The Volokh Conspiracy

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The West Should Heed this Message from a Russian Prison

Imprisoned Russian opposition leader Ilya Yashin explains why the West should avoid ascribing collective guilt to Russians. He's right on both moral and pragmatic grounds.


Imprisoned Russian opposition leader Ilya Yashin.


Russian opposition leader Ilya Yashin was recently sentenced to 8.5 years in prison for using his YouTube channel to publicize evidence of the Russian military's atrocities in Ukraine. Time recently published a message Yashin wrote to world, from behind bars (English version here, Russian here). In it Yashin warns us against ascribing collective guilt for the war to Russians as a group. Doing so is morally wrong, and also likely to bolster Vladimir Putin's grip on power. Such imputations of collective guilt have become increasingly common, reflected most notably in widespread refusal to grant refuge to Russians fleeing Putin's regime, on the theory that they share responsibility for its actions.

We would do well to heed Yashin's warning against this way of thinking:

Soon, a year will have passed since the start of the war unleashed by the Kremlin against Ukraine. It has taken thousands of lives, destroyed entire cities, and turned millions of families into refugees. Vladimir Putin, the one responsible for this tragedy, has become a true symbol of evil, reviled around the world. But it also seems that, more and more often, the Russian people are treated as enemies. The main accusation against the Russians: You did not resist the aggressive policies of your government, and that makes you accomplices to war crimes.

My name is Ilya Yashin, a Russian opposition politician, whom the Kremlin has kept in prison since the middle of last summer. I've been sentenced to 8.5 years of incarceration, because I publicly spoke out against the war in Ukraine. But today I want to say a few words in defense of my nation.

First: We did resist. Since the start of the war and throughout 2022, the police in Russia arrested almost 20,000 opponents of the war. According to human rights groups, protests have taken place almost every day in different cities since February 24, 2022, and only 18 of those days have passed without arrests and detentions…..

Second: People are fleeing Putin. In the past year, some 1 to 1.5 million people have left Russia [the English version says 700,000, relying on an October 2022 article that, among other things, cannot take account of those who fled since then]. The majority of them have emigrated, not wanting to be involved in military aggression. I want to call attention to the fact that at least twice as many people have fled as have been drafted for military service. Yes, you can blame those who chose to escape instead of choosing the path of resistance, prison, and torture. But the fact is that hundreds of thousands of my countrymen left their homes behind, refusing to become murderers on the orders of the government.

Third: Those who remain in Russia are living as hostages. Many of them don't support the war, but remain silent, afraid of repression…..

I appeal to the international community to choose wisdom. Do not demean Russians, as that kind of rhetoric will only strengthen Putin's grip on power. By shifting the blame for war crimes from the Kremlin junta onto my fellow citizens, you are easing the Putin regime's moral and political burden…. I see that as a serious mistake….

I believe Russians might become allies of the free world in resisting tyranny. Extend a hand to my fellow countrymen.

[I have in some places revised Time's translation to better reflect the Russian original; I am a native speaker of Russian, and thus in a position to make such judgment calls].

As Yashin suggests, ascriptions of collective guilt are wrong in themselves—conflating the innocent with the guilty. In addition, they play into the hands of the regime's propaganda by lending credibility to its claims that the West is hostile to Russians, as such.

His argument can be extended in a few ways.

First, I wonder how many of those who fault Russians for not protesting enough, would themselves be willing to do so if they were in Russia right now, and speaking out meant risking a lengthy prison sentence, like the one Yashin got? We should be wary of imposing standards on others that we would not live up to ourselves, if we were in their place.

Second, as I have argued time and again from the beginning of the war, both moral and pragmatic considerations counsel in favor of opening our doors to Russians fleeing the regime, just as we—to a large extent—have done for Ukrainian refugees (I cannot easily be accused of neglecting the cause of the latter). The large-scale exodus Yashin refers to occurred despite the fact that the only refuges available to most of these people are poor and often unstable countries such as Kazakhstan and Turkey. Many more might come if able to go to richer and freer Western democracies. Thus, more would be freed from oppression, and the "brain drain" and loss of manpower imposed on Putin's regime would be larger. To the extent that theories of collective guilt are used to justify barring Russian migrants, they are having a deeply pernicious effect.

Finally, projecting a less negative attitude towards the Russian people is in the long-term interest of both Ukraine and the West. Military action may enable Ukraine to expel Russian troops from its territory and end the immediate threat of conquest. But the long-term threat posed by Russia will only dissipate if Putin's authoritarian nationalist regime is replaced by a much more liberal one that abjures oppression and conquest. Such an outcome is far from guaranteed. But, at the margin, it will be easier to achieve if Russians do not see the liberal democratic world as enemies who hate them indiscriminately. While helping Ukraine defeat Putin on the battlefield, we should also reach out to Russians who might eventually put an end to his regime at home.

None of this means Putin alone bears the sole blame for the war and its evils. Obviously, he has many collaborators, including some who are responsible for horrific atrocities. Those people deserve condemnation and—where possible—punishment. But we should distinguish between them and the population, at large. Indeed, punishment for war crimes is another goal that—most likely—can only be achieved through a liberalization of Russia. So long as the present regime remains in power, little can be done to bring thr highest-level war criminals to justice.

I criticized theories of collective guilt in greater detail here, including addressing claims that ordinary citizens of unjust authoritarian regimes deserve blame if they approve of the government's policies.

It is worth noting that it is very difficult to tell what percentage of Russians actually support the government and its war, given that survey respondents have strong incentives to give pro-government answers for fear of punishment under the draconian censorship laws enacted last year, which make it a crime to even refer to the conflict as a "war" (as opposed to a "special military operation," the official Kremlin euphemism). But the combination of the mass exodus and the government's resort to draconian repression suggest that there is a lot more opposition than may be visible on the surface. If the overwhelming majority of Russians really did support Putin's war, the regime would have no need to engage in repression on this scale, nor would we see such massive emigration.

Yashin may be too optimistic about the extent of popular opposition to Putin. But Westerners who claim an overwhelming majority support the war are also likely in error.

NOTE: Despite having the same first name, Ilya Yashin is no relation of mine. The name is a common one.