The Russian Doctrine: Blame the Victim

By Michael Marder, Anton TarasyukSeptember 4, 2022

The Russian Doctrine: Blame the Victim
As the vicious and deadly attack on Olenivka penal colony in the Donetsk Region — where many of the captured Ukrainian POWs had been held — has shown, worse than the Russian atrocities in the ongoing war is only the cynicism of Russian official explanations of events on the ground. As soon as the prison was destroyed by several blasts, Russian state TV was on hand, broadcasting footage of charred remains of the building and body fragments. And, among a series of improbable accounts, Putin’s media issued the most absurd one, namely that the Ukrainian military destroyed the penal colony with its own soldiers in order to send a message to its active troops that surrender is equivalent to death.

In fact, at least since the Russian invasion of Ukraine on February 24, blaming the victim has become a signature strategy of Putin’s regime. In the all-but-destroyed Mariupol, the Russian occupying authorities are offering compensations to those who lost their apartments or loved ones on the condition that they sign documents blaming Zelensky and the Ukrainian Armed Forces for the devastation wrought on the city. In Bucha, where Ukrainian civilians were massacred in cold blood by the Russian military, Kremlin claimed that the massacre was staged by “Ukrainian radicals” and that the dead were the victims of Ukrainian shelling of the Kyiv suburb after the Russians had already retreated. After an attack on the train station in Kramatorsk in the beginning of April, “Russia tried to blame Ukraine for attacking its own citizens.”

The strategy of blaming the victim also spills out beyond the war Russia is waging against Ukraine. Earlier this spring, Russian Foreign Minister, Sergey Lavrov, enraged the Israeli government and Jewish people around the world, when, in a bizarre comparison of the Nazi leader with Zelensky, he claimed that “Hitler also had Jewish origins” and that “For a long time now we've been hearing the wise Jewish people say that the biggest anti-Semites are the Jews themselves.”

Domestically, the designation of media organizations, as well as journalists, writers, and activists as “foreign agents” has not only allowed the Russian authorities to crack down on dissent but also, and perhaps more significantly, to create or to consolidate the image of a scapegoat — the long-despised figure of a “liberal intellectual,” who is supposedly acting against national interests and is financed by the West.

Victim-blaming is a well-known strategy in the context of sexual violence, running the gamut from sexual innuendo to rape. In these cases, it is the female survivors of such violence that are blamed for what had happened to them, whether due to the masochistic nature imputed to them or on the basis of a similar imputation of “provocative” behavior. Slavoj Žižek’s interpretation of Russia’s war as an attempted “‘rape’ of Ukraine” may explain the carryover of such a strategy from individual acts of sexual violence to the situation of a full-fledged war. Except that, with the false attribution of mass killings and of the destruction of Ukraine to the Ukrainians themselves, the story now mutates into how Ukraine is raping itself.

In the topsy-turvy picture of the world painted by Putin and his state apparatus, war is peace and the victims are the aggressors. Even now, nearly half a year since the start of the invasion, it is still legally impermissible in Russia to refer to the events unfolding in Ukraine as a war; euphemistically, it is called a special military operation — recently compared to the deworming of a cat by one of the leading Russian TV ideologues. Of a piece with this “logic,” the strategy of blaming the victim, of perversely denying responsibility and shifting it onto the adversary, is both internally inconsistent and more deeply rooted than mere strategic considerations may lead one to believe.

The internal inconsistency of the strategy has to do with Putin’s attempt to deploy his “special military operation” toward the goal of reaffirming Russia’s sovereignty. Much of Putin’s speech at the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum’s plenary session was devoted to a defense of the absolute sovereignty of states (omitting, of course, the obvious fact that the war in Ukraine is a brutal assault on Ukrainian state sovereignty). At the same time, Putin’s rhetoric about the reasons for the start of hostilities often emphasized a lack of choice, presenting the war as a matter of necessity: “What is happening in Ukraine is a tragedy, no doubt about that. But we had no choice. It was just a matter of time” before an attack on Russia.”

There is a fundamental contradiction in this stance: the assertion of total sovereignty, on the one hand, and multiple explanations that depend on the fact that vile forces outside of Russia (the NATO, Ukraine, foreign meddlers, etc.) dictate the course of events, on the other. Victim-blaming flourishes on the grounds of this blatant contradiction: in matters of culpability, it puts agency on the side of the victims, while continuing to victimize them by any means possible, however atrocious these may be.

The deep-seated psychological roots of the phenomenon are also noteworthy. One of its underlying factors is the “just-world hypothesis,” according to which bad things happen to bad people, who have somehow deserved their fate. Such a hypothesis is ineffective when young children suffer, but, it may be transferred onto the level of collective life, here involving Ukrainians as a nation, which is not recognized as such in Kremlin’s ideological accounts. According to these ideological concoctions, Ukraine flirted with the West, forgot about its organic connection to Russia, and, therefore, brought the current disaster upon itself, meriting the loss of its territorial integrity within internationally recognized borders and even of its independence.

Ultimately, psychologists contend that “people blame victims so that they can continue to feel safe themselves.” If innocent civilians are bombed in their apartments in the middle of the night, if children die in their strollers as a result of a missile attack simply because they happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, if people waiting for the train that would carry them to relative safety are killed by another missile—if all this happens to someone who did nothing wrong, then I am not safe either, for the same fate may befall me. Going hand in hand with Russia’s strategy of blaming the victim is another, similarly crucial, strategy of making a vast majority of the Russian population feel safe at the expense of the insecurity of others, including those others who are deemed to be internal enemies. Blaming the victim is necessary to keep this illusion of safety, and to prevent Russian empathy toward, and identification with, their Ukrainian neighbors. It adds insult to injury, just as it desensitizes the Russian public to all acts of violence, whether foreign or domestic.

The logic, mobilized by the Russian propaganda, has its inverted double in an attempt to portray the Russian state itself as a victim. Western politicians, especially those pushing to expand NATO eastward, have, as the narrative goes, provoked Putin to react, following the lines of his beloved “cornered rat” anecdotal story. This line of reasoning is being promoted both by the Russian state propaganda machine and by some experts invoking a “realist” brand, like political scientist John J. Mearsheimer.

Mearsheimer goes so far as to compare Ukrainian politics prior to the full-scale war to “poking the Russian state in the eye.” This comparison betrays his own “realist” position, supposedly focused on rational (or at least rationalizable) and self-interested state politics. Yet, while he is more than ready to acknowledge and understand the rationale behind Russia starting a war of aggression on European soil, Mearsheimer denies any rationality in actions of Ukraine and, more broadly, the West. Describing their politics, he instantly switches to the language of irrationality, blaming “liberal delusions” or “America’s obsession with bringing Ukraine into NATO.”

Another strand of discourse about Russia’s victimization is developing in a segment of the anti-Putin Russian liberal circles and assumes an offensive stance against the West. An example of such reasoning can be found in a recent article by a prominent Russian sociologist Grigori Judin. Being a liberal scholar, who not only predicted the war, but also condemned the actions of the Russian state, Judin portrays the Russian society as the true victim of Putin and the West. According to Judin, the latter willingly ignored authoritarian encroachments of the Russian leader, continued their “business as usual” with Russia, and gave up on internal opposition to the regime.

This line of thought ignores the simple everyday reality of Ukrainians waking up from the sounds of explosions and starting their day with news about rocket hits and civilian casualties. Compared to this, Russian society can be called Putin’s victim only metaphorically at best, and on the assumption of ignoring the corrupt pact made between the Russian state and Russian people: “We secure prosperity for major Russian cities, and you keep your mouths shut.”

The implicit pact proved useful for the majority of the population, who dissociated from the actions of Russian leadership through what may be called an escape to privacy. But is escaping to privacy enough to deny the responsibility that the citizens of the Russian Federation bear for political actions of their state?

Here, a short excursus on Russian cultural history is in order. Escaping to privacy is a familiar intellectual strategy in post-1917 culture. We would not be wrong to say that some of the best lines of Russian literature are written from the standpoint of a private individual disencumbered not only of the state but of political life in general. The typical case would be the hero of Vladimir Nabokov’s 1926 novel Mary, a Russian émigré in Berlin, who was removed from his homeland by Bolshevik revolutionaries and then got trapped, as well as found resort, in his own feelings about his past life and lost love. The hero of Mary does not make any attempts to actively help the people who are still in Russia. He is not engaged in any political or social movements. He does not care about anything except his nostalgia. Reducing his life to his memories about the sweet things of the past, Mary’s hero imagines himself to be a creator god who makes a separate private world out of his experiences and dreams.

Moreover, this kind of imaging is not just part of an outdated Russian white émigré sentiment. Such motives are dominant even in postmodern Russian literature, for example in Victor Pelevin’s novels, which build up the logic of introversy up to the level of psychedelic imagination totally detached from reality. Even revolutionary communist experience can be interpreted as only a protagonist’s hallucinatory trip, according to Pelevin’s Buddha's Little Finger.

To return to Nabokov: the hero of Mary is instructive, because he is typical of Russian literature. Images of vita activa are almost absent in it. We can find a great deal of beautiful souls, dreamers, nostalgic melancholics, and people with broken hearts, all of whom are rendered exceptionally well. But it is almost impossible to find an image of a politician, an activist or at least a doer, who would not be a caricature, a naive subject or simply a deranged person.

Escaping to privacy may be a good artistic strategy and an effective psychological coping mechanism. Yet, taken culturally, it helps Russian intellectuals omit the question of political responsibility, be it responsibility for the deeds of the Bolshevik state or for the actions of Putin’s Russia. Combined with the sense of victimhood (the feeling of abandonment by the West as in Russian liberal discourse, or the feeling of a threat emanating from the West as in official Russian state propaganda), an escape to privacy reduces the possible sphere of influence to the inner world of an individual, sometimes explicitly portrayed as a “little man” (like in Gogol’s paradigmatic The Overcoat hero, Akaky Akakievich) who can do nothing. And while “little men” can do nothing, big brutal guys, or at least those who appear as such (like Vladimir Putin with his notorious macho imagery) can.

Russian state propaganda acknowledged the escape to privacy, explicitly framing the opposition’s attitudes as a matter of individual reveries and exaggerations, while referring in parallel to leaders of the opposition as simply “bloggers” and refusing to acknowledge the political nature of the conflict.

It is easy to understand why the Russian state mobilizes the inverted “blame the victim” stance in a cynical tactic, which will continue into the foreseeable future. But it may be more difficult to explain why the Russian opposition buys into this frame of reference and reproduces it. One of the reasons is, as we have indicated, historical and cultural — it has to do with the traumatic experience of communism and of people dissociating from public political life as such. Seen from this perspective, should Russian liberal opposition give up the inverted victimization narrative, it would be doing justice not only to Ukraine and its citizens but also to itself. In particular, it would be making an important step toward accepting its own political responsibility for what’s going on and starting to work on democratizing Russia and turning it into a republic, against Putin’s regime. And this, of course, will be a hell of a lot of work.


Michael Marder is Ikerbasque Research Professor of Philosophy at the University of the Basque Country, Vitoria-Gasteiz.  He works in the fields of  phenomenology, political philosophy, and environmental thought. An author of ten books, including Plant-Thinking (2013), Pyropolitics (2015), Dust (2016), and, with Luce Irigaray, Through Vegetal Being (2016), he is currently elaborating a philosophical approach to the question of energy, inspired by vegetal thought. His website is

Anton Tarasyuk is a Strategic Communications Expert in Method Büro consultancy and a philosopher based in Kyiv, Ukraine.

LARB Contributors

Michael Marder is Ikerbasque Research Professor of Philosophy at the University of the Basque Country, Vitoria-Gasteiz.  He works in the fields of  phenomenology, political philosophy, and environmental thought. An author of ten books, including Plant-Thinking (2013), Pyropolitics (2015), Dust (2016), and, with Luce Irigaray, Through Vegetal Being (2016), he is currently elaborating a philosophical approach to the question of energy, inspired by vegetal thought. His website is


Anton Tarasyuk is a Strategic Communications Expert in Method Büro consultancy and a philosopher based in Kyiv, Ukraine.


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