Russian President Vladimir Putin likes to mine Russian history for “heroes,” shaping a national narrative that serves his domestic political purposes — or can be fitted into his idiosyncratic interpretations of history. Dead czars come and go; some Stalin rehabilitation here, a statue to the highly reactionary Alexander III there…
And looming large over Putin’s ceremonial desk in his cabinet room is a bronze statue of Peter the Great, who fought the Swedes for mastery of Central Europe, as noted by Financial Times editor Lionel Barber. “He will live, as long as his cause is alive,” Putin announced to him.
But what would Putin’s hero du jour think of the slayings of Ukrainian civilians and the rapes committed by Russian troops today?
Peter himself was no saint. He had rebellious palace guards summarily executed and his eldest son tortured and butchered. But when his troops captured Narva from the Swedes in 1704, he curtailed a bloodbath and, sword in hand, brought the carnage to a halt, according to contemporary accounts.
Russia’s current czar is no Peter the Great.
As mass graves continue to be uncovered in towns and villages around Kyiv, including Bucha, Irpin and Borodyanka, and more evidence of torture, executions, rape and other sexual violence emerges, the Kremlin’s response remains nonchalant and blank.
It accuses the Ukrainians of lying, of inventing atrocities that never happened, of faking graves and staging corpses.
This refusal to admit the egregious abuse and butchery of the defenseless seems even more shocking and jarring as more and more women have started taking the brave step of describing the violation they endured.
Stories including a 25-year-old woman being forced to watch her 16-year-old sister being raped; a mother tied up as her 11-year-old son was violated.
According to Ukraine’s Ombudsman for Human Rights Lyudmyla Denisova, a group of 25 women and girls were kept in a basement by Russians for nearly a month. Now nine of them are pregnant.
“Russian soldiers told them they would rape them to the point where they wouldn’t want sexual contact with any man, to prevent them from having Ukrainian children,” Denisova said.
Ukrainians say the slayings and rapes are integral to a campaign of genocide, part of the effort to disappear a nation Putin doesn’t think really exists — or should exist. Last month, U.S Secretary of State Antony Blinken described the killings of non-combatants as part of a deliberate campaign of terror, not just random acts of rogue units and ill-disciplined soldiers.
However, neither Blinken nor Ukrainians have offered hard evidence proving that this was part of a deliberate campaign of terror. And in testimonies from the interrogations of Russian prisoners of war released by Ukrainians, soldiers do not say they were instructed to shoot civilians or rape and torture them.
Some locals from Bucha that I spoke to noted that the first wave of Russian soldiers to occupy their once-peaceful town had been brutal, but the second wave was different.
Veronika, who managed to flee the town after living under Russian occupation for three days, told me the initial occupiers seemed more professional, more disciplined, but the soldiers who came after, many of whom were Chechens, “really were beasts.”
Iryna Venediktova, Ukraine’s prosecutor general, has also accused Russia of using rape as a weapon of war and questioned the relevance of asking whether there’s any concrete evidence of orders or instructions issued from on high to Russian commanders and soldiers, telling them to act no better than demons.
By comparison, for his war of annihilation against Russia, Adolf Hitler and the Nazi command had issued actual blood-curdling orders, making clear that Jews and Slavs were members of inferior “races” and were to be treated as such. “The war against Russia is a fundamental part of the German people’s struggle for existence,” General Erich Hoepner said in an order issued on the eve of Operation Barbarossa in 1941.
“This struggle must aim to smash the Russia of today into rubble, and as a consequence it must be carried out with unprecedented harshness,” he added.
Other Nazi generals issued similar orders — the soldiers didn’t need much of a nudge, in fact. Over the years, they had been fed a steady diet about the inferiority of Jews, Slavs and Poles. And their letters home reveal they knew the rules didn’t apply to those of inferior race.
Russian soldiers were similarly primed ahead of Ukraine’s invasion — whether orders to kill and rape were issued or not is moot. They had been told the purpose of the so-called “special military operation” was to “de-Nazify” Ukraine and save Russia from an existential threat.
And no evidence has emerged of any efforts, at any level, from the Kremlin down through the army high command, to stop the carnage.
All armies do atrocious things. But as Max Hastings, a military historian, noted: “The challenge, for all armies in all ages, is to cherish warrior virtues, while rejecting warrior excesses.”
Moscow’s failure to do so amounts to an order in all but name.