‘You cannot hide anywhere’: A historian in exile on the brutality of Russian society

Worldview: Russia’s deeply ingrained tradition of violence against its neighbours and its own citizens led inexorably to the invasion of Ukraine, Sergei Medvedev argues

A few days after Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, Sergei Medvedev, a historian of post-Soviet Russia, took the wrenching decision to leave his country. “I faced a moral dilemma of either standing up and protesting and being sent to prison, or just leaving,” Medvedev said in an interview with The Irish Times. “I left because I couldn’t stay in a fascist country which is leading a criminal war.”

Medvedev teaches at Charles University in Prague. Polity Press recently published his book, A War Made in Russia, in which the author explains how Russia’s deeply ingrained tradition of violence against its neighbours and its own citizens led inexorably to the invasion of Ukraine.

Medvedev harbours no illusions about his own safety. He catalogued the “plague of poisoning” of critics and opposition figures in his book. “What shall I do? Hire bodyguards and build a high fence? They have hordes of poisoners around the world, and Europe is infiltrated by Putin’s agents. You cannot hide anywhere.”

Violence permeates every facet of life in Russia, Medvedev says. A high percentage of Russian males serve time in prison. In the past 30 years, “Prison culture merged with police culture. Basically, there is no difference between policemen and prisoners. They share the same code of conduct. The nation is prey, and they are predators.”


A sociologist in the Siberian city of Krasnoyarsk found that women were often delighted to see their ‘good-for-nothing’ husbands go to war in Ukraine

Putin often speaks of his formative years on the rough streets of Leningrad. “He peppers his speeches with the jokes and slang of the Russian underworld,” Medvedev says. “He’s like a gangster, a godfather who orders the assassination of rivals and the torture of prisoners. Russia embraces this code of conduct. We see this cult of masculinity in the brutality of Russian troops in Ukraine. Men who are violent in words and deeds command respect. You must project force.”

Men are often raped in Russian police stations with objects including guns, bottles and broom handles, to humiliate them. The lawyer for Artyom Kamardin said the poet was raped with a dumbbell. Kamardin’s crime, for which he was sentenced to seven years in prison, was to have read a poem against the war in Ukraine.

Videos showing the torture of two of the four Tajiks accused of perpetrating the massacre of at least 139 people at the Crocus City concert hall in Moscow on March 22nd mark a new low because Russian authorities now flaunt state violence. They released recordings of a prisoner having his ear cut off and stuffed into his mouth, and of another with electrodes attached to his genitalia. Putin acolytes including Margarita Simonyan, the editor-in-chief of the state-controlled broadcaster RT, praised the severing of the prisoner’s ear.

“Russian politicians say cutting ears is a ritual among security officers,” Medvedev explains. “The knife has been put up for auction. People are bidding for it.”

The sledgehammer which Yevgeni Prigozhin’s Wagner militia used as an instrument of execution inspired similar enthusiasm. Wagner posted a video of a sledgehammer smashing the head of a deserter in November 2022. “That prompted a sledgehammer craze,” Medvedev says. “Russians gave each other little gold sledgehammers as gifts for new year’s and birthdays.”

In a further sign of the increasing brutality of Russian society, the Crocus City massacre has led to widespread calls for restoration of the death penalty. Russia ended capital punishment to join the Council of Europe in 1996. It was expelled from the human rights body following the full-scale invasion of Ukraine.

Islamist extremists affiliated with Islamic State (Isis) perpetrated the massacre, but Putin persists in blaming the West and Ukraine. “Russian intelligence agencies are too busy fighting LGBT activists and cracking down on anti-war protesters to keep track of jihadists,” Medvedev says. “It’s a pattern in Russian history: rulers sacrifice the wellbeing of the people for the security of the state for Putin’s personal security.”

‘Russian politicians say cutting ears is a ritual among security officers’

—  Sergei Medvedev

A sociologist in the Siberian city of Krasnoyarsk found that women were often delighted to see their “good-for-nothing” husbands go to war in Ukraine. “Most of the time, their husbands don’t work. They drink like fish and beat them when they come home,” Medvedev says. “Suddenly, they are earning good salaries as soldiers in Ukraine, and if they are killed the widow receives the equivalent of €70,000.”

Putin’s rule has progressed “from an authoritarian to an outright totalitarian and fascist regime”, Medvedev says. Though Stalin executed more people in the Great Terror of 1937-1938, “The principle of indiscriminate terror, of creating an atmosphere of fear and denunciation, is the same.”

The 20th century gave birth to two totalitarian systems, Nazism and Stalinism, Medvedev says. Germany and the Soviet Union started the second World War together, by attacking Poland and the Baltic States. “Stalinism is a variant of fascism. Vladimir Putin is undeniably the heir of Stalinist fascism.”

Putin portrays the war in Ukraine as a re-enactment of the second World War. The slogan “1941-1945 We Can Repeat It” appears on millions of bumper stickers in Russia. “In fact, it is the West that should repeat 1945,” Medvedev concludes. “The work was only half-finished. Of the two bloody dictatorships, only one was defeated. It is time for the West to finish the work of 1945.”