Interview with Jade McGlynn | “Russians cannot perpetuate their myth of Russia if they lose control over Ukraine”

Oleksandr Pankieiev: Your book is titled Russia’s War—not Putin’s War, as many frame it in the West. You examine the role of ordinary Russians in the aggression against Ukraine. What is the main message you are trying to convey in your book by exploring this dimension?

Jade McGlynn: I would like to emphasize two points when answering this question. One is that the aggression against Ukraine is not Putin’s venture only. And if we—we being the West—believe that the catastrophic genocidal war will be easily solved if we get rid of one person, then we are going to fall victim to misconceptions and design wrong policies. The second point is that we need to understand what kind of war the Russians are watching; we need to look at the propaganda. I do not like the argument that people back the war because they are zombified. It does not make any sense. There are 60 million daily users of Telegram [social media] who have access to all forms of channels, including oppositional, and yet of the top 30 political channels an overwhelming majority of 24 are very pro-war.

In my book I wanted to make the argument that the Kremlin’s propaganda functions not only because it has a platform. Of course the situation in the media is rigged, to put it mildly, in favour of advocating the war effort, but such narratives also need resonance. Above all, the narratives are about meaning-making. They need to make sense and resonate with how people view their lives, the world, themselves as Russians, Russia’s history, Russia’s international role, and, of course, Ukraine and the West. And that is why the propaganda works.

Pankieiev: You write about Russia’s liberal opposition and the reaction of some of its representatives to the aggression. What are your main conclusions about their stance on Russia’s war against Ukraine?

McGlynn: One of the first things to say is that typifying the Russian liberal opposition is a difficult task because they are really incoherent. There is, for example, the feminist anti-war resistance, who I think are incredible. The work they do is incredible. They seem to “get” the calamity behind the war, to put it bluntly. But others—in particular, certain members of the Alexei Navalny team—are less supportive. They remove Ukraine from the narrative almost entirely. That was something else that came out of my research.

If you look for references to Ukraine on the Navalny Telegram channel there were very few, much less than is the average for other Russian Telegram channels, during the first three months of the invasion. They  removed Ukraine from communication or tried to insert themselves into the war.

In March 2022 there was a moment when the opposition used the negotiations around Ukraine to try to ask Western governments to include releasing Navalny from prison as one of the Kremlin’s concessions. As much as I would like to see him released—someone who should have not been imprisoned in the first place—Navalny’s case cannot be inserted into such discussions on Ukraine.

Such actions by some of the Russian democratic opposition replicates the Kremlin’s denial of Ukrainian agency, demonstrating Ukrainophobia, solipsism, and a kind of self-obsession. They invariably present themselves as friends of Ukraine but that isn’t always the case. Moreover, it is incredibly offensive to see some aggressively rejecting criticism from Ukrainians using arguments like “Oh, well, you must be Putin bots, because you are fighting us and we are anti-Putin.” But Ukrainians are literally fighting.

Having said all that, I do not want to condemn the Russian opposition. They are not a monolith and many have made incredible sacrifices to undermine Putin’s regime. I do not think I would have the bravery to protest in Putin’s Russia. I would not also have a smidgen of the bravery that Ukrainians have shown. This is more about some of the Russian opposition getting a sense of perspective. Their struggles—as awful as they may be—are not comparable to the struggles that Ukrainians are enduring. Pankieiev: I recently watched a short video feature, produced by Dozhd, where Russian journalists discussed the issue of collective guilt in the context of war. It was really interesting to see that half of them felt no collective guilt at all. However, the other half did. Eventually, the discussion shifted toward issues of imperialism, and by the end of the video all of the participants acknowledged that they were imperialists. That conclusion did not come easily to them and really convicted them. In this light, how would you see the issue of collective guilt in Russia or the absence of such?

McGlynn: I will probably disappoint you because I do not really believe in collective guilt. Instead, I think that some form of  collective responsibility exists. For guilt or culpability, individuals should be tried for their own actions.

What I wanted to look at in my research was how different people facilitated the horrendous events, facilitated the aggression. They were doing it in various ways, sometimes consciously and sometimes unconsciously, because not taking action is also an action. Moreover, I agree that the imperialist mindset contributes significantly to these people’s actions. However, on top of that there is something specific about Ukraine in Russia and for Russians, in their geopolitical mindmap. The narrative or the autobiography that Russians have written for themselves depends on being able to control Ukraine. It depends on being able to show that Ukrainians want to be with them and that Russia is the legitimate heir to Kyivan Rus’. It seems to me that Russians cannot perpetuate their myth of Russia if they lose control over Ukraine.

Pankieiev: You have been following Russia’s media narratives about Ukraine since the beginning of the full-scale invasion. Is it true that the media outlets outside the capital are practically silent about the war? How can you explain this?

McGlynn: The relative silence of the regional media about the war is not really my finding. I have mostly looked at the federal broadcast channels and Telegram. The regional media is something that Paul Goode at Carleton University examined. And what he found was that the war—obviously, they call it a “special military operation”—did not come up very much in the local news; they obviously tried to avoid it.

I just finished a small research project, looking at what media and news outlets wrote about and what kind of information Russians consume from television. I have observed—and it is very interesting—that since October 2022 a major shift has happened from political discussion programs to a variety of series [serialy] and films. I have observed a lot of escapism on the television, but news and real-time events are no longer in the focus.

I think that the war has not gone how the Russians wanted it to. Clearly, there is an awful lot of cognitive dissonance about the fact that the Ukrainians did not meet the Russians as liberators, to put it mildly. There also seems to be a large element of avoidance. Because if you have to start facing questions about the poor progress of the invasion in Ukraine, you need then to find the answers to why. And to be fair, for the majority of ordinary Russians there is not really any benefit in facing those questions. They would have to do something with that information afterwards. Finding answers and accepting them are not pleasant prospects for Russians.

Pankieiev: What do you think about the response to the war in different regions of Russia? Is there a chance that any region could put up an organized resistance to Moscow—for instance, Dagestan?

McGlynn: In my research I mainly focused on ethnic Russians and do not have much expertise in regional politics. However, from the research of other scholars I know of some interesting phenomena. For example, there appears to be comparatively high levels of support for the war in Kalmykia. But the reasons for that support are different when compared to other regions of Russia. Kalmykia has a cultural legacy of martialism or militarism. It is also an awfully poor region, where joining the army with its decent salaries could also lead to a major improvement in one’s circumstances. On top of that, the region is run by a madman—I recognize that it’s not a very academic term—in the form of the governor.

Turning to the North Caucasus in general, I find it very hard to comment because all regions there have different dynamics. Firstly, they are not densely populated by ethnic Russians. Secondly, there is a different history and social set up there, one which is very hard to read from without. So I am not in a position to provide reliable insights into what the true direction of public opinion in the North Caucasus might be.

Pankieiev: What are your thoughts about Yevgeny Prigozhin and his role in Russia today? What has changed after the march of his Wagner Group mercenaries on Moscow?

McGlynn: I am still not entirely sure what happened. The idea that Aliaksandr Lukashenka came in to negotiate does not seem very plausible. And then we had Putin speaking harshly in the morning when the events started and becoming more relaxed in the evening of the same day. I still have a lot of questions on that scale.

One thing that looks very interesting, and perhaps the one I feel most confident talking about, is the way in which Wagner fighters were greeted, especially in Rostov. The fighters were cheered! It surprised me. In this light, the UK Foreign Secretary paradoxically concluded: “Oh, it is evidence that there is no support or support for the war is breaking.” I am really wondering how he arrived at that conclusion. Because it is odd, isn’t it? Cheering for Wagner does not suggest that people love peace; I mean, they are warmly greeting war criminals who massacred civilians in Bucha and committed all manner of atrocities…

However, to come back to the point, I would not conclude that Prigozhin himself is very popular. He has been associated with many scandals, like providing school dinners that gave the pupils food poisoning after his company won a tender, and others. But I think that the role he plays is the one of a muzhik—a normal bloke, a guy from the people. His anti-elitist and anti-corruption ideas are easy to comprehend, for instance, “We would have won this war if not for the incompetent generals.” These ideas and their presentation appeal to ordinary Russians because they allow people to keep their national pride, allow them to explain reality. I think these sorts of narratives will increasingly take hold. As a matter of fact, they have been around for a long time among some of the nationalists, particularly those who did opposed the war because it would weaken Russia, not out of any particular sympathy for Ukrainians.

Prigozhin seems to be influential—and here we come back to my answer to one of the earlier questions—because his narratives resonate with people. Prigozhin’s tirades acquire popular legitimacy partly because he tells the truth about the war. Obviously, it is a kind of distorted truth—one that has passed through his own lens, through his knowledge and understanding—but it is broadly the truth. It appeals to people, especially after they’ve listened to so many Kremlin propaganda lies, disconnected from reality.

Pankieiev: Some time has already passed since you published your book. Have you discovered any new perspectives and facts on the Russian war against Ukraine that made you reconsider something that you wrote earlier?

McGlynn: No, nothing new was discovered in terms of the broad argument. Definitely, reading through the text again, because it was written kind of quickly I wish I could slightly change the turn of some phrases. But these are more editing issues. The content of the book, on the other hand, is something that I have been thinking about and researching since 2014. Ultimately, the discoveries that I made—or my research showed up over the years—came to fruition in different ways in 2022. The events of 24 February became the final piece of a puzzle that I have been sorting through for a while.

One of the things that I want to highlight about the book—one that many people in the West do not pick up—is the Ukrainophobia that can extend to some of the Russian opposition. Western readers fail to pick up on the controversies of Lev Kopelev, an otherwise exemplary Russian dissident and human rights defender who actually participated in the Holodomor in Soviet Ukraine. I think it is a shame. I would like to discuss that point more. It is a shame that people in the West do not want to start a conversation that needs to be had. Too often, when discussing the Russian opposition a reduction is made that if they are anti-Putin, therefore they must be pro-Ukrainian. This is not always true.

Pankieiev: How would you characterize the general attitude of Russians, both opposition and ordinary citizens, to Ukraine and Ukrainians? What is the impact of years of propaganda—or, if I may, zombification—on the formation of existing attitudes?

McGlynn: I really do not think that the process of zombification was crucial. I am cautious about that term. Instead, what came through to me and to a handful of my liberal Russian friends is that ordinary people have an inflated idea of the supremacy of Russian culture. In today’s Russia, this inflated idea could be one real reason behind the dismissiveness toward Ukrainian culture and some of the anger toward Ukrainians. There should be critical engagement with the continued feting of somebody like Kopelev and how he can be a hero even though he took part in the Holodomor. As Daria Mattingly has shown in her work, he enforced the famine of the 1930s at a time when others in his position tried to help the victims or at least to avoid doing such a murderous job.

The dismissive was towards Ukrainian suffering can also be observed among many Westerners. We have yet to explore the extent to which Ukrainians have been perceived as expendables in history. This is one of the things that I am always taken aback. I am a Russianist by training, but obviously I have had to study Ukrainian history in depth as a necessary counterweight to reading a lot of Russian propaganda about it. Very often throughout Western histories of the region, Ukrainian security and lives are presented as expendable. Ukrainian culture is represented as second-class or rural. This attitude has also impacted decision-making, if you think of the Treaty of Versailles and other similar events.

Hopefully that will change now with Ukrainians fleeing war greeted so warmly in Western Europe, and now that finally Ukrainian culture is being celebrated or even just discovered by some who know little about Ukraine. But the other attitudes will persist and it is important to acknowledge them and shine a light on them because Ukraine and Ukrainians aren’t expendable and giving in to those who think they are will only bring more misery and death on all of us.