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Putin’s ‘holy war’ is terrorising Ukraine – and Russian dissenters. All they ask is that we don’t forget them

Last April, Masha Moskaleva, a 12-year-old girl from the Tula region south of Moscow, drew a picture in her school art class that upset the teacher. The teacher ran to the head; the head called the police; the police told the FSB, Russia’s state security service, which interrogated Masha. Her father, a single parent, was arrested, beaten, fined and placed under house arrest. His daughter was taken into state care.

Moskaleva’s crime was “discrediting the military” – an offence passed into law after the invasion of Ukraine to criminalise dissemination of the truth. It carries a maximum penalty of five years in prison. Masha’s picture showed a woman and child, hand in hand, next to a Ukrainian flag. Missiles fly towards them from a Russian flag, on which is written “No to war”.

Those words alone – net voine in Russian – are sufficient to trigger criminal prosecution. And not just the words. You can be arrested for holding a sign that merely hints at the slogan with asterisks – *** *****.

When a repressive state’s demand for ideological uniformity meets the human capacity for free thought, the result is terror but also absurdity. As the gap between official versions of the truth and reality widens, the central power insists on ever more grotesque levels of acquiescence. Passive obedience is no longer sufficient. Citizens must abase themselves with displays of loyalty. Masha Moskaleva’sart teacher had not asked the class to draw just any picture. The instruction was to produce something celebrating the “special military operation” in Ukraine.

The demand for performance of ideology, not mere submission, signals the path from authoritarian to totalitarian government trodden by Vladimir Putin’s regime since the invasion of Ukraine.

The war was conceived in a lie: Putin’s deranged notion that Ukraine was not a real country, that its people were captives of a drug-addled neo-Nazi junta and would welcome Russian invasion as a liberation by their Slavic brethren.

When Ukrainians fought back, the official Kremlin line shifted to something even more sinister. People who would not yield eagerly must be terrorised into submission. The latest indiscriminate missile bombardment, on Wednesday night in Kherson and Lviv, serves no tactical battlefield function. The goal is to debilitate the Ukrainian state as the preface to eliminating Ukraine as a distinct culture, as a nation. The tone of some punditry on Kremlin propaganda channels is explicitly genocidal. This is a second front of the war, waged against the Russian conscience – an all-out assault on facts, evidence, reality.

A recent report by OVD-Info, a leading Russian human rights group, documents nearly 20,000 cases where people have been detained for anti-war actions, which can include anything from attending a demonstration to sharing links to independent media online. There are cases of people being detained for expressing dissent in private conversations, or for merely being related to people known to oppose the war. Police brutality is routine, as is unofficial enforcement of doctrinal rigour by threatening phone calls, vandalism, beatings and summary dismissals from work.

In such a climate, it is hard to discern the boundary between genuine support for Putin and fear of expressing anything else. Opinion polls are pretty unreliable in an environment where even telling your friends what you really think might be a criminal offence.

But even the most optimistic dissidents accept that they are the minority and that too many of their compatriots have internalised the official story – that the west provoked the war as part of a campaign to encircle and dismember Russia (defined not by its existing borders but as an ancient imperial entity on terrain covered by the Soviet Union).

That version of events also has considerable purchase beyond Russia’s borders, shaping public opinion around the world in countries that have learned, often from their own bitter colonial experiences, to take a sceptical view of western motives in international affairs. (Putin’s warped narrative of Russian victimhood also gets an indulgent hearing on the fringes of democratic societies.)

This has been the core of Kremlin mythology since long before the invasion of Ukraine. Putin’s power is founded on promises to restore Russian dignity after the immiseration and endemic lawlessness that followed the collapse of Communist party rule.

Inscription reading ‘No to war’ on a wall in Moscow
Inscription reading ‘No to war’ on a wall in Moscow. Photograph: Natalia Kolesnikova/AFP/Getty Images

But instead of cleaning up oligarchic gangsterism, he nationalised it. Security services became, in effect, the dominant mafia clan with Putin as capo di tutti capi. Neo-Soviet revivalist dogma was the oath of loyalty.

That model didn’t amount to much as economic policy. As Russian living standards stagnated, the Kremlin relied on increasingly authoritarian measures for control, coupled with provocations against the west and neighbouring countries, inflating the foreign threat to sustain a siege mentality and depict political dissent as a species of treason.

The Ukraine war followed that trend but vastly accelerated it. Putin gambled on a quick military smash-and-grab raid, lost, and is now committed to thorough tyranny and war as a way of life; war as national mission. In presidential speeches and on Kremlin propaganda channels, the cause is depicted as a crusade. Conscript soldiers are thrown, scarcely trained and poorly armed, at Ukrainian defences as a human sacrifice to protect Russia from spiritual corruption by western depravity. It is a holy war.

Russian schoolchildren attend mandatory propaganda lessons, described in the curriculum as “conversations about what is important”, with a focus on “patriotic themes” including the virtue in dying for the motherland. It is hardly surprising that hundreds of thousands of people have fled abroad. Being generally young and skilled, the exiles constitute a brain drain from a country that is sliding into mindless thuggery. Putin is probably not sorry to see them go.

And what of those who stay but keep their eyes open to the truth? Only a tiny minority raise their voices. How many more have retreated to the place that Soviet dissidents called interior emigration, cultivating two selves – one for public show and one for trusted company only? They are uncounted. I know they exist because most of my Russian friends are in that number.

They do not ask for sympathy because they know that the first duty of western compassion is to Ukrainian victims of a regime against which Russia’s democrats have proved impotent.

They ask only not to be forgotten. They ask that Kyiv’s military allies think also of supporting organisations that keep alive the idea that a better Russia is possible, no matter how remote it seems today, because Ukraine cannot be safe from Russian aggression until enough Russians dare to say aloud that their country was the aggressor.

Putin’s advance into Ukraine has been obstructed but there is a second front, the Russian domestic arena, where fact-based reality faces a relentless barrage of falsehood and terror. Putin has made a totalitarian bet that truth itself is subordinate to his will. Ukraine’s democracy is not the only one that needs him to fail.

Source : TheGuardian

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