Sociology of Evil: Why Ukraine’s new language of war uses Tolkien’s metaphor to express Russian brutality
I am a big fan of J.R.R. Tolkien and his work. This admiration spans for almost a quarter of a century, however, this dedication is nothing more than a hobby without any academic aspirations. So when the Russians were starting to be called orcs after the invasion, a friend of mine half-jokingly asked me to explain the possible relevance of this metaphor in terms of Tolkien mythology.
Back then, I laughed at this idea, any op-ed on this issue would be simply regarded as ‘trolling’ and not a serious analysis. However, the thought never truly left my mind as I kept finding striking parallels between the two stories. Sometimes, the parallels were evident: it seemed as if the Russians deliberately tried to portray themselves as the antagonist orcs from the books of the professor.
After the first reports of atrocities in Bucha and other towns in the Kyiv region, I realized that Tokien’s depictions actually help us understand the nature of our enemies and see further risks with which we might meet in the long run.
A Trip to Middle Earth
The orc label was already used on the Russians since the first day of the large-scale invasion of Ukraine. Their appearance and character approved this notion – the invaders resembled a savage, angry horde, nothing in resemblance of people or even an army. This is exactly what Tolkien had in mind when writing the “Lord of the Rings,” a force of stupid and underdeveloped elements from one hand, savage and brutal from another.
This could be the end of discussion here, as presented, but this was actually an accurate metaphor that inspired the struggle against its dark forces. Nonetheless, a further analysis of Tolkien and his orc portrayal allows us to further deconstruct the Russians and see what we have refused to see before. However, prior to this, we must resolve a few philosophical dilemmas along the way.
J.R.R. Tolkien was a Catholic. One must remember this, upon reading his work. Hence, not only can one see subtle elements of christianity in his work, but his work reveals a Christian framework from which his creativity flourished. Without this, Middle Earth as a concept, would not exist. Moreover, Tolkien did not envision evil as a singular concept which confronts good. For him, evil was the absence or lack of goodwill. Evil is always secondary, unable to create, but only distort matter. That was his vision of the roll of orcs in a nutshell. They are the creation of Melkor, one of the Valars – mythological and spirit-like creatures, helpers of Eru Ilvatar, the creator of the known world. Melkor arose from his own confidence in the ability to create. Upon the birth of Ilvatar’s children (i.e. humans and elves), Melkor tried to create something similar. The result of his anticipated creation were the orcs. However, where could they really come from if evil itself does not possess the ability to create?
From the beginning, Tolkien regarded the orcs as a parody of Ilvatar’s children. The most common explanation of their appearance was that they were a distortion on the basis of the elves. Those who were unlucky enough to fall in the hands of Melkor after the so-called great awakening, were subjected to torture and subsequently turned into orcs. Later on, Tolkien revisited his version of the story and changed the origin of the orcs.
The upgraded origin story was that the race of orcs was just a group of primitive animals. The Maiars were weaker spirits which were supposed to help the Valars in implementing the ideas of Eru Ilvatar. Melkor was one of the Valars, while Sauron was one of the Maiars. However, Tolkien continued to add details to the origin story. Later, the orcs were humans who were once distorted by Melkor through torture. Tolkien did not refute the previous versions of the orc origin story, so all in all, the origin of orcs remains a combination of things. In the Silmarillion (collection of mythology pieces from Middle Earth) only the older version of the origin story can be found (i.e. orcs were distorted elves). The subsequent origin stories were left behind in Tolkien’s scrapbooks which were published in the 1990’s, by Tolkien’s son.
The Land of the Orcs
We should get back on track and remind ourselves why we entered the realm of fantasy – to outline the purpose in our investigation of the origin of Tolkien’s orcs, as the striking parallels can actually be seen with an existing (unfortunately), Russian threat. In fact, we can split the Russians into three groups. The first being orcs of the Maiars – the spirits which helped them take the shape they subsequently exist in, an entity which was supposed to be working for the good, but turned into evil. In this case, these are Russian intellectuals, people who have been mandated by the commoners to intervene in foreign affairs, to question the overall direction and strategy of the country and determine its values.
Russia of the XXI century exhibits the return of this intellectual class, also known as the Intelligentsia – educated individuals, who in turn do not in this case have influence (and make no attempt to) on the developmental direction of society. Even the status of ‘intellectual’ is put under doubt here as a much more fitting Soviet label ‘workers of intellectual labour’ would be a lot more appropriate. The same can be said about vloggers and online personalities, which focus on the popularization of science and other educational domains, some of which have large audiences. They are those who have achieved a lot in their lifetimes, but wasted it upon siding with evil or by staying silent.
The second group are common people that sided with evil. Using Tolkien’s mythology, these can be directly assigned to the orc label – originating from humans or elves. The third group are creatures with certain ‘upgrades’. This group is simple to comprehend – they are sadistic and psychopathic elements of Russian society who would under alternative conditions (e.g. if they would not be participating in the invasion) would be harassing their loved ones, neighbors, children and many others. Due to the Russian government’s efforts however, they received the opportunity to carry out this harassment during the so-called ‘special military operation’ in Ukraine.
How did Melkor manage to attract elves, humans and Maiars alike to the side of evil? Tolkien listed three main methods this was done. Firstly, through the process of torture and suffering, or simply the fear of imminent suffering. ‘Switch to my side and the suffering will end!’ – this was the main message voiced by Melkor. Secondly, through the use of all evil that resides in the human race’s spirits – ‘join my side and you will be able to satisfy your desires, you will gain authority, power and wealth.’ Thirdly and unsurprisingly, this concerns the appeal to the good in their hearts and souls.
This happens in the manner of appealing to the remainders of good. For example, Tolkien often outlines the motive of executing justice. The three pillars all work when the forces of evil distort the vision of the outside world. It is due to the ‘fake news’ of Melkor that he was able to convince humans and even elves to join the forces of evil. What a close resemblance to modern Russia, right? However, the most striking point is yet to come. Tolkien often outlined that the orcs served Melkor because he convinced them that humans and elves were a greater evil – orcs who have been captured by them were subject to horrifying deaths (e.g. they were eaten alive). One can say that Tolkien almost predicted the myth of the ‘crucified child’ (a Russian propaganda stunt spread a while back) 60 years ago. The same method was used to demonize the enemy and subdue the population into believing they are up against evil. As stated before, the relevant analogies of this kind are abundant.
The Tolkien Dilemma
My work has halted a few weeks ago at this point of the article. As time passed, it reminded me more and more of an intellectual game with a simple challenge: let’s see if we can find more relevant analogies between Tolkien’s orcs and the Russians. In reality though, this is a pointless exercise – Russians are actually real. Why reference Tolkien in order to describe them?
And then the liberation of Bucha, Irpin and Borodyanka happened and we all came to realize what the invaders did to the local population. How can one do that to another? The Russians simply can’t be human, there is nothing human about them. They have completed their transition into orcs! Right at this moment, the vision of Tolkien was relevant yet again for me.
Orcs posed a serious problem for Tolkien in his envisioned story. If they were the reincarnation of evil brought to the level of humans and other races, how do they possess consciousness and the freedom of will? As seen from some events in the Lord of the Rings, orcs have snapped back at their commanders and refused to carry out orders given to them by Suaron and Saruman.
According to this logic, evil does not possess the ability to create, and therefore they could not have obtained the freedom from Melkor’s mere creation of them. Hence, they possessed the freedom of will from their beginning as they were created from the elven and human races. This notion solved this standing issue but created another: is it possible to re-educate the orcs again? After all, they are the ‘children’ of Ilvatar, hence, they do possess spirits, a gift from the creator himself. More importantly, their ancestors also possess this gift. As a result, orcs, despite their savage and gross nature, continue to possess this god-given spark – the immortal spirit.
For Tolkien’s personal values, this was quite challenging. From one side, the orcs, due to the apparent freedom of will that they seemed to have retained, deserved at least some empathy. In one of his scrapbook notes he wrote: ‘In the past, orcs were pardoned if they confessed – even on the battlefield’. This thought was never extended or reiterated. From another side however, Tolkien understood that orcs were too sanctimonious, treacherous and brutal.
Therefore, the supposed confessions on the battlefield could simply be a ruse to avoid death to then proceed to stab the enemy in the back once given the chance. It can be said that Tolkien did not resolve this dilemma. But how does this concern our interests here? As Tolkien still continued to see orcs as the ‘children’ of Ilvatar, we must do the same and look at the Russians as human beings. Though not as a tool to justify their actions or forgive them, but with a totally different aim.
The Sociology of Evil
And here, my inner Tolkienist yields to my inner sociologist. Despite the Russians demonstrating inhumane behavior, we cannot refute the fact that they are homo sapiens. Studies of the past 70 years have shown that humans are social creatures, able to avoid conflict with other humans. This notion underlines the purpose of the Stanley Milgram obedience experiment and Hannah Arendt’s A Report On The Banality of Evil book. In order to execute something evil, a person must have a moral justification for such actions and justify them through ‘I was only carrying out orders’ types of excuses or simply a higher cause (Milgrem) (ends justify the means). Or perhaps, another explanation would be the inability to comprehend the consequences of one’s actions (Arendt).
The Nazis, who exterminated millions of Jews, did not discuss the extermination as such, but rather as a solution to the Jewish question. Nazi officials often enough claimed that they did not kill Jews but merely compiled train schedules. They claimed that it was not their fault that the wagons were filled with Jews headed to gas chambers in concentration camps rather than grain and wheat. This was their way of proving their innocence and that they had nothing to do with the evil that had taken place. In cases when their direct connections to crimes were evident, new arguments resurfaced such as: ‘Yes, it was a crime, but we did it to preserve our country/race/civilization’. Yet again, evil tries to paint itself as good.
The existence of these mechanisms proves yet again that humans are social creatures. It also explains why evil has taken such a banal state for many western thinkers. It is evil that tries to hide its true purpose, pretending that it is not evil at all. What is happening in Ukraine is not a banal form of evil. It is not evil that tries to hide its true purpose. Rather, it is a purely sadistic form of evil. The perpetrators of this evil – the Russian invaders, are proud of what they are doing.
They receive pleasure from their actions, hence the sadistic nature. This evil entirely contradicts human nature, and hence the purpose of humanity altogether. If we look closely enough, we can see that the invaders are cruel not only to Ukrainians – they seem to be lacking any social capabilities that homo sapiens should have altogether. Russian infantry upon its retreat left their comrades behind to die from hunger, cold temperatures out in the wild. Why? The simple explanation is that the so-called higher command paratroopers treat their infantry as inferiors – and now, the infantry takes its revenge by abandoning them. Similar examples of internal military relations are common.
Perhaps those drafted to the Russian army are simply psychopaths that do not possess basic human social capabilities? This could be believable if not for the behavior of the Russian consumer. For Russian bloggers, the possibility of the prohibition of Instagram and monetization on Youtube is a tragedy, but not the suffering of Ukrainians.
Numerous intercepted phone calls between Russian soldiers and their families show a complete lack of empathy and indifference to human suffering. This sad reality gave birth to a very illustrative joke based on real calls between a Russian soldier and his mother: ‘Mom, I’m near Kharkiv! I’m very scared! It’s a real meat grinder here!’ ‘Oh, son, a meat grinder is okay, but don’t forget to find a blender’.
The Ring of Power
Yet again, it is necessary to return to Tolkien and his orcs. He continued to see the humane side of the orcs. We must do the same with Russians. Tolkien was interested in seeing the humanity in orcs, but we must investigate the opposite – where did the humanity of the Russians disappear? In other words, what happened to a group of homo sapiens who seemed to have lost empathy and their social capabilities? This question seems to be too abstract to answer in light of the current military conflict, as Ukrainians continue to die from the hands of the Russian invaders. However, we must still remember this question.
Through the use of Tolkien’s metaphor, a victory over Russia, the toppling of the regime is analogous to the victory of Suaron in the Second Era in the Lord of the Rings. Sauron’s source of power was the ring, and if it was not itself destroyed, Sauron would rise from the ashes again.
The source of Putin’s power is the ability to deprive his subjects of anything humane – a Hobbesian society, a state of chaos, a war of everyone against everyone. Today, in Russia, this is very much observable. The government is totally indifferent to the affairs of its citizens, but the citizens themselves do not see this problem, as they are too busy hating one another. Hence, comparisons of Putin’s Russia’s and Nazi Germany are false. Hitler built his support based on the cohesion of society at present.
When the Nazi government started to implement the ruthless murders of patients in psychiatric wards, women took to the streets – under a totalitarian regime! Hitler proceeded to stop the murders. On the other hand, during the 1994-95 siege of Grozny in Chechnya, it was known that part of the local population were ethnic Russians. Western journalists expected that the Russian government would not bomb the city, otherwise the presidential rating of Boris Yeltsin would plummet. It did not.
As it turned out the Russians were careless about the Russians living in Grozny. Grozny getting bombed? Oh well, it’s their problem. The same methods can be observed today, both by soldiers and civilians. ‘I don’t care if Vanya from my platoon got torn to shreds by a shell, at least I got a new lavatory bowl and a TV!’
Other analogies go further at comparing Russians with zombies, monsters and other fantasy-based creatures. This is exactly what makes Russia so dangerous. In 1 and a half months of war in Ukraine, Russia lost more soldiers than in both Chechen wars, and also more than in the war in Afghanistan. Any other government would stop their actions upon reflecting on this: our citizens are dying, what will our society say of this? However, Russia does not have a society as such. The is simply an existence of atomized individuals in a Hobbsian conflict of everyone amongst themselves.
They are careless towards other Russians, their only goal is to survive and make personal gains. This allows the Russian government to send the so-called orcs into battle, and only take responsibility for their losses when they see fit – as per when the losses themselves are an obstruction to their aims. The Hobbesian state allows Putin to retain control over Russia. His empire is fragile, as British journalist Ben Judah perfectly described – it relies on the collective state of fear (‘without a tsar, it will be even worse’ rhetoric).
There are signs that this can be a brutal and chaotic environment, which can decay and make the lawlessness of the 1990’s seem like a walk in the park. Putin’s regime is truly the Leviathan from the works of Hobbes: a totalitarian regime that everyone needs, because only it can prevent the people from massacring each other.
The Russian Problem
History often brings back past examples to the service of our current problems. In the stalinist era, the government massacred millions of its people during numerous waves of political repressions or the Holodomor, as well as the cold blooded and mindless sending of millions of soldiers to their deaths in the world war.
However, do not be misled by this: Stalin established an apparatus of terror in the USSR, where the slightest hint of disobedience was punished by enslavement in gulags or execution. In both cases, death was almost always the end result. In today’s Russia, such threats are not present. To the contrary, the government carries out its policies in accordance to the silent approval of the indifferent majority.
There are other attempts to explain this: ‘Russians were always like this, throughout their entire history!’. This statement however can be either racist (i.e. the claim that Russians are genetically predisposed to sadistic tendencies) and the refusal to explain anything at all (the Russian case is unique). However, we need to understand how the Russians came to this state of inhumanity.
We must also look into the depth of the cause – how social, cultural economic and political factors led to a society which lives in the state of war of everyone for themselves, a society which stands by the brutal invasion of its neighbor as well as having a complete lack of interest of their own losses. Of course, this takes place under the guidance of an iron fist, which directs these attacks against its neighbor. Without this iron fist, Russian society would simply dissolve into chaos where everyone would attack one another.
Until we uncover the reasons of why Russia ended up like this, moreover – how to confront this successfully, new ‘putins’ will emerge across the world. Especially around us. Without the understanding of this distorted and monstrous authority, which can deprive people of their most basic human characteristics and without the construction of mechanisms of countering it, deputinization of Russia is improbable. And hence, the security of Ukraine is improbable as well, and in the long run – the security of the world as a whole.
The Presidential Office of Ukraine
Originally published as Orcs and Men: How Tolkien helps us understand what’s wrong with Russia and its people