Russian Brotherhood and Putin’s War

Designed by Cleo Maloney

In Russian director Sergei Balabanov’s Brother (1997), Danila, a baby-faced former soldier from a Russian village, goes to live with his successful brother Viktor in St. Petersburg. It soon becomes clear to Danila that Viktor’s success comes from his involvement with the mafia, but Danila takes this in stride and helps his brother out, picking off his foes with military expertise. Along the way, he wanders the streets of newly capitalist and crime-ridden Petersburg, pursuing love and friendship and searching for someone who shares his passion for Soviet rock music––all without success. He also rails against Americans, Frenchmen, and people from the Caucasus, while remaining naively loyal to his older brother Viktor. Viktor, in turn, uses Danila as a mere tool and, when he is captured by enemies, quickly sells Danila out to them.

In the climax of the film, Danila, proving himself more clever than his ‘village idiot’ persona lets on, sneaks into the rivals’ base and picks off his brother’s captors one by one. Viktor, lying in his underpants and gold chain beside his dead captors on the floor, pleads to Danila, “Don’t kill me, brother; please, don’t kill me.” For a second, we think we’re about to see Viktor’s head explode in retribution for his betrayal. Instead, Danila lifts his brother up and hugs him, saying cheerfully, “You’re my brother. You were like a father to me. I used to call you Papa.”

The first time I watched Brother was around 2017. I had grown up hearing my Soviet emigre parents’ invectives against the complacent Russians who had remained in their native country, making excuses for Putin’s military aggression and electoral fraud, not realizing they were being robbed and cheated by the regime. Danila fit this image perfectly: the racist, homophobic, nationalist Russian whose bigotry blinds him from recognizing his brother’s true intentions. When Danila professes to disliking Jews, I scrunched up my nose and thought, Well, good, I don’t like Russians.

But the second time I watched Brother, it registered differently. This time, I viewed it for a seminar on modern Russia, and our class readings and discussions gave me a far better understanding of the development of Soviet nationalism. I learned that, as Perry Anderson wrote, Russia had spent most of its modern existence as “one ethno-cultural community among others, always the most salient, but never politically self-standing.” Its relationship to the world was defined by a special “mission centered on Moscow,” whether this was the Tsarist mission of saving Christian humanity through Orthodoxy or the Soviet mission of inspiring worldwide communist revolution. When that mission dematerialized in 1991, most people expected a democratic capitalist ideal to replace it. Russia would experience the splendor of the free market, become part of the West, and history would end. 

But what these predictions overlooked—and what my parents, who immigrated in 1993, did not experience—was the pain this economic shift caused. Russia’s rapid transition to a free market, advised by the Harvard Institute for International Development, brought an explosion of poverty, crime, and chaos to Russia; all while those same Harvard economists used inside connections to enrich themselves. This is the world we see Danila navigate in Brother: where rival gangs fight in the streets, unemployed husbands turn to alcohol, and kids can’t even go for walks without accidentally wandering onto private film sets and being beaten by bodyguards. At the same time, NATO closed in on Russia’s neighboring states, violating the one condition which Russia––otherwise initially amicable to the West––had set. These states certainly have a right to self-determination, but for the former center of the Soviet empire, Western encirclement inevitably triggered a defensive response from politicians and ordinary citizens alike. The communist ideal which had once guided Russia was dead, yet the friendliness of the West was also increasingly discredited. As I watched Brother again, in the context of this ideological void, Danila’s need for an “older brother” to cling to seemed far more understandable. 

In the 2000s, Putin became this very same kind of “older brother” for the Russian population. His regime codified Danila’s blind familial loyalty into a political platform, offering stability in return for uncritical obedience, economic improvement in return for ignoring corruption. This was authoritarianism with nothing at its ideological center save nationalist chauvinism. But it worked: the chaos of the ’90s faded, the economy gradually improved, and invasions of Chechnya, Georgia, and Crimea boosted Putin’s popularity time and time again, further cementing nationalist aggression as a way to garner power. 

Over time, Putin’s friendliness to the West waned and his authoritarian nationalism ramped up, particularly since Medvedev’s presidency made him briefly insecure about his power. As Ilya Matveev notes in Jacobin, Putin even switched from using the word rossiyskiy (meaning a citizen of the Russian Federation) to russkiy (meaning an ethnic Russian) in his public statements––a subtle shift, but one indicative of the country’s overall direction. Putin leveraged hostility toward outside groups to consolidate support for Russian people, even when those Russian people were the politicians and oligarchs working together to exploit, rob, and manipulate most of the country’s population. It was like an international reenactment of the scene in Brother in which Danila threatens a likely-Chechen man with a gun and tells him, “You’re not my brother, black-ass worm”–– as his own brother manipulates and betrays him without a second thought. 

Yet today, Russians are becoming less and less like Danila. There has been a surge of anti-war protests in urban centers, and even though rural Russia has remained quieter, the palpable doubt about this attack (in contrast to the general support for invading Crimea in 2014) speaks to a political awakening in progress. The past decade of increasing economic stagnation, widening societal stratification, exposure of corruption (notably by populist presidential candidate Aleksey Navalny, currently jailed), and overt election fraud has fomented doubt about Putin’s intentions. Indeed, though the country’s attitudes toward social progress remain cynical, one can hope that its demonstrations of solidarity with Ukraine will herald an awareness that the Other is not necessarily their enemy, and their brother is not necessarily their friend. What they might do with this information, I am eager to see.

But Russia is not the only superpower involved in this conflict. It is a confrontation between two empires––one nationalistic, one global. I have long gawked at the former, characterizing complacency with evil as a Russian trait. Now, as the two empires clash, I cannot help but compare them. Watching the media outcry about this invasion, I think of the lukewarm reactions of these same outlets to our own allies’ aggression—to the actions of Saudi Arabia in Yemen, or of Israel in Palestine. Hearing Russians at home and abroad articulate principled opposition to the war on Ukraine, I remember the American population’s complacency with and support for the war in Iraq. Witnessing the bravery of the anti-war protesters being beaten and arrested by police, I contemplate how quickly we forget about our own imperial actions abroad, despite the comparatively lower stakes. Are we more like Danila than we’d like to admit?

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