By ALEXANDER J. MOTYL
When a Russian missile struck a pizzeria in the Ukrainian city of Kramatorsk, killing 12, including 14-year old twins, and wounding at least 60, most people considered it a tragedy or, at the very least, an unfortunate instance of “collateral damage.”
Not so Colonel General Andrei Kartapolov, currently a deputy in the Russian parliament and chairman of its Defense Committee.
Here’s his reaction on a popular Russian TV talk show: “The strike on Kramatorsk — that was the height of chic. I take my hat off to those who planned it. A song, it’s simply a song. My old soldier’s heart rejoices.”
To which the show’s host, the demagogic Vladimir Solovyov, smirked, “An old soldier rejoices,” while pretending to wipe away a tear.
The most prominent victim of the blast was the 37-year old writer Victoria Amelina, who died a few days later, on July 1. Among the survivors were her colleagues from Colombia, on a solidarity mission in the city: writer Héctor Abad Faciolince, Sergio Jaramillo (Colombia’s former peace commissioner), and journalist Catalina Gómez.
According to Abad, “I looked around and everyone seemed fine, except Victoria. She was sitting upright, but very still, with no blood and her eyes closed — in the same position she was sitting when she ordered the beer. But she was very pale. Catalina and Sergio were talking to her, but she wasn’t responding.”
After accompanying Amelina to the hospital, the three Colombians “went to our hotel, sad about Victoria and not understanding why we were okay and she wasn’t.” That’s how human beings respond to death: they’re sad and confused. They don’t rejoice or shed crocodile tears.
Unfortunately, Kartapolov’s disturbing remarks are not the first, or only, such instances of publicly expressed inhumanity by important Russians. TV host Solovyov makes what amount to endorsements of genocide. Former president and prime minister Dmitry Medvedev blithely speaks of a nuclear apocalypse. The Bryansk Eparchy of the Russian Orthodox Church enjoined Russian soldiers to “to wipe the Ukrainian nation from the face of the earth.” One leading Russian separatist in the Donbas, Pavel Gubarev, warned Ukrainians to recognize that they’re really Russians or else: “if you don’t want to be convinced by us, then we’ll kill you. We’ll kill as many as is necessary: 1 million, 5 million, or exterminate all of you. Until you understand that you are possessed and need to be cured.” Television personality Anton Krasovsky opined that Ukrainian children who don’t like Russians should be drowned or incinerated.
One begins to suspect that there’s a pattern here, that these genocidal statements aren’t just the insensitive utterings of misguided individuals, but the underlying assumptions of a deeply disturbed and inhuman political culture.
What’s especially disturbing about Kartapolov’s remarks is that, unlike the others cited above, who appear to believe that genocide is simply something that needs to be done for the greater glory of Mother Russia, the colonel general actually is delighted by the death and destruction rained down on the Kramatorsk restaurant. He seems downright happy, perhaps even thrilled, by the murder of the men, women and children who happened to be there. And Solovyov’s feigned tears suggest he shared in Kartapolov’s delight.
We are no longer in the realm of bestial indifference to human life. We are in the realm of sadism and sociopathology.
The venue is also important. Kartapolov and Solovyov weren’t just chewing the fat in some local bar — they were speaking to a large audience on national television. They were presumably assuming that their comments would resonate positively with their viewers. They were acting on the assumption that sadism and sociopathology would be regarded as business as usual with respect to Ukrainians.
Unfortunately, one historical analogy immediately comes to mind: the Nazis.
This, then, is what over two decades of Putin’s misrule has wrought in Russia. The regime’s normalization and routinization of brutality, violence and criminality has either created or reinforced Russian cultural norms that both countenance and endorse crimes against humanity.
Solovyov, Kartapolov, Medvedev, Gubarev, Krasovsky, and their ilk can be dealt with easily enough at the International Criminal Court in The Hague, where they are sure to share a hard bench with Vladimir Putin and his inner circle of war criminals.
Fixing Russian culture will be a task for generations. But, if Nazi Germany is a guide, ridding Russian political culture of its genocidal content will require that Russia, like Germany in the 1940s, lose a war, in this case the war against Ukraine, and experience an ideological and cultural “apocalypse.” Only then, under the beneficent if painful influence of such a trauma, will Russians be able to draw a caesura and imagine their culture anew.
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.”