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Living as a Russian After the Outbreak of War in Ukraine

Ven. Pomnyun Sunim. Image courtesy of Jungto Society

The Korean Seon (Zen) master Venerable Pomnyun Sunim (법륜스님) wears many hats: Buddhist monk, teacher, author, environmentalist, social activist, and podcaster, to name a few. As a widely respected Dharma teacher and a tireless socially engaged activist in his native South Korea, Ven. Pomnyun Sunim has founded numerous Dharma-based organizations, initiatives, and projects that are active across the world. Among them, Jungto Society, a volunteer-based community founded on the Buddhist teachings and expressing equality, simple living, and sustainability, is dedicated to addressing modern social issues that lead to suffering, including environmental degradation, poverty, and conflict.

The following article is part of a series of essays shared by Jungto Society of notable highlights from Ven. Pomnyun Sunim’s writings, teachings, and regular live-streamed Dharma Q+A sessions, which are accessible across the globe.

Q: I’m from Russia and lived in Russia. I protested against the war because I think that this war is unjust and a terrible thing to do. For this reason I had to escape from Russia. I could receive up to 15 years in prison for that. I can’t explain to everyone I meet that I am actually against the war, and I feel ashamed of saying that I’m Russian—and sometimes it’s even dangerous to say so. I feel like I’m in a black hole. I know that I have to start doing something and start living again. But I don’t know how to do that because nothing makes any sense anymore. How can I find internal peace and motivation to live on in such a situation?

Ven. Pomnyun Sunim: Thanks to you, we now know that there are Russians like you who are feeling very conflicted about the war in Ukraine. By seeing a Russian who is so conflicted over this situation, many people will be able to let go of their misunderstandings and hatred against Russians. Rather than the Russian people, the Russian government is responsible for starting the war in Ukraine. 

I think you are under a delusion. Because you identify yourself with the state of Russia, you are feeling extremely guilty. In contrast, there are Russians who also identify themselves with the state of Russia and are willing to sacrifice their lives fighting for Russia. Psychologically, the two groups can be considered to be in the same mental state. However, you are just one of more than 100 million Russian citizens. You are not the Russian government. Therefore, you don’t have to take on all the responsibility for what Russia has done and feel guilty about it.

This problem is not unique to Russians. Throughout history, Americans and Germans have also experienced such a problem. During the Vietnam War, many American soldiers and civilians suffered from such guilt. When governments commit injustices, the citizens of that nation experience great anguish. Some people leave their country and give up their citizenship. Others engage in anti-war protests and end up in jail or punished in some way. In the case of the Vietnam War, there was resistance against the war within Vietnam, but it was the anti-war protest within the US that played a critical role in ending the war. 

So the best way for this war to end peacefully is for the Russian citizens to initiate an anti-war protest movements within Russia. It is best for the Russian government to end the war by heeding the voices of the anti-war protesters. However, it is not easy for the citizens to put up a resistance since the Russian government is so oppressive. 

In Germany, during the Second World War, many people put up a great resistance by participating in anti-war protests, but those who couldn’t do that left the country. Germany failed to end the war on its own. Rather, it ended with the collapse of Hitler’s regime. To this day, the German people are still apologizing for their past wrongdoing. 

In the past, Japan invaded many of the neighboring countries in Asia. Most Japanese people identified themselves with their country, so unlike Germany, they are not penitent about the past. They feel it’s unfair that they lost the war and don’t view themselves as the aggressors. There were people in Japan who were greatly distressed by Japan’s invasion of other countries. However, since the Japanese government at that time was extremely oppressive, only a few people actually protested against the invasion. 

You have three options. The first option is engaging in anti-war protests at the risk of your life. I’m not saying that you absolutely should do this. The second option is for you to leave Russia. You may not be ready to put your life on the line to protest against the war, but at least, you won’t be supporting or contributing to the war in any way. During World War II, a great number of Germans left Germany and sought asylum in other countries. This can be considered passive resistance. The third option is that you can engage in anti-war protests outside of Russia. This may be a compromise between the first and second option. What I’m saying is that you don’t need to feel obligated to take part in anti-war protests. By leaving Russia you have already expressed your opposition to the war.

It was entirely wrong of Russia to invade Ukraine. Both domestic and international laws stipulate that it is unlawful to engage in military conflict to solve problems. However, there have been instances in recent history when strong powers, including the US, have sought to resolve their issues through military conflict. We have also witnessed many governments suppressing people’s resistance with violence. The most recent example can be found in Myanmar. 

Clearly, Russia was wrong to invade Ukraine. However, in order to resolve this conflict I think it’s also important for Western countries to understand Russia’s fear of the threat to its national security. Another point is that Russia is still a very strong power, so it’s going to be difficult for this war to end with Russia’s defeat. At the same time, since the West is backing Ukraine, it will be hard for Russia to conquer Ukraine. Consequently, this war will likely drag on, resulting in enormous casualties and suffering. Many soldiers on both sides will die, and the infrastructure in Ukraine will be totally destroyed. People around the world will also suffer because of import and export sanctions. 

However, leaders around the world seem to be unwilling to come up with rational solutions to this problem. So I think taking this problem as your own is an overreaction on your part. All beings have the right to lead happy lives. I think you should give up everything you left behind in Russia and try to start anew in a new country. If possible, you can represent Russia in expressing your opposition to the war. If that’s not enough to give you peace of mind, you can actively engage in anti-war protests abroad. However, if you do that, you have to endure the contempt of your compatriots in Russia. 

In conclusion, I hope that you can settle in a new place and regain your peace of mind. Whether you engage in anti-war protests or work for your living, whatever you choose to do, you have to do it with peace of mind. This way, you can do those things consistently. If you are emotionally unstable, you may get angry and easily resort to violence. That won’t help anyone. So, first and foremost, you need to calm your mind and regain your composure. Then you can engage in consistent peace efforts to the best of your abilities on behalf of Russia and the world. 

When you think of North Korea, only things like missiles, nuclear arms, and dictatorship come to mind, right? Because North Korea has been demonized in such a way, we often forget the fact that there are 25 million people living there. These people are victims of their own government, and we turn our back on them using the North Korean government as an excuse. This is not the right attitude. 

Therefore, we have to be careful not to demonize the Russian people and harbor hatred toward them due to the wrongful actions of the Russian government. Furthermore, we should not hold a binary perspective and think that everything Ukraine does is angelic and everything Russia does is evil. There are many inevitable reasons for the conflict between Russia and Ukraine, although it is clearly wrong that Russia made a pre-emptive military strike against Ukraine. 

Q: Thank you Sunim. Actually, I am currently living in Seoul. However, the Korean government is not issuing refugee visas to Russians, so I don’t know how long I can stay. Currently, I hold piano concerts in the street and participate in anti-war protests. Thank you for your advice.

See more

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International Network of Engaged Buddhists

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