Mikhail Shishkin: ‘The main enemy of Russian culture is the Russian regime’

<span>Photograph: Philipp Schmidli/EPA</span>
Photograph: Philipp Schmidli/EPA

Mikhail Shishkin was born in Moscow and is one of the most lauded writers in contemporary Russian literature, and the only one to receive all three of Russia’s most prestigious literary awards. An outspoken critic of Vladimir Putin and what he calls his “criminal regime”, he has lived in exile in Switzerland since 1995. In My Russia: War Or Peace?, his most recent book to be translated into English, he surveys the violent contours of Russia history and examines the troubled relationship between the Russian state and its citizens.

You’ve spoken in the past of a civil war in Russian literature between nationalists and liberals. Has that deepened since the invasion of Ukraine?
Twenty years ago we were all together in Kyiv at the literary festival – writers and poets writing in Russian in Ukraine. And I had the feeling that finally we are building the future Russian culture, where mutual understanding is important. And then later the Crimea annexation came and I saw people I’d been sitting at the table with shouting: “Crimea is ours! Crimea is ours!” It was like the famous play by [Eugène] Ionesco, Rhinoceros, where people turn into rhinoceroses. It wasn’t possible to talk to them. It was impossible to talk to my brother who lives in Moscow. So we became strangers. There is something like a civilisation gap between us in Russian culture. I can understand why people who don’t read books support this war. But it’s impossible for me to explain why cultured people support this war.

Putin has the psychology of all dictators: ‘If I leave this world, the world must go with me’

In your book you say it’s the mission of all Russian writers and artists to show that not all Russians support this war. But as you say, many artists and writers don’t think that’s their mission.
It’s a mission for me now. All my life I felt very solid ground under my feet. It was Russian culture. And now it’s blown away. One hundred years ago Russian immigrants were not ashamed of speaking Russian on the streets of Berlin or Paris. But now they are ashamed to speak their language. And my mission now is to do everything to return dignity to the Russian language. And that is possible only with the victory of Ukraine in this war against our common enemy, the Russian regime, because the main enemy of Russian culture is the Russian regime.

You write that Russia will have a future only if it passes through total defeat. Is that a viable option for a nuclear power?
Putin has the psychology of all dictators: “If I leave this world, the world must go with me.” They don’t have empathy. They don’t love people. They hate people. And so I’m sure he would press the red button. But nobody will fulfil his order to destroy the Earth. Nobody. And you know why? Because in Russia the main question is not like in Russian classical literature of 19th century: who is to blame? What is to be done? No, the main question is: is the tsar real or false? And you can prove that you are real by winning a war. Stalin killed millions of people but he is beloved by the population. Gorbachev was beloved in the west, but he lost the Afghanistan war and the cold war against the west. [So] he’s despised. Putin’s generals told him they would take Kyiv in three days, and he miscalculated. He failed. And now he is a false tsar. Nobody will fulfil an order from a false tsar.

Your book is a warning against the corruption of language, the normalisation of the lie. But if a lie carries more power than the truth, who will be brave enough to challenge it, and risk imprisonment or death? When was the last time, for example, you were in Russia?
Last time I was in Russia was in October 2014. At the Krasnoyarsk book fair. I was the only one who was talking from the stage about the war. This silence was so humiliating, it was my last visit to Russia. Now it’s impossible to go anyway. I get death threats, but what should I do? Should I keep silent? Should I stop talking or writing? Then my life doesn’t make any sense any more. I will not give up.

You write about the “wild 90s” in Russia when oligarchs stole natural resources and criminals were empowered. It was the great missed opportunity. What could the west have done to support Russian democracy?
I’m afraid the truth is that the west helped to introduce this criminal regime to Russian people. In the 90s people were ready for democracy but they had no idea how it works. What did western democracies show to the new Russian democracy? I worked as an interpreter in Switzerland and I saw how this huge laundry machine works. People with the stolen money, the dirty money came from Russia to open an account in Zurich. And lawyers, people from the banks, everybody was so happy to get this dirty money. They were absolutely aware that this was dirty money. The same thing happened in London, even worse I think. It’s of course the main responsibility of the Russians but without this support from western democracies, it would have been impossible to create this new dictatorship in Russia.

Do you view the future of Russia with any sense of optimism?
I am very optimistic for Ukraine. I’m sure they will have victory in this war. And I’m very pessimistic for the Russian future. I don’t think it will be a democratic, wonderful, beautiful country. One day Putin will not be here, and then we will see a huge fight for power. The collapse of the Russian empire will continue; all these national republics will leave the Russian Federation. Siberia will go. I think we will have new dictators and the west will support them because they will promise to take control of nuclear weapons, and Russian history will bite its tail again.

You say in the book that hate is the disease, and culture is the cure. Can culture have a role in changing that bleak future?
After this war, there will be such huge hate between Ukrainians and Russians. It will be not easy to make bridges. But we’ll have to make bridges. And these bridges can be built only by culture, only by civilisation, only by literature and music. That will be the huge mission.

  • My Russia: War Or Peace? by Mikhail Shishkin, translated by Gesche Ipsen, is published by riverrun (£18.99). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply