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Vladimir Putin's 'Mirror World'
How Russian military propaganda warps conventional needs to entice men to the front.
In the new book "Doppelganger: A Trip into the Mirror World," Naomi Klein describes the bizarre state of contemporary politics. The left-leaning Canadian journalist and climate activist writes about her "doppelganger" Naomi Wolf, a feminist writer and political consultant to Al Gore who turned into a rampant spreader of COVID-19 vaccine misinformation. Wolf and many others now inhabit a distorted fantasy "mirror world," which Klein describes as a place "uncannily like our own, but quite obviously warped."
Klein describes Vladimir Putin as a "master of mirroring," who has accused the Ukrainian government of crimes that he has committed. Internationally, Russia has portrayed itself as an anti-colonial freedom fighter against Western imperialism to justify a colonial and imperial war in Ukraine. What is less well-known is how the Russian government sells the war domestically in its own mirror world.
Consider two recent television ads that encourage Russian men to sign up for what it calls a "special military occupation" in Ukraine. The first ad shows soldiers casually taking fire in a trench, like in a video game. One asks the other where in Kyiv the Pechersk region is. The other says that his aunt lives there and it's in the center of town. When asked why he wanted to know, the first soldier says that his dream is to buy an apartment in Kyiv. "After fighting, when we take Kyiv, I will move there with my family," the first soldier says. A second ad is set on a beach in the Ukrainian port city of Odesa, a crown jewel of the Russian empire. One soldier says, "My relatives are from [Odesa], I will return home, you could say." He adds that the land will be given to them and soldiers get first dibs. He says he will stay "until victory" and "until Berlin."
It's worth taking these hyper-patriotic ads seriously because they illustrate how Russia is able to continue to recruit men for a doomed war. Russia claims that it has recruited 280,000 men in 2023 alone, without resorting to the "partial" mobilization in September 2022, which led thousands of men to flee the country. These ads deploy conventional ideas about family, security, and a sense of purpose in a revanchist Russian mirror world.
Both ads focus on the family. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia has had a collapse in the nuclear family. In the recent book, "Russia Against Modernity," historian Alexander Etkind writes that by the 1970s, the Soviet Union could provide a material base for the family with industrial growth and urbanization. However, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, good jobs disappeared and the gap in life expectancy grew between men and women. Facing unemployment or dead-end jobs, many men retreated into alcoholism and addiction, and abandoned their families or engaged in domestic violence. The recruitment ads offer men the promise of happily reuniting with their families in an ancestral homeland.
Linked to the reuniting of the family is the idea of the war providing financial security. Both ads promise a home. In July, the average Russian wage was around $730 a month, which isn't enough to buy homes in many cities in Russia. By contrast, salaries for Russian soldiers start at around $2,444 a month, with a $2,236 signing bonus and additional bonuses available for kilometers of territory gained. There are reports of these salaries not being paid in full or on time, but as Ian Garner, author of "Z Generation: Inside Russia's Fascist Youth," explained to Public Sphere in May, for some young Russian men, it's "better maybe [to] get a big salary tomorrow than stick around home and get a bad salary."
Improbably, the ads still hold out for a Russian victory in the war in Ukraine. The second ad mentions Berlin, where the Soviet Union defeated Hitler in 1945. World War II was the U.S.S.R.'s apex as a great power: it gave the Soviet Union a colonial empire in Eastern Europe and a sense of a higher purpose. Putin and many Russians experienced the collapse of the Soviet Union as a loss of empire and status as a great power -- and the Ukraine war offers the promise of a new empire. Earlier this month, historian Sergei Chernyshov wrote an illuminating essay on Radio Free Europe's website explaining how from the point of view of average citizens in the mid-sized Siberian city where his parents live, life has never been so good as it has been during the Ukraine war. "Just as our grandfathers defeated fascism, we are defeating Nazism in Ukraine (or whatever is there now)," he wrote. (It's worth reading the entire story in English just for the mirrored perspective.)
Russian casualties, which U.S. officials have estimated at 120,000 deaths and some 170,000 to 180,000 injured, are cracks in this mirror world. But, as Chernyshov wrote, "Sure, some of them periodically come back from the war in zinc coffins. On the other hand, the whole street will be out for the funeral -- how is that for reviving traditional values." The Italian philosopher Umberto Eco described this phenomenon as one of the 14 characteristics common to fascism: the "cult of heroism is strictly linked with the cult of death.”
What could break this unreality, where war promises to satisfy basic needs like family, security, and purpose? As with Germany and Japan in World War II, it will take a military defeat to break through Russia's mirror world and begin the reconstruction of a profoundly broken society.
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