I made a terrible mistake. I addressed a Ukrainian film director in Russian, and he recoiled from me in such a way that I felt like the girl in the Charles Perrault fairy tale from whose mouth snakes and fell.
Mikhail Epstein said that Russia is a crime in itself, a country-slash-crime.
Now I’m wondering whether the Russian language is a weapon in a crime. It’s a pretty unbearable thought. It’s like someone was scalped with a knife that you’ve been innocently peeling potatoes with all your life. But yes, this bloody knife was bagged and admitted into evidence, and a verdict will soon be returned.
It is a language of violence and murder. A language of war and death. The language of an empire in the throes of death.
I’ve said it before, but I often think with a shudder that the last thing the people killed in Ukraine heard were the sounds of my native language — commands barked out, probably, and most likely interlarded with obscenities. This conjecture once frightened me, but I know from reading the investigations that it’s true.
Kaputt… Hände hoch… Ein, zwei, drei… Wasn’t it us who, as Soviet schoolchildren playing in the courtyard, used to associate the German language with SS squads in movies about the Second World War? This is the now the Russian language’s plight.
Every time I speak Russian outside the house, I remember this. I must remember. It doesn’t matter that I speak five languages and write in [Russian and] three others. I still have only one native language.
I think in its words. And about its words.
Life in the mother tongue is so emphatic that in a way which is rationally not conceivable, which is even rationally refutable, I feel co-responsible for what Russians do and have done.
The last paragraph that you read was not written by me. It is a quotation. Just replace “Russians” with “Germans” and you will get an excerpt from Karl Jaspers’s book The Question of German Guilt [trans. D.B. Ashton (New York: Fordham University Press, 2000), p. 74.]
What comes next?
Does the language of empire — a language of violence and murder, of war and death — have any future at all?
What about the Russian language of Ukrainians, a native language for many of them?
Alas, even here the war has not left much room for maneuver.
In response to my texts on social media, I’ve been getting a lot of letters from Ukraine, sometimes in Ukrainian, but more often in Russian. The letters begin with the indispensable proviso. The Russian language is off-putting… I thought I would never be able to read anything or anyone in Russian… The sounds of the Russian language are nauseating, but out of personal respect (gratitude, as a sign of support) I have been reading you and am writing in Russian.
According to polls, since the start of the invasion, a significant percentage of people in Ukraine have switched completely to Ukrainian, while people who were originally Russophones (members of the older generation mainly, that is, people over forty-five) have strenuously been learning to use it as their primary language or studying it nearly from scratch. Many refuse to read anything in Russian on principle.
Recently, I received this testimony: “There is the phrase my daughter used in 2014 […]: ‘Mom, thank you very much for raising me on Russian literature. Chekhov, Tolstoy, and Dostoevsky are a wonderful tuning fork, a catalyst that helps me to distinguish good from evil. Thanks, it has come in handy. Now I’m ready for battle.”
(It is telling that the function of classical Russian literature as an ethical tuning fork, as noted in the above passage, is exactly the opposite of the anti-ethical rhetoric — “culture is not to blame” — that Russians have been practicing vis-a-vis the selfsame literature, which they call their own.)
In the spring, when I translated for the first refugees, blushing and apologizing, I babbled that, unfortunately, I didn’t know Ukrainian. I could only translate from Italian into Russian or, if push came to shove, into Polish. I always heard the same response: “Are you kidding? Thank you, but it’s your language after all.”
Shortly after February 24, one of my correspondents, having written the first part of his message to me in Ukrainian, switched to Russian himself and invited me to do the same — “You can speak Russian, it’s our language too” — thereby completely turning the language situation around. It was as if he had removed the curse of the Russian language from the conversation by inviting me to speak in his (!) Russian and thus delicately rescuing me from a situation where I would have imposed on him the need to speak the same language, but as the language of empire and occupiers.
Later, it happened quite often. But in the midst of a war, amidst the smoking ruins, it can only be a one-time individual communicative act of goodwill. It cannot and should not become an indulgence.
I have repeatedly observed how Ukrainians speaking to each other in their native Russian in the presence of a third person (whether me or when asked a question by a Russophone outsider of unknown origin) instantly responded in Ukrainian. Switching to it, they would continue the interrupted conversation amongst themselves in Ukrainian.
The bilingualism of Ukraine and the fate of this bilingualism is a purely Ukrainian matter.
But what should I do? As I have said, I speak five languages fluently, and I write in four, but I have only one native language. And only in Russian am I me to my last syllable and my last breath.
How to preserve Russian speech with all its rhetoric about the special, “mighty, truthful and free” Russian language, rhetoric that has glommed onto and penetrated it and today is tragicomically outdated? (How can it even occur to us to write about ourselves like that?) How to preserve a language poisoned by the criminal argot of the last decades, which always turns into a shiv in the back? How to liberate it so that it becomes the language of a continuous, uninterrupted tradition and simultaneously open to the new, which is much bigger than it and us?
It is already too late for us to speak it without being tongue-tied, but our children and students still have a chance. What the language of civilization and education will be in the life of a particular student — Ukrainian, Georgian, Kazakh, Italian, Turkmen, Kyrgyz, French, Chuvash, Udmurt, Estonian, English, or German — is a technical matter more than anything.
In days of doubt and painful reflection, moved to despair by everything happening at home, it is difficult to believe. However, as I continue to write and teach, including in Russian, it is impossible not to believe at all that our native language is given to us not only as an eternal reproach, but also as a gift: to once and for all evict the word “great” from it and be able to put Russia at least somewhere in the above list.
“The war has pushed those who had not made a conscious choice earlier to make an uncompromising choice in favor of Ukrainian identity. It has also given millions of Ukrainians the experience of grassroots solidarity, self-organization and horizontal cooperation, in the process of which a ‘nation’ is formed, if we understand it as a political community of solidarity. These Ukrainians could tell Russians in their own language how to build a political community and how to live without empire. Ukrainians could use the Russian language, which is not the property of [ethnic] Russians, and even less so Putin’s property, in order to create a radically decolonial and emancipatory culture in Russian. Perhaps it could be the key to turning the space of the former empire into a space of radical liberation.”
From today’s perspective it seems like a beautiful utopia. But the future is in a fog.
The future is really foggy, but if we don’t try to take a hard look at ourselves, then there will be no way.
Here is the link to an interview [in which Margolis discusses this issue at length with Russian liberal journalist Yevgeny Kiselyov]:
This is a post for Russian citizens. Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s party held a press conference in the National Assembly, where the floor was given to three Russians. The names are familiar to you: Alexei Sakhnin, Andrei Rudoy, and Elizaveta Smirnova, who were presented as members of a “coalition of Russian socialists against the war.” The moderator of the discussion was His Majesty “La République, c’est moi!” Oh, sorry, Mélenchon. I can only congratulate him on this successful PR operation. One of Putin’s main underlings in French politics shall now be able to say not only something like “Look, I’m not a racist a defender of the Putin regime’s interests. I even have friends who are Negroes Russian anti-war activists.”
I don’t know whether the featured activists fully understand what they got themselves tangled up in, but hey, that’s not my problem. In any case, I can only be glad for them, and happy that they managed to leave Russia, albeit with JLM’s help. I can put myself in their shoes and understand their choice. But that’s not the problem. What does their “anti-war discourse” amount to now that they can speak freely on French soil?
Suffice it to say that the anti-war activists roundly ignored Ukraine and Ukrainians. But they were able to discuss with the French exactly how they would like to build a new democratic world after the war. They could have even shown the audience a map, for greater clarity, but for some reason it didn’t dawn on them to do that.
Thirty-five minutes into the news conference, a journalist asked a question, and it even seemed that he was perturbed: “Do you have anything to say to Ukrainians?” Rudoy replied: “The working-class majority of Russia and Ukraine have nothing to fight over. Our regimes are our principal enemies. The working-class majority of Russia and Ukraine must unite against the bourgeois authorities. “
Need I explain what the problem is with this museum-quality specimen of pseudo-internationalist Russian jingoism? If it is still not obvious to anyone, I can explain it to them one on one.
I don’t know this person. If you do happen to know him, let him know that Ukrainian socialists are already quite tired of watching Russian socialists perform their traditional dance on the same rake.
No, the fucking Ukrainian authorities are not our principal enemies. Our principal enemies are the Russian authorities, who are waging an aggressive war on our territory. We would sincerely like to help you worm your way out of your imperialist cocoon and help you realize, finally, a simple truth that would enable you to exit your political impasse. Ukraine’s victory, the liquidation of Russia’s colonial empire, and the liberation of the peoples enslaved by the empire are the first and only conditions for the Russian people’s liberation. And it is impossible to jump over this step into your “socialist Russia of the future.”
But if, during the past nine months of a war of conquest, you have not yet figured out that you are not the French in 1914, but the Germans in 1939, then I can only pity you that you have such gaps in your historical education. If you want to continue playing at awakening class consciousness among proletarians living in a fascist state, no one has the right to stop you. But do not be surprised when the steamroller of a reality that you painstakingly avoid comprehending runs over you. Russian society is permeated through and through with a colonialist mindset, jingoism, and messianic imperialism. This ideology has poisoned people on all floors of your caste-based state and until you directly stand up and fight it, you will be able to do nothing but lead the Russian socialist movement to another round of failures.
Ukrainian socialists are ready to extend their hand to you and invite you to join us in our struggle against Russian expansionism and imperialism, the victory over which is the first prerequisite for any struggle for a just society, both in Russia and in Ukraine. We Ukrainians are now losing our best people, including leftists. These people have taken up arms, among other things, to save you from your principal perennial misfortune — an empire that imagines itself to be a nation-state. But what are you doing for this cause?
It’s sad, but it seems we will again have to wistfully watch you making a disgrace of yourselves and solve the problem of the crazy empire ourselves. I would like to be wrong, of course.
The leader of La France Insoumise Jean-Luc Mélenchon and several dozen Insoumise deputies welcomed three Russian opponents of Vladimir Putin, members of a “coalition of Russian socialists against the war,” to the Assembly on Tuesday evening.
Mélenchon expressed his “emotion” in welcoming Alexei Sakhnin, Andrei Rudoy, and Elizaveta Smirnova, Russian radical left activists who had arrived in France the same day.
“Those who are here are those who resist,” said Mélenchon. “They say to themselves, fortunately there are French people like us. And we say to ourselves, fortunately there are Russians like them,” he added.
Mélenchon thanks Macron
“It is Putin and his oligarchy, they alone, who bear the responsibility for the war in Ukraine,” reminded Mathilde Panot leader of the LFI group in the Assembly, calling on [whom?] “to work to isolate the Russian regime. Welcoming and supporting its opponents is part of it.”
“It is a great joy to have them in our midst safe and sound,” added Mélenchon, assuring the audience that “the struggle would continue for them, and we are committed to their side.”
“Once doesn’t count,” the Insoumise leader said, thanking President Macron “for helping us, from beginning to end,” to bring the Russian opposition activists to France.
“The fear of talking about politics” in Russia
“You cannot imagine the atmosphere that reigns in our country,” said Sakhnin, via a translator, referring to “the fear of talking about politics,” and the fear of being mobilized for the war in Ukraine.
“The news that we are in Paris will cause a sensation in Russia,” explained Rudoy, an activist and blogger, who hopes to “create a new International that could unify the leftists of different countries.”
Elizaveta Smirnova added that “all the work we can do is to enable all the Russian people, who live in fear, to have a voice.”
All three indicated that the international economic sanctions had had “consequences” for the lives of Russians. “The standard of living has collapsed by ten percent,” said Rudoy.
At the moment I’m worried by the sense that there is no way out of the situation at the regional level—the war between Russia and Ukraine can go on indefinitely long. Continuing within the pre-established framework of geopolitical nationalism, Russia wants to expand its borders or fortify them with new puppet buffer entities; Ukraine wants to preserve existing territories and get back lost ones; other countries in the region are concerned about preserving themselves as nation-states; and finally, there are territories that someone hopes become new nation-states. We understand some of the above while condemning others, but all of it together is a nationalistic impasse in globalization from which there is no global way out.
A sensible global response to the crisis will emerge only if the situation (no matter how scary this is to say) actually escalates into a global confrontation, into a Third World War. And then those who abstractly and dogmatically insist today that everyone is to blame for the new insane war and the new arms race—Putin, NATO, Ukrainian and European elites—will be proven right. Because the global war, which has been going on for a long time and has lost even a semblance of meaning, naturally provokes peoples and nations who are worse off to ask questions of elites who are still well off or even better off than they were before.
Apparently, this is the only way the one big question to the world order of the last thirty years can be posed and give rise to a big answer—in the form of a new global anti-war, anti-imperialist, redistributive, climate, human rights, unifying federalist, etc., agenda, which would be articulated by new international bodies fueled by genuinely widespread grassroots discontent.
It would be just terrible if different parts of humanity had to kill and maim each other even more in order to feel unity again, embrace common challenges, and suggest common responses.
Hanna Perekhoda Here the Western left has been looking and looking for an anti-war movement on the Russian left. They have searched high and low, wondering how to help them and guessing that those poor people are thinking how to stop the war and undoubtedly need support. With your permission, I will show them this post as an illustration of the ardent zeal on the Russian left to accelerate the defeat of its own fascist regime and stop the war in Ukraine.
Hanna Perekhoda I reread [this post] and was even more gobsmacked. Has helplessness really crushed your brain so much that you are practicing at imagining exactly how the Third World War would solve problems that you no longer have the courage to try and solve, let alone to think about normally? Have even basic moral and ethical principles fallen by the wayside? This is the living end, and a pathetic one at that. No fucking war indeed. Game over.
Source: Kirill Medvedev, Facebook, 11 July 2022. Translated by the Russian Reader
In an existential crisis and looking to solve a cold case, Max checks into a secretive hotel with elaborate assisted suicide fantasies. He uncovers a disturbing truth, questioning the nature of life, death, and his perception of reality.
“There used to be diasporas, now there are communities,” say newcomers in Kas. Some of them organize traditional guided tours, some are in charge of taxi services jointly with locals or are developing food delivery companies.
Maksim Zaikin creates co-living spaces for people with similar habits and values by subletting villas. Maksim, a mentor for several projects in Moscow and St. Petersburg, creator of Co eco-system, arrived in Kas in November 2020 to pass the winter. He first organized a party in the neighboring town of Kalkan attended by 45 people mostly from Kas. Maksim then realized that it’s better to move there.
“All people that I am talking to here say that it’s a sort of place of power,” he says. “Kas gives you energy and helps you grow. Everyone in my circle can feel it. I was meeting people that I knew through Facebook but never had personal contacts with when Russians were arriving here in big numbers. Now, the trend has reversed — people stayed in Turkey for the officially allowed 90 days and decided to move back home or change the location.”
“We often see people leave, realise what they really want and come back. In the time of war, Kas has become not just an isle of calmness but also a space for development.”
At their peak, Maksim and his business partner Nikita had 6 villas on the peninsula and apartments in the centre. Prices start from $1,000 per month for a double room outside of the tourist season. When it gets hotter, prices go up as well to at least $1,700. Coworking spaces that host events, lectures and workshops are also available. It has essentially transformed into a home for the community or a culture centre. “It’s very easy for us to find speakers, they themselves come looking because Kas is a place with a lot of fantastic people.”
The team is planning to set up camps with experts on their villas and launch educational programs for kids. Maksim himself has two, 8- and 10-year-olds, they are currently studying online. But the entrepreneur is dreaming of creating an offline program for education.
Many Russians come with kids but the nearest school offering education in Russian is located in Antalya.
“I am not thinking of going back to Russia,” Maksim concludes. “I want to create a lifestyle where I can move between hubs: Kas, Bali, Portugal. We go where there’s a market for it, where Russians go. I want to live on the planet, not in a country.”
Source: Olga Grigoryeva, “Russians in Kas: A small town in southern Turkey turned into a hub of Russian intellectuals,” Novaya Gazeta. Europe, 14 July 2022
Freedom and Social Identity
August 11, 2014 OpenLeft.ru
The past is the locomotive that pulls the future. Sometimes it is someone else’s past to boot. You go backwards and see only what has already disappeared. And to get off the train you need a ticket. You hold it in your hands. But whom are you going to show it to?
—Victor Pelevin, The Yellow Arrow
I was born in Donetsk to a family in whose home there were two diplomas on the bookshelf: a factory furnace builder’s and an artist’s. The holders of these diplomas desperately tried to build their happiness on the ruins of a communism that might have been. But what seemed like temporary measures turned into permanent professions, and now my father is a taxi driver with years of experience, and my mom has been selling flowers for fifteen years. Earnings were laid away; I studied foreign languages, graduated from a lyceum, got into university in Kyiv, and then went to Europe to study. It is time, in my self-imposed exile, to reflect on where I come from and how to live with it.
The Donbas, where I lived for eighteen years and where my friends and family still live, has now borne the brunt of post-Soviet society’s collective hysteria. And so I feel all the consequences of the conflict that has broken out in my country and that rages in the hearts of many of my countrymen. Attempting to analyze what has happened is primarily a way of understanding myself, this flimsy construction of memories, desires, and ideas that threatens to crumble with each new surge of emotions.
In the most difficult moments of internal fragmentation and rethinking, I remember what French writer Amin Maalouf wrote on this subject in his essay “Deadly Identities”: “The identity cannot be compartmentalized; it cannot be split in halves or thirds, nor have any clearly defined set of boundaries. I do not have several identities, I only have one, made of all the elements that have shaped its unique proportions.” However, I have trouble with my identity, and finding its advantages and positive aspects is a matter of survival and mental health.
Today, the line between absurdity and reality has seamlessly disappeared for a long time to come, obviously, and one spends all one’s mental energy only on understanding the causes of what has happened. For example, why did the separatist movement turn from a marginal idea in the east of the country into the cause of a political and military conflict that has riveted the world’s attention for several months? Why does the line of fire run along the borders of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions? What exactly does this line separate? Russia and Ukraine? Asia and Europe? The Soviet Union and the capitalist West? The best minds (and not only the best minds) in different countries have been strenuously and almost fruitlessly reflecting on these questions day after day, especially in Ukraine, for which the situation proved indecently unexpected. I won’t hidе the fact it was a surprise for me as well, and for all the people in Donetsk I know.
Donetsk is a city that had always lived comfortably without any ethnic identity. It is a city of immigrants, ex-prisoners, and a totally impoverished proletariat that owns nothing but the strength of its own hands. Its center was never a church or town hall, and for a long time no public square was provided in the city plan for assemblies or celebrations. The heart of Donetsk was the factory, something terrible, dangerous, and unpredictable, and at the same time necessary, generous, and paternal. The factory and the mine played the role of idols and taboos: they gave life and had the right to take it away.
Self-definition was based primarily on the principle of “private property,” which clearly divided the proletarianized city and the kulak villages long before these concepts were adopted by the Bolsheviks. The total opposites of the townspeople psychologically, culturally, and economically, the villagers spoke Ukrainian to boot. Few people nowadays know (and usually just deny the fact) that people who spoke Ukrainian had also inhabited the region. The reasons for this memory lapse largely lie in the policy of collectivization, “dizziness with success,” and the famine of 1932–1933. My great-grandmother, a resident of the village of Chicherino in the Donetsk region, was one of three survivors in a family of eleven children. The first time she talked about what she had been through was at the age of ninety, when she was finally convinced the hammer and sickle had been removed from the village council building for good and the yellow-and-blue flag had been hanging there for several years. It was already her grandchildren and great-grandchildren to whom she told her story. She talked about executions and cannibalism, finishing her story with the phrase, “If only Stalin had known.”
According to those whose children and parents had died of hunger, none of it would have happened if Stalin had known. It is quite scary to realize it is the regions that were most affected by the man-made famine that deny this crime most furiously. I am not willing to support Ukrainian politicians who claim it was a genocide of the Ukrainian people. The people who spoke Ukrainian back then did not always think of themselves as a nation, but they did feel the land belonged to them and they held onto it until the bitter end. My great-grandmother’s family suffered not because they spoke Ukrainian, but because they did not want to give up their patch of black earth and their cow. It was easier to nurture the new “Soviet” man on this scorched earth, and it was not hard to convince my grandfather to speak Russian and be ashamed of his uneducated mother, babbling in a dialect alien to the mighty country.
I was born to a Russian-speaking family, but I went to a Ukrainian-language school (then one of fifteen in a city of a million people) only because it was close to home. I never cease thanking the heavens that my teachers were people with “double” identities who gave us the ability to think critically and try on different “folk costumes.” Thanks to our history lessons, Bandera is not a dirty word to me, but nor is he a guiding light. I was never faced with the question of choosing heroes and ideals, because I felt my future should not and would not depend on my country’s past. And the issue of countries never came up. I always loved the Russia “we had lost,” while contemporary Russia mostly inspired pity and disgust, increasingly causing me to try on the Ukrainian embroidered blouse known as “it’s not much of a democracy, but it’s a democracy all the same,” because it obviously fit better.
While I was wearing embroidered blouses, speaking Russian in Lviv, studying French in Kyiv, and insisting on my proletarian background in the company of European students, life went on its own way in the Donbas. When revolution began in Ukraine, I once again actively reconstructed my identity, organizing fellow citizens to demonstrate outside a UN building in Geneva, giving fiery speeches about my love for Ukraine, feeling I was needed, and also feeling guilty towards those who were risking their lives for our country.
Then one day some Donetsk friends sent me a video. A column of several hundred people with foreign flags and shouting the name of a foreign country march down Ilyich Avenue, where I was born and where I went through more than one stage of socialization. A woman at a bus stop ostentatiously displays her Ukrainian passport, which the marchers snatch from the woman, violently insulting her in the process. I can use bare facts, surveys, and other data to analyze why this happened, but I cannot get my head around the fact that it happened on my street.
As a native of Donetsk, what has surprised me about this situation is the demand of the regions to grant them greater economic and cultural powers. Over many years, not counting the Kravchuk and Yushchenko administrations, the Donbas received unprecedented subsidies, since the Donetsk and Dnipropetrovsk clans were in power. But the local bosses, who tirelessly chanted the mantra that Donbas money was going to feed the idlers in Lviv and Kyiv, pocketed the money. The region’s economy was totally controlled by the local authorities. What greater powers could there be to give? And to whom could they be given? To the same local bosses who all these twenty-three years, working like dogs, “raised the Donbas from its knees”?
They say each region should decide what language to speak and what heroes to honor. But in order to decentralize one fine day, it would be first necessary to centralize the country around a common cultural concept. Complaints about excessive Ukrainization of the region not only do not correspond to reality, but contradict it. Ukrainian was more exotic sounding than Arabic in Donetsk: I never heard anyone speaking Ukrainian on the streets there. No newspapers were published in the language, and the local TV stations did not broadcast in Ukrainian. To find the books I needed on Ukrainian literature, I had to order them from Kyiv. The last step to de-Ukrainization was removing the Ukrainian flags from government buildings, which were the few signs of Ukraine’s presence in its eastern lands. And the popular masses took this step to de-Ukrainization.
The Ukrainian project failed because it did not succeed in making the Donbas part of Ukraine over these twenty-three years. No unifying idea based on a vision of a common future, rather than on the historical legacy, on ethnic and linguistic identity, was found. So Ukraine lived for its heroic and tragic history of the struggle for freedom, while the Donbas was left to dream about returning to the Soviet Union.
The project of creating a “Soviet people” was a success in the Donbas, and now the hour has come to reap its fruits. The fact that the “Kyiv junta” is being warded off there with two iconic images simultaneously—those of Stalin and Christ—should not be taken seriously. They are merely symbols, shells, talismans, and amulets. People in the Donbas are motivated by the honest desire, which no one makes any bones about, to obey someone who can embody the image of the “father” (or batya, in the common parlance).
Whence this desire for a strong hand? Increasingly, journalists provide a simple explanation: it is all because mentally, physiologically, and almost genetically they are slaves, sovoks (homo Sovieticus), irrational, and uneducated besides. I find explanations like this unacceptable. They render this gap almost biologically insurmountable, and doom attempts to find common ground to failure before they start.
First of all, it is worth remembering this society had no experience of building horizontal social ties. This chance was first given in 1991, but the criminal clans quickly took advantage of it. They grabbed the “strong hand” baton, leaving behind, in terms of social welfare, the working people, who were totally out of their depth and utterly discouraged.
A government that controls nothing, but instead shifts responsibility to its citizens, is a weak government. For example, many people in Donetsk consider democracy a weak form of government. Why are the local housing authorities dysfunctional? Why are there no light bulbs in the stairwells of residential buildings? Because all that has multiplied like rabbits is democracy and freedom, they think. Freedom turned out to be something no one needed, because it was confused with the liberty to do what you want and survive as you can.
Thanks to the experience of living in a European country, I became aware of the inconsistencies in this understanding of freedom. I once had to explain to a Western classmate the perennial dilemma of our society: the question of whether order or freedom was more important. He saw such reflections as something out of the Middle Ages, because for many Europeans it is evident that the freedom of each citizen is the sole guarantee of order. Freedom of choice and democracy are, in fact, the mechanisms that enable society to control those it elects to leadership positions.
It seems the Donbas lived until 1991, and after that it only survived and was more like a terminally ill patient. It was not only high salaries that disappeared along with prosperity but also the meaning of life, which had been based on a belief in slogans about the invaluable contribution of miners and workers to building the bright communist future. And then it was gone: the privileges, the confidence in the future, and the pride in one’s work. Poverty is easy to manipulate, and the people who stated at every opportunity that “the Donbas feeds Ukraine” and that it “could not be brought to its knees” have secured a comfortable future for themselves at the expense of the region’s population, who live below the poverty line.
All these twenty-odd years, people of the Donbas who had been born in the Soviet Union recalled it with nostalgia, reviving only the good things in their memories. My mother often recalled how there was such delicious fatty milk every day in kindergarten, and how she had been paid a phenomenally high salary for frescoes depicting athletes and cosmonauts on the walls the Mariupol House of Young Pioneers. Even queues for dish sets and rugs, and then for sausage and bread, were recalled as something bright, as a symbol of the people’s unity amidst its misfortune. After all, almost everyone stood in queues for sausage, and those who did not stand in them avoided flaunting their wealth.
People are not looking for politicians who tell them uncomfortable truths. And the truth is that the coal industry has long been a loss-making dead end. The whole industrial structure of the Donbas has to be changed and the process of retraining the region begun: there are no other chances. It is not hard to guess that the population has preferred to be robbed, but consoled. In Orwell’s anti-utopia 1984, there is the following passage: “[Winston] knew in advance what O’Brien would say. That the Party […] sought power because men in the mass were frail, cowardly creatures who could not endure liberty or face the truth, and must be ruled over and systematically deceived by others who were stronger than themselves. That the choice for mankind lay between freedom and happiness, and that, for the great bulk of mankind, happiness was better.” Maybe those born in the Donbas can fully sense the meaning of these lines.
The Soviet-era rhetoric came back pretty quickly, while the standard of living increased very slowly: the population contented itself with the myth of the good life more than the real thing. My neighbors on the landing spoke with pride of what a pretty stadium Rinat Akhmetov (the oligarch and “boss” of the Donbas) had built, and how nice it was that the European football championship was being held in our city. They were genuinely happy, although they had no way of buying a ticket to any of the matches and had no idea who had footed the bill for building stadiums they could only look at from afar.
All reputable political forces in the Donbas persistently promised one thing: union with Russia. No one dared promise a return to the Soviet Union, but the descriptions of Russia were exact copies of a landscape from the lost Soviet paradise. In this fairytale Russia, everyone was equal, loved the motherland and the supreme leader, despised the rotten West, and belonged to the Moscow Patriarchy of the Orthodox Church (the real patriarchy). But most importantly, everything was stable in Russia: there was a normal life there without shocks and unnecessary hassles. Well yes, there were parasites there, too, who scoffed at the government and the church, demanding some kind of freedom, but they were quickly isolated from normal healthy society, thank God.
Honest naïve citizens believed in this caricature of the Soviet Union. They took the flagrant mockery at face value and raised it on a pedestal as a national idea. This unimaginably grotesque amalgam of tsarism, Stalinism, National Bolshevism, Eurasianism, the cult of victory in World War Two, and Orthodoxy was crowned with the name of Putin, who subsequently betrayed the sincere faith of Donetsk’s people.
I am faced with a lot of questions. First, how will these deceived people go on living if the twenty year-old promises of the Russian world do not come true? Second, how will those who never believed in these fairytales live alongside them? How can I return to my hometown? After all, my age-mates, who once waited outside the entrance to my building to scare or insult me for the fun of it are now toting machine guns and having fun the adult way. Who knows when I will get answers to my questions, when I will be able to live at home and not travel in search of gracious hosts willing to shelter me. Who knows when my parents will again find work in desolated Donetsk, where no one takes a taxi nowadays, and flowers are bought only for funerals.
Identity comes at a high price to us. Thousands of people have been killed, and one of the reasons is so that more and more Russian-speaking people in the country can say with confidence, “We are Ukrainians,” not because we speak Ukrainian, but because we want to be free. People are not free if they do not want to know the truth and are comfortable living in ignorance. People who began to think become free. That is why I want Ukraine to become free in the search for truth, which often hurts the eyes, but cleanses the soul.
Hanna Perekhoda, a native of Donetsk, is a student at the University of Lausanne. Translated by the Russian Reader. Images courtesy of OpenLeft.ru.