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World War Z

A new book by historian Ian Garner investigates how the war in Ukraine is transforming Russia into a fascist society.

· 10 min read
World War Z
A man holds photos of relatives killed in the Second World War during the Inmortal Regiment march in the streets of Moscow. Getty images

A review of Z Generation: Into the Heart of Russia’s Fascist Youth by Ian Garner, 256 pages, C Hurst & Co. (May 2023)

Russia’s fear of invasion is not quite senseless paranoia. The country has been invaded many times since the wave of onslaughts in the 13th and 14th centuries by the Mongol empire. These invasions came from the east and the south and were successful in subduing the Russians, who were then still stateless. More recent attacks, from the 16th century on, came from the Swedes, the Poles, the French, the Ottomans, and—most bloodily—the Germans. All of these left mountains of dead, but still failed.

An all-out invasion of that kind is very unlikely to happen today. If it did, Russia would likely retaliate by going nuclear. According to most estimations, Russia has more nuclear warheads—nearly 6,000—than any other country in the world, including the United States. The invasion Russia now fears is less tangible. It is more like an infection—an infection of democracy, of civil society, of the rule of law, of clean and accountable government. The president of Russia, Vladimir Putin, fears institutions like these above all else. He needs protection from them, and to prevent their influence and appeal from seeping into the minds of his country’s youth.

One of these protections—or so Putin believes—is Ukraine. Putin sees that country as a crucial physical bulwark against Western influence, but it has been a centre of the very influences he most fears for more than a decade. If Ukraine is to protect Russia from the West, the country as it presently stands must be destroyed. And for that, new generations of Russia must be persuaded of both its future importance and its present danger.

Putin became Russian president in 2000, after the country had weathered a decade of post-communist racketeering and impoverishment. He understood the collapse of the Soviet Union—which he had served as a KGB lieutenant colonel—as “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the [20th] century.”

In his first two presidential terms, he re-established control over the country, crushed a rebellion in the Caucasian region of Chechnya, pushed the newly enriched oligarchs out of politics, and introduced “managed” democracy, a style of governance designed to ensure that his party always won in the parliament. The business of government is now conducted by an inner circle of security and military officials whom Putin enriched with what Fiona Hill and Clifford Gaddy described as “mutually assured incrimination to ensure loyalty” in their 2013 book, Mr Putin: Operative in the Kremlin.

Presidential terms had been constitutionally limited to two four-year terms, so after serving these, Putin installed his obedient associate, Dmitry Medvedev, to serve a single term in his stead before passing the leadership back to him in 2012. It had been hoped, especially by the Obama administration, that Medvedev would be a liberalising force. But his liberalism never went further than a few speeches, and he has since become among the most savage of the anti-Ukrainian claque.

The economy—buoyed for a time by the high price of oil, one of Russia’s few tradable commodities—faltered after 2008 and the national mood soured. The transparently self-serving manoeuvre to restore Putin to power, the increasingly obvious corruption, the equally obvious tampering with the 2011 legislative election, and the emergence of anti-regime leaders like Alexei Navalny all combined to create a new opposition, at least in the cities and among the educated young.

The newly reappointed president responded to this upsurge in resistance with arrests and repression. But in February 2014, when Viktor Yanukovich—the vastly corrupt, pro-Russian president of Ukraine—was hounded from office after weeks of riots and the killing of demonstrators, Putin crossed a new threshold. Yanukovich’s flight, he believed (or said he believed) was the result of a coup organised by the West. In response, he ordered the invasion of Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula, a seizure effected without bloodshed.  

From that moment forward, Ukraine was in Moscow’s crosshairs. Pro-Russian separatists, bolstered by Russian security agents, took over parts of the eastern provinces of Donetsk and Luhansk. Fighting between these forces and the Ukrainian army grew more intense, and on February 24th, 2022, Russia invaded. We are now deep into the second year of a war which, though still confined on the battlefields to Russia and Ukraine, has ineluctably drawn in Europe, North America, China, and, more distantly, almost everyone else.

That war’s ebb and flow still commands our news and our fears. We know much less about how the conflict has been transforming Russia itself. And according to a new book of close reporting by historian Ian Garner, Russia is using every device of the modern media to create a fascist society, developed and deepened by young men and women, teenagers, and even children, who are having a whale of a time.

Garner’s book is titled Z Generation: Into the Heart of Russia’s Fascist Youth. The “Z” in the title refers to a symbol that has become something like an equivalent of the Nazi swastika since the day Russia invaded Ukraine. Today, it represents a sign of support for the Russian army, displayed everywhere and employed prominently in Russian war propaganda.

Garner once had many Russian friends and contacts, but they no longer speak to him, or only do so to repeat the dire tropes of the TV talk shows and the vast “web of fake news networks, paid influencers and bloggers” in Russia and abroad. These former friends and contacts carry much of the argument, and they are a terrible bunch, spending much of their time online feeding ever more bloodthirsty narratives of what ought to be done to the Ukrainians.

Nevertheless, Garner knows better than to hang them on hooks to be scolded by a Western readership because he understands where they came from. Many of the young people he features grew up in the post-Soviet ’90s, amid the ruins of a failed communist order. Those years are seared on their psyches, especially if they were clever and observant and lived outside of Moscow’s “golden streets.”

Ivan Kondakov is an extreme case: he grew up in the port city of Arkhangelsk, 600 miles north of Moscow on the White Sea, where the decline of the submarine fleet meant the decay of national pride and the decline of engineering. This left what Kondakov calls “a kind of post-apocalyptic nightmare,” in which the streets were “full of people committing theft everywhere, mafia turning up and stealing whole factories, criminals all over the place, the courtyards full of all sorts of hooligans.”

Kondakov got out by working hard at school, and came to study in Moscow in the early 2000s. He took a PhD in engineering and obtained a good job in the aerospace industry, with which he was able to afford a nice apartment where he raised his three children. He is, Garner notes, “educated, eloquent and multilingual … far from the typical image of a brutish, monosyllabic Putin supporter.” Kondakov dismisses Mikhail Gorbachev, whose efforts to democratise communism effectively destroyed the system, as “a populist traitor” and “dim,” while Yeltsin is judged to have been “a total disgrace.” Vladimir Putin, on the other hand, is someone who has used his time in office to build a better country, and who took advantage of the boom of the 2000s decade to become “a creator.”

Kondakov’s generation are now in their 30s and 40s. They did not see the relative wealth of the 2000s as an invitation to adopt liberal values, which many in the West assumed would attend a bourgeois lifestyle. Grateful to Putin, they came to view the world as he did: “Nato and the West versus Russia, 1990s versus 2000s, destruction and regeneration, Putin as hero and his critics as enemies.”

Alina, a young woman Garner had known as a student, grew up in Nizhny Tagil, a city on the doorstep of Siberia famed for its tank factories and for metalworking of all kinds. It too had boomed in the 2000s, but by the mid-2010s, orders were reduced, and workers—who had once promised to come to Moscow to deal with the city types protesting against Putin—found themselves attending protest demonstrations instead. But Alina chose her side in adolescence. Born into a comfortable middle-class family, she studied for a degree in graphic design and longed for Moscow. Addicted to her phone, she developed an increasingly violent antipathy to the West and to Ukraine.

In her social-media posts, she now refers to Ukrainians as “Ukrofascists.” She had, Garner observed, “learned to speak a language of violence—a language of Russian Fascism.” Once open and friendly, she will have nothing to do with Garner now. Her last message to him was a photograph of a nuclear explosion with the caption: “Your children were born to be killed by Russians. And nothing more.” Alina, like Ivan Kondakov, is confident in her educated intelligence and they both look forward to a generation purged of Western materialism. “Kondakov,” Garner writes, “speaks fluently in the language of a fascism that subjugates the individual will to the national spirit.”

Those who fared badly in new Russia are strongly represented in the hundreds of thousands of Russians who chose exile. They include gay, bisexual, or transsexual Russians who saw the recognition of their rights cruelly reversed and replaced with state-backed bigotry. Regime propagandists are particularly virulent when talking of those they call “perverts,” and they take their cue from the state. Bans on positive representations of LGBT people were introduced in the early 2010s.

Dmitry Kiselev, one of the most vitriolic of the talk-show propagandists, demanded that gays have their hearts either burned or buried deep underground after they died so that they could not infect others. Putin has played a full part in the emergence of this kind of rhetoric. In 2013, at the annual Valdai conference, he gave a speech which enumerated a list of evils, all of which came from abroad, including paedophilia, homosexuality, and feminism. Christian values foundational to Western civilisation were being undermined, he announced, and the young had to be re-made so they conformed to Russian cultural and religious ideals.

In pursuit of this goal, the Russian president found a strong and reliable ally in the Orthodox Patriarch Kirill, who has returned the favour by providing vocal support and the appearance of religious authority to Putin’s foreign-policy adventurism. Following the annexation of Crimea, Kirill spoke from the pulpit of the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour (rebuilt in the late-’90s near the Kremlin after its predecessor was torn down in 1931 on Stalin’s orders), and intoned that Crimea, “the most sacred shrine of the Russian civilization,” had been seized for the Russian “faithful.”

Garner draws our attention to the numerous parallels with Nazi Germany. There too, the young were taught to love the Führer and hate his enemies. There too, gays were targeted (and suffered more grievously than Russian gays have yet). The Ukrainians may have been close to the Russians in every way, but they have nevertheless taken the place of the Jews in Russian demonology as an object of virulent hatred on social media and ranting talk shows. There is nothing to compare with the Holocaust, but the number of Ukrainian soldiers and civilians killed in the fighting now number in the tens of thousands with no end to hostilities in sight.

Yet an end will come, foreign-policy analysts tell us, usually adding that it will come with a negotiation and an agreement. There is no sign of that yet: the indoctrination of the young in the cauldrons of the Internet and social media has convinced a very large part of the Russian population that the war must be one of annihilation. Many Russians have no qualms about reducing most of Ukraine to rubble and condemning its people to death in pursuit of a Russian rebirth.

Here too Garner identifies a parallel with the Nazis, who decided that the Slavs to their east were untermenschen best suited for use as slaves, or simply slain if sufficient numbers of Aryans wished to move onto their lucrative farmlands. For Hitler and his circle, ethnic cleansing was simply the only means of effecting a healthy rebirth of the land they had conquered, stolen from the semi-humans and placed in the care of the men and women of the master race. Ukrainian slaughter is likewise enthusiastically approved and breathlessly awaited by the growing Z generations of the new Russia.

But a big question that hangs over the war: what will come after it? Were Russia to force Ukraine to sue for peace, what are they planning to do with the people and the country? It beggars belief to assume that the conquered Ukrainians would hate the Russians with any less fervour than the Russians have been taught to hate them. A newly captive population would have to be held down by tens of thousands of Russian troops, partisan warfare would be widespread, and terror would no doubt be widely used by the occupiers to suppress the inevitable insurgency. Such a population could surely not be persuaded to become the Russians Putin believes them to be. Is the Russian leadership now planning, after victory, for the decades-long repression of its supposedly fraternal neighbour?

However the war ends, Russia will have to cope with the poison with which Putin and his media lieutenants have flooded the body politic, and here a caveat should be entered. Garner piles outrage on diabolism, but much of this reveals the machinery of a virtual world. Most of the characters he uses to illustrate the depths to which young Russians are descending—those urging ever greater horrors on Ukrainians—have never faced their enemy in the icy trenches of the past winter’s frontlines. How deep does their hatred really go? Some of them were relatively liberal in their views until quite recently, so is it possible that they will discard their hatred as easily as they took it up once the war ends?

On this point, Garner offers tentative grounds for optimism. He writes of “constructing different architects of reality” that might persuade the kind of people he’s featured to renounce the hatreds that have galvanised them during the conflict. He mentions a Latvian group, Call Russia, founded by Paulius Senuta, the members of which telephone randomly generated Russian numbers and invite whoever answers to talk about the war. For the first few minutes, the volunteers simply listen. Then, as a conversation develops, they introduce different ways of thinking—about the war, the world, and the need for peaceful coexistence with their neighbours. More than half of these calls, Garner tells us, lead to lengthy conversations. Some of those called even ask for another call. Senuta claims that of the hundreds of calls made, only two have led to a furious refusal to talk.

It’s a drop in a bloody ocean, but it could be expanded. Senuta’s initiative assumes that people, even those deep in the tunnels of loathing, can still be recovered. Some small part of the billions now being spent by Western countries on supporting Ukraine could usefully be spent on projects like this, scaled up. Nothing else, in this dire time, would seem to be available.

John Lloyd

John Lloyd was the FT’s Moscow correspondent from 1991–95. He is co-founder of the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism and his forthcoming book is about the rise of the New Right in Europe.

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