Ethics, Religion and Conflict

Breaking the Revenge Cycle? Russian Thinkers on Hatred and Love

Published on: June 7, 2024
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Breaking the cycle of revenge
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The hatreds created by war can last for centuries. Putin said recently (in his interview with Tucker Carlson) that ties between Russia and Ukraine would eventually be rebuilt. “It will take a lot of time, but they will heal,” he declared. In the light of Russia’s brutality in the Ukraine war, this feels unrealistic, not to say cynical. Healing the bitterness created by the war is clearly not something that can be taken for granted. Putin’s remarks were perhaps a fleeting acknowledgement that some people are exercised by this question.    

Fifty years ago, in a famous multi-authored volume, From Under the Rubble (1974), Alexander Solzhenitsyn touched on the power of hatred in his essay, “Repentance and Self-Limitation in the Life of Nations.” Solzhenitsyn observed that historically human beings have tended to censure and hate others rather than themselves, but they would be much better served if they denounced their own errors and sins instead. “Repentance” was the answer: “Repentance is the first bit of firm ground underfoot, the only one from which we can go forward not to fresh hatreds but to concord.”

Solzhenitsyn believed that the spiritual recovery of Russia would come from people overcoming evil personally, inside themselves. But he also envisaged healing taking place at a national level. Here he suggested Russia’s withdrawing from foreign entanglements to prioritize inward over outward growth and throwing its energy into developing the unspoiled northeastern regions of the country. This was controversial: some in the intelligentsia, although admiring Solzhenitsyn in many ways, criticized his plans for national renewal as simplistic, believing he had an idealized view of traditional Russian culture.      

A different approach can be found in a recently published collection of essays by Russian thinkers, In the Face of Catastrophe (2023). The editor of the volume, Nikolai Plotnikov, a professor at the University of Bochum, argues that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine was the fruit of a hidden desire for power over others and a resentment rooted in arrogance and phantom grievances. It was also caused by mental isolation and a tendency for people to identify evil with external enemies rather than taking responsibility for it themselves. According to Plotnikov, a credible future for Russia will only be possible if it rejects isolationist tendencies and embraces universal values. 

In another contribution to In the Face of Catastrophe, philosopher Anna Vinkelman explores the nature of hatred and how to conquer it. Hatred is characterized by “closedness, disharmony and egotism,” she declares. Breaking with it requires people to overcome egotism inside themselves and others as well as search for the motivation to improve their relationships with others, sometimes in unfavorable circumstances. She calls totalitarianism hatred in the political sphere, suggesting that it cannot be conquered by other manifestations of hatred, but only by love in its various forms. Love, which is made up of different elements—the future, light, perspective, movementwill “save the world.”  

These thoughts suggest that hatred diminishes the personality, whereas love expands it. This echoes the thinking of the Soviet dissident poet, Irina Ratushinskaya. Ratushinskaya, who was imprisoned in the mid-1980s for “anti-Soviet agitation,” wrote in her memoirs (Grey is the Colour of Hope) that avoiding hatred was essential for personal integrity: “You must not, under any circumstances, allow yourself to hate! Not because your tormentors have not earned it. But if you allow hatred to take root, it will flourish and spread during your years in the camps, driving out everything else, and ultimately corrode and warp your soul.”

Ratushinskaya’s warning about the destructive power of hatred points to an important, if obvious truth: all human beings have experience of harboring resentment. Dissenters, as well as dictators, can get gripped by dark emotions and selfish ambitions, however understandable and worthy their causes. In his book, My Russia: War or Peace? (2023), novelist Mikhail Shishkin—now living in Switzerland—remarks that the Russian democratic opposition has struggled to form a united front because each of its leading figures wants to be the “chief shepherd”—in other words, its effectiveness is diminished by internal tensions and rivalries. More broadly, he is another to talk in terms of repentance: he suggests that Russia’s slide back into a totalitarian mindset will not be halted without an acknowledgement of national guilt—along the lines of what happened in postwar Germany.  

Defining love in practical terms, in combination with truth and justice, is a complex topic. But at a basic psychological level, it surely involves wanting the best for the other person or nation—something that can be far from easy. Is it not the responsibility of faith leaders to teach people how to love those they disagree with and turn enemies into friends? Some of Russia’s great spiritual guides have had things to say on these matters. The Athonite monk, Starets Silouan, thought that any religious experience that does not lead people to love their enemies is untrustworthy, while Orthodox priest Father Alexander Elchaninov said that gazing with “love and pity” on those we are wronged by helps make us invulnerable to evil.

The Bolsheviks were adept at weaponizing grievances: the mobilization of anger against enemies was an enduring feature of Soviet propaganda. The Russian philosopher, Semyon Frank, who was involved in underground circles as a student, thought this tendency had its roots in the mentality of the revolutionary movement. In Landmarks (1909)—a precursor to books like From Under the Rubble and In the Face of Catastrophe—he warned that “hatred for enemies of the people” was the primary motivation for many revolutionaries, and that although hatred might in some circumstances be morally or socially useful—if driven by ethical motives, for example—people’s lives get morally distorted when it is not subordinated to an “active feeling of love.”

Frank thought that the logic of violence, once established, was hard to stop. Decades later, after the Second World War, he remarked: “Leaping like a spark from one soul to another, the spirit of revenge gives birth to ever new fits of hatred.” He was at the time concerned about calls for the destruction of the German people, which he thought reflected the same spirit of race hatred as the one the Nazis had been possessed by. The true victors would be those first to forgive, he stressed, insisting that the only “realistic” politics was one based on the commandment to love all people. In saying these things, he was not a pacifist; he believed war justified when it involved resistance to a “criminal will,” and that it could be motivated by love, even for one’s enemies.

Putin is a kind of “realist”—albeit a brutal and authoritarian one. But the forces he has unleashed in the Ukraine war, sadly backed by the Moscow Patriarchate, are hard to control. Frank’s ideas represent a different kind of realism, which is ethical rather than cynical in character, and which identifies the human heart as the place where the main moral struggles of life are played out. In this he and the other thinkers cited in this article have something in common, even if they do not all see the world in the same way. They share a belief that conflicts are best addressed when people take personal responsibility for their lives and countries, rather than blaming others or historical forces for what is wrong. This is surely a constructive approach. Russian intellectual history is full of figures who would endorse this. There is a tradition of thought here which could be a resource for people seeking to break cycles of violence and revenge and find ways of overcoming hatred.  

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Public Orthodoxy seeks to promote conversation by providing a forum for diverse perspectives on contemporary issues related to Orthodox Christianity. The positions expressed in this essay are solely the author’s and do not necessarily represent the views of the editors or the Orthodox Christian Studies Center.

About author

  • Philip Boobbyer

    Philip Boobbyer

    Reader Emeritus in History, University of Kent (UK)

    Philip Boobbyer worked in the School of History at the University of Kent from 1995 to 2023. He has long been interested in Russian intellectual history, religious thought, and the history of spirituality. His publications include S. L. Frank: The Life and Work of a Russian Philosopher, 1877-1950 (1...

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