Dead Souls: A Case Study in Collective Psychopathology - The American Spectator | USA News and Politics
Dead Souls: A Case Study in Collective Psychopathology
Russian President Vladimir Putin in 2019 (Gevorg Ghazaryan/Shutterstock)


“The wicked are estranged from the womb,” so the Psalms tell us, “they go astray from birth.” King David’s aetiology of crime was perhaps the first, and remains the most concise, prefiguring later theories of biological positivism. If criminality is innate, perhaps even hereditary, then criminals are born, not made, and the poison that flows in their veins “is like the poison of a serpent: they are like the deaf adder that stoppeth her ear; which will not hearken to the voice of charmers, charming never so wisely.” Utilitarians from the classical school of criminology, including the moral philosophers Cesare Beccaria and Jeremy Bentham, prefer to think of man as a calculating animal, and of criminality as the result of cost-benefit analysis, but rational choice theory has precious little explanatory power in cases of psychotic or impulsive violence, moral insanity, and other forms of profoundly antisocial behavior. Biological positivism may be reductive, but at least it purports to explain those phenomena — violent offenders are somehow “born that way” — and so its appeal has lasted from David’s day to our own.

It was during the decadent years of the fin-de-siècle that biological positivism reached the zenith of its influence. “The man of this century has acquired a very excusable confidence in himself,” wrote the French academician Eugène-Melchior de Vogüé, for the “rational mechanism of the world has been revealed to him,” while the “operations of the universe and of humanity had become so clear to the physicist and physiologist.” Surely, then, the so-called psycho-physiologists of the late 19th century could explain the stubborn persistence of madness and criminality, which together were steadily undermining self-congratulatory notions of civilizational progress. Max Nordau, in his 1892 polemic Degeneration, warned of an ominous rise in cases of “general hysteria,” both acquired and hereditary, as well as the “constant increase of crime, madness and suicide,” and not just on the part of anarchists and members of the roiling urban underclass, but also “apparently honorable bourgeois families” and even “the leading classes.” If criminal degeneration could be diagnosed in suitably medical and mechanistic terms, then perhaps the technocrats of the era could apply the appropriate salve to an increasingly agitated and febrile body politic.

Max Nordau dedicated Degeneration to Cesare Lombroso, professor of psychiatry and criminal anthropology at the University of Turin, an Italian criminologist who was pushing the limits of biological positivism, the better to decipher the criminal mind. In works like LUomo delinquente (1876), Genio e degenerazione (1897), and Le crime; causes et remèdes (1899), Lombroso proposed that criminals were fundamentally atavistic, little more than evolutionary throwbacks fated to lives of delinquency by dint of their very anatomy. In his Turin laboratory, he and his colleagues employed anthropometric methods in the study of “morbid anomalies” — narrow foreheads, low skull vaults, bony elevations in the angle of the jaw, obliquely placed or bloodshot eyes, protruding ears, thin beards, darker hair (in women), excess phosphate in the urine — in an effort to catalog the supposedly congenital traits of those criminals and seemingly respectable criminaloids who go astray from birth.

Like phrenology, criminal anthropometry smacked of pseudoscience, resulting in an early instance of a replication crisis. Lombroso’s British counterpart, Charles Buckman Goring, having examined 96 different physical traits in some 3,000 English convicts, found that “the physical and mental constitution of both criminal and law-abiding persons, of the same age, stature, class, and intelligence, are identical. There is no such thing as an anthropological criminal type,” though Goring was still a man of his time, and accepted the need to “regulate the reproduction of those degrees of constitutional qualities — feeble-minded, inebriety, epilepsy, social instinct, etc.” that might contribute to criminality. (A eugenics scheme, in other words.) Lombroso’s French counterpart, Alexandre Lacassagne, was similarly unimpressed, countering that it is “the social environment is the breeding ground of criminality; the germ is the criminal, an element which has no importance until the day where it finds the broth which makes it ferment,” and from out of the Lacassagne school would grow the Chicago school of criminology, which adopts a sociological and ecological, instead of a rational or mechanistic, approach to the study of crime.

Lombroso was limited by the scientific tools available to him, as a visit to the Museo di Antropologia Criminale Cesare Lombroso in Turin will soon make clear, after a stroll past the serried ranks of skulls, wax and plaster death masks, mug shots, and artifacts that amount to more of a cabinet of curiosities than a modern scientific laboratory. Calipers and uroscopy flasks simply cannot penetrate sufficiently deeply into the criminal psyche, as even Lombroso understood. Writing in Le crime; causes et remèdes, the Italian prison psychiatrist and criminal anthropologist astutely observed that:

Every crime has its origin in a multiplicity of causes, often intertwined and confused, each of which we must, in obedience to the necessities of thought and speech, investigate singly. This multiplicity is generally the rule with human phenomena, to which one can almost never assign a single cause unrelated to others. Every one knows that cholera, typhus, and tuberculosis have specific causes, but no one would venture to maintain that meteorological, hygienic, and psychic factors have nothing to do with them. Indeed, the best observers often remain undecided as to the true specific cause of any given phenomenon.

No individual school of criminological thought can provide a grand unified theory of criminal behavior; rational, social, and psychophysiological factors will invariably be commingled. It is nevertheless intriguing to find that recent brain imaging research has uncovered what might be called Lombroso’s Holy Grail, in the form of specific neurobiological correlates of psychopathy.

In September of 2021, the scientific journal Cerebral Cortex featured an article describing a study undertaken by researchers at the Finnish University of Turku, the Turku Psychiatric Hospital for Prisoners, the Turku Prison Outpatient Clinic, and Stockholm’s Karolinska Institutet entitled “Brain Basis of Psychopathy in Criminal Offenders and General Population.” During the study, violent offenders underwent T1-weighted magnetic resonance imaging while being shown video clips containing violent content; their brain responses were later compared against those of healthy controls. Criminal psychopathy, the researchers found, was “associated with lowered connectivity of the key nodes of the social and emotional brain networks, including amygdala, insula, thalamus, and frontal pole.” These results were in keeping with other brain imaging studies, which all suggest roughly the same thing: that psychopaths have decreased connectivity between the amygdalae, the almond-shaped neuron clusters in the limbic system that are responsible for processing negative stimuli, and the prefrontal cortex, which is implicated in higher-level functions like planning, decision-making, personality formation, and social behavioral modulation, and which under normal conditions interprets negative stimuli appropriately, i.e. with repugnance or regret.

If an individual has reduced or seriously impaired connectivity between those two regions, then negative stimuli will not result in correspondingly negative emotions, and a violent offender will register neither revulsion at, nor guilt for, his victim’s suffering. This is the neurobiological basis of criminal psychopathology for which Cesare Lombroso searched for so many years, albeit without the benefit of Phillips Ingenuity TF PET/MR 3T whole-body scanners, voxel-based morphometry, and statistical parametric mapping software, but it has nothing to do with atavism or evolutionary reversion. Instead, it is increasingly clear that psychopathic violence can be explained, at least in considerable part, by a lack of neurological connectivity between the limbic (paleomammalian) cortex and the cerebral cortex. There is something — whether it be gestational malnutrition stress, early trauma, a brain injury, or a genetic amygdaloid disorder — preventing psychopaths from processing the real-world effects of their actions, something short-circuiting the self-regulation that leads to basic human empathy, with profound consequences for themselves and those around them.


Cesare Lombroso was a criminal anthropologist, but as an anthropologist of genocide I am interested here not so much in the individual, but in the collective psychopathologies that can produce crimes on a massive scale. The criminal aetiologies provided by the classical, sociological, and biological positivist schools are nevertheless relevant to an inquiry into the origin of gross human rights violations, for, to borrow Lombroso’s language, social violence “has its origin in a multiplicity of causes, often intertwined and confused, each of which we must, in obedience to the necessities of thought and speech, investigate singly.”

The psychopathic collective bears no small resemblance to the psychopathic individual.

There are times when we might apply the lessons of the classical school, as realists do when they attribute inter-state and intra-social conflicts to self-interest and balance-of-power considerations. There are times when we might apply the lessons of the sociological and ecological school, for example when looking at endemic clan-based feuds in Afghanistan, Somalia, or Yemen. And then there are times when a society abandons its humanity altogether, descending into obscene, even genocidal violence. When studying extreme collective psychopathologies, we cannot rely on brain imaging scans, there being no such thing as a collective limbic system, but a comparable process is at work, only at the societal level. The psychopathic collective bears no small resemblance to the psychopathic individual. A nation or sub-group can perpetrate gross human rights abuses only if there is something blocking the revolting images of war crimes, crimes against humanity, genocide, ethnic cleansing, forced population transfers, systematic rape, kidnapping, cultural destruction, and environmental destruction from penetrating the collective conscience.

Gross human rights violations are often enabled by an avoidance mechanism that shields a population from the troubling evidence laid out before it. We are all familiar with the trope of Nazi-era German civilians who insisted that they were unaware of what was going on behind the sentry towers and tangles of barbed wire, but as Mary Fulbrook demonstrated in her 2012 monograph A Small Town Near Auschwitz: Ordinary Nazis and the Holocaust, “the Holocaust was also, centrally, made possible by the attitudes and actions of those Germans who, after the war, would successfully cast themselves in the role of ‘innocent bystanders,’ even claiming they ‘had never known anything about it’: those Germans who were the facilitators, the functionaries, and the beneficiaries of Nazi rule.” Jacques Sémelin, the French historian of mass violence, described in his treatise Purify and Destroy: The Political Uses of Massacre and Genocide (2007) the “autism of the Serbian population” during the massacres carried out in Croatia, Bosnia, and Kosovo, and the “apparent insensitivity to the news of atrocities” which “lulled the Serbian population along in a kind of ‘bubble’ of reassurance, completely removed from reality.”

Dehumanization is another well-known collective psychological self-defense mechanism employed by those in positions of power or privilege during times of repression, pogroms, and genocide. Hutu Power génocidaires can more effectively slaughter ethnic Tutsis if they consider their foes to be inyenzi, “cockroaches,” and inzoka, “snakes,” and their grisly work to be cutting down “tall weeds” and “shoots,” as opposed to murdering Tutsi adults and children in cold blood by the hundreds of thousands. Nazi propaganda films like Der ewige Jude informed viewers that rats “are cunning, cowardly, and cruel, and are found mostly in large packs. Among the animals, they represent the rudiment of an insidious, underground destruction — just like the Jews among human beings.” Crimes against humanity are thus transformed into hygienic measures, mere exercises in pest control. Kulaks, during the Soviet era, received similar treatment, as Norman Naimark documented in Stalin’s Genocides (2010):

kulaks were subjected to the kind of dehumanization and stereotyping that was common for victims of genocide throughout the twentieth century. They were “enemies of the people,” to be sure, but also “swine,” “dogs,” and “cockroaches”; they were “scum,” “vermin,” “filth,” and “garbage,” to be cleansed, crushed, and eliminated. Gorky described them as “half animals,” while Soviet press and propaganda materials sometimes depicted them as apes. Kulaks in this sense were dehumanized and racialized into beings inherently inferior to others — and they were treated as such.

Dehumanization leads inexorably to moral exclusion, which in turn justifies any amount of violence. As Jacques Sémelin put it, the “paranoid violence” that occurs during massacres and genocides “stems from a typical psychotic illusion: by killing the enemy-other, the subject believes he is overcoming death. In short, the paranoid-schizoid position boils down to this elementary equation: your death is my life.”


The outrageous rhetoric accompanying the schizo-fascist Putin regime’s illegal invasion of Ukraine has provided paradigmatic examples of these mechanisms at work. Take Leonid Slutsky, head of the Duma Committee on International Affairs, who has at various times in the last year described Ukrainians as “non-humans,” urged war “until the last Ukrainian,” and characterized the conflict as “a question of the survival of the Russian world and Russian civilization.” The death of Ukrainians has evidently become the organizing principle of Slutsky’s psychotically deluded existence. Dehumanizing language is omnipresent, viz. the Chechen dictator Ramzan Kadyrov’s references to Ukrainians as “rodent pests,” the former president Dmitry Medvedev’s description of Ukrainians as “rabid mongrels … choking on their toxic saliva,” and the propagandist Vladimir Solovyov’s likening of the war to “deworming a cat. For the doctor, it’s a special operation. For the worms — it’s a war, and for the cat, it’s a cleansing.” College students are given mandatory lessons entitled “Conversations About What Matters,” which feature photographs of dead pigs draped in  Ukrainian flags — a “visual demonstration to show the fate of the Ukrainian nation as a whole,” the students are told. There are plenty more examples one could add; to quote Christopher Hitchens, “it goes on and on and on until one cannot eat enough to vomit enough.”

Dehumanization has at times given way to undisguised eliminationism. The journalist Anton Krasovsky’s notorious comments about drowning Ukrainian children and raping Ukrainian grandmothers received a certain amount of international attention and condemnation, yet such rhetoric, while certainly aberrant, it is hardly an aberration in Putin’s Russia. The pundit Mikhail Khazin has spoken of the “several million” Ukrainians who “need to be partially eliminated and partially squeezed out,” while Pavel Gubarev, a leader in the so-called Donetsk People’s Republic, considers Ukrainians to be “Russian people, possessed by the devil. We are coming to convince them, not to kill them. But if you don’t want us to change your minds, then we will kill you. We will kill as many of you as we have to. We will kill one million, or five million; we can exterminate all of you until you understand that you’re possessed and you have to be cured.” In the aftermath of the Bucha massacres, T-shirts started being sold in Russia bearing the slogans “Резня в Буче: Можем повторить [Massacre in Bucha — We Can Repeat It]” and “Мне не стыдно [I’m Not Ashamed].” There is no attempt at dissemblance here, just plainly stated calls for mass killings. As the Portuguese politician and author Bruno Maçães recently wrote with regard to Russia’s warmongering, “It’s an interesting psychoanalytical phenomenon. Russia spent years hiding its true face with disinformation and propaganda but suddenly a year ago they decided to come clean and be themselves in public too. Like the murderer who wants to be caught.”

This sort of unequivocal rhetoric is not even limited to the Ukrainian front. In the aftermath of Georgian protests against a proposed “Law on Transparency of Foreign Influence” perceived by many pro-European Georgians as Kremlin-backed, Margarita Simonyan, editor-in-chief of the Rossiya Segodnya media group and the RT channel, predicted that nuclear strikes “will be made on Tbilisi without any choice. Because now is not the time for sentimentality, there is no Kyiv-Pechersk monastery in Tbilisi, no one has ever considered us to be the same people as Georgians. There has never been a ‘Tbilisi Russian’ in the Russian Federation. We would feel sorry for the beautiful city and its temperamental inhabitants, but they do not feel sorry for themselves.” Simonyan is not the only prominent public figure raising the specter of nuclear holocaust. Russian State Duma deputy Andrey Gurulyov routinely calls for Great Britain to be “wiped from the face of the earth,” Vladimir Solovyov positively revels in the prospect of nuclear war — “why be afraid of what is inevitable? We’ll go to heaven,” and “life is highly overrated” anyway — and if you tune into NTV’s Svoya Pravda program, you will almost certainly be subjected to some deranged debate about whether Russians should bomb Warsaw, Riga, or Bratislava next. When Finland’s NATO accession became a fait accompli, talk soon turned to the need for a “special military operation” to “deal with the brotherly Finnish people.” All of this trickles down to the common man; Russian tanks and helicopters destroyed during the invasion have been found with НА БЕРЛИН! (“To Berlin!”) painted on them. As Leon Trotsky once remarked, “the army is a copy of society and suffers from all its diseases, usually at a higher temperature.”

There is some debate as to whether these public figures actually believe any of this drivel. Back in 2008 Vladimir Solovyov used rather different language, declaring that “any person who tries to start a war between Russia and Ukraine is a criminal, moreover, I can’t even imagine the extent of such criminality. In Ukraine live people fraternal to us in spirit, in blood, in common history. Do not shout ‘Sevastopol is ours!’ Do not shout ‘Crimea is ours!’” As late as 2013, he was asking “why do you need Crimea? … It was, without a doubt, legitimately transferred [to Ukraine] by Kruschev. If we suddenly say [that Russia is taking it back], it means war. Do you want a war with Ukraine? How many Ukrainian and Russian lives are you ready to lay down in order to take Crimea, which has long become a Tatar territory? … Crimeans are against [rejoining Russia].” These days he is among the most vocal supporters of war crimes, crimes against humanity, and territorial aggrandizement. When the United States intervenes in Kosovo or Iraq or Libya, it is careful to couch its actions in terms of international security and the protection of human rights. When the Chinese government cracks down on dissident Tibetans or Uyghurs, it nonetheless insists that all the peoples of the nation “are united as closely as the seeds of a pomegranate.” Russian propagandists, however, unapologetically  demand the killing and raping millions of Ukrainians and the nuking of London and Washington. Russia’s rapid descent into a psychopathic frenzy is so frankly bizarre that it demands an explanation.

The analyst Kamil Galeev has suggested that Russian bombast is paradoxically rational, insofar as it can be “smart to play mad” in Putin’s Russia. By inflicting “conscious reputational self-damage” — like ranting about nuclear war, or claiming out of the blue that Hitler was actually Jewish, as Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov did last year — “you cut off your option to negotiate with the West over Putin’s head.” All these maniacal statements can be seen as a demonstration of subservience to Vladimir Putin, and of burning potential bridges with the West. As Mark Galeotti discussed in a recent piece in The Spectator, “Dmitry Medvedev and the weakness of Putin’s Kremlin,” Medvedev was once “considered a potential liberal hope for Russia,” but now he spends his days on Telegram calling Ukrainians “bastards and geeks…as long as I’m alive, I will do everything to make them disappear.” It could be Korsakoff psychosis, or unadulterated xenophobia, or it could be that Medvedev is a calculating animal, and realizes that, as Galeotti notes, “to withdraw fully from politics now is to lose your access and, increasingly, your security. To use the Russian gangster term that has now become widely used in politics and business alike, that is your krysha, your roof, or your protection.” If you want to keep that life-preserving protection, you would do well to signal your support for the regime in the most over-the-top way possible.

The events on the ground in Ukraine suggest that all this genocidal rhetoric is not, however, purely cynical. Flattened cities, mass graves, military-aged men and community leaders rounded up and gunned down in the streets of Bucha and Izium, thousands of children kidnapped, leaked spy documents promising a “total cleansing” of Ukraine through “house-to-house terror,” plans to divide Ukrainians into five categories, including “those deemed leaders of Ukrainian nationalism who were specified for physical liquidation on a high-priority target list, or for capture to enable show trials,” looted museums, library collections set ablaze, grain harvests expropriated — these are all very real occurrences, redolent of the worst years of the twentieth century, that are being ordered and carried out by very real individuals. Someone pulled the trigger and murdered the Kherson-based composer Yurii Kerpatenko simply for refusing to participate in an occupation-sponsored concert on the “improvement of peaceful life.” Someone gunned down the Ukrainian children’s author Volodymyr Vakulenko as he stood on the edge of a mass grave in a forest outside Izium.  Someone made the decision to aim an S-300 surface-to-air missile at a Zaporizhzhia apartment building. Someone ordered the arrest of Alexei Moskalev, a Russian man residing in the town of Yefremov after his daughter Masha drew an anti-war poster in school; someone charged Alexei with “discreditation,” and someone put 13-year-old Masha in a state-run orphanage. Maybe those individuals are “only following orders,” but those orders are made possible by what Jacques Sémelin calls a “rhetorical core from which a process of violence radiates” outwards.

It is nonsense, but it is dangerous nonsense, and we have to grapple with it, and not ignore it or pass it off as mere cynicism.

When Sémelin writes of the “paranoiac type of discourse that unites ‘us’ through its evil-minded perception of ‘them,’” present-day Russia is precisely what he had in mind. “In the eyes of an outside observer, such discourse seems positively mad, whereas among ‘us’ it elicits collective support. Seemingly irrational, it nevertheless hones to a logical argumentation.” The result is something known as “delusional rationality,” which characterized the regimes of Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot, and now Putin. The Nazis doubtless thought they were behaving rationally when they waged their alleged “struggle for existence between the productive Germano-Aryan race and the parasitic Jewish race.” The Russian schizo-fascists of our day may genuinely believe that the systematic destruction of Ukraine is necessary for the “the survival of the Russian world and Russian civilization.” It is nonsense, but it is dangerous nonsense, and we have to grapple with it, and not ignore it or pass it off as mere cynicism. “When all is said and done,” wrote the French medievalist Marc Bloch before he was executed by the Nazis, “a single word, ‘understand,’ is the beacon light of our research,” however unpleasant the task.


There has always been a great deal of discussion centered around the so-called zagadochnaya russkaya dusha, the “mysterious Russian soul,” but these days, when some Russian public figure starts frothing at the mouth, ranting and raving about drowning Ukrainian babies or nuking Washington, D.C., the phrase is more often than not used ironically. It was after the 1842 publication of Mykola Hohol’s novel Dead Souls, which was in fact a biting satire about the immoral and corrupt institution of serfdom, that the Russian literary critic Vissarion Belinsky and others began to examine the nature of this Russian ideological self-concept. Various attempts at a definition were made — perhaps the “Russian soul” is optimistic and forward-looking, the way the “Russian spirit” is retrospective, perhaps it has to do with the deeply rooted folk wisdom of the peasantry, or perhaps Russia’s role as the future “savior of the world,” whatever that means. According the Fyodor Dostoevsky, however, the answer was rather less cheery: “the most basic, most rudimentary spiritual need of the Russian people is the need for suffering, ever-present and unquenchable, everywhere and in everything.”

A country whose historical experience is steeped in suffering — be it self-inflicted or imposed on its neighbors — will inevitably become desensitized to violence and repression, subject to ressentiment after geopolitical setbacks, and prone to dehumanization of any perceived Others. Such a country becomes capable of any kind of violence, against its own citizens or against nations within its perceived orbit. Such a country will be susceptible to paranoiac discourse and delusional rationality. Such a country is poised to descend into genocidal barbarism. It is a dangerous thing when an individual’s paleomammalian cortex is disconnected from his conscience; it is all the more dangerous when a society’s collective conscience is benumbed by revanchism and a continuous background drone of violent, even eliminationist rhetoric.

A country whose historical experience is steeped in suffering — be it self-inflicted or imposed on its neighbors — will inevitably become desensitized to violence.

During the Soviet period, it was only possible to criticize the regime obliquely, for example in children’s fables like Korney Chukovsky’s “The Monster Cockroach,” Evgeny Schwartz’s The Dragon, and Fazil Iskander’s allegory The Rabbits and the Boa Constrictor. Arguably the most devastating critique of the “mysterious Russian soul” therefore came in an unexpected form — the 1967 children’s cartoon Gora Dinozavrov, or The Mountain of Dinosaurs, directed by Rasa Strautmane and written by Arkady Snesarev. Over the course of its 10-minute runtime, the film portrays the rise, the heyday, and the extinction of the dinosaurs in decidedly fanciful terms, at least from a paleontological perspective. The cartoon sauropods cavort, dance, and woo each other, and carry their eggs to the top of a mountain, where according the narrator “the generous sun-rays finalized the great magic of birth.” Over time, however, the (political) climate begins to change, and the eggshells begin to form new layers, “to protect the little creature from the harsh environment.” Eventually the eggshells become so thick that the baby dinosaurs are unable to peck their way out. The anthropomorphized eggs chant “I must fulfill my duty! I must fulfill my duty!” as the hatchlings inside cry out “I can adapt! I can adapt! I want to see the sun!” The offspring find themselves unable to escape, and that, we are told, is how the dinosaurs became extinct. (Peppa Pig or Paw Patrol it is not.)

Gora Dinozavrov, with its bleak warning against the existential dangers posed by a fundamental desensitized totalitarian society, reminds me of an essay written by the Prague-born writer Johannes Urzidil. In his essay “We Stood Guard,” Urzidil looked back on the fall of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, a political entity “characterized by utter lovelessness, by the absolute lack of kindness or the willingness to ever do anything for anyone except oneself, by the indescribable callousness and selfishness of everyone.” It was the “all-embracing mutual lovelessness,” Urzidil maintained, “that ultimately destroyed that era.” And “if one objects that selfishness is fundamental to being human, is part of our individual, social and political nature” Urzidil continued, “the answer is simple”:

It’s exactly what ruins human beings and empires, what has always ruined them, and what will keep on ruining them in the future, however rich or powerful they happen to be at times. As Heinrich Mann once so magnificently expounded during the First World War, this was what ruined the Second French Empire, what ruined czarist Russia, Wilhelmine and Hitlerian Germany, Britain’s world empire, the list could go on and on, backwards and forwards, as long as it is selfishness that underlies political rationales ostensibly causing these collapses — ostensibly because empires do not fall apart due to external causes but begin to crumble from within. These may be truisms. But, as Goethe once remarked, we have to keep repeating the truth, since the falsehoods all around us are constantly being repeated as well.

The psychopathic state is marked by lovelessness, selfishness, cynicism, paranoia, deluded rationalism, and above all by indescribable callousness, qualities that make it dangerous to its neighbors, and dangerous to its own citizens. Russia is just such a state, and we must keep repeating this truth, since the falsehoods being spun by the Kremlin and its fellow travelers are constantly being repeated as well.


Vladlen Tatarsky, real name Maxim Yurievich Fomin, lived a life altogether worthy of the attention of a modern-day Nordau or Lombroso. Born in the Donetsk Oblast in 1982, Tatarsky was imprisoned for armed bank robbery in 2011, and when the war in Donbas erupted in 2014, he took advantage of the chaos and escaped, joining up with the Russian-backed Donetsk People’s Republic’s Vostok Battalion, and later becoming a prominent blogger and war propagandist affiliated with Yevgeny Prigozhin’s mercenary Wagner Group. When news of the Bucha massacres became known to the wider world, Tatarsky was unapologetic: “Yes, that’s how we are … We’ll show you even more. Fear us!” He called upon Russian forces to attack civilian infrastructure, so that “hospitals will not work” and more Ukrainians will “drown on operating tables.” On Sept. 30, 2022, when Putin announced the “partial mobilization” of the Russian people, Tatarsky was positively ecstatic. “We will defeat everyone,” he announced on his Telegram channel, “we will kill everyone, we will rob everyone, everything will be as we like.”

Tatarsky flourished for a time both in the criminal underworld and in Putin’s criminal regime, but he met his end on April 2, 2023, in a Saint Petersburg bar reportedly owned by Wagner Group financier Yevgeny Prigozhin, when he gratefully accepted the gift of a sculpture of himself, albeit one which happened to be rigged with an explosive device packed with 200 grams of trinitrotoluene. Margarita Simonyan, Anton Krasovsky, and Russian Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Maria Zakharova naturally accused Kyiv of orchestrating the attack, but Prigozhin himself stated that he would not “blame the Kyiv regime,” given that Russian security services have increasingly been looking to put Wagner in its place, and Ukrainian Presidential Office Advisor Mykhailo Podolyak proposed that Fomin’s death was “a result of infighting and political competition among Russian actors.” Russia’s National Anti-Terrorist Committee, meanwhile, has accused Alexei Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation of facilitating the attack, while Team Navalny has responded that “it was the FSB officers who simply eliminated this propagandist themselves. They have been doing this since 2014: poisoning and killing each other for fun, sharing markets. It’s just that not all cases are public.”

We may never know the truth, but we do know that Tatarsky — wanted criminal, violent militiaman, genocidal propagandist, and sociopath — was posthumously awarded the Russian Order of Courage. On Russian state television, Yuri Kots delivered a eulogy for Vladlen Tatarsky: “Vladlen’s utterances were what they fear most — the spiritual element of our nation, the civilizational element of our people.” And that is precisely the problem.

Matthew Omolesky
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Matthew Omolesky is a human rights lawyer and a researcher in the fields of cultural heritage preservation and law and anthropology. A Fellow of the Royal Anthropological Institute, he has been contributing to The American Spectator since 2006, as well as to publications including Quadrant, Lehrhaus, Europe2020, the European Journal of Archaeology, and Democratiya.
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