Do regular people of Russia share the responsibility for the war in Ukraine?

A man sits outside a destroyed building in Chuhuiv, following bombings.

It’s 6:00 in the morning here in Berlin. 7:00 in Kyiv. I cannot sleep and haven’t been able to for the past three or four days. In fact, without looking at the calendar in the corner of my screen I am not sure what day of the week it is. Turns out it’s Sunday. My country has been repelling the Russian invasion since the Thursday night. The majority of my friends and some of my family haven’t been to their homes since then. They are hiding in shelters, metro stations, underground parking lots, and in regular basements from the bombings that’s been going pretty much non-stop all this time. Some are sick, others had no choice but to give birth right there - in the shelter. In fact, one of the photos of such a newborn circulating the media is of a good friend of my wife.

There are many things circulating the media in the past couple of days: videos, photos, stories about brave Ukrainian soldiers, our President — who I once despised but whose bravery and leadership cannot deny today. Among all that, there are posts and messages wishing all regular Ukrainians and Russians for this war to stop.

It’s this “and” that gets me every time.

When I think of Russians, there are different pictures in my head but mostly it’s specific, wonderful, and smart people — some of which I am lucky to call friends — that come to my mind. Getting more abstract, I imagine some random grandma - a counterpart to my own grandma who is a primary school teacher. The random grandma is probably a teacher, too. I let my imagination see how she is also loved by her pupils, how she gets flowers every September 1 - the day schools in post-Soviet countries reopen after the summer break. She probably also isn’t strong about politics and chooses to give her full attention to her family - just like my grandma.

That Russian grandma did or didn’t vote Putin in the last 22 years that he’s been in power. She might have even never voted at all. Am I then allowed to say she is sharing the responsibility for the bombs falling on Kyiv this night? Are Russians in general?

Somehow a cliché already, but Putin has contributed even more to it in the past weeks drawing direct similarities to Hitler. And while comparing all Russians to Nazis is certainly a very big stretch, to say the least - let me share this quote by Thomas Mann about the responsibility of the general German population (not Nazis specifically) after the WW2:

 Those, whose world became grey a long time ago when they realized what mountains of hate towered over Germany; those, who a long time ago imagined during sleepless nights how terrible would be the revenge on Germany for the inhuman deeds of the Nazis, cannot help but view with wretchedness all that is being done to Germans by the Russians, Poles or Czechs as nothing other than a mechanical and inevitable reaction to the crimes that the people have committed as a nation, in which unfortunately individual justice, or the guilt or innocence of the individual, can play no part.

Since his election in 2000 Putin’s regime has killed numerous journalists and has commited various war crimes around the globe, among many other things.

Should the hypothetical Russian grandma share responsibility for that? Should she share the responsibility for what is going on right now in Ukraine? If she — and other Russians — are not the ones who let Putin stay in power and do all that - who did, then? Certainly, it wasn’t my grandma in Ukraine. And for sure it wasn’t any of my friends hiding in the shelters at this very moment. Who was it then?

You might think I have the answer. I don’t. I am not ready to hold Russian people individually responsible for what is happening, but I am close to blaming them collectively the way Thomas Mann described it.

What I am certain about, though, is that the “and” between Ukrainians and Russians in the same sentence, equating the suffering of both is immoral and wrong. We are not the same.

Glory to Ukraine!

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