Russian writer and dissident Mikhail Shiskin (Archivio Meeting)

Mikhail Shishkin: "Only culture can rebuild"

One of the greatest contemporary Russian authors, now in exile: “When the war ends, it will be language, music, poetry that will build bridges between Russians and Ukrainians. That is why I do not stop writing.”
Maria Acqua Simi

Born in Moscow in 1961 to a Russian father and Ukrainian mother, Mikhail Shishkin is considered one of Russia's leading contemporary dissident writers. Strongly critical of Stalinism (his grandfather was deported by the Soviet regime to a labour camp, from which he did not return) and of the current turn taken by Moscow, he has lived in exile in Zurich since the mid-1990s. His works, translated into more than thirty languages, have won major international awards. His latest achievement is the European Strega Prize in 2022 for the novel Escape Point. In the same year, Shishkin also published the essay Russki Mir: War or Peace? (21 Letters), which investigates the Putin era and its historical roots. We met him on the sidelines of the meeting he held at the Rimini Meeting ("Between democracy and autocracy: the fate of freedom") with Shadi Hamid, writer and researcher at the Brookings Institution. The wound from the war in Ukraine is alive, painful, but he does not stop writing because, he says, "tomorrow the war will end and it will be then that culture will be able to build bridges between Russians and Ukrainians".

“Hate is the disease, culture is the cure,” you wrote in your latest book. In what way?

Culture can only be a medicine after the cannons fall silent, when the war ends. While a conflict is going on, culture, music and literature do not stand a chance. We have seen this many times in history. Also in Italy. I think of the director Rossellini: he too, at the beginning of the war, wondered what to do. He made a film against the conflict, The Man with a Cross, in 1943. The man with the cross is a priest who on the Russian front, among the Italian soldiers, tries to go against the bloodshed because he is a man of Christ, he is a man of love. He apparently cannot do anything. Like the priest in his film, the director could do nothing against the war at that time. No book has ever stopped a war. No book written by me or my colleagues over the past twenty years has ever been able to stop the destruction.

Why write, then?
When Thomas Mann went to America (Nobel Prize winner in 1929, who in opposition to the Nazi regime lived as an exile from 1933 first in Switzerland, then in the United States before returning to Zurich in 1952), he managed to write the novel Joseph and His Brothers. At that time he spoke on the radio and gave speeches to the German people about the Holocaust, but nobody listened to him. When the war ended, the Germans said they knew nothing about those horrors. So Thomas Mann had addressed his people all those years in vain, what was the significance of his commitment? It was a huge gesture: he saved the honour of the German people, language and culture. Today, addressing the Russians and writing to them condemning the war makes no sense, but I write and narrate without interruption. And this has great significance for me, because I show that the Russian language is not just the language of Putin. For me it is important to save the honour of the Russian language because sooner or later the war will end. Then a great work of culture will begin: building bridges. Because between Russians and Ukrainians there will be such a rift created by violence and bloodshed that only those who will be able to build these bridges will be the men of culture. And they will be the first: musicians, poets, writers, filmmakers... Until then, the honour of Russian culture must be preserved, defended.

You said you were optimistic about democracy. Where does this confidence come from?
I know a bit of human history and I see that people are becoming more and more human. I see how the law of the strongest becomes the law of the weakest. I see how institutions that defend the rights and dignity of people are growing. There was a time when only the State defended the dignity of the rich, the powerful and the strong, but now states defend the rights of the weakest. Of course, it only happens in some nations, but it is a growing trend. I think of Germany: anti-Semitism killed so many Jews, but today if you declare yourself anti-Semitic there you end up in prison. This progress makes me optimistic. We do not know when all states will reach this level of democracy. Democracy is a journey. A journey that continues. But there is a risk: that of going backwards. We have seen it in Germany: in the 1920s there was democracy and then they chose, through a democratic path, dictatorship.

The task of culture is clear: have you ever felt alone in carrying it out?

I do not feel alone at all. I have many friends committed to this task. This challenge has united many to work for a common good. It is important to be together and not to move alone. My wife (Swiss Slavist Fraziska Stöcklin) is the director of the cultural programmes of the Festival 'Forum of Russian Free Culture - The New Word', where twice a year Russian cultural personalities meet for an open dialogue. This year it will be in September, in Montenegro. There will be exhibitions, presentations, round tables. It matters so much to know that we are together in the response to this wound. The problem is that we are all in exile. Can a culture exist without the territory of that culture? We have asked ourselves that question. Right now the situation is in our favour, because we are free and not in the place where the regime crushes culture. People in Russia today do not have much freedom: those who do not side with the Kremlin are relegated to the margins or forced to emigrate. Free Russian culture today in fact only survives in emigration. We already experienced this in the 1920s, during the first emigration. We had cultural centres in China, in Brazil...Today we have very advanced technology that allows us to be everywhere and keeps Russian culture alive wherever there are free men. A space of freedom has opened up, online, that was unthinkable before.

Read also - Venezuela: "Within fatigue, we are joyful Christians"

Pope Francis spoke of creative efforts for peace. What do you think about this?
I fully support the Pope's words. I pray for a change, I hope that the conflict will end and that whoever will lead Russia tomorrow will tell the world that this was Putin's war and nobody else's, because my country does not need Crimea and the Donbass to exist.