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Why Russians are actually responsible for the war in Ukraine, an opinionated book review.

By Manoel Chavanne

After writing a few mostly neutral book reviews, I've decided to engage in a more opinionated one this time. I'm only going to review a single book in this article, but it is nonetheless a very significant one. The book I'm going to use as the base for this article is “Popular Dictatorship: Crises, Mass Opinion, and the Rise of Electoral Authoritarianism” by Aleksandar Matovski and I highly recommend anyone who hasn't read it to give it a go. It is not the most entertaining or easiest read, I'll be honest, but it is still a remarkably convincing and well researched essay.

However, before getting into the thick of it, allow me to start with a few disclaimers. First of all, neither I nor the book are arguing that every single individual Russian is to blame for the war in Ukraine. Some Russians are fighting alongside the Ukrainian Armed Forces for a start, hard to blame these obviously. Some have fled and are actively trying to do something about it from abroad, such as journalists, artists and activists. These individuals seem to represent only a minuscule portion of the Russian population, but they do exist. Second of all there's a difference between being responsible and being guilty. Wikidiff explains the nuance, “As adjectives, the difference between guilty and responsible is that guilty is responsible for a dishonest act, while responsible is answerable for an act performed or for its consequences; accountable; amenable, especially legally or politically.” Anyway, this isn't an article about semantics or linguistics, and at the end of the day, Ukrainians should be the ones making such judgments, not me, so let's get to it.

The main argument of the book is that “electoral autocracies” can only exist if they have popular support. What the author calls “electoral autocracies” (regimes that adopt democratic institutions but subvert them to rule as dictatorships) have become the most widespread, resilient and malignant non-democracies today. They include Putin's Russia, but also Erdogan's Turkey, Maduro's Venezuela, el-Sisi's Egypt and unfortunately many more.

Matovski, who was a national security advisor for the government of North Macedonia and a political and military advisor in the North Macedonian Ministry of Defense, makes a strong case for the population supporting aforementioned regimes, and therefore baring responsibility for their actions. Through the statistical analysis of tons of data in numerous countries, the author produced many tables and graphs all leading to the same conclusions. The data include election results and surveys (which are taken with a pinch of salt, but used anyway) about corruption levels or approval ratings, as well as more measurable data points such as income levels, number of deaths in violent conflicts per capita over the last X many years, income inequalities, military size, etc... The author covers various countries to make his points, but a good chunk of the book is spent using Russia as an example.

His demonstration is that when a state is in crisis (political, economic and/or security) populations often turn to the strong-man argument. “I only can fix this” as Donald Trump claimed in his successful 2016 campaign. This leads to people voting for so-called strong-men without the need for coercion or stuffing of ballot boxes, as enough voters see the choice as “me or chaos” which, although clearly not true, has been proven time and again as a very powerful campaign strategy. The following graph illustrates this point quite well using the collapse of the USSR, as the crisis that led people to significantly change their preferences in favor of the strong-man argument.

Once in power, the strong-man only needs to constantly manufacture crises in order to continue to make the argument, that without him in charge, it'd be chaos. Thus, leading to voters enabling him to maintain his grip on power even when the regime is performing poorly in terms of economic or social indicators, again with minimal need for coercion or stuffing of ballot boxes.

It's impossible to know exactly where this threshold would be, but if a significant enough portion of the Russian population opposed the war in Ukraine, it'd not be sustainable for the regime to continue this way. I imagine that there are Russians who'd prefer peace, but their silence is deafening, especially those abroad. It reminds me of a great quote by Dietrich Bonhoeffer: “Silence in the face of evil is itself evil: God will not hold us guiltless. Not to speak is to speak. Not to act is to act.”

A Russian man I met years ago explained to me that Russians have “learned helplessness." For those not familiar with the term, it means that you have been taught from experience that all resistance is futile, so you don't even try anymore. Read more about it here if you're interested, the original studies from U Penn are fascinating. This may very well be true, but it isn't a valid excuse. There are many examples of successful popular uprisings against authoritarian regimes, including in Russia itself, so it was possible and still is possible. However, there needs to be a true will for change, a willingness to take risks and to make sacrifices. This is quite evidently lacking in today's Russia.

Let's engage in a fun hypothetical: What if Putin died tomorrow? I don't want to speculate as to which individual would replace him, but the argument I do want to make is that, whoever it may be, chances are that very little would change. The new leader would become the new strong-man of Russia, he would gain popular support and the war in Ukraine would continue. Russians have been living under one strong-man after another for centuries it seems, and in a previous article using Ewa M. Thompson's "Imperial Knowledge: Russian Literature and Colonialism" I made the case that Russian imperialism is still alive and well today. Unlike the French or British, Russians are still stuck in colonial times and continue to justify territorial expansions.

Last but not least, Putin's propaganda tirelessly states that “democratic agency doesn't exist” and that the people have no power, therefore saying that the Russian population doesn't have any power, and solely putting the responsibility of this senseless war on the Russian government or the Russian regime, but not its population is falling victim to Putin's propaganda. I'll leave the last word to Gustave Le Bon: “All the great statesmen of every age and every country, including the most absolute despots, have regarded the popular imagination as the basis of their power, and have never attempted to govern in opposition to it.”


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