Interview with Oleg Radzinski: “It’s over with Russia as an empire”

Three prominent Russian immigrants dancer Mikhail Baryshnikov, writer Boris Akunin and economist Sergei Guriev have the association “True Russia” (“True Russia”) established. In an interview with, managing director Oleg Radsinski talks about the goals of the organization. With Putin’s war in Ukraine, “Russia ceased to be an empire,” says 63-year-old writer and son of the famous Russian historian Edward Radzinski. “What can the regime offer now? Just a model of a wartime empire like that of Genghis Khan.” “True Russia” was founded in March, shortly after Moscow launched its major offensive in Ukraine. What are your goals?

Oleg Radzinski: Our motto is: “Against war, for democracy”. Our first reaction to the events in Ukraine was emotional. We wanted to help people in great need because the country with whose culture we feel connected attacked the neighboring country without any provocation and destroyed the lives of the people there.

“True Russia” has launched a mobilization campaign. Meanwhile, more than a million British pounds have been raised. Where is the money going?

It ends up in the accounts of the London-based Disaster Emergency charity and is then distributed to Ukrainian refugees as part of the Ukraine Humanitarian Appeal.

Do you have any other initiatives planned?

Yes of course. We also want to support people fleeing Putin’s Russia. Many academics are now deprived of their livelihood. More than 200 journalists have left Russia and have no access to professional activities. Together with the European Endowment for Democracy, we want to organize training courses on practical governance in a democratic state. They will be aimed at young people who have left Russia but want to return there one day. We will also collect information about democratic and anti-war initiatives on our website. We are now seeing the first branches of “real Russia” appear all over the world: in Silicon Valley, in Spain, in the Netherlands, in Poland. In Germany we want to work with director Alexander Smoljanski, who has been living in Berlin for over 30 years. It is about showing that the real Russia is a Russia without imperialist consciousness. It is non-aggressive and based on liberal values. And most of all: it is not archaic, but capable of modern thinking.

With all due respect, many people today would find it hard to believe such a thing. Ukrainian philosopher professor Vakhtang Kebuladze said in an interview with “We must stop distinguishing between Russian culture and Russian imperialism.” “What we understand today as Russian culture is toxic and xenophobic,” says Kebuladze.

After what Russia did on February 24, Kebuladze’s view is completely understandable. The only way to change this perception of Russian culture and the people who belong to it is through action. Because after the massacre in Ukraine, after the destruction of Mariupol by Russian troops, words and explanations are simply no longer enough.

Do you feel personally responsible for Russia’s actions in this war?

I am not a citizen of Russia [Anmerkung: Oleg Radsinski hat die Staatsbürgerschaft der USA und des Vereinigten Königreichs]. I have never voted in elections in Russia. So I have no guilt. But I feel responsible. Not in the sense of collective responsibility. Rather, it is my personal responsibility to the regime that has bloodied the culture to which I belong. It is my responsibility to oppose this. Now I have to pick up a bucket and a cloth and start washing away the bloody stain from Russian culture.

They were convicted in 1982 of spreading “anti-Soviet propaganda”. In 1987 you left the USSR. In your opinion, how did emigration at that time differ from today’s escape from Russia?

It was extremely difficult to leave the Soviet Union. Today the state is not currently preventing people from leaving the country. On the contrary, he rejoices in the emigration of the “traitors of the homeland,” the “fifth column,” as he calls them. The Soviet Union was an empire where everyone mattered because he or she was a rack in the system. Russia, on the other hand, is an autocracy. It does not need people who serve the country, only people who deliberately serve this form of rule. Loyalty is the quality that Vladimir Putin values ​​most in those around him.

In the Soviet Union, immigration was an act, today it is relatively easy. Does not it put into perspective the whole message associated with it?

Many of those who emigrate today know what to expect; they have been abroad before. We, on the other hand, did not have such information. For us there was no turning back. When I left, I could not stop looking out of the plane window at the snow, thinking I would never see that snow blanket again. Many people today think that they will only leave temporarily. They would leave their lives waiting for a while and wait abroad until they returned.

In 2018, you talked about the possibility of war. In your opinion, what changed in Russia’s status quo when it actually started on February 24?

Russia has ceased to be an empire. The construction of an imperial mentality began in earnest in the 17th century with Peter the Great and lasted about 300 years. What an empire absolutely needs is a mission. Or a civilizing, administrative-economic or messianic task. Thus, the concept of communism was appealing to many people in the USSR until the 1970s. But what idea does Russia have today? None. What can the regime offer now? Just a model of a wartime empire like that of Genghis Khan.

What geopolitical consequences do you expect now?

We all know what led to a “successful small war” with Japan in 1905 and what happened to the Tsarist regime twelve years later. I believe that today we are witnessing the ultimate paroxysm [des letzten Krampfes, des letzten Zuckens] of Russian imperialism. I am also thinking about the dissolution of territorial integrity. And I think this process will probably start in Russia’s Far East, because its infrastructural ties with the European part of the country are very weak.

Russian intellectuals are now accused of distancing themselves more and more from politics since the 1990s. This paved the way for the catastrophic civilization that Russia is experiencing today.

The problem with Russian liberals is that they lack technocratic skills. They do not like to rule. They prefer to be conceptualists [soll heißen, sie analysieren lieber, statt selbst einzugreifen]. Therefore, power was taken by people who were already part of the system in Soviet times. They are the protectors of archaism and have the support of the population.

How do you explain the reasons for this support?

State propaganda has been very successful in Russia over the last decade. It had a strong impact on the population. The regime has aroused feelings of imperial grandeur of the past and turned them into an important simulator for the present [also nicht in ein Imperium, sondern in ein Gebilde, das einem Imperium ähnelt].

What role did relations with the West play in this process?

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the West had a choice. He could not have treated Russia as the successor to the country that lost the Cold War. The US is also to blame for this, as in the 1990s it did not use the opportunity to admit Russia to the Brotherhood of Nations. On the contrary, they drove Moscow away.

Today we see, among other things, how cultural bridges are being broken with Russia. Is this a logical complement to Western sanctions?

I think it is absolutely wrong to place collective responsibility on representatives of culture and sports. Also, the idea that Russian oligarchs should put pressure on Putin to end the war is simply a misunderstanding of how this regime works. Many of them have not been able to influence it for a long time. The West is just pushing them back into embracing Putin. No one wants to repeat Yuko’s fate.

Is it possible for Russia to agree to a moral conversion, which would be a possible way out of this historic stalemate?

I do not want to sound blasphemous – I’m not sure this would be a necessary process. I would hope for the practical education of people instead of repentance. How can we build democratic institutions, effective control mechanisms and independent branches of government? How to train technocrats who can apply liberal values? This is what we will work for in True Russia.

Ekaterina Venkina spoke with Oleg Radzinsky

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