This War That Must Not Be Called a War
From the Series: Russia’s War on Ukraine
People say the ruble might default, state borders might close, we might go under martial law. Maybe soon, maybe tomorrow. Some people are morally crushed by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and many of them are trying to leave, if they can. But they are in the minority: most people are not trying to leave, most are convinced that the Russian military is not shelling Ukrainian cities. They know that there is a “special military operation” to “cleanse Ukraine of Nazis,” and they assume that it is well justified.
In the early morning of February 24, 2022, the Russian military invaded Ukraine. Most people in Russia did not notice. And over this past week, I’ve noticed the mood gradually shift from blissful ignorance to angry ignorance. Last week, the question, “What do you think, are we shelling Kyiv?” evoked genuine surprise. Today, it evokes angry suspicion.
The official state position has also shifted. Last week, the Ministry of Defense insisted that “the military is not striking residential buildings in Ukrainian cities.” Today, the public was notified that the Russian military has invaded Ukraine, and for a good a reason. On March 3, schoolchildren attended a special lesson about this operation to “Protect the Peace.” The Russian Ministry of Education’s handbook instructs teachers:
The military operation is not only carried out in the DPR and LPR but also beyond their borders. The goal of this operation is to protect the population of Donbass—but to truly protect people, that which threatens them must be destroyed once and for all. Otherwise, everything will keep repeating again and again. People will keep dying.
For years we have watched Ukraine accumulate weapons. Echelons of military machinery and arms have been sent by NATO countries. If today the Russian army was simply to stop at the borders of the DPR and LPR, this would not guarantee peace: neither for Donbass, nor for us. Sooner or later a terrible war would have started. This war must be stopped in advance.
While many people in Russia are horrified by such truth claims, there is one claim in which the handbook is doubtlessly accurate: the “majority of Russian citizens understands peace to be possible only if we liberate Ukraine from those who persecute and kill Russian speakers, who forbid people from speaking their native tongue, who preach Nazism and fascism.” This understanding is more widespread than many realize.
I have heard this position from strangers, acquaintances, and friends, from people I genuinely like. Some insist that videos of Ukrainian civilian and Russian military casualties were filmed in Hollywood, that a “special military operation” is necessary to protect Russia from NATO, to prevent nuclear war. People say, “We had to invade, we had to do it—or else NATO would have attacked us the very next day.” They say, “The Nazis have been killing Russians in the Donbas for these past eight years straight.” Last week, people did not speak this way. But days passed. Most people failed to attend to the havoc their country’s armed forces brought upon their Ukrainian cousins. And now many of them have armed themselves with this official state explanation. It protects them from admitting personal responsibility for the fact that we went about our peaceful lives while our neighbors died under fire—over this past week and these past eight years.
There’s a rumor in the air that’s turning angry, but little is said publicly about this war that must not be called a war. There are things best left unsaid, left unquestioned. The term politics now signals that which should not be named. Universities are “apolitical,” so is the Central Bank. Elvira Nabiullina, Director of the Central Bank, said: “Let’s not get into political arguments at work, at home, on social networks. They only burn out the energy that we need to do our jobs.”
Most people will not worry about new draconian laws—15 years’ imprisonment for spreading “fake news” and discrediting information about the Russian Army—because they were in any case not searching for such information. Decades of socioeconomic pressure has created collective immunity to speaking of “politics.” No one wants to get fired. No work-collectives need a loose cannon, causing indefinite trouble. In Russia as elsewhere, people know better than to get themselves socially and economically “cancelled.”
In the late-Soviet era, “normal” people also didn’t talk about politics. As Alexei Yurchak’s informants recall, “We never spoke about the dissidents. Everyone understood everything, so why speak about that. It was not interesting [neinteresno]” (2006, 129). But such disinterest is not strictly (post-)Soviet. It lurks in all modern systems and it holds them together. In stranger society, where our bare existence hinges on an ability to keep laboring daily in institutions, social and economic pressure combine in a volatile mix that leaves no space for people to take a personally responsible stance on inconvenient, sensitive topics. “We had been so accustomed to admire or gently ridicule the family man’s kind concern and earnest concentration on the welfare of his family,” Hannah Arendt wrote in 1945,
that we hardly noticed how the devoted paterfamilias, worried about nothing so much as his security, was transformed under the pressure of the chaotic economic conditions of our time into an involuntary adventurer, who for all his industry and care could never be certain what the next day would bring. . . . For the sake of his pension, his life insurance, the security of his wife and children, such a man was ready to sacrifice his beliefs, his honor, and his human dignity. . . . The only condition he put was that he should be fully exempted from responsibility for his acts. (1994, 128–29)
Generations have passed since Arendt wrote these words. Our conditions have become no less chaotic.
Arendt, Hannah. 1994. “Organized Guilt and Universal Responsibility.” In Essays in Understanding 1930–1954, 121–32. New York: Schocken Books.
Yurchak, Alexei. 2006. Everything Was Forever, until It Was No More. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.