The words chosen by Vladimir Putin to describe his enemies – internal and external – go in the direction of their de-humanization: a choice that, in the past, led to totalitarianism, if not genocide
“Every nation, especially the Russian one, is always capable of distinguishing true patriots from bastards and traitors, and spitting out the latter like gnats that have accidentally fallen into their throats.” (Putin, 03/17/2022).
Putin’s war becomes totalitarian, as an indistinct struggle against both external and internal enemies. Putin’s new speech represents a disturbing “quantum leap” in aggression: the opponent is indifferently “bestialized”. They are no longer human, but animals: there can be no sense of guilt in killing those who no longer have our appearance. And history teaches us that progressive dehumanization leads to totalitarianism, if not genocide.
There are now many charges against Putin, accused of war crimes, due to the high number of civilian victims due to the bombing of non-military targets and for the use of cluster bombs, prohibited by international humanitarian law. There are also many accusations against him for crimes against humanityunderstood as any inhumane act committed against civilian populations, before or during the war.
Although armed conflicts always involve widespread violence, humanitarian law reaffirms the imperative of human rights, even in extreme situations. The International Criminal Court in The Hague is launching investigations, as well as the Council of Europe (25-2) suspended the Russian Federation, which had only been readmitted in 2019, after the 2014 exclusion, following the annexation of the Crimea. However, in addition to accusations, negotiations and sanctions, the escalation of verbal violence must be carefully evaluated, which can give a totalitarian change to the ongoing war.
As the twentieth-century wars have taught us, to increase one’s power, the aggressor bestializes the enemy as something other than himself, belonging to a different nation, race, ethnicity, religion.
Even the fascist colonial wars and the racial laws had stigmatized the body of the enemy, precisely to support the idea of the presumed superiority of one’s own “race”.
It is therefore no coincidence that Putin uses, as demeaning propaganda for military mobilization, the description of Ukrainians as a drunk (weak), gay (deviant), Nazi (to fight) people, or as an overall fragile population, easily conquered and subjected, such that it must be “saved” from the lascivious sirens and dark forces of the West. The ethnic wars of the late twentieth century marked a similar dynamic in the progressive inferiorization of the enemy, both external and internal.
For example, the ethnic genocide in Rwanda was prepared over time, using a series of contemptuous “qualifications”. The Hutus began to call the Tutsis: cockroach, communist, snake, subversive, enemy. As Esther Mujawayo, a survivor of the 1994 genocide (one million people killed in three months) recalled: “For months you have been hunted like a ferocious beast. After all, you are no longer called as a human being, you are just a cockroach, an insect… And this makes the executioner’s task easier. It does not kill a person, but an insect. Crushes, cleans, works. You were a cockroach to be crushed, to be cleaned from the earth! ”
Language becomes a lethal weapon in warfare in its signification, obliteration, repression. Ordinary words are removed from the dictionary and then repressed: they change order – special operation instead of war. Threatening messages refer to a possible – and not so veiled – deadly outcome: if you don’t do this, it will happen that …
The depiction of the virile power of the male body refers to almost auratic atmospheres: Putin is portrayed in aseptic and imperial environments, where he can decide the fate of the bystanders. The imposition of responses on a wavering head of the secret services indicates the compulsion to a single language. Ukrainians are portrayed as helpless, dissident Russians become annoying midges to hunt, to “spit on the ground”. We must expel them from our bodies, purge them quickly to prevent the infection from spreading.
The world is totally subverted by the metamorphosis of bodies and reality. The need to “clean up and order”, to make what has been soiled “pure” and un-contaminated again, refers to ferocious scenarios. Putin is convinced that “this natural and essential cleansing of our society will end up making our country stronger”. But will everything really go back to the way it was before? Will the systematic suppression of internal and external enemies be able to reconstruct that presumed cultural-political unity of the “great Russia” which – in Putin’s opinion – Lenin would have compromised, providing for a confederative state and the right of nations to self-determination?
The fight against the West involves inevitable losses of its own: thousands of starving soldiers sent to die without knowing they are at war, Russian-speaking citizens bombed in Ukrainian territories and now the Russian “bastards” (therefore non-pure), as the “fifth column” that would favor the “final goal” of the West: “the destruction of Russia”.
Russian citizens are deprived of any ability to understand and want, in the horizon of a repressive confessional state, where political and religious power coincide. But Putin’s narrative – between reinvented historical reconstructions, the will to military power, the imposition of cultural models, the constraints of political obedience – seems to rest on a (fragile) force of which only he is sure. The Soviet Union collapsed in 1991 for failing to ensure well-being and freedom. The end of the tsarist empire, as well as of the USSR, was due to the repression and incapacity of the rulers. The failures of history cannot be rewritten. It is difficult to predict a bright future for Putin.
Marina Calloni is full professor of Political and Social Philosophy at the Department of Sociology and Social Research – University of Milan-Bicocca