After the scenes that we saw following the liberation of Ukrainian towns and villages earlier in the spring perhaps we should have been hardened. Nevertheless, images and reports of the sheer barbarity of some Russian military units continue to shock: whether it be the castration of a prisoner; the targeting of civilians; torture under interrogation, or the insatiable appetite for looting.
War has always had terrible side effects, sometimes bringing out the best in humanity, but often the worst. Notwithstanding, we retain high expectations of the discipline and restraint of our own armed forces. We require thorough investigation and accountability if they fall short.
What is it about the form that Russian forces have displayed in Ukraine and previously in Chechenia, that leaves their chain of command so apparently unconcerned?
At the Chalke Valley History Festival in June, I bought a copy of Anthony Beevor’s Russia: Revolution and Civil War 1917-1921. I was already familiar with the history, but I’ve always found Beevor’s accounts refreshing and gripping. Now that we are into the parliamentary recess, I’ve had the time to pick it up and read it. What I was certainly unaware of previously was the role of Winston Churchill -our Minister for War at the time- and the extent to which he tried to persuade the Prime Minister Lloyd- George and his cabinet to expand our commitment to the ‘Whites’ in the civil war against Bolshevism.
What the book also brought home to me is the scale and cruelty of the killing. From Lenin down, there was a promotion genocide as a tool of policy, and of the idea that lives are entirely expendable. Given the mind-boggling numbers of people to be killed, time and motion would dictate that they be despatched as swiftly and efficiently as possible. But not a bit of it: ingenuity and blood-lust dictated that victims be killed in some of the most excruciating ways imaginable. Of course, this investment of time and energy in the means and the reporting of killing improved the effectiveness of terror as a tool of social control and obedience.
The excesses of the civil war were not ended by the triumph of Bolshevism and the creation of the Soviet Union. Stalin’s regime perpetuated the terror, populations were deported, starved, and exterminated. It is significant that when Khrushchev denounced Stalin’s crimes it was only in a secret session of the Politburo. The willing murderers and torturers enjoyed untroubled retirement. As Solzhenitsyn and Sakharov demonstrated, the habits of the regime survived till the very end of the Soviet Union. Putin, who was an official in the Soviet system, has sought to turn back the clock and to rehabilitate Stalin’s reputation.
After the Second World War the Nuremberg trials exposed and punished the servants of the Nazi state. The enormity of the barbarism of the Soviet regime over the last century has never been similarly exposed, denounced, and its operatives held accountable. Perhaps this might go some way to explaining the treatment by Russian troops of their enemies: maybe it’s just the way things are done, it’s “part of the system”.
President Regan described it as the Evil Empire