TALK WITH ALEXEY SHKOLNIK – WAR IN UKRAINE
ARTIST IN RESIDENCE @ WOW AMSTERDAM
The conversation between Alexey Shkolnik and Roman Ermolaev took place on the 17th of March 2022.
Things have changed a lot since then and changing every day, if not an hour. Despite that, we think that the idea behind this text and the ideas running through it keeps its relevance and can be counted as a document which deserves to be published.
Alexey and Roman are living in WOW Amsterdam/Lieven – their conversation translating their personal thought on ongoing situation.
R: Now it’s what — the 21rd day of war. And the mood is going down, I think.
A: Yeah, I mean, it’s going in a very different direction I would say. And it is also changing a lot, because the first day was shocking in a way, we couldn’t imagine this could ever happen.In Russia things were pretty tense all the time. But it was never something open like a war. And now the government in Russia just decided to show how strong they are. At the same time people in Russia enjoy seeing how their country is gaining power. And for me what is the most dramatic now in this situation, the most complicated, is how the society in Russia, how “simple” people deal with that war and how they react. Which is, well… a lot of support, apparently. For me it was actually very surprising, because even though I had the feeling a lot of people support Putin, I thought it was in a way that people don’t really think deeply, they just used to take a look at the surface. And that was like…ok, people in Russia don’t have this critical engagement, because it somehow always goes to this point that, you know, «I don’t know about politics, I don’t really care». And for me it was kind of innocent before. And now I see that this is actually a big problem because this lack of political engagement leads to what happens now. And by engagement I don’t even mean participation in political protests, but just thinking for themselves, instead of taking for granted what other people say. Because what I’m seeing now is that old people like my grandma tend to support Putin more, because they grew up in the Soviet Union, during this huge oppression…
R: So they don’t have any training in political thinking…
A: Yeah, they don’t have critical,political thinking because historically, in the Soviet Union, it wasn’t possible to think otherwise. And then in the 90s again — there was some political freedom but overall… And again, you know, for example, I was speaking with my friend and I kind of claimed that Russia has no position, has no opinion, because it has always been suppressed. But he said, no, that is not true, since the 90s we have had different parties, and it’s not like there is no one else. But although they are there, they are not doing much, they are just creating this illusion of democracy…
R: Basically they are faking it…
A: Yeah, but what they are saying, what they are doing, is that they are not going openly against the government. There are different parties, and they have certain critiques, but that is a big difference from the figure and position from, let’s say.. Alexei Navalny… He is in prison because he was criticising the regime openly.
R: These parties simply just take the position in the political elite in order to fill it, so other democratic forces don’t have a chance to gain any kind of real power.
M: For me the assassination of Boris Nemtsov is now seem actually way more impactful than Navalny’s detention, but back then when that happened I wasn’t paying much attention to it because I was a teenager, or little older than that.
R: It happened 6 years ago so you were 24 years old, the same as I am. I do agree with you on this point. Only recently I started watching all these videos with Nemtsov on Youtube, and it shocked me, how powerful, eloquent, and smart this guy was. He could probably be a good leader of opposition nowadays.
A: For me the biggest problem in actually thinking about opposition is that there is no one who would offer some alternative. They are not offering the alternative, they are just openly criticising the government. Just compare this with 1917, with the revolution, there was a huge movement. They weren’t just criticising the tzar and the Russian empire itself, but also offering a new way of living. That is why I think it inspired so many people. I mean of course it’s also very tricky, and what they offered overall was not much better than before. I mean in Russia there still was this big oppressive power.
R: And it seems that historically we didn’t learn the lesson.
A: No, and that is the most frustrating thing for me, that Russians don’t learn from mistakes. Or there is a past and then they are twisting it. For me it was kind of a bit obscure how strongly in Russia we have this reference to World War II, to fighting against the Nazis, which was like a really good thing, but then you know again, it is twisted in a way that all the other perspectives are cut off. Like for example a while ago I was watching some documentary on Netflix from the BBC about WWII, 12 episodes one hour each. And it shows WWII from different perspectives. When I was learning about history in Russia, I remember, it was a lot of information about Soviet engagement in WWII and quite little about allies, western states. And this for me is a big problem because it makes people think that we were the only ones who defeated the Nazi. «This was us», — they are saying, and they also criticise countries which claim that they were a big part of victory. But the truth is there were allies! Because there was not only one country who was fighting against fascism, and this, in fact, shouldn’t be underestimated.
R: Yes, and it is even integrated in our language: we don’t use «World War II», we don’t say it. We say — «Великая Отечественная» – “Great Patriotic War“.
A: And again — this was used by propaganda machine in order to make Russia an exceptional country, making us believe that we defeated the Nazis by ourselves. Which was not true. And then Stalin’s method of this ‘Not a step back!’ policy was quite brutal: you could not escape, you could only advance. Stalin sent many, many troops, and those troops needed to conquer some German positions. They have been sending hundreds of people and one Nazi with the machine gun was killing 90 and only a few out of hundred was left till the next attack.
R: Indeed the history repeats, because the same is happening at the moment – including young soldiers.
A: Yeah. Exactly. There are a lot of young and unprepared soldiers and military commanders who don’t really care about their lives. And I can confirm that. When I was in the army 10 years ago, there was no war, no military action, but how they treated people in the army, how I was treated as a soldier… It was the first and the last time I didn’t feel like a human being but like an object. No one actually cared about how I felt. No one actually cared about what I needed. And there was so much violence. They put people in the state of complete apathy,when you actually don’t think about anything and then you just get furious so they can direct this rage, this aggression. And it’s very frightening that the same scheme works amongst civilians.. The fact that violence gains support in Russia, that most of the people actually are supporting what is going on…
R: Most of the people?
A: Oh, no, not most. I mean I can’t know the statistics, but for example like the first they were saying 70%, actually in Moscow 60% of people are against the war. The picture is different with statistics in the regions. Because Moscow..
R: …is modernised. (Laughing)
A: Yes. It’s a modernised capital, where the majority of people are intellectuals, or at least they have a higher education…
R:Unfortunately,majority of this people are obtaining their diploma as a matter of proforma. Though, I agree that in the capital city it is easier to find a circle of friends sharing your interests.
A:And it only shows how often I see Russia through my own perspective. I observe smart intellectual people in my surroundings, who are against war, against Putin, against the regime. Yet, at the same time, I also feel that it’s only my surroundings and that it cannot be applied to others. It can be surprising, sometimes that people I know who seem to me adequate and seem to be able to think for themselves, start accepting something you should better avoid.
R: I would not like to take the role of a devil advocate, but we have to remember that this people are living under an enormous pressure. For instance one friend of mine, whom I do respect enormously, had this strict, ultimate position against the war at the beginning. However,slowly,but surely during the past 10 days she has adjusted her position. And it is not like she is pro-war now, not at all, but she is rather under an enormous pressure from all the people she is surrounded by. She even unconsciously started to change her vector of thought leaning towards the compromise with unfolding reality of terror.
A: Yeah, I agree with that. Even myself, I sometimes think about the other side, and I can go and read Russian propaganda news, just because I like to do this mental exercise of taking the side of the other . And I think like: ok, what if Putin is right? What is the reason that they think this way? What if they have a reason to think this way?
R:I know the feeling as I myself almost got hypnotized by the power of propaganda. It’s almost like a poison you can not resist. They can be extremely compelling. As an example their attack, or better to reformulate it as their grudge on Europe.
A: If you are used to reading this Russian propaganda… then you actually start to think that the West are doing things that are not necessarily adequate. Starting from their initiative to erase Russian art, some of our writers, such as Dostoevsky, Pushkin or in general to plunge Russian culture into the abyss.
R:In 80s West would print books of Russian writers only to smuggle them back in USSR.
A: Which is actually if you think — Russian culture in my opinion was always against the regime, because there was a tzar, there were Soviets.
R: For me Russian culture is counterculture.
A: Yeah, indeed, in most cases it is a counterculture. The truly big Russian artists and names were all against whoever was in power: the tzar, the soviets. And the fact that some people in west just try to erase that for me raises a lot of questions and a lot of «why», like why people don’t try to separate things and be a bit more sensible.
R: It is hard to ask it from people who find themselves in a situation where they are left alone with only their instincts and bare emotions.
A: Ok I can give an example, kind of far away but still: when I was living in Russia I was under enormous pressure, physical, mental, like when I was in a dance school, which has this system, where older students punish younger for doing stupid things. So basically they would beat us up physically. You had to know all elders by names, you had to bring them food when they wanted and do what they wanted. All this «Dedovshchina», — you know this term, — when the older one has more power than you. And it comes from like: I was oppressed so then when I have the elder position I start to oppress. And it goes this way: when you get a hit in your head you feel pain and then one way to go is — you experience this pain, you understand this is bad, this is painful, this is horrible, and then you actually want to stop this pain, you don’t want other people to feel the same because you felt it yourself. And then from that moment you try to prevent this from happening, or at least not doing it yourself, because maybe you cannot kill the system but you can at least not contribute to the system.
R: So, you yourself didn’t participate later?
A: I didn’t beat up other students later on. But then the following direction can become the opposite: when you experience this pain and feel it was unfair — you start wanting other people to feel the same. And that is why this system in the army still exists. Once you experience this great suffering you want your revenge, you want people to experience the same, you cannot admit the fact that… ok, I was struggling but those new kids… they didn’t feel what I felt, but they should. I see how it’s affecting people, this lack of empathy. Those soldiers felt shattered and they wanted to do the same because, again, all this speculation about why this war is happening… Because most people don’t say «yeah, we kill others, we are enjoying that Russian army brings destruction», they say «yeah, I am against the war, Ukraine are like brothers, we don’t like that, we are against the civilians dying, but!» This BUT! And then they ask about Donbass 8 years ago, that there were Nazis… All the best of what Russian propaganda has to offer. Nobody is denying that there was nationalistic movement, that there was a war in Donbass, where civilians died. But the scale is inflated, it’s maybe some little fraction of nationalists in Ukraine which I think exists in every country, but then it becomes widely exposed, and makes Russians think that what the government is doing right now is ok. And I ask them «so you admit that what happened in Donbass and all this nationalistic movement is bad, but why then you are ok with Russian doing basically the same? If you are against this, then you should also be against the war in Russia. Why would you think that, ok, we have to do the same to them?» If you are against violence, if you realise that violence is bad, why do you want to spread it even more?
R: The situation is that there is nothing else left, you know? Because the quality of life in Russia is so low, it’s like the last opportunity to feel pride for something.
A: Yeah, and I felt this actually happening. I remember exactly that moment, 2012 when there was this protest on Bolotnaya square, I was also kind of 20 something and I was alone out on the street, but I remember this street was full of protests against Putin. It was so massive, that I was thinking, that this was it, his days are over, because I felt that people are awake and they are not gonna let this continue. And of course police started violently oppressing people, beating them up. I also remember that there were a lot of opposition leaders. Not only Navalny, but other leaders. There was a strong coalition of minds prepared for a fight against the regime.
R: Nemtsov for example.
A: Yeah, Nemtsov himself and then other activists.
R: Though…It all happened before Maidan.
A:Indeed,and then Maidan happened. And from that moment I also started seeing how the Russian government started to attack Ukraine, started to make a bad example of Maidan, started to devalue what they are doing, and started to say «oh, there are just a bunch of homeless junkies doing this destruction in their country». And then it led to separatism in Ukraine and then annexation of Crimea. And I remember exactly that Putin was not so popular then, people didn’t like him, a lot of people… but then this shit happens with Crimea. He basically took it from Ukraine, and then suddenly I started seeing t-shirts with his face on them…
R:It is a funny line as economically for example he takes Russian people as hostages. As if prior to Crimea, we had much greater freedom let’s say, political, economical, and now there is nothing else left apart of like anger and maybe desire for revenge.
A: Yeah and this was kind of surprising in a way — how Putin managed to make people proud of our military potential including the myriads of atomic bombs. Which do not make your personal life better at all, and actually if you think, it’s true: all that money could be spent on infrastructure.
R: After all it seems like they didn’t invest properly in a military either (laughing).
A: Yeah, that is something positive. But still, yeah, there was like: is it really how it works? So cheap – that you know, you claim that your country has a huge army and that you can be proud of that. Although you look around and there is nothing. But again, another thing I was seeing from Ukrainian TV. The problem in Russia is that people don’t see much, they don’t travel, they don’t see the world around them, they are stuck in their own country, their own bubble. They cannot compare, they try to go to Europe maybe once or twice and then they say yeah it looks nice, all the architecture and its clean, but yeah, and so what?
R: The thing is that every time people from Russia go to Europe, their main occupation is to compare things and not always in favour of the latter.
A: Yeah, so they don’t have the opportunity to explore different cultures, different people, different struggles. Because normally when you see that you start to respect other cultures, you start thinking from a different perspective which is a huge gap in the Russian mentality, to think from that different perspective. And I think this was one of the biggest problems so far. And you know, the fact that people do not have the possibility to live abroad means they don’t have any opportunities, an alternative.
R: And now it is gonna be even less. It is how we started this conversation from the message you received from Polina. And by the way, what is happening?
A: She said that the IND was kind of about to stop issuing new visas for Russians. The case was when the war just started it was also a big fear personally for me, how the war affects me as Russian. Although you know I was thinking this is like the least of my concerns. There were people dying in the war, so I shouldn’t really be so selfish and think about my own ass, but at the same time it matters. And then first of all there was this kind of movement: some countries decided to cancel the visas for Russians just on the basis of their passport. And then I got a message from one of my friends who claimed that the IND officially wanted to do it, which is also very controversial. Because this way it’s the same xenophobia, you define people not on their beliefs but on their passport, on their nationality. And this is a completely shorthanded idea that all Russians have to suffer for what their government is doing. In the same situation were muslims, when there was a lot of phobia to muslims in European countries, especially the ones that were under terrorist attacks. And that is basically the same principle, and now I feel how it was to be muslim for instance in France after the terrorist attack. I was scared because actually European countries are not always dealing with this issue well. There are a lot of things about how they act upon this crisis, what they are doing now, what they are not doing.
R: It does fit to what Russian propaganda tries to sell us or should I say them?
A: Partly it is true as US politics were never peaceful and stuff like that. And indeed it is used by Russian propaganda, to claim that US is bombing Iraq and all other military campaigns of the United States, they were not so widely acknowledged as it is happening with the war in Ukraine.
R: They did it, why can’t we? I am just translating the feelings of our fellow citizens.
A: Which is again something that shouldn’t slip away from the discussion. One of my friends shared his feeling about this situation: when you start criticising people from the west, people start to think you support Putin and the Russian regime, which is not the case. It’s also often that people are narrowing down to one perspective and then they don’t want to investigate what the west is doing. Indeed in this situation when we speak about cancelling visas, even speaking about this is already obscure. That shouldn’t be on the table at all. Because they are thinking it is for our safety, we just want all Russians to go away. I mean all the Russians who came here, came to escape from this regime, and not just now. I did it 6 years ago because I personally never felt myself ok living in Russia, there were only a few times that I felt happy. There was no possibility to express your own personality, to be yourself. You were always gonna be judged based on the conservative idea of how a man should be, what he is supposed to do. And if you disagree with that, then you basically have to become like an outcast. It was easy for me to move away, to live here. It was also easy to criticise Russia, because I don’t associate myself with this country fully. I was born there, I grew up there, it affected me as a person a lot, but it doesn’t mean that I have to stand up for whatever Russia is doing. And I also don’t, because I don’t really accept the concept of countries. You shouldn’t be defined through a particular country just because you were born there, because it wasn’t your conscious choice, it was not your choice at all, it just happened. And then it doesn’t have to be that if you were born in Russia you have to be Russian, like what does it even mean? Even calling someone from Russia Russian is a very tricky point, because there are many ethnic groups within the country.
R: And it is multi-confessional…
A: Exactly! What exactly does it mean to be Russian? It is the same when we think about America. What does it mean to be American? Because basically the country was built by immigrants coming from Europe. Of course throughout the centuries they built their country but still… It is a very diverse country. And for me Russia is less diverse than that, but still it shouldn’t be just narrowed down to one nationality.
R:Therefore if you are a person coming from a post-soviet area, especially if you are obliged with Russian passport – you are automatically paying the cost of being under the regime and not opposing its rulers? In this case we can narrow it down to the fact that, in the last couple of years anyway, while living here you would from time to time go back to Russia, right? You could’ve actively participate in live there?Now it is not an option apparently.
A: Oh yeah yeah, or it’s an option to go back for good and then… I actually really appreciated this possibility to have this bridge: living here and being still connected to Russia. I was happy to find something in the middle, because there are a lot of good things about Russian culture which are missing here. And I think it is important to understand, to be aware of this, because speaking about different perspectives, at times European perspective is one sided, people aren’t really interested to engage, to think deeper. They usually take the position that the EU proposes to them and just go along with that. They go to protest, they support Ukranians, they are active on social media. But not often I feel that they really want to know what happened, like to really go into details.
R: Do you think that this bridge that you were speaking about now is gone, or is it still there?
A: Well, before I never associated myself with Russia completely, but ok, I am from Russia, I can speak about what is going on there, which many people would find interesting and cool, whatever. But now I am kinda feeling that I am afraid to say that I am from Russia, which shouldn’t be like that, because why would I. But I guess I am afraid that people would be judgemental about me, although practically I never met anyone who would be like that. But again because I am surrounded by artists, by people who used to think, who actually express support in that matter. But the bridge, you know, like now, I am starting to see Russia and Russians from the worst perspective and then it actually makes me want to cut the bridge, to not think about this country as something innocent anymore. Something has kind of died for me.
R: It seems like we are in a sequel of Cargo 200.
A: All the good things that used to be in Russia and which for now are still there, they started going down, becoming repressed or maybe disappearing overall. And it is really sad because I believe Russia had something good. And I’m not speaking from the patriotic position, I am not saying that I am proud of being Russian, and I don’t want to justify Russia. But there were some values that I didn’t find anywhere else in the world and the biggest frustration for me is that this value will most probably be destroyed, will decay. People will lose everything that was left. I see how people think about the situation and for me the most frightening and irritating is to see how they slowly start to change their own position about the world under this pressure. They start saying something like I am against the war, but… And this BUT is a big problem.
R: If we are speaking about this necrophilic feeling I referenced previously (Cargo200), than I would like to go the opposite way and try to squeeze a drop of optimism out of you. Is there any future for our country?
A: Yeah, I saw a post of a Russian friend of mine recently and I wanted to support her, but then I realised I couldn’t lie to her, because that is somehow a horrible thing to do — it’s like saying to someone who is in clinical depression that everything is going to be ok, you know. Saying this is the opposite of helping. So I couldn’t actually say anything to her except that I care about what she is feeling. I couldn’t say it’s going to be better, everything is gonna change for the good, it’s gonna pass soon. I cannot say these things. I had one hope since the sanctions started to be implemented, which is — I hope people will start questioning their level of political engagement. Before, I was around people from Russia who were like «yeah, whatever, I live here, I try to make my own life». I think that this could actually change, apparently they will be confronted with the fact that they have to engage in politics, and it doesn’t even mean going to protest, but thinking what is going on and why it is going on. People in Russia will have to keep their heads straight and think for themselves at least, and not just buy all this propaganda without questioning. But apparently, I can not say that it is actually moving in this direction, even opposite to that! The more pressure they experience — the more they start to actually think, «indeed, the west is against us, indeed, Putin is a good guy, he is not doing anything wrong». But then also, «we are in Russia, so what else can we support?», — they often think.
R: So you think they misinterpreted all these sanctions?
A: Yeah, they misinterpreted them.
R: Though you yourself is up for a fight?
A: Yes. And I assumed that this would happen to other Russians, who stayed there. That they would start asking questions, like why this is happening? How can I prevent this? I thought they would feel empathy with those Ukrainians, who are now in the worst conditions ever, they are being bombed, dying. And then in Russia, people are sitting and speculating whether war is good or bad…
R: I feel like there is a difference and we can claim that Ukraine is a part of Europe and Ukrainians as a society were already fighting for freedom since 2013. And their resistance now is a continuation of their fight for a freedom, for the full liberation, which Russians as a society don’t do. They don’t fight for their identity, they rather prefer to suffer. And it is basically in our blood, in our tradition — to suffer. From a theological point of view.
A: Yes, and when I started hoping that the fire would start burning in them, I quite soon remembered exactly that, — that Russians usually just choose to suffer. But at least I hope and I believe that Putin won’t be able to continue doing what he is doing — he will be stopped eventually. Or we will be destroyed by nuclear bombs (laughing). But anyway, something shifted and cracked, and this will lead to a big change, while before there was no hope that this regime would ever change.
R: One journalist in his interview said: «there are a lot of naive people, who think that if Putin is gonna be moved or killed, it would get better». When in fact there is a good chance that it’s gonna get worse. Imagine Ramzan Kadyrov obtaining the power? Or for instance, the army overpowering Putin? But then they themselves would take his place, and then it could officially become a military regime.
A: But also sanctions showed that these days, economical war has the most effect. You put one country in isolation and it starts to slowly die. It is kind of an experiment that the West is implementing towards Russia, when they don’t participate in the war directly, saying it is a local conflict, which is not true by the way, and hoping that sanctions will eventually destroy the current regime in Russia. But how much time would it take and how many people would die? For me it’s hard to judge, but I don’t feel it is ok to just leave people in Russia to die.
R: Can I claim that you have lost your country? Or would that be too dramatic? You cannot go there, and even if you go there, that is not gonna be the country you lived in before.
A: In this sense I lost some good parts of it. Now I work as a volunteer for refugees, and when I started talking to them I realised they didn’t like the fact that they had to move, they had to run. They were truly enjoying their lives in Ukraine. One woman from Kharkiv in particular claimed that Kharkiv is the best city on the Earth and that she has never wanted to move away from it. They all seem to love the place they grew up, love the place they lived, and they want to go back, but they can’t, because the war destroyed their cities. And I was thinking about myself… and it may sound horrible, but if my own hometown Voronezh would be destroyed, while all civilians would stay alive and healthy, then I would not be so sad about the city itself.
R: Yeah, indeed, you don’t hear this often from Russians who fled — «I miss my hometown and I want to go back».
A: Yeah, I don’t want to go back. And maybe yeah, it would be a bit dramatic for me if my city got destroyed, but still, all the memories I have from there are bad memories, and most of the people I knew were aggressive people, bullies. In the place I grew up I was always harassed, and I just wanted to be myself, which was different from others. And I just find it interesting to compare how much Ukrainian refugees love their country, and how much I don’t care about my own country in general. And I started thinking — why is that? Maybe Ukraine is indeed not as Russia describes it now, where people are savages experiencing the worst of bad life. Apparently, Ukrainians have good lives in their country. And I cannot say this about myself. That means something, right?
Photos by Roman Ermolaev