Hannah Arendt’s concept of the totalitarian “banality of evil,” a phrase coined in her reporting of the 1961 Adolf Eichmann trial for The New Yorker, which evolved into Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil (1963), is quite popular in Russia these days. She wondered whether evil is radical or simply a function of thoughtlessness, a tendency of ordinary people to obey orders and conform to mass opinion without a critical evaluation of the consequences of their actions.
In fact, Arendt’s classic work, The Origins of Totalitarianism, cannot be regarded as unquestionable, and Israel was sharply critical of her Eichmann trial reporting, in the first place because of her disdainful attitude toward the Holocaust victims who, allegedly, offered no resistance to the occupier. Another important point is that, in assessing Eichmann, she echoed his defense’s line about his being a cog in the machine, that he had to carry out orders. In actuality, the range of his duties implied a high degree of independence and initiative.
Eichmann’s personal records and numerous testimonies by people who knew him are ample evidence that he was inspired by what he believed was his extremely important mission aimed at eradicating universal evil.
Totalitarianism is a metaphor rather than concept. This is understandable. A number of modern sociologists believe that social knowledge is currently metaphorical. At a closer look, fundamental studies on totalitarianism cannot be referred to any scholarly discourse, with some of them being simple belles-lettres in which the author offers his/her notion and assessment of this system that also tend to vary.
Andrei Platonov. Did he condemn Soviet totalitarianism? Most likely he did not, even though he couldn’t have his major works published in his lifetime. He did not understand the nature of fascism, as evidenced by his short story “Garbage Wind,” a projection of Soviet reality in Germany. Another one entitled “Inspired People” is about the defenders of Sevastopol during WW II. It reads: “Today we will show the enemy that we are people inspired by Lenin, and that our enemy is just an empty human shell filled with fear of the tyrant, Hitler.”
This is a very important point in dealing with an intertotalitarian confrontation: monopoly on spirituality and inspiration; confidence in one’s mission whose importance defies man’s understanding.
Researchers specializing in totalitarianism have always paid serious attention to the coercive component of that system. This component would be meaningless without totalitarian inspiration. A member of a totalitarian society is an inspired individual, so the rest are inspired people. I insist on my copyright to this formula, with reference to Platonov and one other Russian author, as the word combination “inspired people” was used in the course of our conversation.
The way Russians are inspired today is clearly apparent. Levada Center findings read that three-quarters of Russia’s population will support Putin’s war against Ukraine; as many respondents believe that the current Ukrainian administration is illegitimate. There is no hope that Russians will disobey the command to attack Ukrainians. In fact, Russians have attacked Ukrainians. There is latent suicidality to be considered. Now is the time to poll Russians about the use of nuclear weapons, except that no one will have the guts [to activate them]. The same kind of suicidality was behind Nazi inspiration: Judenfrei as a half-hearted measure, then there would be Menschenfrei worldwide.
Television, propaganda, zombifying are supposed to be responsible. This allegation doesn’t hold water in regard to those for whom the destruction of the Ukrainian state is a rational choice. I could name several dozen noted journalists, writers, and intellectuals who are happy about what’s happening in Ukraine and who demand that the show goes on. Among them are supporters of de-Sovietization and these people are not necessarily Putin adherents, which is not surprising, either. Many despised Hitler and his inner circle, spat on their propaganda, yet fought for the grandeur of the Third Reich while pretending not to notice his crimes [against humanity] or justifying them. By the way, this is another argument in the debate with those who see the only source of evil in Putin and [post-] Cheka clandestine agencies.
These intellectuals believe that the dismantling of the Ukrainian nation (even physical annihilation, if they resist) is Russia’s major historical priority. This is precisely what makes Putin’s adherents and opponents – among them individuals with varying attitudes toward the Soviet past – stick together.
They are frank. The existence of the European and Ukrainian nations will provide a strong demonstrational impact on Russians; this is likely to alter their [national] identity. This is likely to turn the authors of such slogans into marginals, freaks and losers, considering that they are now reputed intellectuals, hosts of discourses and public opinion trendsetters.
One shouldn’t attribute everything to Putin’s [political] insanity and the stupidity of his inner circle. They are smart and are being supported by various strata interested in the preservation of the Russian nation’s current status. This stand is taken by a considerable part of the active and influential Russian intellectual and political elites.
Business rates a separate feature. Despite forecasts, the market is responding to the annexation of Crimea with an upward curve. All things considered, the international business community figures that:
(a) Europe will enjoy another Belle Epoque, if and when Putin discards the idea of using nuclear weapons, in which case the borders will be expanded, reaching the Dnipro and Transnistria, including the Black Sea coast of present-day Ukraine, with the latter becoming something like a small-time Kyiv Governor-Generalship. Putin and his inner circle will get hold of the Ukrainian industries. Russian businesses will flourish, considering that the course events have taken is playing into their hands; they will have fresh opportunities of exploiting the federal budget.
(b) There will be no repressions. The authorities will not tolerate romanticism, heroism or martyrdom. Stubborn critics will be treated with kid’s gloves. Their passports will be impounded and they will continue to live the way their grandparents did in the kolkhozes under Stalin. Third degree will include forced consumption of castor oil, like the Italian fascists did, or other techniques designed to turn one into an idiot.
The main thing is to establish a genuine Russian people’s regime, so that those in power will be able to rely on the entire nation. An ideal Russian regime.
Before the abovementioned polls, Putin seemed to be postponing his attack on Ukraine that would cut off part of its territory. He seemed uncertain about the inspiration aspect: would such large-scale occupation serve the purpose if carried out under slogans such as “Crimea Returned!”, “Russia Reunites with Ukraine!”, “Ukraine Conquered!”, “Liberation Campaign!”? At the time this madman’s plan for the Crimea did not include the slogan “Kill Ukrainians, Save Russia!” Now it may well be included. The hell on the logic of such good old slogans as “Single Russian People!”, “Ukraine is Little Russia!” because they will not contradict the recipe of varenyky dumplings with Russian babies’ blood.
I am very sad to admit that Ukraine has not responded to Russia’s inspired totalitarian challenge with its own national upsurge. One can spend hours discussing the role played by the current [Ukrainian] administration in Crimea’s surrender. One thing is clear: the entire nation remained inactive, thus demonstrating the priority of regional identity. The annexation of Crimea can only give a fresh impetus to Russia’s aggressive ambitions.
In fact, the day-after problem (occupation authority, daily economic, administrative, municipal, and other matters) is the only factor that keeps these ambitions in check. The effort to destabilize the situation within Ukraine is still underway. Its objective is obvious: disruption of the presidential elections, forcing the West to recognize Russia’s protectorate over Ukraine. That was the key message Russia’s Foreign Minister Lavrov conveyed when meeting with his US counterpart.
However, there is another part of Russian society, the intelligentsia. These people sign altogether different joint messages, except that few are capable of critical self-analysis. So far none has admitted his/her guilt in the situation that has developed, just as few if any are aware of the scope of the catastrophe, or that it is expanding and deepening.
Today, even people who recently took part in the nationalistic psychotic campaign against Putin, led by his major contender Aleksey Navalny, are against war. Many of them have since the 1990s been cursing all those who destroyed the Soviet Union while making up Christmas tales about the Soviet past and trying hard to make people believe them. Russia’s official propaganda is generally distrusted while there is talk about equal responsibility for the current situation. In their opinion, it is quite normal to place the aggressor and his victim on the same moral level.
Strange as it may seem, there is a glimpse of hope from those few who signed a letter in support of Putin and several days later protested against Andrei Makarevich’s persecution. If the loyal part of the elite begins to realize that the current political regime can crush them one by one, then this will not be the worst of the scenarios being played out. Perhaps from now on today’s “inspired people” will start waking up to the true nature of their “inspiration.”