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Hope in a Hopeless Situation


Why is there no antiwar movement in Russia? Why are so few people willing to take to the streets to publicly accuse the government of furthering the war in Eastern Ukraine? People who supported the March 15 peace march in downtown Moscow still pose these questions to each other. Their numbers are constantly shrinking, but the point is that even those people who still support the spirit of protest no longer have any confidence that protest can change anything.

If the new war (or prewar) footing into which Russian society is sinking deeper has a point of consensus that unites different social and cultural strata, it is the smothering, eerie awareness of society’s total powerlessness in the face of interstate conflict. The flood of news has overwhelmed the already fragile system of coordinates used by individual citizens. Their psyches cannot withstand the strain, surrendering to the unknowable, opaque logic of events, a logic seemingly less and less amenable to anyone’s specific will. “It is not the mind that controls the war, but the war that controls the mind,” wrote Leon Trotsky about a war whose start one hundred years ago has been somewhat timidly commemorated this summer.

The unhappy residents of Luhansk and Donetsk are now at the forefront of the collision with war’s destructive power. Their testimonies on social networks—meager exchanges of information about the people who have been killed, photographs of the damage done by shelling, requests for help and offers of aid—are the voices of victims, the voices of people who have already lost. They do not divide each other into supporters of Novorossiya and a united Ukraine, and they are not holding out for “their” side to win. All they want is peace: no matter what government offers it and on whatever terms. Along with houses, infrastructure, schools, and hospitals, society has almost been razed to the ground in Eastern Ukraine. This means that a victor capable of bringing stability even amid the smoking ruins will be rewarded with the kind of docility and obedience of which no government could dream during peacetime.

The shockwaves of this barbaric destruction have overwhelmed the population on both sides of the border. It is already a commonplace to argue that domestic politics in Russia seemingly disappeared in March of this year. What is more, invoking philosopher Jacques Rancière’s definition, we could argue that politics as a form of human activity based on dissent has rapidly disappeared, while state policy as the art of managing communities has attained perfection. Anything that deviates even a millimeter to the right or left of President Putin’s line is immediately devalued and deprived of any independent significance. People who try to applaud the government more loudly than everyone else are rendered as politically invisible and helpless as those who oppose it. As they support their government, patriots are instantly turned into its obedient tools. Liberals who criticize their government serve wittingly or unwittingly as advocates of the other side.

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