July 26, 2022
Mr. Pomerantsev is the author of “This Is Not Propaganda: Adventures in the War Against Reality.”
WN: The author, of Ukrainian heritage, makes a compelling case about realities in Russia–and why endless cycles of humiliation have been, and likely will be indefinitely, its lot.
Valentyna told me that not long after Russian troops arrived in Yahidne, her village in northern Ukraine, a tall, blond soldier came to use her bathroom. She asked him what the Russians were doing in Ukraine. “We want you to be with us,” he told her, “for you to be with Russia.”
In Yahidne, the reality of being “with us” meant the following: The Russian soldiers herded some 300 villagers into a cellar underneath a school next to their artillery, turning them into human shields. The oldest villager was 96. “We are here to protect you,” the Russian soldiers told them. But they held the villagers in the cellar for about a month, and 10 died after Russians did not provide proper medical care. Others, including Valentyna, a pensioner who lives alone, stayed in their homes, which Russian soldiers ransacked, looking for money and loot.
I went to Yahidne in mid-April, not long after it had been liberated by Ukrainian troops. The village is not an unusual example of the brutality that Russia tries to sell as brotherhood in Ukraine. Throughout the war, being “with us” has been synonymous with atrocity: the mass bombings of schools, homes and hospitals, and the rape and execution of civilians.
To humiliate people is to exploit your power over them, making them feel worthless and dependent on you. It is clear, then, that the Russian military seems intent on humiliating Ukrainians, taking away their right to independence and their right to make their own decisions. This war is an act of imperialism, a colonial war meant to destroy another nation’s right to exist and to subjugate it. But it is not empire building in the sense of a coldly considered plan for territorial gain and economic resources; it is the next act of Vladimir Putin’s empire of humiliation.
Russia’s president would have the world believe that his country is guided by unifying ideas of cultural pride and conservative values, exceptionalism and splendid isolation. But in reality, Mr. Putin’s Russia has no coherent ideology; it’s just a mess of contradictions: It is Soviet nostalgia and a cultural arrogance that glorifies the Russian empire; it is a Russian ethnic and Christian Orthodox superiority that sits uncomfortably with what is supposed to be pride in being a patchwork of ethnicities and faiths.
Russia is a bastion of conservative values that has some of the world’s highest rates of divorce, and its soundtrack is a Kremlin TV that amplifies any compliment or conciliatory gesture from the West — clips of Tucker Carlson, the Fox News host, appear frequently. Kremlin propaganda claims Russia revels in isolationism, but it is also addicted to seeking approval from abroad.
And Mr. Putin’s success as president of Russia has rested for some time on his ability to mete out daily humiliations to Russians and then act as if he feels their rage as they do, as if he alone knows where to direct it — toward the West, toward Ukraine, anywhere except toward the Kremlin.
Please click on: Putin’s Empire of Humiliation