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The ‘Death Cult’ Keeping Russia in Ukraine

Why aren’t Russians more upset over the death toll? Propaganda, censorship, and the mythology of Russia’s ‘glorious dead.’
June 1, 2022
The ‘Death Cult’ Keeping Russia in Ukraine
People holding red flags gather to pay respect at the grave of Soviet leader Joseph Stalin outside the Kremlin on the Red Square in Moscow on March 5, 2019. - Members of different Communist and Left movements gather on the Red Square to mark the 66th anniversary of Stalin's death. (Photo by Mladen Antonov / AFP / Getty Images)

My oldest friend in the world is arranging to have the body of her brother-in-law, who was killed in the Donbas, shipped back from the battlefront. Two weeks ago, a former colleague of mine died in the line of duty. It was mortar fire in the former case, bullets in the latter. The war with Russia goes on. I believe Ukraine can win it, but the toll is heavy and it will get heavier. And all of this is happening because the country next door is in the thrall of a death cult it refuses to even acknowledge.

Even by conservative standards, Russian losses in Ukraine are staggering. British military intelligence estimates that Russia has lost as many soldiers in three months in Ukraine as the Soviet Union lost in the nine years of its misadventure in Afghanistan. Other sources put the Russian death toll in Ukraine even higher.

And Russian losses in Ukraine are not the sort that would motivate other Russians to enlist. Watching your comrades-in-arms die while attacking people’s homes doesn’t exactly boost morale. After all, Russians are the aggressors. No matter how the hydra of Russian propaganda twists itself to justify the invasion, Russian soldiers are not defending anything. They are rampaging in the country next door.

By contrast, for Ukrainians, the deaths of fellow citizens—while outrageous and heartbreaking—can also galvanize others to take up the defense of the homeland. There is no passion on the Russian side that compares with the spirit of Ukrainian defenders.

So why is Russia allowing this? Why are these losses acceptable? Can anything break the spell that maintains Russian domestic support for the war?

A lot has been written about Russia’s poor intelligence and poorer logistics. There is also the Russian ruling class and its feudal mindset, the way it sees its soldiers as entirely disposable. And there is the ubiquitous propaganda apparatus that prevents most Russians from easily gaining access to the truth about the war and its attendant losses.

It is also important to note the simple fact that Russian President Vladimir Putin can’t afford to lose. Putinism is a brittle system, and it has largely depended on two things: money and a cult of personality. Weakening Putin’s reputation as a brilliant, unfailing strategist could make the whole system start to wobble.

Therefore, Russian generals need to carve out a victory—or at least a semblance of one—for Putin to be able to stay in power and the current order to be preserved. The Russian men dying on the battlefield are being sacrificed to help achieve that goal.

These are all factors that help explain the Russian government and Russian people’s acceptance of dire losses in Ukraine. But there’s another factor, too—one rooted, ironically, in a very famous Russian victory.

On May 9, Russia celebrated “Victory Day,” a holiday commemorating the defeat of Nazi Germany. Victory Day was celebrated for decades by the Soviet Union, and continues to be celebrated by post-Soviet countries. As Ksenia Polouektova-Krimer wrote in 2016, the great victory over Germany came at a terrible price:

Many of the war’s fallen soldiers are still awaiting their burial, their bones scattered across the forests and swamps of Russia and the neighboring countries. The country is still to count its exact losses, which, in various estimates, oscillate between the staggering 27 m and 35 m people.

As Polouektova-Krimer notes, the Soviets didn’t begin celebrating Victory Day until the 1960s. By then, the horrific and immediate trauma of the survivors had been largely pushed aside or suppressed. Many disabled veterans found themselves homeless only to be removed from major cities, some transferred to isolated monastery buildings where they received, at best, substandard care. Survivors who had lost all limbs were sometimes referred to, disturbingly, as “samovars.” They made a tremendous sacrifice, but their resulting vulnerability made their fellow Soviets a little too uncomfortable.

The Russian people still felt a vast, incomprehensible loss—often expressed in the excellent war films of the period—but the Soviet government needed their subjects to focus on the glory. Loss delegitimized the government, but glory propped it up.

The bones scattered in the woods in places like Russia, Belarus, and Ukraine remained silent. My parents had stories of turning up those bones when playing as children in the forests that surrounded Kyiv. These relics were grimly fascinating—but unable to tell their stories. There would not be closure for those who mourned these dead.

Accepting the conservative estimate that 27 million Russians died in the Second World War, that would proportionally be about the same as if 50 million Americans were to die today. What does a nation do when it loses an unbelievable number of people? How does it cope?

One option is not coping at all. Having lived under a succession of tyrannies, Russian society has come to an important conclusion: It’s easier to venerate the dead than to save the living.

Under Putin, May 9 has become a bombastic, kitschy, and aggressive event—the most important holiday of the Russian year. Its celebrations of the Soviet victory over the Nazis have grown to have an almost religious significance, with triumphalism completely eclipsing the underlying tragedy of all that was sacrificed.

A Russian who questions the official narrative of the holiday—by suggesting that at least some of the USSR’s astonishing losses were preventable, for example—can wind up being “treated with a severity once reserved for medieval heretics,” as Andrej Lushnycky recently noted. Russian media meanwhile portrays Putin’s opponents abroad in period-appropriate costumes from what it refers to as the “Great Patriotic War”: the jackboots and skull emblems of fascists and Nazis.

The glory of victory emphasized in the original May 9 celebrations—once a binding agent for a battered nation—is now an accelerant for the conflicts of the present.

In a paradox that has inevitably resulted from the Russian nationalist mindset, the Nazi menace was not vanquished in 1945, but supposedly survived the end of the war and must now be confronted in North America, Europe—and especially in Ukraine.

Russia’s present-day war of aggression is refashioned by propaganda into a direct continuation of the legacy of the millions of Russian soldiers who died to stop Hitler. The dramatic framing prevents today’s Russians from having an honest conversation about the lives lost in either conflict: Both groups are beyond reach now, for they belong to glory alone.

I see this dark mindset now among Russian relatives and friends I still speak to. They even point to my grandparents’ suffering in WWII as justification for what Russia is doing now as it allegedly “denazifies” Ukraine.

I love my grandparents, but they are all dead. Nothing can hurt them now. In the meantime, Ukrainians are being raped and slaughtered. Ukrainian soldiers are dying to defend their homes and families—but Russian soldiers are dying for nothing.

Reanimating the corpses from last century’s defensive war in order to keep piling up corpses in this century’s war of conquest is an abominable strategy. How long can it go on? That question remains open.

Meanwhile, Russia’s death cult leaders are growing utterly shrill. Putin’s foremost propagandist, Margarita Simonyan, goes on national television to threaten that there are only two acceptable outcomes for this war: Ukraine’s defeat or a nuclear apocalypse.

Simonyan is a cynic who knows that her words will be translated for a foreign audience. She wishes to demoralize the West, Ukraine, and sane Russians who want nothing to do with the war. But the fact that her extremist views are considered to be acceptable for a mainstream Russian audience makes it clear that death-worship is not relegated to the country’s fringe.

Russia carries wounds that go back generations. Instead of examining these wounds in order to treat them, the nation has turned to face the abyss. It does not need to be this way. Russia can turn back and take up the work of national healing if the people demand it. But for that to happen, the morbid ideology that demands glorious victory at any cost must be repudiated—by denying the victory.

Russia needs an unequivocal defeat in Ukraine, a seismic event that can knock down the old idols and force a national reckoning.

This must be the end game for the war—and it is why Ukraine’s allies in the United States, Europe, and elsewhere must do everything possible to support Ukraine. If Russia does not break free from the worship of death, peace will remain out of reach.

Natalia Antonova

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