And he said, What hast thou done? the voice of thy brother’s blood crieth unto me from the ground.
And now art thou cursed from the earth, which hath opened her mouth to receive thy brother’s blood from thy hand;
When thou tillest the ground, it shall not henceforth yield unto thee her strength; a fugitive and a vagabond shalt thou be in the earth.
— Genesis 4:10–12
My father, Aleksandr Fikhman (1930–1991), was born in Proskuriv (renamed Khmelnytskyi in 1954) in western Ukraine. In June 1941, during the first days of the war, he left his hometown with his parents and older sisters, never to return. All members of his family who failed to escape were killed in Babi Yar near Kyiv, along with 150,000 other Jews. The journey to Kyiv was long — eleven days by rail. The trains were under bombardment, damaged tracks took time to repair. From Kyiv, the family were sent east, deep into the country. My father spoke of this experience often, and once mentioned a touching detail: among the things they brought with them was a volume of Lessing, the German romantic. I’ve forgotten much of what my father told me, but this little volume of Lessing — of plays written in the language of the enemy — has stuck in my mind.
These days a great many are writing about war, and everyone is thinking and talking about it. The prevailing feelings are of hatred for those (or rather, for the one) who unleashed this war, of understandable fear for the future, and of a shame that cannot be washed away by the formula “Not in my name.” To this we can add admiration for the resilience of the Ukrainian people and of Ukraine’s president and army — an army to which the Russian government refers as a “gang of drug addicts and neo-Nazis” or as “Ukrainian formations.” It must be said that this sort of language reveals both the Russian government’s profound mendacity and its essential misanthropy. They’ve even begun to talk of the “solution to the Ukrainian question.” And the war itself isn’t a “war,” but rather a “special operation.” They will claim, for instance, to have “destroyed two hundred neo-Nazis” instead of having “killed two hundred soldiers and officers.” Why seek to humiliate one’s opponents? Especially those who live, as it is customary to declare, in a “fraternal nation”?
On the topic of fraternity: I showed up to the tiny anti-war demonstration in our little town of Tarusa with a sign that read, “Cain, where is your brother Abel?” This war must be called what it is, fratricidal; and one can’t answer that Biblical question in the spirit of the hero of Alexei Balabanov’s cult film Brother (1997). “You’re not my brother, black-assed scum,” this hero says — an answer that has shaped the attitude of entire generations of Russians towards people who look different from them, “non-Slavic.”
The dominant mood among my friends is this: what dreadful dishonor we’ve lived to see. Yet it isn’t unprecedented. “No one spoke of hatred of the Russians. … It was not hatred, for they did not regard those Russian dogs as human beings, but it was such repulsion, disgust, and perplexity at the senseless cruelty of these creatures, that the desire to exterminate them — like the desire to exterminate rats, poisonous spiders, or wolves — was as natural an instinct as that of self-preservation.” This passage from Tolstoy’s Hadji Murad is rooted in a completely different era, and yet, from time to time, it regains its relevance.
I play chess on the Internet. It’s a habitual activity, like playing solitaire or solving crossword puzzles. And I often come across Ukrainian users, but in recent days, when they see a Russian flag beside my name, they write, “I don’t play with occupiers,” or simply leave the game. This reaction is natural and correct. And it forces us to consider the extent to which we, who carry the Russian language as part of our identity, are responsible for what is happening. The remarkable contemporary poet Alexei Tsvetkov offers the following parable: “Imagine walking past a pond in which a child is drowning. You don’t know how to swim, you’re sure you don’t — and so you stand at water’s edge, wringing your hands while the child sinks before your eyes. You’re not to blame, but if you don’t feel remorse for the rest of your life, then some important piece of moral machinery has been removed from you.” Very precise words.
Of course, those who consider the war with Ukraine to be the beginning of Russia’s collapse are right. The plans for a small victorious war, a blitzkrieg, have fallen apart. Authoritarian rulers are never forgiven for lost wars, but the results of this one are unlikely to be limited to a change of ruler (see epigraph). Our country’s history is drawing to a close, yet I believe the Russian language will survive, although its domain will inevitably shrink. Returning to the volume of Lessing with which I began, will the boy now fleeing Kyiv — not to the east, but in the opposite direction — bring with him a book written in the language of the enemy, perhaps Pushkin’s The Captain’s Daughter or even Hadji Murad? I just don’t know.
February 28, 2022
Translated from the Russian by Boris Dralyuk