Putin Seeks To Mobilize the Masses With a Forced Rally
Who, actually, wanted to be at a rally with totalitarian rhetoric?
In the 1951 book The Origins of Totalitarianism, the political theorist Hannah Arendt drew a distinction between autocratic and totalitarian regimes. Autocratic regimes seek to outlaw the political opposition and gain absolute power. Totalitarian regimes do that too, but they go for more: they seek to dominate all aspects of life and mobilize the masses. "The totalitarian movements”, she wrote, “aim at and succeed in organizing masses—not classes."
Her observation came to mind as Russian leader Vladimir Putin gave a pro-war speech on March 18 at Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow in front of a crowd of at least 81,000 people. (Russian authorities claimed there were 200,000 there.) Ostensibly, the speech was to mark the eighth anniversary of the annexation of Crimea, but the speech was more about drumming up support for the current war.
Putin spoke in front of a banner that read "FOR A WORLD WITHOUT NAZISM. FOR RUSSIA," featuring the Russian pro-war propaganda motif "Z." "Freeing people from genocide is the reason, motive, and goal of the military operation we started in the Donbas and Ukraine," said the Russian leader. He went on, "I’d like to quote the Holy Bible: there is no greater love than to lay down one's life for one's friends." (This quote was featured on the Chernobyl memorial, according to Russian journalist Mikhail Zygar.) The crowd roared.
With the rally, the Kremlin sought to show mass support for Putin's war in Ukraine. There were probably people in the crowd who supported the war -- or the Kremlin's version of it that it is a "special military operation" in Eastern Ukraine. But many others did not appear to want to be there. Multiple videos emerged of attendees refusing to be interviewed or turning their heads away when approached. This was odd, as people who choose to go to political rallies are normally excited to be interviewed.
One exchange with a visibly uncomfortable attendee went like this:
Cameraman: How is the event?
Cameraman: Why are you leaving early?
Attendee: We aren't leaving, we're just walking.
Many attendees told BBC reporters that they were pressured or deceived into going. State employees felt they had to go to keep their jobs. Students were told that they were attending a concert. Posts on social media offered 500 rubles (about $5) and hot food to attend a "concert-rally."
Putin's regime is seeking to mobilize the masses with rallies like these. This is a recent development. For years, the government was autocratic but not totalitarian. It was content with leaving online media alone and tolerated the opposition, while keeping both at the margins. Journalism is all but illegal in Russia; online news sites like the BBC are blocked; the opposition is all exiled, imprisoned, or dead.
Putin is not only seeking to destroy Ukraine with this war, but he is seeking to organize the masses of Russian society in his image. In a speech broadcast on March 16, he said:
But any nation, and even more so the Russian people, will always be able to distinguish true patriots from scum and traitors and will simply spit them out like an insect in their mouth, spit them onto the pavement. I am convinced that a natural and necessary self-detoxification of society like this would strengthen our country, our solidarity and cohesion and our readiness to respond to any challenge.
Many have died in this process of "self-detoxification." After Putin's rally, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky gave his own speech. He said that the reported crowd attendance of 200,000 was about the same as the number of Russian troops in Ukraine. He cited Ukrainian Army estimates that 14,000 Russian troops have been killed in the war. (Pentagon estimates are about half that.) “Just imagine, 14,000 corpses and tens of thousands of wounded and maimed people at that stadium in Moscow,” he said. Russian state media has highlighted individual cases of soldiers being lightly wounded and receiving medals or what it says are cases of Russians being killed heroically -- but do not discuss the thousands of dead soldiers. In the myth of totalitarianism, the masses don't die; the masses are reborn as a new people. The reality is that the masses needlessly die.
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