OPINION | Putin is steeped in Stalin’s pitiless violence

Sympathy, conscience, disquiet, despair, repentance and atonement are for us repellent debauchery … the greatest temptation for us is to renounce violence … The principle that the end justifies the means is and remains the only rule of political ethics.”

In these words Ivanov, a Stalinist secret policeman central to Arthur Koestler’s masterpiece, Darkness at Noon, pours ridicule on what he calls the “vice of pity” and “cricket morality” — bourgeois justice and compassion for the individual.

He is confronting the old Bolshevik Rubashov, who is suffering from “counter-revolutionary” doubts about the absolute power and blood-soaked methods of “Number One”. 

In the litany of Stalin’s crimes, Rubashov cites the Holomodor, the “murder by hunger” of millions of Ukrainians during the forced collectivisation of agriculture in 1932-3. Ivanov complacently agrees that “we liquidated the parasitic part of the peasantry and let it die of starvation. It was a surgical operation which had to be done for once and for all.”

In the end, because the party requires it and he knows no other moral imperative, Rubashov confesses to grotesque political crimes he did not commit.

Contemporary Russia is not the Soviet Union and Vladimir Putin is not Joseph Stalin. But the Russian invasion of Ukraine bears the imprint of the Stalinist belief that might is right and that brute military power should be used to bully and coerce smaller states.

Putin is steeped in the Soviet ethos. His father belonged to one of the “destruction battalions” during World War II, in some ways the Soviet equivalent to Hitler’s SS. Authorised to kill on suspicion, the battalions murdered thousands of Estonian civilians and in 2002 were condemned as a criminal organisation by the Estonian parliament.

Joining the KGB at the age of 23, Putin junior rose to the rank of lieutenant-colonel over 16 years of service, mainly in counterintelligence, and later headed the Federal Security Service of the Russian Federation under Boris Yeltsin.

He is very far from being a communist now, but he brings with him from the Soviet era what Koestler’s policeman describes as “the revolutionary morality” of the Holomodor — pitiless violence in the service of an idea.

The Russian leader’s notion of the sacred unity of Russia and its southwestern neighbour strikes Western leaders as an inscrutable quirk, and is obviously not shared by most Ukrainians. But for him it is an article of passionate faith. 

“From the very first steps they [Ukrainians] began to build their statehood on the denial of everything that unites us,” Putin said on the day of the invasion. “They tried to distort the consciousness, the historical memory of millions of people, entire generations living in Ukraine.”

Fanatical idealism sanctifies cruelty and reduces one’s enemies to mere objects. In his novel about the Terror during the French Revolution, The Gods are Thirsty, Anatole France writes that the revolutionary judges, “believing themselves the exclusive possessors of truth and the quintessence of good, attributed to their opponents nothing but error and evil”.

Because Putin believes Russians and Ukrainians are a single entity, only the machinations of fascists and treacherous Westernisers “on Ukrainian territory”, as he puts it, and the American stalking-horse Nato can explain the “wall” that increasingly divides them. 

Hence, also, his repeated claims of genocide in eastern Ukraine, waved aside by all international monitors. By measures such as the promotion of the Ukrainian language in schools, President Volodymyr Zelinskiy is accused of stifling the cultural identity of ethnic Russians and fostering fictitious divisions.

As Putin’s expressionless Tatar eyes look on, increasingly frustrated Russian forces blast hospitals, apartment blocks, transport systems, municipal services and government offices, killing and injuring at least 300 children and driving 10 million Ukrainians from their homes. 

There are mounting reports of sexual violence and the summary execution of civilians by the invaders, predictably denied as “fake news” by the state-sanctioned Russian media.

The brutality of idealism lets the perpetrators block out the cries of their victims and present themselves as the ushers of a golden dawn. “I am ferocious that you may be happy,” intones one of Anatole France’s judges, after sending hundreds to the guillotine. “I am cruel that you may be kind, I am pitiless that tomorrow all Frenchmen may embrace with tears of joy.”

Putin strikes a similarly pious note, telling a Moscow crowd he ordered the invasion “to get people out of their misery, out of this genocide”.

He added: “And this is where the words from the Scriptures come to my mind: ‘There is no greater love than if someone gives his soul for his friends’.”

In the classical world, aggressive warfare was the ultima ratio regum — the last argument of kings. It was the mediaeval Catholic church, with its witch-hunts, autos-da-fé and holy wars, that invented the blood-stained crusade of the idea. This reached its apogee in the 20th century, with the secular idolatries of Stalin, Hitler, Mao, Pol Pot and the brutal anti-communist strong-arming of the US.

President Joe Biden may piously deplore Putin’s invasion, calling him “a thug”, “a killer” and a war criminal. But the reality is that the US dropped more bombs on the peasant society of Vietnam than all sides combined during World War II, in one of the century’s bloodiest ideological atrocities.

Though Nato poses no realistic threat to nuclear-armed Russia, it, too, lacks clean hands. In theory a defensive alliance, its bombing of Libya was clearly an endeavour, indefensible under international law, to topple Muammar Gaddafi.

In South Africa, among communists and on the hard nationalist wing of the ANC, a toxic blend of bully worship and ideology has driven attempts to excuse Putin. “What about Iraq?” demands a well-known poet in a chat group — as if the US’s crimes somehow give the Russian autocrat a licence to commit some of his own.

This is “whataboutery”, the typical dodge of the oppressor. “What about the rest of Africa?” whined apartheid South Africa. “What about the rest of the Middle East?” plead the Israelis.

But the soft-pedalling also happens because Putin is cast as an opponent of Euro-Atlantic imperialism, standing firm against the US and Nato’s dark empire in defence of the Global South.

Quite apart from Russia’s own history of territorial expansionism — Georgia, Chechnya and now Ukraine — this shows no grasp of the history. 

When the satellites of Eastern Europe won independence after half a century under the Soviet heel, they naturally flew to Nato’s embrace for protection against their giant neighbour. As sovereign states, did they not have the right to seek admission? Should Nato have turned them away?

In an ironic fallout from Russia’s “special operation” in Ukraine, European non-members such as Sweden and Finland are now looking to join the alliance, while Germany, in a historic policy shift, announced it will sharply increase its defence spending “to defend freedom and democracy”.

Writing in The Guardian, Australian Baptist minister Tim Costello described a meeting with Putin in 2013 in which he told the Russian leader that forgiveness would have been a more Christian response to the alleged “blasphemy” of the female punk band Pussy Riot than sentencing its members to two years in jail.

Costello says that Putin, a Russian Orthodox Church follower, responded with “blinking incomprehension”. William Blake’s four “virtues of delight” — mercy, pity, peace and love — are clearly not within his emotional compass.

The alternative view, the basis of the liberal-democratic outlook Putin so despises, comes from the epigraph at the start of Darkness at Noon

Drawn from Russia’s most profound writer, Fyodor Dostoevsky, it insists: “Man, man, one cannot live quite without pity!”

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Drew Forrest
Drew Forrest is a former deputy editor of the M&G

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