10 March 2022
Zombie Nation No More?
Russia’s home front.
By Neil Tidmarsh
An article in The Times last Saturday announced a new food movement – ‘invasivorism’ – eating invasive plants and animals. A conservation biologist in the USA has set up a new resource called ‘Eat the Invaders’; a teacher and cookbook author in Cornwall has tapped into the ‘edible potential of many invasive species’ by experimenting with recipes for Japanese knotweed, wireweed, wakame, muntjac deer etc; a chef in Edinburgh serves up grey squirrel in his restaurant.
Taking a lead from this new movement, and in the spirit of Jonathan Swift’s A Modest Proposal, perhaps Russian soldiers invading Ukraine could be –
No, no, no, no, no. Only joking. Of course no one would want to eat Russian soldiers. They’re too tainted with the nauseatingly bitter smoke of deliberately targeted hospitals, the revoltingly acrid ashes of deliberately targeted schools and mosques and market-places, the innocent blood of thousands upon thousands of deliberately targeted civilians, in Chechnya and Syria and Ukraine. Disgusting.
It has to be admitted that the West has been feasting on Russians for the last two centuries – Pushkin, Turgenev, Dostoyevsky, Chekhov, Tolstoy, Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninov – and very nourishing they have been too, and very grateful we’ve been to Mother Russia for her largesse. But such completely benign consumption doesn’t compare with the utterly malign consumption of Russians by their own country: Pushkin sent into internal exile by the Tsar; Turgenev sent into external exile by the Tsar; Dostoyevsky sentenced to death and imprisoned in a Siberian gulag; Tchaikovsky sentenced to death by a clandestine court of homophobes; Rachmaninov driven into exile by the Communist revolution, etc, etc, etc. This historic Russian tradition continued throughout the twentieth century, with Russia consuming her own people by the million in gulags, purges and the disastrous failures of insane economic plans.
It continues with the current regime. The fact is that today’s Russian soldiers are indeed being eaten; they’re being eaten by Putin’s regime, which first brainwashes them with lies (‘not an invasion but a liberation; not a conquest but a de-militarisation; not a violent, aggressive and unprovoked attack but a peace-keeping mission’) and then sends them off, poorly supplied and badly supported, to die in the snow and mud of Ukraine.
There was more ‘self-projection’ from the Russian president this week, when he accused the Ukrainians of being brainwashed and their leaders of being gangsters; there must be at least a tiny shred of conscience left somewhere in the depths of his mind, insistently whispering “You’re acting like a gangster. You’re brainwashing your own people” which his conscious ego tries to drown out by shouting “No! I’m not a gangster! They’re the gangsters! They are! Not me! And it’s not the Russians who are being brainwashed! It’s the Ukrainians! It’s them! They’re the ones being brainwashed!”
And very successful at brainwashing his own people he has been, too. The regime’s control of the media, and the lies and fake news and propaganda which it relentlessly pumps out, and its ruthless suppression of independent voices and the truth, have produced a nation of zombies. The BBC and The Times have reported numerous instances where Ukrainians have telephoned friends and relatives in Russia with news about the war they’re experiencing at first hand only to be told by those Russian friends and relatives that there is no war, that the war is a lie. Some zombies are even starting to display the ‘Z’ symbol to show support for the attack on Ukraine, thereby revealing themselves as blood-thirsty war-mongers or poor deluded fools (either way, ‘Z’ clearly stands for zombie). Such is the extent of the indoctrination and denial.
A very small but very brave minority has resisted zombification, of course, but they’ve been ruthlessly dealt with: murdered (e.g. Boris Nemtsov) or imprisoned (e.g. Alexei Navalny) or driven into exile (e.g. Alexei Navalny’s spokesperson Kira Yarmysh, opposition politician Vladimir Kara-Murza, independent journalist Irina Borogan, etc, etc, etc).
With the current crisis, the regime has stepped up its suppression of the truth (the very word ‘war’ has been banned) and its dissemination of lies (‘The Ukrainians are bombing their own cities! The Ukrainians are shooting their own civilians!’). Anyone spreading ‘false information’ (ie the truth) about ‘the special operation’ (ie the war) will be punished with up to 15 years in prison under a new law, which also makes it a crime to call for anti-war protests.
In spite of these extreme measures, it’s nevertheless difficult not to feel that the regime – at home as in Ukraine – is now fighting a losing battle. Or perhaps because of these extreme methods; they look like a sign of desperation. (The escalation of the Russian army’s bombing of civilian areas appears to be a similar sign of desperation.) It does look like a de-zombification process is at last underway.
Alexei Navalny’s brave rallying call from his Siberian prison hasn’t fallen on completely deaf ears. “Let’s not at least become a nation of frightened and silent people, of cowards who pretend not to notice the aggressive war against Ukraine unleashed by our obviously insane czar” he urged. “I call on everyone to take to the streets and fight for peace”. Hundreds of thousands of people in more than fifty cities across the country have answered his call and staged daily protests against Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. They’ve been arrested in their tens of thousands, but the rallies and protests continue.
Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation claims that there have been “rapid shifts in the evaluation of the war” among Russian people in recent days. It says that across four recent online polls “the share of respondents who viewed Russia as the aggressor doubled, while the share of those considering Russia a ‘peace-maker’ halved”. Other polls show that the majority of Russians still support the Kremlin and believe its narrative – but they tend to be older sections of the population, dependent on the traditional (and hence state controlled) media, and not the tech-savvy young who have access to alternative, online sources of information via virtual private networks, encrypted social media apps or browsers which access clandestine sites. Information technology does offer a vaccination of sorts against zombification.
The sons and daughters of a number of Russian oligarchs and celebrities have spoken out against the war (their privileged exposure to the West has also vaccinated them against zombification to some degree). And their parents can’t be happy now that their wealth and the luxuries of their globe-trotting, jet-setting life-styles are melting faster than snow on a globally-warmed ski-slope.
Other members of the elite whose privileges allow then to see more and further are not fooled by or supportive of the “special operation”. It’s rumoured that intelligence and security officers in the FSB (heirs to the KGB) are against the war; the agency was apparently kept in the dark about Putin’s plans, and they have the expertise to know that the whole reckless enterprise is unlikely to succeed. Senator Lyudmila Narusova has given voice to what must be a growing uneasiness among politicians, who were also apparently kept in the dark by Putin. “I do not identify myself with those representatives of the state who speak out in favour of the war” she said, quoted in The Times this week. “They are following orders without thinking.” As Russian soldiers are brutally disillusioned by the undeniable truth of their own experiences, there are rumours of mutinies among troops in Ukraine and among marines in the navy in the Black Sea. There are even rumours of anxiety and discontent among the military top-brass, who fear that they will be punished as scapegoats if the president’s disastrous miscalculation results in total and humiliating defeat.
This de-zombification process can only gather pace as sanctions bite (thousands of Russians have already fled across the border to Finland and other neighbouring countries) and the bodies of dead soldiers return home. The bitterness of grief and the harsh practicalities of a collapsing economy, of food and fuel shortages, will make the truth – that Putin has started a war of unprovoked aggression – difficult to avoid, and illusion and denial difficult to maintain. Reality will become even more unavoidable if Russia continues to lose the war and evidence of Russian war crimes continues to mount up.
The truth will set you free, as Saint John promised. But it looks like nothing short of a tragedy (perhaps a typically Russian tragedy) – the ruin of Russia by its calamitously miscalculating president – will make the truth prevail in that country and set its people free.