When Vladimir Putin says that Russians and Ukrainians are one people, what he means is that Ukrainians will agree when force is applied. Russian war planning assumed that Ukrainian identity was a superficial implant, to be extirpated by a quick military strike that would physically eliminate a foreign-backed elite. That form of genocide proved to be impossible, because it was based on an erroneous assumption. Ukrainian self-understanding is spread wide and deep through the population of Ukraine, to the point where people take initiative themselves to help their country win the war. In this sense, Ukrainian identity is far easier to observe in this war than is Russian identity.
Indeed, the war raises the question: what is Russia? Putin has failed to answer this question in any positive sense. If anything, he has harnessed Russian identity to that of Ukraine, which is not at all what he intended. Judging from Russian mass media, including the all-important talk shows, the dominant Russian self-understanding at the moment is that of an "anti-Ukraine."
As the Nazi legal theorist Carl Schmitt and the Russian fascist Ivan Ilyin recommended, Russian politics begins from the definition of an enemy. That definition, it must be said, is not very precise, nor can it be. Ukraine as an enemy is simply, in official Russian rhetoric, a kind of repository for all things propagandists find frightening: Nazis, gays, Jews, gay Nazi Jews, etc. At the moment, a leading idea is that Ukraine is the homeland of Satanism. That harmonizes well with Ilyin's teachings.
There is no explicit image of Russia to be found among Russian elites; there is, however, an implicit racial notion to be found in policy. An anxiety Putin shares with his far-right admirers is that of demography: soon there will not be enough of us, and there will be too many of them. Even as Russia has failed in Ukraine to achieve the military goals its leaders have set, it has carried out an ambitious policy of racial transformation. I don't have in mind here the genocidal policies that Russia pursues against Ukraine (although, as we shall see, there is overlap), but rather Russian eugenics, the attempt to build a "healthier" Russian Volk by way of struggle.
The onset of the war, and then the announcement of mobilization, drove much of the Russian intelligentsia and the middle classes abroad. From Putin's point of view, this was a necessary "self-cleansing," in which Russia was "spitting out" traitors (his phrasing) like insects. In the initial invasion force, and then among the mobilized, Russia’s ethnic minorities were over-represented. This too changes the complexion of Russia's multiethnic population, leaving it more Russian. Third, Russia is now emptying its prisons to send these men to fight and die in Ukraine. This too is explicitly presented as a purification of the Russian population.
These actions all involve the reduction of the population of the Russian Federation. A fourth racial action more than compensates for this. It is the systematic seizure of Ukrainian women and children and their deportation into the vastness of Russia. From the territories occupied by Russia some three million people have been deported, disproportionately young women and children. At least two hundred thousand and as many as 700,000 children have been taken by force to Russia. (For comparison: Nazi Germany deported about 200,000 Polish children for assimilation during the entire Second World War.) The logic is that the women will have to marry Russian men and that the children will grow up as Russians.
The deportation strategy follows the same logic that led Russia to invade Ukraine in the first place: that Ukrainians are just white Christian proto-Russians, unaware of their true identity, who can be remade with force. Women and children are deported after passing through "filtration camps," in which men regarded as irredeemably Ukrainian are simply shot. From a Ukrainian perspective, this is genocide, and a reason why the war must be won. Legally speaking, their judgement is correct: although Russian officials keep boasting of all the children Russia has kidnapped, that practice is explicitly named genocidal in the 1948 convention.
A debate has been underway as to whether Russia is fascist. The eugenic character of the war seems relevant to this discussion. For a decade, Putin has been speaking of a world without rules, a world of a permanent struggle for resources, which will determine (to quote a speech from 2012) "who will take the lead and who will remain outsiders and inevitably lose their independence." Putin described then what was special about Russia using a term from the Russian fascist thinker Lev Gumilev. When Putin announced the "annexation" of Ukrainian territories last September, he claimed that no rules apply to Russia, since it was a special civilization. In that case he cited, as he often does, the Russian fascist thinker Ivan Ilyin.
And so even as we move from propaganda to practice, the definition of Russia remains empty: it is simply the race that outcompetes other people for resources, a struggle which begins with a racial purification. That would seem to be a fascist way of looking at things.
In this light, Russia is in another sense an "anti-Ukraine," since the Ukrainian political presentation of the war has nothing to do with race, and everything to do with civic self-defense. Whereas Russia's wartime eugenics are based upon a fear of what the future holds, Ukrainians persist in defining their highest goal as "freedom," in the sense of an open future, full of possibilities.
7 January 2023
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Tim - interesting as always. You may want to find out a little more about a fine group of young Ukrainian communicators, the Ukrainian PR Army, who are campaigning specifically on the issue of forcible deportations, highlighting precisely the issue you are. While there is general awareness that it is happening, its scale and significance as emblematic of Russia's overall approach, is underplayed. They believe the issue needs to be much higher on the radar of the international community as one of the reasons to sustain international support for Ukraine but also that the return of these stolen people needs to be a condition for the conflict ending. It is already one of the 10 points that Zelensky made in his G7 speech. The PR Army's campaign is called 'Where are our people?' and although it is still in its early stages it is already gaining attention.
I shuddered slightly when I read Professor Snyder's words, " An anxiety Putin shares with his far-right admirers is that of demography: soon there will not be enough of us, and there will be too many of them." I couldn't help but think of the fascists in our country, and yes, I'll use that word, who fervently espouse the 'great replacement theory'. Tragically, Putin has allies and enablers, who for their own reasons, embrace and promote this anxiety. It seems, although I'm no expert, that a majority of Russians at least tacitly accept this view, but for how long?