As a psychologist, I have researched radicalization, terrorism and conspiracy theories. This historical moment offers a unique opportunity to observe in real time how tens of millions of Russians adopt increasingly irrational ideological narratives that justify indiscriminate violence against Ukrainians. But as I listen to interviews with Russian citizens or intercepted phone calls from Russian soldiers to their loved ones and read official statements claiming that Ukraine must cease to exist as a country and a nation, I sometimes lose my professional objectivity. Instead I’m reminded of my ethnic origins.
I am Ukrainian, Jewish and Romani. Each of my ancestors’ people survived a genocide in the 20th century. Before this war, I had imagined what it must have felt like for my grandparents to be targeted for extermination. I had tried to put myself into my grandmother’s shoes when she had learned her parents were killed in the Holocaust for being Jewish. I tried to imagine how my grandfather had felt when he lost his younger siblings who starved to death in Holodomor, the artificial famine inflicted on them because they were Ukrainian, or how my other grandfather had felt when I’d asked about his Romani relatives — any relatives — all dead because they were Romani. I had imagined it as well as I could. Living through it, however, has turned out much different.
It’s like stepping onto a glass floor designed for viewing the landscape far below: The knowledge that the glass is structurally secure jars against the reality of certain death in the abyss below should it fail. In this war I know I am safe; my children are safe. And I believe Ukraine will prevail over Russia. But the deadly abyss in the eyes of “ordinary Russians” still catches the breath in my throat.
I have studied QAnon, a baseless and debunked conspiracy theory that became widely popular in the U.S. during COVID-19 lockdowns. Among some of the more outlandish claims QAnon followers believe are that there are human-lizard hybrids living among us, that there are lasers in outer space controlled by Jews who use them to burn out California forests to make room for a superspeed highway and that there is a cabal of Satan-worshiping pedophiles who control U.S. media and the government.
QAnon claims are no more ludicrous than the Russian propaganda claims. “Ukrainians are blowing themselves up to appeal to NATO so NATO would go to war against Russia,” they hear. Or “Ukrainians are all Nazis.” Despite the fact that 73% of Ukrainians voted for a Jewish president in 2019, such ideas have gained traction among Russians.
Conspiracy theories have a supply-and-demand balance. The supply never fully dries up: The traditional “prophets” on major cities’ street corners now announce online and 24/7 a variety of important secrets and nefarious agents. COVID-19 lockdowns created fertile ground for conspiracy theories to flourish when people turned to social media as their major source of information, and social media algorithms preferentially recommended QAnon content. Even so, the QAnon believers were a minority, about 15% of the population of U.S. adults according to large national polls.
In contrast to QAnon’s grassroots spread, the supply side of conspiracy theories in Russia is centralized, almost entirely taken over by the government. Since President Vladimir Putin took power in 2000, he has systematically dismantled independent media: murdering, imprisoning or exiling any journalist, activist or popular personality who veered off the Kremlin script. According to recent polls in Russia, about 83% of Russians support Putin and the war in Ukraine. Alas, I have not seen polls in which Russians are asked about Ukrainian-trained migratory mosquitoes designed to carry bioweapons and selectively target ethnic Russians in a planned genocide.
On the demand side of conspiracy beliefs, studies have found that conspiratorial beliefs relate to anxiety, loneliness and perceived lack of control, which might explain in part their proliferation during the pandemic when people were isolated and feared contracting a deadly, uncontrollable virus. QAnon believers were no less intelligent than those who rejected conspiracy theories. Conspiracists sought out QAnon content to soothe some of their painful emotions in the company of like-minded others.
It is hard to know if the findings of empirical studies conducted in the West could be replicated with Russian participants, but national polls from before Russia’s war against Ukraine showed that Russians were mostly unhappy and deeply distrustful of other people (which might lead to loneliness).
For all the trillions of dollars Russia has received in oil and gas revenue during Putin’s reign, in 2022 almost a quarter of the population still doesn’t have indoor plumbing. Under such conditions, the government’s claims about Russia’s greatness might invite questions even from conspiracists. The answer the Russian government offers is that the West, specifically NATO and the U.S., has been keeping Russia “on its knees.” They are to blame for the lack of medical care in Russia, horrific human rights abuses and the outhouse instead of a toilet for 1 in 4 people. The overwhelming support for the war suggests most Russians accept these conspiracy theories.
The intrinsic contradictions and sheer ridiculousness of conspiracy theories accepted by so many in Russia are especially puzzling now when belief in them translates to acting against their self-interest. For this ideology, Russians loudly welcome sanctions that have stripped store shelves bare and resurrected Soviet-era hours-long lines for food.
Besides anxiety, conspiracy theories also tap into anger. In the U.S. QAnon has appealed especially to those Americans who felt angry about a changing culture and minorities and LGBTQ communities gaining rights that some middle-class white folks don’t believe they deserve. QAnon conspiracy theories identify scapegoats (Jews, celebrities, government officials) to whom they can direct their anger and offer a solution in the fight against the “evil cabal” by supporting “Q+” Donald J. Trump.
Anger toward Ukrainians has been simmering for generations in Russia, and ethnic slurs and denigrating portrayals of Ukrainians in Russian popular culture have stoked anti-Ukrainian sentiments during Putin’s rule. After Ukraine overthrew the Russian-installed corrupt regime in the 2014 Revolution of Dignity, narratives of NATO’s covert involvement and fabricated stories about Ukrainian nationalists crucifying children in the Donbas region justified the Russian invasion that led to the annexation of Crimea and an eight-year-long war in the Donbas.
Now Ukraine is going through a new cycle of conspiracy-theory-driven hell. Russian-speaking cities of Mariupol and Kharkiv are systematically bombed into rubble in the name of protecting Russian speakers in Ukraine. The Jewish president has been targeted for assassination no fewer than 11 times by Russian special operations forces tasked to take down the Ukrainian “Nazi government.” Russian propagandists accuse Ukraine of atrocities and genocide even as Russian soldiers round up Ukrainian civilians to torture, rape and kill. “Don’t ever let morality stop you from doing the right thing,” says a Russian propagandist on TV to Russian soldiers.
But the messaging is not only for Russian audiences. The Russian foreign minister and the Russian representative to the United Nations flatly denied the overwhelming evidence of Russia’s war crimes, instead laying blame on Ukrainians. As Yale history professor Timothy Snyder pointed out, if Putin succeeds in the broader political aims he is pursuing with this war, he will control the meaning of terms adopted by the West after World War II that describe the extreme scale of horror: genocide, Nazism, atrocity. If Putin succeeds, he can declare what these words mean.
Words and the ideas they stand for would have no meaning except for what the powerful allow. There would be no honor except what the powerful call honor, no freedom except what the powerful describe as freedom. There would be no Ukrainians since the powerful declared Ukrainian culture fake, Ukrainian language nonexistent and Ukrainian people in need of extermination except for a minority who should be subjected to punitive reeducation and collective punishment until they learn to accept that they are Russian — for a term of at least one generation.
Putin’s Russia is fighting against all meaning so it can hold exclusive rights to it, enforced through the threat of pain and the appeal of pleasure. The Russian army is already advancing this agenda: bombing hospitals and sanctuaries marked as having “children” inside and claiming these were Nazi strongholds, gang-raping children in front of their parents and parents in front of their children. There is no more than that, only their dominance and others’ submission. That’s the “Russian World” they are building.
But through the horror and darkness of these days, I am carried by the knowledge that Ukrainians fight, not for pleasure or against pain but for ideas: freedom, nationhood, dignity. Despite all experts predicting their quick surrender, Ukrainians defeated Russia’s efforts to capture even one major city, fighting longer, harder and more effectively than anyone thought they would. I am uplifted by the response from non-Ukrainians around the world who sacrificed their time protesting and writing petitions, donating to relief organizations, inviting Ukrainian refugees into their homes and communities, and traveling to Ukraine to report, deliver medical care and other aid, and even fight for Ukraine. In this war between pain, pleasure and power on one side and meaning and self-sacrifice on the other, Ukraine has not given up. Nor is it fighting alone.
As illusions go, some are more dangerous than others. Russia succeeded in luring the West into the illusion that it could have both the pleasure of Russia’s oil and the meaning of its own ideals. For this, the West had ceded economic and political freedom, offering a measure of control over its future to the Russian government. Ukraine fell under the illusion that it could peacefully coexist with its aggressive neighbor if it behaved “nicely.” But the glass over the deadly abyss shattered with the explosions on Feb. 24. It is important to witness its depth so that “never again” can have meaning.
Meaning is what defines civilization. Our history and culture, our language and identity, our ideas about right and wrong — those are what keep us from falling into the abyss where torture and mass murder of people with their arms tied behind their back is just an average Wednesday. Just so there’s no illusions as to what this war is about.