Posts Tagged 'Donetsk People’s Republic'

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.

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.

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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.

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.

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A box of Magic cards

Independence day

In Donetsk, Ukrainians stockpile supplies for the day the water is cut off, the food deliveries and humanitarian aid stops, the lights finally go out.

The woman who made these preserves picked the tomatoes and plums from her allotment where shells fly overhead from one side and from the other, day after day, night after night. A small rucksack stands next to her bed, packed with documents and cash, a pair of knickers and a toothbrush for the day she has to flee.

But she has no intention of fleeing, and her jars of hard-won preserves are not waiting for dark times ahead. “At 6pm on the day of victory, you are all invited here. We’ll open these jars and we’ll eat and drink it all, to celebrate the return of Ukraine.”

A silk purse out of a sow’s ear

One of many amazing quotes from  ‘Donetsk People’s Republic’  election guru Roman Lyagin, that didn’t make it into the final version of my story in Foreign Policy today:

 “We’re trying to become people of the world. I’m the first person in my family with a higher education. My grandfather was a cowherd, and I’m organising the elections for a republic.”

Two sons of Donetsk

The shabby, creaking, rattling night train from Kyiv to Slavyansk is full of Ukrainian soldiers on leave, getting drunk. They roam the carriages until three a.m, maudlin and aggressive and teary-eyed and tired.

One of them is on his way home to Donetsk. He’s been with the Ukrainian special forces for two years, and based in East Ukraine for the last few months with the army, fighting militants from the separatist Donetsk People’s Republic – the DNR. Now he’s on his way home to his family.

“My family is the only reason I’m fighting,” says Andriy – let’s call him that.

His family lives in Donetsk, which flies the DNR flag. Donetsk is full of his enemies: men he’s been fighting during the last few months. Men he grew up with. From Slavyansk he will get on a crowded, rattling bus and pass the checkpoints on the road to Donetsk, first the Ukrainian and then the DNR checkpoints although it is not always clear which is which when everyone speaks the same language and grew up in the same towns; pass them hopefully anonymously, because as a Ukrainian soldier going home to DNR-held Donetsk, he is a traitor to both sides.

“It’ll be ok,” he says slurrily. “They all know me; I have relatives everywhere.”

Next day in Donetsk, a militant from the DNR’s Vostok Battalion tells me he is local. Ostap – let’s call him that – thinks I am wondering if he is a Russian mercenary, because he adds: “I’m not just from Donetsk, I served for 20 years in the Ukrainian army.”

Ostap says he’s fighting against that army now because “the Ukrainian army is a crock of shit,” – and he and his fellow militants guffaw. Unlike Andriy, unarmed, out of uniform, and travelling in the cheapest platzkart railway carriage, Ostap is driving a shiny jeep full of weapons; along with the rifles he and all the others carry there’s a grenade, a knife and a pistol stuffed in the pocket of the door next to me.

Ostap says he knows personally some of the people he is fighting against. “Lots of them want to kill me, they say they want my head.” There is a pause. “But I’ve still got my head.”

Later he says, “It wasn’t an easy decision.” He was loyal to the Ukrainian army til February this year, when he was on Maidan and saw special forces officers get shot in the head. After that, when his commander said “Let’s go and kill the separatists in East Ukraine,” he said, “fuck you”, deserted, and joined the rebels.

His family is in Donetsk, his mother and wife and children. “If my dad knew what I was doing he’d kill me. Like Taras Bulba – you know that story?”

I do; it’s a famous Gogol story about the 18th century Cossack-Polish wars, and about a man with two sons.

Taras Bulba the Ukrainian Cossack took his two sons to war, and lost them both. He killed his traitor son Andriy, who fell in love with a Polish girl caught in a Cossack siege. When the siege was lost, Taras watched his loyal son Ostap be tortured and killed by the victorious Poles.

I wonder which son this militant I’ve called Ostap really identifies with. I wonder if the soldier on the train, the one I’ve called Andriy, knows this story. Andriy wouldn’t say what his father thinks about what his son is doing; whether his father would kill him, or would watch him die.

I tell Ostap the militant about Andriy the soldier coming home to Donetsk. “Oh, we know about them, there are lots of them,” says Ostap. “We hate them.”

It has gone very quiet in the jeep. Not far away, explosions boom. “Civil war,” says Andriy or Ostap. “This is civil war. And it is hell.”

Taras Bulba, 2014

Taras Bulba, 2014 style

The truth about war

The truth about war is not that the Ukrainian army shelled this school today or the Donetsk People’s Republic (DNR) shelled it; that the Ukrainian army shelled it because the DNR shelled Ukrainian positions from the school first, or that the DNR shelled it because the Ukrainians shelled the DNR because the DNR shelled the Ukrainians first and the school was stuck in the middle–

The truth is that it doesn’t matter.

 The photographs and videos and analyses of missile damage angles and sun shadows and nearby artillery positions and types of artillery with their stupid innocent names like ‘hail’ and ‘beech’ and ‘tulip’ don’t matter. The interviews with soldiers and militants and military experts and injured and bystanders don’t matter. All that matters is that the supporters of the DNR will believe one thing about what happened, and the supporters of Ukraine will believe another. ‘Both sides blamed the other’, that is the truth of war. 

 I always understood war, at its most basic level, if you take away all the stuff about religion or property or governance or liberation, to be a matter of A killing B before B kills A. Surely that is what war is. That is what weapons of war, the ‘hail’ and ‘beech’ and ‘tulip’, are made for. 

Now I see that war is something quite different. War is about A (or B) killing C in order to made D believe that B (or A) is more of a bloodthirsty vicious world-threatening [insert insult of choice] than A (or B). 

The truth about war is that the truth doesn’t matter. The truth is that everyone has their own version they want to believe and are made to believe. 

And the people who died – they’ve been made into weapons of war; they could be  ‘blossom’ perhaps. Or ‘mayflies’. Something helpless and short-lived, in the stupid euphemisms of military hardware.

The truth about those people who died today is that they had parents and children and lovers and friends; hopes and beliefs and prejudices and regrets. They had lives, and now they don’t. Does that matter, to anyone, anymore?

semenovka rubble

 

A letter from Slavyansk

slavyansk ya

From the sign at the entrance to the town of Славянск – Slavyansk.

This town was taken back by the Ukrainian army with its blue and yellow flag, from the  Donetsk People’s Republic – the ДНР. I don’t know who made the bullet holes: the ДНР or the Ukrainian army. I don’t know who left here the pink soft toy and the cemetery flowers for the dead of both sides.

Who am I – Кто Я? The whole conflict, the deep and awful and bloody identity crisis of East Ukraine is in this one letter from Slavyansk: Я, which means ‘I’.

slavyansk ya1

 

Journey

Three hours to travel what should be less than fifty kilometres, north of Donetsk. The main road is closed because of shelling; instead we drive along terrible roads through flat yellow and black fields; villages that no one ever usually drives through; mines and factories frozen by years of neglect, months of war. Autumn, already cold, everything dying. Smell of burning fields, leaves, houses.

“When we moved here from Russia, my father told me to say goodbye to hills,” my neighbour on the bus tells me as we look out at the giant, rose-coloured pyramids of slag heaps. “I remember that every time I see those heaps. Donbas hills”.

That was over forty years ago. Since then she married a local man, had children, put down roots. This is her landscape now; her land that she wanted to love and defend and improve when she voted for the DNR – the Donetsk People’s Republic – in May.

Now she and her husband are coming back from a two-day trip to transfer their pensions, unpaid for three months, out of DNR-held Makiivka to Ukraine-controlled Konstantinovka. The time they didn’t spend on the bus, they spent queuing at the post office, the bank, the local administration. “Forty years working, and for what?” she asks. For her to vote to live in a different country. For her to be secure in her old age. For her children to have better future.

One of her children upped sticks just before the war started, she tells me; sold his house and moved to Russia to try and make a new, successful life. Now he is on his way back to Makiivka, defeated yet again by too high prices, too little work, not being Russian enough.

She shows me photos on her phone, not of her children but of the flowers she grows in her garden. Dahlias, snapdragons, fat dewy roses. “When I get tired of human nature, I look at these and feel refreshed.”

It’s hard not to be tired of human nature, right now in Donbas. We stare out together at the strangely beautiful, defeated landscape. She points out to me a white heron fishing in a river. At a railway crossing, a man patiently waits with his cow. Destroyed electricity pylons are bowed over like weeping aliens, trailing wires through the acres of sodden sunflower stalks. The people on the bus look out at this land some of them took up arms to defend. They sigh and bow over like the pylons, waiting for this journey to be over.


previous posts

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