Archive for the 'geopolitics' Category

Pity is superfluous

Brexit thoughts: I’ve just come back from Warsaw, where I was attending a symposium on Ukraine at the College of Europe. It hit me at the airport of course, where I walked straight along the EU passport line while most other passengers off the plane from Ukraine shuffled along the winding ‘other passports’ queue. Soon I’ll be in that second line; ‘Take back control’ will have put me in line with the Ukrainians. (And if you think that sentence sounds offensive, I’m wondering if you voted for brexit).

The symposium was a truly European event where speakers switched effortlessly from Polish to French to Ukrainian to English to German – European in the best sense of the word: multilingual, tolerant, open-minded, interested, informed, outward-looking (and possibly just the tiniest bit smug). It was the anniversary of Russia’s annexation of Crimea. We met at the college’s beautiful campus in a former royal palace, while Crimeans were busy being forced to inform their employers or the administrations of their children’s schools that they had done the required and voted in the Russian presidential elections. Corbyn was busy saying yes it is Russia’s fault that there was a chemical weapons attack on British soil but no, we still shouldn’t jump to conclusions. A few more soldiers were busy dying in east Ukraine, a few more civilians on the frontline were busy shivering with no water and electricity as the snow fell again. The Russian state was busy lying as usual. A pilot falsely accused by Russian propaganda of shooting down MH17 committed suicide. We sat and talked about things that scare me, and I felt a part of this conversation but also not a part, because soon my country is not going to belong to this group that is already in Europe or that wants to be. Soon my country will not have the backing of 27 allied member states next time Russia decides to attack. We’ll be in that other, shuffling and winding line.

After the symposium I went to the Museum of the Warsaw Uprising. On display were cherished personal possessions donated by people who survived those two months of 1944 when the Polish Home Army took on, and were destroyed by, the German occupying forces while the Soviets watched from the other side the Vistula. Among the children’s dresses and PoW identifying tags and family photos and home-made medics’ armbands stained with seventy-year-old blood, there are British army uniforms worn by Poles from the Home Army trained in Britain.

The Warsaw uprising is not a beautiful and tragic and stirring story of heroism and alliance; the uprising was probably declared too early by the Polish government in exile, and Britain and the other allies didn’t do much to help, they were too concerned about agreement with Stalin while the British press followed Soviet propaganda (George Orwell wrote at the time that the media and left-wing intellectuals “know no more about Poland than I do. All they know is that the Russians object to the [exiled Polish] London Government and have set up a rival organization, and so far as they are concerned that settles the matter […] Their attitude towards Russian foreign policy is not ‘Is this policy right or wrong?’ but ‘This is Russian policy: how can we make it appear right?’ And this attitude is defended, if at all, solely on grounds of power. The Russians are powerful in eastern Europe, we are not: therefore we must not oppose them. This involves the principle, of its nature alien to Socialism, that you must not protest against an evil which you cannot prevent.”)

But I felt so sad looking at those British uniforms, that had been preserved and treasured by their Polish owners and our allies, because they seemed to symbolise something that was good amid the horror of war, and which we are now wilfully losing. Now we are self-pityingly complaining about Poles and everyone else taking our jobs as we turn our backs on the peaceful alliance that is the EU, and Poles are turning their backs on democracy and rule of law that are the founding principles of the EU.

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British army uniforms donated to the museum by Poles from the Home Army

The photos of Warsaw in 1945 look like Aleppo 2018. I walked back through the city centre along streets of rebuilt 18th century housing, rebuilt palaces, rebuilt churches; newer built blocks of flats and monuments, even newer shiny skyscrapers. Coffee shops; tourists; the obligatory band in Peruvian ponchos playing Leonard Cohen on panpipes… Absolutely everything in Warsaw is new, or new pretending to be old, and in a way it’s incredibly encouraging because it’s taken seventy years to do this. Just seventy years; less than a person’s lifetime, to completely rebuild a city. Maybe it’ll take less than that time to rebuild Aleppo. But you’ve still lost something forever. Someone, someone, a thousand, a million.

When World War 2 ended – I learned this after visiting the museum –  the British were worried about the more than hundred thousand Poles who had come over as part of the Polish government in exile and Army in the West. There was concern they would take British jobs. At least they were not sent back to Soviet-controlled Poland, where Home Army members were executed or put into prison camps.

These days, Poles are among the most vociferously opposed in the EU to letting in Syrians or refugees from any other destroyed country that might resemble their own seventy years ago. Poland often justifies this refusal by saying it has already let in over a million Ukrainians (as workers, not as refugees from annexed Crimea or the warzone in east Ukraine). More than 50 percent of foreign students and 60 percent of foreign workers in Poland are from Ukraine. These are the people who should have a fast track at Warsaw airport, not me.

Yet at the same time Poland is waging a self-pitying memory war with Ukraine, over atrocities committed against Poles in World War 2 while Britain was providing Poles with training and army uniforms and signing agreements with Stalin to divide up their country. Brexit is a memory war about the control Britain supposedly had back then, under Churchill who signed that agreement.

History; memory; all of this: airports and passport queues, European colleges in rebuilt aristocrat’s palaces, museums and coffee and croissants and multi-lingual debates and nationalist marches and annexation and wars by proxy and refugees in tents and International Humanitarian Law and the EU and brexit, to have come out of the history of total devastation of World War 2. All this in just 70 years. So much was built and rebuilt and yet we all ended up being victims – of immigration, of Brussels technocrats, of historical massacres, of faceless international corporations, of NATO, of conspiracy theories. We got lost in pitying ourselves, and we forgot pity.

“But pity is superfluous wherever a sentence is pronounced by History” – Czeslaw Milosz.

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The validity of other people’s dreams

This winter my friends’ children in England have been obsessed with a game called Magic: The Gathering, in which (to put it briefly) a group of wizards travel from plane to plane within a multiverse, fighting battles. Each plane has its own rules, founding myths, vocabulary and attributes; the longer you play the more planes there are and the more rule cards you collect, which you can spend happy hours categorising and putting in order in a box, as though the world and its many planes or countries can fit in a box where each country’s set of rules adheres to its own logic and makes sense within the overarching scheme of things.

I thought about this game again this week when Russian president Putin formally recognised the passports and internal documents of the self-declared ‘people’s republics’ of Donetsk and Luhansk in east Ukraine (‘DNR/LNR’). In terms of Magic this I suppose would be the equivalent of a new plane which has split off from another and been hovering in a state of semi-being suddenly getting an unallocated place in the box, founding myths, inhabitants, borders and all, its undeclared war (because of course every plane in Magic involves war) now ready to be fought by multiversally-recognised rules.

People in the ‘DNR/LNR’ can now be born, get married, and die. They have documents which state that they exist and they are ‘from here’, with which they can then travel somewhere else. Thus does a state dream itself into existence.

I’ve already thought that travelling across Europe overland feels a bit like shuffling through Magic planes which have been rearranged by several consecutive hands. Prague to Kyiv: passing though tidy, homogenously Czech towns that were once home to Sudeten Germans; through pretty Slovak towns renovated with EU money, that were Czechoslovak not so long ago; through snowy icicled towns where stray dogs run by the railway tracks, that used to be Polish but where now a Ukrainian flag flies from a brick factory chimney. You think, really aren’t all countries just someone else’s dream; planes of existence running to someone’s invented set of rules?

I saw the new Russian flags atop brick factory chimneys in Crimea in March 2014, or raised on army bases the day after the Ukrainian flag was lowered and Ukrainian soldiers who’d been there for more than 20 years were forced humiliatingly to leave, or to switch allegiance to Russia. Russia now claims Crimea is an inviolable part of itself and is sentencing anyone who says otherwise for ‘separatism’. It’s invented a whole new set of cards and shoved them unceremoniously into the box, to replace those that were placed there in 1991 (a plane called Ukraine), and 1954 (a plane called the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic), and 1917 (Crimean People’s Republic, Taurida Socialist Republic, etc.), and 1783 (Russian Empire) and 1441 (Crimean Khanate)…

I’ve seen the ‘DNR’ flags atop everything in Donetsk in east Ukraine, a new invention based on a flag of a revolutionary republic in the 1920s that never happened. I’ve seen the five or six or seven different flags of battalions and Cossack communities flying at armed separatist checkpoints in small towns in neighbouring Luhansk region. My home is my castle. My checkpoint is my republic. My gun is my country.

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‘DNR’ founding myths – display from the (largely destroyed by shelling) regional museum in central Donetsk, 2015

A country, it turns out, is an act of will. And an act of violence.

I once saw in some WW2 museum examples of the currencies the Nazis introduced in each of the European countries they occupied. It was one of the first things they did. How weird, I thought. How bureaucratic and pointless when there’s a war going on.

Now I understand the point. I’ve seen it made in Crimea and East Ukraine, in non-recognised Transnistria and Abkhazia. Change the trappings – the flag and the time zone, the currency, the passports, the stamps, the acronyms, the uniforms – and you force the idea, the impression of a country.

It starts in the everyday transactions everyone has to carry out to survive, and it ends up inside their heads.

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Balloon with the Abkhazia flag in a souvenir shop, Sukhumi. The unrecognised ‘Republic of Abkhazia’ backed by Russia split from Georgia in 1990s in a vicious war

How do the makers of Magic invent new fantasy planes? They start, I guess, with a geographical or physical or metaphysical framework, a story (this side attacked that side, this side has this power, that side has that power) and a set of indexed rules and trappings which allow broadswords/telepathy/immortality/dragons (or whatever) to exist.

When you impose your fantasy plane by force, you can’t create and impose geographical/racial/moral/metaphysical boundaries out of force of imagination alone. So you fight for your borders and impose your definitions through the trappings, and the trappings become the definition and the border.

And then in your country’s schools and through its media you start teaching those moral and historical and physical boundaries or differences you’ve invented, and repress any alternative versions, until they become self-fulfilling prophecies. You create a nation of people who are different from everyone else, who can be born and get married and die only within the rules of that country – and any other you can persuade or force to recognise it.

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Central square, Tiraspol, Transnistria

There is no one in separatist-controlled Donetsk today to give a newborn baby a Ukrainian birth certificate. That baby born in Donetsk and given a ‘DNR’ birth certificate does not exist as far as any country is concerned – apart, now, from Russia.

How will this baby think of itself when it grows old enough to think? As a ‘De-eN-eRovets’? A second-class Russian? A would-be Ukrainian? Will it believe the ‘DNR’ story, the founding myth, that it fought heroically (with a bit of Russian help) against Ukrainian fascists and the CIA, for the inviolable right to watch American films in cinemas dubbed into Russian? Will it know what ‘home’ and ‘country’ and ‘nationality’ are?

I talked to a nationalist Ukrainian historian not long ago, who told me that after Greater Poland collapsed,  in 1772 the Austro-Hungarian empire conducted a census of its new land of Galicia (now West Ukraine), and found that 90 percent of its inhabitants could not say what nationality they were. They said they were ‘local’ or ‘from here’ (a few called themselves Rusyns, which my historian said traced back to the kingdoms of Kievan Rus, geographically centred in today’s Kyiv, from which what is now Russia traces its history).

In 1930s Volyn, heartland of Ukrainian nationalism, the same question to most inhabitants got the same answer: ‘from here’. “Russia called them Polonised Russians, Poland called them Russified Poles,” said the historian. “The nationalists set out to educate them that they weren’t just ‘from here’, they were Ukrainians.”

What’s wrong with the answer ‘from here’? It’s beautifully practical and realistic; it implies a sense of ownership, of belonging, of home.

And yet what ownership did these people have over the ‘here’ where they lived, if for example their birth certificates and passports called them Polish or Russian; if they were forced to speak Russian or Polish instead of the language ‘from here’?

In fact the languages of the west Ukrainian Carpathian valleys, uniquely ‘from here’, are a glorious mixture of Ukrainian with Hungarian, Romanian, Slovak, Polish, Russian. Some villages have been part of four different countries or states in the last 100 years. They even had their own independent Republic of Carpatho-Ukraine, which has to be the shortest-lived dream of a state in history – it lasted all of one day, between 15–16 March 1939.

Lots of people managed to die for that dream, even in one day.

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War memorial in Tiraspol to those who died fighting for the unrecognised ‘Pridnestrovian Moldavian Republic’ or Transnistra, 1990-1992

Magic is a multi-player game. In clubs all over the world players get together to hop from plane to plane, collecting artefacts and skills and fighting wars. (My friends tell me most players are teenage boys or middle-aged men; it strikes me that the game would appeal to people who want to find order, and would like to fit the world and all its planes and countries and peoples and emotions neatly in sections in a box). I like the way these players leave their backgrounds behind when they get together to play. They’ve become ‘from here’ – from this multiverse world of Magic: the Gathering. Obviously the game relies on people agreeing beforehand to the rules of each plane and of the overarching scheme of things. Otherwise the whole fantasy world comes crashing down.

It is terrifying to realise that the actual world we live in relies equally on this mutual acceptance of rules, which can come crashing down so very easily. When that happens ‘From here’ is not an answer, because it turns out that some people are more from here than others. Suddenly a flag, a passport, an official stamp is the thing you’re fighting for, and what makes you exist. You scrabble around for the cards that tell you what story you’re believing in this week, what you’re worth, where you can travel next, and some fucker has taken them out of the box and shoved in a whole new set.

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A box of Magic cards


previous posts

A novel about the Crimean Tatars' return to their homeland

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