Alexander Etkind is a professor at the department of international relations at Central European University. This essay is adapted from his forthcoming book, “Russia Against Modernity” (Polity, 2023).
VIENNA — When Russian tanks and trucks invaded Ukraine in February 2022, the letter Z was painted on their sides. There were other icons, letters and tattoos on show, but the Z won the race of symbols. As a feature of war and a sign of support, the Z soon spread all over Russia. Within the country, patriots painted it on police cars, on the sides of buildings and on their clothing. In Kazan, children who were dying in a hospice were lined up in a Z formation for a macabre photo that was widely disseminated by state media.
The war being fought was against the West, so why was a Latin letter — foreign to the Cyrillic alphabet — chosen as its symbol? There was no official explanation, so theories multiplied. Some said that the Z came from the Russian word zapad, which means “the West”; others argued it stood for Zelensky and that Russian troops had been ordered to kill him.
True believers saw in the Z one half of the swastika, which they claimed was an ancient symbol of the Slavs. Critics thought it was taken from zombie films. Whatever the truth, it has proliferated in Russian life and media. But the story of why it became so popular and what that means is a fascinating one.
Ethnicities And Generations
Preparing his assault on Ukraine, Russian President Vladimir Putin claimed that the Russians and Ukrainians were one and the same people. Failing to explain any legitimate reasons for the attack, Putin’s pre-war speeches and articles foreshadowed the weird character of the events that followed.
Many millions of Russian speakers lived in Ukraine, a few million Ukrainians in Russia, and many other millions of both ethnicities were connected by blood, marriage or friendship. Judging by most demographic and social indicators, the neighboring countries were pretty similar. In global rankings, fertility and life expectancy were comparably low, and divorce rates were equally high. Due to oil and gas exports, Russians were technically wealthier per capita than Ukrainians, though this wealth rarely reached them. Judging by the inequality of incomes, Ukraine looked like a fairer, more balanced society. Despite the indicators of wealth, there was more poverty in Russia. And while the statistics of education were also similar, quality was questionable in both countries. Before Moscow started hostilities back in 2014, Ukraine was almost as corrupted as Russia. And though Russia was ethnically more heterogenous, both countries were mostly urban, educated and secular.
During the war, however, we have seen vast and growing differences between the two fighting peoples, with the hapless Russian troops and their corrupted commanders starkly contrasted by the ingenuity and rationality of the Ukrainians. In the diplomatic arena, senile, mumbling Russian leaders lose every argument against their brilliant colleagues from Ukraine.
The Russian regime that launched this war is as gerontocratic as the one during the twilight of the Soviet Union. In 1991, when the Soviet Union collapsed, the future Russian minister of foreign affairs, Sergey Lavrov, was 41 — exactly the same age as his Ukrainian counterpart, Dmytro Kuleba, is now. Putin has been in power (22 years) for quite a lot longer than any of the Soviet leaders, except only Stalin (29 years). In general, there was a huge difference in age between the Russian and Ukrainian leaders at the outset of the war. Putin (70) could easily be the 44-year-old Volodymyr Zelensky’s father, and the same is true of almost every Russian cabinet member in comparison to their Ukrainian counterparts.
Nothing cleanses the palate better than war. It changes everything — first the present, then the future and, finally, the past. It reverses the natural order of things. Sons die and fathers mourn, not the other way around. Every war brings the problem of generations to the fore. Ivan Turgenev wrote “Fathers and Sons,” the paradigmatic literary analysis of the problem of generational differences, in the aftermath of the Crimean War (1853-1856); Karl Mannheim wrote “The Problem of Generations,” the paradigmatic scholarly analysis, in the aftermath of World War I. A major divide in any country, generations are shaped by their experiences more than by their dates of birth.
In all parts of the former U.S.S.R., the rupture of 1991 established a huge difference between the last Soviet and the first post-Soviet generations. In both Ukraine and Russia, generational differences were larger than ethnic ones. Born in the wake of World War II, many of Russia’s current rulers are deeply rooted in the Soviet period. These boomers went to Soviet schools and started their careers in Soviet collectives. Of the 83 Russian billionaires listed by Forbes in 2022, almost all of them are Soviet boomers. Peers of Putin and his regime, this tiny elite of oligarchs and officials amassed enormous wealth during the so-called “fat years,” the decade after 2000 of fossil fuel-based prosperity.
Ukraine’s leaders, on the other hand, know about the Soviet era mostly from history books. Among the 23 current members of the cabinet, none are boomers. Among the 31 members of the Russian cabinet, by contrast, 11 are.
This war is being fought between two neighboring peoples of similar languages and diverging cultures. It is a war of aging boomers against Generation X and millennials. That’s a craterous divide in any country, but the rupture of 1991 made it even wider.
In Russia, Zelensky and his peers would have been a lost generation. Born too late to profit from the massive redistribution of the 1990s, Russia’s Gen X felt resentment toward more successful predecessors from Putin’s generation. Mikhail Anipkin, a Russian-British sociologist, compares the Russian political life of the pre-war period to a theater: The boomers are on stage, performing an endless play, while millennials helplessly wait in the wings for their turn, and Gen X, uninterested, drinks at the bar. Youngsters in the audience whistle in protest, but the ushers kick them out.
Russian sons and daughters tried to rebel against their fathers in the mass protests of 2012, but they failed. In a huge contrast, Ukraine’s young people succeeded in Kyiv two years later, overthrowing an aging Moscow-allied regime and taking power to lead the nation. Feeling the heat, Kremlin septuagenarians launched a counterattack.
This is not a war between ethnicities — it is a war between generations. A gigantic Oedipal conflict.
Genocide Of Small Differences
In his 1944 definition of genocide, the Polish-Jewish scholar Raphael Lemkin wrote that “genocide has two phases: one, destruction of the national pattern of the oppressed group; the other, the imposition of the national pattern of the oppressor.” But at the start of the Russo-Ukrainian War, these “national patterns” were not much different. This may sound unusual, but in most known cases of genocide, such a situation is a rule rather than an exception.
Sigmund Freud wrote about the “narcissism of minor differences”; studying the Balkan genocides, the philosopher Michael Ignatieff demonstrated how small differences turned into grand narratives and mass murders. In the Bible, there is a story about how the Gileadites fought against a neighboring people, the Ephraimites. Those Ephraimites who fled and were captured had to pass a phonetic test — pronouncing the Hebrew word “Shibboleth.” For saying “Sibboleth” instead, 42,000 Ephraimites were killed (Judges 12:5-6).
Citing this story, Viktor Shklovsky, the Russian-Jewish scholar who took part in World War I and saw its aftermath in Ukraine, commented: “The Bible repeats itself in a curious way. … In the Ukraine [sic!] I saw a Jewish boy. He could not look at the corn without trembling. He told me: When they were killing us in the Ukraine, they needed to check whether the person they were about to kill was Jewish. They asked him: ‘Say kukuruza (corn).’ Sometimes, he said: ‘kukuruzha.’ They killed him.” There is not much difference between this use of phonetics and the Nazi method of identifying Jews by circumcision; obviously, neither of these markers warrants murder.
Other genocides followed the same logic of magnifying minor differences. Historians know that the Armenian genocide of 1915-17 and the Bosnian genocide of 1995 cannot be explained by religious hostilities between Muslims and Christians. The Young Turks — mostly intellectuals and military officers — who came to power in the Ottoman Empire, in 1908, aimed to secularize their country. At the outset of their campaign, the Armenian radicals — also secular intellectuals and military officers — supported the Young Turks and took part in their movement. There had been no genocide throughout the long centuries during which Turks and Armenians lived side by side in separate religious communities; the genocide only occurred after their religious differences had been mostly eliminated.
The internal terror in the Soviet Union, which spanned three decades and only ended with Stalin’s death in 1953, was equivalent to genocide. However, the perpetrators and the victims often belonged to the same ethnicity and shared the same ideology. Former interrogators would sometimes be arrested and then meet their victims in the same camp.
For Bosnians and Serbs in the late 20th century, their religious and cultural differences did not play the role they did in the past. The same could safely be said about the Russians and Ukrainians when they lived side by side, in both Russia and Ukraine, before the disastrous war of 2022.
The absence of meaningful differences does not decrease the scale or the cruelty of mass murder. On the contrary, the lesser the differences, the greater the genocide. The smaller the chosen differences are, the more the genocide approaches a collective suicide — an analogy that has been noted in many historiographies of genocide, from Somalia and Cambodia to the Soviet Union and the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
In “Civilization and its Discontents,” Freud wrote: “It is precisely communities with adjoining territories, and related to each other as well, who are engaged in constant feuds and in ridiculing each other. … I gave this phenomenon the name of the ‘narcissism of minor differences,’ a name that does not do much to explain it.”
Despite Freud’s uncharacteristic modesty, I see something valuable in his idea. If people are perceived as different, they can be used and abused, and the abuse would be seen in terms of economics rather than politics. But if you see another person or people as similar to you, they evoke either love or hatred. Political relations emerge among those who are similar.
Narcissism turned negligible differences into meaningful narratives, which then led to mass murder. This does not, however, explain why and how two neighboring and similar peoples become a genocidal couple. Many human groups are similar, but this does not lead them to kill one another. Genocide does not function as a causal chain of events that starts with a small difference and ends with a mass grave.
The opposite is true. Mass murders happen for reasons that have nothing to do with ethnic differences, big or small. But after they have taken place, the survivors on both sides explain the slaughter by converting their small, negligible differences into grand, overwhelming narratives.
The number of small differences between human groups is infinite. Critical race theory deconstructs racial differences by arguing that they have no objective referents — they are all created by cultural perceptions. One could say that critical race theory works as an exact antidote to the “narcissism of small differences”: The former turns big differences, as they are perceived in a racist society, into collateral effects of cultural interactions, while the latter turns small differences into decisive factors that, for a murderous group, determine the difference between life and death.
There is no “objective” metric that could define which differences are small (like accents, for example) and which differences are big (races or generations). They are all constructed, contingent and fluid. A whim of history can turn any set of human differences into a genocidal matter.
According to Lemkin, the reason for genocide is the oppressors striving to establish their own order in occupied lands. The murderers want to get power, property and recognition from their own kind and from neighboring peoples. Differences are in the eyes of the beholder, but if one person has power, he can impose his perception on others.
Putin, his state and his army were determined to destroy the “national pattern” of the Ukrainians and replace it with the “national pattern” of the Russians. The perceived differences were small, but the political results were enormous. In some ways, the Russians and the Ukrainians were so similar that no Shibboleth test would have differentiated them. To identify the enemy among a people who looked and sounded like themselves, the Russian soldiers couldn’t rely even on accents — many of them had similar ways of pronouncing Russian words.
Having no other option, Russian soldiers at checkpoints searched people for “Nazi tattoos,” and anyone who had anything interpretable as such on their skin was beaten or killed. And those who sent these soldiers to Ukraine in the first place developed their own marks of difference.
Russia’s war against Ukraine is as senseless as any other genocide: There was no way it could bring Russia any political or economic gain, and it did not. The only comprehensible framework for it is a classic Russian imperialism mixed with a specifically post-Soviet revanchism. But there was also a third part to the mix: fetishism.
Russian losses have been huge and predictable — but that hardly matters. What mattered was the fetish: a Ukrainian territory whose only value came from the idea that it used to be “ours” and should be regained. Supposedly, this would have brought glory, ecstasy or some other form of satisfaction to the Russian president, his elites and their people.
For military and political purposes, markers of difference between two similar peoples had to be created and emphasized. If not the color of the skin, then the ways of shaving beards or making tattoos; if not languages, then dialects and accents; if not different religions, then different uniforms or fashions. These minor differences grow into fetishes. They are more important than the biggest and the most profound similarities, and they define life or death. There is no genocide without distinct “national patterns,” but the fetishized differences between these patterns could be negligible for any other purpose but genocide.
Nobody understands a fetishistic desire but the fetishist. Moreover, even different fetishists do not understand each other. One worships a high heel, another a colorful bow. However, fetishism is a venerable concept — both Marx and Freud loved it. Why does anyone take pleasure from the proverbial heel? It’s incomprehensible. And the victim, the owner of the heel, is as dumbfounded as anyone else.
None of this matters to the fetishist; he seeks pleasure above all else. It is exactly this disproportion between a part and a whole that constitutes fetishism. Crimea was a heel, and so was Donbas.
In national catastrophes of this scale, there is always an irrational, incomprehensible core. German historians of the Holocaust call it a “civilizational rupture.” It is important to analyze imperialism and revanchism, two comprehensible sources of these catastrophes — but it is wrong to take them for the whole picture. Your foe, a fetishist, would be happy to deceive you in this way.
Militant and potentially genocidal, fetishist culture is full of contradictions. When the emperor is a fetishist, his poets write odes and his sculptors erect monuments to him. This is hardly surprising given that the fetishist pays them handsomely.
Being a scholar under fetishistic rule is more difficult. Precisely because the fetishistic aspect of events is incomprehensible, the scholar mostly writes about the imperialistic and revanchist aspects. Historically speaking, many scholars who lived under fetishistic regimes were imperialists, but very few were fetishists. For various reasons, they did not approve of worshipping the heel, and they wrote critically about it. Most of these writings intended to explain events as the product of comprehensible factors, either political or military; fetishism was subsumed within imperialism. It took courage to see brutal acts of genocide for what they were: senseless.
There is a fetish beneath every genocide: circumcised flesh, the manner of pronunciation of certain words, a tattoo. None of them justify murder, and only a fetishist would disagree with this. But we know from history that fetishization of these minor differences does take place, and it costs millions of lives.
With the Z, a new step was taken in this amazing spectacle of history. Since there were no real words that could serve to differentiate friends from foes, a symbol had to be invented from scratch. Entirely senseless, it is the belief in the Z, the love for the Z, the identification with the Z, that identifies a true patriot.