There’s one place where Russia wins in the Ukraine war: the use of the “Nazi” label. While lacking global credibility concerning Ukraine, the label got into widespread circulation. It was also used by Zelensky and other Ukrainian leaders for Russia’s actions.
Why and how does this matter? It does to the extent that it misrepresents the motives and actions of the participants. It is not only wrong but drags us to the past, in times when politics should focus on a future that looks uncertain and needs new solutions.
Putin used the “Nazi” label at the very beginning of the Ukraine war in his televised address on 24 February. Then, he claimed Russia would “seek to demilitarize and denazify Ukraine” by the “special operation” it had launched. The phrase was noticed – and dismissed – immediately by the Western world because Ukraine hardly seems a Nazi country; among others, it has a Jewish president. Couldn’t Putin have used a more convincing pretense? Maybe, in Western eyes, but he deliberately mentioned Nazism. According to the Russian presidency site, he used the “demilitarization and denazification” phrase at least three more times, on 2, 4, and 16 March, among others, in a phone conversation with Israel’s prime minister Naftali Bennett. Repetitive use of a dual formula is an indication of intention.
There are two reasons why Putin was using it. The first one is purely propagandistic and resides in the connotations of the “Nazi” word for the Russian public, to whom Putin relates first and foremost in his speeches. Nazism is the unanimously accepted opposite of democracy and humanity for the entire world, but for Russians, it is even more: a plague that went deep into Russia in World War II took 20 million Russian lives and yet was gloriously defeated in a unique moment of Soviet triumph. Historically, it was also totally opposed to Russian communism, so it is no wonder Stalin and his successors used it over and over again as a powerful rhetorical device, if only because Soviet history had few moments of true glory.
This pervasive “anti-Nazi” ethos of Soviet times leads us to the second reason for Putin’s frequent use of the term. Propaganda starts to believe in itself from a certain moment on. The relatively unknown Austrian writer and journalist Karl Kraus summarized it better: “How is the world ruled and led to war? Diplomats lie to journalists and believe these lies when they see them in print.”
Before Ukraine 2022, there was Ukraine 2014. The Maidan Square protests included a far-right component, consisting of white power symbols and portraits of Stepan Bandera, the ultranationalist Ukrainian resistance leader in World War II. The far-right Svoboda party was taking part in the government. All these elements made Russia label the protests as “Nazi,” although the far-right was just a minority in the big picture, together with LGBT or Jewish groups, for example.
Ukraine 2022 is different from Ukraine 2014. There is only the so-called “Azov Battalion,” now defending Mariupol, which is said to have lost its nationalist leaders and has been incorporated into the Ukrainian National Guard. Svoboda lost the parliamentary elections in 2015 and 2019. There is a Jewish president. If Putin had found any evidence about Nazism, he would undoubtedly have showcased it in a propaganda piece. But he didn’t. It was only the propaganda that kept rolling on.
How come it keeps rolling on? First of all, because propaganda is repetitive by nature. Then, because Putin and his propaganda apparatus are primarily addressing a Russian audience, to whom Nazism is the ultimate scarecrow and a label much more effective than to the rest of the world. But there’s more than propaganda in all this. At the beginning of April, a putinist “methodist and philosopher,” Timofei Sergeitsev, caused outrage with a piece published on the Ria Novosti news agency site, where he stated that “a significant part” of Ukrainians are “passive Nazis” or accomplices of the “Banderite elite,” which has to be “liquidated,” since “its reeducation is impossible.” “The social ‘swamp’ which actively and passively supports it must undergo the hardships of war and digest the experience as a historical lesson and atonement,” Sergeitsev wrote. To him, “denazification is inevitably also deukrainisation – a rejection of the large-scale artificial inflation of the ethnic element of self-identification of the population of the territories of the historical Malorossiya and Novorossiya begun by the Soviet authorities.”
“Malorossiya,” or Little Russia, was the exonym used in the Russian Empire for Ukraine, while “Novorossiya,” or New Russia, is a former imperial governorate north of the Black Sea, also part of Ukraine now. But Sergeitsev’s piece is more than propaganda: it is ideology. And no matter how bizarre all the above sounds in the era of self-determination and political correctness, one cannot make up such things without a degree of personal belief. Ideology is a matter of genuine conviction much more than propaganda.
Sergeitsev’s considerations largely echo Putin’s ambition about a “triune Russia,” formed by Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus, published in July 2021 in an already famous essay called “On the Historical Unity of Russians and Ukrainians.” The novelty is Sergeitsev’s “denazification” road map, as horrible as it may be.
There is no use in fighting Putin and Sergeitsev’s considerations with historical arguments. They have been proven false by the Ukrainians, with their arms in their hands, to the extent that Putin ironically re-created the country whose existence he had denied. So, why do Putin and his ideologues believe in such things?
The late Vintilă Mihăilescu, Romania’s most famous anthropologist, theorized something called “national somatization.” Romanians are reckless with their health, seldom go to screenings, and the country has a low life expectancy and a depressing anti-COVID vaccination rate, little more than 40%. However, in all the opinion polls, health keeps appearing as the primary concern of Romanians. Mihăilescu explained the paradox by “national somatization.” Life is harder in Romania than in other European countries, and anxiety is “somatized” into a collective perception of a collective verbal symptom bearing the name “health.”
Romania is in the EU, but it’s an East European country. Its Zeitgeist does have something in common with Russia, no matter how anti-Russian Romanians are for historical causes. To Russians, Nazism was not a political system but what I’ve already called a plague. In other words, a devastating illness with a strong symbolic connotation. It almost killed Russia, but then Russia reincarnated. War, like any other form of violence, is fueled by fear. Calling the opponents “Nazis” is relieving. Immorally and delusionally relieving, but it transforms them into an illness. It somatizes them.
In Mihăilescu’s terms, labeling enemies as “Nazis” is exorcism, at least partially, the transformation of the hazy anxiety into specific symptoms. Not only propaganda/a cynical excuse for aggression but also something internalized, similar to political superstition.
That “long time ago” that passed since Nazism takes us to another related interpretation. Putin was born in 1952, approximately five months before Stalin’s death. Stalin’s cult, which had the WWII victory in its center, was over in 1956, when Putin was 4, with Khruschev’s “Secret Speech.” Or wasn’t it? Gorbatchev had to de-stalinize Russia again in November 1987, at USSR’s 70th anniversary, with a speech that attributed personal responsibility for crimes to Stalin, as opposed to the idea that “Stalin wasn’t informed” about Gulags and all the other horrors.
Is all this connected to Putin’s beliefs? His rejection of Soviet times and his ideological roots in Ivan Ilyin, the Russian white émigré, are relatively well-known. Putin may disavow the USSR, but he called Stalin “a competent manager” and has asked for a “balanced assessment” of the Soviet dictator’s personality. The similarities between Putin and Stalin are easy to notice: authoritarianism, destruction of dissidents and political enemies, shameless propaganda, war atrocities, hardline foreign policy, and so on. In many respects, Putin is Stalin’s spiritual son, although he’s ambivalent about Stalin. A renegade or prodigal son in terms of ideology, but a continuator in many areas of governance and power use.
However, this is less related to the Bible and Oedipus than to another Freudian concept. A common assessment of Putin’s psychology and motives starts from his depiction of the USSR collapse as a “genuine tragedy.” Putin made no secret about his intentions to restore Russia to global power status. The “tragedy” of the USSR collapse that embittered Putin’s youth was hailed by hundreds of millions of Europeans – from the East, in the first place – as a comeback to normal life and integration into the world’s political order. But to Putin, it was a personal loss. First of his KGB career and status in Dresden. Then, of aspirations related to participating in something powerful and global, as he had been taught the USSR was.
How does one react in such circumstances? According to Freud, regression – mentally going back to a previous life stage – is a common compulsion. It often has to do with childhood, but as Romantic poets taught us, it can also refer to past historical eras if we see it as more than a diagnostic. Victor Hugo’s “Légende des siècles” is a self-explanatory title, for example. But Putin is not a poet. So his regression is material: he reenacted World War II with its concrete horrors.
With the Ukraine war, Putin came back to Stalin as the prodigal son did in the Bible. His Nazi obsession is, in fact, political regression to the only Golden Age of the USSR, the victory against Nazism. This is why there are so many Victory Parades in Moscow on 9 May. It is also symptomatic that Putin’s childhood took place at the end of Stalinism. And if we look at the rest of the Russian leadership in 2022, the Ukraine horror appears as collective Freudian regression. Sergei Shoigu, the defense minister, was born in 1955, Sergey Lavrov, in charge of Foreign Affairs, in 1950. They are all “Stalin children,” using war and blood as a vehicle to the carelessness of their own childhood.
But regression is just a transitory phase. Now, Putin must cope with reality. The parallel with Stalin still holds. Both entered a war with very large militaries that were initially incompetent. Both sobered up at a certain point and started to act more realistically on the battlefield. Putin’s recent withdrawal from the north of Ukraine contradicts the idea of him lacking rationality. Which doesn’t mean normal leadership, conformity to international law, a realistic assessment of Russia’s place in the world, or personal morality. It only says a clinical diagnostic possibly shouldn’t exist in his case, opposite to other “bad” or authoritarian leaders.
David Reynolds, the Cambridge historian, said Hitler lost to Stalin in WWII because he became increasingly delusional during the war, ignoring his generals’ proposals and ordering the army to hold positions until self-annihilation, against all rational assessments. Meanwhile, Stalin, who had begun the war with an ineffectual military force, gravely incapacitated by his political purge of professional officers, started coming to his senses as the German army approached Moscow and took realistic decisions. With his retreat from the North of Ukraine, Putin might be on Stalin’s path in WWII. If he is, we will be surprised not by his ferocity but by his realism, which is also bad news.
Meanwhile, Zelensky took over the Nazi label from Russia, in a particular case of what is today called “whataboutism.” The atrocities in Bucha, the marauding Russian soldiers, the civilians crushed by tanks in their cars, rape, and other abominable facts made Ukraine’s president compare the Russian army with the Nazis. However, what Russian soldiers did in Ukraine is closer to the Red Army’s behavior in World War II. Nazi war crimes were organized, deliberate, and directed at categories labeled as enemies, such as Bolsheviks, partisans, Roma, and certainly Jews. The Nazi army was a highly effective and orderly force for most of World War II, unlike the Russian Army in Ukraine. This doesn’t make the Holocaust less abominable – on the contrary – but it reveals it as a different kind of abomination. According to the information we have at this stage on Ukraine, horrors perpetrated by Russians are comparatively gratuitous and purposeless. The washing machines sent by Russian soldiers home in 2022 are more similar to the watches collected by their Red Army grandparents in East Europe-occupied countries in 1944. There is less deliberate action and more spontaneous violence or instant gratification in all this. Even the dead civilian bodies left behind in Bucha are a symptom of recklessness – although this doesn’t make the situation less horrible.
So why did Zelensky compare the Russian Army to Nazism? There are more reasons. One of them is the Ukrainians were deeply hurt in World War II by the Nazis. It’s the closest historical precedent to what is happening, still living in nonagenarian recollections broadcast by the media. Then, there is Ukraine’s involvement in World War II – there are estimates of at least 4,5 million Ukrainian soldiers in the Red Army. From Ukraine’s point of view, the aggressors were the Nazis, opposite to what happened to the Baltic countries, Poland and Romania, when Germany was losing World War II, and the Red Army was plundering, raping, and killing more or less randomly.
But there are two more reasons, which are rhetorical. Throwing back an accusation is, by all means, effective, especially if the accusation is Nazism and comes from a Jewish president. This is the reason “whataboutism” exists, more than intellectual limits. Propagandists use it because it works. And most importantly, if the accusation is directed at a Western audience, it is also very effective. For Western Europe and the United States, the aggressors were the Nazis and Nazism too. Politicians and the public will relate to that.
In West Europe, communism and Stalinism have a less even and consensual perception than in East Europe. In some countries, especially France, the left-wing intellectual tradition culminated in May 1968 and propelled various communist parties to power. It took some time for Solzhenitsyn’s warnings to be seriously considered. Eastern communism fell in 1989. But Western communism is still productive in political terms to a certain extent, in various alliances. There are still several communist MEPs in the European Parliament, in this legislature, for example.
This doesn’t transfer guilt for Stalinist crimes to such politicians. We could at most discuss association with an ideology that proved homicidal in East Europe and Asia. In a city like Brussels, one still can see flags with the hammer and sickle at protests. This would be much harder to find in eastern EU countries, which means that communism or Stalinism are less of a label or term of reference for atrocity than Nazism.
Throughout all this, a leader with a communist youth, who explicitly admires Stalin and is the ruler of a former communist country, is taking the descendant of a communist army to atrocities not unlike what their grandfathers perpetrated at the end of World War II. Communism never had a Nuremberg. The various attempts of posthumous political trials didn’t go too far – or if they did, they were called McCarthyism.
Still, the global ethos is about Nazism. To use a political cliche, Putin “owns the narrative.” Twitter is full of messages such as: “The Allies must do everything in their power to ensure the fall of RUS fascist. No less.” Somehow, the entire world has been intellectually subjugated by Putin’s bloody regression. Not only in Russia but also in China, the civilized world’s issue is, however, communism and its remarkable capability to reincarnate and survive under the most varied names, in various places and times, even in non-threatening versions such as the communist component of the Western European left.
All this compels the civilized world to another type of historical regression: the appeal to democracy, the rule of law, and international treaties the way they were conceived after 1945. Obviously, democracy cannot be changed in its nature, and it is the only civilized political framework that proved effective in a big and prosperous part of the world. The other part doesn’t have a similar model, and it’s implausible that a Russia-China global pole will result in similar benefits for its citizens. Democracy is inconceivable to give up. But it must evolve the way international law has to. It cannot be reenacted. Putin’s bloody and atrocious regression taught us that, at least: no matter what he wins, it’s very unlikely that it will all end like World War II for Stalin.
Update, 9 May 2022
While Putin got back to his Nazism allegations during the Red Square Parade, Zelensky’s 9 May speech/broadcast continues the parallel between Nazism and Russian aggression.