Putin’s gloves are off. So, too, are those of Russian society, which is on the verge of descending into paroxysms of violence that will continue to shock even ISIS-K.

ByAlexander Motyl


April 1, 2024


You know you’re in trouble when terrorists accuse you of being savages.

A few days after the horrific March 22nd attack on the Crocus City Hall in Moscow, the self-acknowledged perpetrator ISIS-K warned “all wild Russians including Putin” that they would take revenge for the torture inflicted on their comrades and “punish Russia” with a blow that future generations of Russians will remember.

The torture ISIS-K had in mind was prominently displayed in social media. One clip showed a Russian soldier cutting off a terrorist’s ear and forcing him to eat it. Another clip showed a terrorist, lying on the ground with his pants down and electrodes attached to his genitals. He was being electrocuted.

ISIS-K has no right to accuse others of savagery, of course, but their outrage at Russians does point to a problem that the terrorist attack has highlighted and intensified, though not created. Russians are becoming increasingly violent, intolerant, brutal, and brutish in their behavior and in their discourse. Despite Putin’s aspirations to be a Leviathan capable of controlling his subjects’ savage appetites, he’s managed to transform Russia into a Hobbesian state of nature, where life is “nasty, brutish, and short.”

To be sure, part of the reason for this sad state of affairs is Russia’s genocidal war against Ukraine. No war has ever mollified savage souls. Every war brings out the worst, as well as sometimes the best, in human beings. But not every war entails genocide, whereas Russia’s war against Ukraine does. That is to say, the savage impulse preceded the genocidal war, making what could have been a simple military confrontation into something much worse, a campaign to exterminate a nation, the Ukrainians. And extermination is, by definition, brutal.

So, the fact that the Russians who apprehended the four Tajik perpetrators immediately resorted to torture is no accident. Nor is it an anomaly. Ukrainian prisoners of war and civilians have routinely been tortured in special holding cells. Women have been systematically raped. Men have also been subjected to sexual abuse. The Russian army is enlisting rapists. Such barbarism is not unique to Putin’s Russia. Earlier iterations of Russia have been equally savage.

Just two examples: In 1698 Peter I (a.k.a the Great), the man who opened a window to Europe and admired European culture and technology, crushed an uprising of sharpshooters, the streltsy, by publicly roasting them, tearing their flesh with hooks, and crushing their feet. Some were broken on the wheel; others were quartered or buried alive. Presumably, the onlookers

applauded. Then, in 1941, the Soviet secret police executed over 20,000 Ukrainian political prisoners, but not before gouging out eyes, cutting off tongues and genitals and breasts.

Was the Russian soldier who forced the ear upon the Tajik prisoner aware of his distinguished predecessors? The cannibalism bit appears to be new, even for Russia. Torture, mutilations, sure, why not? They’re business as usual. But being forced to eat one’s own ear appears to be a tad excessive, even by Russian standards.

Blame Putin and old Russian habits for the excess. Russia’s self-elected president has routinized violence from his first days in office. The destruction in 1999 of Russian apartment houses, the savage second Chechen War, the crude response to the Dubrovka Theater attack in 2002, the killing of Putin’s political opponents, and the mysterious, supposedly voluntary self-defenestrations have all inured Russians to brutishness. Putin and his comrades also routinely talk of nuclear war and final solutions of the Ukrainian question as if these were perfectly acceptable topics for serious discussion.

None of these behaviors should surprise us if we remember that Putin is a dictator and that his regime has progressively morphed from simple authoritarianism to proto-fascism to full-fledged fascism and, in the latest twist, to something between proto-Nazism and full-fledged Nazism. Nazi Germany’s actions shock us, but they don’t surprise us. The same holds for Nazi Russia: its routine descents into savagery are just what we would expect from a Nazi regime and leader.

Alas, Putin’s embrace of Nazism doesn’t get the Russians off the hook. Their tolerance and approbation of savagery can’t just be a product of Putin’s policies and propaganda. The eternal Russian question comes to mind. Who or what, then, is to blame? Two and a half centuries of Mongol overlordship? Orthodox Christianity? Serfdom? Perpetual expansion and imperialism? Absence from the Renaissance and Enlightenment? Bolshevism? Lenin and Stalin? Communism? All of this smacks of over-determination and inevitability—at the least of a sticky persistence.

Thomas Hobbes’s Russian state of nature is likely to get nastier and more brutish in the coming months. Putin will now invoke the Crocus attack in crushing every possible manifestation of discontent and in escalating against Ukraine and, quite possibly, the Baltic states, Moldova, and Poland. And, sad to say, many Russians will cheer him on.

Putin’s gloves are off. So, too, are those of Russian society, which is on the verge of descending into paroxysms of violence that will continue to shock even ISIS-K.


Dr. Alexander Motyl is a professor of political science at Rutgers-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, including Pidsumky imperii (2009); Puti imperii (2004); Imperial Ends: The Decay, Collapse, and Revival of Empires (2001); Revolutions, Nations, Empires: Conceptual Limits and Theoretical Possibilities (1999); Dilemmas of Independence: Ukraine after Totalitarianism (1993); and The Turn to the Right: The Ideological Origins and Development of Ukrainian Nationalism, 1919–1929 (1980); the editor of 15 volumes, including The Encyclopedia of Nationalism (2000) and The Holodomor Reader (2012); and a contributor of dozens of articles to academic and policy journals, newspaper op-ed pages, and magazines. He also has a weekly blog, “Ukraine’s Orange Blues.”