Between Shit and Honor
The two poles of Russian self-conception and the fight for Ukraine
On the first anniversary of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, I find myself wondering what could possibly make the largest country in the world change course. What could we possibly do to puncture the bubble of Russian self-delusion? How could we help Russians to understand that the present aggression does not in any way resemble the psychological terrain of World War II. That Bakhmut is not Stalingrad.
Trying to get Russians to think differently isn’t new to me. In the 1990s I ran a training program that sought to teach Russian journalists the basics of objective reporting. For a while it worked. At one point there were over 300 independent local television stations doing news all over the former Soviet Union. Now, all of them have been either shuttered or co-opted into mouthpieces for the Kremlin.
Russians now find themselves with respect to Ukraine, psychologically, between chest’ and chmo — between honor and abasement
So now I spitball alternative approaches. What about dropping 100,000 iPhones on Russian troops with satellite access that will allow soldiers the ability to see unfiltered news and perhaps even a way to dial home to their mothers? How about housing Ukrainian refugees in the seized villas and yachts of Russian oligarchs and somehow beaming images of their plight back to Moscow? All of these ideas seem tantalizing. But none of them will get to the heart of the matter.
Far more clever people than I are surely working on the problem. But as we rush to find a technical hack to Russian consciousness I think it’s important that whoever is doing the hacking keep a primary bit of Russian psychology in mind. Namely the important extremes in the Russian mind of shit and honor.
When I say shit I’m thinking of the Russian prison slang term чмо (chmo in Latin transliteration). Someone who is chmo has been debased to the point of losing all societal value. Think of the attempt to humiliate Andy Dufresne in prison in The Shawshank Redemption. While this term comes out of prison it is also used in the Russian army. And it also plays a role in a Russian’s striving for…