“Never Again” Again: The History of Putin’s Terror

Photo by Mikhail Svetlov/Getty Images
Julia Ioffe
April 6, 2022

When the world saw the horrors in Bucha and the towns around Kyiv, it was like a tide had gone out, leaving behind the grisly driftwood of dead bodies. By now, you’ve seen the photos and read the stories: the women raped in front of their children, the men executed with their hands behind their backs, the people who fell off their bicycles and lay for weeks under the open sky until the photographers arrived. 

When I saw photos of the heads and hands and feet of town elder Olha Sukhenko and her family protruding from the sandy grave in which they were hastily buried, when I saw journalists crowded around her shoddy burial among the pines outside of Motyzhyn, I thought immediately of the Ukrainian forests where dozens of my relatives were shot and dumped in mass graves in 1941: in Zhytomyr, in Medzhybizh, in Salnitsa, Ostropol, Kharkiv, and Kyiv. I thought, this is what it must have looked like then, when, returning in 1944, their relatives found a million Ukrainian Jews, buried in the loam. It was these massacres that began to break the Nazi soldiers carrying them out, forcing the invention of a more efficient and less intimate way of eradicating a people: the death camps, like Auschwitz, Treblinka, Majdanek. 

Citing the famous quote attributed to the German philosopher Theodor Adorno, my friend Mikhail Zygar, the Russian journalist and author, wrote, “If one can’t write poetry after Auschwitz, then what can one say after Bucha?” 

In both cases, it turns out, one can say a lot while saying not much at all. In the four days since the massacres became public knowledge in the West, much was said, including by Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky, who, on Sunday night, asked Russian mothers, in Russian, “If you raised your sons to be marauders, how did they become butchers, too?” And yet, atrocities like those at Bucha, Irpin, and Trostyanets show us exactly where human institutions fail. They push language to its limits, leaving us speechless, grasping for words that are pale approximations of what they are describing. (I am thinking as I write this of Anna Akhmatova’s famous poem about the Great Terror, “Requiem,” which begins with a woman who is waiting in line with Akhmatova outisde the jail and asks the poet, “Can you describe this?”) 

They also show us, undeniably, the failure of the very systems the West has constructed to prevent such things. After Auschwitz, Europe said “never again.” Then the victors put on a trial of two dozen Nazis, but most of the other perpetrators died peacefully in their beds. After World War II, the victors created a global body, the United Nations, meant to prevent another catastrophe like this one and an International Court of Justice, headquartered at the Hague, to punish those that dared to try. 

And yet, “never again” has become, in practice, “over and over and over again.” The global institutions that the West put in place failed to stop the bloody proxy wars of the Cold War—in Vietnam, Angola, El Salvador—in part because the two main adversaries in those wars, the United States and the Soviet Union, both sat on the U.N. Security Council, where they wielded veto power. The Russian Federation, the successor state to the U.S.S.R., still holds that power today. Thanks to the Russian veto and a lack of political will in the West, the U.N. failed to stop the slaughter in Syria, aided and abetted by Russia, nor did Russia suffer any consequences for what its army did in Chechnya, which became a blueprint for Bucha. George W. Bush also showed the world how easy it is to skirt the U.N. altogether when he made up his mind to invade Iraq. And even when it came to clear examples of genocide, the U.N. failed to stop those in Bosnia, Xinjiang, and Myanmar; when it sent in its peacekeepers to places like Rwanda, it failed to stop that genocide, too. 

If the world, as embodied by the United Nations, couldn’t stop the vast slaughter of Syria, Rwanda, and Myanmar, what hope did the villagers of Bucha have? It’s why Zelensky, in his scorching speech to the Security Council on Tuesday, wondered why we have a United Nations at all. “Ladies and gentlemen!” he said. “I would like to remind you of the first article of the first chapter of the U.N. Charter. What is the purpose of our organization? To maintain peace. And to force peace. Now the U.N. Charter is being violated literally from the first article. And if so, what is the point of all other articles?” 

What is the point, he argued, of an organization that can not carry out one of its most basic functions? Why have an institution whose design negates its purpose? What is the point of a U.N. where members of the Security Council are allowed to wage war and commit war crimes? “If this continues, the finale will be that each state will rely only on the power of arms to ensure its security, not on international law, not on international institutions,” Zelensky said. “Then, the U.N. can simply be dissolved.”

In pointing out the hollowness of the U.N., Zelensky danced dangerously close to agreeing with his enemy, Vladimir Putin. The Russian president has spent his 22-year tenure consciously and openly undermining the postwar order and its institutions, at least the shape they took after 1991 and the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Though Putin loves the United Nations—Russia can use it for a patina of legitimacy while bogging the place down in bureaucratic procedure or ending things with a veto—he loathes institutions where the U.S. holds sway but Russia doesn’t. This is why, for example, in the run up to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, we heard so much from Moscow about NATO and “indivisible security”—the idea, essentially, that Russia should get veto power over European security, too. Those are the institutions Putin wants to destroy.

But Putin also understands the power of cynicism and sophistry to erode institutional moral authority and shatter international consensus. This is why, for instance, he is always trying to expose the hypocrisy of the liberal world order—to force the West to admit that might has always made right, but he was the only one honest enough to say so. (Or as Andranik Migranyan, a friend of the Russian foreign minister, told me when we spoke recently, “Big countries have big demands and solve them in big ways.”) 

It is why Ukraine’s efforts to document, with the help of international investigators, the war crimes that Russia seems to have committed in Ukraine will be largely a formality. Ukraine, along with the Netherlands and Australia, are bringing legal action against Russia for its role in shooting down Malaysian Airlines Flight 17 in July 2014. A Russian BUK missile exploded by the nose of the civilian airliner, and the bodies of 298 passengers and crew rained down on the sunflower fields of the Donbas. The Netherlands, which lost 193 citizens in that disaster, launched a formal investigation, and later held a news conference to make a convincing case that they had figured out who had launched the missile and how. The Russian government, meanwhile, conducted its own investigation, which spun elaborate theories that kicked the blame away from the Kremlin’s doorstep. Meanwhile, the state propaganda machine provided ever more bizarre explanations for the crash, including the invention of a Spanish flight dispatcher named Carlos and a plane pre-packed with corpses that America deliberately crashed in Ukraine to make Russia look bad. And it worked. Most Russians bought their government’s version of events and, despite legal action brought by the Netherlands and other governments, the people who shot the plane out of the sky are walking free.

The same is already happening after Bucha. The Kremlin and Russian Foreign Ministry immediately did what they always do, predictably and cynically waving away the massacres as “fake.” Then, Russian state media, as usual, took the baton and started doing the real work, developing and disseminating alternative explanations of what happened, and thereby muddying the waters. Kremlin media is already telling its viewers that the corpses are actually those of Russians who had been shot by Ukrainians, or were not corpses at all: they have been showing footage that they say depicts the bodies in Bucha’s streets moving their hands (they’re not) or sitting down (they don’t). 

Now that Russia is in a near total information vacuum, most Russians will inevitably believe their government and not understand why the world is so intent on hating them. Meanwhile, the Russian government is calling for an independent international investigation—that is, one dominated by Russia—that would prove the Kremlin’s lazy and ludicrous explanation (its favorite) that it was all a provokatsiya, a false flag operation. 

Bucha is just the beginning. In Mariupol, the Ukrainian government suspects, the situation will look far worse. Meanwhile, the Kremlin seems to be laying the philosophical and moral groundwork to encourage or excuse any crimes Russian soldiers might commit in Ukraine. RIA Novosti, a Russian state media site which has in the past telegraphed the Kremlin’s thinking, published a manifesto on Sunday declaring that Russia no longer has to distinguish between the Ukrainian army and the Ukrainian people. Both are Nazis and therefore subject to legitimate “liquidation.” Not only does Ukraine have to be dismantled as a state, the piece argues, but the Ukrainian population “must live through the hardship of war and absorb this lived experience as a historical lesson and an expiation of its guilt.”

The chances that the Russian soldiers who carried out the killings in Bucha—or Irpin or Mariupol—will see justice are slim at best. The only chance of them or their commanders ever facing justice is if Putin’s regime completely disintegrates. The question is what falls faster: Putin, or the world order that America and the West have become accustomed to, the one to which Putin is taking a sledgehammer in Ukraine.