In recent times the carnival of violence that permeated Russian television and pro-state mass media for many years has increasingly given way to a new tone of solemnity and sacredness, and calls for national acts of heroism.
While the ominous laughter of the authorities is still heard on screens, as state propagandists enthusiastically talk about the destruction of Ukrainian cities or the use of nuclear weapons, new (or seemingly new) characters are coming to the fore.
Members of the Wagner group distribute a video of the demonstrative murder of their former colleague Nuzhin, who surrendered into Ukrainian captivity, and film themselves sending the murder weapon, a sledgehammer — only with fake, not real blood — to the European Parliament.
All of these sinister performances — openly demonstrating the rejection of morality and law, and the joy of humiliating those who appear weak — are designed to show opponents that we have sovereign power, and none of the conventions of your “civilization”, with its pitiful norms of morality and decency, apply to us.
In the street world, this would be behaviour typical of a gopnik (street gang member), mocking his victim with a carnivalesque swagger, but the Russian state has elevated it to the category of an officially approved style of behaviour. And television viewers, watching all this from their sofas, are persuaded that, even if we live in poverty, we are still stronger than everyone else and can screw up anyone.
However, everything began to change with defeats at the front and the resulting mobilisation.
Against the backdrop of a new reality, which is becoming increasingly difficult to push aside, the authorities need new ideas, new affective states to induce in the public.
The time has come for seriousness, responsibility, awareness of the dramatic nature of the moment — after all, the male population of the country is being invited to go to the slaughter. This is the subject of the singer Shaman’s music video “Let’s stand up” which offers the dark glamour of death to an audience of millions.
Zombie-like artists, including many elderly pop stars from the late Soviet years, exhort the population to “stand up” in order to get closer to those who “look down on us from above”, closer to their dead ancestors.
With deep melancholy they sing about the heroes of Russia and of eternal memory. The sallow complexions of the singers, the black make-up and dark manicures of the women, and the mourning clothes of the performers and the choir all serve to create a gloomy, funereal atmosphere in the performance.
The visuals consist of images of sacrifice: soldiers with stern determination on their faces go to the front, obelisks to dead heroes, and boards with the names of the dead children of Donbas and soldiers who fell in the Patriotic War. A woman sheds a tear, a boy in a military cap salutes passing soldiers. But there are no names of those who died in the war in Ukraine. There are also no words about hope, about victory. This is a requiem for a Russia doomed to eternal wars.
The head of state also participates in dramatic performances that remind people of the need for sacrifice. In early November, national TV showed the president visiting an exposition about the defence of Moscow. Here he is slowly walking along Red Square. A choir of artists, dressed as soldiers of the Patriotic War, stand in a replica truck singing a war-time anthem: “This is a people’s war!” Putin languidly rotates the propeller of a replica plane with his hand. The symbolism of this action is no longer about the victorious “we can defeat the enemy again”, but about a sacred duty of citizens.
The theme of death giving meaning to a person’s life was raised again at Putin’s meeting with the mothers of volunteers and those recently mobilised. But unlike Shaman’s song, which at least fits into the cultural tradition of depicting national sacrifice, Putin’s meeting with these mothers was imbued with a spirit of cold officialdom.
The mothers, obviously selected from Putin’s bureaucratic cadres, sat listening to the soulless speeches of the head of state, to his habitual, and completely incongruous to the situation, pontification on Western constructions of gender. However, Putin’s deep misunderstanding of Russian culture and tradition was most strongly expressed in the actual proposal to mothers to acknowledge the prior lack of meaning in their sons’ lives and rejoice in their deaths in the conflict.
“We will all leave this world someday,” he said, “it’s unavoidable. The question is ‘how did we live?’ With some people it is not clear whether they live their lives or not. And how do they leave this life? As a result of drinking too much vodka or something else. They depart without leaving a trace. But your son lived. And his goal has been achieved. This means that he did not live his life in vain.”
The meaninglessness of a peaceful life is contrasted with the meaningfulness of death for the state.
Such an appeal to the mother is alien to Russian and even Soviet culture, in which the mother of a dead soldier was perceived as a forever inconsolable tragic figure. The right of mothers to try with all their might to save their sons was recognised in the Chechen wars, manifested in the respectful attitude of the military authorities towards the “Committee of Soldiers’ Mothers”, towards Russian women searching for their sons who were missing or captured in Chechnya.
But Putin is clearly devoid of this cultural understanding. His proposal to rejoice in the death of a son is taken, rather, from the Hitlerite repertoire, in which women are depicted as the producers of children to fulfil the state’s mission.
In his book “Temptations of the Bloody Era”, the poet Naum Korzhavin, who lived in Kyiv at the beginning of the Patriotic War, recalled an episode that struck him at the time. After the start of the German bombardment of the city, in anticipation of the enemy invasion, civilians went to the outskirts of the city to dig trenches.
At the same time, the Germans were dropping their paratrooper agents into the territory of the Kyiv region, and Korzhavin was convinced that he and other Komsomol members met with one of them around the fire where they sat down to warm themselves after work. This man, who appeared out of nowhere, spoke in Russian with an accent, claiming that he had come from Western Ukraine. What struck those present was not his accent, however, but his non-Soviet attitude towards soldiers’ mothers. Korzhavin writes:
“One girl said that yesterday her brother was taken into the army, and her mother cried a lot. At this the parachutist decided to express a patriotic sentiment:
‘She shouldn’t cry, she should be proud,’ he said, convinced that he was saying what was expected, but instead putting his foot in his mouth.
There was an awkward silence around the fire. His attempt at Soviet patriotism sounded more like German, or to be more precise, Hitler’s ideology. Nobody demanded that our mothers should not cry for their sons, even under Stalin.”
Putin, who was sometimes called “a German in power”, is unable to relate to popular sentiment despite his attempts to portray himself as the leader who continues a “thousand-year-old” Russian tradition.
The accelerated Nazification of Russian life coincides with an accelerated awareness among the population of the authorities’ indifference to their own people. Putin’s proposal to mothers to see the death of their sons as the fulfilment of their lives’ missions is unlikely to find support, as is the completely artificial gender agenda being imposed by the authorities.
At the same time, the ongoing sadistic and terroristic carnival of state propaganda not only becomes inappropriate in the face of defeats, but, judging by data from TV ratings, is no longer in demand. The carnival and spectacles that until recently were successful can no longer obscure the reality of loss, grief and death. What we can expect to see in the coming months is the slow but steady victory of this reality over the fantasy world created by the state propaganda machine.
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