Witnesses Against War #25: Expert in the sociology & psychology of war, Moscow

29 July 2022

Source: Witnesses Against War

Witnesses Against War is an anonymous international group of journalists, writers, historians and translators, who live in Moscow and London. For reasons of security, their project is anonymous. In addition to the above websiste, you can also find them on Instagram  and Telegram.

A teacher at a Moscow university, expert in the sociology and psychology of war

At the moment it’s important to try as far as possible to analyse our reaction to the ongoing war. There is an active debate about how many people in the Russian Federation actually support the war. And indeed, it seems not to be a statistical error – there are indeed many people who are basically willing to accept this war. At the same time, despite there being a significant number of people in Russia who support the war, very many people do not, consider it unacceptable, and oppose it in explicit and non-explicit ways. It is revealing that thousands of people have been detained, had protocols drawn up against them, been issued with fines, and that under the new laws criminal cases have already been initiated against several hundred people. This means that despite the new repressive laws, many people are ready to actively and demonstratively oppose the war. Tens, if not hundreds of thousands of people left Russia after the start of the war, because they found themselves unable to be connected with the state waging this aggressive war.

The reaction of Western society to the war is very revealing – after all, theoretically they could take the position that – we do not notice this war, this is the business of those states that are waging it. But that doesn’t happen. The governments of Western countries, and many countries of the world, are ready to take economic and political risks, and to participate in the war in their own way, showing their solidarity with Ukraine (the defender). And this in itself is important evidence proving that this war is a throwback to the archaic. Such a war was more or less normal 200-300 years ago, when it corresponded to the political normality of that time, but now this is by no means normal.

In Russia, we live in a society that is not fully Westernized, or, if you like, not fully civilized – many people tend to think in archaic patterns and templates. The so-called “Poverty Tax” exists in many places, it is not an exclusively Russian phenomenon. But Russia visibly faced this back in 2014, when many people, deprived of tangible life prospects, mainly from poor, depressed regions, went to fight in Eastern Ukraine. Now the Russian troops in Ukraine are largely replenished with such people without life prospects, who are seduced by the promised salaries, which are unparalleled for them, or, as the army calls it, “monetary rations” of 200, 300, sometimes 400 thousand rubles a month ($3,280 — $6,562). In the traditional way, this is a story rooted in ancient times – when participation in a war turns out to be an alternative to a poor or beggarly and futile existence, to provide some hope and a chance in life. And of course, this is a very sad indicator of how Russia has developed over the past 20 plus years.

The war has now clearly taken on a large scale, and, accordingly, it is accompanied with mobilisation on a serious scale – and it’s not important whether it’s hidden or not. It seems important to me that here, in addition to other factors, such as the seizure of property (numerous cases of looting by Russian military personnel in Ukraine), there is also a strong emotion that prompts many people, if not to participate in the war, then to support it: many residents of Russia share a certain imperial embittered picture of the world in which there is no Ukrainian people, no Ukrainian state, that these are all imposed and artificial “fakes” – mistakes made by Lenin, Khrushchev and Yeltsin, which sooner or later have to be dealt with. This is part of an archaic imperial consciousness and attitude towards Ukraine, Ukrainians, and the Ukrainian language, as something folkloric, even comical, and not to be taken seriously. For example, we can listen to how the odious Strelkov-Girkin sees all this. (Igor Vsevolodovich Girkin also known by the alias Igor Ivanovich Strelkov — is a Russian army veteran and former FSB officer who played a key role in the annexation of Crimea by the Russian Federation in 2014, and later the war in Donbas as an organiser of militant groups in the so-called Donetsk People’s Republic.) On the one hand, he says that the Ukrainians are our Russian people. On the other, they need to be taught a lesson, guided and instructed. That is, many think they have emerged from a position of subordination and submission, and have allegedly begun to pose a threat; they need to be taught a lesson, pacified, subdued and “set on the right path.” And from their imperialistic point of view, you cannot just do nothing: inaction would allegedly threaten the interests of Russia as a state. And this is the traditional imperial state narrative that Putin actively uses, his circle and, therefore, Russian propaganda – ie that there are big strong superpowers that fight and compete with each other, and that our whole life is tied up with this struggle for interests. And in this picture of the world, Ukraine is a tool that is being used by the United States and the entire Western world in order to threaten Russia. Therefore, in their eyes, this is a battle with the “collective West” for the future of Russia.

What is happening now is a classic full-fledged war of two states, in which one state is subjected to aggression, the other defends itself – with all the horrors inherent in such wars. That is why many feel it so keenly: it is shocking for 21st century society that a protracted classical war is being waged not with insurgents, not with rebels, but between two states. It is very important that we are already seeing very selective, localised instances of Russian military personnel refusing to be sent to the front in Ukraine, conflicts with officers, even cases of relatively large-scale unauthorised desertion of the frontline by Russian soldiers. Sometimes, as we see, these refusals are quite large-scale – as large as a company and even a battalion. People are refusing not only to participate in specific military operations, but in military operations in general. And that’s an encouraging sign. But I would not yet be overly optimistic that Russian troops stationed in Ukraine will soon begin mass desertion. Any parallel with 1917, when, after the February Revolution, there was mass desertion of soldiers of the Russian army from the frontlines of the First World War, is tempting, but in my opinion, there is a long way to go before that happens. In Russia today there are no parties or political forces, legal or illegal, that are active among the soldiers or are like those who conducted anti-war propaganda among the troops throughout the First World War, or in the working-class, urban environment for decades before it began.

Indeed, if we continue this analogy, it may seem that Russia in 2022 is much more monolithic and totalitarian than Tsarist Russia of the 1910s. It must also be remembered that in February 1917, despite all the activities of the Bolsheviks and leftist parties amongst the troops, revolutionary events did not begin in the frontline units. Despite all the revolutionary agitation, up until February-March 1917, it remained impossible to significantly revolutionise the army in the field. The first unrest began in the reserve battalions stationed in large cities, primarily in the capital, Petrograd, whose manpower did not want to be sent to the front. By 1916-17, of course, there was no longer any of the enthusiasm for the war or “patriotic upsurge” that had existed in 1914. At the same time, it must be said that at the beginning of the Russian aggression in Ukraine, we did not see any serious signs of enthusiasm, in contrast to the outbreak of the First World War in 1914. Despite the fact that a fairly large percentage of people in Russian society support this military campaign to one degree or another, we do not see people arranging any kind of spontaneous mass celebrations marking the sending of troops to the front. All or almost all of the, usually small-scale, events in support of the war periodically shown on Russian propaganda, are obviously prescriptive and performative in nature. Mass enthusiasm for the war, not observed at the very beginning, is moreover not to be observed now, 5 months after the start of the war. And this is an encouraging sign in its own way.

According to the latest data from the “Verstka” project, at least 1,793 servicemen of the Russian army have refused to take part in military action. Several hundred of them are being forcibly held in makeshift prisons in the rear. Almost daily, news comes from various sources about hundreds of servicemen from different regions of the Russian Federation refusing to participate in Putin’s war in Ukraine.

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