“We Can Repeat It” – Putin’s Evil Harkens to Stalinist Past

June 8, 2023
An essay on history that drives Russia's atrocious acts of aggression.
Photo credit: Visegrad Insight
  • Volodymyr Yermolenko, Ukrainian philosopher, Editor-in-chief of UkraineWorld, for Visegrad Insight.

A long history of mass violence against innocents drives Russia’s ruthless conduct in Ukraine, which now includes causing an environmental disaster affecting thousands of people.

After the missile hit, people heard Halyna’s voice for five more days. Her arm was pinned by a stone which fell upon her after the whole house collapsed.

Those who survived, and some neighbours, were trying to bring her some food and water. They could not get her out. The city was in full war, bombarded every minute, and the rescue services were no longer working. She lived for five days; then, she went silent.

Hearing their voices

The strike happened on 9 March 2022. The Russian army was trying to take Izyum, a town in eastern Ukraine, a strategic place on the road between Kharkiv and Slovyansk. On 9 March, in the morning, the Russians dropped enormous bombs on two 5-story residential buildings, one by one. The buildings were full of people, and most of them were hiding in the basements. These houses were made of brick, but the basement was made of concrete and was supposed to save those who were hiding from bombs. It didn't. In one of those buildings, 52 people were killed. Dozens more in another, its twin across the road.

Mykhaylo, a man in his 60s, who agreed to talk to us, lost seven members of his family within seconds.

Three of his grandchildren, his daughter and her husband, his wife and her aunt. He is telling us Halyna's story too. I don't know how he survived after all that. I don't know why he decided not to go mad.

For the whole month after the strike, Mykhaylo was living next to this building, like a pet, protecting it from looting. Only on 1 April, three weeks after the strike, the excavation work started. The fighting was over; the Russians had taken Izyum -- they would control it until September 2022, when the Ukrainian counter-offensive took it back. Mykhaylo got the bodies of his relatives only by mid-April, over one month after they were killed.

You lose your beloved ones in seconds, seven of them. You get their bodies 40 days after. You bury them in a cemetery. You come back and talk to them, every day. You listen to their silence. You recall their way of talking and moving. You recall your granddaughter's hair, how soft it was. You don't die.

Most of these people have lost their lives on the spot. Some of them, like Halyna, were still alive, and their voices were heard. Voices were the last testimony that they were alive.

In both of these Izyum buildings, the central parts collapsed. The other two wings still stand, destroyed from the inside. We get up on the 5th floor of one of the wings and pause in front of a piano that stays still over the abyss. A macabre symbol of a life whose voices were cut off.

We have seen similar buildings in Borodyanka, a town near Kyiv. There, it was also an air strike. Half of the building collapsed as well.

We have seen missile strikes directly target residential buildings too. A building in Dnipro, next to the river; a building in Zaporizzhia, on Soborny Avenue; a kindergarten in Slovyansk, a school in Kostiantynivka. We have been to them all. We have listened to their silence.

All this destruction goes far beyond the questions of military tactics. There should be something in your head which forces you to think whether dropping a bomb on a residential building, in which people are hiding in the basement, is a necessary thing to do. There should be something that tells you that directing an unprecise S-300 missile, which can deviate from the target by hundreds of metres, towards a residential building with peaceful people inside isn't a necessary thing to do.

This is not a question of military strategy or geopolitics. This is a question of morality, a question of evil.

Vilifying the victims

I am writing this essay on the day when the Russian army blew up the Kakhovka dam, causing a major environmental disaster for decades to come. We still lack words to describe how big its consequences will be. Destruction of an ecosystem on a big territory, for sure. Putinism is about biophobia.

This war has been made possible because here, in this geography, in Russia-dominated Eastern Europe, the question of evil has been forgotten. The question of moral rules has been forgotten. It has been replaced with a question of political necessity or religious/ideological fanaticism. Both of which invite you to break the rules and test your power.

In 2022, when Russians entered Izyum or Bucha, they killed hundreds of people in each town. In 1918, when Russian Bolsheviks led by Mikhail Muravyov entered Kyiv, they killed several thousands of people, with Muravyov happy about being "merciless".

When Russians are saying that they "can repeat it", referring to World War II victory, they also mean they can repeat the utmost violence.

Putin is not just a security service technocrat. He is the heir of ChK, NKVD and KGB, monstrous machines of killing that executed people without trial or any idea of justice. At some moments in 1937, Stalin's executioners were killing up to 500 people per day on one military range, drunk with vodka to repress any human feelings.

When Khrushchev denounced the "cult of personality" of Stalin in 1956, he did not mean to condemn the very idea of repression and crimes. He only said these repressions went too far. They targeted their "own" people, people committed to the party, faithful Bolsheviks. Muravyov's "merciless" attitude to Kyiv was not a product of his psychological inclinations, it was the outcome of the Bolshevik attitude to violence. Read Lenin's letters and instructions from that time, and note how many times he orders merciless executions.

"Rasstreliat", "shoot them all", is one of the recurring topics of his texts in 1917-1918.

Putin is the heir of these people. He is the heir of those who put the justice pyramid upside down, of those who made victims and perpetrators change their places. Victims were turned into perpetrators, and perpetrators into victims. The killing was turned into justice, and killers into judges.

When Russia was preparing for the new war against Ukraine, it was repeating this inversion. Its propaganda repeated that Ukrainians are genociders -- and, therefore, they deserve genocide. They were persuading its citizens that Ukrainians are fascists and, therefore, they deserve a fascist approach. Turn the victim into a killer, and then you will remove the moral obstacles to kill the victim.

Nazism is an absolute evil -- but Bolshevism and Stalinism are absolute evils too.

A failure to admit it -- a failure that was reigning in the European intellectual discourse for long decades -- is one of the conditions that made the current war possible.

Contrary to Bolshevism, Nazi crimes were condemned and judged. While the Bolshevism crimes, the Bolshevism way of thinking continues to rule. Putinism is a Bolshevism that enjoyed impunity. It is an evil that feeds on impunity, that wants to repeat itself, and that enjoys this repetition.

The repetitive evil will come back unless it is properly challenged and pushed back. It came back to Ukraine -- as earlier to Syria, Chechnya, Bosnia, Georgia; repeating a pattern from Stalinist repressions; Holodomor; the deportation of Crimean Tatars; Muravyov atrocities, other crimes.

If we don't stop them, they will come back again. As they say, "We will repeat it".

Published as part of our Future of Ukraine Fellowship programme. Learn more about it here and consider contributing.