BY ALEXANDER J. MOTYL, OPINION CONTRIBUTOR – 11/21/22
THE VIEWS EXPRESSED BY CONTRIBUTORS ARE THEIR OWN AND NOT THE VIEW OF THE HILL
Let’s start with a heartbreaking video clip of “Mrs. Tetiana” of Bilyayivka in Kherson province. Her village has just been liberated and she’s talking with a journalist from Hromadske, a Ukrainian television station. She is wearing a ragged, dark gray coat and two headscarves, one yellow, one maroon. Mrs. Tetiana looks 80, but she could be 60, given the harshness of village life and the savagery of the seven-month Russian occupation. Her eyes turned toward the steppe, she speaks mournfully, haltingly, in Ukrainian:
“Oh, what barbarians, may the Lord forgive me. They’re not human; they’re tramps that probably never had anything. … I don’t know, I don’t know. … To barge into a house — and then [to do] like this, completely like this [makes quick rotating motions with her hands] … they smashed and overturned everything. … They took all the cell phones, they took absolutely everything, and I approached and said, ‘Boys, don’t smash the door; they’ve run away, don’t smash the door.’ And he’s just standing there, a small boy, and says, ‘So, they ran off to the war.’”
Mrs. Tetiana’s experience is not unique. There have been many reports — by Ukrainians, international organizations and foreign correspondents — of rampant looting and widespread destruction, especially in such ravaged towns as Irpen, Bucha and Izyum, which have become emblematic of Russian war crimes.
However abhorrent, looting at least makes some sense. You “probably never had anything,” you see something you crave, and you take it — after all, who’s to stop you? Russian troops have stolen refrigerators, washing machines, toilets, vacuum cleaners, and any number of appliances that Ukraine, reputedly one of Europe’s poorest countries, appears to have in abundance and that Russia, which is supposed to be significantly wealthier, does not.
The Russians stripped the general hospital in Severodonetsk, a city they pummeled and then seized several months ago, of all its equipment, and took all of Kherson’s pre-revolutionary publications from the provincial library. It even makes some sense for the retreating Russian troops to have stolen some 15,000 paintings from museums in Kherson province. These apparently include a large number of icons from the 17th century to the early 20th century, as well as Ukrainian artworks from the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The Russian looters are, alas, only the latest embodiment of rapaciousness, following in the footstep of Stalinist and czarist Russia, the European colonial empires, and the Nazis.
What makes far less sense is the wanton destruction that the Russians have left in their stead. They “smashed and overturned everything,” says Mrs. Tetiana. They even smashed the door. A friend who visited Ukraine recently reported that, in Bucha, the occupying Russians defecated inside homes. Why? Why this desire to smash for smashing’s sake, to destroy for destroying’s sake? Were Russian soldiers prone to such barbarism only upon seizing a town or only upon retreating, we could ascribe their violence to some feeling of triumph or humiliation. But the Russian soldiers evidently destroy all the time.
It’s for the Russians themselves to decide whether these soldiers are “not human,” or what made their inhuman behavior possible. Suffice it to say that their behavior is consistent with Russian strategy in this and other wars. The czars and the Soviets had no compunction about committing serial genocides, destroying cultural heritages, and eradicating languages before, during and after wars. Russia’s current czar, Vladimir Putin, consistently has preferred to kill civilians and level their homes to trying to win on the battlefield. Just ask the Chechens and the Syrians what their experience with Russia has been like. And then watch Mrs. Tetiana speak her mind and shuffle across a barren field.
Ultimately, this kind of penchant for extreme destructiveness is symptomatic of the fact that Russians apparently have a massive inferiority complex and know in their heart of hearts that they are being humiliated in Ukraine and have no one to blame for that but themselves. Despite their incessant rhetorical chest-beating, Russians — and especially their elites — still suffer from the malaise that has afflicted them since at least Peter the Great: a sense of being, in the words of one European traveler, a “rude and barbarous kingdom” incapable of keeping step with the West. And the war in Ukraine has only exacerbated that feeling, as over 80,000 war dead and dreadful battlefield performance have persuasively shown.
The savagery and the destructiveness will continue. The torture and rapine will continue. They will stop only after the last Russian soldier leaves Ukraine.
Alexander J. Motyl is a professor of political science at Rutgers University-Newark. A specialist on Ukraine, Russia and the USSR, and on nationalism, revolutions, empires and theory, he is the author of 10 books of nonfiction, as well as “Imperial Ends: The Decay, Collapse, and Revival of Empires” and “Why Empires Reemerge: Imperial Collapse and Imperial Revival in Comparative Perspective.”