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‘A military defeat is the only cure’ Sociologist Dina Khapaeva on how Russia’s ‘death cult’ led to the war in Ukraine
In late November, at a meeting with “soldiers’ mothers,” Vladimir Putin told a woman whose son had purportedly died in Ukraine that “we all leave this world sooner or later,” and that her son “didn’t leave this life in vain” because he “accomplished his mission” rather than “dying from vodka or something.”
Russian propagandists have increasingly voiced ideas like this one in recent months. In early January, for example, TV host Vladimir Sovolyov said on the air that Russians shouldn’t fear death because “we’re going to end up in heaven,” while actor Dmitry Pevtsov said in December that Russians know how to “love, befriend, and die” like nobody else. The trend has prompted some Russian sociologists to start using the term “death propaganda.”
Historian and sociologist Dina Khapaeva spoke to the independent Russian outlet Verstka about the “joy of death” as an integral part of Kremlin propaganda, and the logical extension of Russia’s state ideology. Meduza has summarized the interview in English.
In 1994, a Russian Orthodox bishop named Ioann Snychov published a book called “The Autocracy of the Spirit.” In it, he argued that terror is the best way to govern the Russian people, using Ivan the Terrible as an example: the famously brutal 16th-century tsar, in Snychov’s telling, was a “naturally soft and gentle” ruler who suffered greatly when he had to dole out punishment. The sect Snychov founded advocates for the canonization of all of Russia’s leaders.
Snychov’s ideas were embraced by other extreme figures like Eurasianist philosopher Alexander Dugin, who has written, among other things, that the task of the Russian people is to bring about a “purifying apocalypse.”
According to historian and sociologist Dina Khapaeva, these concepts and others like them have helped fill a void in Russia over the last few decades: the ideological one left in the wake of the Cold War and the chaotic 1990s.
“When Putin came to power, he needed some kind of ideology to rely on,” Khapaeva told the outlet Verstka. “‘Westernism,’ with its human rights and valuing of every life, wouldn’t work. The ideas of alternation of power and political competition, so important for Western ideologies, ran counter to the president’s aims. Communism wouldn’t work either, since the communists were his main political domestic opponents. Then radical nationalists and Orthodox extremists came to his aid. For Putin, they were understandable and organic with their anti-Western and autocratic ideas.”
In Khapaeva’s view, it doesn’t matter whether Putin has actually read the works of Russia’s far-right thinkers or whether he’s receiving them second-hand. The net effect is clear: “Putin and the Kremlin’s ideologues are systematically using [these ideas] and passing them off as their own.”
And the culmination of years of Russia’s top leaders giving these “radical nationalists” their attention, according to Khapaeva, has been an official rhetoric that holds dying for the country as an unmitigated good.
“Instead of a meaningless, hopeless, impoverished life, Russians are being offered a chance to die ‘for the Motherland.’ [By that measure], what matters most is that [the country’s] enemies be destroyed. And the fact that this requires people to die in the process isn’t so important,” she said.
While this messaging has undeniably come in handy for Putin since he launched his full-scale invasion of Ukraine, Khapaeva said, his promotion of the idea that Russians should embrace martyrdom is nothing new.
“The idea of a ‘death cult’ and a ‘purifying apocalypse’ has long been deeply integrated in the Putinist discourse. You’ll even find it in his speeches from the 2010s: ‘We [Russians] will go to heaven, while they’ll just croak,’ and ‘What good is a world without Russia?’” she said.
According to Khapaeva, Russia’s politics of historical memory have developed along two main lines under Putin: “re-Stalinization” and “neo-medievalism.” “You can see this clearly in the way the memories of Ivan the Terrible and Stalin are perpetuated,” she said. “Numerous films that show these figures in a positive light have been made with state money.”
But at the same time, Khapaeva told Verstka, the rehabilitation of these former Russian rulers isn’t a sign that Putin wants to return to a past era. On the contrary, she said, “the glorification of Medieval Russia and Stalinism are tools for promoting anti-democratic values common to both Putin and those dark periods of Russian history.”
And these tools have worked. “Just look at the scale of the anti-war protests,” said Khapaeva. “Throughout the entire country, only a few thousand people went out to protest, and they were easy to suppress. The protests in the U.S. after the start of the war in Iraq were several times larger. And that’s no surprise: in totalitarian societies, which I believe Russia has been since 2014, people value their own lives much less than in democratic ones. What hope for the future can a person have in a society that denies the value of human individuality?”
Once a society has reached that point, Khapaeva said, a war like the current one in Ukraine is all but inevitable. To explain why, she cited a book published in 2006 by former Russian State Duma Speaker Mikhail Yuryev called “The Third Empire: Russia as it Ought to Be.” A “utopian” fantasy novel, the book is narrated by a Latin American subject of a new Russian empire who recounts the process by which Moscow took over the globe throughout the first half of the 21st century.
“It begins with the capture of Crimea, then wars against Georgia and Ukraine. And it ends with the conquest of America and Western Europe. In Yuryev’s imagining, Russian civilization brings treasures to the West — for example, potluck-style class-based banquets that are required for everyone in the empire and that end in drunkenness and brawls, ‘though usually without malice,’” she said.
According to Khapaeva, the book’s author had close ties to members of Putin’s inner circle, and likely even Putin personally in the mid-1990s.
“The aggressive militarism that’s enshrined in this book became the basis of Russia’s state ideology at the very start of Putin’s rule. [Namely, the idea that] the country should be feared, and that that’s the source of its greatness. […] When the president refers to a new atomic weapon as a gift for the country, is that not the best possible example of how little he values the lives of his compatriots? The current war is a consequence of this ‘cult of death,’ not its underlying cause.”
Russia isn’t the first country to be “infected” by such a “death cult,” Khapaeva noted: “This cult cost the Germans alone no less than 10 million human lives, [though] it’s not appropriate to compare the current Russian ideology to German national socialism or communism. Both of these ideologies were focused on the future, [while Russia’s] neo-medieval ideology looks to the past.”
On the other hand, she said, even outside of Russia, a lack of regard for human life has “turned into a commodity on the entertainment market” in recent decades. “The legacy of the 20th century — the Holocaust, the Gulag — dealt a strong blow to people’s faith in man and humanity,” she said. “As a result, in philosophy, in a number of social movements, and in popular culture, there’s been a rejection of the idea that everything should be done ‘for the sake of humanity.’ What kinds of stories find success in popular culture? Apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic [stories, and stories about characters] who deny the supreme value of human life: mass murderers, cannibals, zombies, vampires.”
But while Western society at large still maintains a clear distinction between the value of human life in popular media, on one hand, and in the “real world” (i.e. in government and legal systems) on the other, Khapaeva said that’s not the case in Russia.
“The uniqueness of the Russian situation is that a mix of ‘Orthodox extremism,’ imperial ideology, and an apocalyptic mood has become part of the official state discourse,” she said.
Because millions of people in Russia have now been fed a steady diet of this rhetoric for a significant portion of their lives, according to Khapaeva, it would be “naive” to think undoing its effects will be easy. In fact, in her view, there’s only one thing capable of bringing lasting change.
“It appears that a military defeat and the terrible, radical consequences it will bring to the country is the only thing capable of sobering Russians and causing them to rethink their place in the world,” she said. “That’s likely the only way to heal them from this imperial virus, from this medieval desire to die for the subjugation of other peoples. And then, probably, Russians will be able to think in a new way about what’s worth living for and what’s worth dying for.”
English-language adaptation by Sam Breazeale
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