Russia’s “Corpse Ideology” and Its Genocide in Ukraine

Russian soldiers’ gang rapes of women and little children in Ukrainian towns and villages shook the world with its barbarism and brutality. These are crimes that accompanied Putin’s long-held aim of ridding Ukraine of Ukrainians under the cover of a “denazification operation”. The Russians themselves, from Maksim Gorky to Viktor Yerofeev, suggested that over their history of violence and brutal and senseless conquest Russian people have forgotten how to love. They have been murdered spiritually and morally from birth by their authoritarian leaders.

A few of my colleagues chastised me for writing a pessimistic and gloomy afterword for a collection of essays on the Euromaidan and Russia’s war in Ukraine’s Donbas which I published with ibidem-Verlag in 2016. Back then, more than two years after the Revolution of Dignity, many aspects of Russia’s politics and intentions in Ukraine and Europe appeared to me quite transparent. Putin’s obsession with solving “the Ukrainian question” once and for all resembled Stalin’s “Polish complex” and Hitler’s antisemitic paranoia. This obsession most recently manifested itself in Medieval violence and ethnic cleansing in Ukraine perpetrated by armed Russian soldiers against unarmed Ukrainian civilians. Today we have a clear view of what the Russians are capable of and what may lie ahead for Ukraine.

Russian soldiers’ gang rapes of women and little children in Ukrainian towns and villages, and their systematic protracted torture of civilians before they are killed shook the world with its barbarism and brutality.

These are crimes that accompanied Putin’s long-held aim of ridding Ukraine of Ukrainians under the cover of a “denazification operation.” Norman Naimark was correct when he suggested that ethnic cleansing is inherently misogynistic, and today’s realities in Ukraine and the unmatched violence against women, the “biological core” of the nation, create mental images of national humiliation and suffering that one simultaneously refuses to imagine and cannot forget.     

How is it possible and how did the Russians descend to this barbarism? One of many explanations was offered by the brilliant Ukrainian writer Yevhen Hutsalo almost two decades ago. His thoughts resonated with my understanding of Russian history, culture, and the ‘mysterious’ Russian soul. Having been murdered spiritually and morally from birth by their authoritarian leaders, Russians have adopted a “corpse ideology,” worshiping despots and venerating dictators and tyrants, dead and alive, a notion coined by Hutsalo in his enlightening and prophetic book The Mentality of the Horde (Mentalnist ordy). The Russians themselves, from Maksim Gorky to Viktor Yerofeev, those who managed to develop analytical skills after centuries of despotism and authoritarian regimentation, suggested that over their history of violence and brutal and senseless conquest Russian people have forgotten how to love, spending their entire lives in a correctional facility called the Russian Empire, where people’s free spirit and morality have been systematically threatened, suppressed and punished. The late Soviet dissident and Russian opposition leader Valeriia Novodvroskaia echoed Hutsalo’s notion of “corpse ideology,” suggesting that, in contrast to Russia, Ukraine’s ancient Cucuteni-Trypillian traditions grounded in agrarianism, cultural production, and creativity seemed to serve as a shield that helped Ukrainians nurture a mentality that drastically differed from that of the Russians. 

Centuries of nomadic violence and bloodletting shaped the “corpse ideology” that saturated contemporary Russian society, constantly adjusting the meaning of morality to its current needs and circumstances. “We are the Scythians” who sowed death and fear, “a people that got to cherish rampage and war,” Valerii Briusov wrote. This trait, cultivated under the Golden Horde that ruled over Russia, Ukraine, Kazakhstan, Moldova and the Caucasus for nearly three hundred years, has survived in Russia, having been nourished by violent invasions and plunder of foreign lands. Aleksandr Gertsen seemed to grasp and internalize the Russian mentality absorbed from the Mongol Horde: “Despite our appearance, we are nevertheless barbarians. Our civilization is superficial, corruption is crude, and, under the layers of powder and whitewash, whiskers and suntan are seen. We have a great deal of cunningness and the adaptability of slaves,” where morality is circumstantial at best. Hutsalo drew parallels between the Russians’ desire to perpetuate Lenin’s principles by mummifying Lenin’s body, and eternalizing themselves by erecting and maintaining the mausoleum of their own illusions and myths. Following Putin’s, Dugin’s and the late Zhirinovskii’s truncated interpretations of history, they dreamed of re-creating a “historic Russia,” and some of their followers still worship Lenin’s corpse which continues to be exposed in the mausoleum on Red Square. They perpetuate Soviet legacies, memories, and dreams, reviving dead Soviet symbols and artifacts and modernizing them in the form of the letter “Z”, which is aesthetically and visually consistent with the Fascist swastika and concomitant with the Russian word “Zlo” (evil). The aforementioned thinkers associated the Russian empire with Asian despotism and identified the Russian people as a nation that is deprived of aspirations for building a Western-like democratic state. 

The “corpse ideology” is persistently perpetuated by the Russian political and intellectual elites, appealing to the darkest facets of Russian people’s consciousness and revealing its ugly brutality in Bucha and Hostomel. Although Russian society could choose from a variety of options offered by this ideology, they have chosen claustrophobic mausoleums, designed to protect “historic Russia” from outsiders. These mausoleums have been erected at all levels in the form of ‘Novorosiia’ and the ‘Russian Izborskii Club,’ and their aesthetic appeal has grown substantially in Russia over the last ten years.

The snipers’ operation in Kyiv during the Revolution of Dignity in 2014 and the genocidal practices in the Donbas, operations that were masterminded by the Russian Federation and that killed, wounded, and displaced millions of Ukraine’s civilians, were certainly a prelude. Indeed, Ukraine has become an illness for Putin, and undoubtedly a lethal one. It is lethal, however, not only for the Russian leader. Putin’s morbid desire for the extermination of Ukraine as an independent state and of Ukrainian citizens, regardless of their ethnic background, is shared by the majority of Russians today. This was the case, for example, in 2014, when they overwhelmingly supported the annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea. Putin’s Eurasianist slogans have been popular among the majority of Russian citizens, including the Russian intellectual elites.

In 2014, individuals, such as Dugin, called for the killing of Ukrainians, every single citizen without exceptions, a plan that is implemented today in Ukraine by thousands of Russian pupils of the “corpse ideology,” the descendants of the Horde.

This genocidal rhetoric and lexicon has been embraced by mass Russian publics, and they persist today. For this reason alone, this is a Russian war in Ukraine rather than simply Putin’s war, characterized by the Russians’ constant imperial ‘itch’ for conquest, violence, and the redistribution of land and property (Yerofeev’s metaphor).    

As elsewhere, I argue that Russian genocides in Ukraine have never ceased, acquiring especially sinister contours in the twentieth century, with its ethnic cleansing operations, encirclement tactics and famines, as well as the routine extermination of Ukrainian culture and language by targeting their repositories—people and cultural institutions. The Holodomor driven by Stalin’s revenge and hatred toward the Ukrainians is merely an episode in this chain of Russian genocides that seem to culminate today, with their mass killings, mobile crematoriums, and “filtration camps” that are designed to eradicate even the memory of the Ukrainian citizens’ presence in Ukraine. In their drive to “de-nazify” Ukraine, Russian soldiers are eager to “de-nazify” all of Europe, which in the nearest future might experience re-nazification and Russification just by the Russians’ mere presence there, imposed and illegitimate, Putin’s imperialist Fascism and expansion at work and in practice.   

Alexander J. Motyl has explained in detail Putin’s brand of imperialist Fascism, and it seems quite natural and symptomatic for the Russian Fascist regime, nurtured by its dictator, to erect a new cult—the cult of Putin, who has been a moral and political corpse for quite some time and is likely doomed to a disgraceful physical death. Equally symptomatic, the Russians’ “corpse ideology” and violence provoked unprecedented heroism in Ukraine. Its alleged ideological and political divides evaporated in one day, on 24 February 2022, the day of Russia’s unprovoked aggression, similar to the Americans’ mass support for isolationism that instantly vanished after Pearl Harbor, when they supported American political leaders’ call to unite for the war effort. The United States, as well as Great Britain, realized that the legalistic and moralistic approach to foreign policy that they adopted after WWI was inconsistent with the realities of power politics, violence, and genocidal practices observed during the interwar period. They also realized that the Fascist ideology and practices required a unified and immediate intervention. This realization and the unity of the West is needed today, as it was observed at the time of Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait that challenged the post-WWII order.

It was in the interest of the United States and other great powers to reverse Saddam’s aggression, as today it is in the interest of the civilized world to stop Putin.

He is waging a war against the West, and Ukraine is punished and brutalized for siding with the West and its values. The Ukrainian historian Viacheslav Lypynskyi identified Ukraine’s geographical location as ‘unfortunate,’ an eternal space of conflicts and wars, wanted by many and conquered by a few. It appears that the routine loss and return of its territories empower the Ukrainians’ intellectual and spiritual will for sovereignty and independence. Expecting the Crimean invasion scenario where no resistance was met, Putin was confronted by fierce fighting organized by the new Ukrainian government with assistance from Ukraine’s neighboring states. Thousands of Ukrainian military and civilians have been killed since 24 February. Millions of Ukraine’s citizens have been displaced, stripped of their homes, possessions and jobs. Many have moved away from the war zone, and have been scattered all over the world. Yet the cultural change in values, memory, traditions, morality, and justice that occurred in Ukraine is essentially fundamental. The current Russian war has further solidified the core and ensured the continuity of the Ukrainian nation. Cultural unity in the face of aggression shall prove to be a much more lasting and stable phenomenon than unity based on the “corpse ideology” and violence. The spirit of heroism, liberation, and sacrifice is sensed in everything that the Ukrainians are doing or saying today. It has become the mode of everyday human behavior, a cultural foundation of the Ukrainians’ new ethnopsychology, necessitated by war. Ukraine’s social and cultural mobilization significantly differs from that in Russia. The regimentation and massive terror of Putin’s imperial Fascist state generate the lack of commitment to the war effort exhibited by many of the Russian soldiers. Their goal in this war is quite pragmatic and far from the ‘lofty’ and false ideals of ‘denazification’: consumerism bred by poverty; anti-intellectualism; barbarity and a thrill derived from sadistic sexual pleasures; individual survival, the popular feelings of Russian invaders that make the Russian regime extremely brittle.   

Thus far, the international community has failed to prevent, impede or stop the Russian war against Ukraine.

Ethnic cleansing continues in Ukraine’s territories occupied by the Russians. New mass graves with hundreds, perhaps thousands, of bodies of civilians have been discovered at these sites. Most recently, the Russians issued a threat that everyone without a white armband seen in the streets of Mariupol will be killed, an appalling allusion to Nazi practices in Jewish ghettos throughout Nazi-occupied Europe where the Jews had to wear the yellow Star of David or, like in the Warsaw ghetto–a white armband with a blue Star of David on their left arm, as a means of identification and ethnic humiliation. These associations should alert the Western powers, who might be advised to reconceptualize their approach, to the notion of mutual deterrence. The concept of mutual deterrence where Russia is a likely user of weapons of mass destruction is invalid, and cannot prevent open war if only one super-empowered angry and irrational individual is threatening to use it, and the entire world is praying in trepidation for him to reconsider in the hope that common sense will prevail and will positively affect deadly human violence, the ultimate outcome of “corpse ideology.” 

Olga Bertelsen

is Associate Professor of Global Security and Intelligence at Tiffin University’s School of Criminal Justice and Social Sciences (Homeland Security & Terrorism Program). Educated at the Medical State University (Ukraine), Bloomsburg University of Pennsylvania (United States), Penn State University (United States), and the University of Nottingham (United Kingdom), she has published widely on Soviet/Russian operations of ideological subversion, political violence in the USSR, and the methods and traditions of the Soviet/Russian secret police. She is the author of The House of Writers in Ukraine, the 1930s: Conceived, Lived, Perceived (2013), and the editor of three anthologies of archival KGB documents (2011; 2016), and two collections of scholarly essays entitled Revolution and War in Contemporary Ukraine (2017) and Russian Active Measures (2021). Her new book In the Labyrinth of the KGB (Lexington Books, 2022) focuses on KGB covert operations targeting Ukraine’s intelligentsia and the Ukrainian and Jewish diasporas.

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