The militant forces that rose to power in Russia at the end of the 1990s have increasingly normalised violence in internal and international policy, and have managed to suppress the groups that were interested in peaceful development. Rather than creating a state monopoly on violence, they have diffused it across society. The war in Ukraine is a culmination of this process of decivilising Russia.
Sociologist Svetlana Stephenson discusses why the segments of society who rely on violence in domestic and foreign policy have prevailed in Russia, and how this has led to the war in Ukraine.
In early March, the media widely circulated a video in which an elderly woman says of Ukrainians: “You need to kill them all, and their children too. They’re a rot which has spread and they don’t like us. They are neither brothers nor sisters to us.” Her words, which clearly echo the rhetoric of Russian television propaganda, expressed a horrifying and shocking desire for violence. Such views are by no means isolated. Many of those who support the war are in favour of radical ways to solve the “Ukrainian question”.
How does one explain this brutalisation of a part of Russian society? How did it happen that the violence, cruelty, and aggression that exist deep in human nature but are usually suppressed have now surfaced so brazenly?
By 2022, Russia had reached the highest level of prosperity in the country’s history. But at the same time, part of the population was gripped by a desire for death and destruction.
They are ready to give up comfort, and even their once-precious stability, for the sake of victory over a propaganda-fabricated enemy embodied by Ukraine and the West.
To understand the reasons behind this major shift, we must first turn not to the populace itself, but rather to those who rose to power during the post-Soviet transition. Their social background, biographies, behaviour, and character are more significant here than the attitudes and feelings of the citizens they lead.
The path of decivilisation
Historical sociologist Norbert Elias wrote that in order to understand the level of violence in a society, one has to look at the coalitions that wield power and determine whether there are forces among them that are interested in peaceful development. Historically, the latter group has included, according to Elias, feudal courts, the bourgeoisie, and the middle class, which he saw to be the driving belts of the “civilising process” that helped displace violence from public life. The state’s monopoly on the use of force, as well as the monetisation and commercialisation of society, were, in his view, at the heart of the success of the civilisational process in many European countries.
But Elias also described a decivilising process. Analysing the Nazi rise to power, he wrote that in Germany, as a result of both long historical processes and the nationwide crisis after World War I, social strata came to power that were able to “brutalise” society. Forces that did not accept democracy, were obsessed with hatred and contempt for the politicians of the Weimar Republic and were driven by a thirst for national revenge, defeated those that held humanistic and democratic views and ideas.
Although direct parallels rarely work in history, it can nonetheless be said that, as a result of the crisis of the 1990s, social groups with an authoritarian and militarist ethos came to power in Russia as well. It is these groups that were able to crush the weak shoots of Russian democracy.
The new elite did not just slow down, but actively and deliberately resisted peaceful development.
The collapse of the Soviet Union led to a breakdown of the old social structure and triggered new processes of social mobility. In the struggle for control over the Soviet inheritance and new capitalist property, so-called “violent entrepreneurs” began to rise to the top — groups that successfully used violence for profit and advancement.
Youth street gangs, former athletes, Afghan war veterans, and a variety of gangster groups fought among themselves for power and property at the street, district, city, and regional levels. The battle for resources was joined by representatives of law enforcement, the Interior Ministry and the FSB, who occasionally worked in tandem with the criminal groups. Gradually, both sides formed coalitions and friendships, sharing similar goals and approaches to life.
The behavioural patterns that formed in this environment were based on the primacy of force. However, it wasn’t always physical force that was used. The goal of interacting with civilians — the “suckers” and the “suits” (businessmen) — was to convince them that they needed to pay the kingpins. When violence was used, it was the victim’s fault: they had not shown sufficient respect for the masters, had violated their obligations, or failed to understand the balance of power.
Gangsters on top
However, by the early 2000s, once the main battles over assets had died down, it seemed that the country was gradually turning to the path of peaceful development. With the strengthening of the state, economic recovery, and the country’s entry into the system of global ties and institutions, violence should have faded into the shadows.
But that did not happen.
After being installed in the Kremlin by Yeltsin’s entourage at the end of the 1990s, Putin and his associates, who had gone through the battles of the previous decade, perceived the power now placed in their hands as a personal instrument of control and wealth accumulation. Now they were the kingpins.
This group neither understood nor needed democracy, which they saw as a chaotic and difficult-to-manage process. Moreover, before their rise to power, Vladimir Putin and his inner circle were second order figures — not particularly well-educated, with a string of failures in their wake, burdened by insecurities and resentments. And even though at first many of them did not subscribe to nationalist ideology, and might even have considered themselves to be Western-oriented, they gradually and inescapably drifted towards nationalism.
As was the case with Hitler and his associates, nationalist ideology gave both the authorities and the masses a sense of power and superiority. Revenge against the democrats who “ruined the country” and then against the West, from which Putin and his entourage felt peripheral, was long overdue, taking shape as a clear intention after the Bolotnaya Square protests in 2011 and the annexation of Crimea three years later.
Backed by missiles
Much has been written and said about the reasons for the defeat of the forces that might have prevented the decivilising process in Russia. These include the lack of political experience among the middle classes as well as the growing dependence of the oligarchs on the Kremlin court. Another major factor in the defeat of the opposition has, of course, been the annexation of Crimea.
Elias writes that Germany’s military victories in the late 19th century led to the weakening of democratic forces: “the victory of the German armies over France was simultaneously a victory of the German [militaristic] aristocracy over the German middle class”.
The same can be said about the annexation of Crimea in 2014. This “victory”, enthusiastically received by the population, was also a victory for the militant coalition in power over those who envisaged Russia’s peaceful development. Those people who rejoiced at the time that “Crimea is ours” did not realise that ahead of them lay a major war, impoverishment, and the destruction of their children’s future.
With the Crimean victory, the “successful” Syrian campaign, and the further accumulation of military power, the militaristic ethos and ambitions of the authorities grew stronger and stronger. As Sergei Karaganov, one of Putin’s main ideologues and Honorary Chairman of the Council on Foreign and Defence Policy, said shortly before the invasion: “The process of restoring Russian statehood, Russian influence, Russian power, which had been going on for quite a long time, has simply come to the surface… Now as our strength, especially military strength, accumulated and the geopolitical situation changed, we felt the right to demand, not to ask”.
Confident that they now had the required military strength, the Russian top brass were finally ready to take revenge. They saw the West as a weak enemy, incapable of fighting back with resolve.
At the same time, they also perceived the war as a way to finally get rid of a bourgeoisie seeking peaceful economic development and cooperation with the West. As Karaganov said in the same interview: “We have created ourselves a class of compradors which still exists. One smart way to get rid of this class is through confrontation [with the West]”. When permanent war becomes the Russian society’s main way of existence, the power elite will have no competitors.
The fusion of power and society
The war in Ukraine became the climax of the preceding process of introducing violence into social life and marginalising the forces interested in peaceful development. Contrary to the expectations of the early 2000s, the Russian authorities did not monopolise violence, but instead widely diffused it. This ranged from the support and use of nationalist and paramilitary groups and the introduction of sadistic practices — such as the systematic sexual abuse of inmates by prison personnel — into the penitentiary system, to extrajudicial reprisals against journalists and political opponents. The decriminalisation of domestic violence, the militarisation of the Russian Orthodox Church, and the glorification of the army in kindergartens and schools have also contributed to spreading and normalising violence.
Returning to the brutal impulses and fantasies we now find among parts of Russian society, the fusion of Putin’s regime and citizens around violence, finally exposed after February 24, has been a long time in the making. And the war only serves to harden such violent drives.
We can only hope that, after the end of the military aggression, new forces committed to peaceful development will come to power in Russia, and the civilising process will finally have a chance.
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