The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion There’s a reason Russian soldiers can’t look their victims in the face

Bodies are exhumed from a mass grave in Bucha, Ukraine, on April 8.(Heidi Levine for The Washington Post).
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It is an obscene irony of the war in Ukraine that Russian leaders use the charge that Ukrainians are “Nazis” to dehumanize them, just as the Nazis used dehumanizing accusations against their own enemies. While ostensibly attacking fascists, Russian propagandists use methods that pay tribute to German fascism. In the process, Russian officials have become the spitting image of what they pretend to condemn.

Russian President Vladimir Putin is among the most prolific practitioners of this strategy. The Ukrainian government, he has said, is “pro-Nazi” and controlled by “little Nazis.” The stated goal of his “special operation” is to “denazify” Ukraine. Inspired by Putin, one state television host identifies Ukrainians as “satanic Nazis” and denies that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky is really a Jew.

This is not merely an exercise in denigration. It has guided Russian conduct during its brutal but pathetically dysfunctional invasion of Ukraine. There are recent reports of mass civilian graves — numbering in the hundreds — in Manhush near Mariupol. Bucha’s streets were left covered with executed and mutilated bodies. More than 100 bodies have been found in Makariv. “They laid them on the ground face down,” one resident said, “and shot them in the back of the head.”

Investigators exhumed 21 of at least 67 bodies suspected to be lying in a mass grave in Bucha, Ukraine, April 8. (Video: Joyce Koh/The Washington Post)

This method for the mass killing of civilians was one way the Nazis disabled the normal revulsion that most people would feel for civilian executions. “The human face,” David Livingstone Smith wrote in “Making Monsters: The Uncanny Power of Dehumanization,” “is by far the richest source of social information and the most intimate channel of connection between people. … When we gaze into a person’s eyes, we cannot help responding to that person as a human being. We cannot help but see them as human — to automatically regard the face’s bearer as one of our own kind.

This is what led to the blindfolding of victims of mass shootings by the German Einsatzgruppen and police battalions during the World War II years. Otherwise, the killing experience for many was psychologically devastating. The same, it seems, was true in Manhush.

The purposeful murder of civilians (as opposed to unintended casualties) is also made easier for members of the military by the use of long-range weapons — a Russian military specialty. Putin’s army has attacked hospitals and other buildings where civilians take shelter. It has besieged and blasted a whole city (Mariupol) to ruins. It has prevented refugees from leaving war zones and relief supplies from reaching injured and starving people.

For some extreme Russian nationalists — now given wide access to state media — the call to dehumanize Ukrainians is explicit. “We are fighting not against people but against enemies,” said the representative of one Russian neofascist party, “not against people but against Ukrainians.”

Such rhetoric takes on a genocidal flavor when combined with the complete denial of Ukrainian identity, described by one right-wing radical as “an artificial anti-Russian construct that has no civilizational content of its own” and the “subordinate element of a foreign and alien civilization.” Defending and strengthening Russia, in this ideological fantasy, requires the complete destruction of Ukrainian nationhood.

When reading Putin’s idealization of cultural ties between Russia and Ukraine, the question naturally arises: How is it possible to assert Slavic brotherhood while murdering tens of thousands of your Slavic neighbors?

This is actually typical of dehumanization. White supremacists in the American South often described Black people as subhuman beasts. But at other times they treated them as morally responsible — attributing to them a distinctly human form of agency. And close contact with Black people provided White people constant evidence of shared humanity.

“Dehumanizers implicitly or explicitly regard those whom they dehumanize as human beings,” Smith argues, “because it is impossible for them to shake that belief, which sits side by side with their belief that these others are subhuman creatures.” Smith denies that the logical inconsistency of such views is relevant. Why should we expect bigots to be consistent or coherent? But he continues that only one of these views “can be salient at any given time. And when one is in the mental foreground, the other retreats into the background.”

Putin, his military and his propaganda apparatus have put dehumanization in the foreground. They have woven the idea that Ukrainians are Nazis who are committing “genocide” against Russian speakers into their most basic case for the war. (The U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum has dismissed Russia’s use of “genocide” as a casus belli as “groundless and egregious.”)

Russian leaders are conducting a historical spectacle of brutality and lies. But their atrocities arose from refusing to look Ukrainians fully in the face and from denying the reflected image of their own humanity.