Strongmen Destroyed, Part 1: The Silovik Revolution


Denys Bakirov, 27, is a lecturer at the University of Kharkiv, Ukraine who currently works as a researcher at Metamoderna in Sweden. When war broke out on February 24th, his village north of Kharkiv right on the border with Russia was occupied by the Russian Army. Denys was forcefully deported from Ukraine to Russia. There he was interrogated by the FSB. Later, he managed to escape from Russia and now lives in Sweden.

He has a BA in Mathematics and Computer Science, specializing in Game Theory; a MA in International Economic Relations, specializing in Migration and Diaspora Studies; a PhD in Philosophy, specializing in the history of interaction between education and politics; and he worked as a diplomat in the embassy of Ukraine in The Hague, Netherlands. He has a passion for gardening, specializing in the evergreen forests.


Blatari & Politiki

Ever since ‘the rocket’s red glare’ and ‘bombs bursting in air’ defined February 24th as the turning point in world history, I’ve been trying to understand what made Russia’s attack possible. I now offer the first fruit of this search, a story of how the friendship between secret police and organised crime forged in Stalin’s GULAG laid the foundation for the imperialism of Putin’s regime.

In 1937 Varlam Shalamov was sent to the coldest place on Earth and the grimmest part of GULAG—Kolyma. It was the year of unprecedented political purges, the year when Stalin sent countless members of the educated civil society, or simply intelligentsia, to the labour camps where they were to be terrorised by thugs of the criminal world.

Shalamov’s Kolyma Stories and Chronicles of Criminal World offer (for my money) the starkest witness to the forms of life that embody the difference between two distinct forms of freedom: the freedom of choice and the freedom of legislation. He refers to these as pertaining to two types of people found in Soviet Russia: the blatari and the politiki.[1]

Blatari were thieves with a vulgarly Nietzschean code of conduct[2] that legitimised their crimes on the grounds that it was a matter of justice for the strong to impose their will upon the weak. In contrast to this, politiki, the victims of political purges, refused to impose their will or the will of the authorities on their fellow inmates because they knew that by participating in coercion they would betray their human essence, their nature as political animals.

The politiki, as Shalamov insisted time and again, were the only people who ‘stayed human’ in GULAG. It was their memory that a different life is possible, a memory which, in the darkest hours, was preserved only by recitation of poems remembered by heart, that allowed politiki to be a part of a conversation, a language-game, that freed their imagination from a zero-sum-game of the ‘death camp realism’.

It is crucial to see that both ‘politicians’ and ‘thieves’ are defined by their freedom in relation to the law, but in ways that are the exact opposites.

Lawmaking & Lawbreaking / Blatari and Siloviki

Let us consider two kinds of freedom.

First, the freedom to choose among a given set of choices. Say, to choose among the products on a supermarket shelf. Second, the freedom to legislate a different set of choices. Say, to reason together about the laws that should regulate the market so as to nudge our behaviour closer to what we agree on as a life worth living. The freedom of choice is a basic but private kind of freedom because although it secures the sovereignty of the customer’s choice against material constraints and moral concerns, the range and arrangement of available products remains outside her control and is always already manipulated so as to maximise the profit of the seller, not the consumer’s wellbeing.

The freedom of self-legislation is of higher order because it allows me to examine the form of life into which our choices coalesce and then to politically renegotiate our relationships so as to make the desired form of life possible, so as to maximise our wellbeing. Thus, political freedom legislates the context in which our freedom of choice takes place. Just like thinking legislates the context of willing by allowing me to say ‘these are not my only choices!’, so does politics legislate the context of private lives, allowing us to say ‘this is not the only form of life we can have!’ From the Jewish perspective, to collectively imagine a form of life that differs from the one we conduct now and to renegotiate our relationships so as to bring it closer, is the highest form of freedom. This is the freedom of political debate to which humans are called by Yahweh: ‘Come now, let us reason together, says the Lord’ (in Isaiah 1:18).

But what happens if this hierarchy of freedoms is inverted?

If I only have the freedom of choice I lose creativity: I am cursed to choose between many clichés. I don’t care if all my options are flawed and trivial, all I care is the power to decide for myself, to choose what I will. And if I want to secure the sovereignty of my will, if I want to ensure that my choice stems from my own volition and stays unconditioned by things outside my control, then I want to widen my choice to the extent of pure arbitrariness—so that people can’t wrap their heads around why I did what I did, can’t put a finger on anything that determined my course of action—except my will.

Although it may appear as though freedom of will makes me creative, it does not. I don’t invent unexpected solutions to the problems we’re faced with, I just make defective choices that break the necessary level of trust and reciprocity on which the problem-solving could have been accomplished. Instead of devising a way for the team to win the game, I cheat at the expense of teammates. I don’t create anything new, I break the laws of cooperation and tear social fabric apart.

The point of acting arbitrarily is not to experiment with mutations that grow out of random acts—acting at will is not the same as acting at random. The point of acting arbitrarily is to prove that I am the arbiter, I am the one who decides—not any other principle or agent. Thus the more my choice is in revolt against the context that might have determined it, that is in revolt against reality itself, against laws of nature and laws of the state, the more I prove the freedom of my will.

In contrast to this, thinking means letting the will be disciplined by reality (including the reality of my natural desires) until I no longer have to choose and my will becomes at one with the truth—“Until with thee I will one will”[3]. Whereas the will’s claim to freedom lies in having as many choices as possible, thinking in essence means narrowing on just one choice—the truth. Reason’s claim to freedom lies in its attunement to reality—“you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free” (John 8:32). This is why, after a certain point, the emphasis on the will’s freedom to choose at the expense of political freedom becomes the emphasis on freedom not to think and, ironically, on freedom not to be free.

In this essay I argue that there is perhaps no greater threat to a society than the subordination of political freedom of self-legislation to private freedom of choice because, once it happens, thinking becomes subordinated to willing. Although it may sound inconsequential, it is the essence of fascism, which, ‘in all its varieties, was a triumph of will over reason’[4], the national decision “by doing ill to prove that we possess free will”.[5]

Enforcement of Lawlessness

Politiki go ‘beyond the law’, they upgrade the current legislation so as to make it fairer, whereas the blatari ‘go against’ and ‘break’ the law because they think it is too fair—that it prevents them from doing whatever they want with the weak. Politiki used peaceful civil disobedience, activism, for the sake of changing the status quo. Blatari used violent disobedience, criminal offences, to advance within the current status quo. In the scarcity of Soviet death camps, where the impossibility of communal self-legislation led human relations to be shaped by brute force, intellectual and communicative faculties that constitute political freedom became useless and powerless—politiki and their higher education were turned into objects of simultaneous envy and ridicule. At the same time, the blatari, the thieves of the underworld, saw their dream come true—once the constraints of the law were lifted they were finally freed to have their way with yesterday’s judges and prosecutors, professors and politicians, lords and landlords. The world has turned upside down.

To understand how this could happen, it is necessary to consider a form of life that has neither freedom nor trouble with regards to the law—the so-called siloviki, ‘strongmen’. Their task is to enforce the current law, regardless of how corrupt it is. Siloviki have no quarrels with the present order as long as they stay in the position of dominance. They were, to use Cornel West’s indispensable adage, ‘well adjusted to injustice’—and any threat to the regime is a threat to their privilege. I hypothesise that in the state built upon pure dominance, in the state whose ruler himself was a convict, the authorities had realised that the blatari pose less threat to their regime than politiki precisely because politiki’s critique of unjust dominance undermined the pillars of the order based on unjust dominance in ways that blatari never could. The targets of blatari were the weak. The targets of politiki were the authorities. Blatari, although they were breaking the laws, were doing it for their private sake and had neither complaints nor grudges against the authorities. Since they understood only sheer dominance, criminal syndicates were perfect partners for cooperation with the corrupt state—easily bribed, they could be used as deniable assets to do the dirtiest job. Politiki, on the other hand, strived to hold authorities answerable to the form of life people dreamed of, a natural humane life endowed with abstract ideals like freedom, decency, dignity, distance and privacy that make room for graceful relationships, relationships whose participants have a say in current affairsall the things which a dictatorship can’t provide.

It’s as if the security servicemen, the people who were called to enforce the laws devised by the political conversation between the citizens and to protect these citizens from the zero-sum impingements which would have made them susceptible to putting their private will above the common good, betrayed their calling and forged alliance with the thieves whose parasitic crimes constituted the greatest threat to the integrity of that conversation. Thus, at the time when politiki targeted as ‘the enemies of the people’ were tortured and slaughtered, the blatari who tortured and slaughtered them were dubbed ‘the friends of the people’[6] and gradually ‘befriended’ by the law-enforcement. The first fruits of this friendship were the piled up corpses of destroyed intelligentsia. It was the textbook example of the descent into tyranny from Plato 101: the will (thymos) becomes allied with the appetite (eros) against reason (logos). If the politiki were essentially cerebral, were governed by the intellect, and siloviki were personifying heroic traits like courage and loyalty, were guided by the will, pursuit of honour, blatari were neither people of language nor people of honour. They were the people of the body—blatari ‘dance’ through their life path, they are guided by their carnal appetites. One of the funniest of Shalamov’s descriptions of a typical blatar is that he could ‘dance’ a newspaper article. The intellect, the will, and the appetite are all ‘good’ if their hierarchy retains this natural order, but when the appetite and the will subjugate intellect, the desires, instead of being rationally articulated, become insatiable and degrade into passions.

Once the room for self-legislation is reduced to the closed cabinet of the autocrat, our reason becomes reduced to our will, our faculty of renegotiating the laws of contest so as to make competition more graceful and mutually beneficial becomes reduced to our faculty of winning the contest by beating the hell out of our current competitors. On the individual level, it corrupts our capacity to critique the current order and addicts our attention to securing our dominant position within it—no matter how unfair, irrational or even dysfunctional the status-quo is. The limit case of this zero-sum ethos is the ‘death camp realism’ expressed in the blatar saying “You die today, but I tomorrow”. In absence of the instruments to imagine and legislate a different context for our lives, we cave in to the idea that “this is how the real world is”—we must either play by its rules or die.

With regard to the society writ large, when it loses the ability to self-legislate, relationships within it come to be defined by the powerful—by those who can impose their will through the exercise of force. They come in two species, siloviki who have power to enforce the law and the blatari who have power to break it. But, once they merge, lawlessness and law-enforcement mutate into ‘enforcement of lawlessness’ (Rus. proizvol, arbitrariness). Once people entrusted to serve the law had put the law at their service, the state fell into the hands of ‘thieves-in-law’. The cooperation between blatari and siloviki led to the state where the law was identified with the interests of the powerful and, at the end of the day, with the interests of the powers that be. The arbitrary will of the sovereign became the law-of-the-land—no matter how far it was divorced from reality and morality, no matter how harmful to the common good.

2. THE SILOVIK REVOLUTION: How Three Despairs Aligned to Cause the Unlikely Rise of Putin

Patriotism & Greed

After a merger with the criminal underworld, siloviki faced two problems. The old problem was that their Communist Empire couldn’t match the power of the capitalist NATO. The new problem was that they couldn’t own property. But now they saw a way to kill two birds with one stone. The solution was to conduct such a transition of the USSR to market capitalism in which the KGB men would simultaneously preserve power to take on the West and make lots of money for themselves. “Unlike the Communists, the new generation of siloviki… declared themselves in favour of the market. But they aimed to use and distort the market as a weapon. They wanted to establish a form of quasi-state capitalism that would further their own—and as they saw it, Russia’s—power”.[7]

Already before the collapse, secret servicemen had established themselves as the exclusive economic mediators between the West and Russia because, before in the Soviet times any joint venture in the foreign country could be established only with the KGB approval. Also before the collapse there was a big wave of immigration which was fully under their control. The secret policemen were steeped in using diaspora for their own confluence of lucrative and imperial purposes. But the KGB “also needed more subtle ways to launder cash through business, not directly through US banks”. And with the help of the joint ventures and curated immigrants, they were able to make connections with the local Western businessmen. “There was”, for example, “Trump and his financial problems – it was a solution that was very much on time”.[8]

When the USSR started to collapse, the siloviki were able to quickly syphon Russia’s wealth to their secret offshores. The international spy network of the KGB succeeded in functioning as the key conduit of the ‘party wealth’ to the slush funds in the West. This solved both of the siloviki’s problems: they secured the ‘gold of the communist party’ for themselves and infiltrated the West with a system of black cash laundromats.

Thus at the early dawn of Russian capitalism, KGB were already many steps ahead with their off-shores, slush funds, laundromats, friendships and resident agents. When the privatisations began in the 1990s, the secret police with its access to mountains of ‘hard currency’ had a head-start. It was in fact the KGB people who selected and fostered a first generation of the richest Russian entrepreneurs among the young apparatchiks of the Communist Party. For example, they funded the early privatisations by the muscovite Mikhail Khodorkovsky, a leader of the local Komsomol chapter, who would become the richest man of Russia’s early 2000s.

Yet soon the KGB faced a serious problem. Under the advent of capitalism, siloviki were gradually losing control over Russia to the nouveau-riche capitalists whose iconoclasm and inventiveness were better adapted to the wilderness of the nascent free market. Siloviki understood that they can stay in power and subsume these pesky billionaires only if they take Russian business in the pincers of the power structures of the fatherland (and, one may argue, the criminal structures of gangland). They could outcompete the oligarchs only if they’d built a regime based on the kleptocratic interdependence of corruption and coercion, kleptes and kratos. Thus, even though Russian liberalism was just being born, the coalition of law-enforcement and organised crime had laid the foundation for a different kind of order, the regime of ‘crime-enforcement’. All of this made the FSB (the freshly renamed domestic branch of the KGB) desperate and ready to go to great lengths to ensure the election of one of their colleagues as the president of Russia.

After the fall of the USSR the liaison between the siloviki and blatari was most pronounced in the newly renamed St. Petersburg. The alliance was overviewed by Vladimir Putin, a former KGB officer posted in East Germany and by then an aide to the local mayor. He was among those younger siloviki who realised early on that Russia can overpower the West only if it adopts market capitalism. He was able to infiltrate the ascendant liberal circles and win the trust of the members of Yeltsin’s family whose corruption made them desperate to seek reliable protection from the secret services. This despair of the liberals together with the despair of the FSB found resonance in the plights of the majority of Russians. Like stars, three despairs of siloviki, liberaly and rossiyane[9] aligned to cause the unlikely rise of Vladimir Putin.

Secrets & Conspiracies: Back by Popular Demand

Once the public square ceases to be a place where consequential decisions are made it becomes a dumping ground of lies and manipulations. In the society where communal self-legislation is thrown out the window, language itself becomes inflated to the extent of rendering all political conversation naïve ‘idle talk’. Hence to tap into the lost sense of agency, people are left to believe in secret conspiracies—plots that lurk behind the surface of public rhetoric. They step on the gnostic path of initiation into orders of secret knowledge and participation in the struggle of invisible forces. To feel empowered, people imagine themselves as in the know of a certain cosmic battle and identify themselves with the winning side. In the modern age, these cosmic struggles are often substituted by the imperial struggles. To feel empowered people will often identify themselves with the fate of their country on the geopolitical arena—that mythological battleground between Us and Them. The conspiracy theorists think along these lines: “Real knowledge is kept secret”, “What is truly relevant is hidden from clear sight”, “Unseen powers manipulate reality”, “We have to go beyond appearances to unveil encrypted truths”. This in turn further strengthens the belief that nothing relevant is ever decided in the open public square. It is the secret conspirators, people with access to the power and information of the ‘deep state’ and ‘big corporations’ who really run the world, and it is only them who count. In this sense, movements represented by the letters Z and Q are different sides of the same coin—of the gnostic / pagan conspiratorial mindset obsessed with secrets and strength, worship of ‘power gods,’ and expectations of ‘coming storms’. In any case, neither conspiracy nor geopolitics pose a serious threat to the authorities because both are cynical about speaking truth to power in the public square.

After the collapse of their socialist experiment, Russians ended up as arguably the most cynical people on earth. In the period when the postmodern intellectuals aimed to discredit and deconstruct the notion of ideologies, Russians were firmly ‘vaccinated’ against any hope of boosting progress artificially. It is as if Russians went ‘beyond’ modernity but took the ‘wrong turn’. They, especially the elites, just opted for ‘making money’ which led to the lucrative privatisation and political turmoil of the liberal 1990s. This time, after what they (correctly) saw as the looting of their collective wealth by a handful of greedy oligarchs, Russians became even more cynical. After the idealistic belief in the importance of glasnost (political transparency) they began to abhor debate in the public square. They were taught to scoff at political conversation as an idle and even pernicious activity. As far as they were concerned, nothing good could ever come from democratic politics—only chaos. They were taught to believe that, in the world of populist promises and verbose manipulations of spin doctors, the real agency can come only from terse but wilful and effective ‘strongmen’. They were taught to believe that in a world full of secrets and conspiracies, only the secret police can make a real difference, only the agents skilled in extorting testimony through torture can command the wealth of occult, truly relevant, information. This wealth of information is called podnogotnaya, which literally means ‘under the nails’ after one torture technique of inserting a needle under the nails. In short, Russians were taught to think that the ‘power vertical’ is an indispensable tool of governance and that violence is equally indispensable for justice and truth-seeking. And, in contrast to the eloquent and emasculated politicians of the 1990s, it was the silovik who was identified with absolute secrecy and absolute power.

To make a long story short, the succession of disillusionments was paving the way for Russians to accept the idea that a silovik would make a good ruler. And when Pugachev, one of those desperate to ‘anoint’ a puppet silovik to cover up the shady shenanigans of the liberal government, began preparing Putin for presidency, ‘The plan was to cast him in the image of the most popular fictional TV hero from Soviet times. He was to be a modern-day Max Otto von Stierlitz, an undercover spy…’[10]. But the disillusionments were not enough. There was a need to create an even more suitable context for the election of a strongman.

Part of it was already in the air. The insufferable conditions of Soviet death camps and, frankly, of Soviet life writ large, caused many people to cave in to the ‘realist’ worldview of the thieves which, although totally sinister, at least rang true and sincere, free from naive idealism and unsullied by hypocrisy. They sometimes called it lagernaya pravda, the ‘camp truth’. Its essence is simple: ‘Sauve qui peut’—‘Save himself who can’. Or: ‘Every man for himself and the devil take the hindmost’[11]. Or more elaborate: ‘I swear by my life and my love of it that I will never live for the sake of another man, nor ask another man to live for mine’[12]. And whatever Russians saw in their society only seemed to confirm this cynical stance. The less the law stemmed from people’s self-legislation and the more it was just whatever the powerful wished, the more the popular demand for arbitrary power grew. I like to call this pervasive pattern the ‘spiral of realism’[13]. Every step closer to a zero-sum relations, every step closer to war, creates a popular demand for a tough leader because it leads people to feel that, since in the Real World™ ‘matters are settled with gas and bomb’[14], anything less than straightforwardly strong statesmanship misses the mark of times.

To instill such a feeling in people was the task of the FSB. They couldn’t take risks and decided to undertake drastic measures. To secure the electoral victory of a strongman, the clear fascist boundaries between Us and Them had to be drawn. First, Russia had to face and become afraid of the obscure but powerful terrorist threat. Second, to address this fear, Russia had to be put in a state of war. It is now becoming clear that FSB arranged the explosions to hit four apartment buildings in the Russian cities of Buynaksk, Moscow and Volgodonsk in September 1999, killing more than 300, injuring more than 1,000, thereby spreading a fear of pervasive terrorist threat across the country and thereby justifying waging war against Chechnya. The longing for strong leadership was successfully manufactured. An official whom almost no one knew, by all accounts a nondescript ghost of a man, was suddenly all over the prime time screen-space, swearing that he would punish the hated Chechens. It is not that Putin was transformed into the right guy for the job, rather, the job was transformed into the right one for Putin. In 2000, tyranny was back by popular demand. It was a sinister omen of the times to come. As we’ll see time and again, the people who are the greatest in the game of war will put the state in the state of war so as to make themselves great again—to become indispensable. For the siloviki, escalation is not a means for some (national) end, it is the end in itself. They don’t escalate with some desired future in mind, they cling to power and depend on escalation as an excuse and pretext for their rule.

Kleptocracy: Corruption & Coercion.

This friendship between thieves and spies laid the foundation of Putin’s regime. Even in the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany, the KGB and Gestapo were the people in service of the ideological agenda of the ruling class. Now, in synergy with the structures of organised crime, security servicemen have weaponised the state in service of their own kleptocratic agenda.

It is important to see that, for a dictatorship, corruption is not a problem, but a solution—it is the glue that keeps the system going. Corruption is advantageous for the dictators because it allows them to exercise subtle but absolute control over the country’s officials—it gives them a lever to sack anyone down in the command chain. The secret policemen have understood early on that they can use corruption as a means of coercion: “D’you remember how you’ve got what you have, thief? Now do as we say. Or else!” At the end of the day, since corruption makes all state officials vulnerable to the arbitrary top-down command, a system based on corruption makes independent opinion and public critique all but unimaginable.

By the time of the 2000s, the criminal world and world of secret services were all but the same. It can only get so bad when the country is ridden by criminal gangs, but it is an absolute horror show if the criminal gangs themselves become the police. The contrast between the two most popular Russian movies of the time, Brat (1996) and Bumer (2003), depicts Russia’s transition from the ‘gangster paradise’ of the free-for-all 90-s to the police state of the 00-s. Balabanov’s Gruz 200 provides an insight into an even more sinister pattern: an impotent policeman kidnaps a girl who personifies Russia and lets a convicted blatar rape her. When Putin became president, the whole of Russia fell victim to the cooperation between the secret police and organised crime.

Older generations of the criminals loved to make the point that dirtying hands by collaboration with the state is the worst form of humiliation for a thief. They even fought wars against the so called suki, those of the thieves who cooperated with the state when it promised them amnesty in return for joining Red Army’s fight against the Nazi invaders. In the old days, thieves equally hated the politiki who designed the laws and the siloviki who enforced these laws on them. But now they saw that their code of conduct has become the new law-of-the-land. This meant that they could at last fully redeem one of their monikers, at last turn into the literal ‘thieves-in-law’, holders of the arbitrary power above any law, reason, or justice. They saw that they could become a natural part of the state that was founded on coercion of passive people and extraction of raw resources—a state that had no need for artists or intellectuals, but cherished heroic warriors and industrial executors. They felt at home in “a feudal system in which Putin’s role as the ultimate arbiter between rivals fighting for business was the source of his power”[15], in Putin’s Neo-Bronze Age empire.

In moral terms, a strange marriage had occurred—between the silovik’s genuine concern for the grandeur and security of the empire and the self-seeking greed of the blatar. As a result, the looted Russian wealth ended up firmly in the hands of a small circle of Putin’s friends who justified it by thinking that ‘at least it is now secure in the hands of true patriots’. The coalescence of imperial and private agenda in the minds of strongmen resulted in the distinctly Putinist morality that combines extreme extents of corruption with patriotic rhetoric. For instance, take the confiscation of the riches of the oligarchs. Siloviki were simultaneously trying to secure national riches from the Western control and enrich themselves in the process. A win-win. It was the “takeover of economic, judicial, legislative, and political systems” by Putin’s FSB that soon would accumulate enough wealth and power to turn against the West and, at the same time, to build themselves a dozen palaces.

It may seem that, considering their corruption, siloviki’s patriotism is ludicrously hypocritical, even farcical. But there is no contradiction. Internal and external colonisations go hand-in-hand because there is an inevitable a feedback loop between private greed with imperial ambition: people who are afraid of sharing their disproportionate share of wealth and power with their community through the instruments of communal self-legislation will inevitably use imperial expansion as an pretext for stifling communal self-legislation and as the only means for buying off private citizens by allowing them to share in consumption of the looted booty. A country that can’t renegotiate laws and its social relationships because the authorities fear losing their dominant position is a country whose people can’t cooperate to tap into vistas of creativity. And for a country that creates nothing but only extracts resources from the earth, its citizens, and neighbouring countries, mobilizing for ever new international drama is the only means of growth. Imperialism just extends the logic of private greed to the national scale.

Make no mistake, Russia was colonised by the KGB. By the time of the second half of Putin’s rule, “$800 billion had been stashed offshore since the Soviet collapse, more than the wealth held by the entire Russian population in the country itself… the flood of money leaving the country multiplied many times over the rates seen in the Yeltsin years” [Page 400]. Raw materials were extracted and indigenous people denied any status as political subjects—while the mistresses and offspring of the elite were being integrated into the Western metropolises through investment in real estate and private education. But while the wealth was siphoned from Russia, it was funnelled to the West only so as to create secret networks by means of which to infiltrate, influence and subvert the West. Using Plato’s terms, empire is a product of a ‘monstrous will’, of a link between monstrous appetites of the insatiable criminals and spirited patriotism of secret police, a synergy of internal and external colonisation.


The Dark Side of Statecraft or What Is the Secret Security Service?

It is often said condescendingly that, after all, we all know that Putin was a KGB agent and that it explains so much. But I think it’s worthwhile to examine what exactly does it explain. What does the secret service represent? Graeber & Wengrow argue that the secret service is essentially a weaponisation of previously unimaginable[16] potency of the modern state. It’s as if the secret service is the dystopian ‘dark side of statecraft’ to which the nation has outsourced its coercive faculty. “Secret agent has become the mythic symbol of the modern state… James Bond, with his licence to kill, combines charisma, secrecy and the power to use unaccountable violence, underpinned by a great bureaucratic machine”[17]. In a certain sense, we can think of the secret police as the ego of the state: just like my ego is a schemer obsessed with my status in the dominance hierarchy, the secret police is obsessed with the state’s status in the geopolitical realm. Secret service is like a paranoid conspiracist who doesn’t believe in anything except the argument of violence.

To put it even more provocatively, the secret agent is the opposite to the version of personhood upon which the West is predicated, the inverse of everything a Christian should be, a sort of antichrist. You can think about antichristian ethos by considering the chronological enactment of vices that comprised the biblical account of human Fall into the Bronze Age slavery: ‘hiding’, ‘lying’, ‘killing’. Is the secret agent a ‘hider’, a ‘liar’, and a ‘killer’? First, the secret agent is of course a hider, he is secretive. If, in Christian terms, the person’s identity comes from actual participation in conversations and relationships, the identity of the secret agent is nothing but a mask behind which other interests and relations lurk. In this sense, secret servicemen embody Faustian modernity—they sell their soul, the faculty of participation in relationships, for the sake of acquiring power, knowledge, and (in siloviki’s case) wealth, provided by the modern nation state. It is the modern re-enactment of pagan pre-eminence of ‘having mode’ over ‘being mode’, the will over personhood, as if personhood is nothing but a property of the will, as if the personality was indeed a mere persona, a mask. Masha Gessen insightfully referred to Putin as a ‘man without face’[18]. The secret agent is a killer, an unlikely fusion of refined mendacity and savage cruelty, a cagey beast[19]—the inverse of the non-violent ‘cheek-turning’ of Jesus. The secret agent is a liar—the inverse of a sin-confessing parishioner. Moreover, he mistrusts everyone and everything, he is a paranoid conspiracist—the inverse of the believer who ‘always trusts’ (1 Corinthians 13:7). And since the secret police approaches everything as if there is a secret plot hidden behind it, a cabal plotting to subvert and steal the power of the state, they run the danger of getting lost in the debris of their own conspiracy theories. Their bad faith makes them particularly susceptible to wilful blindness.

And this is the irony of the secret service—the people who are entrusted to collect intelligence often become the ones most detached from it. The enthronement of the secret agent brings this detachment to comical proportions. Recall that the siloviki don’t have any issues with the government as long as they stay in the privileged position. It means that the ruler who relies on siloviki is bound to become blinded by their sycophancy: they will filter out everything that might sound as critique. As the Russian saying goes, “To be promoted, you need to report only what the boss wants to hear”. The ruler gets out of touch with reality because his courtiers are possessed by their will-to-power. ‘For most of history, this was the dynamic of sovereignty. Rulers would try to establish the arbitrary nature of their power; their subjects… would try to surround the godlike personages of those rulers with an endless maze of ritual restrictions, so elaborate that the rulers ended up, effectively, imprisoned in their palaces…’ (The Dawn of Everything, Page 396). In Tyrants Destroyed, Nabokov brilliantly articulates this dynamic by describing how a ‘tyrant calls himself a “prisoner of people’s will”’[20]. Th tyrant’s palace becomes an echo chamber and an echo chamber becomes a prison—a dim place where the spark of truth rarely flickers. This reciprocal enslavement is key to this essay: as your choices get more arbitrary, that is more free from morality and reality, your repertoire of choices narrows. The information, the intelligence you get deteriorates because your relationship with other people deteriorates. And for limited mortals like us, whose sanity depends on exchange of perspectives with each other and whose freedom depends on renegotiation of our relationships with each other, this spells disaster. The more ‘freedom of will’ you have, the less free you become.

Dictatorship & Contradiction

I like to think that proper statecraft is a rational ‘contradiction’ between science and desires—a creative converse on a healthy ratio between the forms of life we want to conduct and the forms of life we know as realistically possible. Statecraft turns into dictatorship when it stops being a place for such contradiction, a place for dialogue, and turns into a monologue of those who happen to be in power. Because dictatorship is the state where statesmen dictate but can’t be contradicted, can’t listen, dictators lose their critical feedback with reality—get out of sync with facts and values. When this happens, governance succumbs to the will-to-power of the authorities whose arbitrary decisions cease having any relation to the common good.

The styles of central governance are promiscuous: they tend to be replicated on all levels of society. Across Russia, administrators ‘build imitations of Mr. Putin’s regime—in local government, the charity sector, even volunteer associations—just to prevent anyone from starting something not subservient to the state’[21]. Once people lost their agency of self-governance to the vertical diktat of the sovereign, they found themselves at odds with their own nature as political animals. Once people stopped being citizens who have a say in common affairs they felt as if their lives were handed over to fate. The only way to regain the sense of control was to embrace the arbitrariness of life and displace their agency on those down in the ‘food chain’ in the form of violence. Hence the vertical of arbitrary power had penetrated all levels of society. The so-called dedovshchina (Rus. for violent ‘hazing’ or ‘bullying’) creeped into every level of relationships: in households husbands coerced wives and children, in companies managers coerced staff, in the public realm siloviki coerced activists, and soon on the international scene big countries would coerce the small ones.

Without the chance to verbalise their desires within the processes of communal self-legislation, without the chance to articulate their will non-violently, that is politically, people were left to attune their will to the wills of those who could articulate it—that is, they were left to participate in the imposition of the will of the authorities on the subordinates, of masters on slaves. Those unable to articulate their passions and resentments politically were used as fuel for the vertical of coercion. A state where there are no conversations in which people deliberate on sensible and desirable decisions is a state where, behind closed doors of cabinets, ‘little putins’ make decisions that are arbitrary—that is, neither desirable nor sensible, but calculated to make those who make them stay in power. It is a society where ‘might makes right’ in every dimension of life, where the anti-law, call it Thrasymachian, Machiavellian, or Nietzschean, has at last triumphed.

Law proper is designed to promote cooperation or at least make the current style of competition less self-destructive for the competitors. In contrast to this, the thieves’ law (Rus. blatnoi zakon) is the anti-law—a legalisation and legitimation of antisocial behaviour, of the right of the strong to act with impunity. In short, blatnoi zakon centres around the principle of non-cooperation. And, in a state where human freedom was fettered by asphyxiating artificial limits with the drab monotony of Soviet life, the life of a thief seemed to epitomise freedom. Against this background occurred a romanticization of thievery. Across the country, when asked who they want to be when they grow up, the boys answered—“We want to become thieves!”

But this was only the underworld of society. It is only once this ‘underworld’ came to concord with the ‘dark side of statecraft’, the siloviki, that the whole society started to be corrupted by the evil of kriminalitet. The silovik ‘starter pack’ of ‘hiding—lying—killing’ was supplemented with the blatar practice of ‘stealing’. Admittedly, secret police and crime syndicates exist in every country. Yet in Russia they became allies and filed a joint bid for power. It happened because, in contrast to post WW2 Germany, in Russia, dictatorship was never condemned. Russians en masse never came to terms with the Stalinist perversion of morality through inversion of freedoms.

It is arguably a necessary evil, perhaps a ‘dark side’ of statecraft, when secret servicemen exercise hiding, lying, and killing for the sake of national security, but it is something else entirely when they exercise it for the sake of stealing—their own kleptomania. Before their confluence with the thieves, the secret servicemen might have been used in service of the democratic politics. After the merge, they were in service of one thing—greed. Once it happens, slowly but surely, governance becomes undermined by violent zero-summism. And because the critique of democratic politics poses the biggest threat to the kleptocrats, they narrow the public square to just one kind of politics, the geopolitics, the rooting for a state’s zero-sum fight for the ‘spheres of influence’ against other states. It’s as if the ‘dark side’ of statecraft devours the whole of the state, even in its international relations.

Capitalism & Self-legislation

Contrary to widespread predictions, instalment of free market capitalism did not prevent the enthronement of the siloviki. Liberal reformers of the 1990s themselves openly referred to their policy of rapid transition of Russia to a free market economy as ‘shock therapy’. Instead of Sakharov’s ideal of convergence between capitalism and socialism into a more complex equilibrium, Russians were left without a state altogether because it was flooded with the triumphant neoliberals who seduced it with the idea that free market economy marks the end of history, the final destination of civilisation.

The laissez-faire approach (light-touch regulation of the market) does not take into account that the free market functions properly only if its players stay lawful and rational. The FSB men were neither: they leveraged the state’s power to manipulate the law in favour of their short-sighted interests. “Instead of seeking to strengthen institutions in order to erase the abuses of the past, Putin’s allies simply took them over, giving themselves the monopoly of abusing power” (Page 280). ‘Those who believed they were working to introduce a free market had underestimated the enduring power of the security men. “This is the tragedy of twentieth-century Russia”, said Pugachev. “The revolution was never complete”. From the beginning, the security men had been laying down roots for revanche’ (Page 500).

When the liberals manipulated the elections in 1996 and 2000 to prevent the people from electing the communists (decisions that led to the election of Putin), they erred in equivocating freedom and the free market. They thought that it was the communist preoccupation with equality that made freedom impossible—as if equality and freedom were fundamentally irreconcilable. In reality, freedom depends on the ability to participate in public self-legislation.

And once it was undermined by the liberal anti-communists, the people—including Putin—became cynical. The 1996 election of half-alive Yeltsin was the point when Russian demos were denied a right to choose for itself, to be its own policymaker. Pugachev, who stood behind manipulations that propelled Putin into presidency, says that the error he regrets the most was to undermine the process of democratic empowerment: “I’ve learned an important lesson… Power is sacred. When you believe people are stupid, and that if you don’t act they will vote in the Communists, that was a big mistake. We all thought people were not ready, and we would install Putin. But power comes from God. And if power comes from God, then there is no need to interfere…” (Page 499). The Western and Russian liberals thought that the market would save Russia from tyranny, that it would automatically transform it into a free and lawful nation. But it was a Cold War error to think that the divide that separates freedom from unfreedom and law from lawlessness is the divide between free market and command economy. In fact, capitalist Russia would threaten and undermine the West in ways which communist Russia never could. People thought they had defeated communism and become free, but their problem was not communism, it was imperialism—the fundamental disregard towards all levels of local self-legislation. And the Russian imperialists did not care about protecting communism at all, they gladly accepted capitalism as a powerful weapon to pursue their private and imperial ambitions in a new mode.

The neoliberal West erred in inverting the logic of capitalism. The fair market becomes possible within the context of a certain form of life. Contractual relationships that engender consistent collaboration were based on a trust that every individual can be a self-legislating agent who keeps his promises, that he will not spend all the money on lavish displays of excess but will reinvest over and over again so as to make sure that the enterprise will keep bringing dividends in the long run. Although capitalism does incentivise human vices for the sake of mutual enrichment (mediated through growth of the economy at large) it ultimately depends on virtues that put the market within the wider context of mutual aid—“integrity, decency, honesty and generosity”[22]. The market is the consequence of these civic and civil virtues, but it does not have a civilising effect vice versa—it does not turn thieves and bullies into vessels of Protestant work ethic. The framework of human rights stems from the realisation of the dignity of every human person. The cultures that didn’t come to terms with the form of life which made the market possible, cynically confused the vices it incentivised with the traits of the ultimate standard of a life worth living. So what we get is a billionaire Jack Ma espousing a mythological American Dream of selfish enrichment. No, economic prosperity does not magically usher democracy. It is the economically stagnant Ukraine that demonstrated a rather unprecedented enthusiasm for democracy: revolution against electoral machinations and kleptocracy in 2004, revolution of dignity in defence of human rights in 2014, war against the autocracy in 2022. What other people had repeatedly made so many sacrifices for the sake of political freedom?

In striking contrast, the countries that were getting prosperous after the abandonment of communism—China, Russia,—were becoming autocracies marked by gradual erasure of human rights. Why? Because the crucial divide is not capitalism vs. communism; but imperialism vs. self-legislation. Installation of the free market does not bring democracy; the cultural education of citizens to be articulate participants of communal self-legislation does. But the West chose to appease the new Russian regime in hope that as Russians were getting richer, they would soon become interested in tasting democracy. Instead, they were bought by the regime. And after a certain point, the option of democracy was simply no longer on the table. Self-legislation was something that the new Russian leadership couldn’t allow.

“As the four years of his first term passed, he understood things had happened that would never allow him to step down”.[23] Putin understood that the extent of wealth and power his people secured after the collapse of the USSR was unsustainable under democracy. Their corrupt way of doing business did not lend itself to the transparent marketplace of Western capitalism. “Putin had gotten to the point where he had built this kleptocracy that was the source of his power in Russia. Controlling the money, finding sources of money, was absolutely essential to maintaining his hold on power, continuing to buy off elites. And an integrated Russia that had to play by the rules, that had to be transparent, that had to be open, was totally antithetical to sustaining that kleptocracy. The two things couldn’t go together. At a certain point it became against Putin’s personal interest to pursue Russian integration [into the Western system] because he couldn’t accept the rules, the transparency, the norms that come with that. That would undermine the kleptocracy that he was building… By that time we really were in the zero-sum world where, from Moscow’s perspective, Russia’s strength was our [the United States’] weakness, and our gain was their loss”.[24]

The transparency for which the liberals fought in the 1980s was simply not compatible with the kleptocracy Putin had built. Like the siloviki of the Stalin era who perceived that the greatest threat comes not from the criminals but from the civil society, Putin’s siloviki were coming to the conclusion that the West’s aspiration to promote democracy posed the greatest threat to them. Friendship—if we may so call it—between secret police and crime forged in GULAG had brought the ideology of the death camp, lagernaya pravda, to the level of national governance. And before the world knew it, this absolute zero-summism became the essence of Russia’s foreign policy.

CONCLUSION: The Character of the Elite

I think that to ask “Who is responsible for the death of democracy?” is to pose a sloppy question. Autocracy is the end game of the erosion of responsibility itself. If there is an exchange of perspectives at the heart of decision-making, then we can talk about responsibility, if there is none, then there is no responsibility at all—the ruler stops being responsible to the critique of other people and thus becomes detached from reality. In absence of critical feedback, the ruler will only ‘respond’ to the imperative of staying in power, thus becoming possessed by the logic of escalation that justifies concentration of decision-making in the hands of arbitrary authority. In other words, the emperor will inevitably confuse himself with a god and take on the conquest of the world. The critical feedback ends when people who ‘say truth to power’ are eliminated from decision-making (and eventually from media as well) so that the ruler no longer talks with people who pose unpleasant questions. Which means that the key question is this: “What is the selection process of the people who have a say in common affairs?” or “How is the elite constituted?”

We often forget that to talk of any political regime is to talk of a regime of human life, to talk of a certain character for which the people who take part in decision-making are selected. Putin’s regime is downstream of political repressions in Soviet Russia which, perhaps for the first time in human history, blew up the process of ‘unnatural selection’ in the realm of social processes to industrial proportions. This involved “philosophical steamships”[25] and “political cleansings” of all who were devoted to abstract principles from the heights of which the power could be critiqued. People were taught to believe power cannot be critiqued—that “those on the top see better”.[26] Putin’s regime’s preference for the law-breakers and law-enforcers over law-makers led to an unnatural style of governance that didn’t take any human interest into account—except the insatiable greed that necessitated an escalation of self-destructive imperialism.

The siloviki laid the foundation for their ascent even before the collapse of the Soviet Union, but by 2004, thanks to the first cadence of their fellow secret serviceman in the presidential office, they’ve occupied all the titbits of bureaucratic hierarchy, gained control over the entire country, colonising it to serve two interdependent aims: private enrichment and imperial expansion, internal and external colonisation.

First, the people: Russians hated the didactic idealism of Soviet culture. With each song, movie, painting, book, and theatre play, Soviet authors taught people how to live, how to become conscientious citizens. In reaction to this, people wanted to throw politics out of their lives and breathe the air of private freedom, freedom of will. The liberal turmoil of the 1990s, when politics was seemingly everywhere, also did not seem to do Russians any good. By the 2000s, Russians essentially abandoned their civic duty of holding the authorities responsible by giving them carte blanche as long as they did not impinge on people’s private lives. There was this ‘Faustian’ contract by which people sold their political freedom for the freedom of private enrichment. This helped to recruit the elite among thieves who were only interested in private profit and ‘patriots’ who were only interested in the geopolitical supremacy of their fatherland—both had nothing against arbitrary rule. Nor were they committed to political freedom and social justice.

Second, the ruler: Putin’s secret service education taught him radical distrust. Instead of being an integrated person, he sports many personas at will so as to infiltrate and gain trust within various communities. Since he fears double loyalty behind everyone he meets, it is easier for him to deal with ‘his people’ stained by the blood they shed during their secret in the secret police, and with the thieves, whose corruption gave Putin absolute control over them. Since he fears ulterior motives behind everyone he meets, it is easier for him to deal with the siloviki who are just as obsessed with imperial pride and the blatari whose greed demonstrated a lack of ulterior loyalty—for them, enrichment was visibly an end in itself. Putin selected the elite on the basis of such loyalty.

In short, as a result of Putin’s secret serviceman’s habit of paranoid mistrust and the political apathy of the people, it were the thieves-in-law and secret police who became the prime recruits for the elite. Yet, with the passage of time, these people less and less resembled an elite. By the point of the February 2022 Security Council meeting, Putin was able to laden all the upper echelon officials with shared responsibility by forcing them to dip their hands in blood, to voice support for the launch of a ‘special military operation’, because they visibly feared saying anything that wouldn’t please him. The elite that couldn’t contradict the dictator couldn’t prevent the development of a regime based on the intelligence detached from reality, law reduced to ‘might makes right’, and narrative reduced to the mythology of geopolitical struggle between empires. At the same time, history as the process of civilising, outgrowing zero-sum-gaming, the very historiography that was the backbone of the Soviet regime, was deemed naïve and replaced by the history of zero-sum fluctuations in the carve-up of ‘influence spheres’.

In the next chapter I’ll narrate the story of how the zero-sum ‘deathcamp realism’ of the Russian elites entered into a chemical reaction with zero-summism on the international scale, the so-called geopolitical ‘realism’, which taught them to see territorial conquest as the answer to all problems.






[1] I have to confess that I use the word politiki in an idiosyncratic fashion. Politiki is a derogatory term for the victims of political repressions used by the blatari. (The other term for the members of intelligentsia is Ivan Ivanovich). Not all politiki in this sense – by all means – refused to bow down to the authorities and other pressures of the camp. Quite the opposite – many of them were the first to cave in to what I call the ‘death camp realism’. I will later in this text consider the idea of humans as political animals at length and argue that this is where human nature passes its test for ‘authenticity’: those are the true political animals, true politiki, the ones who refused to participate in the imposition of will. And the thing that distinguishes politiki, I guess, is not the great willpower that allows them to stand their ground in GULAG but their prosocial and cooperative attitude, their faith in the possibility of non-zero-sum relationships.

[2] The so-called ‘Thieves’ Law’, Rus. Vorovskoy zakon.

[3] Edwin Hatch. (1878). Breathe on Me, Breath of God.

[4] Timothy Snyder. (2022). We Should Just Say It. Russia is Fascist. New York Times International Edition. Friday, May 20, 2022. Opinion.

[5] W. H. Auden. (1940). The New Year Letter. In Collected Poems, Vintage International. 1991. New York. Page 209.

[6] These terms, vragi naroda and druzia naroda, are historical facts.

[7] Catherine Belton, (2020). Putin’s People.

[8] Catherine Belton. (2020). Putin’s People. Page 459.

[9] Russian for ‘Russians’.

[10] Catherine Belton. (2020). Putin’s People. Page 147.

[11] First usage is in Beaumont and Fletcher’s tragic/comic play Philaster, or Love Lies a-Bleeding.

[12] Ayn Rand. Atlas Shrugged.

[13] It can also be called the ‘forgetfulness of being’, English for Heideggerian-German Seinsvergessenheit.

[14] W. H. Auden. Danse Macabre (French ‘The Dance of Death’).

[15] Catherine Belton. (2020). Putin’s People. Page 484.

[16] “Ancient kings were rarely able to enforce their power systematically (often, as we’ve seen, their supposedly absolute power really just meant they were the only people who could mete out arbitrary violence within about 100 yards of where they were standing…) In modern states, the same kind of power is multiplied a thousand times because it is combined with the second principle: bureaucracy… Administrative organisations are always based not just on control of information, but also on ‘official secrets’ of one sort or another. (Graeber & Wengrow. (2020). The Dawn of Everything. Page 366).

[17] Graeber & Weingrow. (2020). The Dawn of Everything. Page 366.

[18] Masha Gessen. (2012). The Man Without A Face. The Unlikely Rise of Vladimir Putin. Riverhead Books. Penguin Random House.

[19] I couldn’t help myself.

[20] Nabokov, Vladimir. Tyrants Destroyed. (Rus. Набоков описывает тирана “… сидящего за множеством чугунных и дубовых дверей в неизвестной камере главной столичной тюрьмы, превращенной для него в замок (ибо этот тиран называет себя «пленником воли народа, избравшего его»)… Набоков, Владимир. Истребление тиранов. Страница 393.)

[21] Farida Rustamova. (2022). Putin rules Russian like an asylum. Link:

[22] A recurring line in the speeches of Cornel West.

[23] Putin’s People, Page 11. Taped speech by Sergei Pugachev

[24]Antony Blinken. The Putin Files: Antony Blinken

[25] In 1922, the Soviet regime forcibly expelled from Russia three “philosophical steamships” with many talented people. The fate of many passengers was happier than those who sent them.“The gatherings took place in deliberately humiliating conditions. The deportees were allowed to take with them only a minimum stock of clothes, wedding rings and no more than 50 roubles in gold. Everything else, including notebooks and body crosses, was required to be left at home.”

[26]In Soviet times it was possible because the party was thought to be able to fully represent the interests of workers’ as a class, and since they were the only class, one party was enough. Thus people were taught to believe that there is someone who makes decisions instead of them, someone who understands their interests as a class better than them because they’re not initiated into Marxian theory of class warfare. Today’s it is substituted by the theory of geopolitical warfare.


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  2. David Graeber & David Weingrow (2020). The Dawn of Everything.
  3. Gideon Rachman (2022). The Age of Strongmen.
  4. Michael Sandel. (2012). What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux. SBN 9780374203030.
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  11. Varlam Shalamov. Kolyma Stories.
  12. Varlam Shalamov. Chronicles of the Criminal World.
  13. Thomas Merton. (1968). War And The Crisis Of Language. The draft of this article was written by Merton in 1968. It was not published till after his death: in 1969 as an essay in The Critique of War: Contemporary Philosophical Explorations, edited by Robert Ginsberg (Chicago, Henry Regnery Company).
  14. Anna Politkovskaya. (2004). Putin’s Russia.
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  24. Joe Biden. (2022). What America Will and Will Not Do in Ukraine. June 1, 2022. New York Times Opinion. Link:
  25. Slavoj Zizek. (2022). We must stop letting Russia define the terms of the Ukraine crisis. The Guardian. Link: ]
  26. Pavlov, Ivan P. (1960). Conditioned Reflexes: An Investigation of the Physiological Activity of the Cerebral Cortex. New York: Dover.