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Opinion | Putin Performs for Russia, and Ukraine Is the Stage

In this system, even tycoons must live with the uncertainty that someone closer to Mr. Putin than them could take away all their wealth tomorrow. The culture of humiliation goes deep into society. Sexual harassment is routine. A 2017 law decriminalized some domestic abuse against children and women. Extreme hazing has been rife in the army.

The father figure in this family is, of course, authoritarian. Over three-quarters of Russians believe that they need a “strong hand” to rule the country, a common phrase that denotes a leader who will both protect and violently discipline its people, and which Kremlin propaganda often uses to describe Mr. Putin.

In describing Ukraine, Mr. Putin often uses the same discourse. He invokes Russian clichés that deify Kyiv, the capital of Ukraine, as the “mother of all Russian cities” and then turns on this idealized “mother” when “she” doesn’t do what he wants. Just weeks before the invasion, during a news conference with President Emmanuel Macron of France, Mr. Putin said Ukraine should just do “her duty — my beauty” and “put up with it,” a line that was widely viewed as a reference to lyrics about rape.

Maybe the description of the Russian Empire as a family is apt, actually. A family that is deeply unhappy and abusive, in which traumas are layered on top of traumas and some members are singled out for more suffering, some for less, but everyone suffers; those who feel unable to leave don’t want anybody to escape.

After the 2014 Russian-backed uprising in eastern Ukraine, the Kremlin turned the separatist areas of Donetsk and Luhansk into a Soviet Dismaland, with Soviet-style youth groups, propaganda parades with Soviet flags and marches of captured Ukrainian troops through the streets. This time in Ukraine, Russia repeats Soviet mass deportations, detentions and enforced disappearances of intellectuals and activists who support Ukrainian sovereignty. Humiliated people can struggle to imagine a future as they play out old traumas over and over. We won’t let you emerge into a future, the Kremlin seems to be saying to Ukrainians, we want you stuck in the past we can’t overcome.

Kremlin propaganda successfully sublimates the sense of humiliation onto the West. According to Denis Volkov, the director of the polling firm Levada Center since 2014, Russians have claimed that if it wasn’t for Ukraine, the West would have found another excuse to humiliate Russia through sanctions and other measures. Levada’s most recent research suggests that 75 percent of Russians support the war. That support, though, is more of a case of a people so crushed by the state they follow along with anything it tells them to, argues the sociologist Lev Gudkov. More objective statistics are TV ratings for political talk shows. The highest ratings go to shows such as “Sunday Evening With Vladimir Solovyov” and “60 Minutes,” where hosts and guests often call for the annihilation of Ukrainian independence.

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