By ALEXANDER J. MOTYL
Back in 1961, when Hannah Arendt, the German-Jewish philosopher, reported on the trial in Israel of Adolf Eichmann, she was struck by his ordinariness and the “banality of evil.” He spoke and acted like anything but a monster — and yet he played a crucial role in one of history’s most monstrous crimes, the annihilation of Europe’s Jews in the Holocaust.
Fast forward to Russia in 2022 for a look at today’s war criminals. Some, such as Russian dictator Vladimir Putin or Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, look like they would enjoy a bit of torture and rapine. Putin’s fish-like eyes are lifeless; his weak chin bespeaks a weak personality that needs to assert its adequacy by demeaning others. Lavrov’s poker face and jowls remind one of the hit men who appeared in “The Godfather.” And then there was the incomparable Vladimir Zhirinovsky, who frothed at the mouth for close to 30 years before finally leaving the world for hotter climes.
But Russia’s new breed of war criminals look far more like Eichmann than like Joseph Goebbels or Vladimir Lenin. Thanks to the Bellingcat research outfit, we now have information about the people “tasked with manually programming the sophisticated flight paths of Russia’s high-precision cruise missiles” onto Ukraine’s civilian population: “Following a six-month-long investigation, Bellingcat and its investigative partners The Insider and Der Spiegel were able to discover a hitherto secretive group of dozens of military engineers with an educational and professional background in missile programming. Most members identified by Bellingcat and partners are young men and women, including one husband-and-wife couple, many with IT and even computer-gaming backgrounds. The military engineers are young people mostly in their late twenties, with the four youngest members only 24 years old. Unlike their military peers, most of whom are exposed to at least some personal risk near the front-line, these young people work from secure command centres in Moscow and St. Petersburg, and appear to go about their lives with little interference from a war in which they play a crucial role.”
Bellingcat also released a photograph of one such group from 2013. The four women on the team have nice smiles and look like teenagers. One boy looks prepubescent. Seven men look like regular thirty-something guys. The remaining three men resemble decent chaps in their forties. And yet, either these same people or people very much like them are killing dozens of innocent people daily. Like Eichmann, they doubtless would say they are merely following orders. Arendt would immediately recognize them for what they really are: war criminals and monsters.
Another example of today’s Russian war criminal is Anton Krasovsky, until recently a talk show host on Russia Today television. Krasovsky looks like an Ivy League professor or graduate student: neatly trimmed beard, metal-rimmed glasses, a sympathetic, smart face. And yet this
same person actually stated — while smiling, no less! — that Ukrainian children who don’t like Russians should be drowned or incinerated. His interlocutor, a science fiction writer, listens without batting an eyelid. Krasovsky then adds that Ukraine “shouldn’t exist at all.” The writer
disagrees on the grounds that it should serve as a repository for people “with whom I would not like to live in one country.” “Well, we’ll just shoot them,” Krasovksy replies.
In the subsequent brouhaha — were his comrades really shocked or were they pretending? — Krasovsky asked his colleagues to forgive him. Because what he said was criminal? Because his was the language of genocide? Of course not. “The most important thing was that it was simply tasteless.” No, tastelessness was the least of his problems.
I’ve said this many times before, but it bears repeating: Something is very, very wrong with today’s Russia. It would be wonderful if the only unhinged individuals in Russia were Putin and his coterie. Alas, the disease apparently goes much deeper, encompassing broad swaths of the Russian population. It’s bad enough to support the war and Putin passively. But for “normal” Russians to be actively, energetically, and joyfully involved in mass murder bespeaks a sick society in need of prolonged therapy.
I suspect Arendt would have agreed that there will be no peace — in Ukraine or elsewhere in the post-Soviet space — as long as millions of Russians pay homage to Eichmann by remaining embodiments of the banality of evil.
Alexander J. Motyl is a professor of political science at Rutgers University-Newark. A specialist on Ukraine, Russia and the USSR, and on nationalism, revolutions, empires and theory, he is the author of 10 books of nonfiction, as well as “Imperial Ends: The Decay, Collapse, and Revival of Empires” and “Why Empires Reemerge: Imperial Collapse and Imperial Revival in Comparative Perspective.”