”Extraordinary, important. It must be read, not only to understand and structure Russia’s invasion and war in Ukraine, why Russians support it – or at least do not strongly oppose it.”
Jade McGlynn, Russia’s War (2023). 264 p. Cambridge, Hoboken: Polity Press.
Review By Jaakko Puuperä
I have to – or rather can – read heaps of good books on international politics, warfare, military history and current security and economic phenomena for work. Good ones, others remain unread.
Still, there is rarely a compelling need to praise an individual work. Jade McGlynn’s Russian War is like that. Extraordinary, important. It must be read, not only to understand and structure Russia’s invasion and war in Ukraine, why Russians support it – or at least do not strongly oppose it. Or why people support Russia and Russians in general. It also helps to understand what motivators make people all over the world at all times accept violence, injustice and oppression. To sell their freedom from the gallows to the hangman.
McGlynn is well acquainted with Russia. What’s best is that she looks at Russia and Russians culturally from a sufficient distance, objectively, academically meritorious, as someone who has lived in the region for years and is fluent in the language as an observer without limiting excessive sympathies rather than antipathies.
McGlynn’s central insight is to strip the Russians of their cherished layer of uniqueness and difference. The Russians have sold themselves and us Western observers a self-evident explanation for all their actions, strange or wrong behavior, is explained blandly and mentally lazily by appealing to uniqueness or at least being different. Our relationship with Russians here in the West is too often unnecessarily tolerant. The Russians are of course forgiven a lot because of our economic interests. We look elsewhere because it benefits us, but also because we have learned to believe the Russians’ claim that Russia and the Russians cannot be measured and understood with the same standards and understanding as other people and nations. At its extreme, it can also appear as a racist belittling, “well, you can expect anything from the Russians now, etc…” McGlynn’s book reveals the dangerousness and fallacy of these attitudes. Russians do not deserve special treatment and Russians can and should be understood, while understanding that understanding is different from acceptance, and Russians should not be relieved of their responsibility.
McGlynn’s central thesis is summed up in the book’s title – Russia’s War. McGlynn emphasizes that it is not only Putin’s war but the whole of Russia. Anyone who enjoys history even lightly cannot avoid the comparison with the Nazis and Hitler’s Germany and the war started by the Germans. In Germany, the responsibility of the Germans for the war is not disputed, although the temptation to talk about Nazi Germany and Hitler’s Germany and wars is great. The analogy with Russia is strong. We tend to see the Russians as Putin’s victims and the war as Putin’s war. However, McGlynn lifts the veils on this secret, the misconception. She tells how strong the support for the war in Ukraine is – even among those who do support criticising Putin, or at least are uneasy with so small opposition against him and his regime.
And it’s not because the Russians are weird or evil. In fact, the explanation is very easy to understand, just by looking in the mirror. All civilizations have their own beliefs and confirmation biases. One factor in the case of Russia is, of course, limited and one-sided access to information. But even that does not explain everything.
Russians live from the past and for the past. The long history of authoritarianism can also be seen in the fact that the Kremlin does not actually even seek active support from the Russians. It actually considers all voluntary support from individuals to be unpleasant. The Kremlin does not trust any voluntary political act, because it would support those in power. The Kremlin tried to confuse its active supporters with the group of ritual supporters. In this way, it can define the content and appearance of the support itself. Individual performances are seen as threats in the culture of collective tradition. That tradition is more than a thousand years old in Russia. At the same time, McGlynn also reminds us that in an autocratically governed country, it is difficult to find out the true opinions of ordinary people with complete accuracy. The researcher also reminds that, ultimately, Russia is a fragmented country, despite its cultural forced collective experience.
There is no society in Russia in the sense of a collective group of people consisting of social relations based on solidarity or common interest in a non-hierarchical manner. Pushkin’s statue seems to be more important to the average Russian than the fate of a Ukrainian child caught up in the war. In Russia, it is different for the traditionally small and privileged elite. Ordinary people in Russia have no opportunities to influence politically. They remain either supporters or apathetic or passive – and that is enough. Ordinary people are less interesting to the Kremlin than the small elite who influence. McGlynn carefully and expertly divides the Russian elite into groups and explains why there are more supporters of war among the elite than among the common people.
The war in Ukraine is a war for the whole of Russia. The current Russian attitude towards the West is not hatred but a contemptuous sense of superiority fueled by an inferiority complex. In the words of Aleksander Baunov: “Russians believe that the West is richer, not because they are better, but because they are worse. They may be richer, but we have the truth.”
Russia’s top political leadership also believes in this truth. McGlynn describes well the isolation of Putin and his advisers from reality. Putin feeds his own and his subjects’ inferiority-complete sense of superiority, offering as a band-aid a distorted and purposeful narrative about the history of the threatened hero nation of Russia. With it you can justify everything and beat your opponents. However, the tragedy of the Russian people and their leaders is that they themselves believe their fiction. And that’s understandable, because Russia, which is fragmented, multilingual and multi-lingual, spanning several time zones, doesn’t exist as a state if it doesn’t have a story about itself. It has nothing else. Thus, Russian propaganda asks with the already well-worn phrase: “Why do we need the world if Russia is not in it?” It is often associated with violent nuclear rhetoric and revenge fantasies, the latter turning into flesh and blood in the Russian-occupied areas of Ukraine, and the former causing Western leaders to hesitate to retaliate against Russia. Nuclear rhetoric is indeed the last relic of Russia’s helplessly lost great power status. A deterrent that it can’t use for anything but intimidation. We in the West should not fall into that trap. If, in fact, we have already gone to the Russians’ expense. They don’t dare to send more aid to Ukraine, in part precisely because of fear of Russia, which is deliberately pretending to be an irrational madman. In fact, the Kremlin is not acting irrationally in its threats. On the contrary, McGlynn aptly analyzes that it works against the West when nothing else does, while creating a false sense of security and strength at home. In reality, however, this kind of deception does not indicate a healthy society, McGlynn estimates and reminds that it rather indicates Russia’s weakness. McGlynn’s very own story is an apt description of how corruption has penetrated everywhere in society, which is not a real society but a kleptocracy of opportunistic individuals. When a small elite demands sacrifices from the common people for their big cause, which is basically only about the interests of the elite, people become passive and apathetic, and only the part of the statist remains for them. When such a man is given a gun and sent to war, it is useless to imagine that he would value the lives of the helpless inhabitants of the territories he occupies, when no one has ever seen him as worth anything.
Why is the war all over Russia and why are the Russians not against it? It’s about the need for security, Maslov’s hierarchy of needs: when the options are a comfortable, familiar lie or an uncomfortable truth, the vast majority of us choose the first. This is the case both in our Western democracies and in dark dictatorships like Russia. So there is no need for a horrible Orwellian police state that threatens to shoot you for a thought crime. Spreading and penetrating from all sides, monophonic and realistic communication that offers a believably easy, safe and pleasant alternative to the uncomfortable reality is enough. Does it sound familiar? Or what would you do if someone accused your country, the sports team you support, your family or a group of friends, that is, something you feel proud of or love, of atrocities and crimes. Someone you don’t trust. Would you believe him or a more familiar, safer feeling and easier to accept a nice story? What about when your loved one is brought back from war in a body bag? Will opposition to the war rise? Not if the alternatives are to accept that one’s own son was a rapist and killer and died on a bandit expedition, or that the son suffered a hero’s death in Mother Russia’s fight for the whole world against the Nazis. While people, who have been taught by generations of fear not to disagree and stand out, lie to themselves and demand revenge, the concept of right and wrong, good and evil disappears. Good means nothing more than loyalty and belonging to a group. Dissent is evil, betrayal of the group and wrong.
In the end, the real evil in the world – even in Russia – is not caused by bad people alone, but by those good people who look away, do not want to believe and thus do not stand up against evil. In Russia, it is caused by the comfort-seeking, fearful, security-seeking, change-averse, passive, apathetic majority. Their war is fought in Ukraine. As behaviour, how much – or how little – does it ultimately differ from the rest of the humanity? From you and me, us and favorable circumstances. The differences may be small, but it is essential to know and recognize them. In that, Russia made a big mistake at the beginning of 2022. While thinking too highly of themselves and underestimating both the West and Ukraine in particular. McGlynn’s book helps us not to make the same mistake.