If Ukraine itself is stuck in some fuzzy quantum state (both real and unreal until Schrodinger’s box is opened), is it any wonder that the Ukrainian war defies categorization? With the benefit if hindsight, it is remarkable just how much the idea of Russia involved in a war with/in Ukraine had been absolutely unthinkable and thoroughly thought through at the same time.
On the level of daily interactions and lived experience, Ukraine was an unlikely enemy. While history has provided any number of reasons for nationally-minded ethnic Ukrainians to resent Russia (and perhaps Russians), the feeling was not mutual. Grievances accrued to one side, grievances with the other side could barely be bothered to acknowledge, let alone feel guilty about. Ukraine may not have been a “real”country, but Ukrainians, rather than being the enemy, were at worst a variety of Russian who talked funny.
But the demonization of Ukraine was not simply cooked up by Surkov, Kiselyov, and the other Voldemorts of state propaganda. It reflects the attitude found for years in quasi-fascist newspapers such as Zavtra, or the many tracts about the Ukrainian falsification of history that have been written over the past fifteen years (but have only recently become best sellers). Not long before the war broke out, political consultant Anatoly Vassermann published a book whose title said it all: “Ukraine and the Rest of Russia” (Украина и остальная Россия) (2013) The following year, Dmitri Kisielyov would introduce his new Ukraine.ru news portal with the following words: “There is no Ukraine. That is only a virtual concept, a virtual country. If you want to live in a virtual world, please do.... But Ukraina.ru is a real portal. Not about the country, but about that territory which was under the rule of that country. Now it is a failed state.”
For over a decade, however, Ukraine was painted as both a puppet in the hands of evil Western “Atlanticists” (read: NATO and the United States) and the likely stage of an upcoming apocalyptic conflict between Russian an the West. However, this portrait was restricted to two overlapping, but still marginal discursive communities: political tracts by Eurasianists such as Alexander Dugin or new imperialists along the lines of Mikhail Yurev, and military science fiction. Russian author and media persona Dmitry Bykov, who can always be relied on for a good turn of phrase, has called the battle for Ukraine a “writers’ war.” He is absolutely correct. It’s worth adding, though, that it’s a bad writers’ war (“bad” modifying not just “war”, but “writers”). In the Russian Federation, we have a largely unimaginative media apparatus that stirs up the public by invoking familiar cliches. In Eastern Ukraine, it’s far worse.
The leaders of the anti-Kiev faction included Igor Strelkov, previously known as an enthusiast for war reenactments. After years of playing soldier, he moved on to the real thing. He was joined by Fyodor Berezin, the author of military science fiction describing wars between Russia and Ukraine (and Russia and NATO over Ukraine) in several godawful books (including War 2010: The Ukrainian Front). I’ve pushed my way through my fair share of subliterate potboilers over the years, but Berezin has proven a much more dangerous opponent on the page than he is on the battlefield: he has defeated my efforts to read him, hands down. World leaders may debate whether or not Russia is supplying the separatists with weapons, but the country’s traditions have definitely given Berezin its most powerful weapon in the literary arsenal: the terrible poetry that closes out each chapter.
Berezin and his ilk would love to considered prophetic, in the tradition of the common, naive understanding of what science fiction is for (predicting the future). And I give credit where credit is due: they are prophetic, but not in the way it might seem. They predict not the war itself, but the particular modes in which the Russian media would frame it to make it legible and palatable. The Russian media assaults Ukrainian statehood on three fronts: history, geography, and iconography
Thursday: Sovereign Country or Fake News?