The war has destroyed the national identity of Russians. Speaking in the terms of psychology, one part of Russians forms a negative Z-identity, while the other shows signs of diffuse identity: they are unable to realise the horror and brutality committed on their behalf. In more simple terms, some Russians signed up as bandits, and some got lost.
What is identity?
Humans are social animals. In addition to the individual Self, each of us has many group identities that are being actualised depending on the circumstances. For example, many Europeans become aware of their EU citizenship only when they choose the appropriate queue at passport control at the airport. For the rest of the time, they are French, Germans, and Dutch. Until February 24, my ethnic identity was manifested mainly in the fact that on the way from work I sometimes went to a Russian store for cottage cheese and sour cabbage. Since the beginning of the war, my “Russianness” has become the centre not only of my consciousness but also of my social interactions. There are both Russians and Ukrainians among my students, and I couldn’t help but touch on the subject of war during my lectures. Many of my colleagues, friends and acquaintances expressed their support for me and assured me that their attitude towards me had not changed since the beginning of the war. This means that not only for me but also for others, my ethnic-cultural identity has come to the fore.
Identity implies loyalty to a certain community that one considers as one’s own. This loyalty is not recorded in the passport and is not genetically predetermined, it is formed as a result of social interactions. For instance, one day I watched a football game at a picnic arranged for professors of an American university. The teams were formed along racial lines: Caucasians versus Asians. With one exception: a skinny Caucasian teenager played for the Asian team. During the break, he approached his parents and spoke to them in Russian. It turned out that the parents, dissatisfied with the level of teaching in American schools, sent their son to the only strong school in the district, which turned out to be Korean. The boy grew up among Korean children and considered them his own people.
A group identity can be formed surprisingly quickly, literally in five minutes. This is confirmed by an experiment conducted recently by American researchers. Its participants were randomly divided into two teams that played a simple online game: they made up words from letters. Each participant got a certain number of letters. If the right letter was missing, they could ask for it from a team member. The more long words the team comes up with within five minutes, the greater the cash prize, so it was in the interests of the participant to give the right letter to their team member. The prize was divided equally among all team members. One could just take one’s share, or one could donate part of the winnings to the common pot. These donations were doubled and again divided equally among the participants. The size of this fund served as a quantitative indicator of the group identity formed during the game. The more donations, the more cohesive the team.
The experiment has demonstrated that the group identity directly depends on the intensity of interactions between team members: the more letters they asked from their teammates and gave them, the more they then donated to the common pot. The researchers were surprised that the identity formed by the players did not depend at all on the result of the game: the number of made-up words and the money earned. But this is not so surprising if one takes into account how devotedly the fans continue to support their football team, even if it has been suffering one defeat after another for years. Their identity is strengthened not by the victory of their favourite team, but by intensive communication with other fans.
Our group identities can not only form quickly but also change quickly, deteriorate and conflict. Andrey Loshak’s film called “Broken Ties” shows how the family identity connects mother and daughter, brother and sister, husband and wife comes into conflict with new identities — “pro-Putin” and “pro-Ukraine”. It’s grievous for both of them to live out the crumbling of family ties. Both are painfully trying to find meaning in what is happening through the formation of a new identity. As a result, old identities disintegrate and relatives start accusing each other of betrayal.
Identity is anchored and maintained by cultural practices that include rituals, such as national holidays and military parades, and symbols, such as the national flag or military uniform. The formation of new identities is accompanied by the creation of new rituals and symbols. The new identity needs to be demonstrated, hence the numerous signs Z and V on clothes, public transport and vehicles, and public expressions of loyalty, sometimes taking completely Kafkaesque forms, such as lining up children in kindergarten in the shape of the letter Z. The pro-Ukrainian Russians who live abroad are also demonstrating their new identity — they hold rallies, meetings, and conferences, place the Ukrainian flag on their avatars and even introduced a new symbol of “good Russians” – a white-blue-white flag.
Negative Identity: Putin’s Russians
Everyone wants to belong to a “good” community, no one likes being the “bad guys”. This was shown by an experiment with dolls, which was conducted by American psychologists Kenneth and Mamie Clark back in the 1940s. They showed African-American children from three to seven years old the dolls with different skin colours and offered to choose a bad doll, a good doll, as well as a doll that looks like them. 90% of black children considered white dolls to be good and black dolls to be bad. From a third to half of the black children identified themselves with white dolls. Older children who identified themselves with bad black dolls were very upset and sometimes ran away from the experimental room in tears. Clark’s experiment formed the basis of a court decision that abolished racial segregation in American schools in 1951.
What happens to a person who realises that one belongs to a “bad” group? This process was described in the 1950s in the studies of psychologist Eric Erickson and was called the “identity crisis”. Erickson described the process of psychological development in adolescence as a transition from family identity to a more mature social identity through the search for oneself and one’s own group, gaining independence and establishing horizontal ties with peers. While growing up, young people are trying to assimilate the values, social roles and self-awareness of the social group they consider their own. If this group causes fear, hatred or despise in society, then a teenager, identifying oneself with such a group, develops a negative identity.
A person who identifies oneself with the “bad ones” develops attitudes that allow one, nevertheless, to be proud of one’s group. The first of these attitudes is dichotomous thinking: the world is divided into its own and the others, the strong and the weak. The second attitude is social distrust: representatives of other groups are regarded as enemies, and hatred of one’s group is attributed to them. The third attitude is cynicism, the belief that people, in general, are selfish, insidious, wish each other evil and try to take advantage of other people’s weaknesses or profit from someone else’s misfortune.
The relationship of negative identity with these psychological attitudes has been confirmed empirically. For example, Japanese researchers from Hiroshima University measured the identity of teenagers using the “20 statements test” — you need to finish 20 sentences starting with the word “I am”. The responses are then classified into negative, positive, and neutral. For example “I am a good cook” or “I am smart” are positive statements, “I hate everyone” or “I am a loser” are negative, and “I am a student” or “I take the bus to work” are neutral. The researchers found that teenagers whose responses are dominated by negative statements about themselves also demonstrate a significantly higher level of dichotomous thinking, social distrust and cynicism than those teenagers with a positive or neutral identity.
The formula of negative identity is as follows: “They hate us, but they are afraid of us because we are strong. There are enemies around who dream of destroying us.” Negative identity is more common among teenagers from poor families and immigrant communities with higher rates of antisocial behaviour. It is not surprising that such teenagers, offended by the whole world, are easily recruited by bandits into their ranks.
This is exactly the identity that Putin’s propaganda is currently forming. Enemies are all around, and the arch-enemy is the Nazi understate, controlled by a puppet regime, behind which stands the powerful and insidious West with the values of democracy, liberalism, feminism and sexual freedom utterly hated by the laymen. The Z-identity is a negative identity of resentment, wounded self-esteem, and carefully nurtured resentment towards those who live better, richer, and freer than “we”. Hence — the aggressive desire to destroy, crush and erase from the map someone else’s hateful world.
What could be scarier than such a bandit identity? Only the terrorist identity. The identities of bandits and terrorists have common features: both feel aggrieved and seek to avenge real or imaginary grievances or protect themselves from a real or imaginary threat. However, there is a fundamental difference between terrorist and bandit identity. The terrorists believe that they are pursuing a noble goal, believe in their moral superiority over others and that the goal of protecting their values justifies the means. The bandits, on the contrary, are convinced that any “higher goals” are nothing but a trick for fools, but in fact, all people pursue only their own benefits. Unlike bandits, terrorists have a positive identity. Back in the 1950s, Erickson wrote about a dangerous combination of resentment, hostility to others and faith in one’s own righteousness, which can bring a teenager to a terrorist organization. The positive identity that the terrorist ideology offers a person something more than just a feeling of belonging to a group. It gives meaning to one’s actions, whether it is religious salvation, like the Islamists, or the upbuilding of the kingdom of God on earth, like the Communists. Fortunately, there is no positive goal for Z-propaganda yet.
Diffuse identity: Lost Russians
For those Russians who cannot accept the negative Z-identity, the crisis they face takes the form of a diffuse identity. Such an identity arises within a person who is unable to integrate contradictory aspects of one’s personality and literally does not understand who he or she is. This is a state in which a person’s actions, decisions and views are determined not by stable ideas about oneself, but by external random circumstances. A person “cuts loose”, tumbles, unable to find oneself and one’s own group.
Diffuse identity can be a consequence of severe mental trauma, such as the death of loved ones, an immediate threat to one’s own life, or experienced violence (especially in childhood and especially exercised by loved ones). The war does not threaten the physical existence of most Russians, but many who identify themselves with Russian culture experience it as violence committed here and now over everything they hold dear. War crimes are being committed on our behalf every day, cities are being destroyed, children are being killed, and civilians are hiding in basements for months without food and water.
The brain uses protective mechanisms to save us from that painful experiences. For example, many refuse to admit that terrible events are actually happening: reports of atrocities by the Russian army in Ukraine are simply faked. Or people are trying to distract themselves from reality with something more pleasant and useful – nature, vacation, everyday worries, professional pursuits: teaching, treating, feeding, making the lives of others better.
Not to look at scary photos, not to read scary news — this is the conscious position of many Russians, who justify it by saying that watching such news only makes them feel worse, while no one would feel any better. Avoiding pain is the natural desire of any living being. For example, many people postpone a visit to the dentist until the last moment trying to avoid pain.
Since we block a part of reality from consciousness, our mental life breaks up into separate fragments that we are unable to integrate into a single picture of the world. Psychiatrists call this process “dissociation”. As a result of dissociation, we lose stable forms of social identity, it becomes diffuse: we can no longer answer the question of who we are, and we lose a sense of integrity in life.
Many Russians are now unable to comprehend the monstrous reality of the war unleashed by Russia. They are like African-American children refusing to identify themselves with a bad black doll and running out of the room in tears. They have no choice but to explain that personally, they have nothing against Ukraine, but those who bomb Ukrainian cities, kill Ukrainian children and rape Ukrainian women are Russians too.
Associate Professor of the Faculty of Social Sciences at the University of Amsterdam
Original publication: IStories
Title image: Whitening by Pavel Otdelnov
Antondo is a duo of artists based in St Petersburg. Their works explore subconscious feelings about this fighting and insecure world thru expressive and spontaneous images. Done in a variety of technics, some paintings require closer examination that produces layers of meanings. The intuitive and sketchy manner is accompanied by some fine and moving details. The spectator’s participation in the process of decoding the picture is expected.