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"Possessed by the Devil"
Death and Dehumanization in Ukraine
Earlier this month, I was interviewed by journalist Catarina Maldonado Vasconcelos about the war between Russia and Ukraine. I was not asked because I have expert knowledge of East European political affairs (I don’t). I was asked because of my work on dehumanization.
The article, titled “What Analysts Didn't Know Before the War Started and What May Still Surprise: From China to the Narrative of Mass Extermination,” was published on March 7 in Expresso, Portugal’s leading newspaper. The article is behind a paywall, restricted to subscribers. But I can tell you what Catarina asked me, and how I responded to her questions.
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I was asked two questions. The first one was, “What was the most surprising aspect or turn of events you have seen during this war in Ukraine? Why?” Here’s how I responded:
I have been surprised at how quickly Russian propaganda has moved from the rhetoric of “denazification” to explicit dehumanization. From the beginning, the Putin regime described the war as a program of de-Nazification, used language that combined age-old antisemitic images of Jews—for example, the false story of a Ukrainian mob crucifying a Russian child—with claims that Ukraine is dominated Nazis. Nazis, of course, are regarded as embodiments of evil, and the image of the Satanic Jew goes back many centuries in Eastern Europe. However, by mid-to-late 2022, the dehumanizing propaganda accelerated and became much more explicit. Russian propaganda—including comments by Putin and Kirill, the Russian Orthodox patriarch—began to describe Ukrainians and their Western allies as “Satanists” and, by implication, the war as an apocalyptic struggle against the forces of darkness. It was even asserted that Ukrainian soldiers have been medically modified to transform them into “monsters.”
Subscribers to this newsletter may recall that I posted an essay on this topic titled “Putin’s Nazi Jews” in July, 2022. Since then, Russian dehumanizing rhetoric has accelerated and become much darker, transitioning from characterizations of Ukrainians as subhuman animals, such as pigs, insects, and parasitic worms, to representations of them as demonic, monstrous beings. This rhetorical trajectory is typical of what happens in situations where dehumanization is aimed at inciting exterminationist violence (I explain how and why this happens in my 2021 book Making Monsters: The Uncanny Power of Dehumanization).
Catarina’s second question was “What can be surprising factors in the upcoming months that we need to pay attention to?” I replied:
It is difficult to make predictions about such a volatile situation, gut given Russia’s increasingly genocidal stance, and the uptick in the most dangerous and destructive form of dehumanizing propaganda—the kind that is associated with genocidal violence—I suspect that the Russian war machine will perpetrate even more extreme acts of brutality against the Ukrainian people, and perhaps even move towards the rhetoric of mass extermination.
There are unmistakeable indications that Russia is moving down this genocidal path. Just a few days ago Russia expert Julia Davis wrote in an op-ed titled “‘Morality Shouldn’t Get in the Way’ — Russia’s Genocidal State Media,” where she noted that:
In October, RT’s1 director of broadcasting, Anton Krasovsky, suggested drowning Ukrainian children, setting Ukrainian homes on fire — with the inhabitants inside — and alleged that Ukrainian grandmothers would gladly pay to be raped by Russian soldiers. He insisted that Ukraine should end in its current form, with its only surviving sliver zoned for pig rearing. Krasovsky felt the need to clarify that when he said “pigs,” he did not mean Ukrainian women2….On March 6, Tretyakov, of the Higher School of Television, emphasized that Russian military bases should be established throughout Ukraine, “in order to control the mentality of this territory.” He claimed that Ukrainians have “turned into animals” and Russia must plan its actions accordingly….In October, Pavel Gubarev, a Russian political figure who proclaimed himself the “People’s Governor” of the Donetsk Region in 2014 and later as leader of the Donbas People’s Militia, explained that Ukrainians were, “Russian people, possessed by the devil,” and that Russia’s aim was to “convince them” that they are not Ukrainian. He added: “But if you don’t want us to change your minds, then we will kill you. We will kill as many of you as we have to. We will kill 1 million or 5 million, we can exterminate all of you.”
“Months earlier,” she continues, “… State Duma deputy Aleksey Zhuravlyov appeared on 60 Minutes to outline his calculations about the number of Ukrainians to be reeducated by “re-installing their brains,” as opposed to the millions who would refuse to abandon their Ukrainian identity and who must therefore be killed ‘A maximum of 5% are incurable. Simply put, 2 million people . . . These 2 million people should have left Ukraine, or must be denazified, which means to be destroyed.’”
As the Holocaust and the Rwanda genocide (among many others) should have taught us, it is all-to-easy for those of us living safe, comfortable lives to be unconcerned about mass exterminations taking place in far-away lands, if American politicians like Donald Trump and Ron DeSantis have their way, we will turn our backs on the people of Ukraine and let the blood flow freely.
“RT” is an acronym for “Russia Today”
It’s worth noting here that what I call “demonizing dehumanization”—conceiving of others as Satanic or monstrous beings—is typically reserved for male members of the target group. Female members of the group are more often subjected to what I call “enfeebling dehumanization,” as animals to be exploited. This distinction comports with gendered patterns of genocidal violence. See, for example Adam Jones’ work on gendercide.