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Letter to a Russian Friend

Letter to a Russian Friend
 Dominique Moïsi
Distinguished Senior fellow

Dominique Moïsi has known Dmitri Trenin, the former Director of the Carnegie Center in Moscow, for thirty years. Trenin recently spoke out in the New York Times to defend Russia's invasion of Ukraine. Dominique wrote him the following letter in response.

Dear Dmitri,

We have known each other for nearly thirty years. We first met in Rome. I came to lecture at NATO’s Defense College. You were one of the very first Russian participants in the course. The Soviet Union had just collapsed. The future was a blank page. Everything seemed possible. There was even talk of a strategic partnership between NATO and Russia. After that first encounter we met again regularly in Moscow, as we were both teaching geopolitics to Duma members and regional elites within the context of The Moscow School of Civic Education (known until 2014 as the Moscow School of Political Studies) a school committed to fostering pluralism and promoting the rule of law, launched at the beginning of the 1990’s with the help of the Council of Europe.

After our initial encounter, we would frequently cross paths in Washington at the Carnegie Endowment, as you prepared to lead its Moscow Center. Only a year ago, during the Covid lockdown, I welcomed you as my "Russian voice" for a month-long program of video conferences inaugurated by Francis Fukuyama for Institut Montaigne, Paris’ leading think tank where I am a Senior Advisor. I always appreciated your deep sense of moderation and your goodwill. You were never a dissident voice, nor were you a mere spokesperson for Russian power. You were prudent but open in your own way, serving as a bridge between two countries and two systems. You made it a personal mission to facilitate mutual understanding between Russia and America. It is now clear that such a quest failed, though this was no fault of your own. You did your best. Perhaps the task might have simply been too big. Perhaps the course of History had us moving in a dramatically different direction.

Please understand that I am not judging you

If I am writing to you today, and if I have decided to make my letter public, it is because you were abundantly quoted in a recent article published in the New York Times. I was particularly struck by your condemnation of "Russians who have spoken up against their country, against their people, and this in times of war". Do not misunderstand me, I am not judging you. Criticizing Putin’s war openly may mean leaving your country, and choosing the path of exile is onerous, especially at a certain age, with little time to start a new life and the ties of our old one holding us back. And Russia has such a great culture, such a beautiful language, how could you want to leave?

However this attachment to "my country, right or wrong" stance, at the core of your reasoning, has always deeply troubled me.

However this attachment to "my country, right or wrong" stance, at the core of your reasoning, has always deeply troubled me. I feel much closer to the position adopted by the former President of the Federal Republic of Germany, Richard Von Weiszäcker, in his 1985 speech on the occasion of the 40th anniversary of the end of World War II, declaring "May 8th 1945, was not a day of defeat for Germany, but one of liberation". It officially ended Nazis’ stronghold over the land of Kant, Goethe and Beethoven.

I have often asked myself what I would have done during the Vichy period in France (beyond the arduous task of surviving as a Jew) had I not had the privilege of my late birth in 1946. Very early on, I came to the conclusion that I would have left my country, ideally for London, to join General De Gaulle’s staunch refusal of defeat. If that had not been possible, I would have remained silent like the French writer Vercors, author of The Silence of the Sea, so as not to be forced to lie to the world and to myself.

You are no fool however, you have broad access to information

Putin’s Russia is neither Hitler’s Germany nor Vichy’s France, but it is no longer a "decent" country. Has Russia ever been decent in the recent course of History? As the grandson of a man born in Odessa at the end of the 19th century, I have a deep love of Tolstoy’s Russia, that of Chekhov and Shostakovitch. But I have much less admiration for Putin’s Russia, a country dominated by brutal and criminal thugs, as has become increasingly obvious with each passing day of the war in Ukraine.

Dear Dmitri, under the current regime, your country has simply become politically and ethically indefensible. Especially for someone like you, a man of culture, open to the world, who has access to credible news sources beyond state-controlled propaganda. You are not ignorant of what your country has become, you simply cannot be. When Russian armed forces deliberately blow up a crowded shopping center to inflict maximize civilian casualties, on top of daily abuses and atrocities, one can only conclude that their ultimate goal is to terrorize Ukrainians and force them into capitulation. Their obvious motto can be translated to "I can destroy you to the very last: surrender before it’s too late".

Surrender before you are abandoned by a fragile West whose inner divisions will only be revealed with the coming of winter. Can such a cynical and depraved country still be yours? When one cannot denounce the unspeakable, one must have the decency to remain silent.

Can such a cynical and depraved country still be yours?

Contemporary Russia increasingly resembles Stalin's

As I write these lines, I am reminded of another episode of my relationship with your country. It was at the end of the 1980s. I was walking down the streets of Moscow with another Russian friend who told me that the KGB could not openly eavesdrop on our conversation. He spoke about his "internal compromise". He was not going to defend his country’s positions in private, as he was obliged to do in public. He kept his criticisms and reservations to himself, but his silence spoke to our shared concerns about the state of the Soviet Union, its inherent nature and evolution.

Ironically, Brezhnev’s Soviet Union, and even more so that of Gorbatchev, looks "civilized" when compared to today’s Russia. Putin’s regime evokes memories of Stalin’s time. Can you not feel the irresistible wake of national fascism in your country, dragging with it all forms of decency? Are you not afraid that one day, historians, not to mention your children or grandchildren, will cast a look of shame and disgust at your response when horror, violence and lies ran rampant in your home? I do not intend to hurt you with my harsh words, but you’ve provoked me with your complacent commentaries. Please understand, in the name of our long friendship, that I could not remain silent.



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