Reviews | Why Russian soldiers can’t look their victims in the face

Placeholder while loading article actions

It is an obscene irony of the war in Ukraine that Russian leaders use the accusation that Ukrainians are “Nazis” to dehumanize them, just as the Nazis used dehumanizing accusations against their own enemies. While ostensibly attacking fascists, Russian propagandists use methods that pay homage to German fascism. In the process, Russian officials have become the spitting image of what they claim to condemn.

Russian President Vladimir Putin is one of the most prolific practitioners of this strategy. The Ukrainian government, he said, is “pro-Nazi” and controlled by “petty Nazis”. The stated aim of his “special operation” is to “denazify” Ukraine. Inspired by Putin, a state television host identifies Ukrainians as “satanic nazisand denies that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky is truly Jewish.

This is not just a smear exercise. He guided Russian conduct during its brutal but pathetically dysfunctional invasion of Ukraine. Recent reports point to civilian mass graves – numbering in the hundreds – in Manhush, near Mariupol. The streets of Bucha were covered with executed and mutilated bodies. More than 100 bodies were found in Makariv. “They laid them face down on the ground,” one resident said, “and shot them in the back of the neck.”

This method of massacring civilians was a way for the Nazis to neutralize the normal revulsion that most people felt for civilian executions. “The human face,” wrote David Livingstone Smith in “Making Monsters: The Uncanny Power of Dehumanization,” “is by far the richest source of social information and the most intimate channel of connection between people. … When we look into a person’s eyes, we can’t help but respond to that person as a human being, we can’t help but see them as human — automatically considering the wearer of the face as one of ours.

This is what led to the blindfolding of victims of mass shootings by German Einsatzgruppen and police battalions during the years of World War II. Otherwise, the experience of death for many has been psychologically devastating. The same, it seems, was true in Manhush.

The deliberate killing of civilians (as opposed to unintended casualties) is also made easier for the military by the use of long-range weapons – a Russian military specialty. Putin’s army has attacked hospitals and other buildings where civilians take refuge. He besieged and destroyed an entire city (Mariupol). It prevented refugees from leaving war zones and relief supplies from reaching the wounded and starving.

For some hardline Russian nationalists – who now have wide access to state media – the call to dehumanize Ukrainians is explicit. “We are not fighting against people but against enemies,” said the representative of a Russian neo-fascist party, “not against people but against Ukrainians”.

Such rhetoric takes on a genocidal flavor when combined with the complete denial of Ukrainian identity, described by one right-wing radical as “an artificial anti-Russian construct that has no civilizational content of its own” and “the subordinate element of an alien and extraterrestrial civilization.Defending and strengthening Russia, in this ideological fantasy, requires the complete destruction of the Ukrainian nation.

Reading Putin’s idealization of cultural ties between Russia and Ukraine, the question naturally arises: how is it possible to assert Slavic brotherhood while murdering tens of thousands of your Slavic neighbors?

This is in fact typical of dehumanization. White supremacists in the American South have often portrayed black people as subhuman beasts. But at other times they treated them as morally responsible, attributing to them a distinctly human form of action. And close contact with blacks provided whites with constant proof of a shared humanity.

“Dehumanizers implicitly or explicitly view those they dehumanize as human beings,” Smith asserts, “because it is impossible for them to shake this belief, which goes hand in hand with their belief that these others are subhuman creatures.” human”. Smith denies that the logical inconsistency of such views is relevant. Why should we expect fanatics to be consistent or cohesive? But he continues that only one of these points of view “can be salient at a given moment. And when one is in the mental foreground, the other recedes into the background.

Putin, his army and his propaganda apparatus have brought dehumanization to the fore. They weaved the idea that Ukrainians are Nazis who are committing “genocide” against Russian speakers in their most basic case for war. (The US Holocaust Memorial Museum rejected Russia’s use of “genocide” as a casus belli as “baseless and blatant”.)

Russia’s leaders are putting on a historic spectacle of brutality and lies. But their atrocities are due to a refusal to look Ukrainians in the face and a denial of the reflected image of their own humanity.


Comments are closed.