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New Depths of Russian Insanity as Putin’s Ukraine Debacle Continues

The absurd, the desperate, and the just plain sick.
November 17, 2022
New Depths of Russian Insanity as Putin’s Ukraine Debacle Continues
Ukranian military pose with children at Liberty Square as the city continues to celebrate their liberation from Russia on November 16, 2022 in Kherson, Ukraine. On November 15th, four days after Russia's humiliating withdrawal in southern Ukraine, missiles hit Kyiv, along with several other cities. Ukrainian President Zelensky visited Kherson after the city was recaptured, and as the only regional capital that Moscow's troops had been able to take control of, dealt a major blow to Russia's offensive. Kyiv claims in particular that Russian forces destroyed a power plant before withdrawing.(Photo by Paula Bronstein /Getty Images)

While Ukrainians celebrated the liberation of Kherson, anti-war Russians were distracted by a much darker story: the posting of an apparent snuff video in which a former fighter with the Wagner mercenary group, a would-be defector to the Ukrainian side, was bludgeoned to death with a sledgehammer. For Russian dissidents, the gruesome video became a shocking symbol of the barbarism to which Russia’s “new normal” had sunk. Many invoked ISIS, the radical Islamist terror group that had a habit of sharing video recordings of its sadistic executions. It’s “the ISIS-ization of Russia,” said Irina Alleman, a host on Popular Politics, the YouTube channel run by jailed opposition leader Alexei Navalny’s team.

The story is indeed horrific; the official and quasi-official reactions make it worse. And, capping two weeks during which Russia’s former president and current deputy chair of the security council asserted that the country is literally at war with Satan while the leading show on national television claimed that Russia’s biggest problem was not enough dictatorship, it starkly illustrates Russia’s descent into a twilight zone that’s part horror movie and part theater of the absurd.

The murder of ex-convict and ex-mercenary Yevgeny Nuzhin is still a murky story at this point. The 55-year-old apparently was recruited into the Wagner “private military company” from a penal colony where he had been incarcerated since 1999. (He had been convicted of murder—according to him, for killing a man during a brawl—and then got additional time for escape.) In early September, Nuzhin found himself in Ukrainian captivity and gave several interviews to Ukrainian and other media, claiming that he had joined the Wagner group with the intent of defecting to fight on the Ukrainian side and that he had close relatives in Ukraine.

The video posted last Sunday on the Wagner-linked Telegram channel Grey Zone shows Nuzhin in Ukrainian military fatigues with his head Scotch-taped to a brick pillar. He identifies himself and admits to switching sides, then says that on November 11 he was knocked out and abducted on a Kyiv street and regained consciousness “in this cellar, where I was told I would be put on trial.” A second later, a man in combat fatigues whose face remains off-camera fells Nuzhin with a sledgehammer blow to the side of the head and then evidently finishes him off with a second blow. (For the record, I watched an edited clip that ends just before the first blow is delivered.) The text accompanying the video in the Telegram post gloated that “the traitor received the traditional, primordially Wagnerian punishment.”

Many questions about the circumstances of Nuzhin’s death remain. For instance, while Nuzhin said that he voluntarily surrendered to the Ukrainians, Ukrainian sources have claimed that he was captured. His story of being snatched in the street in Kyiv, presumably by Russian or Wagner operatives, seems extremely far-fetched. Nuzhin’s sons have claimed that he was sent back to Russia as part of a prisoner exchange, prompting some human rights activists to criticize Ukraine for sending him back to a certain death. In an interview on the dissident Russian channel TV-Rain, Mykhailo Podolyak, an advisor to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, confirmed the prisoner exchange but asserted that Nuzhin went back willingly. There’s also a theory (aired by, among others, YouTube host and expat Russian journalist Yulia Latynina) that Wagner head Yevgeny Prigozhin, the man who was seen in a notorious video earlier this year recruiting inmates in penal colonies to fight in Ukraine and who is reputed to be close to Vladimir Putin, was so intent on getting Nuzhin that he offered the Ukrainians a trade for forty Ukrainian POWs whom he threatened to shoot if Nuzhin wasn’t handed over.

Whatever the truth may be, Prigozhin commented on the execution on Monday in a statement with obvious pretensions to dry wit:

I’d rather watch this story at the theater. As for the sledgehammered man, this show reveals that he did not find happiness in Ukraine but instead encountered unkind yet just people. It seems to me that the title of this movie is “To a dog, a dog’s death.” Excellent directorial work, easily watchable in one sitting. I hope no animals were harmed during the filming.

The next day, after the Russian Presidential Council on Human Rights remembered that it still exists and sent a letter to the chief prosecutor’s office asking for an inquiry into Nuzhin’s death, Prigozhin issued a second comment which ostensibly denied the Wagner group’s involvement; however, this statement was laced with such blatant trolling that it read like a “wink, wink” signal not to take the denial seriously. For instance, Prigozhin suggested that the CIA had not only engineered Nuzhin’s abduction and murder but planted him in the penal colony 23 years ago in anticipation of the 2014 “coup” in Ukraine and the 2022 war—a conspiracy theory so over-the-top, even for Russia, that it’s almost certainly tongue in cheek. Ditto for Prigozhin’s deadpan assertion that the Wagner group scrupulously follows “international norms” and strictly limits the use of “cruel methods,” with violations punishable by “social censure, reprimands, and fines.” In fact, Wagner mercenaries are notorious for war crimes in Africa and the Middle East, reportedly including the on-camera sledgehammer execution in Syria of a deserter from Bashir al-Assad’s army.

What makes this saga especially creepy is that Prigozhin, a real-life James Bond villain known as “Putin’s chef” (his catering business has been in charge of Kremlin banquets and is a major supplier of meals to schools, the army, and other government institutions), is an increasingly visible presence on the Russian public scene.

Until recently, Prigozhin, himself an ex-convict who served time in the 1980s for a string of burglaries and robberies (including a mugging in which he choked the victim until she passed out) and became a successful restaurateur in the chaotic 1990s, had kept a fairly low profile. In particular, he denied any involvement with the Wagner group and even sued media outlets for discussing his ownership of the mercenary outfit.

All that changed with the war in Ukraine. In mid-September, when the recruitment video was made public, Prigozhin’s company, Concord, responded to a query about it with a non-confirmation confirmation in the same smirking, trollish style evident in Prigozhin’s comments on Nuzhin: The statement noted that the man in the video looked and sounded “stupendously” like Prigozhin and praised his “apparently successful” work to aid the “special operation.” A short time later, Prigozhin proudly confirmed his role in the 2014 founding of the “Wagner Battalion.” He also became a leading voice in the “war party,” often trashing Russian military leadership for its failures in Ukraine; his targets included Colonel General Aleksandr Lapin, who was recently removed from command of the “special operation.” He has denounced the soft Russian “elites” and lobbied the prosecutor general to block access to YouTube because it circulates anti-Russian “fakes” and censors pro-Russian channels. He sports the Hero of Russia medal, the country’s highest military decoration. And he recently opened a sleek “PMC Wagner Center” in St. Petersburg.” There is talk that, if the weakening of Putin’s position opens the way to a power struggle, Prigozhin may emerge as a populist politician with a macho image.

Given the secrecy that surrounds the Kremlin, it’s difficult to tell how close Prigozhin is to Putin (there are conflicting reports) or how powerful he really is. Even so, his rise to stardom as the head of a de facto private army who can recruit convicts and get them released and pardoned has been cited by a number of Russian dissident commentators as a striking sign of the unraveling of legitimate authority. The fundamental lawlessness of Prigozhin’s position is especially evident in the fact that, in the recruitment video, he openly warns the inmates that refusal to follow orders or any other breach of loyalty will be swiftly and lethally dealt with—despite the fact that Russia formally does not have capital punishment.

With the Nuzhin video, this is no longer a theoretical question: Unless the bludgeoning was faked for the camera, the Wagner group has carried out a grisly, completely unlawful public execution of one of its former fighters. But perhaps the most shocking part, as expatriate journalist Viktor Shenderovich noted, was the response from Putin’s press secretary Dmitry Peskov, who brushed off questions about the video with the comment, “This is none of our business.” For Shenderovich and other dissidents, this became a valuable “masks off” moment: proof that the Kremlin regime of 2022 is not even an authoritarian government but simply a group of gangsters in charge of a failed state.

The sledgehammer saga unfolds against a backdrop in which medievalism meets Stalinism meets dark farce. On November 4, Russia’s Day of National Unity, former president Dmitry Medvedev (to be precise, former Putin substitute handpicked as a one-term president to allow Putin to circumvent the two-term limit), currently deputy chair of Russia’s Security Council, posted a rant about Russia’s holy war against a “dying” Western world. It culminated in the declaration that Russia’s goal was “to stop the supreme lord of hell, no matter what name he uses: Satan, Lucifer or Iblis.” Medvedev, who observers believe is trying extra hard to make up for his liberal past, also asserted that Russia would never surrender its “sacred lands”—i.e., the recently annexed Ukrainian regions.

Five days later, television host Vladimir Solovyov, another ex-liberal turned Putin propagandist extraordinaire, was glumly explaining the surrender of Kherson as a “purely military” decision to save the army in which politics played no part whatsoever and which all patriotic Russians should support. But the conversation quickly moved on to domestic politics as Solovyov demanded more action on the home front, such as: “They could at least impose wartime censorship—I’ve been saying that for months!”

See sad Solohov.

The main guest, Moscow State University dean Vitaly Tretyakov, joined the host in lamenting the Russian government’s excessive liberalism which permitted “hornets’ nests of blatant Russophobia” to survive for too long and which still tolerates a history curriculum depicting the Soviet Union as a “black hole.” Tretyakov’s wish list included more Soviet-era patriotic books on middle-school and high school reading lists, less talk of material comfort as the measure of a good society, and a proper celebration of the upcoming 100th anniversary of the founding of the USSR on December 30.

A few propagandists are leaning into the absurdity of the moment. NTV host Andrei Norkin went viral with a remark that wryly acknowledged the impossibility of commenting on the decision to retreat from Kherson without getting in trouble: To defend the surrender of a (supposedly) Russian city could qualify as an attack on the “territorial integrity” of Russia, while to criticize it could qualify as discrediting the armed forces—both crimes punishable to prison under Russian law in 2022.

Shenderovich, himself an NTV alumnus in better days, suggested that Norkin was subtly trying to distance himself from his Kremlin masters and signal a critical stance, in anticipation of the days when “Putin’s war propagandist” would be a black mark on one’s resumé. But are those days really coming soon? Should something be read into the fact that Putin is likely canceling his annual press conference for the first time in ten years? Is the fact that the sanctions are kicking in and the Russian economy is careening into a crisis going to have an effect? What does it say that polls find two-thirds of Russians reporting “anxiety” while only six percent regard the annexation of four Ukrainian regions as one of October’s “memorable events”? Does it matter that viral videos of Russian conscripts shouting obscenities at their officers are proliferating? Or that ultranationalist, pro-war guru Aleksandr Dugin has made (but later scrubbed) a social media post comparing Putin to a tribal “rain king” who is killed if he cannot summon rain?

As always, time will tell. For now, the regime is making increasingly desperate attempts at screw-tightening and displays of toughness. There’s a new round of anti-Western sanctions barring 100 Canadian public figures, including writer Margaret Atwood and actor Jim Carrey, from entering Russia. (Émigré lawyer and activist Mark Feygin has quipped that Carrey probably got hit because the Russian authorities take Dumb and Dumber as a commentary on the war in Ukraine.) The “foreign agents” law, which been used for some time to target dissenters, is being amended: Starting next month, the “agents” will be barred from receiving state funding, teaching at state universities or working with children, and their personal data such taxpayer identification numbers will be publicly posted on the Ministry of Justice website. The ministry will also be required to post a list of people and groups “affiliated with foreign agents,” and the already broad definition of “foreign agent” will be broadened to include anyone deemed to be under “foreign influence.”

Meanwhile, the few still-persisting antiwar protesters are still getting arrested for referring to the “special operation” as a “war”—never mind that war cheerleaders like Solovyov are freely using it on TV. But some protesters have come up with canny strategies to circumvent the ban. Last month, Alisa Klimentova, a 30-year-old in Tyumen, was hauled into court for chalking Net v***e!—i.e. Net voine!, or “No to war!”—on a sidewalk. Klimentova explained, presumably with a straight face, that she actually meant Net voble, or “No to vobla,” a popular type of dried fish jerky for which she said she harbored a strong distaste; the judge, presumably also with a straight face, accepted her explanation and not only released her but ordered the police to return the chalk. The incident inspired countless memes, such as book and movie titles with vobla substituted for “war,” as well as an anti-war song with 2.5 million YouTube views. Then, on November 7, a man in Chelyabinsk was arrested for picketing with a Net v***e placard and explained to the policemen who wrote up the report that he obviously meant “No to vodka” (Net vodke). To which, according to the detainee, one of the officers inquired, “Why not vobla?”

In Putin’s Russia, even the protests are surreal.

Cathy Young

Cathy Young is a writer at The Bulwark, a columnist for Newsday, and a contributing editor to Reason. Twitter: @CathyYoung63.