Putin’s last stand How to lose a war simply by starting one
How did this war with Ukraine even become a possibility? According to Meduza’s Ideas editor, Maxim Trudolyubov, the answer to this question can be found in the political alternate “reality” developed in Russia in recent years on the basis of lies, manipulation, and the production of fakes. This “reality” had seemed so crudely constructed that it was impossible to imagine anyone in charge (especially those who created it) to believe it seriously. As it turns out, however, somebody does believe it. His name is Vladimir Putin.
From the very outset of the Putin era, the Russian government has been engaged in a harsh, militaristic battle with public reality. Political administrators (specifically administrators and not politicians, since nobody ever elected them) have gone after all forms of independence and expelled all activists, politicians, and journalists with independent perspectives from the public sphere. Their positions were handed over to figures whose task was to imitate and fabricate the facade of actual civic leadership. Managers from the Presidential Administration worked to transform any grassroots parties, groups, or organizations into artificial “cells” under their own control.
Everything genuine was deemed alien, foreign, other, extremist, and “terrorist.” Recall Alexey Navalny’s civic network — an organization that aimed to wage a political, nonviolent war against the regime, and which was declared to be, essentially, a “criminal” organization because of it.
The managers’ success in destroying these institutions was impressive. But even as we acknowledge this, let’s not forget that this “success” was achieved through outright murder, persecution, and forcing people to leave the country. Faceless administrators who have worked under various Kremlin political bosses — Vladislav Surkov, Vyacheslav Volodin, Sergey Kiriyenko — were clearing the field in close cooperation with the security apparatus. The results of their work are truly horrifying.
Think of the activists currently serving time in our prisons. Think of those who were forced to leave the country, and those who were forced to give up working in the public sphere altogether, having soberly assessed the risks. We can’t forget the murdered politicians, journalists, and activists, or those behind their killings.
Putin’s administrators strived not only to control civil society but even the outcomes of sporting events. The laws of fair play were obliterated: apparently, our leader did not believe in them. Russian athletes had to be better than everyone else at all costs. This was why competition was replaced with a doping program concocted to deliver the illusion of blinding success for our leader. The 2014 Winter Olympics turned into a project aimed at attaining guaranteed victories. In the end, it was a whistleblower — the former head of the Moscow Anti-Doping Laboratory, Grigory Rodchenkov — who revealed how the games were fixed. Thanks to him, we have a detailed picture of this shameful affair.
The criminal methods brought to bear here proved more adept at destruction than creation. Putin’s theater totally failed in building a zombified alternative to an actual living society. In the end, those who made us all “others” (“foreign” or “undesirable”) could offer nothing themselves. We were left with their lack of initiative, absence of creative inspiration, and empty hearts. This is precisely why they have failed to create their own public sphere, their own open space for discourse, their own politics, their own trustworthy analysis, sociology and political science, and their own opposition and press.
The alternative reality was nothing but a crooked mirror of the living public sphere, filled with clowns in the place of politicians, cheap imitations instead of functioning social welfare organizations, and propagandists instead of journalists and analysts. It was easy enough to cope; you could just never vote for the clown, never read the fake pundits, ignore all the Dmitry Kiselyovs and Vladimir Solovyovs, since these talking heads could never stand on their own. They were nothing but terrible actors performing other people’s scripts — tools in a crude political game. Everything was so obviously black and white that it gave rise to false confidence that, of course, it would all fall apart as soon as the government loosened its grip. People believed that this would come as a result of some natural process, like an economic crisis, our leader becoming less popular, or a new generation of people coming to power.
A crisis would take the fake pawns off the board, “politicians” and “journalists” (yes, in quotation marks) would simply power down, since, after all, they were only machines that functioned when plugged into the government’s electrical outlet. The scales would suddenly fall from the eyes of the Russian citizenry, who would see all the scenery crash down onstage. It would have been like the end of “Alice in Wonderland”: the King, the Queen, the Knight, and the Judges would turn out to be nothing but playing cards. Or the end of “Invitation to a Beheading”: “A spinning wind was picking up and whirling: dust, rags, chips of painted wood, bits of gilded plaster, pasteboard bricks…”
But today, shells, missiles, and bombs are bringing real death to Ukrainians and Russians. The spinning wind rushing over Ukraine’s soil now is all too real, and the shards and bricks are extremely tangible shards and bricks. Not taking Putin’s alternate reality seriously was a widespread and tragic error, of which I too was guilty. The sense of this politics being nothing but virtual was deceptive. The scenery never was gilded plaster; the bricks weren’t pasteboard. In fact, it’s exactly the opposite: the crude set (built by stagehands who were paid in food) materialized and transformed into death and suffering.
I acknowledge my deep personal failure in my attempts to take down the stage decorations back when this was still possible before the war. I was so sure that they would collapse on their own.
How a worldview can destroy the world
Believing that life, conscience, talent, and renown are things that can be bought and sold is a damaging worldview worthy of contempt. It is not an innocent mistake. Someone who has convinced themselves that everything can be bought and sold, that society can be occupied, subjugated, and replaced by their own personal reality, paid for by them, has led not only our country but also the world to the brink of disaster.
He not only believed in the reality he had bought, but he also made it the basis for action in the real world. Today, it is clear that his plan to conduct a short military operation in a “brotherly nation” was based on a fiction that he authored himself. Apparently, he expected that the use of force by a “real” state — that is, “his” state — would lead to the collapse of the “non-real” state of Ukraine. He believed that he was dealing with stage decorations, bought, and sold by forces inimical to him: Americans, Europeans, the image of whom he had shaped in his own self-image. It seems that he believed that the “rating” that he assigned to them would translate into actual support for his actions from Russian society. He thought that everyone would believe in Ukrainian “Nazis” and his liberation mission. He assumed, probably based on assurances from his yes-men, that Russia was ready for war and sanctions.
Putin convinced himself that Ukrainian society is the same kind of theater where, using killings and threats, he could make that society into his own, turning it Russian. He thought that Ukrainians, from grunts on the battlefield to the government that he hates so vehemently, would fold like a deck of cards and bow down to his supremacy. The president of Ukraine is an actor and a comedian. The mayor of Kyiv — a boxer. Who did they even think they were? It seems that he seriously believed he had psychological and moral superiority over contemporary Ukraine — over the entire free world. His own damaged perspective prevented him from acknowledging that all his “superiority” was nothing but the invention of his own court jesters. His television and press have for many years had but one producer and viewer: Vladimir Putin himself. He poisoned himself with his own lies.
The president has no moral superiority over anyone. His superiority lies solely in his military might. In order to manifest this superiority, he needs a clear mission, a purpose, and a sense of righteousness. In this war, however, the only parties with a clear mission and sense of purpose and righteousness are Ukraine and the Ukrainians. Today, he may find himself facing the choice to deploy every single destructive weapon he has in his arsenal. All this can accomplish is death and suffering. It will not alter what’s really true.
His war on reality should have remained his own personal problem. If you want to spend your life hurt and angry at the world, please, go ahead. But using his power, manipulation, and lies, he’s thrust himself onto the Russian people. For many years, he fought for his “ratings” with every tool at his disposal. With muscle and threats, he’s tied the fate of the Russian people to his own fate, devaluating the identity of his own people, who had once fought alongside Ukrainians, unified in a just war.
He’s poisoned not only himself, but also all Russians. He is the architect of the hatred through which the world will now look at not only at him, but also at all of us, Russians and Russian citizens. It will take many years for us to convince the world that “we are not like that,” “this is not who we are.” For many years after Putin, we will be forced to rebuild a social system in Russia that will be free of political stage decorations and fiction.
Russia lost this war morally simply by starting it. No matter what happens on the battlefield, Russia has lost this war as a political, economic, and social entity: as a country, as a part of the global community. There was a time when the word war, without any qualifiers, always referred to the Great Patriotic War. Now this word has a different meaning. War, without any qualifiers or adjectives now refers to the war that he started, which rendered me and all other Russians responsible for the catastrophe that he’s brought about.
Translation by Bela Shayevich