With Vladimir Putin, one always believes that the bottom of disgrace has been reached, that the Kremlin cannot do even worse. But since February 24, almost every day brings a new ignominy. Two recent episodes invite us to reflect on the Russian president’s penchant for demonstratively trampling with relish the norms of civilized behavior.
On April 18, Vladimir Putin awarded an “honorary title of Guard” to the soldiers of the 64th motorized rifle brigade that has been accused by Kyiv of massacres in the town of Butcha. The decree signed on that occasion praises the exemplary behavior of these men: “The skillful and decisive actions of all personnel (of the brigade) during the special military operation in Ukraine are a model of military duty, courage, determination and high professionalism”.
On the evening of April 28, five missiles fell on the capital of Ukraine in the middle of a visit by UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres. “This says a lot about the real attitude of Russia towards international institutions, about the efforts of Russian leaders to humiliate the UN and everything that the organization represents,” declared Volodymyr Zelensky.
Through these two actions the Russian president openly defied the community of nations. First, he honored murderers condemned by the entire world while denying crimes supported by substantial evidence. Secondly, he openly threatened the figure who symbolized the international order. Today, the rhetoric of Kremlin’s propagandists has gone up a notch, referring enthusiastically to the destruction of Paris, London, and Berlin by Sarmat missiles. The Kremlin gives the impression that it enthusiastically considers the possibility of “starting over with a clean slate”. Surprisingly, no voice has been raised in Russia against the bloodthirsty rhetoric that has poured out daily on state television for years. Alexei Navalny has denounced the corruption of the regime, which seems minor compared to the daily preaching of hatred and ethnocide by the Russian media.
The truth is that the Russian people have been conditioned to crime and delinquency for decades. This pedagogy emanated directly from the KGB. During the Brezhnev era, ambitious young boys often hesitated between two careers: some dreamed of becoming criminal authorities (the “vory v zakone”); others saw themselves as KGB officers. The osmosis between the Cheka/Gpu and the criminal milieu goes back a long way. The famous Naftali Frenkel, the organizer of the infamous Belomorkanal construction site entrusted to the Gulag, was a former hoodlum recruited by the NKVD. In a long 2000 interview, Vladimir Putin himself confessed that he nearly became a thug: only his Chekist vocation kept him from this path. Like many young people, it was the attraction for transgression that led him to a career in the KGB — transgression with impunity, which ultimately made the choice of the KGB more attractive than the choice of a criminal career.
But to understand how the Guebist spirit (if one can call it that) contaminated all of Russia, we have to go back to March 31, 1990, the date of the foundation of the LDPR [Liberal Democratic Party of Russia], Zhirinovsky’s bogus party, which was registered only two weeks following the introduction of a multi-party system in the USSR. According to Alexander Yakovlev, a close advisor of Gorbachev, considered to be the inspiration for perestroika, the head of the KGB Kriutchkov circulated a memorandum among the members of the Politburo that recommended financial support for the new party. The primary purpose of this maneuver by the “organs” was to discredit democracy: “See what happens when you give the people a voice,” the initiators of the pseudo-party seemed to say. And indeed, with Zhirinovsky it becomes possible to say anything. In his spring 1991 electoral program, this flamboyant orator promised to feed Russia in 72 hours: “I will send troops to the former GDR, 1.5 million men, I will wave the nuclear threat and everything will be supplied to us… We will send the strikers to jail, the racketeers abroad to defend Russian national interests, we will bring in workers from abroad who will toil for us gladly at 100 rubles a month.” This virtuoso of populism promised that if he were elected, free vodka would be distributed to everyone. He made a point of providing all Russians with free underwear, of providing all women in Russia with a man. The solution to economic difficulties? Nothing could be simpler: “We must bring slaves from all over the world and each Russian will become a landowner, a manager…”.
Under the grotesque trappings of a clown, Zhirinovsky acclimatized a program in Russia whose consequences we can measure today: a cult of violence, military expansionism, planetary racketeering, a dictatorial state, territorial claims such as the return of Alaska (“we can settle the Ukrainians there”) and Finland, the incorporation of the former republics of the USSR to Russia, nuclear blackmail. From the outset, he played the role of an icebreaker, introducing, in his buffoonish way, ideas that had been discussed in KGB circles that he originated from. During his electoral campaign in the spring of 1991, he defended themes which, from 1993 on, were taken up by Russian democrats: “We need a strong centralized power. Otherwise no reform will be possible”1. He had already advocated transforming the republics of the Russian Federation into provinces and ending the confrontation between local and federal authorities. He exploited the theme of “Russia on its knees” humiliated and offended by foreigners.
Communists rightly point out that it was Yeltsin who undertook to promote Zhirinovsky in 1993. The Russian president thought it was clever to enlist the help of the LDPR leader in order to pass his draft constitution and to divert part of the electorate from the Communist Zyuganov. It was Boris Yeltsin who invited Zhirinovsky to sit in the Constitutional College. It was Yeltsin-controlled television that gave generous airtime to the demagogue (true, paid for at a high price). In the autumn of 1993, after Yeltsin had liquidated the pro-communist Supreme Soviet (the future Duma), which was dispersed with cannon fire, Zhirinovsky was the only one to conduct a real electoral campaign, targeting his message, addressing each category of the Russian population, visiting the garrisons, haranguing the crowds, surveying the provinces, preaching revisionism and resentment, while at the same time the democrats considered the game won in advance. This work paid off in the December 12, 1993 parliamentary elections. The LDPR was at its peak. It won 23% of the vote and achieved large representation throughout the country with a majority in 64 of the 87 regions. In December 1994, Zhirinovsky supported Yeltsin’s military intervention in Chechnya and recommended the use of tactical nuclear weapons in the rebel republic. This useful character is also the pioneer of the rapprochement with the European extreme right which under Putin would become the policy of the Kremlin: as early as 1996, J.M. Le Pen and the head of the LDPR announced their intention to create a “Union of the Right Forces in Europe”. Zhirinovsky had already supported Italy’s Northern League of Umberto Bossi in 1997.
Zhirinovsky became a successful political businessman. He officiated as vice-president of the Duma from 2000 to 2011. After encouraging assaults and fistfights in parliament and elsewhere (in 1995, he poured orange juice on the democrat Boris Nemtsov during a televised debate), Zhirinovsky has also normalized the practice of insults against Western leaders, not shying away from obscenity. Thus, in reaction to Condoleezza Rice, who criticized Russian foreign policy in January 2006 over the gas dispute with Ukraine, Zhirinovsky declared that her hostile attitude towards Russia was due to the fact that the American minister was single and childless: “Condoleezza Rice needs a company of soldiers. She should be taken to the barracks where she will be satisfied.” He got as far as to call for the rape of a pregnant Ukrainian journalist whose question had displeased him. In 2007, he thumbed his nose at the British by electing to the Duma Andrei Lugovoy, the number one suspect in the eyes of Great Britain in the murder with polonium of the defector Alexander Litvinenko. Zhirinovsky put him in second place on his list for the December 2nd parliamentary elections. During a meeting with European journalists, Lugovoy wore a T-shirt marked “Polonium”.
From the beginning Zhirinovsky was a tireless propagandist of the omnipresent “plot against Russia”. First, he complained about the “American-Zionist plot” where he claimed to see the cause of all the misfortunes of Russia in the twentieth century. “Insatiable, Uncle Sam and Uncle Moses […] have displayed all their satanic might. Our great friends in Washington and Tel Aviv did not spare any ressources. They destroyed a lot, they smeared a lot, but their sinister plan of destroying Russia could not be carried out completely.” It is he again who spread the theme, according to which liberal opponents were “Satanists”, a theme that has once again become fashionable: “May we see the demons disappear and return to where they came from, the black and icy despair. They will cling, howl, and curse, in short, behave like the demons searched for by the exorcist. But, all united, we will have the strength to drive them out”, he wrote in The Last Wagon to the North (1996).
On Ukraine, Zhirinovsky is also a pioneer : “I propose that the presidents of Russia, Belarus and Ukraine meet in Belovezhskaya Pushcha [in Belarus] and rewind history: in December 1991, they had dismantled the USSR; today, we must cancel this decision and restore the Union,” he suggested on his blog on December 3, 2013, announcing Putin’s policy in 2022 . According to him, only the division of Ukraine into two states will solve the problems facing the country. “Stalin’s mistake is that he did not make Lviv the capital of Ukraine in 1945, when acquiring the western territories, including Ivano-Frankivsk, Ternopol, Lutsk, Rovno and Lviv. The rest - the Donbass, Odessa, Crimea, they should be incorporated in Russia. This would have avoided the problems… There are two different peoples. On the one hand, there are the Russians and the Russified Ukrainians, and, on the other hand, the Westerners who lived in the territories that were part of Austria-Hungary. There will be an eternal confrontation. Only the partition of Ukraine according to a civilized principle, the West for Catholics and the East for Orthodox, will solve the problem. Otherwise, the carnage will continue.” Vladimir Zhirinovsky wonderfully formulates the ulterior motives of the Kremlin regarding the Ukrainian conflict. This conflict “has given us the opportunity to return to the circle of great powers. It is essential that Russia becomes an empire again, as it was under the Tsars or during the Soviet era. Once we have achieved this, we can concentrate on developing our economy. But first we must free ourselves from the West”2.
Zhirinovsky also recommended nuclear blackmail early on. After suggesting the use of large fans to blow radioactive waste to the Baltic States, on August 10, 2014, he advocated a Russian attack on Poland and the Baltic States: “There will be nothing left of these states. They will be annihilated. The leaders of these vulnerable dwarf states should think twice.” On November 27, 2015, he threatened Turkey (on November 24 Turkish F-16 fighters shot down a Russian Su-24): Turkey “can be crushed by a nuclear missile strike. It is very easy to destroy Istanbul: it is enough to launch a nuclear bomb into the straits and the city will be wiped off the map. There will be a terrible flood, a column of water of 10 to 15 meters will fall on the city, and it will disappear with its 9 million inhabitants”. Around the same time he also proposed to bomb Kyiv with napalm. In October 2016, Zhirinovsky recommended that Americans vote for Trump, otherwise they risked nuclear annihilation .
On June 6, 2015, our man made this revealing statement in an inflammatory interview broadcast by Dozhd television: “Shoigu [the Russian Defense Minister] only has to direct his nuclear forces toward Berlin, Brussels, London, Washington. Will there be a war? Not at all — they will say: don’t do anything about it, we agree with you, we are withdrawing. They want to live. […] The Europeans live in luxury, they just enjoy themselves. They don’t want to go to war. If Moscow shows its teeth, they will dissolve NATO. All you have to do is tell them: if you don’t liquidate NATO in twenty-four hours, we will bomb the capitals of the member states. And they’ll do it and go on living and having fun.” This is a staggering anticipation of the mood in the Kremlin when the Russian leadership issued the now famous ultimatum to the United States and NATO on December 17, 2021.
Zhirinovsky will also be a useful launching pad for outrageous lies when the Kremlin finds it useful to send out clouds of ink to cover up its responsibility for a scandalous crime. After the assassination of Boris Nemtsov in 2015, Zhirinovsky claimed that he deserved it, he was the one who stirred up hatred. He insinuated that a Ukrainian provocation was behind the murder, that Nemtsov was the Americans’ man, but that the Americans had dropped him because they were now banking on Navalny.
Let’s mention the incredible cynicism with which Zhirinovsky praises the war in Syria, emphasizing the military advantage of shooting flesh-and-blood human beings rather than just exercising: “Sometimes a bad regime is useful. Take Syria. It would be nice if peace could be established there, but it won’t be, so it is in our interest to train our army under ideal conditions. Maneuvers, however large they may be, are only maneuvers, we cannot fire live bullets, destroy cities, villages, exterminate people. But here we have a real war. We can test our long-range “Calibre” missiles, we can launch them from the Caspian Sea, from the Mediterranean Sea, from the Sea of Azov, from the Black Sea, from space, from anywhere. Our spies are acquiring great experience… We will stay 10 to 20 years…”
Like Putin he appreciates the political utility of terrorism. After 32 people were murdered in the terrorist attacks in Brussels on March 22, 2016, Vladimir Zhirinovsky rejoiced in a talk show that such attacks were good for Russia: “It is advantageous for us. Let them croak and let them die”. According to him, in the face of the Islamist danger, Western countries would ally themselves with Moscow and implore its help.
We have insisted on the importance of Zhirinovsky because this character has made a considerable contribution to the moral degradation of the Russians, or rather to the translation of this degradation into a political behavior. Zhirinovsky instilled in the Russian people that politics was a show; like the king’s fool, he could say anything: being a buffoon, one could think, it did not matter. In a show, actors and spectators are not responsible. Zhirinovsky and his emulators, the Soloviovs, Kisseliovs and Skabeyevas [zealous propagandists of the regime] who followed in his footsteps, destroyed the lingering immunity of the Russian people to baseness, malice, brutality, hatred and aggression. They overturned all taboos, under the applause of a jaded public that has demanded more and more violence, more and more vile jokes at the expense of the scapegoats of the moment, more and more humiliations and ignominy inflicted on the enemies of Russia. Zhirinovsky and others following in his footsteps were the instrument by which the KGB transformed the Russian people in its image.
After Putin’s arrival in power, Zhirinovsky’s aura became somewhat tarnished. From that point on he no longer had a monopoly on outrageousness and boorishness: the taboos fell. His style became an overwhelming trend. To please their bosses, the Russian elites have competed to see who can best master the idiom of hoodlums and the scatological vocabulary they employ. In 2008, Putin advised foreign observers of the Russian elections “to teach their wives to make cabbage soup”. When asked about his personal fortune stashed in the West, he accused the journalist of “picking his nose and spilling his snot on the paper”. Lavrov goes so far as to recommend “applying the criminal code (“poniatiya”) in international relations”, while a few days earlier the Russian ambassador to Sweden, Viktor Tatarintsev, commenting on the threat of sanctions against the Russian Federation in the event of an invasion of Ukraine, had said: “Sorry for the language, but we shit on all their sanctions.”
Thus, one thing leads to another and it became possible to call for genocide on Russian television. The writer Alexander Prokhanov, for example, stated in a television program on April 4, 2014, that Russia could sacrifice at least 30 million lives to “eradicate the cosmic evil” of the Maydan. Alexander Dugin is of the opinion that “Ukraine must be rid of the fools”, and shamelessly calls for the “genocide” of the “bastard race” . Today we see the audience of Russian talk shows laughing at the mention of the destruction of several European capitals. Pyotr Tolstoy, the deputy chairman of the State Duma, cannot hide his elation at the joyful prospects of war: “Everyone must realize that a mobilization and a world war to the death awaits us. Someone will lose his job, someone will lose his business, many will be maimed, and even more of our compatriots will be taken away by death. War is our national ideology!” Duma deputy Alexei Zhuravlev relishes the idea of carving up Ukraine: “Ukraine must no longer exist! There will be the Republic of Kharkov, the Republic of Donetsk. No more Ukraine. We will negotiate until we reach the borders of Poland.” Moreover, the ruin of Europe is anticipated with delight: “The French are told to stiffen their toad legs and prepare to die. These gentlemen are warned of regular power cuts and other horrors. Businesses, too: companies that consume a large amount of electricity will be cut off from the grid first… The obligation imposed on the countries of the euro zone to decide whether or not to pay [for gas] in rubles means the collapse of the Union with a return to national currencies. The refusal of gas will lead to the collapse of the whole Gayropa [the Europe of gays, the contemptuous term by which Kremlin propagandists refer to Europe]…”
Similarly, the practice of shameless lying today eclipses anything Zhirinovsky had prepared us for. Lying in the face of foreigners is seen in the Kremlin as an indicator of Russian power. Impudent lying induces intense jubilation among Russian leaders and propagandists, which the Russian viewer witnesses daily. In his meeting with President Macron on February 7, 2022, Putin declared without batting an eye that the Wagner group was independent and had no connection with Russian power. Butcha? A Ukrainian staging. And, by the way, everyone knows that the Ukrainians bomb themselves, just as Navalny poisoned himself for publicity. According to Putin, Russian troops are in Ukraine “to help the people”. As in Stalin’s time, the enormity of the lie is the marker of the regime’s omnipotence, which can afford to show its contempt for its own population and for the cursed foreigners.
Thus, the irresistible passion for transgression that has taken hold of Russia since the fall of communism, when the establishment of democracy is interpreted as “anything goes”, seems to sweep everything along in its path: Language, untied from the requirement of truth and human propriety. Institutions, which like the Duma ostensibly serve to whitewash thieves and murderers. Diplomacy thrown away by gangster morals, the cult of force and the rejection of compromise. The laws of war trampled by violence against civilians. The international order insulted in the person of Antonio Guterres, Secretary General of the UN. This passion for transgression explains the anti-American rage (and more generally the animosity towards the Anglo-Saxons) that characterizes the Russian leaders. The Americans are perceived as the world’s policemen, they enforce the law and they have the military force to do so. They are thus perceived as the last obstacle to the ultimate triumph of the all-out transgression that seems to have become the raison d’être of Russian politics. What remains of the international order seems to the Kremlin the last obstacle to the destruction of human civilization that has been dreamed of and orchestrated for so many years. The Russian leaders do not hide the fact that the “special operation” is aimed at the overthrow of this international order, even more than at the submission of the rebellious Ukrainians. The political scientist Guevorg Mirzaian congratulates himself as if the game had already been won: “The West is afraid. Fortunately for them and for all humanity. The hopes of individual idealists-dreamers that world peace could be ensured by universal norms and values have not been realized. The West understands only strength and the fear of that strength. So it will be in the future.”
To help us measure the appalling moral and intellectual disaster in Russia today, and regain a firm footing after immersion in so much desolation, we need to recall the warnings of the Ancients. Plato warned the sophists against forgetting the distinction between the just and the unjust, Aristotle invited us to beware of rhetoric that appeals to passions rather than to reasoning. For Cicero, the good orator must use his ascendancy over the crowds to orient his audience toward virtue. He must possess “all that the human mind has conceived of that is great and elevated”: “What could be more pleasing to the mind and the ear than a speech embellished by nobility of expression and wisdom of thought!” “The greatest advantage we have over animals is the ability to converse with our fellow men and to communicate our thoughts to them: should we not therefore cultivate this admirable faculty, and strive to prevail over other men, in that which raises man himself above the brute? Finally, and this is the most beautiful praise of eloquence; what other force could have brought together in one place dispersed men, made them leave their savage life for gentler manners, and, after having civilized them, made them docile to the yoke of laws and society?”
It is this West that the Kremlin ideologues hate more than anything else. For they have purposely implemented an opposite policy, unprecedented on such a scale in human history, that consists in systematically betting on what is most vile in human beings, in cultivating base passions and the instinct for destruction.