Thank you for your article that appeared on 11 May, in which you provided an insider’s perspective on life in Russia today. There are many South Africans who base their support for Russia, and hence for its war in Ukraine, on vague ideas of a communist utopia or on distorted notions of “strong”, “conservative” leadership. It is a pity that those people will most likely not be visitors to this site, and will therefore not benefit from reading your article.
Autocracy in Russia
Autocracy in Russia is nothing new; there is the tsarist philosophy of monarchical absolutism, stemming from the teachings of Pobedonostsev. Putin has revived the teachings of another “thinker”, Ivan Ilyin, from the first half of the twentieth century. This person’s work, a justification of authoritarian rule, has been his playbook for the past 20 years. In the “philosophy” of Ilyin, Russia is a “virginal body”, with Ukraine an inseparable part of it. Russia is “a creature, an organism of nature and the soul … and who belonged within the Russian organism was not for the individual to decide, since cells do not decide whether they belong to a body” (quoted by Timothy Snyder in The road to unfreedom, 2018). Ilyin has no time for liberal democracy; he prefers an authoritarian regime in Russia. The idea of a “national dictator” appeals to him – a kind of redeemer who rules with limitless power and without criticism from his loving subjects. Russians freely choose submission and obedience to this dictator, and all is well. One more interesting idea in Ilyin’s “philosophy” is that of a permanent war between Russia and the West, which is seen as a spiritual threat. This may sound ridiculous and unbelievable, yet in Putin’s Russia the teachings of Ilyin have become a must-read for the bureaucracy.
So, what options do Russians have for dealing with oppressive regimes? Traditionally, there are three:
- Accept and support the regime.
- Oppose the regime, and suffer the consequences.
- Claim ignorance and apathy – “I’m just a small person. I’m not political,” is the standard phrase. You hear this quite often in interviews with the mothers of young Russian prisoners of war: “Why did you send your son to go and kill Ukrainians?” asks the interviewer. “Oh, I don’t know. I can’t answer that; I’m not political.”
The power structure in Russia
The persistence of a vertical power structure in Russia into the twenty-first century, with unlimited and unchallenged power concentrated at the top, was enabled by the Soviet and subsequent governments’ failure, or refusal, to deal decisively with the legacy of Stalin’s murderous rule. There was no public debate, no catharsis, no “Willy Brandt moment”, as in Germany when the chancellor knelt at the holocaust memorial, and by doing so drew a line after Germany’s Nazi past.
In Russia, there was only silence after Stalin’s death, a silence that can be interpreted in many ways, one of which would be tacit consent accompanied by an underlying warning. Since the beginning of the current war, Medvedev has raised the issue of bringing back the death penalty on a few occasions. Why would that be necessary? Is crime out of control in Russia? No, it is aimed at dissidents, critics of the regime, draft dodgers, political opponents. The death penalty would function as a scare tactic – execute a few protesters and it will quiet down. Far-fetched? There are more political prisoners in Russian jails now than at any time during the Cold War. Millions have fled the country. A recent decree makes forced mobilisation a reality; notices don’t need to be issued anymore – it is your duty to go and sign up on your own. The only reason why this is not being advertised widely is for fear of mass revolt.
Hope for the future?
It’s all very well and admirable to have hope for the future, and it is a cliché to say this, but nothing will change if the Russian people do not demand change. Sadly, I cannot see this happening any time soon, if ever. Russia has lived under totalitarian rule now for more than a century. Consent and apathy under autocratic rule have allowed myths that would otherwise be relatively harmless to become so deeply embedded in the Russian psyche that it’s difficult to imagine the kind of event that would force them into a sphere of discussion or questioning.
Here are some of the myths perpetuated by autocratic regimes in Russia:
- Russians are different from other people – from all other people. When the matter is pressed, there is never a clear characterisation of any metric that has been employed to establish this “fact”, just a supposedly common sense “feeling”. There is, in some sense, nothing extraordinary about this. All nations cherish myths about themselves, myths that revolve around uniqueness and invincibility. Only through openness and education can these be held in check. Power-hungry politicians, autocrats, despots and dictators like to manipulate these myths, not curb them with realism. They thrive on stoking them up into a frenzy of hatred for others, the obvious way of bringing this about being to close the informational space and manipulate the educational system.
- Russians are special. They are, for example, morally superior to Westerners. This, they say, is easy to see, since the West is decadent and morally corrupt. Again, how this is ascertained, or can be ascertained, is difficult to see. In Russian society, one sees everything that the totalitarian regime would label as indicators of moral corruption in the West, and perhaps even more of it: drug abuse, pornography, prostitution, violent crime. Corruption, for example, is endemic, on a scale far more extensive than in Western countries.
- Russians are victims. The West is out to destroy Russia, and has been since the dawn of time. Why? Answers vary. Some of the respondents to a Radio Free Europe poll believe it is because Russia is rich in mineral resources. “We have everything. Everybody is jealous of us,” the propagandist Solovyov tells his audience. And not only because we have everything, but also because we live in a free and democratic country, they add. Medvedev, among all the absurdities he has uttered since the beginning of the war, recently urged Western nations to rise up and overthrow the regimes that “enslave” them.
- Russians have their own special truth. This myth has emerged since the beginning of the war. It is a very convenient maxim, as it takes care of anything that goes by the name of lying in other parts of the world. In a Radio Free Europe poll, quite a few respondents replied to the question “Why do you think so many countries are against us (Russia)?” with, “If they are all against us, it means we are right!”
- Russians are world leaders in the fields of science and technology. There is simple empirical evidence, available to everybody with an internet connection (to the worldwide web), that this is not the case. But the main point here is that autocratic rule is never conducive to scientific development, and less so in this day and age where science is an internationally cooperational endeavour. A science that serves political ideology produces only untruths. Simon Ings’s book, Stalin and the scientists, provides ample evidence in this regard. The function of this myth is also to distract attention from military spending, which has, since the time of the tsars, been excessive and an impediment to scientific, technological and social progress. Of course, there are brilliant Russian scientists – the physicist Andrei Linde is an example – but alas, most of them live and work abroad.
- The Russian army is the strongest army in the world. This is a myth that even the West believed for a long time. But the war has made it abundantly clear that this has been nothing more than a myth. Chaos, lack of coordination, obsolete equipment, a catastrophe on the frontline. Almost 200 000 Russian soldiers dead, tonnes of equipment destroyed. This is a fine example of the power of autocracy and despotism if ever there was one – a delusional leader to whom his military intelligence lied out of fear, recklessly plunging his country into war.
The war has activated a formidable propaganda machine in Russia, regularly adding new myths to the list. Here are three of the latest:
- Russians are a pure race.
- Lysenko is the “father” of modern genetics. He is the untrained agronomist and pseudoscientist who won Lenin’s and Stalin’s favour because he rejected the Western “bourgeoise” biology of Mendel (the father of genetic theory), and who was instrumental in the killing of the best of Russian genetic scientists during the purges of the thirties. He is now hailed as the “father” of modern genetics, despite the fact that his fraudulent theories and political exploitations were exposed in 1964, and that he was publicly denounced and disgraced in the Soviet Union.
- Russian “civilisation” is the oldest on the planet. Propagandists recently argued that Indians are descendants of Russians. In Putin’s address at the 9 May military parade this year, he claimed that “civilisation is at a crossroads” because the West is teaming up to destroy Russia.
All of the aspects mentioned above – and they make up a small part of the whole – will have to be addressed, openly and honestly, if there is to be progress towards a normalised society in Russia. But how can this process even get started when there is no access to independent sources? Or when any sources originating elsewhere are immediately disqualified on the basis of their origin? Or in face of relentless propaganda spewing from the government-controlled media all day long?
Calls to kill
Hope for Russia’s future would have to have hope for a normalised Russian society as a sine qua non. But how this will come about in the light of the massive propaganda campaigns of the government is unimaginable. When you watch the TV shows of two of the propagandists, Solovyov and Skabeyeva, both handpicked by Putin, the extent of the difficulty becomes clear. Their daily vitriolic rage on TV consists of undisguised hatred and anger, calls for the killing of all Ukrainians and the drowning of their children, for nuclear strikes on Ukraine and on Western capitals, etc – enough to make your head explode. Bear in mind that they have millions of viewers, and then think about the effect this will have (they are just two out of many) on Russian society for years to come. How can this normalising of violence, genocide and lack of empathy ever be reversed?
The effect of this propaganda on the general public is already more than visible. When Ukrainian apartment buildings are deliberately hit by missiles and civilians are killed, the postings on Russian platforms receive thousands of likes and little red hearts. Of course, the propaganda did not start with the war; it has only been ratcheted up to extremes because of it. The effects of the propaganda are visible primarily in the cruelty of the Russian soldiers in Ukraine. Elderly Ukrainians, who experienced the occupation of their villages during the Nazi invasion, report that that was not comparable to what is witnessed today – killing for the sake of killing, rape, torture to death. Of course, you can’t generalise, but why are no exceptions forthcoming? In some places, they’ve even been told to kill collaborators for fear that they may testify against them later.
And so they kill. They kill soldiers and non-soldiers; they shoot their own who refuse to advance, in the back. They kill old people, young people, women, children. They kill animals: cats, dogs, rabbits, raccoons – for fun – and string them up in trees. They “open” national parks in occupied areas “for hunting”. They kill dolphins in the Sea of Azov. Kill, kill, kill. They go back home and kill some more. How can you expect them to stop? The Wagnerites, who were prisoners, are given a ticket out of their crowded cells – murderers, rapists. These are the foot soldiers, the meat for the grinder. The upper brass get into fighter jets and fire missiles that were designed to destroy military bases, into high-rise apartment buildings. Then they go home. Their photos, with their wives and children, all smiling, are posted on their Facebook pages. The government military site announces the strike as “Точна дел” – an accurate case. Thousands of likes, thousands of little red hearts, throbbing with joy and pride. This was Uman, 28 April: 23 people killed, including six children. People sleeping peacefully. In news destined for international consumption, the attack is blamed on the Ukrainians.
“We were ordered to liquidate everybody, women, children,” says a Russian soldier to his girlfriend in an intercepted phone call. “It’s bad, I’m telling you.” “But there are no peaceful people there,” says the girlfriend. “We’ve talked about it before.” “Still,” he says.
“How can we win this war?” they ask on the propaganda show.
“We are too soft on them (the Ukrainians)!” shouts the popular, fuming propagandist Solovyov. “We must stop feeling sorry for them!”
More killing! Let there be more killing!
“To go and fight in Ukraine is a holy calling,” says the head of the Russian Orthodox Church. And then he prays for more killing. Kill! Kill! Kill!
How will you stop this murderous hatred that has pervaded Russian society? How will you stop this incitement to kill that oozes from the government-controlled media? How and when will you start thinking about reversing the normalisation of murder and genocide? When hearts are so filled with hatred and rage, and the urge to injure or kill is so overwhelming that they can’t distinguish between “the enemy” and their own anymore? When the very fabric of society starts to unravel? And has this not started already? You cannot erode basic respect for life without upsetting the mutual respect citizens ought to have for each other. Bear in mind that the law is not there to protect you, the ordinary citizen, from abuse; the law is there to prevent you from complaining about abuse and to protect the perpetrator. Putin has largely decriminalised domestic violence, as you are no doubt aware of.
Putin will be gone one day, but the stage has been set for more of his kind, or worse, to appear as leaders or, rather, as “redeemers”. The damage done to Russian society will be felt for generations to come; the disregard for the value of life, the normalising of genocide, ultra-nationalism, school kids now being indoctrinated to “die for the motherland” – this is Russia today, the custodian of world civilization.
Meanwhile, Ukrainians are doing all they can to deal with the horror that has been unleashed against them: the daily missile and drone strikes on their villages and cities, and the occupation of their territory, from where assaults on military and non-military targets are constantly launched. Ukraine is suffering now, but the impetus for her quest for freedom – coming a long way and finally having been forced into a desperate struggle for survival – is unstoppable. Almost the whole world is on her side. At the same time, there is nobody who will help Russians deal with Putin and the damage he has done to Russia and to Russian society. And nobody has the right, either; only the Russian people themselves will have to decide.
So, Anna, in a phrase you will recognise, what is to be done? And a rhetorical question: if Russians could already see in 2007 which way things were going, why has all of this been allowed to happen? This is the crux of the problem. I don’t know how much access you have to what is happening in Ukraine, but finding out what is being hidden from you is a good place to start. Then, three traditional responses to autocratic rule in Russia were mentioned earlier. (Bear in mind that Russia is now a totalitarian state – compared with the relatively friendly sounding “autocracy” – in line with Orwell’s 1984, which was banned in Soviet times, and which was inspired by the dissident Russian writer Yevgeny Zamyatin’s chilling novel We, banned as well.) There is, however, a fourth option: leaving the country and joining the growing opposition of brilliant minds – the real hope of Russia – in exile. But whatever you decide, consent and apathy – “Я маленький человек, я не политик” (I’m a small person; I’m not political) – are not options any longer for somebody who really cares about Russia’s future. Удачи вам. Good luck.
I declare that:
- No AI platform was used in writing this article.
- All opinions expressed in this article are either my own or gathered from open sources.
- All claims about entities or institutions, or statements attributed to individuals or organisations, contained in this article can be independently verified.
16 May 2023