Archive for the 'Russia' Category

Ukraine jumps the shark

On the two days Arkady Babchenko was killed and then came back to life to announce his death was faked by Ukrainian security services (SBU) and police, there was an international forum on disinformation in Kyiv. Never let it be said the SBU lacks a sense of humour.

I described to some conference participants how it felt in 2014 in Crimea during annexation and in Donetsk when the war started, surrounded by disinformation. Absolutely everybody lied about absolutely everything, from corpses poisoning the water supply to the presence of Russian forces. The lies made no internal sense, let alone tallied with what people were actually seeing and hearing. It was, literally, like drowning in bullshit. There were no facts, no objectivity, no two sides, not when everybody was lying about everything. The final question for me, and one I still haven’t been able to answer, is how much people knew, and on what level they knew (or know) that they were lying to themselves. How much they knew they were being fooled; how much they were fooling themselves.

And here we are, 2018, fools drowning in bullshit.

If we’re being honest (an out-of-date commodity these days) the bewilderment and moralistic outcry over Babchenko’s fake death is not quite so much because it’s another lie, but because we were made to look stupid. No one likes to look stupid, and particularly people like journalists and spokespeople and politicians whose ego and livelihood depend on being taken seriously. I am sure MIA advisor Anton Herashchenko and SBU head Vasyl Hrytsak massively enjoyed making fools of the press in and on Ukraine, which, if we are being honest, can be insufferably self-important and self-righteous. I’m sure the SBU loved making fools of reporters who are always going on about how corrupt and useless the SBU are, to the extent of carrying out their own investigation into the murder of journalist Pavel Sheremet in Kyiv two years ago. I’m sure they loved poking with a bullshit stick the CPJ and RSF who’ve come close to suggesting, on no actual hard evidence, that the Ukrainian state may be involved in Sheremet’s killing.

But Sheremet is dead, and no one is going to bring him back to life, and two years on the police and security services have named no suspects and made no arrests. A murder happened and was never solved. And now we have a murder that didn’t happen, so that it could be solved. We have an incompetent – or worse – SBU that lets murder happen and never catches culprits, and a SBU so damn clever that it fakes murder in order to catch culprits. We have accusations of Russian involvement in murder that is never proved, and we have (allegedly) proof of Russian involvement in a murder that didn’t happen.

My head hurts.

Those people justifying the Babchenko fake by citing other incidents of faked deaths of police officers to catch local criminals are being disingenuous. Local police officers or officials and criminals do not provoke a public statement from the prime minister blaming a neighbouring state, and from ambassadors and politicians around the world engaged in a major geopolitical conflict. The SBU didn’t just trick some pesky journalists with the laudable aim of saving lives. The stakes are so high: MH17. The war in east Ukraine. Crimea. Syria gas attacks. The Skripals. Literally, thousands of dead and injured, all drowned in lies.

If we’re being honest, none of us were objective over Babchenko’s killing when we thought he was dead. In retrospect, there were a number of peculiar anomalies. But if we (I) thought about them at all, we put them down to Ukraine’s frequently unprofessional and crass way of doing things (Herashchenko publishing that photo on facebook, anyone?) We believed it, because it was so very, very likely to be true, it confirmed every worst scenario we have already lived through and are going to go on living through.

No one likes admitting they’ve been fooled – or that they’ve fooled themselves. And of course we’re relieved and glad he is alive. My god, of course we are.

A civil activist called Server Mustafaev was arrested by Russian forces in Crimea almost two weeks ago, and charged with Islamic extremism. Server described himself as a citizen journalist, and was untiring in documenting other people’s arrests and detentions and disappearances before his own. The CPJ has said nothing about his case. No open letter like the one they’ve just written to President Poroshenko over Babchenko, no outrage. They wrote no open letter to Putin over the ‘extremism’ conviction of Crimean journalist Mykola Semena either. In Server’s case they’d argue, I’m sure, that he is not a journalist as he was not published in any mainstream media and mainly posted livestream videos and photos online. And if we’re being honest I can see the point; it’s pretty hard to define these days who a ‘journalist’ is. But when no ‘real journalist’ in mainstream media covers such obviously fake cases in Crimea, except Russian media which covers them all the time to show how special forces are winning the war against terrorism – what’s a person to do but pick up a camera, and court persecution with no protection?

Last week a civilian called Mikhail was killed by a bullet in the east Ukraine frontline town of Mariinka. He never really made it into Ukrainian, let alone international news. He was 35, disabled, and until recently lived with his mother (I say ‘until recently’ not because he’s recently no longer alive but because his mother died a week or so before he did. Before that a family grave in the cemetery got hit by a shell and blasted open). Not a very prepossessing subject for media attention, Mikhail. The head of the Mariinka civilian-military administration, as well as several townspeople, told me he was killed by a sniper’s exploding or expanding bullet, banned under International Humanitarian Law. I don’t know whether that’s true. A few days later a beautiful 15 year old girl with an extensive collection of lovely social media portraits was killed by a shell near Zalizne, not far from Mariinka. Unlike Mikhail the fatality appeared a lot in Ukrainian media and god forgive me I wondered initially whether it was true too, because she was so perfect for Ukrainian propaganda purposes. (It is true).

To be honest, I wrote that paragraph above about Server Mustafaev as a kind of trick, because I know you might read a piece about Babchenko. To be honest, I’m not sure why I’m telling you about Mikhail and Darya. No outrageous life-is-stranger-than-fiction story here. No affronted dignity. No one paid 40,000 dollars to get rid of them. No one rushed to put up memorial plaques and then, feeling weirdly ashamed, had to take them down. They are actually nobodies in the information war and the actual war. The OSCE and UN will record their deaths, and probably they’ll get added to the case Ukraine is putting together to bring to the Hague against Russia. The other side will have added its own deaths to its own case. And there will be relatives even after four years of war who are unable to believe it, who with some deep and vital part of themselves are waiting and hoping to hear the news that it’s not true, that Darya is alive, Mikhail is alive, all the missing and the killed are alive. It was a trick, these last four years of war and horror and loss are all a fake. It was lies and we were fools right from the beginning.

And it’s true, it was, and we were.

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The politics of memory II (don’t mention the war)

Last week on 9 May millions of people in Russia and former Soviet states joined ‘immortal regiment’ marches, commemorating the Soviet victory in World War 2. With each year that the war gets further and further away, more and more people turn out on these marches. They march in identical crowds holding identical placards: the black and white faces of millions of people who killed or died or disappeared or got medals or were deported or deported others or made a black market fortune or lost everything or fell in love or were raped or told magnificent war stories or never, ever talked about the war.

They marched in Chechnya, without a mention of the Chechens deported in 1944, or a single picture of the thousands who died and disappeared in two more recent wars with Russian forces. They marched in Crimea, and dressed up their children in Red Army hats, and wore the same striped ribbons worn by modern fighters waging a senseless war against children of the same Red Army soldiers in mainland Ukraine. They repeated identical phrases about solidarity and patriotism and pride in their ancestors.

In Russian-annexed Crimea you’re actively encouraged to mention the war. But only if you remember it in the right way.

Today, 18 May, is the day the Soviet NKVD and Red Army deported the Crimean Tatars, the Greeks, the Bulgarians and the Germans from Crimea in 1944, for alleged collaboration with the Nazis. There aren’t any marches in Crimea today to commemorate this event. Instead there are police cars and FSB (the successor to the NKVD/KGB), anonymous denunciations and warnings from the prosecutors office that any public action today may be considered an extremist or terrorist offence.

crimea terrorism monument

Crimean myth-making: 2016 site in Simferopol for a monument ‘for innocent victims of terrorism, and security and law enforcement agency staff who lost their lives in the line of  duty in the fight against terrorism’

One of the aspects of the deportation I still find hardest to grasp is the men and women from these ethnic groups who were fighting in the Red Army in 1944. At the same time as they were at last becoming victorious heroes, who will go on to become black-and-white faces in ‘immortal regiment’ marches, their families were deported as traitors – even they themselves were deported for treason, when the war was over and they were of no more use as soldiers.

The same authorities that needed them as heroes to win a war then, and still needs them now, also needed them and needs them still to be the villains, fifth columnists, extremists and terrorists.

I can imagine the deportation, I think, sort of and inadequately. But my imagination fails when it comes to a man from a Red Army regiment whose family disappears in Soviet-liberated Crimea while he fights all the way to Berlin. How did he feel? How could he bear it? How could he keep wearing that uniform and follow orders and be so obedient?

I tried to retell this story – one of several told to me in Crimea – in Dream Land; here’s the excerpt although I don’t think it’s a very succesful part of the book, because actually I simply can’t imagine it.

“Did you go up on Mangup-Kalye? What did you find?”

“A cemetery,” Safi said glumly. She didn’t really want to be reminded of those tombstones, mossy and tumbled on their cold carpet of flowers.

But Refat was interested. “I wonder who’s buried there. Let’s ask your Grandfather about it.”

…“My best friend once came looking for my grave there there,” grandpa said… “My friend Ayder came from the war to find us, but he was too late, and we had all gone.

“[Ayder] defended the Soviet Union against the Germans. Alongside him fought Russians and Chechens, Ukrainians and Uzbeks, Azeris and Armenians. It didn’t matter. They were all from the Soviet Union. They all wanted the same thing: to get the German fascists out of their country so they could return to their families; to stay alive.

“Ayder was in Azerbaijan with his unit when an Azeri officer, a Muslim like him, said he should go back to Crimea as fast as he could. He said he’d heard something about the Crimean Tatars, and he’d help Ayder get leave to go home before it was too late. But he didn’t say what it might be too late for.

“It was June 1944; Crimea had just been liberated from the Germans when Ayder arrived, met by the smell of roses. The flags welcoming the returning Red Army hung limp in the streets. Everywhere walls were shattered by bullets and bombs. From lamp posts dangled the stiff, dry bodies of collaborators.”

… “At his mother’s house in Akmesjit, the door was locked. Next door was empty too. There were no Tatar children playing in the yard. It was as if they had all stepped out for something, and if he waited they would come back. But he did wait, and no one came. Ayder was wearing his uniform, which made him look like any other soldier defending the Soviet Union, but the Russians and Ukrainians avoided his eye, and hurried away when he approached. All through the city was the same. The Tatar houses stood deserted; when he peered through the windows he could see the kind of mess people leave when they are in a hurry and expect to be back soon to tidy up.

“My friend thought perhaps the Tatars had fled the fighting and gone to the villages for refuge. So he came out here, to Adym-Chokrak. But here too, all he found was empty houses and silence, and up on Mangup-Kalye he found a cemetery. It wasn’t a Tatar cemetery, but there was nowhere else to look, nowhere else we could be. Ayder searched there for his family, for my grave, my mother’s grave, the graves of all the vanished Crimean Tatars.”

The silence of those narrow stone beds up on the hillside. Imagine the silence of a whole village emptied of people, the beds in the houses unslept in and stony cold. Safi wished more than ever that they’d never found the graveyard.

“But you weren’t buried there, Khartbaba,” she said.

“No. And it was our Karaim neighbour who told Ayder what had happened… Old Gulnara Tata tended the graveyard on Mangup, even though no one remembers who is buried there any more. She found my friend there, crying as he searched, and she told him, ‘They took all the Crimean Tatars away. Red Army soldiers, like you. Some people say they drowned them in the Caspian Sea, or took them to Siberia.’

… “Ayder had nothing but his army uniform and his soldier’s papers. He went back to his unit, and a few months later he was sent west to the Front. He was with the Red Army when it marched into Berlin.

…“He had always thought he was the same as all the other soldiers, wanting only to free their homeland and return to their families. But while he’d been struggling to stay alive, the Soviets had taken away his homeland and given it to the Russians,” grandpa said. “After the war, he too was exiled to Uzbekistan. He kept on searching, and in 1950 he found me and my mother. His own family vanished for ever. He never even found their graves.”

karaim cemetery

Karaim graves, Bakhchisaray, Crimea

Here is a first-hand account of a similar, even more shocking story. Note the tone – no blame, no anger, no analysis either from the narrator or from anyone within his narration (other than an Odessan Jew who wraps up his response in a metaphor about black smoke) –  just a kind of matter-of-fact numbness. It reads to me like the testimony of a person still, decades later, in total shock.

“They gave us shovels, and we dug holes in the ground, erecting the posts and enclosing the area with barbed wire. Thus we imprisoned ourselves, surrounded by barbed wire.”

In these stories I think you can read the whole human trauma of the Soviet Union, which taught its people to obey and admire the thing that destroyed them, and feel proud and patriotic to belong to a black-and-white story commemorated with millions of black-and-white faces, while the shades of grey and unbearable darkness are banished now as then by police cars and security services, prosecutors notices and anonymous denunciations and arrests.

crimea adym chokrak well

Well – all that is left of the Crimean Tatar village of Adym- Chokrak. After the inhabitants were deported in 1944 the village was bulldozed.

(On a side note, long ago when I started asking in Crimea about the Crimean Tatar deportation I was struck by the similarity between the Russian word for traitor (predatel’) and for legend or tale (predanie). I presume – a philologist can put me right – they come from the same root as peredat’, to give or pass on, but on the level of historical memory and myth-making in Crimea it still strikes me as very strangely and ironically apt.)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Unsanctioned meetings

I recently joined a local historian for a guided tour of central Simferopol, in Crimea. She was a woman in her 50s who told me – it was almost the first thing she said to me – that “Vladimir Vladimirovich [Putin] is a strong leader, and we adore him.” The tour, with six or seven middle-aged local women in tow, started by the statue of Generalissimo Suvorov – who fought the Turks in Crimea for Catherine the Great – apparently still “looking towards Karasubazar and Kaffa, for Turkish enemies” of the Russian empire. “But now Crimea is in safe hands again, and there’s no need to keep watch anymore.”

I was really puzzled why, when she stopped to tell us about a church, a former palace, Crimea’s first cinema, the former Ukrainian central bank building (which still has a fancy sign outside saying that’s what it is), the guide would herd us into an unobtrusive huddle on the other side of the road, or even round the corner, so we often couldn’t actually see the building in question. She seemed ill-at-ease.

I finally realised she was worried that we might be mistaken for an ‘unsanctioned meeting’ – a punishable offence in Russia – like the group of teenagers in Crimea who gathered this week for a football match, and were reported to the police. Recently ten people were arrested for five days for holding an ‘unsanctioned meeting’ after they spontaneously came to stand outside their neighbour’s house when it was being searched by Russian security services.

“Russia is watching us very closely, to make sure we have no illegal groupings here,” the guide told me after the tour was over. She’d refused to let me pay for the tour, she was just delighted to show her beloved hometown to a foreigner, so I invited her for tea. She took me to a Crimean Tatar café.

She told me she and her neighbours had used to be so afraid each 18 May, when Crimean Tatars had held big, peaceful meetings in the centre of Simferopol to mark the deportation of their nation as wartime ‘traitors’ in 1944 – the atmosphere, she said, was like a tinderbox just waiting to catch light.

She was glad that these meetings are banned now. “Now it’s all civilised, they have their monuments and sacred places where they’re allowed to [meet].”

Over Crimean Tatar sweets, she talked about how the Crimean Tatars had collaborated with the Germans during the war.

I mentioned General Vlasov.

“Mass collaboration was only observed among the Crimean Tatars,” she said. “And the Ukrainians.”

She was a nice woman in many ways, and genuinely knew a lot about Simferopol’s history, and Simferopol’s hearsay. She had a Tatar surname, and told me she was proud of it.

She made me feel sad.

sevastopol mural

2016 ‘Russia Day’ mural, Sevastopol, Crimea

 

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.

donetsk-museum1

‘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.

abkhazia-balloons

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.

pmr-church-and-state

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.

pmr-war-memorial

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.

magic-card-box

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.

dnipro-war-collection

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.

luhansk-roadside-shrapnel-display

‘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.

donetsk-bomb-shelter1

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.

donetsk-pigeons

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


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A novel about the Crimean Tatars' return to their homeland

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