The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Why the West must stop Putin’s drive to export Russia’s cruel pathologies

Russian President Vladimir Putin during a video conference outside Moscow on Wednesday. (Sputnik/Gavriil Grigorov/Kremlin/Reuters)
4 min

Under Russia’s czars, military officers had the right to inflict summary punishment on unsatisfactory soldiers by punching them in their faces. When, in spring 1917, disorder spread, the lynchings of police and other representatives of order were sometimes accomplished by tying their legs to vehicles and dragging them through the streets. A pastor in Petrograd — soon, Leningrad — said “thirty or forty policemen were pushed through a hole in the ice [of the Neva River] without as much as a stunning tap on the head — drowned like rats.” Others were “lifted on bayonets”: impaled by perhaps half a dozen and lifted off the ground. When some undesirables, thrown from upper windows, hit the ground, a bystander remembered, “I heard their bones breaking.”

These vignettes are from Antony Beevor’s just-published “Russia: Revolution and Civil War, 1917-1921.” A military historian who has written about many cockpits of savagery — the Spanish Civil War, Stalingrad, Berlin in spring 1945 — Beevor has chronicled much beastliness. But he seems taken aback by what his new research found.

The Cheka, a domestic terror instrument to which Lenin granted unreviewable power to torture and kill, published an anthology of verses, including: “There is no greater joy, nor better music / Than the crunch of broken lives and bones.”

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Beevor writes, “They pulled ‘gloves’ off people’s hands, i.e., the skin, after soaking the hands in boiling water. … An old colonel was roasted alive in the furnace of a locomotive.” The “ice statue” method of killing economized bullets: Water was poured over naked victims who were left outside to freeze solid. Or: “A short length of pipe was attached to the stomach of a victim. … A rat would be introduced into the pipe, and a fire was lit at the far end, forcing the rat to eat its way into the intestines of the prisoner to escape.”

Both sides in Russia’s civil war were barbarous. “Europe,” writes Beevor, “had not seen such conspicuous cruelty used as a weapon of terror since the wars of religion.” Where, he wonders, “did the extremes of sadism” come from? His answer: from eliminationist rhetoric of political hatred. This Russian tradition lives in Vladimir Putin’s Goebbels-like talk about Ukraine’s Jewish president being a Nazi bent on genocide against ethnic Russians.

Russia in the 20th century experienced two discontinuities: the 1917 revolution that created the Soviet regime, and the 1991 dissolution of that regime and the nation it had held together with gulags and barbed wire. It is, however, also true, as the behavior of the Russian army in Ukraine demonstrates, that Russia has a centuries-old continuity: a culture of cruelty.

After reading a Post report from Bucha, where Russian occupiers beheaded a man, then “burned his head and left it out for all to see.” After reading the Associated Press report on the 10 torture sites its reporters visited in Izyum after this Ukrainian city was liberated from Russian occupation. (“They beat him, over and over: Legs, arms, a hammer to the knees, all accompanied by furious diatribes against Ukraine.”) After reading the Wall Street Journal report from Izyum. (“Most of the 436 bodies had signs of violent death including gunshot wounds, broken limbs, bound hands and amputated genitalia.”) After reading the Journal’s report from the city of Vovchansk. (“They were beaten, their heads slammed between the door and the door frame.”) After reading in the New York Times snippets of phone calls, intercepted by Ukrainian agencies, from Russian soldiers to friends and family in Russia. (“They gave us the order to kill everyone we see. … I’ve already become a murderer.”) And after reading Putin’s speech on the “outright Satanism” of “the West,” this is the question:

Is Russia’s endemic cruelty (and the related, rabble-like looting by Russian soldiers, stealing everything portable, from screwdrivers to televisions) germane to U.S. policy regarding Ukraine? The answer:

Putin has correctly cast this as a civilizational conflict. Were he visiting violence and corruption only on Russians, the West would have neither prudential reason nor practical means to restrain him. The history of the previous century, however, teaches the pertinence of a nation’s internal dynamics to its external behavior. Putin’s Russia has a metabolic urge to export its pathologies, becoming the collectivist alternative to open societies of rights-bearing individuals fulfilled through private rather than nationalist aspirations. If this export is not defeated — if the West chooses, in the name of “realism,” to let it metastasize, which it may — the West will wither from self-loathing, and will deserve to.