2 years of “this sadistic violence of destruction”

24 02 2024

On the two-year anniversary of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, what more can be said except that the invasion needs to end. For that, Ukraine needs more support. Negotiation cannot happen with someone who wants to eliminate you.

There are many excellent films that have been made to document the Russian war on Ukraine. Among the better post-invasion documentaries are Vitaliy Manskiy and Yevhen Titarenko’s Eastern Front, Oksana Karpovych’s Intercepted, Albina Kovalyova’s Occupied, Simon Lereng Wilmont’s A House Made of Splinters, and the ones described here.

Perhaps the most riveting is Mstyslav Chernov‘s Academy Award nominated 20 Days in Mariupol, currently showing online at the PBS Frontline web site. The line quoted above is taken from the film. In perhaps the film’s climatic scene, Chernov, who wrote, narrated, directed, and produced the film, says, “If someday my daughters ask me ‘What did you do to stop this madness, this sadistic virus of destruction?‘ I want to be able to give them an answer.”

He’s able to give an answer because, against all odds, he survived to tell the tale, staying behind with a small Associated Press crew when all other international film crews had left Mariupol, and successfully getting out of the surrounded city on day 20. The city capitulated on day 86, but 20 days is sufficient for gauging the full horror of the experience for those who stayed behind. (The fall of Azovstal is another story, yet to be told in a suitable feature-length documentary. The same can be said of the bombing of the Mariupol Theatre, though Forensic Architecture’s and the Center for Spatial Technologies’ work on documenting the event has been incredibly valuable.)

The truth is that Chernov could easily have been killed, as other photographers, journalists, and filmmakers have been in the course of documenting this and other wars. Despite his previous experience as a war correspondent, the odds at the time of the filming were better that he wouldn’t have made it out alive, and that his daughters would have asked him, “Why did you leave us? What heroic urge were you pursuing against any odds of surviving the effort?” It’s our collective gain (and not just his daughters’) that Chernov survived to tell this tale.

What all these documentaries have in common is that they activate feelings of empathy and compassion for those who suffer in this war. In some cases they activate anger at those responsible for the suffering. They activate a sense of justice, according to which humans might get angry, might get into conflicts, but would never unleash mass murder on this scale — because it goes against the possibility of building a common world together.

War cheapens human life. It renders us into meat. War for sheer territorial gain cheapens it all the more.

The Putin government is counting on our society — the one that values human life and strives to follow norms that enable coexistence — not outlasting his society: the one in which a single group of people, an ethno-civilizational collectivity (in his twisted imagination) following a top-heavy, imperial script, gets to define what is right and what is wrong, and what story will be told to future generations.

Just as Hitler envisioned a future in which he would be messiah and the Nordic race would rule over humanity’s lesser classes, Putin has envisioned a story of the Russian race (or civilization, in his telling) in a similar position — not ruling over all humanity perhaps, just over its own domain, its “Russkii mir,” yet leading the entire world toward something known only to Putin himself.

Both are abominations — hysterical visions of worlds cleansed of otherness, purified and ordered so that only a certain image of humanity can endure and all others be ground into dust.

Modernity, Enlightenment humanism, cosmopolitan liberalism, or whatever it is that has spread over the planet in the last few centuries, has a very mixed track record of accomplishments. Some of them — colonialism, imperialism, extractive capitalism — have left behind deep scars on the earth and its people. Others — humanism and liberal democracy, for all their flaws — follow the best inclinations of our nature insofar as they see humans as alike and as equally worthy of life and of dignity. (We can continue debating the details, for instance, the virtues of liberalism as opposed to socialism, communitarianism, libertarianism, and so on, without disagreeing on these basic grounding principles.)

Putin’s war negates human dignity. It crushes difference, even — and perhaps all the more — the difference that is closest to one’s own perception of self. The “Russian soul,” so lauded by Russian poets and Russophilic western dreamers, is a dead one in Putin’s grip.

Two years of this full-scale war (and ten years of the war itself) is two years (and ten years) too many.



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