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Why Everything is Awful and Nothing is Surprising


Anna Gotlib

I know that I have been posting online quite a bit about the war in Ukraine, and that my posts unequivocally and unapologetically have been in opposition to Russian brutality and aggression. And I am not apologizing. Sometimes, what is at stake, and who is the bad actor, needs to be made clear, without equivocation, hand-wringing, or whataboutism. So this is not an apology.

But what it is is a (partial) explanation for my singular attention to this war: I am Russian, born and raised in St. Petersburg. I am also a refugee whose family fled the Soviet nightmare, and ever since, my relationship with my "homeland" has been difficult at best. I am, by turn, enraged, embarrassed, frightened, and saddened by both its history, and by its present. In its Soviet, as well as in its Russian guise, the place where I was born was never among those nations whose actions inspired anything but horror, at least in me. Even World War Two--"The Great Patriotic War", as we were taught--Russia's proudest moment, started with the Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact in 1939, which was a non-aggression treaty between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union that enabled them to partition Poland. Stalin was screwed by Hitler -- one murderous dictator outsmarted another. Not a good narrative for "the good guys."

What is happening now is, in many ways, not surprising. Who--and what--Putin is has been clear to many of us for a very long time. And so now, this post-communist dictator is, once again, reminding the world (and those of us who come from Russia) what this country has been, what it is, and, sadly, what it might be in the future. Call this Russopessimism. Yes, many Russian people are protesting -- I send them my love and support. But I would bet that those same protestors might agree with me that Russia, in whatever historical guise, has never been all right. It has never been a symbol of whatever you need it to be. It has never gotten out of its own way.

We had an amazing poet and singer to whom my parents, and a lot of other refuseniks and others, listened back in the day--Vladimir Vysotsky. His lyrics were biting social and political commentary on the horrors of Soviet life, and life in general. And he screamed them--his singing was a guttural wail of black despair (and of gallows humor). It was raw. Honest. Unforgiving. And it is Vysotsky that I am thinking of now. Because I, too, feel like screaming.

Anna Gotlib is an Associate Professor of Philosophy at Brooklyn College CUNY, specializing in feminist bioethics/medical ethics, moral psychology, and philosophy of law. She co-edits the International Journal of Feminist Approaches to Bioethics and is the editor of The Moral Psychology of Sadness (2017); and The Moral Psychology of Regret (2019). Her work has appeared in numerous scholarly journals.

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