The start of the "special operation" in Ukraine came as a surprise to most commentators, including those who had previously been highly critical of the Putin regime. Despite numerous warnings about the preparation for war by Putin, people refused to believe them because it seemed obvious that the war would be self-destructive for the interests of those in power and for Russia as a whole. Both the economic interests of the ruling elite itself, which has money, property, villas and yachts, children and relatives in the West, and the development of the Russian economy, which is fully integrated into global markets, were undermined by an unprecedented military adventure. Seeing no logic in the behaviour of the Russian elite, which was previously considered kleptocratic and therefore interested in accumulation rather than destruction, many sought to explain the war in terms of some mental derangement of those in power. The causes of the catastrophe were initially seen to lie either in the psychopathology of the Russian president, or in the influence of some outlandish ideas, taken perhaps from the philosophies of Ilyin or Dugin, on the collective psyche of the Kremlin elite.
However, the war was the result of a lengthy process of replacing the logic of development and life with the logic of destruction and death, the logic of necropolitics.
For all its faults, the first years of Putin's rule were characterized by economic growth and the flourishing of business and culture. The authorities offered the people an agenda for development and prosperity (even including the announcement in 2003 of a goal to double GDP in ten years), or at least stability. But in the decade following the Bolotnaya protests, necropolitical motives have become more and more apparent in the behaviour of those in power.
Let us recall Putin’s speech to his supporters in Moscow in February 2012, when, after being shocked by mass protests against electoral fraud, Putin unexpectedly quoted Lermontov’s poem “Borodino”, addressing his audience with the appeal, “near Moscow then we die, as our brothers died before us!” In 2018, speaking at Valdai Forum and discussing the essence of Russia’s nuclear doctrine, he again returned to the topic of the collective death of Russians themselves (not just representatives of the alleged enemy), uttering the ominous words “We, as martyrs, will go to heaven, and they will simply die.” The strange and eerie messages in these statements are echoed in Kremlin Deputy Chief of Staff Vyacheslav Volodin’s words at Valdai in 2014, “No Putin, no Russia”. The Russian people are presented here as a silent figure, whose life and death are in the hands of the country’s rulers.
Both in the public rhetoric of the authorities, and in the fight against the vital forces of society (such as the free press and civil society institutions), the agenda of development and prosperity has gradually been replaced by the agenda of death. There is an ongoing historical rehabilitation of Stalin and Ivan the Terrible, rulers who willingly expended the lives of their own population and left behind unprecedented depopulation. There is an unfolding cult of the fallen soldier. Schools across Russia are seeing the massive introduction of World War II-related rituals, often led by local military and church officials. Intimate, living memories of the ancestors who died so that there would be no more wars are replaced by grim necro-celebrations.
In the state-organised Immortal Regiment processions, the dead assemble in formidable formations, leading their descendants to new wars ahead.
Vladimir Putin during the procession of the Immortal Regiment. Photo: Kremlin.ru
The transition to necropolitical rule shifts the priorities of power into the realm of determining who is allowed to live and who to die. The political philosopher Achille Mbembe, building on the ideas of a range of thinkers from Foucault and Bataille to Schmitt and Arendt, says that necropolitics involves constant search for enemies, the ideological or racial "Other", states of emergency and new wars. The ultimate expression of necropolitics was Nazism, which equated power and war. But human history is replete with other examples of necropolitics - from the terror of the French Revolution to ruthless colonial expansion.
If we talk about colonialism as an example of necropolitics, we must remember that, as Alexander Etkind convincingly showed, Russian colonial conquests were carried out both by annexing neighbouring territories and by enslaving Russia’s own people. The growing and expanding state did not particularly care about the well-being of the people. As the historian Vasily Klyuchevsky said, "the state grew fatter, as the people wasted away." Such necropolitical rule is being reproduced in the present day, with the obvious examples - in addition to the many declining regions within Russia itself - of the territories of the self-proclaimed Donetsk and Lugansk republics. These territories, contrary to the expectations of many patriots, did not become the embodiment of the success of the "Russian world", turning instead into poorly managed criminal zones with corrupt authorities, depressed economies and impoverished and depleted populations.
Necropolitical power involves an implicit or an open cult of violence and death. As Bataille argued, in the destruction of life, its suppression, its sacrifice lies the very nature of sovereignty. The power of the ruler in such systems is expressed in the violation of all manner of taboos, including one of the most important - the taboo on murder. By spilling someone else's blood, the ruler himself rises above death.
Action "Letter to a soldier", held in one of the Kuban schools. Photo: vk
The theme of blood that was shed in the past and will be shed in the future has indeed become one of the central themes in Russian public discourse. The actor Sergei Lavronenko, who supported the war, says: “The letter Z is like the Ribbon of St George – it is soaked in the blood of millions of our ancestors. In our history, everything is always in a circle – our enemies always wanted to strangle us, but we always kicked them in the teeth.” We see an immanent process of sacrifice, in which the population must forever defend the land, forever shed blood.
Popular culture is also starting to reflect the deadly message of power. Vlad Seletsky’s poem “When the last Russian dies” (2020), widely shared on Russian social networks, contains gloomy prophecies: “When the last Russian dies, all rivers will turn back. Conscience, honour and feelings will disappear, And the stars will no longer shine.” And although at the end God saves Russia from destruction, the poem is steeped in deep melancholy.
The younger generation is scrutinised especially closely for its readiness to die. It must directly promise to die for the leader. This is the message of a song, “Uncle Vlad, we are with you” which appeared in 2017 and was popularized by the former State Duma deputy Anna Kuvychko. This song, which is still periodically performed by kindergarten and school children in different regions of Russia, contains eerily apocalyptic motifs.
The children promise the President: "If the chief commander calls for the last battle, Uncle Vlad, we are with you." With the beginning of the “special operation”, children began to be identified even more actively as a resource of war.
Across Russia, children are lined up wearing the letter Z, dressed up in military uniforms, sometimes put in toy tanks and sent to march on the street.
However, the invitation to die is not attracting the required response from the population at large. While ready to accept that Russia is surrounded by enemies and believing propaganda tales that Ukraine is ruled by Nazis, people for the most part do not want to die, much less send their children to their deaths. Performances of the song about Uncle Vlad often lead to protests from parents and criticism on social media, and have given rise to numerous parodies. This unwillingness of the people to die, which the authorities can sense, may well have prevented general mobilization.
We can expect that the disastrous political imagination and actions of the ruling elite will increasingly come into conflict with the people’s instinct to live. The dubious invitation to die, even if wrapped in the rhetoric of the greatness of the nation and the fight against a plethora of enemies, will become less and less attractive. And then, finally, the politics of death will give way to the politics of life.