Posts Tagged 'Transnistria'

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 language of interethnic communication

I’ve been writing an article about Transnistria this week, a self-declared ‘republic’ sandwiched between Ukraine and Moldova; de jure part of Moldova. This has entailed transcribing my lengthy interviews with monolingual Russian-speaking Transnistrians who are driven to justify why they embarked on a war with Moldova to defend their native land and their right to speak Russian and not learn Moldovan, Romanian or any other language.

Russian was the language of interethnic communication in the Soviet Union, they insist. And that’s why we all lived in multinational multicultural peace and harmony and total linguistic freedom. We all spoke Russian here because it wasn’t prestigious to speak Moldovan. Of course, everyone should have the right to speak their own language. Moldovans didn’t really have much chance to learn their language at school or use it in the workplace but it was much better to speak Russian anyway, because that was the language of interethnic communication and we all lived in peace, didn’t we? What’s wrong with that?

(Is this what the Colonial English sound(ed) like? I wonder. Maybe that’s why these interviews are so long; why I keep returning to this question)

Transnistria now has three State languages, they say proudly: Russian, Ukrainian and Moldovan; yes, the only true Moldovan language left anywhere in the world (when I try to say, but isn’t that an obsolete form written in Cyrillic invented by the Soviets, which no one outside this made-up republic recognises?)

What a truly international republic we are, they say, unlike Moldova where everyone is forced to speak Romanian; yes they are, it’s true (when I try to point out that in the Moldovan capital Chisinau most people can and very frequently do speak Russian and English as well as Romanian which is practically identical to Moldovan).

Few people in Transnistria actually speak Moldovan, of course, they say. It’s an optional school subject, and most don’t opt for it. Why should they? Why should we, when the language of interethnic communication is Russian, and we all live in peace and harmony? It’s just not necessary, when only a few native people in villages speak Moldovan…

Ah, at last they mention indigenous people. But if it’s the native language and you keep telling me you fought to defend your native land, why are you so opposed to learning Moldovan/Romanian? I finally manage to ask. Why did they have to learn Russian? You keep insisting on the right to speak your native tongue, to speak whatever language a person chooses…

And at last, there it comes; the cry: but this is Russian land!

While working on this article, I’ve also been watching ATR’s TV marathon and countdown to April 1. ATR is the only Crimean Tatar TV channel in the world. Based in Crimea, it broadcasts in both Russian and Crimean Tatar, since after decades of ‘peace and harmony and the language of interethnic communication’ many Crimean Tatars – the peninsula’s indigenous people – don’t speak their own language.

ATR is – was – opinionated, high quality, sometimes excellent TV. Its outspoken and bloody-minded journalists toned down a bit after Crimea was annexed last spring: far fewer live debates and breaking news, more cultural shows and Hollywood films translated into Crimean Tatar. Back in March last year, just a week or so after annexation, the channel’s owner Lenur Islyamov told the Crimean Tatar qurultai or council, “the whole nation can’t be dissidents.” ATR was prepared to stop being dissident, if that meant it could continue supporting and representing Crimean Tatar identity by broadcasting concerts and films and historical programmes in Crimean Tatar language.

When Russia annexed Crimea one of many, many promises it made was that, like Transnistria, Crimea would have three state languages: Russian, Ukrainian and Crimean Tatar.

Just like Transnistria, in practice this means pretty much nothing.

The Crimean Tatar editorial of the Crimean state TV and radio company was effectively purged six months ago, supposedly for not providing Russian subtitles for its Crimean Tatar language broadcasts (no one insisted on Crimean Tatar subtitles for the Russian editorial’s broadcasts). Independent Crimean Tatar media outlets, which along with ATR include two radio stations, a children’s channel and an internet news agency (part of the same media holding), newspaper Avdet, and the QHA news agency, have all been unable to get a new license from Roskomnadzor, Russia’s media regulation body.

In most cases Roskomnadzor has returned applications numerous times asking for changes and clarifications, or simply not answered in time for the deadline of April 1. (It’s a tried and tested tecnique; independent media outlets in Transnistria are silenced the same way). Broadcasting without a license from April 1 could entail fines, confiscation, even criminal proceedings.

Crimean head Sergei Aksyonov accused ATR recently of ‘inciting interethnic hatred’ by suggesting to its viewers that Crimea might one day return to Ukraine. Now it is April 1, the ATR marathon is over, the world’s only Crimean Tatar TV channel has gone off air. All I can listen to now are my interviews with those Russian-speaking, post-Soviet Transnistrians, insisting on peace and harmony only when Russian is the language of interethnic communication. When Russian is the only language, and they have fought a war to be free to speak it.

The equivalent of such people in Crimea, who Aksyonov represents, will happily explain that they were ready to fight Ukraine, and support their brothers fighting now in east Ukraine, for the inalienable right to speak Russian and only Russian, that language of peace and interethnic communication. They’ll say there is nothing wrong with that, everyone should have the right to speak whatever language they want.

They might possibly be brought to admit in passing that a few native people in villages in Crimea speak Crimean Tatar (or maybe not, since Putin now says the indigenous people of Crimea are the Greeks).

I know that if I were to push a little on this question, sooner rather than later it will come, the battle cry: but this is Russian land!

0 days and 0 minutes til ATR,  the only Crimean Tatar TV station, goes off air

0 days and 0 minutes til ATR, the only Crimean Tatar TV station, goes off air


previous posts

A novel about the Crimean Tatars' return to their homeland


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