The Strongest Kind of Totalitarianism

My mother and her sisters grew up in a completely Ukrainian-speaking village in the Donbas. It wasn’t only the language but the customs, the traditions (like the wedding traditions, for example), the music, and the sense of self as Ukrainians and very different, in a deeply positive sense, from Russians.

The first step towards Russification had been taken during my grandparents’ lives when they were forced to adopt Russian-sounding last names instead of their real names. In my grandfather’s case, he was forced to change his first name, too. Just so you understand the nature of the change, his first name was Trokhym. It was changed to Timofey, which is completely different. The man ended up with a completely different name when he was almost thirty.

My mother and her sisters all ended up having to learn Russian at different points in their life to get educated or employed. But they are completely pro-Ukrainian, hate Russians, very patriotic, etc.

In the younger generation, we have my sister and myself who are completely pro-Ukraine. We have a cousin fighting in the Ukrainian Territorial Defense. We have cousins who are illegal migrants in Russia and we don’t know what they think because they are too afraid to opine on anything. And we have cousins in the Donbas (daughters of a completely pro-Ukraine mother who pays the bills) who think that the worst fate that can await one is having to hear anybody speak Ukrainian.

The reason why I’m telling this story is this. My grandfather survived the Holodomor, Stalinism and WWII. None of that took away his sense of self as a Ukrainian. My Donbas cousins don’t remember the USSR. They were not coerced by a totalitarian regime. They weren’t terrorized, persecuted, or starved. But the ideological effect that wasn’t achieved on my grandparents or parents in the USSR happened in the generation of the grandchildren.

I’m not really talking about Ukraine, you know? I’m sure everybody is tired of me going on about Ukraine. But this is about ideology. Coercion is not that effective in imposing an ideology. Soft totalitarianism is a lot more effective in imposing ideological conformism.

6 thoughts on “The Strongest Kind of Totalitarianism

  1. The Donbass region of Ukraine is being completely destroyed and I imagine that place will be a wasteland for many years. I was wondering, how do pro-Russian people from the Donbass reconcile the fact that their land is getting destroyed due to Russia invading. Is this worth it to them? Or do they simple blame Ukraine for not giving up?

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    1. They are in such deep denial, I can’t tell you. My cousin in Donetsk informed us that she can’t evacuate because she’s planning to “take the kids to the beach.” We tried to explain that there’s no beach. The beaches have been bombed. But she only pouts. Every time we tell them there’s a war, they act like we are inventing it on purpose to make them feel bad.

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    2. “how do pro-Russian people … reconcile the fact that their land is getting destroyed due to Russia invading”

      Stepping into the lion’s den…. one of the features that distinguishes Russians (at the collective level) is indifference and passivity in the face of repression.

      Ukrainians get angry and push back at the idea of a government killing them or their neighbors or whatever, Russains genuinedly, at a level that completely freaks me out, don’t care.

      I’ve yet to encounter a Russian who understands or cares about government repression in societal terms – they might get upset at a member of their family being disappeared or killed but it always stays at the level “they shouldn’t do that to me!” and they never make the civilizational leap to “this shouldn’t happen to anyone!” which is when/where social change happens.

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      1. Yeah, if there is one thing I’ve learned this year is Russian people are just different on a very basic level. They may appear outwardly European and easily mingle but there is something psychologically different about them.

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        1. “something psychologically different about them”

          Also (and this is weird but explains a lot) almost no Russian understands the idea of unrelated people working together for anything except immediate material rewards. At a very deep level this just doesn’t exist in their reality.
          This is one reason they can’t process things like the Solidarity movement in Poland or the Lithuanian Sąjūdis or the Orange revolution of Maidan protests in Ukraine…. spending time and effort (and other resources) in a way that doesn’t immediately benefit you monetarily? Unpossible! The only reason they can conceive of is that they’re being paid off (and they work backwards from there to look for the sinister foreign powers behind the scenes….).

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          1. That’s why all those rumors proliferated that protesters in the Maidan were paid with cookies. Which is insane because who’ll risk their lives for cookies? But it was impossible to explain to Russians that yes, people can sometimes undertake political action without direct payment. They are still completely dedicated to the theory about the cookies.

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