Article by Larysa Yakubova, a Doctorate in Historical Studies
Member and Reporter of the National Academy of Sciences of Ukraine
Headmaster of the faculty on the History of Ukraine 1920-30. Institute of History of Ukraine
The Russo-Ukrainian war has shown the world the real face of Russia, Putinism and Russian society. The previously applauded epitome of “Russian Civilization”, “The Russian System” and the “Russian soul” have actually turned out to be oxymorons. Anti-civilization, anti-system, and a ‘demonic haze’ is a much more accurate way to describe the current state. The last video, where a Russian tank deliberately aims and shoots at a harmless civilian in Mariupol shows the true face of evil – without any signs of civilization, humanity and any other positive sentiment.
For a world that is used to stereotypes of Russian classics, the horrors in Ukraine led to a new discovery, awakened by the so called ‘special military operation’, as often phrased by the Russian government. Only on the third week of the war in Ukraine, the average citizen across the globe, upon seeing the ever growing magnitude of war crimes in Ukraine, finally disregarded Russian soft power. The words ‘russia’ and ‘russian’ were now lowercase, as a way to expel Russia from the international community of nation states.
The Metastasis of Totalitarianism
In the meantime, the Russian people, who have been portrayed as freedom-loving, law-abiding and humanitarian throughout the last few centuries, are apathetically watching the events in Ukraine unfold. Not only are the Russians indifferent to the genocide and colossal destruction in Ukraine, but also to the Russian ‘liberators’ who have been sent there. The lack of interest towards the physical and mental suffering of humanity and even readiness to participate in the destruction of an entire nation under false narratives and slogans has proven, one thing. The population of Russia lives in an altered sense of reality, or a dangerous distortion of it. The world has a chance to see a perfect example of what totalitarianism is, and the fatal consequences it can have for the world around. The Russian saying “we can do it again” has dragged them back into their dark, but not so distant past. A large spike of totalitarian elements in state institutions as well as on the mental level (people) is happening for the third time within the last 100 years. This shows a catastrophic level of deformities with regards to nation statehood formation and political institutions.
“The cult of personality is not the main issue that characterised Stalin’s regime”. This is nothing more than a common saying that was first used by Krushchev. “The most horrifying thing about Stalinism is not the glorification of a dictator, but the terror and manipulations that come along with him and his policies” – Robert Conquest. Based on current events, one can add that some of the greatest dangers of Stalinism is the destructive effect it has on the basic values and developmental processes of society. The mass dysplasia of the conscious mind, which seemed to be a problem among many commoners was accompanied by the ‘armament’ of literature and poets who were working alongside communist (Bolshevik) terror. The mass participation of various professions in physical and ideological aspects of communist terror was seen in Chekist torture chambers, in the press and education. Metaphorically, this notion carries the name of Homo Sovieticus, an average conformist citizen of the Soviet Union, one that essentially is social ‘cattle’ which formed (and still forms to this day) in the context of anti-humanism. All in all, this became the most fatal consequence of an ever-lasting Stalinism.
Unlike Ukraine, Russia never took any steps towards reflecting the tragedies of totalitarianism and the mass use of civilian populations as a tool in totalitarian operations. Hence, there were no systematic condemnations of totalitarianism in Russia, not to mention re-education. Nevertheless, there were some mild attempts to reflect upon Stalinism and its legal implications. Some intellectual thought was put forward in order to assess Stalinism and its crimes during what was known as the ‘Krushchev thaw’ – Destalinisation, instigated by the XX Congress of the CPSU. At this moment, as remarked by author Anna Akhmatova, Russia was split into two versions – one that was repressive and one that was being repressed. The two versions had a chance to look into each other’s eyes. Akhmatova’s metaphor did not reflect the depth and catastrophic scale of the repressions of the country – a country which had the chance to a rehabilitated and better life, after decades spent in gulags. The CPSU did not wish to condemn Stalinism to a larger extent for the rehabilitation of the people, as it was seen as a danger to the communist ideology. The result was not at all a full liberation but rather a downgrade of previous repressions, while most of the former politicians, poets, artists etc. dissidents continued to be outcasts.
A few generations had to endure daily abuse of communist Bolshevik terror. Dissidents, political emigrants, anti-Soviet and intellectual circles all mentally re-established themselves in a distorted algorithm as the “Two different Russias” mentioned above were pretending that nothing was happening at the time. A state that raped and pillaged its own society, did not take any further steps to uncover its atrocities, but stayed silent instead. The victims never lived to see the day of any apologies or reparations. The subsequent decades of a new status-quo, when the Soviet Union did not recognize its crimes and the victims were forced to stay silent, actually prolonged the state of terror of Stalinist time. The large scale state terror during stalinist times, turned the USSR into a ‘living corpse’. This so-called ‘abscess’ led to an era known as ‘Perestroika’ and the policies of ‘Glasnost’. Glasnost was seen as a way to revitalise the Soviet order, but also make it more modern and liberal. This backfired, and brought about the Soviet self-destruction. The demise came from the History of the CPSU (book) which brought the downfall of the ideological backbone of the USSR. Subsequently, the Soviet Union itself was dissolved.
The discovery that the USSR’s history were completely falsified and indoctrinated by the CPSU and not a byproduct of the different nations that constituted the USSR – had a seismic effect on the entire country. As observed by Charles Clover, “There was an increasing demand for alternative history, the search for the nations’ roots has begun despite the previous eradication of these very roots by the CPSU”. In the meantime, the Soviet satellites started to experience their own thaw, where national identities and calls for independence were being voiced again. Eventually, this reached Ukraine. The scale of these developments were surprisingly large – as the previous and constant propagation of ‘brotherly’ republics and ‘common history’ were left in vain and simply ignored. In reality of course, the differences amongst the nations held captive by the Soviets was vast – in terms of history, culture and what not. The authentic portrayal of cultures was nothing like the one used by the CPSU. The world came to recognise the authenticity of the cultures of Baltic states, as well as the unique cultures of central Asian former Soviet states.
However, when taking Ukraine and Belarus into consideration, things were a lot more complicated. “Russia first” was the general Western motto when having to do anything with post-Soviet countries. For a long time, this was a way to avoid identifying Ukraine as a separate entity. In Russia, the ongoing distancing of Ukraine, entailed by growing sovereignty and diverging historiographical views amongst other changes, was seen as a temporary misunderstanding. The perception that Belarus and Ukraine and their sovereignty was an accident was not just a product of the state apparatus, but was also deeply ingrained in the minds of Russian intellectuals. They did noе realise however, that the sovereignty of the two countries was not fake at all. What was fake was their perception of the nature of these sovereignties. A leading example of this is the fact that the Bolsheviks were forced to concede some sovereignty for Ukrainian self-determination in 1920 on this matter. The chauvinist perception of the populous, especially around metropolitan areas, was a result of decades of propaganda at work – historians and philosophers who used state resources to undermine the legitimacy of Ukraine in the History of the CPSU book. Upon becoming the major heir to the USSR, Russia also inherited and ‘digested’ some of the historiographic strategies for future use.
An eternal Mobilisation
In light of the national movements during the post-Soviet era by many nations, Russia was the elephant in the room. Russian nationalism was characterised by its chauvinist and expansionist aims (rather than self-determination). This is similar to previous attempts by Russian elites such as during the time of the collapse of the Russian Empire in 1917. Aiming to create something new from the ruins, building an opportunity and new paths for its people always resulted in backtracking and repeating the same mistakes for Russia. Furthermore, the obsession with its made-up past has not only doomed Russia’s future, but also the future of those who were unlucky and ended up under Russian geopolitical influence. Russia was present in all the ‘hot spots’ around the world, including unrecognised (by Russia itself) territories. (Transnistria is a perfect example, to which the UN finally decided to react). The current problems in countries which were under ideological dominance of the USSR and now Russia, were side effects of the Cold War – a consequence of deep mental distress of the entirety of the Soviet world, which poisoned not only Ukraine, but the entire modern world, thus depriving it of any opportunities to move forward. The USSR ‘died’, but the remnants and spirits are very much alive and continue to poison the free world.
The treacherous and brutal military operation of the 5-day war against Georgia in 2008 was the catalyst of a renewed and modernised Russian army and the war propaganda running it. Militarisation became a key component of a new and developing Russia, which was left largely unnoticed by the international community. Putin’s former advisor Andrei Illarionov described this in the following manner: “There won’t be a single year without any so called spicy dishes, which lead to deaths. Many deaths”. Putin’s regime was characterised by the activity of Russia, its special forces, volunteers and propagandists in numerous ‘local’ conflicts, wherever two different doctrines were at each other’s throats. This generated a new conceptualisation of Russian diplomacy and foreign policy doctrine. The Russian model of governance transformed into a more vertical format. Security forces were now the backbone of any external interests activities. Putin’s security agencies have now engulfed the state mechanism as a whole.
A side effect of this, similarly to the Stalinist era, was the systematic introduction of double standards in multiple spheres of political life – one for an exclusive way of life versus one for the masses. This persistent negative mobilisation caused many disturbances in society: this was the exact birthplace of the saying “serving if called upon” (e.g. neo-cossacks, chechen fighters, volunteers, wagner group etc.). Groups that were ready to do the ‘dirty work’ for the regime were abundant as ever. Simultaneously to the strengthening of the security forces, a gradual re-stalinization began to occur. Soon after, this was not gradual – Putin’s own Stalinization soon won the hearts and minds of the people. During a mere 15 years, Russia has taken a giant leap from the dissection of the past horrors of the so called ‘Homo Sovieticus’ (under the wing of humanities and cultural sciences) to a numbness and carelessness of the suffering of their own ancestors. Finally, this led to the recognition of Stalin as an ‘effective manager’.
The most evident visualisation of the dangers brought by Putin’s Russia (which was hidden for the time being) were revealed upon Russia’s intervention after the revolution in Ukraine in 2013-14, ending with Russia annexing the Crimean peninsula and igniting a hybrid war over the Donbas region. Russia’s diversive operations in Syria strengthened its geopolitical position. At the same time, Russia did not lose the opportunity to finance far-left and far-right populists in Europe as a means to destabilise Europe. From that point onwards, the Kremlin continuously increased the stakes in the game. Mass media under control of the state then began the spreading of fascist and chauvinist ideas, thus making the general population a ‘zombified’ horde of cattle, hungry for blood of its enemies. This army of cattle was precisely seen as the decisive argument in the geopolitical game played by Moscow.
Under the umbrella of COVID-19 restrictions, Putinism has finished the institutional installation of totalitarianism in Russia. The invasion of Ukraine and the rhetoric that came with it, the inhumane practices during the ‘special operation’, are evidence that Russia has gone from being a destabiliser-state into a terrorist state. This is not a threat just for Ukraine – this concerns the entire world order. Russia has left the world of reality and entered a virtual one – one made from false stigma, stereotypes, fears and ideologues. The geopolitical time bomb has gone off.
In May 2021, the 5 most prominent historical figures in the eyes of common Russians looked like this:
Stalin – 39%
Lenin – 30%
Pushkin – 23%
Peter I – 19%
Putin – 15%
(Data: Levada Centre)
Interestingly enough, despite the halving of Putin’s approval rate from 2017, Stalin’s ‘approval’ rate has been stable since 2012. Meanwhile, Russian sociologists also came to notice that there has been a rise in aggression, synchronic with the crisis of the COVID-19 pandemic. The catastrophic changes in Russian society were obvious to all, but no one protested them publicly. Reading between the lines of several presidential advisors such as that of Vladislav Surkov and Gleb Pavlovsky, the yearning for the physical destruction of Ukraine and its people as well as Russian expansionism was alarming. The casual calls for bombardment of Kyiv (as per claim that Kyiv was the ‘mother of all Russian cities’), including historical sites such as St. Sophia Cathedral (the precise location of the christianisation of the Kyivan Rus’), as well as dreams of victorious marches on Khreshchatyk Street (with unironic similarities to Nazi and Soviet-style marches) have demonstrated the mentality of the ‘deep’ side of the common people.
The moral backbone of Putin’s Russia, upon its revelation, shocked the international community. Words of western leaders in support of the Russian people as an entity separate from the war, have become more of a formality rather than a meaningful message. Evidently, there is no point in pushing these messages – and not only based on the apparent weakness of the anti-war movement in Russia. Not only because of the mass support for Putin’s aggression but also for the attempted moral justification of putinism. It is apparent that Russiasns are in an altered sense of reality and have lost all empathy. We’re talking about the triumph of the inhumane persistence of gulags and the forced indoctrination of ‘principles’ as a basis of civil order. In a new reality of the ‘Russian world’, entire nations are erased on the orders of the Ruscist führer. The groups who disagree are turned into radioactive dust without any extra thought. In the meantime, the Russian people (i.e. the ‘deep side’ of the people) are happily silent, as the turn events perfectly match their will.
This paints a gruesome picture: the loss of humanity among millions of people populating Russia alongside several million supporters of Russian aggression from abroad. The designated creation of the Russian propaganda machine under the ghost flag of a “collective Soviet fatherland” played a cruel joke with Russia. The cataclysm of today is a direct consequence of the failed destalinisation of the USSR, and therefore, the missing decommunization, lustration and reflection of the totalitarian past. Because of this, Russian society did not experience a long needed spiritual catharsis, which would aid in the treatment of some of the long term symptoms of totalitarianism. Due to the lack of willingness to reflect upon past mistakes in their history, totalitarian crimes have spread like cancer cells all across modern Russia. The state, with its vast media sources, became an apparatus of crude manipulation. One Russian historian described this as Russia becoming the ‘third department and the KGB, equipped with inventions of the free West’. However, the resurgence of totalitarianism in Russia was not just institutional. A totalitarian regime and its totalitarian populace are bound in a sickening and inseparable union.
An analysis of the continuous transformation of Russian mentality leaves no room for any doubt that its imperialist fixations, including the ‘Ukrainian question’, are here to stay. As one can see, in order to provide an answer to the ‘Ukrainian question’, genocidal practices have been deployed as seen from the barbaric acts of the Russian army in Ukraine. The cultivation of a generalised image of the enemy, which thus becomes the source of an existential threat causes a cognitive dissonance among the Russians – a picture of the enemy does not correspond to the real picture. Henceforth, the possibility of a termination of the crisis (which entered its active phase on the 24th of February 2022) even if a bilateral ceasefire agreement is met.
The imperialist arrogance sets the stage for a faster renewal of totalitarianism by the Russian state and society as well as the readiness to destroy the world order and peace as a perceived existential threat. This trap will remain untouched until there will be a global condemnation of communist/bolshevik ideology as well as its heir – Ruscism and Putinism. This circle will not be broken until Russian history will be looked at realistically, and not from the historical playbook of the Chekists, the brainwashing of the people, the propagation of crimes against humanity, Ukraine and Ukrainians included. Without resolving these issues immediately, the totalitarian past will catch up very quickly once again and will be a problem for future generations – making Russians inhumane and blood-thirsty creatures, deprived of basic human qualities. An unpunished evil is eternal and will try to consume everything on its path.