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No, Ordinary Russians Are Not Responsible For The Crimes Of The Russian Regime

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Reprinted with permission Mises Institute Ryan McMaken

Since at least the beginning of the Russo-Ukrainian war, we have witnessed many efforts to pin blame for the conflict not only on the Russian regime, but on virtually all of the Russian people as well. Back in June, for example, the Western media was already in the habit of publishing long, detailed articles explaining why ordinary Russians are morally culpable for the war in Ukraine.

Consider this piece in Canada’s National Post, which approvingly quotes former Russian pollster Elena Koneva, who concludes ordinary Russians are “100-per-cent responsible” for the war. On what does she base this? She bases it on polling showing that barely a majority—53 percent—of Russians back the war. The National Post article is hardly unique. A Google search of “are the Russian people responsible for the war” returns plenty of incoherent takes on how all Russians are morally at fault for what the local regime does.

The most enthusiastic backers of this blame-every-Russian philosophy can perhaps be found in Eastern Europe, where the local regimes often benefit from stoking nationalist fervor against the past crimes of Russian and Soviet regimes.

Politicians from the Baltics have used this philosophy in recent weeks to call for the European Union to close its borders to Russians. Last week, for example, Lithuanian interior minister Agnė Bilotaitė insisted that since a majority of Russians (presumably) support the war, it is “unacceptable” that these people (i.e., ordinary private citizens) can “freely travel around the world.”

In perhaps the most blatantly incoherent example of this philosophy we’ve seen, Estonia’s prime minister, Kaja Kallas, has flatly stated that “every citizen is responsible for the actions of their state, and citizens of Russia are no exception.”

Kallas’s claim, however, is frankly absurd. It is most certainly not the case that every citizen—or even most citizens are responsible for the actions of their regimes. We can easily see this if we look to a variety of other regimes. For example, if we use Kallas’s logic, we must conclude that the Estonians themselves were personally responsible for everything the Soviet state did from 1944 to the time Estonia seceded from the USSR in 1991. The Estonians were Soviet citizens during this time. Were they all guilty of the invasion of Afghanistan and every other human rights violation hatched in Moscow? Similarly, by this logic, lowly Okinawan fishermen were responsible for the Rape of Nanking. The poorest British chimney sweep was responsible for the Boer War, and Saint Paul (a Roman citizen) was responsible for the Jewish-Roman war of 66 AD. Only the most fanatical ideologue would agree these statements are true.

Of course, some might then claim that collective guilt only applies in democracies. This claim doesn’t hold up either. By this logic, all Germans were responsible for the Nazi regime’s actions during the 1930s, whether or not they voted for the National Socialists in 1933. Moreover, by this way of thinking, the poorest Appalachian coal miners were responsible for the US bombing of Cambodia, and even the most avid Thatcher hater in Britain was responsible for the United Kingdom’s operations in the Falkland War. Moreover, in many democracies, the ruling party is elected with only a bare majority of the voters—and the voters who elect the ruling party are themselves a clear minority of the overall population. In 2016, for example, only 19 percent of the US population voted for Donald Trump. How this works out to a majority of the population being “responsible” for the Trump administration’s policies is not at all clear.

Another major reason for the lack of guilt among ordinary citizens of a regime is the fact that most regimes—whether democracy or autocracy—hide immense amounts of information from their own people. This is especially the case with foreign policy; regimes routinely withhold the facts from the taxpayers under the guise of state secrecy for purposes of “national defense.” Are Americans guilty of whatever the CIA is up to this week? How are Americans to even know in real time what their regime is doing? The fact is they don’t know, and few of them even have the free time to keep track of the details. (God forbid people choose to spend their free time bonding with their children and earning a living.) But even for those who attempt to seek out such information, the state has such a firm grip on media and public education that becoming truly well informed is a daunting task indeed.

Kallas’s claims do make sense in the twisted logic of modern nationalism, however. The nationalist ideology—perhaps history’s most successful ideology—conflates the interests of the regime with the interests of ordinary people. It attempts to erase the distinction between the exploited masses—those who are taxed to support the regime—and the regime itself. Once these two groups could be merged, we were told the regime itself was simply carrying out the so-called volonté générale, or national will. This was a legacy of the rise of nationalism that came in the wake of the French Revolution and solidified our modern notions of citizenship and national guilt.

But it was not always this way. As Martin Van Creveld notes, the regime under which one lived was not always an important part of how one was viewed by other or even by himself. Eventually, though, “citizenship” became psychologically important and shaped modern views of how foreign citizens are to be viewed in times of war. Van Creveld writes:

In day-to-day life, the question of whether one was a citizen of this state or that became one of the most important aspects of any individual’s existence besides the biological facts of race, age, and sex…. As late as the end of the ancien régime, Lawrence Sterne, author of A Sentimental Journey, was able to travel from Britain to France even though they were at war with each other; and, having arrived there, to be received with every sign of honor in the social circles to which he belonged. However, the nineteenth century put an end to such civilities.

All states during wartime, and some during peacetime too, imposed restrictions on whom their citizens were and were not allowed to marry; while hostilities lasted, enemy nationals were likely to be interned and have their property confiscated.

“Citizenship,” however, is just a legal and ideological fiction and hardly makes a taxpayer an integral part of the state machine. Yet the novel nationalist ideological innovations in the nineteenth century led many to conclude that the citizens of an enemy state were also themselves the enemy.

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This way of thinking was expanded in the twentieth century to the point it enabled any countless number of war crimes and actions against noncombatants. Historically, the same sort of thinking has been used to justify terror bombing (such as the firebombing of Dresden) and the starvation blockade inflicted on Germany in the First World War. The fact that such indiscriminately deadly policies can be thought morally justified at all relies on a general feeling that the common people in foreign states are somehow personally responsible for the crimes of their governments. Thus, to burn to death one hundred thousand civilians in one night—as happened with the firebombing of Tokyo—can be written off as a matter of foreigners “bringing it on themselves.”

The idea certainly continues today and lives on in the idea of “little Eichmanns” forwarded by some theorists on the left. This justifies various forms of terrorism on the notion that even seemingly harmless people are ultimately enablers of the worst crimes committed by the states under which they live. Thus, as Ward Churchill contended in his book On the Justice of Roosting Chickens, the office workers in the Twin Towers were only “civilians of a sort,” and thanks to the bombings, they suffered a “penalty befitting their participation” in the American war machine.

This position is ultimately indistinguishable from Kallas’s idea that “every citizen is responsible for the actions of their state.” It is a very dangerous idea indeed, and nothing better than a regrettable legacy of the barbaric twentieth century.

Ryan McMaken (@ryanmcmaken) is a senior editor at the Mises Institute. Send him your article submissions for the Mises Wire and Power and Market, but read article guidelines first. Ryan has a bachelor’s degree in economics and a master’s degree in public policy and international relations from the University of Colorado. He was a housing economist for the State of Colorado. He is the author of Commie Cowboys: The Bourgeoisie and the Nation-State in the Western Genre.

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10 comments

Tom October 1, 2022 at 7:32 pm

The only crime committed by the Putin admin was to wait for years while the illegitimate regime in Kiev shelled ethnic Russians in eastern Ukraine, killing 14,000 of them since 2014. I guess “D2P” (Duty to Protect) is only good when the West does it.

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Doyle October 1, 2022 at 11:52 pm

It’s a civil war up until Russia invaded. Putin was using those fools to fight a proxy war against Ukraine and now he is one the receiving end of the same. Putin does not get to declare what is the policy and legalities in any country but his own. If those people wanted to be part of Russia, no one was stopping them from leaving….right Ivan?

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Doyle October 1, 2022 at 11:49 pm

In fact nobody but Russian citizens voted in Putin to power so yes ordinary Russians are to blame for the crime of their regime.

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jack johnson October 2, 2022 at 11:15 am

So, are an American are you now responsible for the atrocities of the US government for the last 3 decades, I don’t think so.

This is a poorly written article…..the fact that just 2 years ago none of our current conditions around the world were present. It also fails to mention Trump was the first US president to not have a new conflict in his first term in 5 decades.

The “proxy war” is the US and NATO using Ukrainians as cannon fodder against a nuclear power country in an effort to change regimes. Russia is not using ethnic Russians who have been bombed for the last 8 years because they voted to be a separate republic from a corrupt Ukrainian government. The west will fight this war until the last Ukrainian……and that is criminal.

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pc_PHAGE October 2, 2022 at 2:14 am

This is a stupid article because it is the American People who are responsible for the war crimes committed during the Russian-Ukraine war.
American Globalists manipulated Ukraine by inciting a coup and other political atrocities in Ukraine that were designed to poke the Russian Bear.
The American purpose was to topple the Russian Regime in order to make the world safe for Globalism’s NWO.
Now the Americans are supporting a Nazi backed terrorist regime in Ukraine and fighting the Russians to the last Ukrainian.
*
The author is a moron and his article is as stupid as my post.
Some of the examples he gives makes me see red.

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Christos Mikko October 2, 2022 at 7:43 am

That is correct. What I have found Interesting is that the Democrat party cozies up to Antifa, which was created by the German Nazis and the Azov Battalion also Nazis

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macky October 2, 2022 at 9:27 am

a people who let the government take away their rights without protest end up responsible for the actions of their government. Russians still have a serf’s mentality.

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Pa l October 2, 2022 at 12:54 pm

US…quit sticking your corrupt nose in other people’s business.

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pc_PHAGE October 3, 2022 at 1:07 am

Christos Mikko is incorrect.
Antifa in Germany of the late 1920’s was created by German Communists for the purpose of fighting fascism.

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Jack Graham November 5, 2022 at 10:09 am

Several revealing things come out of this war about the Russian psyche.

The absolute belief that Russia has the right to do what it wants when it wants and the rest of the federation will do as it is told, at the expense of sovereign states, and certainly at the expense of its own citizens.

The way that Russians, not the Russian Federation have stood by whilst a population in Ukraine which includes large numbers of family members of Russians who have been raped and murdered and their cities levelled at the whim of their cowardly army, whilst being in absolute denial that anything other than what they are told to believe in is going on, even when told so by close relatives.

The ambivalence about being apolitical, and a host of other excuses by the younger generations who naively thought they could carry on as if nothing was happening. That of course didn’t last longer than the first mobilisation notice, when they all scuttled off to escape the consequences of their abject cowardice.

The reality for Russia after this war ends with their defeat, and they will be defeated, is that they will never be welcomed back into the international community for decades if not generations, they will never be trusted again in either actions or words.

We all knew from WW2 that the moral basis of Soviet(Russian) society was flawed lacking in basic humanity and the value of the individual. We know today they have not improved that lack of inhumanity since 1945.

Reply

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