Russia's President Vladimir Putin. Photograph: Alexey Druginyn/RIA Novosti/EPA
I remember that as a child I read about black holes in a popular science magazine about space and it scared me. The idea of our world being sucked into these breaks in the universe kept bothering me until I realised that it all was so far away that it would not reach us. But then a black hole tore our world very close to us. It started sucking in houses, roads, cars, planes, people and whole countries. Russia and Ukraine have already fallen into this black hole. And it is now sucking in Europe in front of our eyes.
This hole in the universe is the soul of one very lonely ageing man. The black hole is his fear.
TV images of the demise of Saddam Hussein, Hosni Mubarak and Muammar Gaddafi were messages that fate sent him from exotic countries. Protest rallies that gathered hundreds of thousands of people in Moscow ruined his inauguration and signalled approaching danger. The disgraceful flight of Ukraine's Viktor Yanukovych earlier this year set off alarm bells: if Ukrainians could oust their gang, it could serve as an example for the brotherly nation.
The instinct of self-preservation kicked in immediately. The formula for saving any dictatorship is universal: create an enemy, start a war. The state of war is the regime's elixir of life. A nation in patriotic ecstasy becomes one with its "national leader", while any dissenters can be declared "national traitors".
Before our eyes, Russian TV was turned from a tool of entertainment and misinformation into a weapon of mass destruction. Journalists became a special part of the arsenal, maybe the most important one, more important even than missiles. The desired world view formed in the infected minds of a zombified nation: Ukrainian fascists wage a war to annihilate the Russian world on orders from the west.
"There are no Russian soldiers in Crimea," Vladimir Putin claimed to the world with a wry grin in the spring. The west could not understand: how can he tell such blatant lies to his nation's face? But the nation did not take it as lies: we ourselves understand everything, but deceiving the enemy is not a sin, rather a virtue. The fact that "Russian soldiers were indeed in Crimea" was later admitted with such pride!
We are back to the Soviet times of total lies. The government renewed the social contract with the nation under which we had lived for decades: we know that we lie and you lie, and we continue to lie to survive. Generations have grown up under this social contract. These lies cannot even be called a sin: the power of vitality and survival is concentrated in them. The government was afraid of its nation, which is why it lied. The nation participated in the lies, because it was afraid of the government. The lies are a means of survival for a society built on violence and fear.
But just violence and fear cannot explain such an all-encompassing lie.
Why did the father of the Russian paratrooper who lost his legs in Ukraine write on Facebook, "My son is a soldier; he followed orders, which is why, whatever happened to him, he is right and I am proud of him"?
He keeps his mind off the idea that his son went to kill brotherly people and became disabled not defending his motherland from real enemies, but rather because of an insipid colonel's panic-stricken fear of losing his power, because of the ambitions of a clique of thieves swarming around the throne. How can he admit that his country, his motherland is the aggressor and that his son is the fascist? Motherland is always on the side of good. This is why when Putin lies in his nation's face, everyone knows that he is lying, and he knows that everyone knows, but the electorate agrees with his lies.
When Putin tells blatant lies in the face of western politicians, he then watches their reaction with vivid interest and not without pleasure, enjoying their confusion and helplessness. He wants Kiev to return on its knees, like a prodigal son, to the fatherly embrace of the empire. He is sure that Europe will boil with indignation, but eventually calm down, abandoning Ukraine to brotherly rape. He offers the west the chance to join the social contract of lies. All it has to do is say that Putin is a peacekeeper and agree to all the terms of his peacekeeping plan.
The sanctions imposed by western states against Russia represent a timid hope that economic hardship will make Russians resent the regime and nudge them towards active protests. Alas, it is an idle hope. Russians have a proverb: beat your own so the others fear you. It is hard to imagine officials in Berlin or Paris summarily banning food imports. The entire nations would burst in indignation that same day.
In contrast, in Russia such a move boosted the ruler's already sky-high rating. Putin knows the difference between the power he enjoys and the power of European democracies. Democratic governments are liable to their electorate for the people and their future, whereas under a dictatorship, one is only liable to follow orders. Every dictator hopes he is immortal, but since it is impossible, he is ready to drag everyone he despises into the black hole. And he despises everyone - both his own people and everybody else.
Putin knows that the west cannot cross the red line that he himself has long crossed and left behind. The red line is the willingness to go to war. It is hard for a human mind to switch from a postwar to a prewar time. The means of mass informational terror in Russia helped Russians to make the switch. Moreover, Russia is already in a state of war, an undeclared war against the west. Coffins with fallen Russian soldiers have started coming to Russian cities from Ukraine. Europe has fallen behind; it is still enjoying the relaxed prewar peace.
Europeans are not ready for the new reality that has set in. Leave us alone! Return everything to the way it was: jobs, gas, peace! No supplying weapons to Ukraine! One cannot start an armed conflict in the age of nuclear weapons because of some Mariupol! Should the world perish in a catastrophe because Ukraine was to be part of Europe? It is just because the Americans want to cause us to quarrel with Russians! It is all the fault of US imperialists and European bureaucrats! Why do we need sanctions that would hurt us too? The French are ready to take to the streets to protest at the American ruling that forces France to abandon the sale of Mistral warships to Russia. Moscow just protects its interest in Ukraine! And maybe fascists are indeed in power in Kiev? It may have started as a public uprising, but then a Nazi junta took over. Then why should we support them and fight with Russia? Putin offers peace! We want peace!
Putin's calculations are proving correct: it is more likely that citizens of western states, scared by economic woes and the possibility of war, would elect new governments, replacing Putin's enemies with more amenable politicians, than Russians would start to protest because of devastation and rising food prices.
Putin offered Europe his social contract. And with every new person willing to accept it, the black hole will grow and expand. One needs to realise: postwar Europe is already prewar Europe.
Mikhail Shishkin, The Guardian