While standing over the deceased Stalin, his closest comrades – Khrushchev, Beria, Malenkov, and Molotov know very well that a historic moment is underway, but none of them think of using this historical crossroads to lead their country down a new path. They are only interested in where they will end up in the new architecture of power, which was being created from the moment when the great and immortal leader took his last breath. Although this scene from the superb satire The Death of Stalin (2017) is only an artistic view of the historical event, it is a credible interpretation of the relationship between authorities, power and will of the people deeply rooted in Russian society.
If Russia has any firm social traditions, then it is complaisance with any form of state power. The Russian people passively observe every change, do not initiate it, and wait for the outcome of each change, in order to adapt to it as soon as possible. Changes in Russia were never evolutionary, they only happened when the previous system collapsed to the point of self-destruction. In each of these changes, the nation was the victim that bore the consequences. But that is the price the nation pays for its traditional passivity, for its deep-seated feeling that it cannot influence the decisions that the state makes on their behalf.
Researchers at the Woodrow Wilson Center say that the previously mentioned feeling is the “most stable finding” of any public opinion survey since the fall of communism. Depending on the year, only four to fifteen percent of Russians believe they can influence events affecting the entire country. Russian society is unable or unwilling to influence the decisions made by its government, whoever sits in that government.
Even the aggression against Ukraine does not change such deeply rooted loyalty. Regardless of the fact that none of the Russian statistics today can be trusted, occasional surveys say that the invasion of Ukraine has the support of 60, 70 or 80% of the population, and that Vladimir Putin has similar percentages of support, they certainly reflect the real state of consciousness of the Russian nation. There is an interpretation (Vladislav Inozemtsev) that it’s not active support, in the sense that 70 or 80% of people in Russia are ready to go to war tomorrow, on the contrary. It is a matter of traditional social lethargy, towards important state issues, caused mainly by fear of retaliation.
But is this the reason for the vast majority of Russian citizens to be granted amnesty for aggression against another independent country and for all the destruction and war crimes committed there? Is this just Putin’s war, or is this a war of all of Russia against Ukraine?
Even on the first day of aggression, and even more so six months later, there should be no dilemma. Russia, together with its leader, and not against its will, embarked on a conquest campaign, supports it, allows it to continue and expects success, victory and spoils from it. There is no “other Russia” that opposes the war. If it existed, when it protested on the streets of Saint Petersburg and Moscow in the first days of aggression, it quickly disappeared under the pressure of the regime and draconian penalties for resisting the “special military operation”. Since those first days of aggression, there has been no resistance to the invasion, not even individual outpourings of anti-war courage.
Only the Russia that wants the destruction of Ukraine, and then (or at the same time) the destruction of the West, as it is, remained visible. It’s not just about the messages from dozens of politicians, scientists and journalists who take turns in the central and most-watched talk show programs on state TV day after day. It’s not just a matter of censorship, where only the vocabulary of war, destruction and ultimate victory is allowed and desired. In the competition of how quickly and how brutally Ukraine, Europe and the east coast of the USA can be wiped out, enough people from the social elite have participated in the past six months for their attitude to be reflected on the whole society.
In terms of brutal rhetoric, people from the highest state establishment understandably lead the way. Former President and Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev convincingly leads in strong competition with hostile messages and let’s observe it as his attempt to return to the highest circles of power, but what he says leaves a very deep mark on the attitudes of the entire population. When he says about Ukraine and the West that they are “bastards and degenerates”, that they want death for Russia and that because of this he wants them to disappear, Medvedev is no stranger on the street, he is the recent president and prime minister of Russia, a man who is trustworthy.
Then it should not be surprising when some of the subjects find themselves in shock because they do not understand why important parts of their previous lives are being denied to them. Dmitry Peskov’s daughter, Elizaveta, was shocked when sanctions were imposed on her to travel and dispose of property in the West; she thought it was unfair, that she had nothing to do with the war in Ukraine. However, Elizaveta lives in France, not in Russia. One Instagram influencer did not know why “the network that is her life” was shut down, while she tearfully said goodbye to her followers. All Russians felt in some way the response of civilization to what their government is doing in their name, but it is tragic that the vast majority of them still do not connect cause and effect.
The recent Balkan experience is very similar, and just like the Russian one, it is far from the Stockholm syndrome. To this day, the celebration of Ratko Mladić is sincere and quite passionate in Serbia, Montenegro, in the Serbian entity in Bosnia and Herzegovina, despite the fact that he was convicted in The Hague for the most serious war crimes during the war in the 1990s. His admirers are nationalists and pro-Russian populists, and they do not paint murals with the image of Ratko Mladić and wear T-shirts with his silhouette because they believe that he was unjustly convicted, so they demand “justice for the Serbian general”. They know very well that Mladić committed genocide and other crimes for which he was convicted, and they celebrate him precisely because of that; unhappy that Mladić’s “politics” did not remain mainstream politics, until the final “victory”.
Russia will continue to celebrate Putin even after his military campaign against Ukraine collapses. They will also celebrate his successor, because he certainly won’t learn from the previous disaster and lead the country on a different path. Why would he do that when he has millions of accomplices around him, his people, and not the opponents of everything that was happening? Not even a future Russia will be able to justify being silent under the burden of retaliation while Ukraine was destroyed. Russia participated in that campaign consciously and with enthusiasm, for years and decades, calling out to its leader whose plan for the restoration of “historical Russia” and the creation of a “Russian world” they embraced as their own. It’s too late to look for the excuse for this being only Putin’s war. This is a war that Russia is waging and is in it together with its leader.