Ramil Niyazov: This War Didn’t Begin Only Eight Years Ago

Ramil Niyazov, protesting next to the Abai Qunanbaiuly monument in Almaty in July 2019 with a placard that reads, “‘Glasnost exposes the paltriness of authoritarianism,’ N. Nazarbayev, 1987.” Photo courtesy of Vlast (Kazakhstan)

What, for so many centuries, has your soul been seeking here, Rusich? / You have so much land that you cannot embrace it all.

My heart has grown rooted to these bare gorges and cliffs. / So why have you come here to die again?

Khas-Magomed Hadjimuradov, “New Year’s Eve in Grozny” (1999)

You can point to various dates: fourteen years ago, when Russia invaded Georgia; twenty-eight years ago, when Moscow went to war in Grozny; thirty-one years ago, when the Kremlin got involved in the conflict in Moldova. Or we could quote Timur Mutsurаyev, who sang that “We’ve been three hundred years at war with Russia…” This would also be true, though that is a whole other story, of course. But for me, a person known in Russia as a khach and a churok [common Russian racial slurs for Central Asian, Caucasian, and dark-skinned people], it makes the most sense to say, “Dear Russians, welcome to New Year’s Eve in Grozny! We’ve been waiting for you. It’ll last forever for you, until it ends. And it’ll definitely end soon, and then it will be a New Year.

What is this “New Year’s Eve in Grozny” on a symbolic level? It’s not just a tragedy. It’s the beginning of History, which, according to Francis Fukuyama, was supposed to have ended already. The tragicomedy is that the “end of history” didn’t occur in 2001. It occurred—as we can see now—in 1995, with the start of the First Chechen War, which painfully resembles the one underway right now in Ukraine. For examples, see here, here, and here, as well as this, of course:

“Grozny. Aleppo. Mariupol. Kharkiv. Fascists Z Murderers.” Image courtesy of Radio Svoboda

But why was the continuation of the Russian Federation’s terrible, bloody, and inhumane war against its former colonies on February 24, 2022, such a shock for me, a Kazakhstani and, I’m sure, for many of you?

The simplest and most correct answer lies in the fact that its previous phases did not affect us. It all happened (I have in mind primarily the Chechen Wars) somewhere else, and involved non-white Muslims, gangsters, and terrorists. It was Russia’s internal affair, to which all so-called progressive humanity more or less gave its blessing. Well and what do you expect? It would hardly have befitted the US, after the Gulf War and in the midst of bombing Iraq, to stand up for Muslim Chechnya. But not everyone let Russia off the hook and forgot about this. The first foreign volunteers in unrecognized Ichkeria were, in fact, not Arabs or Afghanis but Ukrainians (see the interview with Aleksandr Muzychko, a.k.a. Sashko Bily). But even I (as, again, a Kazakhstani) thought before February 24 that if Russia were ever going to change, it would be due to civil war rather than military defeat. And so much more terrifying is the irony in the fact that people who previously didn’t care about the fate of Chechnya massively reposted an interview with [Dzhokhar Dudayev], the first president of the Chechen Republic of Ichkeria, in which he predicted this war with Ukraine a full twenty-seven years ago.

But the reasons that prompted me to write this text have nothing to do with a foreigner’s apparent decolonial attack against white masters, one full of ressentiment along the lines of “Did you really think that the slaughter in Bucha wouldn’t happen after the ‘mopping-up’ (this term actually first came into use then) in the village of Novye Aldy? Did you really think there wouldn’t be a strike on the Kramatorsk train station after the missile strike on the Grozny central market? Did you really think that Russian soldiers wouldn’t commit war crimes if, after two wars in Ichkeria, only two people were convicted of war crimes—Budanov and Lapin? If all the people who gathered evidence and conducted investigations (Anna Politkovskaya, Natalia Estemirova, and Stanislav Markelov) were murdered, all three of them?”

No, not at all. First and foremost, I want to repeat for everyone in Central Asia, the Baltics, the North Caucasus, and Eastern Europe who hasn’t yet understood it (and there are fewer and fewer of these people with every passing day): our life didn’t just change into a “before” and “after” on February 24. Those thirty years since the collapse of the USSR took shape as History. That whole viscous, formless time—in which we had led our private lives, built nation-states, felt that we were, as Sergei Timofeev’s poem has it, “the underbelly of Europe” (or Asia), and watched wars in the Middle East—that whole time the History of the post-Soviet space had been going on outside of our private lives. Every attack by Russian officials on various minorities and every minute of propaganda TV broadcasts (as we all found out after the war was continued) were not just a way of consolidating the electorate of Russia’s ruling party, which allegedly had no ideology. No, they were all drops in the ocean of Russism, as Dzhokhar Dudayev called it, something with which we all collided on February 24, 2022. For thirty-one years it had been growing and maturing, and all of our hopes (including my own) for decolonizing Russian and Russia without a military defeat in a monstrous war, were lost. Future historians will describe this time as “the years of Russism and the struggle against it.” While we thought we had been living in an era of local conflicts, nation-states, and gradual democratization!

I thus declare with confidence that the most decolonial (in all senses) decision right now for everyone, for the whole world, is to completely support Ukraine. Because if it’s permitted to bomb even white Christian Europe, then it’s okay to “not sweat it” like China with the Uyghurs and just build concentration camps in downtown Paris. For anyone you want.

To sum up, I want to quote a poem by the Soviet poet Vladimir Burich, who was born in Kharkiv (cruel irony)—a poem we can all feel right now with our whole bodies:

The world is filling up with

postwar people

postwar things

among my letters I found

a bar of prewar soap

I didn’t know what to do

wash

cry

The prewar era is 

a lost Atlantis 

And we

the miraculous survivors

Our prewar era has truly gone under, and we are its last witnesses. Just as the Second World War turned the Great War into the First World War, the thirty-one years between the collapse of the USSR and the bombing of Kyiv on February 24, 2022, have crystalized. Our political philosophy, historiography, and humanities will change. Our whole understanding of social reality will change, whether we want it to or not. History, as is still often the case, is unfolding before our very eyes. Better not blink and miss it.

Source: Ramil Niyazov-Adyldzhyan, “This War Didn’t Start Eight Years Ago,” Sibir.Realii (Radio Svoboda), 8 July 2022. Mr. Niyazov is a Kazakhstani poet. Translated by the Fabulous AM

We’re Not in the Same Boat

One in a series of photos, taken recently in Petersburg, that the photographer Alexander Petrosyan
posted under the heading “Life goes on”. Source: Alexander Petrosyan, Facebook, 3 July 2022

The main stumbling block in communication between Ukrainians and Russian/Belarusian oppositionists is that the latter believe, for some reason, that they understand the former very well.

As one Belarusian oppositionist (from New York) wrote, “In the areas occupied by the Russian Federation, unarmed people behave the same way, both in Belarus and in Ukraine.”

That’s what they think—that all of us are suffering from an identical disaster. They often go even further and claim that, up until February 24, 2022, people in Ukraine were living the life of Riley, while people in the Russian Federation and the Republic of Belarus faced crackdowns.

As one Russian oppositionist (from Warsaw) told me, “[Opposition] pickets [in Russia] end stupidly, and [protesters] also get the shit kicked out of them. How long did you [Ukrainians] face such things? From January to February 2014?”

To hear them tell it, they endured misfortunes for years and years while we had an easy time of it here in Ukraine. That is, until February 24, we should have sympathized with them due to their immense suffering. But now, after February 24, we must recognize them as equal sufferers.

Firstly, a lot of different mass protest campaigns and protest rallies have taken place in Ukraine in addition to January-February 2014—from the Revolution on Granite, the miners’ strikes of the 90s, and Ukraine without Kuchma, to the Orange Revolution, the Language Maidan, and the Euromaidan. The fact that Ukrainians were able to learn and reflect on the experience gained during each such event, so that the next one would be even more effective, testifies only to the literal fact that you have to learn from your mistakes and do your homework. There is no doctor who can cure you of the fact that you were not able to do it, dear Russians and Belarusians. It’s certainly not the fault of us Ukrainians.

Secondly, the war began in 2014. While things were generally relatively quiet in the Republic of Belarus, and while oppositionists were being jailed in the Russian Federation, artillery was already destroying villages in Ukraine, albeit in a limited area, in two regions.

And, thirdly: half an hour ago, thunder rumbled somewhere in Kyiv. It was ordinary thunder, presaging a thunderstorm. But everyone tensed up. Passersby scoped out furrows in the terrain where they could take cover. Even the courtyard drunks who could still move their legs after the morning rondel, moved closer to building entrances, fences, and other shelters from shrapnel.

No crackdowns in the Russian Federation and the Republic of Belarus, no matter how terrible they are, bear any resemblance to what the absolute majority of Ukrainians are enduring now.

War is different. You can’t sign a police charge sheet and hope that they’ll stop pounding you. You can’t make a deal with a police investigator and get off lightly. You can’t even protect yourself by not “getting mixed up in politics” so as to avoid having any problems in future with the police and prosecutor’s office. Because you’re just getting the shit beat out of you. You go to the shopping center for tea and coffee every time a little like it’s the last time. But then you see that no, a shopping center in another city has been bombed today, and the black bile rises from your guts to your throat as you watch it burn.

And this is in the relatively peaceful cities and towns far from the front. In the frontline areas, they pound the fuck out of you as they grind the cities into piles of concrete and rebar.

And no, Belarusians now are not feeling the same things in “occupied territory” as Ukrainians do. As long as there are no camps there which the absolute majority of the population in the occupied villages and cities must go through. And from which buses bearing the “non-filtered” go somewhere, returning empty. Belarusians do not huddle in apartments without windows and electricity, reading the bulletin from the occupation administration that there will be no cold-season heating in any case. And so.

Everyone has their own sufferings, of course. When the weather changes, someone in Miami, even, suffers from pain in a joint that was dislocated by the cops back in the motherland and smears it with ointment. But objectively, no, we are not in a situation that is equivalent to the one the Belarusians and Russians are in currently. Until they understand this, there will be no dialogue.

UPD. I’m not accusing anyone of anything at all. I am pointing out a difference in our plights, which many do not notice. Otherwise, I have nothing against people being different and having different stories. That goes without saying.

UPD2. And I’m not talking about what passports people have or their ethnic background. In my universe, people who are currently fighting [against the Russian army] and working in Ukraine are “our” people.

Source: Dmytro Rayevsky, Facebook, 29 June 2022. Translated, from the Russian, by the Russian Reader


Yurii Brukhal, an electrician by trade, did not have a very dangerous role when he volunteered for Ukraine’s territorial defense forces at the start of the war. He was assigned to make deliveries and staff a checkpoint in the relative safety of his sleepy village.

Weeks later, his unit deployed from his home in the west to a frontline battle in eastern Ukraine, the center of the fiercest fighting against Russian forces. He was killed on June 10.

Andrii Verteev, who worked in a grocery store in the village, spent the first months of the war guarding a small overpass after work and returning home to his wife and daughter at night. Then he, too, volunteered to head east. He died in battle in Luhansk, only weeks before Mr. Brukhal.

Their deaths have driven home the extent to which the war is reaching into every community across the country, even those far from the front. It has also underscored the risks faced by volunteers, with limited training, who are increasingly heading into the kind of battles that test even the most experienced soldiers. Their bodies are being returned to fill up cemeteries in largely peaceful cities and towns in the country’s west.

[…]

Oksana Stepanenko, 44, is also dealing with grief, along with her daughter Mariia, 8. Her husband, Andrii Verteev, was killed on May 15.

Like Mr. Brukhal, he had been a volunteer, tasked with protecting an overpass just up the road during the early weeks of the war. Then he joined an anti-aircraft unit of the military and was redeployed to the east.

His death added a new level of pain to the family. Ms. Stepanenko’s son, Artur, died of an illness at age 13 three years ago. Now a corner of their small living room has become a shrine to the boy and his father.

Ms. Stepanenko said she found solace in her faith and the fact that it was her husband’s choice to go to the front lines. But, like so many others in Ukraine, she asked, “How many guys have to die before this ends?”

Source: Megan Specia, “Ill Prepared for Combat, Volunteers Die in Battles Far from Home,” New York Times, 2 July 2022

Red Flag

As of the morning of May 1, around a hundred billboards featuring the image of the iconic pensioner who gained famed after the events in Ukraine [sic] had been installed in different districts in Petersburg. Fontanka.ru has analyzed the scale of this visual statement. The news-related intrigue lies in the fact that state agencies have nothing to do with the campaign.

“Under the banner of victory!” All images courtesy of Fontanka.ru

In the early hours of May 1, identical posters bearing the image of the famous pensioner holding a Soviet banner were officially installed in about one hundred outdoor media displays in Petersburg.

News about the woman broke out back in April, when she went out with a red banner to greet servicemen in Ukraine, confusing them with Russian soldiers. Her age, her deed, the reaction of the Ukrainian soldiers, and the video that went viral on the Net immediately turned her into a symbol of victory. The old woman’s face has appeared on DPR postage stamps, graffiti artists began to draw her in different cities in Russia, and so on. Even the Russian Federation’s delegate at the UN Security Council talked about her.

Currently, the images of the heroic old woman have been installed in the Central, Admiralty, Petrograd, Vyborg, Maritime, Kalinin, and Moscow districts. These include both large billboards and typical demonstrative surfaces [sic] along the roadways.

The urban spaces chosen for this campaign can be analyzed. The images have been installed near places of authority: on Suvorov Prospekt, next to the Smolny [Petersburg city hall], the seat of the Leningrad Region government, and the Interior Ministry building; on Tapestry Street, near the FSB building; on Horse Guards Boulevard, near St. Isaac’s Cathedral; and around the monument to Alexander Nevsky, outside the Alexander Nevsky Lavra.

However, many similar phenomena [sic] have popped up on Moscow Prospekt, Pulkovo Highway, and the October and Vyborg embankments.

Fontanka.ru has learned that state (regional or federal) agencies did not pay for the campaign. Petersburg advertising market insiders, on terms of confidentiality, informed our correspondent that they had heard about the proposal from representatives of a private individual in mid-April. “It’s definitely a businessman. We are sure of this at least, since we called each other when we began receiving preliminary inquiries,” one of the insiders said.

As for the scale, according to the information we have obtained, the order received was for the placement of one hundred billboards at an approximate cost of around ten million rubles [approx. 139,000 euros]. “And that’s if they got a discount,” one source added. Several of our experts more or less agreed with this figure.

If someone in the advertising market has more accurate information, Fontanka.ru is ready to listen to it with a full guarantee of anonymity.

Source: Fontanka.ru, 1 May 2022. Translated by the Russian Reader


A Cult of Dementia

Putin’s red-brown ideology has taken the worst of Nazism and Bolshevism and mixed it with the cartoonish oligarchy from Dunno on the Moon. The final product has no equals anywhere in the world.

Just think about it. For several months now, Russian propaganda has been chewing over the image of a traitorous old Ukrainian woman who was waiting for the invaders with a Soviet flag. Compassionate Ukrainian soldiers gave her food, but took away her flag. That’s the whole story.

But no, the story didn’t end there. In Russia, the crazy old woman was made a real hero, and her image began to appear on buildings. But the occupiers have driven themselves into an ideological trap: no one except such “young Komsomol women” was looking forward to seeing them in Ukraine. The invaders were not greeted with flowers and bread, but were treated to Molotov cocktails and poisoned pies.

If you think about this story more deeply, the old lady with the Soviet flag perfectly reflects the main watchword of Putin’s Russia, its underlying doctrine, and the true purpose of invading Ukraine: our lives have sucked and we won’t let anyone else live either.

She is thus undoubtedly a hero to Russia, as is Pavlik Morozov. Russia has nothing to offer the world. It offers a rollback to the past and endless attempts to cash in on lost “greatness” instead of progress, old age instead of youth, betrayal instead of loyalty, and humiliation instead of pride. So, an old woman holding a Soviet flag is the most accurate symbolic depiction of modern Russia.

It’s funny, because the propagandists don’t care about Russian pensioners or about veterans of the Second World War. Old people in Russia live out their days (they live them out, they don’t live) in want and humiliation, in terrible conditions and hopelessness.

Source: Andrey Churakov, Facebook, 2 May 2022. Translated by the Russian Reader

Decolonization

There are fewer than 2,000 Tubalars, a Turkic nation in the Altai, but they have effectively been collectively declared a foreign agent with the banning of their national cultural public organization, the latest abuse of a little-notice people far from the center of Russia.

As Ilya Azar of Novaya gazeta reports, “the Russian authorities, the Church, private business and even scientific and technical progress have consistently deprived the Tubalars of the[ir] accustomed milieu, their health and their national-cultural autonomy.” Labelling them foreign agents is the logical next step (novayagazeta.ru/articles/2022/03/22/inoagent-komarik).

In a 12,000-word article about one of the least known peoples of the Russian Federation, Azar says that Moscow banned the organization which unites almost all Tubalars as a foreign agent because it accepted money from the World Wildlife Fund and from other foreign groups to protect the cedar trees and animals that are the basis of Tubalar life.

But the Russian journalist reports that many Tubalars assume the call for this action came from others in the Altai Republic because in their view no one in Moscow knows enough about or cares what happens to them. Consequently, someone local is to blame, although that person still unknown is relying on Russian laws to gain access to resources the Tubalars control.

One likely consequence of this action by the Russian justice ministry is that the continued presence of the Tubalars on the list of protected numerically small nationalities is at risk. Without the aid they have received as a result of being included on that list, the Tubalars face a bleak future.

Their language is already dying out, their national traditions are under attack, and outsiders, predominantly ethnic Russians are coming in. Thus, for them, being labelled foreign agents is a sign that the passing of a people who have lived in the Altai from time immemorial is rapidly approaching. 

Source: Window on Eurasia (Paul Goble), 30 March 2022


The inimitable Benjaminian magic of social media: a screenshot from this blog’s Twitter feed, 30 March 2022.
Sources: Olena Halushka and Anton Shekhovtsov

Neither Putin’s speech preceding the invasion (where he stated that the very idea of Ukrainian statehood was a fiction), nor the invasion itself are something new or unseen – they are merely the next steps in a long history of the Russian colonial perception of Ukraine and Ukrainian culture as a threat that has to be destroyed.

Regardless of this, there are still numerous voices, especially among the “westerners”, calling for the separation of Russian culture from what they call “Putin’s aggression”. One of the most illustrious examples of such shortsightedness is the open letter by PEN-Deutschland, which explicitly states that “the enemy is Putin, not Pushkin or Tolstoy”, and in regard to the calls for boycotting Russian culture notes that “іf we allow ourselves to be carried away by such reflexes, by generalizations and hostility against Russians, madness has triumphed, reason and humanity have lost”. Thus, not only does this statement infantilize the whole of Russian society and redirect the guilt of warmongering onto a single person, but also, on a larger scale, it seems to completely ignore the fact that precisely Pushkin and precisely Tolstoy – among many others – were vocal promoters of the Russian imperial myth and colonial wars.

The historical lack of understanding of Russian culture as imperial and colonial by nature, and of its bearers as people who belong to a privileged group, along with the firmly engraved perception of Russian culture being more important in comparison with the cultures of neighbouring countries has resulted in the current Western belief that the suffering of Ukrainians, killed by Russian artillery and bombing, are largely equal to the inconveniences of Russian civilians. Through this lens, both Ukrainians and Russians are equally considered to be the victims of Putin’s criminal regime. And thus we see a rise in Western emergency residencies and scholarships for artists and scholars from Ukraine AND Russia. We also see plenty of panel discussions on the ongoing war where Western organizers invite participants both from Ukraine and Russia.

Moreover, the responses to sanctions imposed on Russia and the calls for boycotting its culture more and more frequently come with accusations of discrimination, “russophobia”, and hatred. Thus, a reaction directly caused by military aggression becomes reframed as unprovoked hatred of an ethnic group.

In a new music video by the Russian band Leningrad, today’s position of Russians is compared to the position of Jews in Berlin in 1940. To illustrate this comparison, people in the video wear traditional Russian kosovorotkas with makeshift Stars of David attached to them. Such an interpretation is a blatant insult to the memory of the victims of the Shoah. Moreover, the rhetoric of the band discursively coincides with the manipulative methods of Russian propaganda.

Source: Lia Dostlieva and Andrii Dostliev, “Not all criticism is Russophobic: on decolonial approach to Russian culture,” Blok, 29 March 2022. Thanks to Alevtina Kakhidze for the heads-up.

A Letter to Russia from Russia

Nadia Plungian with her textile works at the exhibition “Post-Soviet Cassandras,” 2015

A Letter to Russia

Nadia Plungian writes to Russia from Russia

The more horrifying the images from the news, the more clearly do I realize that there is a profound significance to the fact that I stayed in Russia and repeatedly turned down opportunities to leave up until now. I am also thinking about friends and colleagues from Belarus, who are in a similar situation. Our countries have completely shut down, we have no illusions of a future whatsoever. There are no outside forces responsible for making a new era dawn. It is time to say something from within this space.

Many people are writing about political suicide. But which political reality is killing itself right now? Without a doubt, it’s the Soviet Union and its successor—Soviet post-Soviet statehood. We all saw the Soviet-era apartment buildings blowing up in Kyiv and Kharkiv. In the terrible light cast by these fires, it becomes especially obvious how closely the 2000s and the 2010s followed the Soviet epoch.

This is not just about “peacekeeping missions” but about a specific type of hybrid censorship, of visible and invisible pressure. The possibility for major changes in cultural, academic, and public life has been suspended for many years now. This happened with the nearly unanimous tacit support of the older generation, who seemed to have gotten stuck in the late 1980s and demanded that we, their children, not go beyond these historical confines under any circumstances.

People my age who wanted to change something have over the past fifteen years gone through a series of political and existential conflicts which can be summed up by the phrase “do not live.” There is no sphere in which we have not had to listen to rebukes about our lack of qualifications or threats to throw us out of the profession. Science, culture, technology, art, politics, the family. New methodologies? Irrelevant. Questions of domestic violence, violence toward women and children, generational conflicts? Laughable, those problems don’t exist. National, postcolonial, gender, religious identities? Prohibited, irrelevant, incomprehensible, nonexistent. You want to prevent historical monuments from being demolished, or, say, entire historical neighborhoods? Who do you think you are? We’re bringing out the bulldozers! You want to work at a school or hospital? Go on, we’ll see how you like living hand to mouth. And the respectable people who held respectable positions in society back in the 90s have been broadly supported when they call attempts to talk about all this “a revival of Party committees,” “leveling,” and “hysterics.”

The focus on suppressing the new, on ignoring progress—generally, the focus on a defeatist rhetoric laced with threats—is hardly a new phenomenon. For fifteen years we’ve been hearing from absolutely every corner that we have no prospects. That if you’ve got a head on your shoulders you should leave for Europe right away. That only morons and idealists would want to live in “this country,” would want to deal with the dynamics of Russian society, to write textbooks here, to reform museums, schools, or universities here, to open functional academic institutions, to form some kind of decent societal platform capable of describing the past and projecting a future.

The stance taken by the older generation was formally divided into two parts, which were fueled by two late-Soviet ideologemes. Substantively, however, they were entirely united, and they were taught to us at university. One part of society declared: you are nobody because you didn’t live in the USSR; we will take away your pensions, social security, and place in society; we will force you to pay insane mortgages, we will send you to jail for comments on social media, shame you for your personal life, and not give you even the slightest access to political life. The other part of society insisted: don’t flatter yourself, take your modest little spot—after all, you will never have money and possibilities anywhere near what they have in the West; nothing you do can ever be compared to what happens in enormous Western museums or with famous Western curators; you must memorize Western philosophers and theorists by heart because you are not philosophers or theorists, you have to imitate Western artists because you are not artists; holding out hope for anything bigger is deluding yourself; and remember, if you don’t want to play by the rules of the twentieth century, the nineteenth century will come.

I don’t know why my generation was so methodically deprived of opportunities, but I think that now the final act of this show has commenced. Because there’s nothing left to trample us with. Will all the leading thirty- and forty-something specialists in our countries be fired and deprived of income, sent to prison? And what fuel will you use to move forward then? This is not the Brezhnev era. The Soviet ideology has been destroyed; postmodernism is grown over with mold. You don’t have any writers, poets, politicians, or scientists. Who will force us to re-integrate into this meaningless, self-devouring loop, and how will they do it? Most importantly, how will you fill the empty cultural centers that you’ve been building all these years in all Russian cities? How exactly will the twenty- and fourteen-year-olds, under orders from the old folks, conceptualize and glorify military strikes against neighboring countries and the choice of complete cultural isolation? By what methods? On what terms? To what end?

I’ll add one more thing. Only now am I realizing the significance of my professional choices as a historian and art historian. Back in 2002, I rejected the possibility of working with “neutral themes,” choosing instead to deal with Stalin-era Soviet art—that is, pretty much the most depressing and censored material around. It is a field in which there are no reliable answers and no readymade narratives, and in which the big methodological steps have only been taken halfway.

My work is connected with what exists here in Russia. It is based on private archives and personal testimonies that come together to form an unwritten history of the country. It brings back the cultural and intellectual presence of people who, like us, found themselves here and stayed here at a most difficult time of transition, without any hope or any right to be heard.

The path that many of my friends and have chosen brought us face to face with a hard fact: the desire to work professionally in Russia and come up with something new in the civic, academic, and cultural sense meant operating under double pressure: without support from the older generation or from Western researchers. But we had faith in other thirty-somethings. We formed our own intellectual networks in various directions within Russia and in the territories known as post-Soviet space. We went deep into our countries and studied museums, archives, architecture, and the cities themselves, to see with our own eyes and independently analyze our history without having recourse to cliches and stereotypes.

I would not have become what I am if I had not maintained contact for the past fifteen years with independent millennials from Ukraine, Belarus, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, and Uzbekistan; with the scholars, human rights activists, artists, and philosophers who lived in these countries and with those who were forced to leave them, along with many like-minded people in Russia. We all encountered censorship and stigmatization and taught each other how to remain thoughtful people under these conditions. We welcomed each other into our homes, using the last of our money to put together conferences, roundtables, and exhibitions, taking every opportunity to see one another and exchange know-how. Because besides us there was no one to create the foundations for a future for our free countries. There is no one now either. There is no West offering us a readymade scenario. There is not a single Soviet institution that might have solutions.

We are alone.

This war is being waged without our consent and against us, physically destroying the fruits and prospects of friendship, cooperation, and solidarity for our generation.

Nuclear threats, attacks on neighbors, closed borders—this is the crazed twentieth century, screaming at us to heel.

But history will not grant it this authority. There is no such thing as the past dictating the rules for the future, or the past dragging the future into its old coffin.

Twentieth century, you tossed us out of your cubicles and deprived us of places in politics a long time ago. But this has had only one result—we are now free to choose our own places in politics and culture.

Nadia Plungian is a Moscow-based art historian, curator, and feminist activist. Source: Colta.ru, 1 March 2022. Translated by the Fabulous AM

How Belarusians Feel About the War in Ukraine

No war!”: detail of a placard held by a female Belarusian protester in Minsk on March 3, 2022. Photo credit: anonymous

How do Belarusians feel about their country’s involvement in Ukraine? This was one of the most debated topics on my friends’ social media pages during the past week. Belarusian territory is being used as a launching pad for Russian rockets. At least seventy out of the 480 rockets that have been launched on Ukraine so far were launched from Belarus. There is also the imminent possibility that the country’s troops will be directly involved. In light of these events, many Belarusians may feel concerned about an increased level of animosity towards them, which is understandable, given the circumstances. It is also understandable that many may feel vulnerable and discriminated against, as accounts of Belarusians who have been denied services or housing in Ukraine and European countries only begin to circulate online. 

But I would argue that we should not despair and overreact. Instead, we should explain to those affected by the war who we are: activists, opposition members, protesters, exiles, immigrants, or victims of the Lukashenka regime. At the moment, the best thing that we Belarusians can do as a group is to signal unequivocally which side we are on and focus on what needs to be done to stop this war, not on our personal feelings. And if our feelings are to be channeled, we should talk about collective responsibility, which, as decades of philosophical discourse have demonstrated, is not a simple thing. In a nutshell, people may or may not consider themselves responsible for what has already taken place, but we are all now collectively responsible for bringing it to an end. And only when we succeed, if at all, will we be able to discuss how guilt and responsibility may be applied to various scenarios. First, though, Putin’s and Lukashenka’s regimes must be overthrown.

The Belarusian community as a whole has become increasingly transnational, encompassing people within Belarus, displaced persons, and diasporas around the globe. Ukraine is our neighbor and ally. We are connected to it by thousands of invisible threads, through our families, friends, and recent refugees who fled the Lukashenka regime. Together with Ukrainians, we are living through a trauma that will take years and years to heal. And I want to say to those who keep reposting messages about feeling ashamed that you should perhaps stop because this language is inadequate to express the complex mix of emotions that we are experiencing at the moment. 

As I am typing these words, my husband’s father is being bombed in Kyiv. As a result of a stroke, he is paralyzed and cannot leave his apartment. My journalist friend has sent me an encrypted message with her son’s documents, asking me to find and adopt the boy if they were to be killed. As part of the message, she attaches a photo of her family, so that the kid can remember his parents. My other friend’s parents are too frail to go to the shelter, recuperating from covid. Her mother is sleeping in the bathtub, and her father is sleeping by the bathroom door. The grandmother of another friend is in her nineties and in poor health. Has she survived the massacre of Babyn Yar only to be bombed by Putin and Lukashenka? How is the family to tell her that Putin has bombed the sacred ground of Babyn Yar? I see many people writing on their Facebook pages, “Thank God, my parents (grandparents) did not live to see this.”

Enough of being ashamed, do something! Actions today are more important than words, and our efforts, at the very least, should go to aid the refugees. Over a million people have already arrived in Poland, Hungary, Slovakia, Romania, and Moldova, and some will eventually arrive in the United States. From my feed, I learned that my professional contact in Kyiv, who is nine months pregnant, is walking alone with her six-year-old across the border, wondering if her husband who stayed behind to defend Kyiv will survive. She’s asking on Facebook for someone to take her cat since she can no longer carry him. My best friend from college managed to relocate her family first to Kyiv and, after the war started, to Poland. She says they are still in a haze. Watching the bombs go off over Borispol airport, she kept asking herself how it could be real. 

These are just a few glimpses of this humanitarian catastrophe. Do something to help them but don’t forget about the groups that are discriminated against in this conflict, like our own people who are left behind in Ukraine. Earlier today, I saw a Facebook post from sociologist Andrey Vozyanov writing that Ukrainians are refusing to let Belarusians on the evacuation trains since Belarus has become a party to this conflict. Seeing our people abandoned is heartbreaking. They already escaped the concentration camp named Belarus only to be repressed again. This is not the time to be silent. 

And do we really have anything to be ashamed of? Over the last year and a half, the regime leveled our resistance to the ground so that Russia could use it as a military base. Our country is occupied by Russian troops. We have lost our critical infrastructures. There are no independent journalists on the ground to keep the population informed. Human rights organizations have nearly disappeared. And we have more than 1,000 political prisoners in a country with a population of 9.4 million. Those who are still in Minsk protested the war yesterday, and 800 of them went to jail. All these people will face torture, and many will face criminal charges. One protester commented that he put his body on the line to show his solidarity with Ukrainians and distract their jailers from the war. If anything, we should drop the sense of shame and look up to the Ukrainians and learn from their know-how. After all, our countries share a common regional destiny and common enemies – Putin and Lukashenka. During the Maidan, some Belarusians fought side by side with Ukrainians, and now a new Belarusian battalion in Ukraine is being formed. Those who are not ready to take up arms should at least oppose a world order that puts profit above human life. Or the production of knowledge about the region, which results in Belarusian and Ukrainian bodies being less valuable than those of citizens with other passports. It is by acknowledging responsibility that a new sense of agency and ability to act is born. Glory to Ukraine! Long live Belarus!

Sasha Razor is a Belarusian-American scholar and activist who lives in Los Angeles. 

Being Vladimir Putin

[Vladislav Mamyshev-Monroe:] For example, when I first dressed up as Putin, I had the feeling that I had become some kind of colossal totemic maggot, which was about to burst from the shit it had eaten.

At the same time, I was not a villain, but a “forest sanitation worker” [sanitar lesa: animals such as ants, birds, wolves, badgers, etc., who “sanitize” their environment as predators and scavengers, are called sanitary lesa] and I had to devour our deceased country, the great Russian Empire, the Soviet Union, as soon as possible, so that a new life could begin as soon as possible.

[Interviewer:] Do you think he’ll consume us after all?

[Vladislav Mamyshev-Monroe:] Yes, and quite soon. You know, in Bali, where I have lived for a very long time, there are lots of different parasites — wood beetles and termites. A luxurious teak cabinet in the style of the Dutch masters stands in the house. You use it every day, you have clothes hanging in it, but at some point you touch it — and it crumbles. It has simply been devoured. That’s what will happen to our country.

Thanks to Andrey Silvestrov for the quotation. I traced it to an Afisha magazine interview that it is no longer accessible. The passage as quoted here I found on Andrei Amalgin’s LiveJournal blog. Amalgin, in turn, cites this 2013 LiveJournal blog post about the late great performance artist Vladislav Mamyshev-Monroe. The image above, from the 2005 series of staged photographs entitled StarZ, is courtesy of Mutual Art. Translated by the Russian Reader

Five Petersburgers on February 24th

There are many women from Ukraine working in Israel, women who were forced to come here to work because of the complete devastation wrought by the war. They are employed in cleaning and in caring for the elderly and children. Nathan’s nanny, Vika, has been here for about five years. She hasn’t seen her own children and mother during this entire time. At first she worked as a cleaner, then, perhaps due to constant contact with toxic cleaning substances, she got sick with blood cancer. She was given medical care at one time, but then she was turned down on an extension of her insurance. Vika’s only chance to survive is a bone marrow transplant operation that costs 285 thousand dollars. As a non-citizen of Israel, she will not receive free medical care here. Vika is only a few years older than me. She has nowhere to go back to go for treatment. (Although, even if she did, they wouldn’t treat it for free either.) This morning I heard another woman, Mila, already middle-aged, weeping and telling her family, “It would be better if I were with you.” I have no emotional strength left for righteous indignation, karma-cleansing public shame, and slogans. I have only a huge desire for Vika to survive and be able to hug her children, and for Mila not to weep in horror for her family.

Source: Olga Jitlina, Facebook, 24 February 2022. Ms. Jitlina lives in Jaffa. Translated by the Russian Reader

_________________

 

There were very few people [at the protest in downtown Moscow], alas. Thank you to everyone who came, and [I wish] a speedy release to everyone who is in the paddy wagons. But how [only] a thousand people can come to a rally in Moscow against the terrible criminal war unleashed by our country, I do not understand. I don’t blame anyone, I understand that it’s scary, but we cannot manage to do anything, alas. It’s very hard to bear. NO TO THE CRIMINAL WAR WITH UKRAINE!

Source: Alexander Feldberg, Facebook, 24 February 2022. Translated by the Russian Reader

_________________

Today is my birthday. I am 43. I was born in 1979, in Leningrad, in a Jewish family. I grew up very sheltered and very afraid. My grandfather, a survivor of a German POW camp, who managed to escape arrest and prosecution in the USSR, taught me to behave “lower than grass, quieter than water,” showing total submission toward any and all authority figures. At my school, my brother’s teacher tore an earring out of a girl’s ear, tore it “with meat,” right through the earlobe, because of some Soviet prejudice against earrings. That teacher remained a teacher in the school. Two other teachers in two different schools I went to had been known sexual predators who went after boys. One of them was eventually pushed out of teaching, but the other remained. I don’t even mention the daily groping on the bus and subway, on my way to school, that violence seemed so every day that it still feels pointless to speak up about.

At 16, when I had to get my first passport, my family insisted that I try facing the authorities on my own. I tried and got a run-around and received a set of impossible instructions and returned home in tears and full of hatred for all the stone-faced people who refused to help with such an everyday task. (I hadn’t read Kafka by then yet, but when I did, I knew what he was writing about.) The next day, my grandmother came to the passport office with me. She fixed the problem as she always did, by begging and pleading — I’m old and my granddaughter is young and stupid, could you please help us — the skill she had that always horrified me. I refused to imagine how she had come by it. I resisted learning to beg, and I resisted fear, too, but fear was the air I breathed. I left Russia at the earliest opportunity, and in my subsequent visits there, considered: Could I live here now? Could I feel free and unafraid? There were years when I imagined I could.

Today, like so many people I’m watching Russia invade Ukraine, and first and foremost I am afraid. I’m afraid for what might happen to the people of Ukraine, of what Russia might do. But I’m also so proud and so happy to see that so many others, people made differently than me, aren’t afraid, and that so many others are able to put aside their fear to fight. I know many Ukrainians are asking why not more Russians come out on the streets of their cities to protest the war. They are right to ask the question. And, given what’s happening in Ukraine right now, fear is a bad answer. In my experience, however, fear is a very real, all-encompassing and paralyzing feeling. My heart is tightening with it so many thousands of miles away, writing this. And yet again, I see others pushing through their fear and come out on the streets of Russian cities despite the very real threat of arrests. And I see people of Ukraine resisting and the world hopefully waking up and coming together to act against the aggressor. The bully relies on and feeds on our fear. This is also real.

One other thing I’ve noticed. Fear masks itself as so many other things. Anger. Hatred. Cynicism. “This isn’t about me.” “Why rock the boat?” “Why should I get involved?” “I shouldn’t do anything that might hurt my family.” I find my mind going through these motions. My mind isn’t comfortable with fear and tries to bury the feeling inside the ever-longer logical chains. And I, among many of us, who grew up in Russia, am badly trained to unpack these logical threads and to face the fear. It’s ok to be afraid. It’s not ok to attack another country.

Source: Olga Zilberbourg, Facebook, 24 February 2022. Ms. Zilberbourg is the San Francisco-based author of the highly acclaimed Like Water and Other Stories and co-editor of Punctured Lines, a feminist blog about literature from the former Soviet Union.

_________________

“Putin is a war criminal.”

Source: Natalia Vvedenskaya, Facebook, 24 February 2022. Natalia Vvedenskaya is a Petersburg grassroots activist who, among other things, teaches Russian to immigrant children at the St. Petersburg Jewish Community Center.

_________________

 

 

Dear everyone,
[S]hocked as we all are by the nightmare of the news today, whatever you say and whatever your opinions might be on who is to blame and what must be done, please just remember that within Russia there are very different people, with different views — not everyone is supporting the war or the government (in my feed not a single person is, as far as I can see, but that is, sadly, not a universal picture). In my city, St. Petersburg, today over a thousand people came to Nevsky prospect to protest against the war, in spite of the danger. They are in danger because the political regime in Russia is as intolerant to its opponents as it has been over the past decade, maybe more so. Many were detained, which will inevitably mean prosecution — almost certainly fines and possibly arrests, not to mention the following risk of being fired from work. I understand that in other cities, in Ukraine, people are facing a much more immediate danger of being bombed, but believe me, it is also scary to go to a street with a placard “No to war” when you might end up in prison for that. Screenshot is from a video by Fontanka, a local newspaper.

Source: Maria Guleva, Facebook, 24 February 2022. Ms. Guleva studies at Charles University in Prague.

Ukraine: “Condemn Russia’s Imperialist Threat”

Ukraine: ‘condemn Russia’s imperialist threat’ • People and Nature • 24 January 2022

Ukrainian socialists are urging international unity against the Russian government’s imperialist policies that threaten a new war.

The Social Movement, a group of mainly labour activists in Ukraine, calls in a statement for “solidarity with people who have suffered from the war that has lasted almost eight years, and who may suffer from a new one”.

The statement expresses “gratitude and solidarity to Russian left-wing activists who oppose the imperialist policies of the Kremlin and are fighting for democratic and social transformations in their country”.

“Our house was stolen by war”: one of Ukraine’s 1.5 million internally displaced people. Photo from commons.com.ua

The Social Movement denounces the “myth, popular among some Western leftists”, that the Russian-supported “people’s republics” in Donetsk and Luhansk are “the result of popular will”. Their statement says:

The heads of the “Donetsk People’s Republic” and “Luhansk People’s Republic” are integrated into the ranks of the ruling elite of the Russian Federation and have become the mouthpiece of the Kremlin’s most aggressive predatory sentiments. In the “republics” themselves, any opposition political activity, even the most loyal to the Russian government, is suppressed.

In my view, this statement would be a good place to start discussion about how to build solidarity in the face of war, with working-class communities in Ukraine, and with labour and social movements there. So would the principled statement of opposition to Putin’s war drive by the Russian Socialist Movement, which I posted just before the new year.

The (Ukrainian) Social Movement statement concludes with a call for “complete withdrawal of Russian troops from Donbas”. It says that “one of the best means of pressure on the leaders of the Russian Federation would be the seizure of the property and assets of Russian oligarchs and officials in London and other places”.

It calls for “revision of the socio-economic course proposed to Ukraine by the West: instead of destructive neoliberal reforms under the pressure of the IMF – the cancellation of Ukraine’s external debt”. And it urges “more inclusive and progressive humanitarian policies in Ukraine, ending impunity for the Ukrainian far right, and abolition of the ‘de-communisation’ laws”.

One thing many Ukrainians find grotesque is the sight of their country’s fate being discussed by the US and Russia, as though the Ukrainian state did not exist. This is the focus of an article, “Moscow and Washington should not determine Ukraine’s future”, by socialist activist Taras Bilous.

Bilous’s earlier analysis of the breakdown of the Minsk accords is also worth reading.

So is a facebook post written on 20 January by Marko Bojcun, the socialist historian of Ukraine, which I reproduce here with his permission:

Though Putin, the artful player, has several options in his hand, his ultimate objective has been to get the US to join an expanded Normandy format and the Minsk negotiations, and there to help force Ukraine to accept further limitations to its state sovereignty. Basically, that means Kyiv would accept the separatist Donetsk and Luhansk “republics” as internationally recognised autonomous state institutions within Ukraine, but in reality bodies that continue to be run by Russian state ministries – as they already are in a concealed manner. Russia would use them to lever Ukraine’s domestic and foreign policies.

Putin recognises that he can achieve his main goal only with US endorsement. He needs the US to join him in twisting the arms of the stubborn Ukrainians. That has been the point of all these Russian troop movements to Ukraine’s current borders: to get the Americans to weigh in, to keep Ukraine out of any direct talks and to conclude a deal over their heads.

Ukraine is critical to Russia’s long term project of economic, military and diplomatic recovery, its resumption as a Great Power. That means Russia will not stop its drive until it achieves much more. The present conjuncture resembles in some way another historical moment, in 1938, when Neville Chamberlain, the British prime minister, met Joachim Von Ribbentrop, Nazi Germany’s foreign minister, over the Czechoslovak crisis. Chamberlain came out of that meeting, waved a scrap of paper in his hand and declared peace in their time. I wonder what US foreign secretary Anthony Blinken and his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov will have to say after their meeting tomorrow?

The answer to that last question turned out to be: nothing much. Blinken offered Lavrov the carrot of a meeting between the US and Russian presidents, something Putin has long craved in his efforts to claim Russia’s “great power” status.

For a substantial analysis from a Marxist standpoint, Bojcun’s 2016 article on “The causes of the Ukrainian crisis” is essential reading.

More things to read in English

Friends are asking where they can find alternative, radical analyses, and views, of the war danger in English. Here are some more suggestions.

□ The Russian sociologist Greg Yudin’s view of “why Putin’s Russia is threatening Ukraine” is on Open Democracy Russia, which features a range of alternative viewpoints from across the former Soviet Union.

□ A recent comment article by the journalist James Meek is on the London Review of Books web site, on open access. Meek and Paul Mason are among the panelists appearing at an event organised by the Ukrainian Institute in London about the war danger, on Wednesday 16 February. (The Institute, run in the distant past by cold-warrior right wingers, is now managed by liberal, post-Soviet Ukrainians. Its educational and informational events are well worth looking out for.)

□ The London-based, official-labour-movement-focused Ukraine Solidarity Campaign regularly publishes information.

□ The biggest gap in English-language coverage is about what is going on in eastern Ukraine. I have occasionally translated and published stuff on this blog (see e.g. a recent post here, and, from further back, herehere and here).

□ The Kharkiv Human Rights Protection Group web site has excellent, and accurate, coverage of an appalling range of repressive state and military activities – see, e.g., their tags on Crimea and “terrorism” (which includes those “people’s republics”), but note, too, their more general reporting on human rights abuses in Ukraine and Russia.

□ It is a job of work to counter the stream of deceit and misinformation from Putin-ists in the UK labour movement. I summed up the arguments in a recent blog post here. I even wrote to the Morning Star, about one of its more grotesque lies – that “hundreds of trade union leaders” were killed by the post-2014 Ukrainian government. Accuracy about dead bodies is not their big thing, it seems. My letter is reproduced below. SP, 24 January 2022.

False reporting of “hundreds” of trades unionists’ deaths

I I sent this letter to the Morning Star newspaper, which claims its favours “peace and socialism”. It was published, in the print & pdf edition only, on 17 January

Dear Editor,

In the article “Opinion: US and NATO play with fire in their latest anti-Russia campaign”, 9 December, John Wojcik stated: “Hundreds of trade union leaders and activists were murdered by the new right-wing Ukrainian government shortly after it came to power [in 2014].”

This is incorrect. The two major Ukrainian union federations reported no such deaths of union leaders. Nor did the detailed reports by the UN High Commission for Human Rights on civil rights in Ukraine. Some activists were killed in this period, during numerous civil disturbances, but there is no evidence that the government was responsible. (Many people were killed, by Ukrainian, Russian and separatist forces, in the military conflict that began in the summer of 2014. This is not what Wojcik is referring to.)

Many of your readers will have mourned the death of friends and comrades killed for their trade union activity. It would be disrespectful to them to leave uncorrected the statement that hundreds of union leaders were killed.

The article also states that the new Ukrainian government “banned the use of the Russian language”. This is incorrect. A law making Ukrainian the single state language was adopted in 2019. It requires Ukrainian to be used – but not exclusively, i.e. it can be used together with other languages – in certain public spaces. It will be applied to educational institutions and the media, but not to private or religious life. Many Ukrainian socialists are opposed to it. But exaggerating its effect can only help to exacerbate differences between working people on grounds of nationality and language, that historically the labour movement has endeavoured to overcome.

Simon Pirani, London. 

Correction. This article has been corrected on 4 February, to reflect the fact that this letter was published in the Morning Star’s print & pdf editions. It was not published in the on-line edition.

Voices in the Wilderness

Timothy Ash: “Nord Stream 2 is about undermining Ukraine.” The most cogent analyst of the Russia-Ukraine conflict is hiding out at a place called Bluebay Asset Management. Watch this six-minute clip if you want to know why Putin is likely to invade Ukraine. Thanks to the indomitable Mark Teeter for the heads-up.

Meanwhile, in the total absence of an anti-war movement in Russia, I share these recent reflections from two past contributors to this website.

George Losev: “On the eve of a big war, I want to remind you that not only the politicians and capitalists are responsible for it, but also the leftists who since 2014 have denied the Russian Federation’s role, flapped their tongues about the ‘conflict between East and West,’ ‘civil war’ in Ukraine, the right to self-determination of the ‘republics,’ and the ‘workers’ uprising against fascism,’ tolerated [the Ukrainian leftist organization] Borotba, and so on. It effectively prevented the left from making a stand against the Russian Federation’s imperialist aggression. I wish those who did it for money would croak. I hope that those who heeded the leftist VIPs are tormented by their conscience for the rest of their lives.”

Sergey Abashin: “With its military preparations, the Kremlin is leading (or has already led) Russia to a real disaster, a moral disaster above all. They say that he will not start another, even larger-scale escalation of the war he unleashed in ’14, that he’s just showing off, engaging in scaremongering. Maybe. Although who could guarantee it? But even the very policy of military blackmail, the very idea, inspired by total propaganda, that they (and all of us, willingly or unwillingly) are ready for such an escalation, that is, for the murder of even more people, is completely morally destructive for society. The very idea of such actions seems to be quite real, even if it does not come to new and even larger-scale battles now. (Although who would guarantee it?) Declared the norm, made its permanent policy by the current Kremlin, war has become a real obsession. It is already real war: war in our minds, murder in our heads. This in itself is a disaster.”

Photo and translations by the Russian Reader