Ghost of Violence Past in Russia’s Ukraine War

Dr. Daniel Jaster, Eureka College

Published on: May 17, 2022

Image credit: Rebecca Bathory (Litchfield). Image found in this Guardian article; buy the photographer’s book here.

The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living.” Karl Marx

As the world continues to wrestle with the consequences of Russia’sinvasion of Ukraine, many have wondered why Putin pushed for such a fool’s gambit. Time will tell of course how things will play out, but few can disagree that such a move seems uncharacteristically reckless. Not only did such a move promptly hamstring and isolate the Russian economy, but many have also questioned the Russian military strategy. Indeed, the whole operation seemed poorly thought out, poorly organized, and, ultimately, old-fashioned. That Ukraine would be the site of a clash of civilizations should be of no surprise to scholars of the region. But we must be wary of psychoanalytic approaches which root this all on Putin’s nostalgia. Of course, psychological theories are important, but there are geopolitical reasons as well. And, following Randall Collins, I believe that there are sociological reasons too; ones based on history and theory. What I want to focus on here is the link between usage of 20th century conventional war tactics in the 21st century, Putin’s interest in Ukraine, and Russia’s broader national experience after the collapse of the Soviet Union made this event more likely.

As I have written elsewhere, there are key moments in community experiences which make people more likely to try to refigure their pasts; to re-live their pasts in action. During periods of rapid cultural change, when it feels like agency and control have been stripped from communities, people may try to embody their bygone utopias. Importantly, the bygone must still be present, and accessible, in their collective consciousness: it must be feasible. Do we see elements of Putin’s Russia trying to re-live the past? Yes. Other scholars have noted that Putin seems to be trying to rebuild the Soviet Empire, and uses old Soviet claims about the links between Ukraine and Nazism; others say that his actions resemble 19th century imperialism. So, rhetoric and focus seem to be rooted in the past. What about tactics? Russia is infamous for engaging in hybrid and cyber warfare, fitting with 21st century war tactics. But experts have noted that the strategies used by the Russian military are decidedly 20th century, matching their 20th century rhetoric and organizational style.

Can this be linked to a desire to embody a bygone utopia? The link between tactics and rhetoric are key. It is not a coincidence that all derive from the Soviet era. In the Ostalgie movement that was present in many post-Soviet nations, activists often revived old understandings and actions as a form of protest against the struggles of a capitalistic order which disparaged and marginalized people’s histories, understandings, and biographies. When we think of the Russian experience, this was present as well. Francis Fukuyama famously celebrated the downfall of the Soviet Union as the ‘end of history.’ As others have noted, the ‘shock therapy’ approach to Russia after the collapse of the Soviet Union led to the rise of the oligarchs and Putin. Russia, as a nation, felt diminished and impotent compared to their once great influence. Indeed, Putin himself has stated, multiple times, that the fall of the Soviet Union was a tragedy. Russia’s influence has declined on the global stage, falling from superpower status as the Soviet Union to great or regional power. More recently, Ukraine’s western shift has further emphasized this shift: a core region of Russian identity has rapidly rejected Russian influence and actively courted European relationships. Thus, the use of state violence to claim territory, certain narratives justifying conventional war to liberate populations, and outdated military tactics do not seem coincidental: they fit with an attempt to embody former glory, a bygone utopia where Russia had the power to do what she wanted and to influence the world. This becomes more apparent when analyzing the changes in Russia’s government during Putin’s tenure. He quickly started to rebuild Russian imperial (Soviet or earlier) life. In response to a public upset by oligarchy and the failures of capitalistic democracy, Putin re-centralized the government with relatively little resistance. Indeed, among contemporary elites in Russia we see an oddly high concentration of former Soviet elites, helping explain the lack of resistance to Putin’s centralizing, autocratic reforms. So, the war and the political restructuration of Russia both seem to illustrate an attempt to re-live the past: reconquering a lost core of a bygone identity and structuring a government in a way that resembled past glory.

In summary, Putin and the Russian government embody the methods of past Russian empires, including waging conventional wars and using older tactics/realpolitiks, in part because they are desperately seeking relevance; to regain a sense of control and influence in a world that rapidly left them behind after the collapse of the Soviet Union. But this approach is not psychoanalytic. We can see how these reactions are structured by geopolitical events and history. I do not claim that this is *the* reason for Russia’s actions or tactics, but I am proposing that we can use these broader histories and theories to help explain what is happening. To the extent that communities seek to regain rapidly lost influence, and if conventional warfare is linked to this former glory, we should expect some to try to embody these pasts in this way. Putin’s Russia must embody the past that they idolize if they continue to be haunted by the tradition of dead generations; to bring the ghosts of the past back to life.

Daniel Jaster is an Assistant Professor of Sociology in the Social Science and Business Division at Eureka College. He is the author of Bygone Utopias and Farm Protest in the Rural Midwest: Returning Home. Palgrave Macmillan.