Archive for the 'Russia' Category

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

The truth about war II

It used to be that with each fresh bout of violence in east Ukraine, with each shelled trolleybus or school or ambulance, every new batch of civilian casualties, each side would rush to blame the other.

Ths time, as fighting has flared up again, I am hearing people saying that it doesn’t matter who started firing first; which side kicked off the latest surge in artillery and tank barrages.

That was my own opinion more than two years ago, for reasons explained here. Now people are saying it for another reason. They are saying it is irrelevant to talk at all about two sides in this war, because there is only one side.

In pro-Ukrainian media and discourse, the warring side is Russia. In Russia, the warring side is Ukraine.

This I think is the first time in Ukraine (and largely in western media) there has been really no mention of another side to the deaths and heroics of the last week. Coverage is all of Avdiivka (on Ukraine controlled territory) and the damage done there by artillery  provided by Russia. You wouldn’t think from the reports that the Ukrainian army is actually firing at anything. Because Ukraine isn’t a side in this war. The only side is Russia, but Russia is also not literally there, not in terms of houses and people and pet dogs over in non-Ukraine controlled Donetsk and Makiivka where Ukrainian grad rockets are landing across the not-legally-there border into the non-existent republic of the ‘DNR’. I suppose it’s pretty hard to cause any damage when the only warring side isn’t officially there.

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Ukrainian collection of war ‘souvenirs’, Dnipro 2015

Vice-versa, Russia media continues to cover the war as though it owned it, at the same time as insisting that the people fighting and dying are all from the one side, Ukraine; Ukrainian houses and people and pet dogs in Donetsk and Makiivka being shot at by their own Ukrainian army and soldiers based around Avdiivka. Those official Russian organisations of Russian veterans of the east Ukraine war represent only volunteers, of course; obviously nothing is crossing the miles of non-Ukraine controlled border between the non-recognised ‘DNR’/’LNR’ and Russia except humanitarian aid; ‘I hope they have enough ammunition’, said Putin spokesman Dmitry Peskov last week of the ‘DNR’ army, in one of the more disgusting pieces of mendacity – and the bar is already sky-high – in this conflict’s vile lying history.

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‘LNR’ roadside collection of war ‘souvenirs’. Luhansk 2014

And if you read all the comments made by everyone, from the politicians to the soldiers to the media pundits to, even, the civilians getting killed, the really amazing thing is that this one-sided war is in fact not about either Ukraine or Russia. It is all about America and the new US president.

I used to think that war, stripped to the essentials, was a matter of A killing B before B kills A.

Then I came to understand that war is a matter of A (or B) killing C in order to made D believe that B (or A) is worse than A (or B).

This last week my understanding of war has evolved again. War is a matter of AB engaging in some jointly inaccurate, inefficient and wildy expensive game of heavy artillery for the purpose of trying to work out if and what D might be thinking (and, might D join A/B in some killing elsewhere, of E perhaps).

C meanwhile gets killed just because of being in the way. C is barely relevant anymore even for the purposes of war propaganda.

C is Diana from Makiivka, a born rescuer, who rescued a corgi when the streets were full of shelling and put a pink bow round its neck; despite her care the dog escaped on another night of shelling, came back pregnant and provided an unexpected windfall when Diana sold the pups over the internet, in the middle of a war.

C is Svetlana, a born warrior who nevertheless stayed at home while her gentle poet brother went and joined the ‘DNR’ militants and came home in a coffin; Svetlana hoards her ‘DNR’ flags in her flat in a frontline town like Avdiivka, dreaming of the day she can leave her husband and son and hospital job, and ride away to the wars.

C is baba Lyuba, who moved into a bomb shelter two years ago in Donetsk and is probably still there because it provided her with a new home, a family she’d never known; watching Russian TV together on a tiny screen underground, teaching her 5-year-old adopted son to hate Ukrainian fascists.

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Home in a bomb shelter, Donetsk 2014

C is Dima, whose house in Donetsk is like a treasure chest, full of mosaic and woodcarving that his father began and he carried on, whose garage is home to a gleaming pale-blue 1950s Volga and a flutter of crooning fan-tailed pigeons; with every crash of artillery the mosaics tremble, those decades of loving work of father and son to create something beautiful are so very fragile.

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Pigeons. Donetsk, 2015

(PS Both sides in East Ukraine collude in making coverage of this war one-sided. In particular it is now almost imposssible for non-Russian journalists to get to the ‘DNR’, as this article makes clear; while those who have been there have ended up on a Ukrainian list of so-called terrorist sympathisers. So this is not an attack on journalists.)

When will there be good news?

Good news coming out of Russian-annexed Crimea is very relative, and even more short-lived.

On 25 January there was some good news from Crimea. Relatively. The Kyiv district court in Simferopol refused to extend the pre-trial prison term of Redvan Suleimanov, arrested in July 2016 on very unconvincing charges of sabotage. He would have to be released by the end of January because the investigation had failed to provide materials within the required seven days of the previous detention term’s expiry.

So you understand why this is good news in Crimea these days: under a regime which makes it abundantly clear that anyone can be arrested and sentenced, regardless of any truth of what they did or didn’t do, no one arrested on politicised charges of extremism or terrorism or sabotage or mass unrest has been found innocent. No one, once taken into pre-trial detention on these charges, has been released on bail or even house arrest. Around twenty people accused of such offences have been held in the horrible conditions of pre-trial prison for a year or more. They have not been allowed visits from their families. Two have been removed to prison in Moscow. The family of another Ukrainian arrested for sabotage in November didn’t know which prison he was in at all for over a month after he was arrested.

Suleimanov’s lawyer Emil Kurbedinov, who represents the majority of Crimean Tatars arrested in Crimea for ‘terrorism’ and ‘extremism’, reported the good news about his client on social media. On 26 January, the next day, he reported a house search by the FSB (Russian security services) of another Crimean Tatar activist.

On his way to the house, and while his own house was also being searched, Kurbedinov was arrested himself. He was charged with ‘public display or propaganda of banned symbols’, for a post on social media from 2012-13 (long before Russia annexed Crimea), and sentenced to ten days administrative arrest.

So relative is good news in Crimea these days, where anyone can be sentenced for anything, this honestly felt like a kind of good news. It is awful news, the arrest of the most prominent lawyer (out of a very small group) defending Crimean Tatars and others. But –  only ten days. Only administrative. It could have been so much worse.

Friends laughed at my naivety over this, and in welcoming the news about Suleimanov just the day before. Rightly. On 27 January, the same Kyiv district court in Simferopol heard Suleimanov’s case again. Kurbedinov of course, was not there to represent him. In his absence, the court extended Suleimanov’s pre-trial prison term.

Grammar Nazis

Cultured conversation

Cultured conversation

A sign from a Lviv trolleybus window. Printed by the nationalist political party Svoboda, it is instructions in public transport etiquette: how to buy a ticket, ask the driver to stop and so on in polite, correct Ukrainian.

“This may be a case when the term ‘grammar Nazi’ isn’t exactly an exaggeration,” a non-Ukrainian friend commented when he saw it.

I saw this sign during a recent visit for the annual Lviv Publisher’s Forum. It made me think about the line between being proud of one’s language and heritage, and wanting to impose it on those from other heritages. Much of the Publisher’s Forum was about cultural exchange and translation, a celebration of how literature can bridge national divides. But this year, for the first time in 23 years, Russian publishers were not invited to attend.

Russian and Russian-language books, publishers and bookshops have dominated the Ukrainian literary market for two decades. But when does pride and protectionism become chauvinism and censorship? Does wanting to protect one’s own language, and encouraging people to speak it correctly and beautifully, make someone a ‘Nazi’?

Read the entire version of this post on ABBA

New words of the season

I’ve been keeping a mental record of new Russian words I’ve learned since March – I initially wrote up some of them as Word of the Day or Week or Month, until they got too numerous and there was too much else to write about. But the list is still in my head, getting longer and longer, filling me with more and more dismay.

Why the hell have I had to learn words like гранатомёт (grenade launcher). Like огневые точки (gun emplacement). Like вторжение and контузия and осколочное ранение (invasion; concussion or shell shock; shrapnel wound).

Like отчаяние: despair.

(I’m in Ukraine, so you could say I should be learning these words in Ukrainian. But they belong to Russia, these words. All of them.)

But what about…

The hypocrisy and duplicity of Russia over its actions in Ukraine actually physically hurts.

Every time someone says to me ‘but it’s all because of those neo-Nazis in Ukraine’, ‘but Maidan did it first’, ‘but Crimea was always Russian’, ‘but if there are Russian soldiers in Ukraine, they are there voluntarily because the locals want them there – and anyway, what about all the Americans there?’ – it’s like being hit over the head with a blunt object.

Every time I hear ‘But what about…. what about… what about…’ from Churkin, from Putin, from Lavrov, I remember that Soviet disease I encountered all the time in state organisations when I first arrived in Post-Soviet Ukraine nearly twenty years ago: lying and evasion and being too scared to take responsibility for anything. I’m not to blame for my bad behaviour, because someone else behaved badly first. Always shift the blame.

I don’t encounter that disease so much any more in Ukraine, though of course it’s not gone. It is clearly still rampant in Russia.

There are brave people in Russia fighting the lies and the hypocrisy. There are human rights representatives and mothers speaking out about their lost sons in the Russian army who were forced to sign papers that they are ‘on leave’ before being sent to Ukraine, who are returning to be buried in unmarked graves.

Please, you people in the rest of the world who keep saying ‘but what about the neo-Nazis…  But what about…’  Well,  WHAT ABOUT THEM?

What about those mothers in Russia searching for their sons? What about all the 45 million or so non Neo-Nazis in Ukraine? What about the fact that two wrongs do not and never will make a right?

 

 

It is possible to learn from past mistakes

This is from German President Joachim Gauck’s speech in Liège today, commemorating the centenary of the First World War.

 This war began in western Europe with Germany’s completely unjustifiable invasion of neutral Belgium. The invasion only followed military logic, and it thus became apparent on the very first day of the war that treaties were worthless and that the standards of civilisation had been rendered null and void.

[…] in Germany itself, intellectuals and artists wrote a disgraceful text in which they declared that crimes against a country and its people, including even attacks on culture, were justified and indeed necessary. What had become of the community of scholars and artists? What had happened to the civilisation called Europe?

Nationalism had blinded almost everyone’s hearts and minds. Neither the standards of culture and civilisation, nor religious faith, nor reason were strong enough to sway people’s consciences in another direction. On the contrary, people actually believed that they were morally and religiously in the right. In the clash of cultures, feelings of superiority and extreme national egoism triumphed over empathy. The utter failure of diplomacy […]  the erroneous belief in a short military campaign to resolve international disputes; and finally, propaganda that knew no bounds and demonised the enemy in a way hitherto unknown – all of this led Europe into a fratricidal war, which ultimately spread far across the world.

Two questions:

Can anyone not see the parallels with Russia and Ukraine today, a hundred years later?

Can anyone imagine a Russian leader – today, yesterday, ever – making such a speech about Russia?

read the whole speech here. It is worth reading

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previous posts

A novel about the Crimean Tatars' return to their homeland


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