How to Discuss This War
One of the main difficulties in discourses around the Russo-Ukrainian War is the gap that remains between how they are constructed in Ukraine and in the West. In the West, there is a chronic lack of understanding of the complexities of Russo-Ukrainian relations and their centuries-long historical dynamics. What is remarkable is that the Western left is more inclined to think in terms of imperialism than the neoliberal political mainstream. After all, while mainstream liberals and technocrats limit themselves to talking abstractly about the struggle for “freedom and democracy”, many leftists engage in blatant “westsplaining,” continuously referring to the exaggerated role of NATO. The result is another version of the Western infantile guilt complex that plays into the hands of a regime that does not even try to hide its imperialist nature.
In Ukraine, we can find a variety of ways to theorize the war, but among local intellectuals the most popular are those that rely on historical reasoning as merely another form of the centuries-long Russo-Ukrainian conflict. Although such a perspective is clearly possible, it often ignores the peculiarities of the current situation, its differences from the Russo-Ukrainian confrontations of the past. Such peculiarities cannot be identified in the course of historical unification; on the contrary, we must apply a whole range of conceptual apparatuses for a better interpretation of the current situation’s complex structure.
Therefore, the two most crucial things in discussing this war, its causes and origins, are attention to local context, to the complex cultural history of the Eastern European region and Russo-Ukrainian relations, on the one hand, and to potentially useful theoretical assumptions, on the other.
Eleven months have passed since the full-scale Russo-Ukrainian war began, longer than the gestation of a fetus in our species. For eleven months, History has been carrying an event, in which vitality and mortality are tightly intertwined. They are intertwined in the dialectical unity of the mortality of the Goliath invasion and the vitality of resistance that was made possible primarily by the cooperation of multiple agents. Such cooperation resembles a swarm of insects or a fungal network; it is a form of vitality that we often find among non-human species, a non-individualistic, effective interaction aimed at direct action rather than human demagoguery imbued with hesitations.
Eschatological sentiments reach their peak in discussions of nuclear threats, in which “mortality” and “nuclearity” synthesize and transform each other. Thus, after contact with nuclearity, mortality is transformed from a natural phenomenon into a simultaneously global and man-made one. Likewise, nuclearity, while being inscribed in the discourse of war, is transformed from one of the greatest discoveries in human history into something that could end it. However, the discussion of such a “nuclear eschatology” makes sense not because of the real risk of nuclear war, with which anxious Western parents will soon scare their naughty children. Rather, this phenomenon is worthy of attention because it is an important component of the ideology of Putinism and its propaganda machine. And, thus, it may be one of the keys to understanding the Putinist regime and the war it started.
In addition, it is obvious to anyone who observes this information machine that nuclear threats occupy a special place in the discourse of Russian propaganda. They can be found in many “analytical shows” on the main Russian channels, but their invocation differs from that made by propagandists in general. It is peculiar to a certain eschatological eroticism. For example, a recent show featured a remarkable dialogue between the two main Russian propagandists, Vladimir Solovyov and Margarita Simonyan. In her speech, Simonyan justified the bombing of Ukraine’s civilian infrastructure by pointing out that the suffering of Ukrainians from these bombings is far less significant than the suffering of Russians if they lose the war. Hearing this, Vladimir Solovyov added in his usual low-key but voluptuous manner that a Russian defeat was in principle impossible, because then they would turn “the whole world into dust”. This remark, filled with a passionate death drive, demonstrates by its very sound how Putinism blurs the line between eroticism, eschatology, and political permissiveness.
Life and Death in Russian Culture
Before discussing the nature of Russian nuclear eschatology, it is worth paying attention to a few narratives in historical perspective, to avoid reducing the problem to a simplification of Russian culture’s intrinsic relation to death.
I heard the first narrative from my Kyiv professor, an iconic person in the local context, an Orthodox communist who was at the origin of the Kyiv-Mohyla Academy, a Ukrainian university known for producing the cadres of bureaucracy and intellectuals with liberal and nationalist ideological overtones. That narrative concerns the ideological continuity between the Russian traditions of Orthodox Christianity, cosmism, and Bolshevism. A similar view, albeit in a less explicit form, is popular among historians of Russian cosmism, who see it as a phenomenon that took influence from Orthodoxy and transferred it to Bolshevism, as well as among those who prefer to approach Leninist Bolshevism as a religious phenomenon. This hypothesis is built around the claim that, despite the wide disparities between Bolshevism, cosmism, and Orthodoxy, they all share an inherent idea of overcoming the phenomenon of death. In the case of Orthodoxy, this is related to the role played by the “Creed” with its “I await the resurrection of the dead and the life of the age to come, Amen”. In the case of cosmism, one of its central ideas is related precisely to the universal resurrection of the dead as the main ethical goal of scientific progress. In the case of Bolshevism, it is about a utopian revolutionism, which might affect not only economic relations and culture based on them, but also such ontological foundations of reality as the issues of life and death.
The latter connection can be observed in the work of Andrei Platonov, an excellent diagnostician of the early Soviet era, at least in the form that existed in Soviet Russia. Of course, it is impossible to tell whether Platonov constructed this connection or only diagnosed it, but in any case the fragile dialectic of the vital and the mortal is inseparable from the revolutionary events and the “construction of communism”. In order to trace the form of this connection, psychoanalyst Svetlana Nechitaylo suggests turning to the concept of the “construction sacrifice,” since the leitmotif of “construction” is one of the most recurrent in Platonov’s writings. And it is his disillusionment with the Soviet project that leads us to speak of the “false construction sacrifice”, of which hundreds of thousands of Platonov’s contemporaries fell victim to the wave of Stalinist repression, among them the writer’s own 15-year-old son. But what interests us most is not even the pointlessness of the sacrifice for the building of a common communist home, but rather the more radical idea of the impossibility of death and communism coexisting. In one of the episodes in “Chevengur” this idea is expressed almost directly:
“While Chepurny was trying to help the boy to live another minute longer, Kopenkin guessed that there was no communism in Chevengur whatsoever. This woman had only just brought her baby into town, and now here he was dead already.”
Thus, the initial spiritual utopism of Russian Bolshevism implicitly carries with it a potential disappointment. Platonov sensed this implicit potentiality at a remarkably early stage of Soviet history, in which it was perceived quite tragically as a stillborn hope for the possibility of a fundamental restructuring of reality. Toward the end of Soviet history, however, this motif will have become more of a comical reminder of former fantasies. Comical reminders of this kind are deftly captured in a song by the late cult Soviet poet and musician Yegor Letov, which satirically demonstrates the flow of thought in the Soviet TV audience’s head during Perestroika: he is aware of the fiasco of the Soviet project, but if we still manage to wait (sic!) for communism, then “with communism everything will be fucking fine — maybe we won’t even have to die”.
Although the post-Stalinist Soviet Union did carry on the impetus of the early Soviet vitality, we do not find in it the death-driven traits of current Putinism, either. Even though the Soviet Union was at one time extremely close to escalating a nuclear conflict with the West, it was not characterized by the romanticization and eroticization of nuclear war that we see among Putin’s propagandists. Moreover, despite the construction of a nuclear weapons infrastructure, Soviet ideological propaganda expressed support for nuclear disarmament and peaceful use of nuclear energy (there is no need to delve into the motives behind this rhetoric; the fact itself is important). Therefore, Putinism’s position on nuclear war is very different from both the early Bolshevik revolutionary plans for overcoming death and the position of “forced nuclear defense” from the Cold War era.
While recognizing Putinist nuclear death drive as a very new phenomenon, it should still not be radically detached from the tradition of the urge to overcome death discussed above. There is one symbol that is especially remarkable here, the Baklanov’s flag, which is now one of the main symbols of far-right Russian militant views, as well as of those same propagandists and “war correspondents” who are among the main relayers of the discourse of nuclear eschatology.
At the same time, this flag bears the same Christian Orthodox maxim announcing the aspiration for the triumph of life over death: “I await the resurrection of the dead and the life of the age to come, Amen.” Here, we find that even at the earliest stage of this idea of overcoming death, namely at the stage of Orthodox eschatology, there is a certain indistinction between death and life, which, among other things, is expressed in the last lines of the “Creed”. This indistinction is, in general, intrinsic to Christian eschatology, since the apocalypse and universal resurrection are components of the same event. We might assume that, having left the native context of Christian theology, this vital-mortal ambiguity loses its authentic normativity, since secular eschatology does not assume universal resurrection, nor does the secular aspiration to overcome death include apocalyptic motifs. While cosmism and Bolshevism, which moved away from Christianity, interpreted “the life of the age to come” primarily as literally life, the syncretic ideology of Putinist Russia gives new life to the eschatological side of the old ambiguity through the libidinal investment of the death drive.
Pathology and Infrastructure
The combination of far-right Orthodox Christianity (or, more precisely, of its formal attributes) and sexual perversion is a very recognizable feature of contemporary Russian political culture. For example, this combination is typical for the writings of a very notable Russian author during this war, namely former Russian President Dmitry Medvedev. Thus, we find in his texts suggestions that God’s punishment is accomplished through the hands of Russia and a lascivious allegory describing the United States and Europe as perverted sexual partners who are in conflict.
This is where I propose to look for the starting point of nuclear eschatologism, in a quasi-Orthodox militarized ideology whose radical aesthetics are inviting to the sublimation of a libidinous flow which, in turn, animates this retrograde structure. Like Putinist ideology as a whole, it is a postmodern collage, arising somewhere in the borderland between the nuclear weapons inherited from the Soviet Union, quasi-Orthodox statehood, and the extraordinary sublimations of conservative politicians.
Regarding the libidinous component of this structure, it is a kind of secret desire that arises somewhere at the bottom of a man’s groin, but does not have a welcoming zeal. On the contrary, it is inverted, directing it towards the totality of the inanimate. This pathological feature is not shared by all participants in the Putinist discourse, but it is a radical trait of the general pathology of Putinism. The psychologist and cultural historian Alexander Etkind notes that Putinist politics has a fetishistic structure. Thus, he compares Putin’s obsession with the Crimea (or Ukraine in general) to a fetishistic hyper-concentration on a fragment of the partner’s sexuality, instead of its wholeness. Such fetishism is turned into a form of political revanchism, risking Russian statehood itself in this irrepressible attempt to possess the desired (part) object. Interestingly, this is the same motif, which Žižek detects in Kant’s definition of marriage as “thoroughly Sadean, since it reduces the Other, the subject’s sexual partner, to a partial object, to his/her bodily organ which provides pleasure, ignoring him/her as the Whole of a human Person”.
Oksana Zver’, another diagnostician of Putinist Russia who emphasizes the psychoanalytic perspective, finds a structural similarity between the political desire to restore the former empire and the death drive. In both cases, it is a pathological desire to return to a certain stable and rigid former condition. As Oksana writes:
“The great empire of the past, which a national leader calls to restore, corresponds to the “earlier state of things,” to which the death drive urges us to return. Okhlobystin’s exclamations—“We do not need a world in which there is not our victory!”—are nothing but the cries of this agony of the empire, which desperately struggles with its own desire to die in the flames of revolution.”
However, it is important to consider that we should not reduce the ideology of “nuclear eschatology” solely to pathological or perverted behavior. After all, these conditions could not have gained their significance without the nuclear and militaristic infrastructure that has remained from the Soviet era. Fetishized Putinist resentment parasitizes on the ruins of the Soviet modernist project, but it is only because these ruins remain that Putinism is becoming a reality. Soviet infrastructure, created in the context of a naïve modernist project, gives seductive feelings of power and strength, which lay one of the foundations for pathological Putinism.
The naivety of Soviet modernity (which, however, waned and dissolved much earlier than the Soviet Union itself) was repeatedly emphasized by Putin, including in his speeches preceding the invasion of Ukraine. Of course, it is worth admitting that Bolshevism is inherently naïve, especially regarding its beliefs about the comprehensibility of reality in principle, about its explainability by means of dialectical materialism and the Leninist interpretation of Marxism. But by accusing Leninism of naivety, Putin does not appear as a clever critic, but as a postmodern cynic, for whom the politics of the utopian modernist project seems to be out of step with the zeitgeist, an infantile disorder of political naivety. Remarkably, in this way, Putinism makes a peculiar ideological inversion. Indeed, Russian imperialism, which is the core of its ideology, was debunked from within, including by Lenin in his critique of Russian chauvinism, despite the fact that, in later Soviet history, Russian imperialism was revived and made to serve the Soviet regime.
We see that the Putinist “debunking” of Soviet naivety is a response to the debunking of Russian Imperialism by the Bolsheviks, but while the Bolshevik debunking of imperialism was still a criticism, in Putin’s case it is something different. The failure of the Soviet project, which Putin personally served for years in the most shameless ways, in sync with the crisis of “grand narratives” in the West, gave the Russian nineties and noughties ideological permissiveness. However, this permissiveness is not a true democratization, but rather an intellectual background for the formation of new ideologies. Philosophical disputes and pamphlets of the early 20th century are being replaced by conspiracy theories, empty slogans of the new post-Soviet elites, and neurotic religious reactionism of the new epoch. This is the background against which Putinism (together with its radical variation, nuclear eschatology) is taking shape. Of course, such an ideological background is not something solely post-Soviet, but it is also intrinsic to the Western ideological space of the postmodern epoch.
Putinist ideological de-ideologization is two-fold. On the one hand, its disdain for the naivety of ideologies is undoubtedly related to an attempt to formulate its own views as de-ideologized “common sense”, what is akin to Western “post-ideological” neoliberal technocracy. On the other hand, it is really hard to describe Putinism as an ideology in the full-blooded sense, considering the highly synthetic nature of its formation. But regardless of whether Putinism is ideological or post-ideological, in its own eyes what really matters is the reality of the power and authority it wields. And this power and authority are either the direct or the mediated consequences of the Soviet military and energetic infrastructure, left behind by a modernist project that departed after a long illness.
Temporal Ecologies of War
The synthesis of revanchist fetishism and inherited infrastructure leading to an apocalyptic threat to most ecosystems resembles the way Guattari understood ecology: as a non-hierarchical, dynamic intertwining of mental subjectivities, processual social institutions, and nature passing through the Umwelten of various species. It is to be noted that through the “three ecologies”, the aspect of temporality runs in our case too. After all, often when we are talking about environmental problems, they can be understood specifically as problems of a temporal nature. Indeed, it is obvious that all ecological phenomena — the climate, biological species, individual organisms — are dynamic and changeable processes. And the problem with climate change is not the change itself, but that the temporality of these changes is such that individual species and even individual ecosystems, whose transformations usually occur at a much slower pace, are unable to adapt and readjust. From this point of view, the threat of nuclear war potentially carries a catastrophic temporality, in which the nuclear fission chain reaction is so rapid and uncontrollable that it becomes literally incompatible with any processes of life.
The temporal aspect also has a place in the context of social ecology, as the Soviet infrastructure, which allows Putinism to develop a fantasy of its own power and the atmosphere of a global threat, is utilized by an entirely different regime. This motif of “utilization” may be important for discussions of the Soviet legacy in general, because Soviet material infrastructure — constructions, art, weapons, urban planning — was planned and built for realities quite different from the post-Soviet ones (there is no need for value judgments here, it is enough to state the fact of difference). This existence out of the context of its creation, out of its era, is a tragic situation exploited by Putinism’s postmodern cynicism.
At the mental level, the temporal aspect is related to the possibility of the sexualization of the eschatological motif. After all, not every eschatology could be sexualized and then elevated into a peculiar cult. For example, the currently popular eschatology of climate change did not take root in Russia at all. More than that, the chief editor of RT, Simonyan, already mentioned at the beginning of this essay, occasionally mentions her skepticism about environmental issues. The reactive temporality of the nuclear threat, its non-human (and even non-organic) intensity, is sexualized in the eyes of Putinist propagandists through the momentary eventfulness of nuclear eschatology. The gradualism of eschatology associated with the ecological crisis, however, does not have the same effect, since it rather resembles a chronic disease than spectacular doom. It is this aesthetic consequence of the temporal component that becomes decisive for its fetishization. Thus, it is not enough for the pathological quasi-ideology of Putinism to be merely mortalist; it must be concentrated all the way to the extreme of super-organic levels in order to imitate an Event of biblical scale and proportions.
Nonetheless, this imitation is no longer built on a sincere belief in something, whether biblical plots or the construction of communism. It only hinges on on a chimerical conjunction of the material legacy the collapsed Soviet project left behind and a fetishistic revanchism with a death drive at its core. Nor is Putinism a full-blooded agent of the return of History, as both the inherited infrastructure and pathological fetishism are inert phenomena. Just as inert is the Putinist politics of invasion. The return of History is related not to Russian imperialist politics, but to the phenomenon of Ukrainian resistance, since the dynamics of history derive not from the reactionary domination of the status quo, but from adventurous attempts to challenge it.
I would like to thank my colleagues and friends Andrew Mark Creighton and Michael Marder for their support and help with the material. I very much appreciate your generous help during these difficult times.