Russians: a peaceful people victorious?

As TIME’s Simon Shuster reports today, a massive crackdown is underway in Dagestan to retaliate for last month’s twin suicide bombings in the Moscow metro.

One of the two Black Widow bombers, was, in fact, a widow; the other one, well, we don’t know. And the hunt is on for her husband and brother, said to be hiding out in the mountains of the southern Russian republic. Apparently, the Kremlin has decided to lean away from their new hearts-and-minds approach and go for the brute force approach. According to TIME, this is the approach Russians overwhelmingly favor — 75% of them, actually.

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But along comes this interesting study by sociologist Alexei Levinson who works for the Levada Center, Russia’s most trusted pollster. Levinson looked into what Russians view as a “just war,” and found something surprising: their definition of it is quite narrow. (And let’s be clear: Russians do see these operations as external to themselves.)

Presented with eight definitions of “just war,” only one option garnered an absolute majority. 65% of Russians polled said that a war can be called “just” when “people are defending their home, their nearest and dearest, and their country from attack.” Levinson notes that the valuables identified here are concrete “first social order priorities”: home, nearest, dearest.

And this corresponds to the other part of the study, in which participants were ask to rank all the Russian wars of the 20th century — including the Russo-Japanese War and the Finnish War — as just or unjust. Despite the thorough indoctrination of the last century, half of them were labeled unjust. World War II — the one war in which Russian territory was invaded and Russians’ “nearest and dearest” were under attack — was the most just war, clocking in at 75%.

Even more surprisingly, the second most common response in the first part of the survey is that 28% of those polled said that “all wars are unjust since they always involve violence and cruelty on both sides.” That means over a quarter of Russians identify with the pacifist stance.

This is odd, given the clatter of saber rattling that frequently wafts over from Moscow. Levinson explains that, on this question, Russians seem to buck their government’s often belligerent stance, perhaps because of their traditional –and traditionally paradoxical — self-image. “Most Russians consider that a love of peace is one of their main characteristics, but at the same time they view themselves in the epic role of a people victorious,” he writes. “The idea that Russia has always defended itself from aggressors, but has never attacked anyone, is a critical part of the Russian self-image. It is not for nothing that the day when men are congratulated for their potential future role as soldiers is called the Day of Defenders of the Fatherland.”

Levinson cautions, however, that having a narrow definition of “just war” means that Russians recognize things like the Geneva conventions as binding, and here is where he lines up with TIME’s Shuster, who cites Medvedev’s promise to be “more cruel” with the terrorists. Says Levinson,

The punishment meted out by a tribunal to the colonel who raped and suffocated a Chechen girl was incomprehensible to a large part of Russian society. These people also stood by the soldiers in Afghanistan and Chechnya who not only considered themselves free to ignore any limiting conventions intended to protect the civilian population, but actually believed they had been given the right to be cruel in their dealings with them, cruelty being almost the main means of conducting a partisan war.


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One Response to Russians: a peaceful people victorious?

  1. Quiet frankly I fail to see the point of this study. Even if we accept all of its figures, some of which are questionable (I find it really surprising that apparently 25% of Russians DID NOT think that WW2 was just), the main question is simply a bit stupid. Wars in general cannot be waged in a just way and won, if not the war itself, than its conduct is unavoidably unjust, because inevitable its the innocent who suffer the most. Of much greater relevance is the question whether the war is NECESSARY or not, for I firmly believe that its the answer to this question that could tell us much more about Russians’ attitude towards wars and not some philosophical moralistic mumbo-jumbo about the unjustness of the things which can NEVER BE completely just anyway.

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