Humiliation, the root of Russia’s systemic violence

A soldier of Russian National Guard in St. Petersburg, 2022. (Credit: Dmitri Lovetsky/Keystone)

In Russia, the army and prisons have long been symbols of grassroots cruelty to their own kind. The humiliations that occur in these institutions even contribute to their manageability. In schools, too, violence and bullying are an everyday occurrence. This systemic cycle of domination impacts all of Russian society.

“...And the next circle of hell began: they started hitting me, not just giving me a slap or a kick... They would put out cigarette butts on me, spit on me, hit me, and even piss on me. And just for fun, they would hit me, kick me. They would come up with some excuses like, ‘Got any money? No? Tomorrow!’”

The above quote, a fragment of a book by Murmansk journalist Alexander Borisov, “The Right Ear”, is from the life of an ordinary school in the city of Severomorsk. I know this guy personally and can vouch for his credibility.

And here is a recent anecdote: “Three guys dragged a fourth into the bathroom, one held the door, one filmed the video, the third committed what the report calls ‘violent acts of a sexual nature.’” This, too, is not a prison chronicle, but a case in a school near Moscow.

Another episode (says the accused in the beating): “The guy was a little weak-willed. And to keep his spirits up we had a three-minute sparring session of three rounds each. He started crying.”

This is the army, pre-war.

In a country steeped in camp subculture, from tattoos to songs, everyone knows that the system of humiliation is a proven tool for control. For the most part, in prisons, violence occurs at the hands of other prisoners. And in the army, it's not generals who beat up soldiers, but the same sergeants. And at school, cases of teachers beating students are a scandal, but intra-specific bullying is an everyday occurrence.

“I was beaten, I was spat on, I was stood up after school, but it wasn't until I grew up that I realised it wasn't normal, that it was violence,” the adult successful woman tells me. In unbearable conditions such as these, the human psyche activates defense mechanisms. In order not become filled with pain, we begin to perceive what is happening as the norm. This phenomenon is easily explained by psychiatrists, who have pointed out that rapists can be former victims of violence themselves. This is not an attempt to justify crimes, only a way to understand their origins.

Prison, army and school bullying are very easy to confuse. In fact, the consequences are often similar: school shooters, which was recognized as a “terrorist movement” by Russian authorities in February. The Supreme Court said that school shooters “pursue a goal of destabilizing the situation in the country.” I would venture to guess that a teenager, distraught from bullying and taking his father's gun to school, thinks the least about the situation in the country. What “destabilizes” it and leads to innocent victims is a culture of unpunished brutality, which is learned at school, and flourishes in barracks.

As treatment, children are banned from using the internet, cell phones and video games, plus lessons in Orthodoxy and being forced to wear school uniforms. It is hard to find ways that are less consistent with the stated goal.

Sadistic Cruelty

This terrible year has shown the effect of a cult of cruelty in a climate of war. But no amount of jamming by Roskomnadzor can drown out the howls of thousands of victims. The path from Russian culture to Russian chthonic chaos was frighteningly short.

What mechanisms nurtured sadistic cruelty in us can be pondered by recalling the experiments of psychologists, from the Stanford experiment to the “Third Wave”. But without thinking about it, we run the risk of encountering the demons unleashed even after the war, regardless of its outcome. These demons have been nurtured consistently and systematically. They begin to evolve from a very early age – as soon as a child is first placed in the hands of the state.

The mutual affinity between the three spheres of violence: the school, the prison and the army in Russia in the 20th and 21st centuries is both obvious and frightening. They are related by common features: the laws of the pack and closed off from prying eyes.

The uniforms themselves are like violence: coffee-dresses, camouflage or overalls, tags on the chest, chevrons on the shoulder...

“Violence thrives in places where there are clear schedules and routines. There's a specific place for everyone. Everyone is broken into groups, [and wears] a uniform that depersonalizes and removes responsibility,” says professor Valentina Likhoshova, who has worked with victims of bullying and discrimination for many years.

“You have your opinion, but there is [also] a correct one. The teacher, the security guard, the ‘technician’ have authority over you. For us, she is just a cleaning lady at school, but for a schoolboy, she is a person with power — someone who, for some unknown reason, has the right to give orders. And so the pattern of behavior begins to take shape.”

According to data collected by TASS agency, between 36 and 51 per cent of Russian schoolchildren have experienced bullying. In 61 per cent of cases, it was humiliation, in 24 per cent, physical violence and in 11 per cent, the bullying was recorded on video camera.

Against the background of different types of violence, school, army and penitentiary violence is distinguished by the sophistication of humiliation: not pain, but filth — a pronounced fecal-genital character. Dunking someone’s head in the toilet or making one clean it with a toothbrush are actions with similar consequences.

Sexualized violence

“One usually learns to distinguish clearly between the personal and the public by the age of 7 or 8. One of the most terrible things is when personal things are made public without your will,” said Likhoshva about the nature of this phenomenon.

“Pulling up your skirt in public, pushing a girl into the men's locker room or a boy into the women's locker room, [or] opening your phone and reading messages aloud is a violation of the boundaries of the personal and the public. In the army or in prisons, such methods are no longer enough to really humiliate a person. So, there you will use your personal toothbrush to clean the toilet.”

An indispensable aspect of violence in closed groups, including children's groups, is its sexualization. And it is not about the penetration of the prison subculture beyond its walls: "Sexualized violence is the primate's way of lowering the status of a rival in the group. Unfortunately, our society is not far from primate level in many issues. This is a direct indicator of the level of social development," Likhoshva said.

Paroxysms of state struggle against torture always happen after loud scandals the publication of the prison torture video archive. As a rule, these attacks are fleeting and always end with triumphant rhetoric. For example, in 2019, Russian defense minister Sergei Shoigu announced the complete eradication of army hazing.

According to him, only cases of domestic or barracks hooliganism are now found in the army. I am afraid that the nature of this thesis is more linguistic than statistical: he meant that with the reduction of the army’s term of service to one year, there is no “dedovshchina” anymore. The statistics are also “improved” by prohibiting soldiers from using smartphones or the inclusion of "the observance of law and order and the moral and psychological climate in the troops" in the list of information that can harm state security. But in the meantime, more than 700 convictions for violent crimes in the military are given out in Russia every year.

Just before New Year's Eve, a video appeared on the internet: Marines in the village of Sputnik near Murmansk are forced to march and sing in gas masks. A few days ago, a certain captain was also convicted there for smoking in a wrong place. He made three conscripts run cross-country with 30-kilogram bars on their shoulders. The captain will pay a fine of 60,000 rubles for this, which is clearly less than his monthly salary.

The state has long given up on violence, or considered it a variant of the norm. Therefore, those who are supposed to stop it so often turn a blind eye to it, from a teacher to an army sergeant. When mob aggression is directed at a particular victim, anger will not turn against a senior officer or the state. It is enough to control those who lead the bullying to control everyone.

A class with bullying will not have a school strike, and that pattern is learned for life. Depending on the circumstances, for some, learned violence will express itself in the form of domestic violence, and for others it will blossom next time they’re in a group setting. In a hostile situation with a clearly defined image of the enemy, it will provoke war crimes. A few years ago, a study by the International Committee of the Red Cross identified simple conditions that contribute to this: group conformism, obedience to authority and ablurred sense of responsibility.

Boundaries for respect

Why does the army force you to wash someone else's footcloth? Following absurd and unpleasant orders breaks the will. It is a kind of moral rape, after which the victim feels “dirty”. And in order to survive and not to go crazy, one turns off reflection. Particularly sophisticated "military bosses" of low rank keep the violent fantasy alive: the sergeant forces the soldiers to take turns killing a rat. Those who refuse are beaten. Others watch. This complicity is bound by blood, even if it is rat blood. And it teaches a lesson: Kill and you will live. Then broken men go to a real war, where they no longer fire blanks. Returning to civilian life, they transfer these behaviors into rules of survival on the battlefield.

Stopping the cyle of violence requires society to mature. This disease is akin to what affects the soldier in war: moral self-elimination. It teaches us to accept the unthinkable as the norm.

Today's contract servicemen are 20 years old; they were born, grew up and went to serve in Putin’s army. Although many of them come from the outback, where life is far from comfortable, this generation didn't know outright poverty. Many of them knew nothing at all except school.

“If you want to understand how developed society is, look at schools, detention centers and psycho-neurological boarding schools,” Likhoshva said.

What do they have in common in Russia? The system of humiliation. Only by raising a person who is aware of his boundaries and inviolability will we get a generation that respects other people's right to life. We will do this when we learn that the atrocities of the current war are committed by those who washed other people's footcloth. They are no longer bound by rat blood, but by human blood. And we have to live with them.

This article was first publised in Novaya Gazeta Europe