The War in Ukraine Launches a New Battle for the Russian Soul


Russia says that it has expanded. On September 30th, President Vladimir Putin signed a document that ostensibly accepted four Ukrainian regions as members of the Russian Federation. The residents of those regions, Putin said in a speech, “have become our citizens forever.” He made this assertion as the Ukrainian Army was liberating territory to which Russia was laying claim. He was not just trying to snatch propaganda victory from the jaws of evident military defeat; he was laying the groundwork for fighting for those lands ever more aggressively. A week and a half earlier, he had ordered the military to draft hundreds of thousands of new soldiers, and had threatened to use nuclear weapons.

A Russia that includes parts, or all, of Ukraine and untold other lands is the Russian World, a vague and expansive idea pioneered by the self-styled philosopher Aleksandr Dugin, some of whose ideas have been adopted by the Kremlin. In August, his thirty-two-year-old daughter, Darya, also an imperialist pundit, was killed by a car bomb that may have been intended for him. Last week, the Times reported that U.S. intelligence believes a part of the Ukrainian government may have been behind the attack. If true, this suggests that the government puts strong, probably unfounded, faith in the power of the concept of the Russian World.

Putin, in his speech, described both the Russian World and the larger world as he sees it. According to him, the West destroyed the Soviet Union in 1991, but Russia came back, defiant and strong. Now the West wants to destroy Russia. “They see our thought and our philosophy as a direct threat,” he said. “That is why they target our philosophers for murder.” The ultimate goal of the West—specifically, the United States and Great Britain—is to subjugate people around the world and force them to give up traditional values, to have “ ‘parent No. 1,’ ‘parent No. 2,’ and ‘parent No. 3’ instead of mother and father (they have completely lost it!),” and to teach schoolchildren that “there are some other genders besides men and women and offer them sex-change operations.” Putin has said, repeatedly, that only Russia can save the world from this menace. This is the story of a world in which his war in Ukraine—and the draft, and even, perhaps, a nuclear strike—makes sense.

But when the world shaped by the feedback loop of propaganda collides with the world of facts on the ground, things begin to crack. On October 5th, two videos circulated widely on Russian-language social media, including in normally pro-war quarters. The videos show a crowd of men in uniform. They say that there are five hundred of them and that they were recently drafted. They complain of “animal-like” conditions, of having to buy their own food and bulletproof vests, and of a lack of organization. “We are not registered as part of any detachment,” one man says. “We have weapons, but these are not officially issued to us.” Meanwhile, some Russian television propagandists have been acknowledging Ukrainian victories, and urging Russians to prepare for a long wait before their country can attack again.

It’s too early to make assumptions about where these tiny cracks may lead. It is not too early, however, to think about what a future, militarily defeated Russia might look like. This is what Alexey Navalny, the opposition politician who has been in prison since January, 2021, has been doing. The Washington Post recently published an op-ed, smuggled out by Navalny’s legal team, in which he writes that Russia deserves to lose the war and that, once it does, it must be reconstituted as a parliamentary, rather than a Presidential, republic. This, he argues, will insure that no one person can usurp power in Russia as Putin has.

Navalny’s op-ed serves to illustrate Putin’s wisdom, of sorts—the wisdom of keeping his most important political opponent behind bars. Navalny seems to have missed a cultural turning point. In the seven and a half months since Russia launched its full-scale invasion, hundreds of thousands of Russians have left their country. Many of them are journalists, writers, poets, or artists, and they, along with some who are still in Russia, have been producing essays, poems, Facebook posts, and podcasts trying to grapple with the condition of being citizens of a country waging a genocidal colonial war. Some of their Ukrainian counterparts have scoffed at their soul-searching. Ukrainians, indeed, have bigger and more immediate problems. But they also have certainty—they know who they are in the world, while for Russians nothing is as it once seemed to be.

One of the earliest examples of this outpouring was a poem, by the children’s-book author Alexey Oleynikov, about the incongruity of trying to flee Russia with a pet hedgehog in tow. One stanza reads, “We will not wash the shame off until our old age, until we die / There have been worse times, but there has never been a more ridiculous time.” Posted on Facebook, the poem went viral in March. May’s viral poem, by the actress and poet Zhenya Berkovich, tells of a young Russian man visited by the ghost of his grandfather, who fought in the Second World War; the ghost asks his grandson to forget him, lest the memory of his valor be used to justify the current war. This month’s viral poem, by Eli Bar-Yahalom, an Israeli Russian, is a dialogue between God and a Muscovite who hopes to return home someday. “There is no resurrecting Bucha, no raising up Irpin,” God says, referring to suburbs of Kyiv where Russians appear to have committed war crimes. There are also at least two Russian-language podcasts devoted to the issues of individual and collective responsibility for the war. And Linor Goralik, an acclaimed Russian writer born in Ukraine and living in Israel, has founded an online journal called roar (Russian Oppositional Arts Review), which has published three packed issues.

The last time people were writing in Russian so urgently was in the late nineteen-eighties. Soviet citizens back then had been confronted with their past—the Stalinist terror. That moment gave Russia, among other things, Memorial, the human-rights organization that, along with Ukrainian and Belarusian activists, won the Nobel Peace Prize last week. Now Russian citizens are being confronted with their present. The writers in exile have physically fled their country (as has much of Memorial’s leadership) and are trying to write their way to a new Russia. Their imagination extends far beyond the Russian constitution to a world that’s radically different, and better than not only Putin’s revanchist Russian World but the world we currently inhabit. ♦


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