The Humane Russia I Love, The Brutal Russia I Hate

The Humane Russia I Love, The Brutal Russia I Hate by @andrewdkaufman #Russia #culture #lifeAs someone who’s dedicated much of my professional life to studying Russian literature and culture, I’m following the tragic war in Ukraine with great interest and sadness.

It is teaching me lessons both personal and political: how dictatorships work, how bullies maintain their grip on power, how leaders’ deep inferiority complexes often masquerade as superiority complexes, and how repressive regimes project their pathologies onto the world while keeping their own citizens cowered in fear and misinformation.

The war is a case study specifically of how Russia’s imperial ambitions throughout history, often justified by violent nationalist rhetoric and factual distortions and lies, have never served either the world or the Russian people well.

Putin and Russia

A few days ago, Putin gave voice to those same ambitions and distortions in a rousing, rabid speech commemorating the 80th anniversary of the Battle of Stalingrad, in which the Soviet Union successfully held off Hitler’s invading army. “Unfortunately, we see that the ideology of Nazism in its modern form and manifestation again directly threatens the security of our country,” Putin told the hysterical crowd.

Nobody seemed troubled by the fact that this attempt at a historical parallel was 180 degrees off course. Like Nazi Germany in 1943, Russia today is ruled by a megalomanic and driven by sick nationalist rhetoric that has lodged itself deep inside the culture. And Russia, far from the victim, is now the invader trying to impose its will onto a peaceful neighbor.

If my interest in the war were purely academic, I could probably cordon off what’s happening in Russia right now from the rest of my life. But I can’t, because this is personal. Russia is a country and a culture I love, have written four books about, and have been teaching with great enthusiasm for twenty-five years.

How do I reconcile this longtime passion with the brutality and inhumanity that have often been a part of Russian history and that are on full display right now?

The Humane Russia I Love, The Brutal Russia I Hate by @andrewdkaufman #russia

Happier days: posing with a Russian colleague in front of St. Basil’s Cathedral in Red Square, Moscow, 2011

Paradoxes of the Russian Culture

I’m not sure I ever will. I’m even beginning to wonder whether the real lesson I’m supposed to have learned from all my years of immersion in Russian culture is how to hold love and hate in my consciousness at the same time.

The fact is, the country that produced Pushkin also produced Putin. The culture that created “Swan Lake” also created the Gulag. The nation that gave us War and Peace also gave us this barbaric, idiotic war in Ukraine.

Nor do I think such paradoxes are mere coincidence. One reason Russia has been home to some of the world’s towering artists is precisely because of the repressive political culture in which they created. Most of these artists viewed it as their mission to find the beauty in the broken, glimpse the light in the darkness, and celebrate ideals of human goodness and compassion amid the evil all around them.

It pains me that I probably won’t be able to return safely to Russia for a long time, if ever again. I won’t get to hang out with Russian friends on Red Square, stroll along the banks of the Neva River in Petersburg during the magical White Nights, or spend days getting lost in Tolstoy’s sprawling estate at Yasnaya Polyana.

That Russia—the country I love—now lives in my imagination. The Russia I hate is on full display on the evening news. Both places are real. Both are true. If I am to truly know the land and have an authentic relationship with her, I don’t get to choose one without the other.

I owe much to this dark, beautiful place that has captivated and enlightened me for some thirty years. Of all the important lessons Russia has taught me, perhaps the most important is that countries and cultures, like people, can be full of both good and evil, and that the line separating love from hate is often very fine indeed.

Until next month,


Give War and Peace a Chance by @andrewdkaufman
In 2014 I published Give War and Peace a Chance: Tolstoyan Wisdom for Troubled Times. The message of the book seems strikingly relevant to our current troubled times and to what is happening in Russia right now. War and Peace is many things. It is a love story, a family saga, a war novel. But at its core, it’s a novel about human beings attempting to create a meaningful life for themselves in a country torn apart by war, social change, political intrigue, and spiritual confusion.

Give War and Peace a Chance takes readers on a journey through War and Peace that reframes their very understanding of what it means to live through troubled times and survive them. Touching on a broad range of topics, from courage to romance, parenting to death, my book demonstrates how Tolstoy’s wisdom can help us live fuller, more meaningful lives.

Join me on Facebook: Be a part of the conversation about my educational prison program, Books Behind Bars, my most recent book, The Gambler Wife: A True Story of Love, Risk, and the Woman Who Saved Dostoyevsky, as well as education, criminal justice reform, and more on our private group here.

How The People of Ukraine Are Living Out The Deepest Lessons of Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky

Whenever I mention that I teach Russian literature these days, I get a weird look of surprise, confusion, or even disgust. I’m not alone. A few weeks ago a German university canceled a class on Dostoyevsky in order to make a clear statement of their opposition to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Russian performers are getting canceled if they refuse to denounce Putin. Rivers of Russian vodka are currently flowing in sinks, toilets, and back alleys across the U.S.

But let’s be clear: The atrocities being committed in Ukraine are the result of Putin’s cruelty and megalomaniacal fantasies, not those of the Russian people, or Russian performers and writers.

In fact, we can learn a lot from Russia’s own great authors when it comes to the importance of finding beauty and humanity in even the most horrid situations.

Read the full blog

Other recent blogs I’ve written about Russia that may be of interest:

Why Most Russians Still Love Putin 

If Only Putin Had a Soul, Tolstoy Could Be the One To Save It. Here’s Why


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  1. Heidi on March 20, 2023 at 7:59 pm

    Bravo! So on point. I so enjoy these!

    • Andrew D. Kaufman on March 20, 2023 at 8:45 pm

      Thank you. Glad you’re liking them…I enjoy writing them.

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