A Cult of Violence
Reporter, writer, and radio producer Jen Stout spent the early part of the summer in Ukraine. Here she reports on attitudes to the invasion and the terror being waged against civilians.
The celebrations to mark 31 years of an independent Ukrainian state couldn’t take place last week. A curfew was imposed because the risk of crowds being targeted by rockets and bombs was too high. This is life in Ukraine, now, and for the past six months. Russia can, and does, strike deep into central and western Ukraine, far from the front, blowing up shopping centres, bread queues, railway museums. And housing block after housing block after housing block.
I saw the evidence with my own eyes, all over the country. The little pits of cluster bombs, spread out across a sleepy courtyard, or randomly sprayed across the facade of a block of flats. The dried blood outside a shop across the road, some spring daffodils tied to the railing with a bit of string. Several people had died at that spot. They’d been buying food.
I could go on, and on, and on. Thermobaric bombs, cruise missiles, the craters of huge bombs dropped by planes on the old architecture of beautiful Kharkiv. Clear targeting of civilian infrastructure – of civilians – clear tactics of terror.
But sometimes I wondered if I was shouting into the void, because I looked at some of the comments made by people back home, and am just totally speechless. ‘Why can’t they just negotiate?’ – this one gets louder each day as fuel bills spiral. ‘Isn’t Zelensky a bit suspicious, isn’t he playing the west for weapons that will end up god-knows-where? Didn’t Donbas actually want to leave Ukraine? Why should we get involved anyway? What about our fuel prices? This is a proxy war, this is NATO expansionism, this is US manoeuvring, Russia reacted understandably’… On and on.
Coming from people on the Left, people who ostensibly hate imperialism, this stuff is particularly strange. And I think, or hope, that a lot of this is due to basic misunderstandings about Ukraine, and about Russia. Because this war is about imperialism; a crumbling empire with a huge and terrifying military capability trying to wipe out a smaller, neighbouring country, its former colony.
To insist on negotiations now is to imply Ukraine should be ready to give away territory. What else could it mean at this stage, when Russia has occupied 20% of Ukrainian land? To ask this is outrageous; they’re not going to give up their citizens to an occupying power, especially one as brutal as that. Russia has no intention or interest in negotiations at this point. But if they start to lose territory – as well they might, given the dire state of the Russian army – they will be interested in negotiations. The war will of course end in negotiations.
Zelensky is largely seen as a national hero in Ukraine, not because they’re somehow duped or starry-eyed, but because by staying in Kyiv, by being a calm and quiet and steady voice of encouragement, not descending into hatred, keeping hopes up, he has genuinely kept people going in a time of unimaginable fear and uncertainty. For us in the UK to sneer at that is frankly revolting. Ukrainians have plenty of cynicism about their leaders, and about Zelensky too. They’re not idiots. They know he was named in the Panama papers.
The idea that a majority in the eastern regions of Ukraine (and Odesa, Kharkiv, etc) wanted, and would have voted, to leave Ukraine and join Russia or become independent is the number one Kremlin talking point, spread through ‘alternative’ media sites that so many people on the Left now read (because the ‘MSM is lying’, etc), and it’s nonsense. Please read about this complicated history, about what happened here in 2014, when dodgy men and thugs proclaimed ‘republics’ funded and directed by Moscow. If you think that’s a people’s liberation movement, you’ve got very odd politics. Even just skim a few polls. It’s not hard.
This war is not some murky conflict, where ‘both sides’ bear responsibility for the escalation. It is not that. What happened on 24th February was the culmination of many, many years of something utterly rotten brewing in Russia. Militarism, a cult of violence, pervades society thoroughly. Stalin is celebrated once more; all those years of struggle that the activists gave to unearth the archives, to document the gulag, to rehabilitate the victims – all that is going, nearly gone. Those organisations are shut down now, ‘foreign agents’ and traitors. Instead it’s back to the glory days, a never-ending, defiant celebration of World War II – but without mention of the shameful Molotov-Ribbentrop pact of course; the war only started in 1941 in this version – and anyone who questions it is a traitor. People are denouncing their own family members in Russia now.
A recent film, ‘Broken Ties’, gives you a sense of the propaganda, of how people can sink so deeply into this mindset that they no longer talk to their own family members. In it, journalist Andrey Loshak interviews ‘split’ families – a mother and daughter, sister and brother, husband and wife – some still shouting, some existing in stony stalemate. It’s heartbreaking. It’s scary. One woman, living in London and horrified by the invasion, tries to understand what her mother has become. ‘Please understand that she is a good person,’ she begs, and you get to know her mother and can see that, of course, like most people, she is a good person. She believes in peace, in humanity. But she also believes that Russia is the victim here, the peaceful country forced to reluctantly act, and Ukraine is the aggressor. Because this is what the television has been telling her, 24 hours a day, every single day of the year, on and on and on.
Her daughter describes how the old woman’s voice changes on the phone. One minute she’s cheerfully slagging Putin for the miserly pensions and the state of the country. Sarcastic, forthright, funny – a real character. The next minute, when the daughter asks why she supports Putin’s war in Ukraine, she changes. Just repeating lines from the TV in a glazed way, a voice that isn’t even her own.
That’s terrifying. That’s a cult. And it’s so widespread. When I was in Ukraine I asked all the people I interviewed if they had family in Russia. More than half said yes. And then every single one said something like ‘They don’t believe me, they think I’m a fascist, we don’t speak any more.’
Every single one. I know it’s not a scientific sample but it was still very telling and still sticks with me. Imagine your own daughter on the phone: ‘Mum, they’re bombing us. Look, here’s the video from my balcony. Bombs falling around the apartment block’. And you say in response, to your own daughter, your child: ‘You’re bombing yourselves. You’re fascists’. This is absolute indoctrination, something the Soviet Union never even achieved – then, people largely still believed their own families over the authorities, despite the government’s best efforts to break those ties. But now? ‘You’re a fascist’. TV propaganda, fabricated atrocities, sheer repetition – it works. It always has. If the people are scared, if they are hungry for war, if they hate the ‘fascist’ enemy, they’re not going to complain about the searing poverty and inequality of modern Russia.
What’s happening in Ukraine, for many years now, is the rejection of all this. When they overthrew their old grey Soviet men, when they threw the ruler out of his gold-plated palace and turned it into a palace of corruption, it was a rejection of all that shit: the mindless TV propaganda; the culture of bribery and theft that had clung on for so long, that had made what should be a prosperous country so absurdly poor.
They tried to build their own state, their own society, in the model they hoped for. Something progressive, something more hopeful. All the Ukrainians I know my age and younger (and many older) were heavily involved in that effort, the volunteers and activists who are now so vital to the struggle to stop the invaders. They get food to the hospital and night goggles to the volunteer soldiers. They believe in this country they’re trying to build, and defend.
For Putin and his small circle that now run the Russian Federation, such a popular revolt, such a grassroots rebuilding of society, such an example to his own masses, cannot be allowed to stand. This is what Ukraine is being punished for – its independence. Not the Moscow-controlled sham independence, but genuine, make-your-own-mistakes sovereignty. In recent years corruption was finally being tackled. Living standards were rising. Ukraine was getting a sense of itself, despite all the strife and divisions of the past. And Putin was thinking: What if Russians see this?
That circle of people, who will one day be tried for war crimes, have been crystal clear on so many occasions about the point of all this. It is to finish the Ukrainian nation. They’ve written, and talked, very openly about the need to ‘re-educated’ or just wipe out people who ‘mistakenly’ think they are Ukrainian. Anyone who thinks Ukraine exists as a nation – because this, as Putin explained in his insane February speech, is a historical mistake, there should never have been such a country, it just came out of the 1991 chaos. So they’re just fixing the mistake, and unfortunately some Ukrainians have started to believe they’re Ukrainian so must be removed. Removed to Russia, removed to reeducation camps, removed from the face of the earth. They’ve been very clear. Bucha, Irpin, the mass rapes, the executions, the torture, soldiers telling women ‘I shot your husband, he was a Nazi’ as they storm into the house, drunk… These aren’t isolated incidents.
So this is not a ‘conflict’. It is an attempt to wipe out another state, the very idea of it, to bring back a colony. The history of Ukraine in the Soviet Union was one of brutal colonisation – and long before that too, under the Russian empire. Putin wants it back. This is just reheated Stalinism; look at what happened to Ukraine in the 1920s and 1930s. Try to read and understand the history here. Serhii Plokhy’s books are a great place to start.
Let me add that I am not ‘anti-Russia’. I spent all my adult life, since school, trying desperately to go there, reading everything I could, absorbing all the beautiful nuances of the language like a sponge. And I can say that ‘Putin is not Russia’, and it’s true; one day the country could be free, coming to terms with the imperialism and violence that its history has been saturated with (as has ours, and we are very very slowly coming to terms with it only now). But the rot in Russia is very, very deep. It is sinking into a terrifying darkness. The good people there don’t stand a chance of standing in the way of this, though they keep trying, my friends, brave people.
Russia isn’t sinking into this mire because of NATO or because the US wants to be the big power, as I’m often told by people on the Left. It’s just incredibly naive to think this. This is about an empire mired in a culture of violence and brutality, lashing out. It has done it before and will keep doing it. In Moldova, in the Baltics, in Finland, people are scared – and angry, because they’ve been warning of this for so long, there on the very border with the empire. Putin has explicitly mentioned these countries as ‘harbouring Nazis’, as mistreating Russian speakers – nonsense, but he’s saying this for a reason. These are the TV talking points on the nightly chat shows on Russian TV, all the channels of which Putin controls. If he says a country is harbouring Nazis and mistreating the Russians there, its population will fear what might come next. Naturally. They’ll want protection. They want to join NATO. For people in the UK to turn around and tell them they shouldn’t want this is absurd. It’s their decision. They have agency.
And lastly, most importantly, Ukrainians have agency. They have agency. They are not pawns of some nefarious US policy, or NATO, or Soros. They know the odds and fought against Russia anyway, on principle and, as they often put it, ‘for peace in Europe’ not just in Ukraine. This is an anti-imperialist fight. The odds are grim and so we are helping them. The alternative is to let an aggressor, one with genocidal intent and (actually) fascist rhetoric, storm into a smaller country, murder many of its inhabitants and install a brutal regime. Sometimes you have to fight for peace. You can hate war, and still believe this.