Ukraine's response to the tide of Russin propaganda, while initially puzzling, turns out to be quite appropriate and clever. In 2016, Kiev embarked on a rather puzzling de-Sovietization campaign, in an attempt to remove all symbolic vestiges of Soviet power. Parts of this process surely had unintended irony: “Soviet” champagne was renamed “sovetovskoe” earlier in January of the same year. To the best of my knowledge “Sovetovskoe” doesn’t actually mean anything, but really, “Soviet” was an empty signifier when the Bolsheviks seized on it after the February revolution. More to the point, Soviet Champagne lost the right to call itself “Champagne” decades ago (the French protested), so now Ukraine is selling non-Soviet non-Champagne.
The most visible side of this campaign is not (un)Champagne, but statuary. In late September of 2014, protesters in Kharkiv pulled down an enormous monument to Vladimir Ilich Lenin, part of a nationwide campaign to de-Sovietize the country. While this was supposed to represent a step forward, there was something quaintly retro about the whole affair: wasn’t Western Ukraine partying like it’s 1989?
The campaign’s brilliance revealed itself in the reaction in the Russian media, which consistently took affront at the whole de-Sovietization process. And it is here that, if subtly, Ukraine beat the Russian state media at its own game. The Russian government has refused to take any blame for anything done to Ukraine and Ukrainians under Soviet power, since that was the Soviet Union, not Russia. The media refuse any narrative that casts Russia in the role of the colonizer. Yet by taking offense, the Russian media are implicitly accepting the equation of the Soviet Union with Russia itself, taking on a historical mantle that is attached to a wide range of problems. Russia casts Kiev as a band of Banderite fascists, but at the same time finds itself stuck in the role of Soviet colonizer. When it comes to facile historical analogies as a shortcut to rational thought, anyone can play that game. This isn’t propaganda, mobilization, or psychological warfare: it’s just a very successful example of trolling.
Indeed, perhaps the most honest reappropration of familiar ideological symbols for current propaganda is the “Darth Vader” meme that swept the Ukrainian Internet. While most of the Vadermania looks to be nothing but pure absurdism (such as the man who instagrams himself every day performing ordinary tasks . while dressed as the Sith Lord.or the appearance of Vader’s name 16 times on the ballot for the Odessa mayoral elections in 2015), the transformation of a Lenin statue into a monument to Darth Vader really says it all. An inadvertent echo of a scene in a 1990 film called Sideburns, in which a sculptor shows that he can turn a Lenin statue into a Pushkin statue faster than you can smoke a cigarette, Darth Lenin ironically points to the real truth behind the memory wars and fixation on history as a way to explain the everyday. In the post-Soviet world, history is not a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away, and both Kiev and Moscow are desperate to show their adversaries to be the real post-Soviet Evil Empire.
Next: The War at Home