Oblique Thoughts on Ukraine and the Crimea

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1.The flowing of blood (or its prospective flow) in one part of the European continent inevitably attracts the flow of words from hacks, experts and semi-experts, journalists who have rushed to speak to experts and semi-experts and so on. Down eventually to the person on the sofa watching the TV screen or those who make their comments below the articles of those who have commented. The verbal diarrhoea generated can be, and is probably meant to be, overwhelming.

2.a. Sympathies and antipathies generated soon degenerate into rather demented beliefs: I still remember almost 15 years later after doing some research on anti-military protests in the former Yugoslavia at the early part of the war for a final essay the tale of an American feminist speaking to a Serbian feminist at the time of the wars of dissolution in Yugoslavia. The Serbian feminist was trying to explain to the American that while she was a Serb (and still living in Belgrade) she was opposed to Milosevic and his war. To which the American replied; “If that’s so, why aren’t you dead”. It feels as though similar mindsets are at work with the Ukraine – Russia crisis. As one person noted on their Facebook page the discourse that pundits are using is already talking about ‘ethnic Russians’ and their perspective. There is something deeply sinister about how people misread the situation. The ethnicity explanation brings one back to the Yugoslavia debacle of misunderstandings. That instant analysis that drowns out all reason.


2.b. An interesting story about how sympathies and antipathies are generated is a story told by Evgeniy Golubenko, the script-writer and husband of Kira Muratova. His mother had an undying hatred of Hungarians even though she had probably never met a single Hungarian in her life. The fact is that she was left, nine months pregnant, suddenly without her husband (her main support) because he was sent off for re-training during the Hungarian revolution of 1956. This entirely personal reason for one’s relationship to a nation or a historical event may well not be so unusual.

3. As a resident of Russia for many years, a British passport with Italian roots, I confess a certain confusion of perspective. I’d rather criticize the imperialism of my own country (which one?) first. I have a general disgust for all flags and national obssessions. Culturally I feel European in more ways than one but Russia has meant me questioning the limits of my European-ness. There remain instinctual (culturally embedded) reactions of mine as a European. There is, moreover, in me a general distaste for more or less every military operation that my country of residence involves itself in (wherever that country of residence be at the time). I also feel uneasy about supporting calls for intervention by stronger sides (the western powers).

For me “The enemy is at home” is a fine ideal until I start thinking about where my home is supposed to be. What home? Where is my home? Not only am I a convinced internationalist, I guess I see myself as a rather rootless cosmopolitan. If I identify myself with someone it is probably the character of Joseph Roth’s ‘Flight Without End’, and I find a certain kind of weightlessness (or superfluousness) in my current situation:

It was at about that hour that my friend Tunda, thirty-two years old, healthy and vigorous, a strong young man of divers talents, stood on the square in front of the Madeleine, in the centre of the world’s capital, and didn’t know what to do. He had no calling, no love, no desire, no hope, no ambition, and not even egotism.
In all the world there was no one so superfluous as he.

4. Yet wars (and the prospects of war) confound and wound me. At some point I started thinking about the first war I experienced which assaulted my world of thought. For me Russia in 2014 with its growing obsession with Crimea and Ukraine started to have something of the UK in 1982 with the Brits obsession about ‘their’ Falklands. It’s not as though there are formal, legal parallels. There aren’t that many. Crimea means more to Russians than the Falklands/Malvinas ever meant to the UK (at least up to 1982). And the Falklands/Malvinas issue is a different kind of colonial nut to break. But there is something about Russian society and British society which felt similar. The wars that the UK has been involved in after the 1980s have become much more decisive affairs. There have never been large majorities in the UK favouring the Iraq war or the one in Afghanistan. Yet there was over the Falklands conflict- just as now in Russia there seems to be that growing consensus over the Crimea. Remembering and thinking back at that time in Britain, there was that same talk of betrayal and pinkos that there is in Russia today (here the talk is of traitors and fifth columnists). The enemy without (the new Ukrainian government and Maidan) is quickly being supplemented with an enemy within (‘national traitors’ is the term used by Putin today- March 18th). More and more people that one would have imagined against the military adventure support it. Jingoism, too, whipped up in a rather successful way. Even the information war during the Malvinas/Falklands conflict should not be underestimated- it was a very badly reported war. Even though Russian television seems to do everything to make this not just a badly reported war but the first step into building some kind of completely alternative reality.

British hysteria and fanaticism

5. Describing the past few weeks and months in Russia is that kind of task which leaves the head spinning. It certainly feels like a watershed period. Indeed it feels as though all certainties and so many alliances are being torn asunder. It is one of those moments when former allies have become adversaries and former adversaries unlikely allies. On the anti-war demonstration on March 15th one could breathe a sigh of relief that the all-too common imperial flags where absent but then it was also rather difficult to find red flags. Only a relatively small section of the crowd carried and marched behind the Russian Socialist Movement’s flag or that of the Committee for a Workers’ International. There were three small groups of anarchists involved and it was a nice surprise that Vladimir Akimenkov had turned up to the demonstration marching with one of these groups. The Left Front flags, however, were generally absent. There was a sea of both Russian and Ukrainian flags and many of the liberal movements also seemed to be well represented. Feminists and LGBT were also represented. Yet it is impossible not to be aware that these days have established new walls of misunderstanding between former friends who previously found themselves on the same side of political arguments. Often the disputes have grown bitter. In many ways this Crimea adventure has the potential to turn out like many other seminal events in history- a moment of division and separation and a reminder of how history breaks open and subverts some of the strongest and closest of ties.

The March for Peace in Moscow 15th March 2014

6. Following Facebook discussions has been a time-consuming and depressing activity in past weeks. Depressing also because of the fact that events in conflicts supersede so fast and the news and videos are so full of violent facts and images that one tends to drown in a growing despair. Depressing also because one sees the abyss between people’s views and the growing aggression and frustration building between people. Yet Facebook is surely becoming the only medium of exchange of opinions.

7. In many ways I want to write about the Ukraine and the Crimea that I know. Lvov, Kiev, Odessa, Zhytomyr and the many places in the Crimea that I’ve visited, some time and again. Odessa for me is the one Russian-language city that most closely represents an ideal habitus. A city I feel in tune with. Imagining Odessa falling into some future civil war is beyond bearable. Beyond analysis. Beyond words into that territory of the tragic. That empty place in which the rhythm of life is forced into an uncontrollable vortex of madness, and words and analysis become a kind of betrayal. Maybe all this is paranoia. Yet the political and the geopolitical is surely overshadowing the personal in this part of the world.

Odessa, decades ago

8. Reason struggles in a weak manner against the kind of subversion of reality and the construction of a new false Reality that seems to be taking place here in Russia now. Geopolitically maybe it simply denotes the resurgence of a new imperialism. Almost fifteen years since first coming to Moscow there is a sense that some line has been crossed from keeping the madder forces at bay to inviting them to the centre of the stage. The Dugin’s, Prokhanov’s, Kiselev’s and Limonov’s seem to be the new builders of acceptable reality and discourse. One is starting to breathe in a different air. The kind of air surrounding someone addicted to the crack cocaine of patriotism gone mad.

People would do well to read Stas Markelov’s Patriotism as Diagnosis. His last text it really does seem to be written with today in mind:

If someone wishes to show his crazy love for something let him shut himself up in the bathroom and demonstrate it. To publicly make love is exhibitionism, immoral and amoral. Public love for the leader, for Power is no less amoral.

One’s idea of the Motherland is not defined by state boundaries, territories or even the settlement of one’s blood relatives. It is a personal idea and one which you can’t force on others. Personal things are not the object of parades and passionate declarations. It’s like hanging up one’s underwear as a kind of flag.

He who really loves his Motherland won’t shout out about this in every street corner and swear by their patriotism. Moreover he won’t force others to do so or make of patriotism a state doctrine. If in the guise of a national idea we are palmed off with phony patriotism it means that this is useful for someone, someone who is trying to hide their profit- a profit, to put it mildly, not entirely honest or legal.

The question isn’t only about whether we agreed to swallow this bait, not entirely about whether have been softened by this patriotic gabble, whether we wish to pig out on the national lie and be ready to gobble any shit so long as it is served with a patriotic sauce? The choice is left: are you healthy or has the epidemic of patriotic insanity managed to eat into your minds so you no longer digest anything but the sickly ambrosial gushing from the television and the cries of the thieves about how they love their Motherland.

An honest man can’t be a patriot because honesty is irreconcilable with patriotic swank. A wise man will never become a patriot because to actually assimilate patriotic slogans is the fate of imbeciles ready to deceive themselves. Self-respecting people aren’t taken in by the patriotic deception. They have their own opinions and they don’t need them to be substituted with intrusive propaganda.

And one would do well to remind themselves of Anastasia Baburova’s (an anti-fascist journalist working in Moscow but from Sevastopol and assassinated alongside Markelov by Russian Neo-Nazis) slogan Мое отечество – все человечествое (My country is the whole of humanity).

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About afoniya

I am a translator, language teacher, independent film scholar who is interested in many aspects of culture. I have my own blog on Russian and Soviet cinema at http://giuvivrussianfilm.blogspot.com and I have also written for journals such as Film Philosophy and Bright Lights as well as Ribbed magazine. Outside of film my interest runs to language, politics, literature and my world is centred around the Meditteranean, Russia, Southern Ukraine as well as the UK.

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