Demonstrative immorality as Russia's new doctrine
February 2, 2023
  • Andrei Kolesnikov

    Senior Fellow, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace

Andrei Kolesnikov writes that since the outbreak of the war active support for the regime has come to imply cheering on cruelty, primitiveness and immorality. The value of human life has been reduced to the willingness to risk one’s life for Putin and his inner circle.
In January 2023 the Sakharov Foundation was declared an “undesirable organization” and the Sakharov Center was evicted from its premises in Moscow, which had been indefinitely allotted by the state. Source: Wiki Commons
Since the special operation began a year ago, Russian society not only discovered its virtually limitless capacity to adapt and justify any evil – convincing itself that it is in fact good – but also set free the immoralism that had lain dormant. Of course, we are talking about only a segment of society. Nevertheless, many social strata have successfully adapted to the war, opting for detached non-participation or demonstrating aggressive conformism, expressing active support for the regime, which implies cheering on cruelty, primitiveness and immorality. Entirely in the spirit of Kremlin talk shows.

“Real men” coming to power

The war has awakened a national inferiority complex, which came to the surface right after the start of the “special operation:” the year of war began with Russians – those who could – buying up imported goods and rescuing their hard-currency savings. Then came the stage of self-hypnosis: ‘now we will get rid of our dependence on the West and learn how to make everything ourselves; moreover, we are stronger in spirit; we will demonstrate to the world the true power of everything Russian.’ This is not soft power – it is hard, cruel, imperial. “Glorifying violence as a condition for believing in the greatness of the country is the flip side of the consciousness of collective inferiority, which seeks compensation,” wrote sociologist Lev Gudkov in his book Recurrent Totalitarianism. According to Gudkov, “the idea that the power of the state rests on military force, on the threat to use nuclear weapons, means that violence as such is highly valued in the mass consciousness, which is symbolically expressed by the authority enjoyed by the corresponding institutions” (here Gudkov is referring to the army, president and FSB, as well as the Russian Orthodox Church, which has gone along and blessed the violence).

The worker and kolkhoz woman offered the world the hammer and sickle, while the Wagner soldier and Russian general/politician now waves the sledgehammer and atomic bomb. The attempt to draw a straight line from a Soviet liberator with a rescued child in his arms to a Wagner soldier is absolutely absurd, yet this is one of the main ideologemes today: ‘our people have risen up for a defensive, people’s, patriotic war against the West, which has always attacked us, appearing variously as dog-knights, Napoleon, Hitler and now NATO.’ It is absolutely a Stalinist discourse, along with a Stalinist pantheon of historical heroes. Strong Russian leaders – Putin’s predecessors – include Ivan the Terrible with his oprichnina, Peter the Great, who “returned and strengthened” the Russian lands (Putin does not mention his policy of borrowing technologies and administrative practices from the West) and Stalin, who casts a giant shadow over the mobilized soldiers heading to the front. These soldiers are sharing the responsibility for restoring the “historical territories“ of the Russian world with Putin; they are ready for a heroic death, which, according to Patriarch Kirill, will wash away all their sins. Thanatocracy and political necrophilia are very archaic, but they help us understand how the state and Church are encouraging immoralism, ennobling and sanctioning it.
"The deliberate anti-modernity of such discourse and such orders from above is the glorification of violence, which contradicts the spirit and letter of the Russian Constitution."
It implies a defiant disregard for human and civil rights, as well as the values of civil society. In this sense, it was no accident, and was in fact very symptomatic, that a military prosecutor’s office decided to block the UN website (though it was not actually carried out), as the UN represents an organization where values alien to those of the current Russian authorities are concentrated. Neither was the hasty and demonstrative destruction of the actual and symbolic heritage of Academician Andrei Sakharov an accident – the Sakharov Foundation was declared an “undesirable organization” and the Sakharov Center was evicted from its premises in Moscow, which had been indefinitely allotted by the state.

It is also telling that, for example, the Meduza news website, a model of modern Russian media, which had long ago been declared a “foreign agent,” was also named an “undesirable organization.” Spreading values of liberal humanism and non-violence is precisely what was found undesirable by the state where Sergei Mironov, the leader of a parliamentary faction, poses with a sledgehammer sent by Yevgeny Prigozhin, while former President Dmitri Medvedev appears in public in a freshly tailored French tunic, looking less like Stalin than a North Korean leader or the TV presenter Solovyov.

The sledgehammer is a symbol of extrajudicial violence, which is being justified and even romanticized. The French tunic symbolizes the country’s totalitarian past, which is a model for today’s authorities and a segment of society.

Thanks to such an opinion leader as Prigozhin, the heroism of the criminal world is taking root in the mass consciousness. The new hero is an imprisoned criminal – even one who has committed monstrous crimes (for example, murdering his own mother) – who is redeeming himself by taking out the enemy. He is a “real man,” unlike people who even during this “people’s war” are cowardly trying to live their pre-war life and maintain normality. From now on, normal is abnormal, standard is nonstandard.

Who is driving the agenda

Of course, this is a fact of the regime that Putin has been building for more than 20 years and has finally finished. In such a regime, the value of human life tends toward zero. Now, value is found only in the willingness to risk one’s life for Putin and his inner circle, who are obsessed with archaic conspiracy theories.

The regime’s institutional foundations, the foundations of statehood, are crumbling: authoritarian rule-making and law enforcement are eroding the very foundations of law, while Prigozhin, the leader of criminal elements who are declared heroes, is becoming a source of “legislative” initiatives. As soon as Prigozhin – who willingly poses, as the new aesthetic dictates, against the backdrop of fresh military burial grounds (rather resembling mass graves) – proposed adding an article to the Criminal Code providing penalties for discrediting former convicts who are fighting in Ukraine, Duma Speaker Vyacheslav Volodin took up the idea with enthusiasm.

Evidently, “Putin’s chef” is ingraining a criminal subculture, shaping a new ethic and aesthetic, and dictating the state’s legislative agenda. And parliament is becoming his instrument. To boost their stature, statesmen like Mironov and Volodin are trying to get closer to the new Russian “macho” – Prigozhin. The power of the informal leader of the contemporary “savage division” has been consolidated by state rituals: surviving criminals are awarded “For Courage” medals, which recall the heroism of soldiers who fought in the Great Patriotic War.

An informalization of power and its practices is taking place. For example, in the new circumstances, so-called “parallel” – i.e. counterfeit – imports are becoming the norm.
"Justice is now being carried out extrajudicially, with the full connivance of institutions that should ensure at least formal compliance with judicial procedures."
Society – at least a significant part – is tolerant of all this: it prefers not to notice it, takes it for granted or even supports it. This allows Putin to continue the active phase he launched in February 2022. Active because in the previous, passive stage, all the same trends of power turning immoral had been present for many years. However, for immoralism to essentially become official doctrine, the “special military operation” was needed.
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