Journalist and novelist Aleksandr Nezhny is the author of 24 novels and a multitude of essays. A staunch critic of Putin, the 82-year- old his latest novel, The Dark Century, deals with Russia’s alt-right and has been praised for its foresight in exposing the Putin regime’s slow descent into a Nazi-like dictatorship. A part-time Berliner since 2019, he now risks up to 15 years imprisonment for his recent anti-war essays should he return to Russia.
It seems to me that we do not yet entirely comprehend the price Russia will have to pay for its invasion of Ukraine, for the war which has already claimed thousands of lives. Even if a peace deal is struck in the near or not so distant future, even if Russia admits its defeat and pays Ukraine in full for the destruction of its cities and villages, the incineration of its homes, the mangling of its roads and the scorching of its fields; even then Russia will not have completely atoned for its sins.
For how can one fathom the cost paid by a weeping mother over her murdered son, a Pietà of inconsolable grief? Who is capable of putting a price on the tears shed by those fleeing their family homes? Who and with what cruel scales would dare determine the value of the life of a child?
A recent video showing how, after an explosion, a young girl is quickly loaded onto a stretcher once a makeshift ‘ambulance’ arrives, how in the operating room a doctor struggles to revive her fading heartbeat, can only begin to convey the horror of our time. Struck down by a Russian rocket, that daughter of Ukraine did not survive.
We are all guilty. First and foremost, for the fact that we were unable to recognise in an unremarkable man his immanent evil beginnings.
But who is to blame? Why in the 21st century must we be forced to recall the dark days of 1941? Whose evil has visited upon the lands of Ukraine a desolation comparable to that once brought by Fascist invasion? The answer is that we are all to blame.
We are all guilty. First and foremost, for the fact that we were unable to recognise in an unremarkable man his immanent evil beginnings. We were unable to comprehend that when people of such disposition are handed power, it fills their souls with a dark sediment comprising the residual complexes of a thuggish youth, the ascendancy of one’s peers, humiliating epithets, an unexceptional career, a tenacious, begrudging memory and a vindictive nature – put another way, the complete set of qualities necessary to turn a mediocre lieutenant colonel, bit by bit, into Russia’s dictator. From the head of Little Zaches*, the poet-student Balthazar plucked three fiery hairs, and in so doing, stripped the diminutive abomination of all his power. But we were unable to reveal to the Russian people the total sordidness of our own, home-grown Cinnabar, who even now remains in the eyes of so many the Great Leader, shepherding Russia from victory to victory.
The hangover will be all the more agonising. But why did our dwarf Cinnabar start this war? What was it about Ukraine that displeased him so? What is he trying to prove to the rest of the world, united now in unreserved condemnation of Russia, the latter transformed by his ‘benevolence’ into an aggressor state? Only a paranoiac convinced that he is the only one who correctly understands history could possibly justify military invasion with the ‘conditionality’ of Ukrainian statehood.
Whether Lenin gave Ukraine its autonomy, or the Ukrainian Rada proclaimed its own independence in 1918, does that in any way change the current existence of Ukraine as an independent, sovereign and democratic state? And does such a primitive interpretation of the past give Russia the right to bomb its once Brother Nation, to flatten its land with tanks and launch rockets at its capital, risking damage to the Saint Sophia Cathedral, the heart of Russian Orthodoxy?
This depraved view of history is the first link in a chain, the others fastened together by lies, distortions, demagogy in the form of a NATO bogeyman and myths of denazification.
“Ukrainian Nazism” is nothing other than the loathsome contrivance of our Cinnabar. In the last Ukrainian presidential elections 73.2 percent of the electorate, some 13.5 million Ukrainian citizens, voted for Volodymyr Zelenskyy, himself a Jewish man. How is this “Nazism”? What “denazification” are we talking about?
Today we see the primary component of Nazism – racial superiority – in Europe, the US and in Asia. In Russia itself, adherents of this worldview are, in fact, more numerous than those in Ukraine, if population size is taken into account. Without delving deeper into a difficult and painful subject, particularly for the countries that defeated Nazi Germany, I will say that cries to “denazify” Ukraine are nothing more than a despicable propagandistic device meant to excite the hatred of Ukrainians. For our Cinnabar, it means justification. For the people fed this poison from morning to night, it means troubled dreams and a torturous awakening to come.
Conscious apologists of the war and people afflicted with herd mentality cry out about the eight years that Donbas has suffered. Much falsehood is audible in these voices. If the Ukrainian authorities were really guilty of something vis-à-vis the Russian and Russian-speaking peoples of Donbas, do you not think they would have eventually come to some sort of agreement without Russian military intervention? And the narrative of “Republics” demanding independence, does it not remind you
of how, not so long ago, Chechnya too made its own claims on sovereignty?
It was only through two horrendously vicious wars spanning an entire decade that Russia was able to keep its hold on that region. And yet the right to defend one’s territorial integrity is not extended to Ukraine? Cries about Donbas are simply another excuse used to stir hatred against Ukraine, and another attempt at proving the justness of military invasion.
Today, wars are fought not only with weapons. Indeed, propaganda almost always achieves results superior to those inflicted by artillery salvo. And here Russia, with its television channels, radio stations and the overwhelming majority of its newspapers, has proven itself a diligent student of the Soviet Pravda and Goebbels’ Völkischer Beobachter. But in order to erect a new Iron Curtain, it has gone still further, stuffing a gag in the mouth of Echo of Moscow, banning Dozhd TV, and driving out the BBC and Radio Liberty. Hail the Censorship Bureau! Farewell, freedom of speech.
Experienced hands can kindle the fires of hatred with little effort; it is much more difficult to foster compromise and foment peace. Not long ago I saw a children’s choir perform. Under the direction of a State Duma Deputy, boys and girls in military-style uniforms sang the following: “If the commander-in-chief calls us for the last battle, Uncle Vova [Putin], we are with you! […] Our faithful friends are the Navy and the Army.” I have not heard or seen a more disgusting display. To what baseness must one descend to corrupt children in such a way? For it was clear that they sincerely believed in the words they were singing; believed them with all their tainted little hearts. Indeed.
For his novel The Man Who Laughs, Victor Hugo created the Comprachicos – a caste of criminals who abduct small children and put them into oddly shaped vessels. The children in these vessels grow into deformed human aberrations and are sold for the entertainment of the masses. The children from the choir performance I witnessed were undoubtedly “grown” by such Comprachicos, but there lies something a hundred times worse. It now seems that all of Russia is in the hands of those that would defile its soul and see it mutilated, displayed as a freak for the world to mock and ridicule.
Translated from Russian, Изуродованная Россия.
* In E.T.A. Hoffmann’s 1819 satiric fairytale novel Little Zaches Called Cinnabar, the villainous dwarf Little Zaches deceives the local populace and Prince, quickly rising to the rank of Minister. The protagonist poet-student Balthazar reveals the true nature of Little Zaches by plucking three hairs from his head, stripping him of his power. In 2000, an episode of the television show Puppets on Russia’s NTV cast Vladimir Putin as Little Zaches, provoking outrage from his supporters. Puppets was cancelled in 2003.