential. While criminal guilt is confined to those directly involved in committing a crime, and moral or existential guilt cannot be compelled upon, political guilt is a burden that spares no one. Jaspers argues that the task of people is 'to keep their leaders on check', for 'the acts of states are also the acts of persons. Men are individually responsible and liable for them'. If most Germans could come to terms with their responsibility despite themselves enduring immense horrors under their Fuehrer, it shouldn't be an insurmountable challenge for any other nation to confront reality and acknowledge their role by accepting responsibility for their actions or the lack thereof.
Embracing responsibility is an essential prerequisite for both personal and collective growth. This principle holds true not only at an individual level but extends to nations as well. None of the conflicts initiated by Russia were due to differences in interests, where military involvement appeared as the last resort. They were meticulously planned and executed with a blend of criminal cunning and the audacious determination of a destructive will. This is true for Moldova in 1992, Chechnya in 1994, Georgia in 2008, the annexation of Crimea in 2014, and the full-scale invasion of Ukraine in 2022 – all transpiring within the last thirty years. Since Ivan III in 1478, there is hardly a people neighboring with Russia who haven't suffered a genocide – all done not by a few politicians, but by the ordinary Russians who served the regime and whom global community failed to hold accountable. Throughout these tragic episodes, they have never taken responsibility for their actions – thus, hindered not only political progress but also spiritual development. And now, by helping them avoid their responsibility we, too, make their progress impossible.
By absolving ordinary Russians of their responsibility, we also rob them of the freedom that comes with it. We say: there is absolutely nothing that you can do, could have done or will be able to do to rise from your own misery. By portraying them as helpless victims of Putin's regime, we deny their agency over their country and their lives. We classify them as perpetual losers, merely slaves, destined to fulfill the perverted desires of their master. Implicit in this stance is a refusal to see them as equals, viewing them as impotent and, therefore, spare them the burden of responsibility. Initially, it may seem just humane – attempting to reduce the sufferings of our fellow humans ensnared in the grip of dictatorship.
However, showing pity to those trapped in authoritarian rule is akin to offering drugs to a drug addict – it provides a momentary relief that, over time, leads to further harm and destruction.
If we want to help, it is better to seek long-term solutions and not succumb to short-term alleviations. If we are to deal with collective trauma, we should also address collective responsibility. Ordinary Russians, just like anyone else, must confront their political responsibility, and it is equally vital for the global community to muster the courage to respond accordingly.