The collision of the Russian invasion with the reality from which it escaped
The Germans from Weimar walked the forest paths towards the nearby Buchenwald, north of the city, with smiles on their faces, nicely dressed. The fact that they went on this hike by order of the American army, could not spoil their mood on a beautiful, spring, April day. And why would that imply something bad? They are from Weimar, the city of poets, philosophers and artists, one of the centers of civilization to which they gave Goethe, Bach and Schiller, dukes and kings. They walked and chattered full of self-realization that by being from Weimar, they are the people from the hotbed of a civilization that celebrates man, beauty, freedom and life.
After ten kilometers, a collision followed. Behind the gates of the Nazi camp Buchenwald they saw hell. The corpses of starving camp prisoners on piles, the faces of survivors who did not differ much from the deceased, suffering and pain that the world had not seen before. The smile disappeared from their faces, everyone got sick, and some fainted. American soldiers were returning the polished Weimar gentlemen to spend another minute in the barracks full of corpses from which they wanted to leave as soon as possible, in order to remember well what they saw.
Only ten kilometers separated the peaks of modern civilization and the deepest abyss of crime. In those ten kilometers, there was a whole history that the world in 1945 vowed not to repeat, so that the civilization we know, and of which we are a part, would not be on the brink again.
Two pillars of Russian aggression
Russia’s aggression against Ukraine was built patiently on two fundamental pillars for a long time. One was the anti-fascist legacy of the USSR, which Vladimir Putin exploited as the “brand” of his new Russia facing the “rest of the world”. Can anyone doubt the freedom-loving and anti-Nazism of the new, Putin’s, Russia, which celebrates the victories of its ancestors, and remembers the millions of its victims in the war against Hitler? If you doubted their sincerity, old flags and winning uniforms are there every May 9 on Red Square to remind you. And if that is not enough for your skepticism, we will steal a noble idea from the descendants of warriors from the city of Tomsk in Siberia and turn it into a state project – Immortal Regiment, in which grandchildren of fallen fighters against Hitler will parade around the world every May, carrying photos of their cousins-heroes, who have fallen in the battle against Nazism.
The second pillar on which the invasion of Ukraine was built, patiently and for a long time, is a mystical, quasi-historical narrative about Russia being the chosen country, its greatness that transcends the nation and makes it a civilization superior to others. This pillar, called the Russian world, is turned inwards, towards the Russians and it has inspired them long enough so when the attack on Ukraine happened, almost everyone was completely convinced of the correctness and fairness of this endeavor. On February 24, it was confirmed that dictators like Putin do not conduct propaganda to make people believe in something, but to believe in nothing, and that is why they will not do anything.
For years, they have been told that as opposed to their people and their historical mission, there is a whole civilization, based on wrong values, and that conflict is inevitable, and victory is certain. Some will call the opponents Atlanticists (Alexander Dugin), collective West (Leonid Reshetnikov) or simply – the West, but everyone will know well what that enemy represents – liberal democracy and all its institutions, human rights, global order based on generally accepted rules.
The war is being waged against that civilization, and Ukraine is just a training ground where the battle is taking place. Vladimir Putin, his propagandists and all their followers are convinced that this state, its people and especially their right to decide for themselves do not exist. In order to avoid dilemmas about the epochal dimension of this endeavor, the head of the Russian Orthodox Church Kirill explained at the very beginning that war “has not only political significance” – We are talking about something different and much more important than politics, we are talking about human salvation, we have entered the struggle which has no physical but metaphysical significance.
Victims at the altar of the Russian world
When the motives for war are set so high, above the realms of the real and the rational, and victory and sacrifice as a mission, then everything on earth becomes permissible. The Bucha massacre, hundreds of executed civilians with their hands tied, is a necessary step towards the mission, just like the mass grave in the village of Buzova near Kyiv, the bombing of the train station, destroyed cities and looted houses. These are small and bearable sacrifices on the altar of the Russian world, the new civilization that started a decisive battle. For them, the cases of rape of Ukrainian women and girls by Russian soldiers, something that Volodymyr Zelensky spoke about before the UN Security Council and about which more and more victims of this violence are publicly testifying in Ukrainian cities, in Irpin, for example, are also acceptable.
Such crimes were acceptable and even understandable to Stalin himself before the end of World War II. When Josip Broz Tito complained to him at the end of 1944 about the mass rapes of Yugoslav women by Red Army soldiers, the head of the Kremlin replied – These are young guys, let them have some fun, they deserve it. At least 2,400 Yugoslav women were reported killed during that “fun”, but the real number is ten times higher when the methodology used for such research in other parts of Europe is applied (Vojin Majstorovic: The Red Army in Yugoslavia 1944-1945, Cambridge University Press, 2017).
In Moscow, this is denied, rejected, Ukraine is accused of fabrication, but isn’t that persistent “nyet” part of Moscow’s state dictionary for many decades. As a true “civilization” thread, this blatant lying and denial of reality, and especially crimes, goes back to the day before the attack on Ukraine, when the entire Kremlin angrily rejected any possibility that it would attack Ukraine. After that big lie, all that remained was a matter of technique to deny everything that was done in Ukraine – destroyed Mariupol, bombed maternity hospital, hundreds of corpses in Bucha, attack on the train station, the looted houses and shops, the raped women and girls.
The answer of civilization
Unfortunately, the rape of a civilization, which the world vowed in 1945 to never allow again, is repeated. It is repeated in the way described by Umberto Eco in the famous essay “Ur-Fascism”, fearing that fascism can always return, even under the “most innocent masks”. When he gives us instructions on how to recognize the return of evil and the rapist of civilization, Eco says that the appearance of only one of the 14 common features of fascism is enough to sound the alarm. In the case of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, and everything that preceded it, we have a concurrence of not one feature, but all 14. Everything from the cult of tradition, rejection of modernism, obsession with conspiracy, life as a permanent war, to contempt for the weak and creating “new discourse”.
In the situation when it is attacked, when it is exposed to rape, civilization has not only the right, but also the duty to defend itself, exclusively with what makes it a civilization, and those are its values. Armed resistance to the rapist is a duty and the Ukrainian people are performing it in a way that has already placed them at the moral top of civilization. The speed and determination with which the civilized world removed Putin’s Russia from every place in which it was an equal participant, pretending to share common, all-time values, is astonishing and encouraging. It was removed from the Council of Europe, recently from the UN Human Rights Council, from international sports, and especially from global trade and finance. It is a collision like the one experienced by the Germans from Weimar in 1945, a collision of a distorted vision of the world and your place in that world, with the reality of civilization, which said – You are what you see, not what you thought about yourself and your nation.
Because it defends its values, the response of civilization to the Russian idea of its superiority will have to continue even when peace comes to Ukraine. Just as Nuremberg was the seal of civilized society over its antipode, some future permanent or special court must be a response to the attempted rape of civilization we are witnessing in Ukraine. Undisputed war crimes were committed, they were ordered and committed by someone, the evidence is already numerous and irrefutable, starting with the decision of the Russian state leadership on aggression against an independent state and a UN member, to every single murder, theft and rape. It will be the last, but also the most important confirmation of the victory of civilization over its enemy, but what is equally important is that it will be a reminder to new generations that something similar must never happen again.