No, the War Isn’t an Excuse to Treat Russians as an “Enemy People”

Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine has opened the floodgates for an outpouring of nationalist hysteria and hatred against a supposed enemy Russian people. Even in countries far from the front line, the war is driving an ugly dehumanization.

Russian police officers detain a man during an unsanctioned protest rally against the military invasion in Ukraine on March 6, 2022, in Moscow, Russia. (Vladimir Pesnya / Epsilon / Getty Images)

One epidemic barely had a chance to draw to a close before another arrived in its place — an epidemic of dehumanization. Thousands of seemingly peaceful and civilized people have shown their ability to achieve zoological levels of hatred toward their own kind.

The wave of Russophobia rising in Europe right now has already swept over the well-recognized input of Russian science and culture and onto the heritage of humankind. Even the usually acceptable Fyodor Dostoyevsky, whom Western elites have adored for his sincere reactionary spirit, was not spared.

But where does the blame of the long-deceased Russian composers, such as Dmitri Shostakovich, actually lie? Those who are now refusing to play his music, citing political motives, would be remiss to not know that he was never a court sycophant and that he had a strained relationship with power. Thankfully, there are some exceptions.

That’s not to mention our own Russian scientists, tortured by sanctions by their own government for years. The reform of the Academy of Sciences in 2013 is the most notable example. Some well-wishers have even started insisting that Alexandra Elbakyan — the creator of the free scholarship aggregator SciHub — should close up shop. Everyone understands that this would lay a gravestone over our poverty-stricken young students.

International NGOs of various peaceful trappings seem to be engaged in a competition as to who will exclude Russia and Russians from their ranks first. Even the Hippocratic oath is no obstacle to chauvinist hysteria. The actions of OncoAlert, the international network of oncologists that have pulled out of all collaborations and congresses in Russia, make us want to tell them: physician, heal thyself.

The official Russian propaganda answers in kind. Allegedly, Germany was not denazified enough, they say in response to any accusations coming from the German side. As a result, the trite bravado “we may have a do-over of World War II” has gained menacing undertones. However, credit is due to our people: we don’t see mass threats against peaceful expats, nor can we observe “people-targeting” sanctions against foreigners.

All this is just talking about countries that are not currently at war; it makes the lies and hatred exchanged between Russian and Ukrainian war propaganda pale by comparison. Nonetheless, it is appalling. The author was able to communicate with a guy in besieged Kherson. His hatred toward the Russian troops is easy to understand. But another thing is more frightening — the perception of reality as if it were a video game. On the one side, a hero armed with a machine gun and a Molotov cocktail, on the other — hordes of orcs from the horrific Eastern Mordor.

It’s also easy to understand the hatred of the adversary coming from someone who was almost burned to death by Ukrainian nationalists in the Odessa Trade Union house in 2014. But when he goes on to justify asymmetrical cruelty with this tragedy, it dishonors him not only as a communist but as a human, too.

After all, one of the main goals of special propaganda is the dehumanization of the opponent. That’s simply because an ordinary person is very unlikely to be able to kill someone just like them without special psychological conditioning. However, given the crudeness and low quality of propaganda in the current conflict, it’s unlikely that it could have caused the current epidemic of dehumanization on its own.

Everyday Lack of Humanity

Here we’re getting to the bitterest aspect of all — that the current spark of international cruelty has long been in the works. And not by some sort of world shadow cabinets, but by the everyday functioning of neoliberal capitalism. It’s easiest to observe this in the example of Western Europe, which had not taken up arms for quite a while. You might think an everyman with his needs met and no risk of conscription would be docile and good-natured. But instead, we see a resentful, cruel creature receptive to the most aggressive lies.

We had seen a microlevel occurrence of the same paradox in the Scandinavia of the 1990s. We can admire the gradually departing welfare states in Sweden and Norway all we want. But can we really call blissful the land that gave birth to Nazi-worshipping black metal, full of sincere hatred, the land where Varg Vikernes and Anders Breivik committed their atrocities?

But if we’re against piling up collective responsibility on all the Russian people, we must also resist lumping the blame on all Europeans. Especially since the deep heterogeneity and stark contrasts inherent to Europe are one of the reasons for the occurrence we’re interested in.

There is no democratic brotherhood of nations. The European Union and other adjacent structures are deeply hierarchical organizations. From the advent of the world economic crisis, it has been quite evident even from where we sit. No one pushed the euro bureaucrats to unite Portugal, Ireland, Greece, and Spain under the derogatory umbrella “PIGS.”

Then there’s those outside of the European hierarchy altogether — migrants and refugees. Many of our compatriots will probably become such helots without rights as well, following in the steps of the unfortunate Ukrainians. Political correctness provides for a sophisticated form of social segregation. But an ordinary European is taught to despise those who are not part of the nominal “golden billion” — as Russians call people in the wealthier countries — and estimate their lives as orders cheaper than their own. Europe has no social peace. Moreover, there isn’t even a fragile illusion of collaboration between classes, such as the welfare states of postwar Europe allowed for. Instead, there is unemployment, the powerlessness of the remnants of welfare states, and the degradation of culture.

All the forms of inequality and segregation described above are just an element of class oppression. And this becomes more glaring as the old European nations continue their decay.

With Guns, People Kill People

Russian and Western liberals often venture that since the Russian people don’t rise up against the government, they share with it the responsibility for current events. But some objections: first, our people are struggling, although with depleted energy. The weakness of the movement is not due to a lack of enthusiasm, but fear, inexperience, and lack of organization.

Second, such a logic of collective responsibility can go a long way — and then, our siblings in the West would have to share responsibility for all American imperialism — even those who protested against the wars in Vietnam and Iraq. After all, they weren’t able to halt them.

And finally, the Nuremberg tribunal was not passing judgment on the German people, but on the criminal organizations that started and waged the war of destruction.

Defenders of the “special military operation” absolve the Russian government of blame by saying that Russia is a weak imperialist, forced into a corner by the larger beast and forced to protect itself. However, anything can be condoned this way — fascists in Ukraine and those who shell the Donbas can invoke similar pretexts for their own aggression. Some analogies come to mind. In particular, the Russian website that lists “traitors to the country” seems to be a copy of the similar websites created in Ukraine after the Euromaidan or by Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya and her comrades during the political crisis in Belarus.

Enough has been said about the economic motives of each of the sides. We will leave it to the economists. Elites in Russia, Ukraine, and the West in general have plenty of lowly reasons — contrary to the advertised ideal considerations — not only to kickstart but also to prolong the conflict. Moreover, some of them are shared by all the participants in full solidarity. The “special operation” will write off everything, the world’s capitalists think: the botched internal politics, the inability to escape the world economic crisis, powerlessness to combat coronavirus.

Meanwhile, coronavirus has not gone away. Corrupt rulers, alien to peoples’ interests, have not been able to defeat the pandemic — they just pushed it aside. In recent years, Russian citizens have seen that even in times of hardship the government won’t bridle business or curb speculation on essential products. We had seen many examples of quacks with high-level connections cynically profiting off our fear of the virus. The most revealing example is the wonder-gadget “Tor” that was advertised to kill viruses and manufactured by the “Granit Concern.” It turned out that its production was linked to people deeply enmeshed in the country’s oligarchy, the secret services (FSB), and Vladimir Putin’s own entourage.

Yes, the fat cats are fighting among each other, but they’re robbing all of us on comradely terms. No, there is no need to start looking for a global conspiracy or a rigged game here; the issue is the common interests. Whatever happens — profit must keep coming. And the oppressed, as the primary source of profit, should stay obedient to their masters: on the front or in the rear, in the burning Kharkiv or dead-broke Russian provinces, in poverty-stricken Romania or well-fed Belgium.

But the most horrifying thing being done to ordinary citizens worldwide is that we’re being taught to see our siblings in misfortune, not even as opponents, but as representatives of a different biological species. As to the organizers and beneficiaries of conflicts, they are keeping their previous level of relationships intact. Sanctions are introduced sporadically, and many oligarchs evade them by trivial means, such as transferring their assets to their relatives and entourage. For instance, this is what Alexei Mordashov, boss of the Severstal steel and mining firm, did. If there are some excesses — such as a nutty US senator offering to have the Russian president murdered — these aren’t the ones that count.

So, how can we say the oppressed are brothers and sisters? The most crucial mechanism of mutual dehumanization is the imposition of artificial national solidarity, faux unity of oppressors and the oppressed, hunters and prey. This has happened many times in history. Over the years of massive propaganda, many were made to think that classes were an invention of Marxists. But today we only have two options: class solidarity — and through it, human solidarity — or complete dehumanization.

In the atmosphere of all-encompassing hysteria and bullying, it’s imperative to remind people that life goes on and that staying human is the first and foremost necessity. Any representative of Homo sapiens belongs to humanity first, to their class second — and some national or ethnic entity, way down the list.

Fighting dehumanization on both sides of the front is crucially important. It’s something that’s in our power. It’s something that we can control. We have work cut out for everyone here. We must pull each other from the hypnosis of war propaganda, help build up ruined links, calm down those who are paralyzed by panic. The to-do list is endless.

It’s unlikely that we’ll be able to stop tanks, but we can easily support those who are fighting to save lives and preserve human decency on both sides of the front line. We would like to pay special attention to Ukraine’s Workers’ Front, which has refused to join in on the nationalist hysteria but dedicates itself to humanitarian work for the benefit of the civil population of territories ravaged by the war. This is in stark juxtaposition to international NGOs and formerly neutral countries that deliver military aid under the guise of humanitarian supplies.

The “special operation” will end, and we will have to live in its aftermath. But, if we let xenophobia and nationalist fervor take hold, ordinary people will keep suffering, and different kinds of predators and parasites will keep feeding off it. Only by preserving humanity and throwing off the stereotypes thrust down our throats will we be able to unite, survive in the hard times, and rebuild the looted, destroyed countries. And then to lodge our bill to those who started this nightmare.