This article was originally published in Russian in the New Times.
Vladimir Putin’s regime in recent years used to pride itself on goal-setting. But as time dragged on, such targets became a two-edged sword. Citizens naturally asked, what is it all for? Where are we going? We once tried to build communism. Then we tried to build capitalism (although it turned out to be the nomenklatura-oligarchic variety).
Eventually, we even took Crimea—and still we’re not happy. So what’s next?
Now, by launching a “special military operation” in Ukraine, Putin has given people a much simpler goal: “victory.” It doesn’t matter over whom, or how such a victory is supposed to be achieved. It’s enough for Putin simply to equate it with the sacred Soviet victory in 1945, though these two events have absolutely nothing in common. If anything, the current “special operation” has plenty of similarities with the Afghan War in terms of the pointlessness and the destructiveness, not only for Ukraine, but for our country, too.
After Putin’s speech on Red Square on May 9 and the extravagant celebrations for Victory Day, when Russia marks the Soviet victory in World War II, my twelve-year-old daughter asked me: “Dad, did he not say anything about the peace talks?” No, my child—and nor will he. From a child’s point of view, of course everyone should live in peace and harmony. But in the worldview of aging, middle-ranking KGB operatives, life is one long covert battle against the West, an artificial conflict with normal people. And the longer the conflict goes on, the more important it becomes to demand that Russian citizens consolidate around a leader who is constantly warning of imaginary “security” threats.
Putin spends a lot of time trying to show the Russian public who they are fighting: Banderites (supporters of the World War II–era Ukrainian fascist leader Stepan Bandera) and neo-Nazis. He shows them missiles soaring toward “military infrastructure,” but for some reason he prefers not to mention that those very same missiles have ended up killing three-month-old babies and “de-Nazified” elderly survivors of the Holocaust who live in Ukraine. In various media there are frequent mentions of Ukrainians who survived World War II only to die in or suffer during Putin’s “special operation.”
After 80+ days of all this, Russians are now frightened and becoming hardened by what they are witnessing. Many of them assume the fetal position, using hatred for the enemy to protect themselves from their own conscience and lack of desire to understand what is happening around them. Putin is using hatred of Ukrainians as a form of group therapy and playing up the sheer absurdity of the whole situation as anesthesia. The end result is a psychopathic nation—but one that is still supporting a commander in chief who is holed up in his besieged fortress with nowhere to flee.
Putin is dragging Russians into this bloody spectacle by demanding that they attend huge rallies in support of the “special operation” at the Luzhniki sports stadium in Moscow. They dress up their toddlers in military uniforms. They arrange their children into formations of the letter Z, the symbol of Putin’s war. Citizens also denounce one another. In other words, society is being mobilized. He wants to smear Russians with their support for the “special operation” so that they—ordinary Russians—share responsibility with the authorities for what is happening in neighboring Ukraine.
People are bewildered. They have no opinions of their own: instead, it’s easier to absorb the ludicrous cliches intoned by state propaganda and Putin himself. That includes the president’s claim in his May 9 speech that Russia’s actions in Ukraine “were a preemptive strike.” A strike that has been ongoing for more than two months now, with no end in sight.
The original overwhelming message of Victory Day 1945 was: “This must never happen again.” Putin’s May 9 speech was the rhetorical embodiment of what has come to replace it: “We can do it again!” Indeed, Putin has done just that. As a precautionary measure, he began with an operation to amputate the memory and conscience of the nation by destroying Memorial, an NGO that made it its mission to preserve the memory of the victims of Stalin-era repression. There is a direct link between these two events: the resulting carefully nurtured unconsciousness paved the way for what the Kremlin calls its “special operation.”
It’s not easy for the Kremlin. Putin repeats the same old mantras over and over again. It’s like Chinese water torture, with drops of water hitting the same place every time. Something new had to be thought up to justify the length of the operation and so many deaths of Russian soldiers. No convincing justification was available, so the authorities turned to tried and tested formulas. Putin’s Russia is a country of handouts, so the decision was taken to “surround with love” the families and children of Russian soldiers who have died for Putin’s geopolitical delusions—by giving them a payout.
Pulling all of this off is not so easy for the Kremlin. When they’re not busy concealing the extent of Russia’s actual losses in Ukraine, the Kremlin’s minions struggle to come up with heroic figures who can be presented to the masses. And so we get the saintly image of “Granny Anya,” an elderly Ukrainian woman who went out waving a Soviet flag to greet troops entering her village. She was swiftly co-opted by the Kremlin as proof that Ukrainians were waiting eagerly for their Russian “liberators.” It later turned out that the woman had in fact taken the flag with her as protection, to try to dissuade the Russians from destroying her village by reminding them of their shared Soviet past. Unfortunately, her fears were well founded, and a Russian mortar bomb landed on her house.
Finding the real person behind the cartoon image is of no interest to the Kremlin’s spin doctors, however. For them, what matters is the made-up image of the embodiment of the motherland, an impoverished elderly woman defending… defending what, exactly? Our Soviet red banner? “Our united Soviet people,” as Putin said in his speech on Red Square?
None of that matters. What is important is the image itself and the way it can be used and revered. Now the image of “Granny Anya” is being reproduced all across the land. A monument to her has already been hastily unveiled (overseen by none other than First Deputy Chief of Staff Sergei Kiriyenko) in the razed city of Mariupol. Denis Pushilin, who first made his name promoting one of Russia’s most notorious 1990s-era financial pyramids and is now head of the political pyramid scheme that is the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic, has unashamedly promised to turn Mariupol, which has become a symbol of the disastrous conflict, into a resort city. That resort will somehow be built right on top of the bones of innocent people buried in the courtyards of their apartment buildings because that was the only kind of burial possible in the besieged city.
“Granny Anya” has joined the propaganda pantheon, along with the Immortal Regiment event in which people march carrying photos of relatives who fought in World War II. The Immortal Regiment began as a genuine grassroots initiative. Not only has it been entirely hijacked by the Kremlin, this year’s march even featured images of those currently fighting in Ukraine. In Putin’s Russia, this is how things work: a group of (usually young) people is assembled and given pictures of soldiers they have never seen before, or of someone else’s grandfather or great-grandfather, and off they go to take part in the march. There is plenty of evidence of this on social media.
Meanwhile, a young woman in the Moscow region town of Korolyov was detained at the Immortal Regiment event while carrying a picture of her own relative. It seems the text accompanying the image was what upset those who have taken it upon themselves to battle “neo-Nazism.” It read: “He never wanted it to happen again.”
Over a thousand miles to the east, in the city of Ufa, another young woman was detained for carrying a poster depicting her relative with the caption “My grandfather fought against fascism.” With Russian soldiers fighting and dying in battles against imaginary Banderites and neo-Nazis, it’s not surprising that those who arrested her read her poster as a personal insult.
- Andrei Kolesnikov