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

Revered Russian writer and Putin critic on how the war in Ukraine has divided his nation, and why culture is the only cure

Andrew Anthony

Read Shishkin’s letter to an unknown Ukrainian

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….