Russia’s Strange Notion of ‘Justice’

Justice, justice you shall pursue.Deuteronomy 16:20

What do the abovee words have to do with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine? Surprisingly, a lot. This essay is about some of the reasons a significant proportion of Russians justify the country’s assault on a neighbour. Let me note by way of illustration one indicator of Vladimir Putin’s support at home: some 80 per cent of Russians over the age of 65 back the invasion all the way. In terms of numbers, that one slice of the Russia’s demographic pie is close to the entire population of Ukraine.

But first – some history. Think back to 1968, when the Soviets invaded Czechoslovakia; Russia and China clashed over a tiny Amur River islet called Damansky; the Vietnam War was in full swing, and the Beatles were all the rage. Western Europe was demonstrating against the neutron bomb, nuclear energy and Pershing missiles. The Soviet Union was at the apogee of its might and seemed likely to remain that way forever. 

But it was entirely a nation populated with contented comrades. A tiny group of dissidents was demanding the Soviet government obey its own laws. They were getting jailed, exiled, locked up in labor camps and psychiatric hospitals. The rest of the population thought them silly at best, hooligans at worst — deluded Don Quixotes challenging the windmills of Soviet progress. Meanwhile, the country was slowly stagnating, awaiting ‘perestroika’, while finding solace in cheap vodka and  ice hockey on national TV.

One of those dissidents, Andrey Amalrik (right), had the temerity in 1969 to write a small brochure called Will the Soviet Union still exist in 1984? – implying that it would not. Amalrik was sentenced to a long term of imprisonment in a labor camp and soon thereafter died.

Amalrik’s prescience is truly astonishing – he called it almost exactly right. The USSR ceased to exist in 1991. However, this brochure contained another, even more astonishing prediction. Amalrik was one of the first contemporary writers to recognise some of the idiosyncrasies of the Russian mindset being an obstacle to European integration. He prophesied that, even after the fall of the USSR, the Russian people would find it extremely difficult to integrate into the market economies of the Free World. The reason for this belief was his knowledge of the Russian mindset. To be precise, this belief was based on the traditional Russian concept of justice, known as Spravedlivost

This notion of justice could not be more different from that which prevails in the West. Let me give the example of  an old Soviet-era gag to illustrate how the same concept can mean different things to different people:

Q: What is the difference between a Russian pessimist and a Russian optimist?

A: The Russian pessimist believes that life cannot get any worse. The Russian optimist believes that of course it can!

Spravedlivost translates with a similar inverting of meaning. It is not quite, as one might assume, a concept of fairness, equity or morality. Rather, it is a deceptively simple concept: nobody should have more than I do (especially those weaker than I). If someone or something has more than me it is self-evidently unjust –  ‘nespravedlivo’. An example of this construct is a comparison of quality of life in Russia with that in the West. Many Russians honestly believe that the Western lifestyle, when compared with that of Russians, is unfair. This resentment meshes perfectly with the near-universal conviction that the perfidious West is forever plotting against and victimising Mother Russia, undermining her right to well-deserved greatness. This cocktail of envy, suppressed rage and determination to prove and be recognised for one’s superiority comprises an explosive emotional mix that is wide open for manipulative persuasion.

The ordinary Russians’ reaction to international travel is another good example. Suddenly, after the USSR’s collapse, the borders were opened and Russians from all walks of life could travel the world. They felt shocked and humiliated by what they saw. They observed for themselves Western society’s smooth functioning, its comfort, cleanliness and well-ordered structure – everything Russia so badly lacked. The reaction of many ordinary Russians to the obvious superiority of the Western lifestyle was one of anger and aggression. Instead of accepting reality and learning from it, a significant proportion of Russians reacted with resentment of the West. They regarded this superiority as unjust, as ‘nespravedlivo’. 

My Australian-born friend, a life-long fan of Russian culture, wrote to me recently of his

…sorrow, deep sadness for the nation that gave us Tolstoy, Dostoevsky & Tchaikovsky … What 100 years of totalitarianism, be it Marxism or rampant “free market” authoritarianism has done to the minds of the Russian people? Perhaps, in the 2030s, a new Russia will arise … We can live in hope

A similar sadness was invoked when the extent of the Nazi Germany’s barbarity, coming from the country of Goethe, Beethoven and Bach, became common knowledge. I share my friend’s sadness, but I am afraid the dark chambers and green-eyed jealousy of the collective Russian mind go far deeper than they appear to the Western observer. 

There are other quirks within the national Russian mindset, tics entirely foreign to those imbued with Western sensibilities. Some of these were succinctly formulated by Nobel laureate Ivan Pavlov, he of bells and drooling dogs fame. Pavlov decried an utter lack of commonsense, a high degree of suggestibility, a lack of critical capacity and a reliance on words, rather than on facts, in the decision-making processes of his fellow-Russians. I suspect that this constellation of qualities is not uniquely Russian but that, under life in an autocratic police state, they were and remain the safest rules to live by.

As noted Russian political scientist Valery Solovey mentioned in one of his broadcasts, many Russians possess commonsense and an ability to think independently; what they do not determine is the civic atmosphere. More than 50 per cent of Russians derive all their information about the world from the government-run TV ­– with a predictable outcome. In a country where the government has a virtual monopoly on programming, intense censorship is the law and fear of repression is the reality. That there is strong support for the Ukraine war and, personally, for Mr. Putin is not at all surprising. This support is also sustained by the traditional responses of ‘circling the wagons’, ‘my country right or wrong’ and, most importantly, that this ongoing war is ‘just’ and must be prosecuted until victory is achieved. Not even the ample documentary evidence of Russian atrocities, destruction of civilian infrastructure, torture and mass executions cannot shake the confidence and fervency of these supporters. 

The paradox this situation contains is not easily resolved. In my opinion, the convoluted, idiosyncratic nature of the Russian perception of ‘justice’ makes the majority of the population morally complicit in this criminal invasion and war. The tragedy is that even the brave Russians who actively and openly oppose the war (and who are getting arrested for their troubles) will be tarred with the same brush as the rest of their countrymen in the eyes of the world. The reputational and credibility loss for the entire nation will be enormous and long-lasting.

The time will come, or so one hopes, when the mind-numbing propaganda will be devalued by Russian defeat and Ukrainian victory. In time, the scales will fall off the nation’s eyes and the true horror of the crime committed against the Ukrainian people will have become apparent to all Russians. The nation will have to start its journey on the long and tortuous road towards moral redemption, as was the case with Germany after WWII. It will not, however, immediately reverse an upside-down understanding of the concept of justice as understood in Russia. This thought makes me less optimistic about the ability of the thoroughly brainwashed to re-enter the family of nations in the foreseeable future. I agree with Andrey Amalrik’s prediction. I can only hope against hope that both of us are wrong.

Dr Michael Galak and his family came to Australia as refugees from the Soviet Union in 1978

11 thoughts on “Russia’s Strange Notion of ‘Justice’

  • pgang says:

    I think it is simply time to go
    where sensible and considered analysis is available.

  • rosross says:

    While everyone is entitled to their opinion and Dr Galak has written an interesting article, it is easy to conclude that he has not approached his topic objectively. Perhaps that was not possible but it does present a very particular if not skewed view of Russia and Russians.

    In fact, in terms of painting a picture of Russians, one only needs a cartoon with Devil horns on each Russian soldier. Life is not black and white and war is always depressingly grey.

    Nothing in life is ever as simple as evil Russia and innocent Ukraine. The history clearly records that the Russians have warned of this outcome for two decades as they opposed the steady US/Nato creep toward their borders. They accepted other nations joining Nato which brought border vulnerability, but have always said, Ukraine was a no-go. Indeed, American political analyst, John Mearsheimer, warned in 2015 that Ukraine would be destroyed if the Americans and their Nato allies kept heading to the Russian border.

    The Ukrainians ignored the words of their powerful neighbour and instead invested, foolishly, their country and their future in the hands of the Americans and Nato. Mearsheimer also said, the Americans would ‘fight to the last Ukrainian.’ And that is what we see.

    The 2014 CIA backed coup in Ukraine tossed out the Russia-friendly democratically elected President and put in his place an American-friendly, not really democratically elected President and increased the power of some very radical extremists. Many Ukrainians did not support this coup, particularly the ethnic Russians in eastern Ukraine.

    It is not fair to ignore the bombing of Russian-speaking Ukrainians by the Ukrainian Government and the denial of their rights, all of which, under UN Regulations gave the Russians the right to go to their defence.

    We achieve nothing and learn even less if we do not understand all of the facts and the full picture of any war. Only by such understanding do we have the slightest chance of preventing future wars. One thing is certain, we will learn nothing from mind-numbing propaganda.

  • Solo says:

    I had a Russian friend tell me a Russian joke via email – “A man discovers a lamp, rubs it, and a genie pops out. The genie says I will give you anything you want, however, your enemy will recieve double. The man responded – very well… make me blind in one eye”

    Its a funny country. I’ve been there once, but I doubt I’ll ever be able to go again. Despite everything, most people I met were friendly and approachable and happy to have a joke. That said, they were always suspicious I was a spy from NATO – it was a bit of a running gag for the month long trip.

  • Botswana O'Hooligan says:

    My great greats came from there to the Darling Downs back in the 1860’s, I lived and worked there for many years from perestroika onwards, tough times. I saw the hierarchy change their Socialistic hats for capitalistic ones and take over the infrastructure, I saw the lower classes rob, cheat, and steal, I saw the middle classes as in my wife and family and friends, the engineers, scientists, doctors, the backbone of any country, carry on as usual to keep the country functioning. I saw extreme food shortages and a few of us in aviation bankrolled our airport Aeroflot people to allow them to get by, and as an aside they paid every rouble back to us when times improved. We were lucky for we could shop in the USA or Japan, those poor bastards couldn’t. The oil consortium offed a basing in the USA where my wife went as a consultant from time to time, I preferred Russia for I had more freedoms than I would have in the US of A and the oil company had a fit of the vapours at the very thought, white hats Vs black hats. Dr. Galak is probably slightly biased because of his past experiences but in my limited way all our family and friends in Russia don’t particularly like President Putin but I think he may have a point even tho he is no saint, for the last few Presidents of The Ukraine were/are corrupt beyond belief, and remembered that they opened the batting in 2014 when they started shelling the Donbas area.

  • Occidental says:

    Rosross in your comment you make the following averments- 1 that there is a record of Russian opposition to the enlargement of NATO membership, 2 Russia “accepted” previous enlargements of NATO membership, 3 “they have always said that Ukraine was a no-go” .
    (Ukraine has not joined NATO, and as at the time of the invasion had not sought membership, so the relevance of 1-3 escapes me). 4 The CIA backed a coup which ousted the Russian friendly President of the time. So lets get this straight the CIA, based in a country 6000 miles from Ukraine can effect Ukrainian politics more than Russia, which is contiguous to it, and speaks the same language and shares the same culture as most Ukrainians. Do you have any idea how unlikely that suggestion is. Clearly you hold a view but do you test your view against, well, common sense. I am sure the US would have a desire to see certain outcomes in every election in every country. The CIA I am sure carries out activities, for what reasons often escape me. But Ukraine is in Russias backyard, if any country can influence Ukrainian politics it is Russia. If what happened in 2014 was contrary to Russias interests the likely reason is 40 million Ukrainians, not a handful of spooks from Langley. Finally you write of Ukraine bombing Russian speaking Ukrainians – as in most of Zelenskys government? Zelensky and most of his cabinet are ethnic Russians, is he bombing himself? You then write of Russias’s legal entitlement to come to Zelensky’s and other Russian Ukrainians aid “under UN regulations”- care to cite one?

  • brandee says:

    There are claims that Ukraine is a corrupt country and for this not much evidence is available to us However there is the well known account of Hunter Biden being appointed to a petroleum company board there while his father Joe was the US Vice-President. Hunter received a large salary despite him not knowing the language and not knowing the industry. Former President Donald Trump wanted to have the matter investigated but a Ukrainian prosecutor was dismissed when about to investigate this and its connection with the large loan the Ukrainians had received from the US under Obama.
    One or both countries might have corrupt political processes at high level!

  • rosross says:


    You said: (Ukraine has not joined NATO, and as at the time of the invasion had not sought membership, so the relevance of 1-3 escapes me).

    Ukraine was not a member of NATO but it had sought membership and was on that course before the invasion so you are wrong on that count.

    4 The CIA backed a coup which ousted the Russian friendly President of the time. So lets get this straight the CIA, based in a country 6000 miles from Ukraine can effect Ukrainian politics more than Russia, which is contiguous to it, and speaks the same language and shares the same culture as most Ukrainians.

    The Americans and their CIA are active worldwide so the short answer is YES. From a conservative American thinktank:

    Quote: The “Revolution of Dignity” Was a US-Backed Coup
    The 2014 ouster of slightly Russian-leaning Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych, who drew his support primarily from the ethnic Russian–dominated eastern parts of the country, was spun by Ukrainian nationalist and Western media as a ”revolution of dignity.” It was in fact, in the words of Western security analyst George Friedman, ”the most blatant coup in history.” In case the obvious nature of events on the ground weren’t enough, this was confirmed by the leaked phone call between then assistant secretary of state Victoria Nuland and Geoffrey Pyatt, then the US ambassador to Ukraine, during which they picked their favorites for the new Ukrainian leadership and plotted how to prevent the meddlesome EU from screwing it all up by moving too slowly, potentially allowing Russia a chance to interfere in the obviously illegal ouster of an elected government through a street putsch.” Source: Mises Institute.

    You said: Do you have any idea how unlikely that suggestion is.

    Only unlikely to those either biased or ill-informed or both.

    You said: But Ukraine is in Russias backyard, if any country can influence Ukrainian politics it is Russia.

    In the past no doubt but clearly not in recent times. Money talks big in Ukraine and I suspect the Russians had less available in bribes than the Americans and allies.

    You said: – care to cite one?

    Article 2 of the UN Genocide Convention. The Ukrainian Government had been attacking the ethnic Russians in Ukraine for a decade. They asked Russia for help. One may quibble on technicalities but as any understanding of law and UN conventions will decree, the ‘fine print’ can be interpreted in many ways.

    I suggest you spend more time doing the research. Mises Institute, Lew Rockwell and others in the US have broad-based information and assessments on the matter.

  • Occidental says:

    @Rosross, quoting the opinions of others is not going to convince me of something contrary to common sense. Your reference to the “UN Genocide Convention” is not specious, it is risible. Presumably your reasoning (i am being generous) is that Ukraine is attacking an “ethnic group” (ie ethnic Russians). The trouble with the argument is my earlier question, is Zelensky and his government attacking themselves. When attempting to form an opinion about events, your first resource is common sense. Look at what is occurring with an impartial view, it is no use searching for confirmatory opinions, because you will always find them. There is so much evidence available to render the whole “Russia defending ethnic Russians” line a joke. Not the least being Russias failure to capture eastern cities, where the population is overwhelmingly ethnic Russian. At the start of the war you may remember the youtube video of on old Ukrainian woman speaking to a young Russian soldier (in mellifluous russian), and trying to hand him sunflower seeds, telling him to put them in his pockets so that at least flowers will grow above his grave. That incident captured on video is primary evidence of many things, and there are many other bits of information sometimes primary which speak of hatred for the Russian army from ethnic Russians living in Ukraine. It is sad really that in the face of the obvious people who should be objective can not see reality, presumably because they bring prejudices to the reasoning process.

  • Kyle Hargraves says:

    The article does provide a useful insight as to how Russia perceives the world but, along with The Australian (and others) the article paints with a very wide brush. Peter 1 had an up-hill task of bringing Russia into the modern era at the beginning of the 18th century. At the risk of also overgeneralising, life and customs were, at the time, more or less as they were 250 years earlier. The reforms were resisted to the point of Peter having to dispose of his own son.

    Catherine invited Voltaire, among others, to bring a sense of European culture to Russia with such initiatives being met with limited success. However, throughout the 19th century, the Russian hoi-polii spoke French which caused numerous issues in regard to correspondence between officers and NCOs during the Crimea War.

    There has never been a sense of ‘democracy’, as might be understood in the West, in Russia, the Middle East and most of Asia. What exists is very recent and tends to be Singapore or Taiwan style. Further, except for the promotion of selected individuals, there has never been any great interest in such a form of government in Russia or the PRC; Egypt, over the 20th century, being a classic example.

    Deng retained the institutions and with the policy of capitalism with Chinese characteristics and the rest is history. Unfortunately Gorby assumed that the general fellow was as smart as he was and no less altruistic; suffice to observe that Gorby made a blunder there. It is disappointing to see the degrees of marfia that exist and their effect on retailers. In Hu’s and Xi’s favour (the latter considerably so) corruption has been addressed although all countries possess a degree of corruption.

    Yet the West cannot assume the moral ground. The Ukraine thing has been an event this century and not just in the last six months. It was Khrushchev who annexed the Crimea in 1954 (a year post Stalin) and Putin merely returned the Russian-speaking region to Russia. Khrushchev, being Ukrainian, annexed Crimea in the first place. Russia has an educated, if grossly underemployed, population with over-abundant energy supplies and no shortage of arable land. The sanctions are an inconvenience but little more. The greater effect is the alienating factor that is coming to be entrenched against the West.

    For the present if the West intends a game of hard-ball then encourage an expansion of NATO. Keep in mind that troop commitments from NATO countries have declined almost 50% this century hence Trump’s remark for Europe to pay the lion’s share of NATO expenses.

    The main point for international politics is that the hegemony of the USA is declining; quite obviously in fact. The options are cooperation in a new multi-polar world or conflict in a uni-polar world. You choose Dr Galak.

  • pmprociv says:

    I fully agree with Dr, Galak’s assessment of the current Russia-Ukraine crisis. And I, too, came to Oz with my parents as refugees from that part of the world, although 30 years earlier, and still have relatives over there. To further complicate matters, my mother was Ukrainian (born and raised in Kiev), while my father was Russian (born in Georgia, raised in the Donbas region, then moved all over the place, until escaping as a POW during the war); were they still alive, they would both be devastated to see what Putin is doing right now.
    While the ethnological (and political) history of that part of the world is horrendously complex, the people are not so different from those elsewhere. However, one’s worldview is very much shaped by one’s reference frame, and there’s no doubt that the Russian public’s reference frames are being seriously distorted by Putin’s extensive propaganda (some of which trickles out to the West, as illustrated by rosross’s comments, above — with intelligent responses from Occidental). Of course, Putin’s a past master of this, with his impeccable KGB background, and is only following in the footsteps of Stalin.
    We can only speculate about Putin’s motives, but my guess is that becoming the world’s richest man is not enough: being a classical narcissist, he wants to leave some sort of permanent mark in history (perhaps using Peter the Great as a role model), although he seems to fall short in his knowledge of the past (for starters, Kiev was the precursor of Moscow in Russia’s evolution). And, like all successful autocratic demagogues, he’s whipping up jingoism among his subjects by conjuring up external enemies, while brutally suppressing any potential internal opposition. NATO keeps being raised as the bogeyman, yet anyone familiar with NATO’s history and modus operandi would be fully aware of just what a pussy-cat it’s been, all along — yet a most useful whipping boy on Tsar Vlad’s side of the border. And, of course, there’s the good ole CIA, often depending on clowns incapable of running a pub chook raffle.
    Now, as far as worldviews go, today’s Russian people are in the same situation as their hardly-different Soviet predecessors — and the German public under the Nazi regime — although perhaps they now have easier access to external sources of information. Regardless, those few who can access real news are in an invidious and dangerous situation: speak out, and get knocked on the head, or shut up, keep a low profile; just get on with survival as best you can, while hating the regime, your potentially informant neighbours, and yourself, for not being able to do much about it (and who would dare not tick a supportive box in an opinion poll, knowing the risks of being monitored?). No wonder there’s always been such a high prevalence of alcoholism in that country.
    But Russian public opinion is simply reflecting the insane and self-contradictory BS in which it’s become saturated. My bigger worry is the dangerously distorted worldview of folk in the West, where you’d think access to real truth was freely available. How does one explain the rabid MAGA crowds of pro-Trumpists in the USA, now threatening civil war? Or their supporters here in Oz, including among the readers of these very pages? The world is truly going insane, driven no doubt by the communications revolution, a.k.a. social media. Instead of spreading truth, we are being fed exponentially growing loads of paranoid conspiracy theories. Putin’s attack on Ukraine could simply be one of the most egregious outcomes, but it might also be just the beginning of something far worse.

  • pmprociv says:

    Much is being made of Russian and Ukrainian speakers in this current Putin war. It’s a furphy. They both have a common origin, and Russian was the official language all over the USSR; it remains the lingua franca in Ukraine, where it’s spoken daily by most of the population. The emphasis on Ukrainian is a recent thing, introduced by post-Soviet regimes to instil some sort of nationalism, for which the population wasn’t all that enthusiastic. Of course, Putin has changed all that, overnight — even the Russian speakers there now hate his guts, and want Ukraine to steer well clear of Russia; they’re now even keen join NATO. Putin had far better ways of keeping Ukraine out of that organisation, but for a man whose only tool is a big stick . . .

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