Anton Dolin is Russia’s most prominent film critic and the host of a popular YouTube show – Radio Dolin.
When his country attacked Ukraine, an invasion he was firmly against, he started receiving threats.
In Moscow, his apartment door was graffitied with the pro-war symbol, the letter ‘Z’.
Dolin saw this as a sign that he had to leave – and quickly. He relocated to Latvia with his family, where he attends film festivals and writes a weekly column in Meduza, an independent news website, about Ukrainian films.
Al Jazeera asked Dolin about his decision to flee Russia, a sense of collective shame and responsibility and the role of art during the war.
Al Jazeera: How do you feel now, as you reflect on the first days of the invasion?
Anton Dolin: None of the events in my personal life even stand close to what I experienced on February 24. Sure, everyone had been reading for several weeks that there might be a war, that troops were gathering. To me, it seemed like mankind became divided into those who believed the war could start and those who didn’t. I was among the latter.
Ultimately, I would condemn myself for this. I knew what the Russian government was capable of. I told myself: ‘Don’t have any illusions!’ But I did not believe [that the war would start]. I thought they were pragmatists. But I was wrong.
Al Jazeera: What do you mean by ‘pragmatists’?
Dolin: [Starting a war] is an anti-pragmatic move, as well as a monstrous crime. [When] I saw this was happening, I knew then that Russia, at least as we know it, was over.
Not everyone understands this in Russia, but it’s evident that what is happening now is the end of everything good there.
Al Jazeera: Is it likely President Vladimir Putin will secure the victory he’s searching for? That is, that Russia will win this war against Ukraine?
Dolin: The war that Putin is waging now against the whole world, not just Ukraine, cannot be won under any circumstances. It just can’t.
All the post-Soviet institutions connected with culture, humanism, and the idea of Russia as a democracy – you can forget all that. They will have to be rebuilt, created anew in a new state that will arise after Putin capitulates, falls, disappears, crumbles. I don’t know what will happen to him.
War is always the beginning of the end.
Al Jazeera: Why did you decide to leave Russia? Was the vandalism of your apartment door the trigger?
Dolin: My decision to leave was purely technical. When I realised that the ways of resisting the regime – addressing my rather large audience, telling the truth, saying what I think – aren’t available to me anymore because there is a law prohibiting this, I knew I had to leave.
Al Jazeera: Were you afraid to stay?
Dolin: Terrified. I was afraid I would find myself alone, in an absolute minority, and everyone would attack me, including those closest to me. Then, of course, I was afraid of the authorities – I oppose them, but fighting against the propaganda machine of a warring country is futile.
Do you think someone would be pleased to see the letter Z written on their door? With that, you are immediately seen as a traitor. It was terrible. Nobody wants that. So if you have a chance to leave, to escape these largely unknown dangers, what would you choose?
Al Jazeera: In the first weeks of the war, social media sites were filled with Russians posting about their sense of collective shame…
Dolin: Responsibility – yes, I recognise it. Shame? Yes, but it’s what people call ‘Spanish shame’, when you sit [in jail] for other people because you somehow feel involved. Shame is an emotion. Many of my friends, noble and wonderful famous people, say: ‘I’m not ashamed, I fought Putin as much as I could, I don’t feel guilty in any way.’
And other people say: ‘I agree with Putin, he does everything right, and I’m not ashamed.’
I don’t believe in collective shame. But collective responsibility? Sure.
A prisoner who misbehaves is sent to a punishment cell, and sometimes the whole group of prisoners is sent to the punishment cell, even though only one was [responsible] … that’s the situation we’re in now. Things will get much worse, of course.
Al Jazeera: You’re a film critic. How would you characterise the role of art during conflict?
Dolin: There’s a place for art wherever you find it. But it’s hard for me to watch films now, so I watch documentaries and write about them because they are closer to reality. Especially films about Ukraine, about the war, which has been going on for eight years.
I don’t allow myself to be distracted, I don’t consider this moral. But some people need it. These people need to escape reality. That also works.
Al Jazeera: Ukrainian books and films have become increasingly popular as people try to learn more about the war-stricken nation. Will this trend will continue?
Dolin: Absolutely. We’ll see an incredible boom of Ukrainian art in various fields. Ukrainian cinema, literature. This war is a severe upheaval, so there will inevitably be an explosion of reflection in creative form. The day of reckoning will come, and art will be at the frontier of it.
Editor’s note: This interview was lightly edited for brevity and clarity.