After Russia sent troops into Ukraine on February 24, 2022, the country adopted a law criminalizing the spread of “false information” about its military endeavors. This law has been used to crush criticism of what officials call “a special military operation.” 

However, this law didn’t stop Vladimir Kara-Murza Jr., a journalist, from being one of the most prominent opposition activists in Russia. Even before the war in Ukraine, Kara-Murza was outspoken about things Russia wanted to keep silent. He survived two poisonings that he blames on the Kremlin, though Russian officials denied responsibility. He has been in prison since this time last year due to his speech in March to the Arizona House of Representatives, denouncing Russia’s violence against Ukraine. 

For this reason, Kara-Murza was convicted as a “top Kremlin foe” on charges of treason. He is sentenced to 25 years of prison. He is only one of many others who have stood up against Putin’s regime, with similar consequences. It’s interesting to note that Kara-Murza is a journalist. In that situation, he has the ability to know what’s going on and has the ability to communicate with the masses. Perhaps that’s why he’s able to see what’s really going on and make his own opinions about it.

Even then, Russia is so big, and it’s doubtful many people actually know what is going on in Ukraine or elsewhere. Mattias Desmet, in his book The Psychology of Totalitarianism, philosophizes on the phenomena of what he calls a “mass formation”—the catalyst of a totalitarian government. A mass formation happens when there is a lot of free-floating anger, anxiety, and aggression contained in a group of people who feel meaningless and purposeless. An opportunistic leader proposes a focus and a solution for this free-floating baggage, giving the people a place to direct their anger and anxiety, and a purpose for being alive and working together. The individuals who thus far have felt isolated find meaning in working towards a united cause, and as a group they become emotionally blind to any evil that they do. This is the “banality of evil,” as Hannah Arendt called it. The people under a totalitarian government are completely normal people who follow the rational argument of the masses and don’t recognize the horrors that they do as a group. In their eyes, they are not horrible. They are just doing what everyone else is doing.

What’s interesting is that the masses, according to Desmet, are only formed by about 30% of the population. The 40% or 50% who meekly follow do so because the masses have the loudest voice. If a remaining 10% or 20% can form a countergroup, it can undo the mass formation. That’s why the leaders of the masses fear the 10% or 20%, encouraging the people to report on each other and turn themselves in. Desmet writes the following:

Mass formation feeds on anxiety and aggression; without the fear and the prospect of venting this aggression, the mass dynamics grind to a halt. The leaders realize that, if this happens, the masses will wake up and become aware of the damage they have suffered, whereupon they will turn against the leaders in a lethal fashion. Consequently, the leaders have no choice but to keep identifying new objects of anxiety and introducing new measures to destroy such objects.

It’s evident that Russia’s war on Ukraine is one of these objects to continue the fear and anxiety that keep the masses together. It is a common cause to take out free-floating anxiety and anger; however, there are definitely many people, like Kara-Murza, who are standing up against what’s going on instead of following the mass formation blindly.

Kara-Murza, in his final statement last week, reiterated that he is proud of standing up against Putin’s dictatorship and the invasion of Ukraine. “I know that the day will come when the darkness engulfing our country will clear,” he said, “and then our society will open its eyes and shudder when it realizes what terrible crimes were committed in its name.” 

How is he able to see so clearly? How did he—and many others—get the courage to stand up against something so frightening—the faceless, emotionless crowd? Desmet has an answer to that as well. As stated before, Desmet believes that if a clear-headed 10-20% of the population can form a countergroup, they can stop a totalitarian government from going down like a kamikaze plane.

However, an even better way to break through is to replace one object of anxiety (like the war in Ukraine) with another, which is what individuals like Vladimir Kara-Murza Jr. are doing. It is possible to put the totalitarian regime itself forward as an object of anxiety. If the focus remains on the installation of anxiety, it will again cross ethical boundaries and drift into another dehumanization process, not solving any problems. But if this new “object of anxiety” can be looked upon with dignity, even pride for fighting against something one knows to be ethically wrong, an individual can overcome the fear of the masses and stand higher, perhaps as a martyr, but with full knowledge that they are doing right. If this became a group movement, the masses wouldn’t stand a chance.

With Russia, a lot remains to be seen. The symptoms of a totalitarian government are all there. The biggest thing to understand about totalitarianism is that it’s all an illusion, created by completely rational human beings who need connection instead of isolation, and who justify themselves into acting unethically. The scary thing is that the illusion seems completely real to those in its grasp. The light in the tunnel, though, is that the illusion is just that—an illusion. And there still remains a possibility of escape.

*written about this article: Leading Putin critic sentenced to 25 years in Russian jail