“On the front page – war, on the back page – the crossword.” A line from my novel The Light and the Dark sprang to mind as I travelled on a train shortly after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
Sitting across from me, a passenger was reading the paper: on the front page, there was the war; on the back page, the crossword. Time has passed since then, and the daily atrocities have started to disappear from the headlines, despite the battles growing more savage each day. But no one in the west wants to hear about war any more – people are tired of horror and solidarity. They want peace, no price rises, a quiet life and a nice holiday.
It’s not the first time my writing has sounded the alarm over horrors to come. Before the annexation of Crimea, I used an analogy with the Russian folk tale Teremok to describe Europe’s uncertain future. Once upon a time, there were some forest animals who lived together in a cosy little house – a teremok. One day, a frog knocks on the door. “Knock, knock! Who dwells in this teremok? Let me in, I’d like to live here with you.” The animals let the frog in, and everyone agrees that it is a happy and cosy home. They even let in Kyward the hare and Reynard the fox – there is room for everyone in the teremok. But then along comes Bruin the bear. No matter how hard he tries, he can’t fit into the teremok. The bear flies into a rage and sits down on the house. And that’s the end of the teremok – and of the fairytale.
But no warnings were heeded. In 2014, shortly after the annexation of Crimea, I wrote, with increasing urgency, that “in the 21st century there is no such thing as a distant, localised war any more. Every war is now a European war. And this European war has already begun.” I warned that Vladimir Putin’s annexation of Crimea would “create a wave of patriotism. Sooner or later, this wave will break, and then Putin will need a fresh wind.” I wrote of how years of chronic instability in the Balkans would create cripplingly high levels of migration to European countries, with an “inconceivably greater wave of refugees from Ukraine”.
Back then, there was still a chance to stop the aggressor. Yet European politicians closed their eyes to reality in an effort to curry favour with voters. Voters wanted peace then, too; jobs, no price rises and nice holidays. Corrupt Russian experts insisted that we should understand Putin’s point of view and make concessions.
And now, here we are: in the middle of a European war, facing an unprecedented wave of refugees from Ukraine, and wondering how our politicians could have been so blind. No one listens to writers any more. The only true lesson we can draw from history is that history teaches nothing.
In Germany, intellectuals have collected thousands of signatures on a petition demanding their own government stop delivering weapons to Ukraine, because it could lead to a third world war. “We want a policy of peace, not war,” they write. But the third world war has already begun. It started in 2014. How can you cure someone’s blindness, if they want to be blind?
The question now is, how and when will this war end? The war against Nazi Germany didn’t end with Hitler’s death, but with a devastating military defeat. Putin’s death one day is inevitable, but Russia’s defeat is not.
The answer boils down to authenticity. Some tsars are real, some are fake. If Holy Russia expands its territory and other peoples bow before the autocrat in Moscow, the vassalled population that toils and struggles and heroically sheds its blood for the sacred fatherland thinks it is a blessing from God. And then it doesn’t matter very much how the tsar came to power or how he rules over his subjects. He can butcher them in their millions, destroy thousands of churches and execute the priests – all that matters is that the tsar is real, for then the enemy will tremble and the Holy Land will extend. That’s how it was with Stalin.
Conversely, military failures and the loss of even a small part of the Holy Land will be seen by the tsar’s subjects as a clear sign that the tsar is not blessed – that he is an illegitimate fake. Did he botch the war with Japan? Did he fail to subjugate the Chechens? If so, that man on the throne is a con artist posing as a tsar. That’s how it was with Nicholas II and Boris Yeltsin.
Putin legitimised his presidency by regaining Crimea, but his legitimacy is evaporating with his inability to win against Ukraine. The next tsar will, in turn, have to prove himself by achieving victories in the war against the world. And if, for this Putin, threatening to deploy tactical nuclear weapons is merely one aspect of hybrid warfare, for the next Putin deploying them may become a necessary tool in his effort to secure power.
The next Putin, too, will be nothing more than an actor who cannot change his role. His role will be pre-written by the entire Russian power structure, which doesn’t worry about how many people will die in Ukraine or Russia or wherever; it isn’t concerned about the resources it spends, the number of weapons it deploys or the level of military casualties. And if the Russian quality of life deteriorates? So be it – the regime never did care much about the happiness of its own people.
Anyone who is part of this power structure is not afraid to attack the west. After all, who should they be scared of? If a rocket lands on a Nato member’s territory, what then? More meetings, statements, declarations, calls for peace? It’s high time the free world realised that it is not fighting a mad dictator but an autonomous and self-regenerating aggressive power system.
The Russian autocracy’s ancient social structure has been preserved by the storehouse of history for centuries, and sheds its skin only to return in a new guise: as the Golden Horde’s Khanate or the tsardom of Moscow, as the Romanovs’ empire or Stalin’s communist Soviet Union, and most recently as Putin’s “managed democracy”. And now the Russian Federation is shedding its skin once more. What will emerge from the undisturbed foundations of the undefeated military dictatorship? Could it be a free constitutional democracy that willingly forgoes nuclear weapons? Does this sound likely to you?
Before the second world war, too, people wanted peace, no price rises and nice holidays. The voters hoped that their own democratic governments in France and Britain would pursue a policy of peace with Hitler rather than one of war. What followed is history, encompassed in Winston Churchill’s ruthlessly honest and tragic message to voters: “I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat.”
Sooner or later, similar promises will have to be made – instead of nice holidays, European voters must steel themselves for great sacrifice, struggle and hardship, because that is the price we must pay for peace.
Mikhail Shishkin is a novelist, and the only author to have won the Russian Booker, Russian National Bestseller and Big Book prizes