Interview with Andrew Nekrasov by Florian Rötzer, translated from German by John Helmer, Moscow
Andrei Nekrasov is a Russian screenwriter and playwright, film and theatre director, and philosopher who emigrated from Russia in 1980.
Born in St Petersburg in 1958, he studied acting and directing at the Russian State Institute of Performing Arts; literature and philosophy at the University of Paris; and film-making at the film school of Bristol University. He has written and directed plays in German in Bonn and Berlin.
He conducted this interview in German, and declined to say where he is currently living, except that it is a “neutral country”. Here are his career credits and fifteen films.
Florian Rötzer (right), 69, was co-founder and editor-in-chief of the online magazine Telepolis published by Heise Verlag between 1996 and 2020. Since January 2022, he has directed the online magazine, Krass & Konkret, published by Buchkomplizen and Westend Verlag.
The interview was conducted on March 5. Read the German original.
Q: You have been living outside Russia for a long time. Because of the war in Ukraine, a united front against Russia has been built. As a Russian, do you already feel this personally?
A: Not yet, but now anything can happen. War is not a battle of narratives or propaganda, but something worse. I am personally against the war. Apart from the context and the narrative, it’s the last solution, but it is not the only one. There are defensive wars when a nation under attack has the choice between war and capitulation. But even then, you have to think about the war like this: Am I personally ready to fight? Am I ready to send my children to war? If not, then please no war, even if it is a just one.
The war of the Soviet Union against Nazi Germany was a clear thing for us Russians and I would have fought like so many in my family. Some Russians also see the current war as a defensive war. Even though I am against saying that all combat-ready Russians are simply brainwashed, this does not help to understand the situation. The situation affects the whole world, not just Ukraine and Russia.
Q: You have contact with friends and acquaintances in Russia. What’s the mood like? Is it more likely to stand behind the war or criticize it? Is there a subversive mood?
A: I would like to explain why I say “me” so often and talk about myself. There are moments in history and also in politics where you have to apply a kind of phenomenology and dialectics to analyze the events. It is not enough to argue now with political clichés. Unfortunately, this happens in many media. I have studied and lived in the West, in several countries, but also again and again in Russia, where I still have many friends and colleagues. I’m just a witness who also analyzes.
There are still many different camps in Russian society. But Putin’s approval ratings have risen since the beginning of the war and despite the sanctions. This does not mean that all Russians support this war. Most of my friends are against it. The liberal intelligentsia, my environment, so to speak, is against it. Many are trying to leave Russia. But the majority supports the government. Why? For them, this war is a form of resistance. And that must sound shocking to most in Europe.
The Western interpretation goes like this: Putin is a dictator; he is obsessed with the restoration of the Soviet Union or the Russian empire; or both. As a dictator, he can do anything, while you don’t know what ordinary Russians think because they are afraid. This is superficial. Until a few days ago, the Russian media were still free. In an article that appeared in Krass & Konkret in the summer, I had warned: If you provoke Russia, which can happen in different ways, for example by building Navalny as a Russian Guaido, then there will be a self-fulfilling prophecy.
For many years Russia had free media, but in the West, people spoke of Russia as a kind of dictatorship. There were large demonstrations of the opposition. I was also an opposition figure and spoke at rallies like Navalny, Nemtsov, and other people I know. We insulted Putin and the media could say anything about Putin. Putin has often been grossly insulted, which would not be tolerated in some European countries. In Russia, you could do that. And now these oppositional media have been shut down as a self-fulfilling prophecy. And it can get worse. I don’t want to act like a prophet, but I’ve described this in several articles.
The narrative that Putin is omnipotent and everyone is afraid has been wrong for 20 years. When Putin came to power during the war in Chechnya, there were only a few critics of him, including me. Tony Blair, George W. Bush, Gerhard Schroeder, of course, and many others had nothing against him. Tony Blair was proud to welcome him as the first head of government when Russian planes bombed Chechnya. At the time, that was okay and nobody cared about it. Until the day before yesterday, it was a mistake or a lie that Russia is a dictatorship, there was freedom of expression. Some Russian liberals referred to Putin as Hitler a few years ago. That was not correct. I never voted for Putin, but he was not a dictator that everyone was afraid of. That is not the case even now. The opposition media are now gone, but the discussion continues.
Of course, everything is changing now. But the high approval ratings are not a consequence of fear, but an expression of the majority’s attitude to the war. The main reason for the war is not hatred of Ukraine. Nor is it the case that most Russians want a restoration of the Soviet Union. This is also a superficial and automatic interpretation. The intellectuals in the West say that — for me, it’s a cliché.
Q: And what would be the reason for agreeing to war?
A: The reason is exactly what Olaf Scholz called ridiculous. That’s what he said after a lengthy speech by Putin – I don’t agree at all with everything that was said. Putin said there was a genocide in eastern Ukraine. Scholz replied that this was ridiculous. Many Russians found it an insult for a German chancellor to use such words in the context of mass murder in Eastern Europe – ridiculously – even if what happened in Donbass could not be considered genocide strictly by definition. But it is a fact that about 3,000 civilians were killed, mainly in Donetsk, by shelling by the Ukrainian army and nationalist battalions. This has hardly been reported, although it continues now. Although the Ukrainian army has withdrawn from the contact line, they continue to shell these areas, which still leads to many civilian casualties.
Q: Kiev always says that the victims are to be lamented on the Ukrainian side by the shelling of the separatists.
A: In the West, people don’t like to talk about it. The civilian casualties from both sides are turned into a common figure. But if you read carefully, for example in the Russian opposition media, in which the West is always defended and the Putin-bashers write, where there were also longer texts and conversations with eye-witnesses, then it is admitted there that most civilian casualties from 2014 to the present day were in the East. Also because Donetsk is a big city. If you shoot at the city, there are more victims.
I do not believe Russian propaganda, and I am an experienced propaganda analyst from both sides. But today you will not find anything about the victims in the East in western media, only the victims of the Russian attacks. Even if that was 50:50, why didn’t you mention that all the time? This is an important problem because it was the Ukrainian army that shelled its own population.
Officially, it is said that these are all terrorists….
A: That is precisely the problem. Many Russians see this as a defensive war because it’s not just about the numbers, i.e. thousands, including many children. This has been proven, this is not fake news — it can be documented. But it’s also about why that happened. I am a witness here. I was on the Maidan and on the side of the protesters, I thought that was a good revolution. Most Russians did not see it that way and some Ukrainians did not agree with it. I can also testify to that. I spoke to Ukrainians who were against Maidan.
The main reason is that Russians and Russian-speaking Ukrainians feel attacked and sacrificed. They see themselves as victims of discrimination, of ethnic discrimination. That is quite clear, we need to talk about it. Some call this Nazism. I wouldn’t use such a term, not even genocide. Nevertheless, I find it distasteful to weigh up whether it is genocide or not in the context of thousands of deaths at the hands of nationalist battalions. Fascism is, as Camus said, contempt.
I am a witness that my Ukrainian acquaintances considered the people of the East to be inferior. These people in particular may not have meant it so badly. They used all sorts of arguments — for example, that the lumpenproletariat had concentrated in the East. But where is this exact limit? Where is the exact line between bad and not so bad? Is the slogan Ukraina above all alright? I’ve heard that all the time in Ukraine.
Q: You mean that many Russians are backing the war because of this oppression or discrimination, but not because of the security demands for Russia that the Kremlin has made?
A: That also plays a role. I first spoke of discrimination against people in the East as inferior, because it shocked me personally and I heard it personally. If I were the President of Russia, there is also logic. Putin would say that if there was a revolution in Mexico and then installed missiles from Russia or China, what would the American government do? What would the British government do if the mood in Ireland became so anti-British that there was a threat of war? This is Putin’s logic, including that NATO should not expand eastwards. I did a series for Arte and talked to a lot of people where it became clear that a whole bunch of western politicians promised the Russians not to expand NATO eastwards. The main argument now is that although the…
Q: But have not agreed in writing…
A: They don’t even say that. The then-US Secretary of State [James] Baker had made the famous promise not to go one inch to the east. He said that they say, and did not speak of Germany, but he only meant it within Germany. And [Mikhail] Gorbachev himself confirmed this. Most Russians hate Gorbachev — he is a traitor to them. From the American point of view, it is said that Gorbachev confirmed this to be so. Even if he had confirmed that only Germany was meant, it would be absurd to talk about the geopolitical conditions of NATO, but then think that one must not go an inch further inside Germany, but leave out Poland and the Baltic states.
Gorbachev was already an aging man; he had his own personal interest; and, as German politicians have confirmed, he was completely unprepared. But regardless of Gorbachev, there is common sense and honesty. When [Boris] Yeltsin gave a speech to the US Congress in 1991 and declared that communism was the evilest thing that had happened to the world in the 20th century, he was saying that we Russians are to blame for everything, or almost. Many Russians did not take this well. But this shows how willing the Russians were to cooperate with the West. Even Putin had asked [Bill] Clinton whether Russia could become a NATO member. That was a different world. One can expect a bit of honesty and goodwill from the West and not conclude that this was meant to apply only to Germany by the Americans. The Russians will never accept this.
Q: Apparently, Putin wants to occupy the eastern part of Ukraine as far as Kiev and probably install a pro-Moscow government.
A: I think it’s a very risky plan. The Russian government wants to destroy Ukraine’s military capacity. But managing society is far more difficult. Wars are easy to start and almost impossible to end. The Russians, for whom this is a defensive war, believe that most Ukrainians will support neutrality for the country. This is hope. But war makes enemies. Even the pro-Russian Ukrainians …
Q: Who is now also being bombed…
A: … are now becoming enemies. That’s why you have to think a thousand times over before you act. Maybe they have done that in the Kremlin, but I think it was probably a mistake.
Q: It looks like the US, in conjunction with Europe, is trying to isolate Russia with all sorts of sanctions and measures. Airline flight connections are cut off — the money flows and the finances and the economy anyway. It’s supposed to hurt the Russians. Will this create resistance in Russia or lead to anger against Putin?
A: We really had a big wave of opposition in Russia in 2010 and 2011. It was then that the opposition came closest to success. In fact, at the time there was talk of a revolution. In Russia, however, there has been a successful revolution only twice – during the First World War and in 1991, when it was during the Cold War and after the defeat in the Afghanistan war. A very long list of factors came together which brought the communist system to its end. In 2010-2011, there wasn’t even one percent of these factors. But now there is war. This may give rise to hope among members of the opposition and in the West that the chance of a change of government, a regime change, is now coming.
But Russia is not Iraq and Ukraine, you can’t bomb it. Some people may hate Putin; they may believe he is the incarnation of evil. The hope is that Russia will go down so far economically and politically that people will rise up. For me, this is a mistake in thinking. I can’t say it won’t happen, but at the moment the calculation is wrong. This has to do with the fact that Russia is not understood culturally, even anthropologically. Why is support for Putin growing now? Is the majority just afraid? No.
The West, in the form of its media correspondents in Moscow, talks to the opposition or to people who, like me, live in the West. But you don’t understand the majority. The West and the Russian upper class are united by the bourgeois lifestyle and the bourgeois worldview. But the Russian majority is anti-bourgeois. It is pleased with the sanctions which have hit the upper class, the oligarchs, and also the upper-middle class. They rejoice, and therefore they support the war.
Q: So you’re happy that the elite is suffering?
A: Of course. Not only the elite, the bourgeoisie. Western politicians are not intellectuals – they can only make their careers because they represent these mediocre attitudes. Such crises are not to be understood politically, one must think philosophically. The Russian people still have this deep anti-bourgeois sensibility. The Russian intelligentsia is afraid of these people. The division of society between the aristocracy, the landowners, the intellectuals, and the people, as we understand from Russian literature, is still there in a different version. One could perhaps call the anti-bourgeois attitude of the majority their resentment and view it negatively. But what can change that? For sure, the sanctions and western moral preaching will not change the Russian people. Because they consider the sermon to be hypocrisy.
Even if conditions become uncomfortable for them, they will survive because they are good at it, because they mobilize. Porsche no longer delivers cars — they laugh. The true Russians rejoice. And these are the same ones who see the war as a defensive war and reject the Ukrainian nationalists who want to return to the European family. “European family” sounds fine, does it? Not necessarily so — it has also been a colonial power that was arrogant towards those who did not belong.
People also see NATO as a military alliance in combination with the economic power of the West. The fact that the West can use so many sanctions makes the association between NATO and economic power believable to Russians as the two sides of the same aggression. The war in Iraq was based on a lie — hundreds of thousands were then killed. This is known and accepted. But no one has imposed sanctions on the US and its coalition. That isn’t possible, is it? The West is the master of world capitalism. This compels Russia to think about the alternatives. There are alternatives. There is China. There is also a Russian mix of communist and conservative values. One therefore must contemplate how to free oneself from this western capitalism and combat it.
Russia is relatively weak, but, sorry for the platitude, what doesn’t kill them makes them stronger.
The nightmare scenario for the West would be an alliance of nations and different cultures rebelling against the civilizational domination and arrogance of the West. The West claims that Russia is completely isolated, but it may be underestimating the underdog’s resentment across the world. Even if Russia loses in the current confrontation with the West, the world order, in my opinion, will not simply return to the liberal version of business-as-usual. And a defeat of Russia, which, for example, leads to a civil war, can be even worse for its European neighbors than its victory.
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