Skip to main content
  • Share to or
guest essays

The Devil went down to Kyiv Scholar Eliot Borenstein examines the worrying ‘video game logic’ behind Moscow’s fundamentalist fight

Source: Meduza
guest essays

The Devil went down to Kyiv Scholar Eliot Borenstein examines the worrying ‘video game logic’ behind Moscow’s fundamentalist fight

Source: Meduza

By Dr. Eliot Borenstein

Who, exactly, is the enemy Russia has targeted in its unprovoked invasion of Ukraine? Not Ukrainians, who, as the Russian media continually remind us, don’t actually exist. Not NATO and the “collective West,” however much they might fit the bill; Russian television has been demonizing them for more than a decade, but there is little appetite for a direct confrontation. Throughout most of the war, the “Kyiv Junta” has been labeled a band of homosexuals, drug addicts, and, most prominently, Nazis. Yet somehow even Nazis are not quite evil enough. So, who is the true enemy? Could it be … Satan?

Apparently, yes. 

On November 4, Deputy Chairman of Russia’s Security Council Dmitry Medvedev, who just 15 years ago was the gadget-happy, reformist president on whom the country’s liberals pinned their few remaining hopes, gave a speech worthy of a wannabe suicide bomber: 

We listen to the words of the Creator in our hearts and obey them. These words give us our holy goal. The goal of stopping the supreme leader of hell, whatever name he might use — Satan, Lucifer, or Iblis.

As Artem Efimov notes in his excellent contribution to Meduza’s “Signal” Russian-language newsletter (all the Satanic news fit for pixels, if not print), it was Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov who, while apparently moonlighting as a demonologist on his Telegram channel, called for the “desatanization” of Ukraine. This is the sort of language we have come to expect from Kadyrov, who rails against “shaitans” so often that they may as well be one of the odd filler words that notoriously pepper most of his sentences. We not only expect Satan from Kadyrov — we’re disappointed if he forgets to mention him.

If both the Muslim Kadyrov and the Russian Orthodox Medvedev are warring against Satan, then this isn’t simply a matter of the ongoing mind meld between the Russian (Orthodox) Church and State. One need not believe in God to worry about Satan (although it certainly helps). 

The U.S. has been beset by waves of demonically-inflected hysteria since the infamous Satanic Panic of the 1980s, when a confluence of concerned parents, “experts,” and media personalities turned a few unhinged accusations of so-called “satanic ritual abuse” into a threat that stalked America’s schools and daycare centers. The officially atheist Soviet Union was spared this particular wave of hysteria, but, as Efimov points out, the moral panic over new religious movements (“cults”) in the 1990s brought satanism into the Russian popular consciousness.

By the 2000s, activists associated with the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC) were ferreting out Satanists left and right. And they involved the government whenever possible. When the Moscow Education Department banned Halloween in the city schools, it claimed that the holiday promoted a “cult of death” and pointed to concerns about “rituals of Satanically oriented religious sects.” The popularity of the Harry Potter franchise put the morality police into overdrive. In December 2002, a woman filed a complaint with Moscow Prosecutor’s Office against Rosmen, the publisher of Harry Potter, for “occult propaganda” (the prosecutors declined to charge Rosmen, due to a lack of evidence).

Something was spreading throughout Russia since the collapse of the USSR, but it was not Satanism: it was the crusade against Satanism. 

This was a movement that crossed church and state boundaries long before the 2022 invasion of Ukraine. The demonization of “cults” in the 1990s was an important step, but it was only in the past decade that both scholars and state actors indulged in a crucial slippage between the religious and the political. The Center for Combating Extremism, founded in 2008, fights both political opposition and unrecognized religious organizations, tacitly making them equivalent “threats.” In 2020, Roman Silantev, one of the leading experts combating new religious movements, published a book called Destructology, which provides the ideological justification for the Center’s work. For Silantev, undesirable political and social movements such as pyramid schemes, “fascist” and “antifascist” groups, and even the pensioners who insist that the USSR still exists, are structurally exactly the same as “totalitarian cults.” From here to Satanism is just a small step.

Since February 24, disaffected Russians have been asking themselves the grimly ironic question: “So, are we North Korea now, or Iran?” If the country is going to be explicitly fighting Satan, then Iran seems like the better bet. But the irony goes even deeper. There’s something about looking for Satan around every corner that is suspiciously …American.

The rise of the Russian anti-cult movement and the fundamentalist fight against secular culture are part of an ideological pipeline that leads back to the Great Satan itself, with American far-right and evangelical organizations taking a strong interest in the post-Soviet space even before Fox News became Russian television’s favorite American channel.

All of which suggests that we should not take the Russian state’s anti-Satanic zeal at face value. And yet something about Russia’s war in Ukraine has repeatedly activated theocratic, reactionary forces. In November 2014, one of the military leaders of the self-proclaimed “Luhansk People’s Republic” announced plans to forbid women from entering bars, when they should be sitting at home practicing their cross-stitching. (“It’s time to remember that you’re Russian! Remember your spirituality!”)

It’s highly unlikely that Medvedev, Putin, or anyone high up in the Russian government believes they are fighting Satan, but their beliefs matter only so much. They are providing a permission structure for fanatics who are only too happy to stamp out the devil’s work wherever they might find it. Just as Putinism has always been a delicately calibrated mix of top-down initiatives and responses to the more belligerent sentiments in Russian society, so too is this Satanic vocabulary both the logical outcome of decades of mild moral panics and the latest (and possibly last) rhetorical ploy on the part of a regime that has backed itself into a corner.

The escalation from gays to Nazis to Satan follows a kind of video game logic: keeping the players engaged means finding ever-bigger bosses for them to fight. But where can you go after Satan? One hopes that the leadership of the Russian Federation is not charting a deliberately apocalyptic course, despite the disturbing chatter about nuclear warfare and Russians “going to heaven, while their enemies just croak.” But when your enemy is Satan, there is little room for negotiation, retreat, or surrender.

All of which scares the hell out of anyone paying attention. Still, there is one cause for hope: If there is any world leader who must have vast experience in making deals with the devil, it’s Vladimir Putin.

Eliot Borenstein is a professor of Russian and Slavic Studies at New York University. He is the author of two forthcoming books — Marvel Comics in the 1970s: The World Inside Your Head (Cornell) and Soviet-Self-Hatred: The Secret Identities of Postsocialism in Contemporary Russia (Cornell) — and the recently released Meanwhile, in Russia…: Russian Internet Memes and Viral Video (Bloomsbury).

  • Share to or