June 21, 2023

“Russia Has Put Itself in an Impossible Situation”: A Conversation

Boris Groys and Andrei Arkhangelsky

Boris Groys at HKW, Berlin, during the opening of the exhibition “Art Without Death,” 2017.

The philosopher and cultural critic Boris Groys emigrated from the Soviet Union in the early 1980s. The most renowned Soviet-born Western intellectual in the world and author of the groundbreaking book The Total Art of Stalinism (1992), Groys has been in steady dialogue with post-Soviet Russia. He gave lectures to peaceful protesters in Moscow in 2012 and has repeatedly voiced support for Russian political prisoners. While unreservedly condemning Russia’s war against Ukraine, the philosopher suggests that we regard it as part of a broader “civilizational rollback,” as an attempt to return to the imaginary year of 1913, which was a universal touchstone for both czarist and Soviet propaganda. It was the “return to the great past,” the philosopher recalls, that in the 1990s underpinned the idea of a post-reform Russia, which was essentially a sequel to the Stalinist restoration.


Andrei Arkhangelsky: Since February 24, 2022, none of us has been able to adopt an individualist approach and claim to be responsible only for ourselves: we are all now responsible—in the eyes of others—for the Putin regime’s actions. To what extent do you, a man with thirty years of experience as an emigrant, feel like a Russian implicated in post-Soviet civilization?

Boris Groys: As for me personally, I don’t feel bound up with any identity whatsoever. I don’t feel male, white, or Russian. Unfortunately, I don’t even feel old, although I definitely am old. Nevertheless, I know that others see me primarily as Russian, and I must constantly take this into account. Inevitably, the attitude towards Russia’s actions as a country is superimposed on this perception of me. I have a lot of experience in this sense: I emigrated to the West in 1981. It is generally believed that emigrants were welcomed back then, but this is not the case. When I came to the West, the attitude towards Russians was negative. Later, due to the Soviet Union’s collapse, the attitude changed to a more positive one. Now it has switched back to an extremely negative one. All this is inevitable, and when I speak, write, or communicate with people, I always take this reaction into account.

In the 1980s, though, I was still inexperienced in this regard. I was once giving a lecture in Holland and was talking about art, about this and that. A Dutch artist asked me, “Are you saying this as a Russian?” I was confused and replied that I was speaking from a universal viewpoint. But this lady said, “Oh, I see. There is a type of Russian who thinks they look at everything from a universal position. We have known this since reading Dostoevsky.” It taught me a big lesson. Generally, if you look at the list of my works, there are very few about Russia. You can count them on your fingers. I have written mainly about the Western philosophical tradition and Western culture. I would like to speak from the viewpoint of a universal European thinker, and for others to see me this way. But, alas, I am well aware that my works are always seen in the West primarily as “a view of our culture from the outside,” as a kind of exotic viewpoint.

This can also yield a certain intellectual profit, however. We have known this since the time of Montesquieu and other writers: Western civilization loves extrinsic views, the views of outsiders. I have devised my own strategy considering these circumstances, although it is difficult for me to evaluate it from the outside.

AA: For all of us who write, think, and speak Russian, the gaze of the Other is now the gaze of Ukrainians, of Ukraine as a whole. This critical, often withering gaze will now haunt us for the rest of our lives. Even many opposition-minded Russians are not ready to reckon with this Other, as has been noticeable in the polemics on social media. How can we devise our strategy now? How can we insist on our own subjectivity while also realizing our collective responsibility?

BG: If we talk about this gaze of the Other, then, of course, it has now taken on a particular poignancy, but it is essentially no different from the way Russia is viewed in other Eastern European countries, including Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic. I have been aware of it for a long time, because back in the day I did a project on postcommunist Europe with the German Federal Cultural Foundation. It is an ambivalent view. On the one hand, we are talking about Russia’s former colonies, and this critical view of Russia and Russians fits into the postcolonial discourse. On the other hand, the Eastern European nations consider themselves, unlike Russians, part of the dominant European civilization, which opposes Russians as barbarians. The complication is that this is simultaneously the viewpoint of victim and victor.

There can be no doubt that what the Russian regime is doing now is monstrous. But the war against Ukraine—I will now say a strange thing, perhaps—has done little or nothing to alter overall attitudes towards la Russie éternelle. This is especially striking not even in Europe, but at a farther remove, say, in Latin America, where I have often gone to lecture. Russia is regarded there as a country that has always been a source of repression, aggression, and terror vis-à-vis its own populace and the people of other countries. This idea ultimately took shape in the nineteenth century, because the Holy Alliance (the conservative union of Russia, Prussia, and Austria, created in 1815 to maintain the established international order) was the primary tool for suppressing liberal and leftist movements in Europe. Since then, Russia has been perceived not only at home but also abroad as a gendarme, as an enemy of all things progressive and liberal. The current war is just another confirmation of this: the Russians have not changed; they have stayed the same.

You say that now we will always have to live with this. Sure. But the thing is, we have always lived with it.

AA: Nevertheless, there have been attempts to change things in Russia as well. I remember that, during the 2012 protests in Moscow, an announcement was posted at Occupy Abay:1 “There will be a lecture by Boris Groys today.” There was something “French” about it, something reminiscent of the revolution of 1968. That revolution failed, but the children of 1968 did go on to establish the European Union. Maybe there is a hope that protests in Russia—then and now, inconspicuous and meaningless as they seem—will also lead to fundamental change decades from now.

BG: Our history is not like French history—so no, they won’t lead to change. If you look at Russian history, you will see that not a single liberation movement, starting with the Decembrists and the People’s Will,2 has ever achieved anything. This is just a historical fact. If change has ever happened in Russia, it was the outcome of military defeat or catastrophe, for example, the Crimean War, the Battle of Tsushima,3 and the First World War. Russia is a militaristic country. There is no place for any Other in its vocabulary. It believes that the other must stand at attention or be made to do so. There is no other reaction there.

Revolutions all over the world were also mostly defeated. In this sense, the difference between the West and Russia does not seem so great. But in reality, it is huge. In German, there is this concept, referring to the post-1968 period: “the long march through the institutions” (der Marsch durch die Institutionen).4 The revolution of 1968 was defeated, but those revolutionaries who were willing to integrate into the institutions of power were integrated. They eventually took ministerial posts and occupied key positions in the culture hierarchy and the media. We can say that they “sold out to capital,” as everyone did say about them. And it’s true. But, having sold out to capital, they, as you correctly say, changed the system from the inside. They did not change the economy, but they changed the West’s social and political culture. The same process took place in all the Eastern European countries in the 1990s. But it has never taken place in Russia. Even after the Soviet Union’s collapse, all of Russia’s cultural and social institutions remained in the same hands. The paradoxical nature of the Russian situation lies in the fact that the only point where drastic changes have taken place is the economy. The state economy collapsed; the new capitalist economy brought new people to power. But look at Russian universities, the Ministry of Culture, or the Academy of Sciences, at the education system as a whole: the entire cultural realm is in the hands of people of the old formation. No one emerged from the cultural opposition and rose to a position of leadership. The members of the Soviet underground either remained in the same circumstances of social exclusion (only after 1991 could they live and work freely without fear of repression), or they emigrated. We should not forget that large-scale emigration began immediately after the Soviet Union’s collapse. Why? Because integration into the institutions of power did not happen. It never happens in Russia.

Theoretically, back in the nineteenth century, those selfsame Russian populists should have been integrated into the structures of power and been awarded the titles of princes and barons, as happened in England. There, when a person protests too much, they are usually made a member of the House of Lords. But this did not happen in Russia even after 1991, because the Russian bureaucracy has no desire to integrate anyone. Because, essentially, it is a military bureaucracy, and if you are a civilian, why make you, say, a general? That would be simply ridiculous. Professors of philosophy in Russia are also basically generals. The Russian imperial Table of Ranks equated all civil titles with military ranks.5 Your position in the ecclesiastical, university, postal, or engineering hierarchy corresponded to a military rank.

Another quite important point is that, in the 1990s, the Russian emancipatory, revolutionary, and progressive movements were compromised by the reformers themselves. Everyone talked each other into thinking that revolution was an unspeakably horrible thing, that liberal and socialist movements had ruined Russia in the past, and that the truth had been on the side of conservatives like Pyotr Stolypin.6 Or, globally, that it was on the side of generals like Pinochet who had dumped left-wing intellectuals from airplanes into the sea. In the intellectual circles of the 1990s, and indeed subsequently, the idea that revolutions should be put down prevailed. Well, they have been put down to this day—and nothing has changed.

AA: People of culture and, more broadly, the intelligentsia have not been integrated into the system of power, but they have retained their spiritual and creative independence. And this is also important social know-how—the experience of freedom, which no other milieu in Russia has had.

BG: Russian literature, Russian avant-garde art, and Russian music have been produced by the cultural opposition since the nineteenth century. Tchaikovsky and Shostakovich were, for better or worse, exponents of the progressive-liberal tradition, which was not integrated into the regime, but had its own tradition and continuity. The way the artistic underground in Moscow and Leningrad in the 1970s lived, which I witnessed, was not that much different from the way their counterparts in Paris lived during the same period. Artists and poets in those years were quite universal people and did a lot of good. It is just that, unlike their counterparts in Paris, they have remained in that unofficial bubble of their own. Thanks to them there is a kind of second line of Russian culture that does not intersect with the official one, and it is in this capacity that Russian culture has been integrated into the Western cultural tradition. It was the same a hundred years ago: at the same time that Soviet Russia was absolutely rejected, politically speaking, in the 1920s, the Russian ballet was number one in Paris. These two lines are present in Russia even now, but I don’t know whether they will ever connect. Maybe they will, maybe they won’t.

AA: A well-known Ukrainian psychologist has argued that the main problem of post-Soviet people is their lack of subjecthood, their inability to perceive themselves as individuals. In English and in German, it is customary to insist on one’s own being: I am, Ich bin. A similar phrase once existed in Russian—az yesm—but then it disappeared. Individuals in Russia, including Putinist Russia, do not feel that they exist.

BG: We shouldn’t exaggerate the role of the nation in this case. Any nation is a multitude of people who are busy surviving from day to day, and the struggle to survive usually takes twenty-four hours a day. Look at France in the 1940s: there was Vichy, and there was de Gaulle, and each camp had a small group of political supporters. But the bulk of the populace lived as quietly under de Gaulle as they had lived under the Vichyites. It was the same under the Nazis in Germany. The populace usually accepts the regime that history offers it. Ordinary people want to survive, and loyalty to the authorities is part of their strategy for surviving. It is not, therefore, a matter of ordinary people and their subjectivity or lack of subjecthood. The central problem is how a country’s political class is formed and how it functions. Greece and, later, Rome proposed what was, at the time, a completely new mode of forming cultural and political elites—a competitive mode—unlike the Eastern despotisms, in which there was no competitive model for shaping the political class. Accordingly, there was no integration of successful people into the system of power. Note that when someone succeeds in the West, people immediately get behind them and start writing about them. An athlete, for example, sets a new record in the hundred-meter dash. Immediately, companies line up to use the athlete’s name in their advertising. The athlete is invited to appear on CNN and is profiled by the New York Times. That is, there is an immediate positive reaction to any success. In Russia, on the contrary, success elicits only one reaction: “There is probably someone behind it. They should be exposed and totally shunned.” So, there’s not much point in talking about the common folk in this case. It makes sense, rather, to talk about the principles for forming the political class. The current ruling class in Russia is a monstrous sight. The only thing there that more or less functions there, as I said, is the economy.

AA: In the 1930s, the defining factor in the Soviet Union was the impetus for “life-building” (zhiznestroenie), for remaking world and self, as you write. Nowadays, however, apathy and indifference prevail in Russian society. And yet, is apathy also a kind of energy, only negative, that blocks positive energy? And the second question: does the current energy of “life-building” in Russia remind you more of the 1970s or of the 1930s? Because denunciations and large-scale crackdowns have again become the norm.

BG: First of all, the current era has nothing to do with the time of Stalin, which was an era of socialism. It was a time when everything was state-owned, and all individuals were the property of the state. Stalin mobilized the populace in order to complete the country’s industrialization at an accelerated pace. The crackdowns were aimed at achieving specific goals. Now, on the contrary, there is total apathy. First of all, because people have been given private property. Accordingly, they have been given things to care for as individuals. When I read the current Russian press, I am usually struck by the argument, which is voiced there especially often, that private property makes a person a political subject. In reality, the exact opposite is the case. The bourgeoisie is always conservative and always serves the regime. The bourgeoisie has a stake in stability, in ensuring that nothing changes. After all, why is the proletariat a revolutionary force? Because it has nothing to lose except its chains. The Soviet Union was in a similar state as it neared its demise: people had nothing to lose and so they had no interest in maintaining the regime. The regime did not guarantee them anything because they had nothing. And it was these people who made it possible for the regime to fall within two days. The current regime, in my opinion, looks different because many people have something to lose. They have something to take care of and something to protect. And they align themselves emotionally with the conditions that guarantee their preserving of this status quo.

AA: Your argument sounds rather paradoxical. For many years, the principal reproach to the Putin regime was that Russia had not become bourgeois enough. The country’s bourgeoisie, as Victor Pelevin wrote, had emerged from the tiny cadre of people who served the interests of the oligarchs. Russia formally lived under capitalism, but the authorities had suffocated the emerging spirit of capitalism with all their might. The majority of people had received the bulk of their property—their apartments—for free. They thus did not pay for capitalism. But now you say that it is the bourgeoisie, the burghers, who are the glue of stability in Russia.

BG: In the West, the bourgeoisie and capitalism also originally arose through nationalizations of feudal and ecclesiastical lands; that is, they were also the outcome of revolutionary processes, not of commercial transactions. So, there is no particular difference in this instance. Private property from which people receive a little income is not necessarily bourgeois. I remember how, in the 1970s, people in the Soviet Union idolized their garden plots, not because they brought these people any benefit, but because they gave them a sense that they were theirs and theirs alone. Here is another example: the most massive protest movement in Putinist Russia was sparked by the unwillingness of people to get vaccinated. Why? Because, under capitalism, my body is my property. It may be sick and ugly, but it is mine. And yet the state wanted to invade people’s bodies with a syringe! It was a vivid manifestation of the Russian people’s commitment to the principle of private property. We can say that nowadays the property in question is quasi-private property, which nevertheless also makes the present system resilient because everyone understands perfectly well that this property is guaranteed not by law but by the current political regime. And that when a new order arises, it could easily come and confiscate what people have. It could demand that people give back the very same apartments you just mentioned. It would show up at their doorsteps and say: you didn’t pay for your apartment, so give it back. Is this possible? Of course, it is possible. So, by no means should such a regime come to power.

AA: Another of your arguments is that the war is Putin’s way of building a new Berlin Wall between Russia and the West. It is an attempt to fence Russia off from the world. The world, in turn, would also like to separate itself symbolically from the current Russia. But in the twenty-first century, the world is so round and transparent that it is impossible to imagine these new walls. This is pie-in-the-sky thinking.

BG: This illusion—that the world has become transparent and unified—arose in the late nineteenth century when passports no longer played a role geographically and it was possible to travel freely around the world. It was believed then that a new division of the world was no longer possible. The First World War put paid to this illusion. Don’t forget that I live in America: I read American newspapers and I watch American television. I can say that the main question that all economists, politicians, and journalists are discussing nowadays is how to optimally separate the American economy from the Chinese economy, and then, if possible, from all the other economies. Because too-close economic ties lead to political and strategic dependence. Economic rationale and political rationale sometimes coincide, but not always. Now they are definitely out of synch because other countries use overall economic ties as political levers. For example, the production of semiconductors and many other things that are needed by the digital economy is already a problem, since almost all of this stuff is made in China. How to end this dependence is an urgent question for America, and it will certainly find a way to separate itself.

The same thing has been happening with the internet. All those notions about the internationalism and globalism of social media networks and online services are nothing more than an illusion. People used to think that Google and Facebook were “global.” They are not global: they are American corporations. They are registered in the US, pay taxes in the US, and obey American laws. The same applies to China. TikTok is not a global corporation either, but a Chinese one. There is still nothing global in the world. There is no doubt that the “origins” of supposedly global corporations will play a decisive role in new political conflicts.

AA: The philosopher Elena Petrovskaya writes that the Putin regime is hollow in terms of ideological contest, that it is essentially a political nonentity. This is the difference between the current system and the Soviet regime. Where then (to ask the question again) does the current regime derive its energy? Or, perhaps, this “hollowness” is, on the contrary, the essence of a new type of twenty-first century regime?

BG: I don’t think the current regime is a nonentity. What is happening in Russia needs to be compared to what has been happening in the other post-Soviet countries. In all of those countries, without exception, the end of the Soviet regime was regarded as a return to the point when they had taken a “wrong turn.” The Soviet decades were seen as a period that had to be erased from history. In the Eastern European countries, they were a period of Russian occupation in which the normal course of national history had been forcibly interrupted. The same return to the starting point occurred in Russia itself after 1991. The mission was to bring back “the Russia we lost.” The Soviet Union had famously compared its successes with 1913, the peak of the czarist empire’s prosperity. So, paradoxically, Soviet propaganda itself pointed to a new benchmark—returning to 1913. Well, okay. Putinist Russia eventually returned to 1913. This, however, is also nothing new. It was Stalin who started it. In the 1940s, during the war, he began to restore imperial-era shoulder straps and uniforms in the military, and so on. Stalin’s army looked more like the White Army than it looked like the Red Army. The crowning touch was when Stalin toasted the [ethnic] Russian people in 1945.7 The current Putin regime is thus a) an heir to 1913, and b) a continuation of Stalin’s restoration process. The idea of the current regime is that “Stalin did not restore everything, but we are restoring everything.” Including the Russian Empire.

And in fact, they have done it: Russia is once again a militaristic country. Although it is formally capitalist, it has a huge state sector. One hundred years ago, it exported furs to the West, and now it exports oil. The form of government is virtually autocratic. The bureaucracy runs things. The cherry orchard in which the intelligentsia dwelled is being chopped down again. And yet, there is a similar technological and cultural dependence on the West. In the old days, Russians ordered fashionable hats from Paris, but nowadays they order iPhones from abroad. Although they order hats from the West nowadays too.

You know, I somewhat enjoyed reading the memoirs of [the Russian White Army General Anton] Denikin, who describes in detail the war between the Whites and the Reds.8 His descriptions make an incredible impression on the modern reader. The current war is being fought over the very same towns and cities, and the demarcation line is the same as it was then. The Red Army controlled the same territory the Ukrainian army controls now, while the White Army occupied the same places the Russian army now occupies. That is, the current war is just Denikin’s campaign revisited.

Why does Putin’s current ideology make a strange impression on philosophers and political scientists? Because Putin says he is a conservative. But he is a conservative who has nothing to conserve. His is a conservatism that chases after a completely squandered past, turning it into an image of the future. There is nothing real or practical behind it, but the idea itself is regarded by the populace as a genuine return to the imperial Russia we lost. Although there is no doubt, of course, that this is an ideological mirage. Elena Petrovskaya is right in this respect.

AA: “We will understand this period of Russian history only when it ends. And it will end in a couple of years, that’s clear. It won’t last long”: you said this in an interview.9 But the Kremlin apparently wants a permanent, endless war. What is your basis for arguing that the current situation cannot last for long?

BG: Yes, Putin wants permanent war, perpetual war. He is like a newfangled Heraclitus.10 But there is, firstly, the general philosophical consideration that everything that begins has the tendency to come to an end. This rule also applies in the twenty-first century. The situation in which Russia has found itself in during this war is a situation that is literally impossible. That is, it can last for some time, of course. When I say “soon,” I mean the historical perspective. But the current situation, I repeat, is impossible. Such situations cannot last long. After all, life takes its toll. It is also impossible for economic reasons because Russia’s role in the world economy has not changed: it sells raw materials in exchange for finished Western goods. The Chinese market cannot make up for this shortfall.

People in Russia oddly regard the West not as a site of production, but as a site of consumption—as a place from which they get goods without really thinking about how those goods are produced. Generally speaking, Russia’s current circumstances are mainly shaped by the fact that in recent decades the country has been modernized at the level of consumption, not at the level of production. Accordingly, the West is perceived as a place of consumption and recreation, as a place where you can “dawdle” before going back to Russia. But this “dawdling” has become a necessary part of both politics and economic development. Now Russia is in a trap again, like the Soviet Union was in the 1980s before it collapsed. Once again there are no economic or even personal prospects. There is practically nothing people can do. Strangely, the current military misadventure is designated in Russian propaganda by the Latin letter Z. Moreover, this Latin Z is now a token of loyalty, usually replacing the Russian letter З. This further Romanization of the Russian alphabet is another sign that Russia continues to be dependent on the West and focused on it, even against its will. It also shows that everything is heading toward a dead end and heading there fast. This cannot go on for too long.

Originally published in Russian by Radio Svoboda, May 3, 2023. Translated by Thomas H. Campbell.


See Miriam Elder, “Russian Protests: Thousands March in Support of Occupy Abay Camp,” The Guardian, May 13, 2012 .


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Joseph Stalin, “Toast to the Russian People at a Reception in Honour of Red Army Commanders …,” May 24, 1945. Available at marxists.org .


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See (in Russian).


“War is father of all, and king of all. He renders some gods, others men; he makes some slaves, others free.” —Heraclitus

War & Conflict

Boris Groys is a philosopher, essayist, art critic, media theorist, and an internationally renowned expert on Soviet-era art and literature, especially the Russian avant-garde.

Andrei Arkhangelsky is a Russian literary and culture critic and public intellectual. He left Russia in 2022 and is now based in Berlin.

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