Support The Bulwark and subscribe today.
  Join Now

Apathy Keeps Russia’s Death Cult Alive

Some Russians embrace their country’s nihilism. Others help maintain it through their resignation and indifference.
October 6, 2022
Apathy Keeps Russia’s Death Cult Alive

The other night, I offended someone by refusing to drink Russian vodka at a social gathering. It was a profoundly stupid situation—no one really wants to be taking a political stance while mixing a martini. I hadn’t even said anything, just quietly swapped a bottle of Beluga someone had brought for Belvedere, which is better anyway.

Offense was still taken, and words were exchanged. “You should know that a lot of Russians aren’t even trying to fight in this war!” The offended person told me, referring to Russia’s genocidal campaign in my native country of Ukraine.

The subtext was clear: Please don’t hold Russians collectively responsible. Please be agreeable, not angry. Please, for God’s sake, must everything be about this war?

But that’s the thing about war: It makes everything about itself. If you’re affected, you exist in its insistent grip, even when you’re living thousands of miles away from where the missiles are flying. Since the invasion kicked off, I haven’t slept much. The nights are gossamer, easily punctured. Like millions of others, I oscillate between horror and hope, an exhausting state to be in.

Searching for serotonin during my sleepless nights, I have watched videos of hooded Russians throwing Molotov cocktails at enlistment offices since Vladimir Putin’s bizarre “partial mobilization” began. These people act in stark contrast to the Russians who have meekly sent their sons and husbands off to fight Putin’s illegal, barbaric war. It’s impossible to know the scale of actual resistance within Russia, although it is probably bigger than what we can quantify right now, because much of it is necessarily quiet.

This isn’t to say that I console myself with the myth of a horde of “good Russians” who will soon fix their screwed-up country. The Russian death cult is vast and strong. It will take much more than toppling Putin—or arranging a heart attack for him—to undo decades of repression and learned apathy. This is not my doomerism speaking, it’s just common sense.

When we think of the Russian “death cult,” we usually think of the people actively supporting war, hatred, and international isolation. But passivity—the act of doing nothing—is also an important part of this cult. When mobilization was first announced last month, I was horrified but not surprised by a Russian psychologist recounting the story of a prospective client: A mother was sending her husband off to war and was convinced that he was going to die. She wanted support for her poor teenage son, who’s very close to his dad, to be ready for an inevitable tragedy:

“She has already buried her husband,” the psychologist tweeted—that is, assumed that he is already as good as dead.

Resisting mobilization in Russia is hard, but not impossible. One of the worst potential outcomes, if you don’t get too loudly political in an enlistment center (a good way to wind up being tortured), is a prison term—a not very long one, and you’ll probably get stuck with a lot of like-minded people. The idea of not even trying to resist when the life of a husband and father is on the line is bizarre, but apathy is a heavy blanket, and just like a blanket, it can be a strange comfort. If you can convince yourself that nothing depends on you, then you don’t have to take responsibility.

The Russians who want to resist are leaving the country to the tune of hundreds of thousands. Families are being uprooted and, in some cases, broken up.

The conscripts themselves are frequently reporting what those of us who understand Russia’s logistical problems—to say nothing of its general treatment of the military as nothing more than serfs—have predicted: There is not enough time to train or resources to equip the newly mobilized. And this is all happening as the weather is turning cold and the Ukrainians, for their part, are rightfully out for blood.

Once, during the miserable years I spent working in Moscow, I came across a puffed-up state media executive who explained to a roomful of young journalism students why they should do exactly what the government wants them to do: Because then they’d be able to afford nice appliances and cars. I’ve since forgotten his name, but it doesn’t much matter, as guys like him are all similar: cynical and smug, wearing decent if unimaginative suits.

“Sell your soul, and I’ll take care of you” is the classic devil’s bargain, and in the end he always collects what he’s purchased. The Russian imperial mindset, which dictates that anyone can be bought, terrorized into submission, or simply destroyed, does not account for that little detail. A heavily sanctioned and isolated Russia is now trying to extract from its citizens the ultimate price, life and limb, in exchange for a vague sense of national pride and the chance for the country’s top bureaucrats to continue to live lavishly.

With each passing day, Russians who accept the bargain see fewer and fewer benefits in return. That’s because “Die for our money” has always been the real demand of the Putin regime, spelled out in the fine print of Putin’s social contract with his citizens but becoming harder and harder to miss. It has manifested itself in the way the country has been run, with a bloated state apparatus, mass corruption, astronomical inequality, sadistic disdain for human dignity, an HIV epidemic, a healthcare system that shrugs at pain, and so on. With the failed invasion of Ukraine, the demand to lie down and die has simply become more obvious.

People have asked me where it’s going to end up; I don’t know. What I do know is that Ukrainians must keep fighting, and they will. Mass graves, mass rapes, death, and worse are the only alternatives.

Those who want Ukraine to stop fighting because Putin might use nuclear weapons don’t understand what it’s like to have a murderer’s hand at your throat. Clearly, that’s why Putin wants his threats heard: He is not just blackmailing Ukraine with his arsenal but the entire world, and expects those with less immediately at stake to be easier to persuade. Giving in to this blackmail would be like backing away from the strangler, letting him do what he will.

Back at the party, the person I offended by rejecting Russian vodka told me that I “shouldn’t succumb to hate.” This was funny to me, and not just because someone decided to make a scene over something as silly as a dirty martini.

Turning my back on Russia has been the ultimate act of love, for myself and for my family. Today, I am a heartbroken person, but also a fundamentally happy one. Happiness is easy when you know you’re in the right, when you breathe freely. The shadow does not hold sway.

Natalia Antonova

Natalia Antonova is a writer and investigator based in Washington, D.C. Twitter: @NataliaAntonova.