Brother Wars

On the common semiotic and moral reality of Russians & Ukrainians

When Russians or Ukrainians mention ‘Nazism’ or ‘fascism’, particularly politicians, the chief subtext is not usually political ideology. For the Eastern Slavs, these words are not principally understood, as they are in the West, as associations with a value system perceived as so uniquely abhorrent that it necessitated the establishment of liberalism as hegemonic. With communism long gone, and mostly background noise during the Great Patriotic War anyway, the folk-memory of a descent into total barbarism is instead activated: cities as meat grinders, mass rape, cannibalism during the siege of Leningrad (the siege which claimed Putin’s brother’s life), apocalyptic fear of cultural annihilation, scorched-earth and ‘not one step backwards’. For a rough approximation of this mentality, watch the Belarusian film Come and See.

Commentators applying the Western ideological frame of 1939-45 to Ukrainian militias displaying SS runes or invading Russian tanks flying the flag of the USSR miss the point. Putin is not attempting to re-establish a really existing socialist empire (or even a Tsarist one) any more than cheery counterfeit Nazi memorabilia street sellers in Podil – Kiev’s hipster district – were genuinely striving for a reconstruction of the Third Reich. It is, or rather was, not uncommon in Kiev to see swastikas and Sonnenrad tattoos on the arms of matriarchal bar staff in places otherwise decorated in EU and LGBT flags (and Ukraine is hardly a country enamoured by the social politics of the West). Only when it is acknowledged that Ukrainians share a semiotic and moral reality with the Russians, and not the West, does this make any kind of sense. These are signals and provocations to each other, not to us.

The attempts to court Western public opinion by Putin and Zelensky in referencing the Second World War will have been missed by most actual Westerners, but both of these men will have quietly understood what the other was trying to do.

In Slavic political culture, pragmatic compromise often loses out to, or is at least in competition with, an insistence on harmony with a grand historical narrative. The relevance of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, for instance, was a street-level talking point among Minsk tech-workers during the protests over Alexander Lukashenko’s re-election in Belarus. Similarly, the degree to which the Soviet Union was actually the enactment of the historical destiny of Russia, with the USSR being only a temporary guise, is a genuinely major issue for many everyday Russians.

Among the crumbling Krushovka housing blocks and wooden Izbas of provincial Russia, Gorbachev is hated not due to fluctuation in GDP, but for the perceived humiliation brought to the motherland in giving up the empire. In Russia, this is felt personally.

Much has also been made too, of course, on the Russian side especially, of the macro-historical unity of the Russian and Ukrainian people. The view espoused by Putin in an article published in June 2021 is not some neo-Soviet aberration, but a fairly typical approximation of a hybrid identity that runs through figures as divergent as Gogol, Solzhenitsyn, and Gorbachev. Even Alexei Navalny, himself of Ukrainian descent, was on record as being quietly accepting of Putin’s annexation of Crimea.

For a society like ours, with a view of human beings as rational, self-interested, work/consumption units, all of this is alien. Perhaps it is genuine blindness to such a dimension of politics and of human experience that caused Western elites to see no danger in allowing Kiev, one of the cradles of Orthodox civilization, to become a cheap playground for NGO-istas and a boozy weekend for US Marines on cushy training team posts. They have, after all, allowed our own historical centers to degrade into non-places with little backlash from their own peasantry.

This mentality of the Russians – seemingly unfathomable to Western policymakers – is, however, comprehensible to Ukrainian nationalists motivated to define themselves against Russia to the extent of goading a potentially glorious, but most likely suicidal, invasion through aspiration to NATO membership. They, naturally, have their own mythology. The west of the country has existed for long periods outside of Eastern Orthodox civilization, belonging to Western and central European dominions such as the Galician Kingdom or the Habsburg Empire.

During the long stalemate of 2014-2022, this shared psychological space was visible in the details of the 300-mile-long Donbass contact line.

On either side of no man’s land, campfire ballads written during the Afghan and Chechen wars were played on cheap guitars by actual middle-aged veterans – sometimes old comrades turned enemies – but now reinforced by drunk conscripts and idealistic volunteers half their age. S.T.A.L.K.E.R video game references became part of both separatist and Ukrainian military jargon. A separatist militia, the Sparta Battalion, took its name and symbols from a fictional military order in the post-apocalyptic Metro series of books and videogames set in the Moscow subway. The games, set in Russia and based on the works of Russian author Dmitry Glukhovsky, are developed by a Ukrainian company founded in Kiev.

The battle to capture the Chernobyl Power Plant this month (and the subsequent effort of the Russians to stress co-operation with the Ukrainians in administering the site) were pertinent. In Russo-Ukrainian culture, Chernobyl presents much more than a disaster. The Donbass line of separation had, in fact, come to take the form of a prominent Russian-speaking cultural meme that began with Chernobyl: the ‘Zone’ – a place, or a frontier, in which the normal rules of existence are suspended.

The explosion, the nature of radiation, and the otherworldly exclusion area constructed in response to Chernobyl, tapped into themes long present in Slavic literature, Orthodox liturgy, folklore – and in the discussion topics in the kitchens of dissident Soviet apartments: utopic dreaming, Earthly hubris, and man’s endless capacity for cruelty and self-deception.

The events at the power plant in 1986 were foreshadowed in the previous decade by the plot of Arkady and Boris Strugatsky’s novel, Roadside Picnic, and Andrei Tarkovsky’s later loose film adaptation, Stalker. These works were themselves inspired by Soviet closed cities; towns with strategic, military, or scientific assets, unmarked on official maps, closed to outsiders, and whose population became an alien collective, living and developing apart from the main social body.

Thus, a joint Russia-Ukraine pleasure-from-desolation cultural aesthetic developed, one that has only recently been semi-understood in the West through such things as doomerpoasting and the surprising success of the Belarusian band, Молчат Дома.

Among the slag heaps and the grim battle-scared industrial towns of the Donbass, this was something made real and bestowed glamour on men from both sides who had grown up with this and who would likely have lived otherwise unremarkable lives. The area had become a dangerous playground for the expression of civilizational cultural motifs.

One of those reveling in the elan of outlaw, tactical-chic, heroic masculinity of the contact line was former security guard turned separatist commander Mikhail Tolstykh (Givi the Georgian), killed under mysterious circumstances by an explosion in his office in 2017 and subsequently transformed into myth by the internet. Givi enjoys a digital afterlife constituted of him calmly enjoying cigarettes under Grad-rocket fire, demanding prisoners eat their insignia, or dancing with a pistol around the waist and with seemingly the pick of the Donetsk People’s Republic’s women, to a disco remix of Группа Корви by Kino, the famous Leningrad post-punk band. (Группа Корви, incidentally, is a kind of Lilli Marleen much loved by both sides.)

Tolstykh would, of course, find his life and motivation more easily understood by those filling the ranks of Azov or Right Sector than most by most Western young men.

As Sam Finlay has eloquently put it for IM–1776, the Western outpouring of support for Ukraine has little to do with ideological solidarity with Ukrainian nationalism. And likewise, nor with any kind of neoliberal values, as the managerial, administrative solution would have been to have accepted Russian demands that Ukraine never be allowed to join NATO. Equally, the deranged and racist campaign against ethnic Russians is something the Current Year Regime would not have previously thought itself possible of initiating. Anyone familiar with the German left would, too, note how much of a U-turn it is for them to have been demanding a reversal of the ban on exporting weapons to conflict zones.

The war has thus been fanned into existence by the West’s myopia and its increasingly inability to separate our own judgement, and reality, from the one implanted through the Twitter-brain. The tragedy is, however, that the grandiose moralism and aversion to materialism shared by both the Russians and the Ukrainians will likely not lead to a fast resolution. Rather, those paths that would end the conflict quickly are being closed off. The Ukrainians are not likely to surrender, and the Russians – despite the protests of their very online liberal youth – are not likely to topple Putin because they cannot access Apple Pay.

Daniel Hardaker is a writer and translator.

Cover photo: Mikhail Tolstykh (enhanced)

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