October 6, 2022

Bucha Is a Mirror

Oxana Timofeeva

Ukrainian soldiers stand next to the grave of a civilian, who according to residents was killed by Russian soldiers, amid Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, in Bucha, Kyiv region, April 6, 2022. (CNS photo/Alkis Konstantinidis, Reuters)

On the April 1, 2022, horrifying photos from the city of Bucha in the Kyiv region of Ukraine permeated through international news media. The photos were taken after a one-month occupation by the Russian military and bore abundant testimony to the terrible massacre they committed in the city. Many bodies of civilians, including women and children, were found dead, mutilated, and burned, with bound hands and traces of torture and rape. There were corpses everywhere on the streets, in the basements of the buildings, but also in mass graves hastily dug by the soldiers in order to hide evidence of their atrocities.

How did Russian official media react to these images? They called them a provocation and claimed that Ukrainians simply staged the killings and faked footage in order to discredit Russian armed forces. On top of that, on April 18, the 64th Separate Guards Motor Rifle Brigade, which operated in Bucha, received honorary guards status from President Putin. Society was forced to admit: yes, in the twenty-first century, genocide, torture, and mass murder are still possible. Moreover, those who commit these crimes can be celebrated as national heroes.

From the perspective of geopolitics—a perspective that is shared by many right-wingers—war is war, and everything is permitted there. The state of exception associated with warfare normalizes violence as the means justified by certain ends, such as the interests of sovereign states and alliances. From the moral point of view, prevalent in liberal media, what happened in Bucha and other Ukrainian cities occupied by the Russian Army is pure evil, which cannot be rationally explained. The problem with evil, however, is that, in the eyes of the those who judge, it always comes from the Other, in whose face they would never recognize their own. The syllogism of the moral consciousness—“I could never do that; others are people like me; therefore, Bucha is not possible”—breaks down when confronted with the fact that it is not only possible, but actual and real. If Russian soldiers are people like me, how could they could torture noncombatants? How could they kill children? Rape women and then burn them? The easiest solution would be to dehumanize the criminals and search for the root of their pathological obsession with cruelty in their national character or in Russian culture, with its notorious tendency to celebrate violence. Then comes the next syllogism: “Others are human beings like me; Russian soldiers are not like me; therefore, they are not human beings.”

Leaving behind both of these popular perspectives—geopolitical cynicism, which justifies war crimes on the one hand, and liberal moral consciousness, which dehumanizes their perpetrators on the other—I suggest a different approach. In order to comprehend Bucha as reality, together with the conditions of its possibility, we have to admit that Bucha is not an exception, not a scandal, but one of the names for something that constantly repeats itself in the history of humanity, regardless of the level of progress in this or that particular geographic area. Something that comes with war as one of its possible outcomes, after the tragedies of the twentieth century associated with fascist aggression, but not necessarily reducible to it. Something that provides the most terrifying scenes in the theater of war.

“Theater of war” is a very precise term. If war is a theater, Bucha is a scene—not in the sense implied by the Russian propaganda machine (which claimed that the massacre was staged intentionally by the Ukrainian side), but in a much more radical sense: what happens when we look at the images of tortured and murdered people is a phantasmatic encounter between the one who looks and what is looked at. There are scenes that provoke horror or repulsion, scenes that we would like to unsee, that we immediately tend to replace with something more acceptable.

The psychological mechanism of negation gives a distorted indication of the contents that are repressed. From a psychoanalytic perspective, these contents are extremely important for understanding the inner truth, the secret of a subject, their unconscious desires and drives. Bucha can be regarded as a distorted mirror in which contemporary humanity cannot recognize itself, curdled against its own frightening projection of the inhuman Other as source of evil. The scene of Bucha displays—to borrow Slavoj Žižek’s definition—“the cause of the terror constitutive of our being‐human, the inhuman core of being‐human, the dimension of what the German Idealists called negativity and Freud called the death drive.”1

The notion of the death drive (Todestrieb), one of the most controversial psychoanalytic concepts, was first introduced by Sabina Spielrein, Russian physician and psychoanalyst, who was killed by the Nazis in 1941 in Rostov-on-Don. In her essay “Destruction as the Cause of Coming into Being” (1912) she claimed that human sexuality has two components, reproductive and destructive, and suggested that the death drive was something subordinated to the reproductive drive.2 Sigmund Freud elaborates on this concept in “Beyond the Pleasure Principle” (1920), but turns it upside down. According to Freud, Thanatos is not only a drive in its own right, but actually dominates over Eros.

Freud points to the fact that patients who returned from WWI and suffered from traumatic neurosis, or what is now called “post-traumatic stress disorder” (PTSD), often had repeating dreams, the content of which referred to their real negative experiences, “bringing the patient back into the situation of his accident, a situation from which he wakes up in another fright.”3 Freud previously believed in “the wish-fulfilling tenor of dreams.”4 But what kind of wish can be fulfilled in such a roundabout way? Apparently, the disposition of desire that is at stake here differs from mere pleasure-seeking. After exploring some possible positivist explanations for the compulsion to repeat, Freud makes the speculative suggestion that there must be “something that seems more primitive, more elementary, more instinctual than the pleasure principle which it overrides.”5 This primitive instinct is conservative, and points to “an urge inherent in organic life to restore an earlier state of things” (Freud’s emphasis), that is, an urge to return to a state of inorganic nature.6 The death drive does not reach consciousness but comes in disguise, camouflaged in all sorts of desires. However, in some cases it crops up directly. War is such a case.

In Freud’s letter to Albert Einstein, entitled “Why War?” (1933), another aspect of the death drive comes to the fore: aggression. There are two kinds of instincts, he writes,

those that conserve and unify, which we call “erotic” (in the meaning Plato gives to Eros in his Symposium), or else “sexual” (explicitly extending the popular connotations of “sex”), and, secondly, the instincts to destroy and kill, which we assimilate as the aggressive and destructive instincts.7

Freud refers to such well-known opposites as love and hate, or attraction and repulsion, and emphasizes that these two drives are alloyed and condition each other. In fact, we cannot really isolate one from the other. This is why wars always have their adherents: the road to hell is paved with good intentions; the passion for destruction operates under the guise of state patriotism, religion, and other positive values.8

The destructive impulse, which finds its release in war, is not the death drive itself but rather a result of a complex process of its inversion:

The death instinct becomes an impulse to destruction when, with the aid of certain organs, it directs its actions outwards, against external objects. The living being, that is to say, defends its own existence by destroying foreign bodies.9

From this perspective, war can be understood as a collective Thanatos redirected towards another people. Conscious motives are just a surface element of a complex apparatus driven by the unconscious death drive of an aggressor.

However, for understanding the scene of Bucha in its singularity, a simple gesture of applying psychoanalytic theory to empirical data is not sufficient. It only gives us a general sense of why this scene causes us such horror and revulsion. Yes, it is a mirror, but a mirror of what? In other words, what is the subject of the death drive, which entered the stage in Bucha?

On April 19 (i.e., shortly after Bucha), Russian writer Alexander Nikonov received a phone call from the actor Ivan Okhlobystin, known for his ultraconservative and pro-Putin views. The actor was drunk. Apparently he was ringing around his friends for a sort of farewell, reporting his willingness to go to Ukraine to fight for Putin. Nikonov recorded the conversation and shared it online as representative of the current state of mind of all Russian patriots. Here are some excerpts from Okhlobystin’s speech:

Russia will always win. We will win! … Even if the impossible happens and we lose, it means that the whole world will lose with us. There will be nothing! There will be a great Zero. And we are all ready for this Apocalypse! All people agree. And you have no idea to what extent! In unison! … We will kill everyone! We do not need a world in which there is not our victory, Putin did not say this in vain … This is so cool! We are all so excited now! What a happiness! God willing … We will blow up this world! We will kill everyone!10

In this excitement in face of death, the death drive manifests itself in its pure form. One can indeed qualify it as a case of psychosis, as much individual as collective: apocalyptic dreams of the pro-government intelligentsia are performed by soldiers as real actors in the theater of war in their passage à l’acte in the bloody scene of Bucha. My intention is not, however, to diagnose other people, be they famous actors or anonymous soldiers. It is easy to judge others from the position of moral superiority; much harder is to muster the courage to look in that mirror, to register oneself with regard to the reality of Bucha, which is reflected in the eyes of human beings, including the “good” and the “normal” ones.

I want to focus on the death drive operating not in just any war, but in a specific historical situation: that of an imperialism that suddenly collapses into fascism. This is the case of my country, and my people. It is not particularly new. Something similar has happened in other countries before, and will most probably happen again somewhere else. Like a traumatized neurotic’s dream, Bucha is a repeating scene. We can try to forget it, to forbid it, but it returns under different names, breaking through the “never again” invocation, because it is not an isolated phenomenon but the phantasmatic exercise of a certain psychosocial composition. It is this structure that must be analyzed and questioned if we really want to not only get rid of the symptom (bad dreams), but liberate ourselves from its cause.

Although many people today raise objections against any comparisons between Putin’s Russia and Hitler’s Germany or Mussolini’s Italy, I insist on a certain structural homology among these regimes, for which fascism can work as a generic term. Among some basic elements that they share, there is one that is crucial for my argument: a nostalgia for some great empire of the past, through which is cultivated a feeling of ethnic, religious, cultural, or other superiority of the nation, whose political ethos is reduced to the idea of a war of conquest, restoring the glory of the old days and domination over other groups and territories. Thus there is a connection between imperialism and fascism, but it is not direct: it is not that every claim for the restoration of the old empire is necessarily pregnant with fascist or protofascist ideology.

The logic of empire was perfectly described by Hegel in chapter six of the Phenomenology of Spirit. There Hegel presents his insight into mass psychology and introduces the figure of the despot, or as Hegel himself calls it, the lord of the world. This figure is monstrous, manifesting itself as excessive violence over the atomized individuals of the empire, but at the same it’s the projection of these atomized individuals. Such individuals, also named abstract persons, create a specific type of subjectivity which underlies the entire social structure of capitalist modernity. As an abstract person, I am nobody, but there are things that are mine. Yet these possessions never provide a sense of identity. I can try to attain a certain subjective consistency by surrounding myself with more and more things, but in the end I myself remain no-thing, nothing substantial.

The emperor, or the lord of the world, emerges when “the absolute plurality of atoms of personality is … equally collected into a single and equally spiritless point alien to them,” and thus becomes the embodiment of social alienation itself.11 We, as persons, might fear the despot or oppose ourselves to him, or conceive of him as an external force that we cannot control—but what we forget is that we actually create this despotic figure out of our own spiritless existence fully subordinated to property relations. Despotism is the obscene flip side of abstract individualism in the state of empire, and—to return to my initial point—its death drive, personalized in the figure of the lord of the world. Hegel further describes how empire degrades into feudal monarchy, where aristocracy feeds the vanity of the sovereign, but the growth of the level of education and the spread of Enlightenment ideas culminates in revolution, which eventually destroys imperial power and absolutism.

Russia has its own imperial legacy, which gave rise to explicit despotic tendencies. Back in 2020, when, after holding state power for twenty years, Putin changed the Russian constitution in order to cement a life-long presidency, I thought that, as long as his autocratic governance tended to degrade into a kind of neofeudal monarchy, the new revolution in Russia was just a matter of time. However, I did not take into account one other possibility for this regime to save itself: instead of a revolution, we got war. Moreover, what seemed to be a fairly typical autocratic-authoritarian mode of governance rapidly took a fascist turn.

“Behind every fascism there is a failed revolution”: this famous sentence is often attributed to Walter Benjamin, although it is not a direct quote, but rather an interpretation of some of his fragments. Thus, in “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” (1935) Benjamin states: “Fascism attempts to organize the newly proletarianized masses without affecting the property structure which the masses strive to eliminate.”12 In the same vein, in his article “The Psychological Structure of Fascism” (1933–34), Georges Bataille characterizes fascism as “an imperative response to the growing threat of a working class movement.”13 Both authors claim that fascism emerges as a means to neutralize a growing social antagonism by creating a national unity of the oppressors and the oppressed around one strong leader, and redirecting the energy of revolution into military aggression towards an external enemy.

Fascism functions in accordance with the mechanism that Freud revealed as the death drive at the origins of war: instead of letting itself be demolished by the storm of revolution, a given configuration of power and property relations, which calls itself a nation, tries to preserve itself by finding another object for its (self-)destructive impulses. The great empire of the past, which a national leader calls to restore, corresponds to the “earlier state of things,” to which the death drive urges us to return. Okhlobystin’s exclamations—“We do not need a world in which there is not our victory!”—are nothing but the cries of this agony of the empire, which desperately struggles with its own desire to die in the flames of revolution.

Whereas the state of empire, described by Hegel, is based on the dialectics of the lord of the world and the abstract person, fascism, into which imperial power collapses when it tries to preserve itself, develops between the two poles of chief and soldier, writes Bataille. This is the basic structure of the army, which, on the one hand, is associated with nobility and the glory of the sovereign authority, and on the other, with bloodshed, carnage, and death. These opposites are united by mechanisms of identification and the attraction of the opposites:

The affective character of this unification is manifest in the form of the soldier’s attachment to the head of the army: it implies that each soldier equates the latter’s glory with his own. This process is the intermediary through which disgusting slaughter is radically transformed into its opposite, glory, namely into a pure and intense attraction. The glory of the chief essentially constitutes a sort of affective pole opposed to the nature of the soldiers.14

This gives us an insight into the sense of Bucha: the more elevated the figure of the chief, the more ignoble the slaughter, which provides an affective charge that expresses to the sacrality of his status. The chief and his soldiers create a dynamic unity that operates through negation:

Human beings incorporated into the army are but negated elements, negated with a kind of rage (a sadism), manifest in the tone of each command, negated by the parade, by the uniform, and by the geometric regularity of cadenced movements. The chief, insofar as he is imperative, is the incarnation of this violent negation. His intimate nature, the nature of his glory, is constituted by an imperative act that annuls the wretched populace (which constitutes the army) as such.15

With military mobilization now announced in Russia, turning everybody into potential soldiers, the mirror of Bucha becomes clearer. One could say, in accordance with Freud’s theory, that the former empire tries to preserve itself by transforming its death drive into military aggression against a neighboring country. For this goal, the despot is ready to send to death the entire populace. But there is nothing to preserve here: we are all already negated by this phantasmatic authority—first as persons, then as soldiers.

This text is part of a longer essay written for a forthcoming reader associated with the exhibition “steirischer herbst ’22: A War in the Distance.”


Slavoj Žižek, Less than Nothing: Hegel and the Shadow of Dialectical Materialism (Verso, 2013), ix.


Sabina Spielrein, “Destruction as the Cause of Coming into Being,” Journal of Analytic Psychology 39, no. 2 (1994).


Sigmund Freud, Beyond the Pleasure Principle, in The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, vol. XVIII, trans. James Strachey (Hogarth, 1955), 13.


Freud, Beyond, 13 .


Freud, Beyond, 23.


Freud, Beyond, 36.


Sigmund Freud, in Why War?: The Correspondence Between Albert Einstein and Sigmund Freud (Chicago Institute for Psychoanalysis, 1978), 46.


Freud, Why War?


Freud, Why War?, 47.


See .


Hegel, The Phenomenology of Spirit (Cambridge University Press), 279. Emphasis in original.


Walter Benjamin, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” in Illuminations, ed. Hannah Arendt (Schocken Books, 1969), 241.


George Bataille, “The Psychological Structure of Fascism,” in Visions of Excess: Selected Writings, 1927–1939, ed. and trans. Allan Stoekl (University of Minnesota Press, 1985), 159.


Bataille, “Psychological Structure of Fascism,” 150.


Bataille, “Psychological Structure of Fascism,” 150. Emphasis in original.

War & Conflict, Psychology & Psychoanalysis
Russia, Ukraine

Oxana Timofeeva is a philosopher from St. Petersburg and the author of Solar Politics (Polity 2022), How to Love a Homeland (Kayfa ta 2020), History of Animals (Bloomsbury 2018), Introduction to the Erotic Philosophy of Georges Bataille (New Literary Observer 2009), and other writings.


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