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«In Wartime: Stories from Ukraine», Tim Judah
On April 6, 2014, armed men seized the regional administration building in Donetsk. Then they began to fortify it with sandbags and tires and a few thousand came to show their support. For many outside the building there was a sort of carnival atmosphere. Roadblocks manned by armed men went up. At one, near the town of Sloviansk, which would briefly be a rebel stronghold, a man said that what was happening here was going to be «just like Crimea.» In other words, he thought that without a shot being fired, Russia would swiftly annex the Donbass, the name of this eastern region. Nearby, at another checkpoint manned by rebels, who mostly seemed to be locals, they lined up rows of Molotov cocktails a stone’s throw from a roadside shop selling serried ranks of garden gnomes.
On April 11 there were just a couple of hundred milling around in front of the regional administration building. The building flew Russian flags, Soviet flags and those of the new Donetsk People’s Republic, which had been proclaimed on April 7. In a city of 900,000 people there did not seem to be much popular support for the rebels, but there was also a climate of fear. Who knew what the future would hold? Still, those that were here were neither frightened nor shy about expressing their opinions. Yulia Yefanova, aged twenty-four, who was posing for pictures in front of a mock Russian frontier post which had been erected there, said she wanted the Donbass to unite with Russia because the ties were close and much of her family was there. Crowding around, people began to shout their opinions. «It is impossible to be friends with Europe and with Russia,» said one man. «They are like cat and dog.» Another said: «If Russia was here, she would put everything in order. She would fight corruption.» People shouted that the hardworking people of the Donbass subsidized lazy people in the center and west of Ukraine. Then, repeating the line pushed by Russia’s media, the people began shouting about Kiev’s «fascist junta.» Said one woman: «Only Russia can save us from a power which is not democratic!»
Three days later I was invited to the Seder, the Passover dinner, of the local Jewish community. As a guest from abroad I was asked to say a few words. I described the roadblocks I had seen outside the city and said that it looked to me like war was coming. Much of what I had seen was eerily similar to the beginnings of the Balkan wars. No one seemed to believe me. No one believed that their world was about to come crashing down. They clapped politely when I said that while the traditional Passover saying of «Next year in Jerusalem!» was fine, «Next year in Donetsk!» would be good too. Few who were present would be. Likewise, on the barricades no one really believed there would be fighting — because they thought Russian troops would soon come pouring over the border to finish off what they thought they were starting. Those who were euphoric and took snaps in front of the mock Russian frontier post had no inkling of what was coming. They thought of bigger Russian salaries and pensions and not of their tiny walk-on roles in starting a war that nobody expected or wanted.
This strange atmosphere lasted for a few weeks more. On May 9, the countries of the former Soviet Union celebrate Victory Day, the day when the dead of the Second World War are remembered and elderly men and women, dressed in their uniforms and bedecked with medals, are honored. In then rebel-held Sloviansk the ceremonies began in front of the Lenin statue in the town square. Old men and one woman stood in a line in front of it while rebel leaders, who had seized power here on the same day as in Donetsk, stepped forward to make speeches to about a thousand people. Given that the Ukrainian forces had by now surrounded the town, what was most surprising was the sheer emptiness of what was being said. Pavel Gubarev, then an important rebel leader, who had just been released in a prisoner exchange with the Ukrainians, said: «Fascism! It is coming for us again!» Then he talked of Novorossiya, the would-be new state he and his friends wanted to create from the south and east of the Ukraine they wanted to destroy, and finally he began proclaiming «Eternal glory!» his voice rising and falling in dramatic cadences, referring to the fallen of the Second World War. As though at a religious service, or as if they were taking part in a mystical experience, the crowd, which was mostly but not entirely elderly, began to respond in unison:
Then Gubarev said: «Glory to the heroes and victors of the Russian Spring!» by which he meant the anti-Ukrainian revolt in the east.
The crowd responded:
At this point came a distraction. Five armored cars captured by the rebels drove down one side of the square and appeared on the other side, but they could not do a victory lap around it because the roads were blocked by concrete and other barricades. With militiamen sitting on top they drove up as far as Irina, the ice cream vendor, and then clumsily, in a cloud of exhaust fumes, had to back up to get out again. The sales girls from the local Eva, a cosmetics supermarket chain, and others ran out to cheer on their men, kiss them and give them cigarettes.
Thus the victories in 1945 and 2014 ran seamlessly into one another. At the same time Russian television, which many people had on in the background at home or in shops, was showing live footage of the huge military parade in Moscow, and later in the day of Vladimir Putin celebrating in newly annexed Crimea.
Now everyone moved off in a procession toward the war memorial. Victims of this new conflict, said one man in a speech when we got there, «would be lifted to the heavens on the wings of angels.» Then, flags were dipped for a brief silence. They were the DNR flag, Russian flags, communist flags and variations of old Russian imperial and tsarist flags. Then I spotted one I had never seen before. It was white with a big blue snowflake in the middle. Thinking this might be the flag of a new and significant political movement I shoved through the crowd to get to the man who was holding it. He told me that it was the flag of «Fridgers of the World» and that from Siberia to the Baltics «they are supporting us.» It took me some time to understand who the «Fridgers» were. They are people in the refrigeration business across the former Soviet Union who have an online forum to discuss issues relating to fridges and their maintenance.
Stepping away from children and old ladies weeping as they laid flowers at the eternal flame, I ran into sprightly Anatoliy, aged eighty-six, who was walking home, his chest decorated with medals, including one of Stalin. He had been too young to take part in the Second World War, he told me, but had seen action in 1956 in, as he called it, «the war with Hungary.» He described the anti-communist revolt there as one having been organized «by the remains of the pro-fascists» and thus it had been absolutely right to intervene. When I asked him about the current conflict he talked of «fascism» just like everyone else. «We want a free Ukraine,» he said, «but the Banderovtsi» — the term once given to followers of Stepan Bandera and now used to insult the post-Maidan leadership and their supporters — «want to take control over the whole of Ukraine. We just want justice.» Josip Vissarionovich, he said, referring to Stalin, would never have let the country get in such a mess. He had had a writing table, a couple of chairs and a pipe. But «these presidents now surround themselves with gold. They have golden toilets and golden chairs.» He was talking about Ukraine’s leaders in general but I was surprised by his reaction when I asked him about Putin, whom many in the DNR and other pro-Russians in Ukraine see as a savior. In terms of gold, he said, «our presidents pale into insignificance next to him.»
Anatoliy’s face was smudged with lipstick. As a veteran he had been given flowers by children and kisses by women. I said I hoped I could be like him at his age and he said: «Your wife would kick your ass!» before briskly setting off home. Except for certain specific places where there had been fighting, the war still seemed remote and unreal to most people. When it began in earnest and as it dragged on, old people would suffer the most.
Chocolate Putins. Lviv, November 2014.
Just because something is a cliché does not mean that it is not true. In his book 1984 George Orwell famously wrote: «He who controls the past controls the future. He who controls the present controls the past.» The war in Ukraine is not about history, but without using or, to employ the fashionable term, «weaponizing» history, the conflict simply could not be fought. There is nothing unique about this. In our times, in Europe, history was deployed as the advance guard and recruiting sergeant in the run-up to the Yugoslav wars, and exactly the same has happened again in Ukraine. In this way people are mobilized believing horrendously garbled versions of history. On the Russian and rebel side, fear is instilled by summoning up the ghosts of the past and simply ignoring inconvenient historical truths. On the Ukrainian side, the ugliest parts of history are ignored, as though they never happened, thus giving the enemy more propaganda ammunition to fire.
In this conflict the words «info-war» or «information war» have replaced the word «propaganda.» In one way that is fitting because fighting the info-war is more complicated than disseminating old-fashioned propaganda. The battlefields include Facebook, Twitter, vKontakte (the Russian equivalent of Facebook) and YouTube. On news and other websites tens of thousands of people «comment» on articles in such a way as to make them feel as though they are doing something useful. They are, as a boy who was about to start military training in Kharkiv told me, «sofa warriors.» But some it seems are mercenaries too. According to numerous reliable reports, the Russian authorities contract firms to employ people to «comment» and spread, among other things, the central line of Russian propaganda, which is that the Ukrainian government, after the Maidan revolution, is nothing but Nazism reincarnated.
What is odd is how much rubbish people believe, disregarding what they must know from their own experiences or those of their families. What has happened on the Russian side of the info-war, especially, bears close resemblance to the experience of Serbs in the early 1990s. Then, most of their media painted all Croats as Ustashas, after their wartime fascist movement, and Bosnian Muslims as jihadis. While of course, just as there were indeed then some admirers of the Ustashas, and some jihadis too, just as there are admirers of Ukraine’s wartime fascists now, the big lie is to give them a significance they didn’t and don’t have. As in the Balkans, the same is happening again: in Russia all of the mainstream media is following the modern party line. As the rebels seized control of eastern regions of Ukraine in April 2014, they moved quickly to take over local TV buildings and transmission facilities, turning off Ukrainian channels and tuning in to Russian ones. On the other side of the line, Russian channels were switched off and removed from cable packages. However, in the age of satellite TV and the Internet, it is not possible to deprive everyone of all information, bar that which you want them to see, but it is nevertheless remarkable how people so often accept what they are told. In this story, or «narrative» to use the technical term, history is something of a foundation and bedrock and this is why rewriting history is as important as writing the news. What you believe today depends on what you believe about the past. In that sense it is important for the «political technologists,» to use the pithy and apt term popular in post-Soviet countries, who might be understood by Westerners as turbo-spin doctors, to fashion a past which suits the future they are trying to create.
When Vladimir Putin, Russia’s triumphant president, spoke on March 18, 2014, to his parliament, the Duma, and other Russian leaders and announced the annexation of Crimea following its referendum, which took place with no free debate and was rammed through under the watchful eyes of armed men and Russian soldiers, he repeated the line that maybe even he believes, but certainly many Russians and those in rebel-held territory believe. There had been a coup d’état in Kiev against the lawfully elected government of President Yanukovych executed by «nationalists, neo-Nazis, Russophobes and anti-Semites.» Some of these there were, just as there are plenty of the same on the Russian and rebel side, but to tar the whole revolution in this way made sense only to people who actually wanted to believe it. For supporters from Western countries and other foreign admirers of Putin and the rebels, it also provided what seemed like a noble «anti-fascist» cause to belong to, rather than subscribing to an invented and racist interpretation of events in which all Ukrainians were fascists and the Russians or the rebels were heroic liberators. «We can all clearly see the intentions of these ideological heirs of [Stepan] Bandera,» said Putin, «Hitler’s accomplice during the Second World War.»
In Kiev I talked with Professor Grigory Perpelytsia, a former Soviet naval man, who now teaches at the Foreign Ministry’s Diplomatic Academy. We walked down the hill from the academy and ducked into a dark restaurant serving hearty old-fashioned Ukrainian cuisine, meaning mostly large portions of meat. Putin, he said, wanted Russian troops to be welcomed with «flowers and songs» — as they were by many in Crimea, though anyone who did not feel this way was hardly likely to be on the streets. In order to achieve this, he said, Putin had launched an info-war against «Ukrainian fascists» and Banderovtsi. Many were receptive to this kind of message, he explained, especially older people in Russia and to a certain extent in Ukraine, because many still retained a Soviet mentality, «want to go back to the USSR» and perceived Russia to be its inheritor. To burnish this image Russia exploited the victory of the Second World War and the symbols of the USSR, which disoriented people and confused them. In Ukraine, all this served to consolidate divisions which already existed. One of the great failings of the modern Ukrainian state is that it has never been able to create an all-encompassing post-Soviet narrative of modern Ukrainian history that was broadly accepted by most, if not all. The modern Ukrainian state has no common soundtrack of history, which for Britain for example includes Churchill telling Britons they would fight on the beaches and in the hills, or de Gaulle telling the French that they had lost a battle but not the war. Reality might have been more complex, but nevertheless there are no serious challenges to these modern narratives — even in France, where there was plenty of collaboration. In Ukraine’s case, however, the story is different and, as the conflict has shown, two baleful figures loom over it, those of Bandera and Stalin. Understanding this is essential to understanding Ukraine today.
Thumbelina in Donetsk
In April 2014, as the war began, Ekaterina Mihaylova, aged thirty-five, ran the press office of the newly proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic. She told me that she used to be a journalist. Her office was in the regional administration building in Donetsk, which had been seized by a motley collection of protesters and activists and surrounded by Maidan-style walls of old tires. There were posters of the European Union flag crossed out in red and reproduction Second World War Soviet posters urging people to watch what they said in case of spies. One picture showed an angry Putin spanking a naughty child Obama who was laid across his lap. A large misspelled sign in English pasted to a low wall decorated with mining helmets said: «NO FASHISM.» Someone had photocopied a photo of Red Army troops being welcomed into Donetsk in 1943, stuck it on the wall and written «Liberation of Donetsk» on the A4 sheet of paper. Why was there so much Soviet iconography?Putin spanks Obama. Picture taped to the wall of the rebel-held regional administration building in Donetsk. April 2014.
As we talked Mihaylova echoed Putin’s famous speech to the Duma in April 2005 saying that the collapse of the USSR was a geopolitical catastrophe. «It is not just Putin who thinks that,» she said, «and many people believe that one of the results of that was an artificial border between Ukraine and Russia.» Both points are debatable. Many borders are artificial and that is exactly why the post-Soviet republics decided not to challenge them. If one border could be legally and militarily contested, and not just relatively minor ones as in the Caucasus, then all could be challenged. Now that they have been — in Crimea formally, and in the east of Ukraine quite possibly, depending on the outcome of the war and whether Russia finally decides to annex these areas too — this is a threat across the post-Soviet space, including of course Russia. It is noteworthy that in his April 2005 speech Putin underlined that one of the most disastrous consequences of the collapse of the USSR was that «for the Russian nation, it became a genuine drama. Tens of millions of our co-citizens and compatriots found themselves outside Russian territory.» And it is precisely this that Putin has begun to correct.
Russians outside Russia, however, was not the topic of the moment. Mihaylova was warming to another theme. Ukrainians should be grateful to Stalin, she declared, because he had fashioned the Ukrainian Soviet republic out of diverse bits of territory and this was now the state they had. Historically this region, known as the Donbass, had belonged to Russia, but Lenin had given it to Soviet Ukraine in the aftermath of the Russian Revolution and civil war when the region, or rather communists here, had declared this to be the Donetsk — Krivoy Rog Soviet Republic. It was a short-lived affair, extinguished as the Red Army defeated its enemies, including the also short-lived German-supported Ukrainian state, which the Donetsk — Krivoy Rog Republic had resisted. Now, she said, it was a ridiculous irony that Ukrainians were destroying statues of Lenin when they should be grateful to him.
Although in 2015 the DNR declared itself to be the legal successor of the 1918 republic, few people there actually knew much about it, as it was a taboo topic in Soviet times. This was of course because it had fought against incorporation into Ukraine. Today’s black, blue and red DNR flag is based on its flag of 1918, though then it was soon dropped for a red banner. What is more revealing for us though are Mihaylova’s views on Stalin which, shocking though they may be to us in the West, are widespread in Russia and among many Russians. I was baffled, I said, that she could expect Ukrainians to be grateful to Stalin, when he was responsible for the famine of 1932–33 in which some 3.3 million are estimated to have died. (The figure is that of Timothy Snyder, the Yale historian of the region and the period, but many put it far higher.) «The legend of the Holodomor,» she said, using the name given to it by Ukrainians and which means «hunger-extermination,» was created in Canada by fascist Ukrainian exiles. Yes, some had died, but to argue that Stalin had deployed it as a weapon against Ukrainians was a «fairy tale.» Russians had died too. There is a legitimate debate about this issue and to what extent Stalin used the famine to eliminate and break the will of the Ukrainian peasantry — because they were Ukrainian — but the tone of the conversation suggested something else. Stalin was a great man and the death of millions was a minor detail which should not sully the big picture. So, when it came to the Gulag, to which millions of Ukrainians were sent, not to mention Russians and other Soviet citizens of course, she argued that «that story is like Snow White, or…» and at this point Ludmila, who was translating for me, stumbled, looking something up on her iPhone translator. «Thumbelina? Do you know what that is?» Yes, said Mihaylova, there was an organization and there were prisons, but it was nothing more serious than this. Stalin took this country, one in which people used «wooden plows and left it with nuclear weapons and he was no more evil or tough than Roosevelt or Churchill at the time.» Stalin has a «bad image in the West» but he was «good for us.»
Listening in was Viktor Priss, a twenty-eight-year-old IT systems administrator, who worked in the office. In a previous job he had worked for the confectionary company of Petro Poroshenko, the man who would a few weeks later be elected as Ukraine’s next president. Viktor is the type of man much in demand by Western IT companies, either to work for them in Ukraine or abroad. He was only a small child when the USSR expired. He did not think that the Gulag was a fairy tale. Stalin’s problem was that «it was very difficult to hold the country together with such an ideology and some people disagreed, so it was necessary to re-educate them.» Stalin was a product of his time and «time creates its leaders.» In that sense, he argued, he had been a product of the will of the people to create a dictator. The Soviets created a signal that «we were in danger,» and as a result had sent a message, which was interpreted by the people as meaning «we are ready to help you» and hence Stalin «was a dictator by the will of the people.» Viktor was not sure if the same applied to Hitler given that he was after all elected, unlike Stalin. As for Putin, while there were no social conditions for him to become a new Stalin, he could certainly become the type of leader ready to respond to the will of the people. And presumably, for those who think like Viktor, that is what he is already doing.
For a foreigner it is hard to fathom such logic and quasi-mystical thinking about leaders and especially Stalin, responsible for so many millions of dead. But, in this context, what is important to understand is that, if people think that Stalin made the world tremble and that everything has gone to hell in a handcart since the end of the Soviet Union, then, with such a black-and-white view of history, for them restoring him to greatness makes sense. If this is what you believe, then Stalin cynically doing business with the devil, or in this case Hitler, by drawing a line from the Baltic to the Black Sea and destroying other countries, as was done in the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact of 1939, is fine. And what does Putin think of this? In 2009 he said that the pact had been «immoral,» but in 2014 he revised his opinion and claimed it had been to avoid fighting, and what was wrong with that?
When, to the shock of the world, Hitler and Stalin agreed to carve up eastern Europe, Stalin sparked off the Second World War. In the period from 1939 to 1941, the Soviet Union was allied to Nazi Germany and supplied it with the raw materials it used to make war on the Western allies. After Hitler attacked the Soviet Union everything changed of course, but officially the Soviet account could only say that the war had begun in 1941. Understanding this is central to understanding Ukraine today. The story of the great sacrifices of the Soviet people in the Second World War and the struggle against Nazism has been detached from the years 1939 to 1941, which saw the conquest and annexation of Lithuania, Estonia, Latvia and eastern Poland; from Romania, Bessarabia and northern Bukovina were annexed. When the Red Army met the Nazis in Poland, there were cordial meetings of military commanders and soldiers and an agreement to crush any Polish resistance. The NKVD, who were interior ministry security men and troops, and part of which was the progenitor of the KGB — now the FSB in Russia and the SBU in Ukraine — went into action. Tens of thousands were deported from the conquered Baltic states, Bessarabia and northern Bukovina, and hundreds of thousands of Poles were sent to the Gulag. Thousands of Polish officers were murdered, most infamously in the Katyn Massacre of 1940.
Today, what you think of this past, how you relate to it, determines what you think about the future of Ukraine. And what you think of the past is quite likely to be bound up with the history of your own family and where you live. This is true for the Donbass, a mining region, just as it is for anywhere else. People came from all over the Soviet Union to work and settle in this flat land pockmarked by pyramids and hills of slag and scruffy little mining and industrial towns. Donetsk was a working-class mining town. For many of its inhabitants then, Ukraine, which had been part of imperial Russia, was not a land where they had roots. With the demise of the Soviet Union it was harder for many of these people, almost all of whom spoke Russian as their first language, to identify with or to love Ukraine as their own country. It was just where they ended up when Soviet republics’ borders became international frontiers.
When I left the regional administration building I got a taxi and asked the driver if he would like Donetsk to remain in Ukraine or become part of Russia as Crimea had done. He said: «I don’t care. I just want to get paid.»
In post-Soviet Ukraine, working-class professions were not valued as they had been, at least nominally, before. All Ukraine (and Russia) fell to predators and sharp operators who knew how to make money, to steal and to get rich. But, while many in the east remained wedded to their Soviet heritage and hence its interpretation of history, the west of Ukraine did not. And the twain have not met. History did not start the war. It is just that history has been used to shape the present by politicians.