Many are taking comfort in the notion that just as Russians appear to have reduced their hatred of immigrants when encouraged by the Kremlin to hate Ukrainians instead so too their hatred against the latter could be ended relatively easily if Moscow changed course — and in any case won’t expand to include others.
But in fact, as a panel discussion organized by Radio Liberty points out, there are two problems with the optimistic vision. On the one hand, it ignores that there was a reservoir of hatred among many Russians ready to be whipped up by the government for its own purposes. Moscow did not create it; it exploited it.
And on the other hand, such a view also downplays the danger that while Moscow may be able to exploit such hatreds, it could quickly lose control over them and not be able either to restrain them once they are unleashed or to prevent them from being extended to other groups that the regime either wants to protect or does not want to offend.
Indeed, to deal with this situation, the panel suggested, the regime will either have to offer new objects of hatred in the hopes of diverting Russians from one enemy to another or employ massive amounts of repression in order to limit the expression of that hatred. In either case, the problems involved with such feelings and their use are not limited or short term.
Thus, for example, any lessening of official anti-Ukrainian hysteria in the absence of any new target group almost immediately threatens to provoke new outburst of hostility toward migrants or toward other groups, including Chinese workers and industrialists in the Russian Far East whom Moscow has every reason to protect lest it offend Beijing.
(Indeed, that issue is so sensitive that the authorities have taken down an entire website after it featured an article showing that xenophobic attitudes and actions against the Chinese are on the rise there.)
Consequently, thanks to Putin’s actions in unleashing and exacerbating Russian hatreds in the current crisis, Russia and the world are entering a Martin Niemöller moment, one in which just because they hate someone else now, there are no guarantees that they will not hate others, including ourselves, later.