Sofia Andrukhovych, Neal Ascherson, Ilya Budraitskis, James Butler, Andrew Cockburn, Meehan Crist, Sheila Fitzpatrick, Peter Geoghegan, Jeremy Harding, Owen Hatherley, Abby Innes, Mimi Jiang, Thomas Jones, Laleh Khalili, Jackson Lears, Donald MacKenzie, Thomas Meaney, James Meek, Pankaj Mishra, Azadeh Moaveni, Jan-Werner Müller, Vadim Nikitin, Jacqueline Rose, Jeremy Smith, Daniel Soar, Olena Stiazhkina, Vera Tolz, Daniel Trilling
translated by Uilleam Blacker
On the first day, we hid in the Mins’ka metro station with our dog, Zlata. The entire platform was covered with people. We found a little gap next to a large family with lots of children and a sick grandad who was getting sicker and sicker. Their cat kept peeing from fear and the smell was everywhere. Some people were better prepared than others: they had brought fold-up chairs, blankets, flasks of hot tea. We came with nothing, though I had started packing a bag as soon as the sound of explosions woke me up. I couldn’t solve the puzzle of what exactly you’re supposed to take with you if you might never go back to your home, or if you might die at any moment. I tried to pack my things several times, but in the end we left with our hands almost empty.
Before the war, I was a writer. Today, on the ninth day, I feel unable to string two words together. It’s hard to believe that just over a week ago we were living a normal life. I have to try very hard to remember what that life was like.
Those who survive will be able to reflect on it all. For the time being, our words are exalted, exaggerated; our shock, rage and hatred are best expressed in obscene language. We talk about our love for one another as we never have done before, as though our lives depended on it.
Words now carry a critical weight. I need them to ask my friend Andriy every morning whether he’s still alive. Before the war, Andriy worked for a publisher. We went running together on the Obolon’ embankment. Now he is in the army defending Kyiv.
I need them to talk to my grandma Zoya. She is 93 and lives in Chernihiv, which has been shelled continuously for days. I recognised one of the ruined buildings in a photograph: it was right next door to her home. Her medicine is running out. When I ring her up, she talks about her childhood during the Second World War. Sitting at the window in her classroom, she tells me, she made eye contact with a German fighter pilot. When I was a writer, I wrote about false memories, about the games our minds play on us after terrible experiences.
I need words to find out whether my friend Oksana, an ophthalmologist, has returned home from hospital each night. I need them to find out from her if her husband has been in touch. He is stuck in Bucha with his elderly parents, who don’t understand what’s going on. Bucha was one of the nicest little towns near Kyiv, before the war.
As I’m writing this, in Ivano-Frankivsk in Western Ukraine, Volodya finally manages to get through to me. We haven’t heard from him for more than three days. He and his family left Donetsk in 2014, fleeing the war. Since then they have lived in a small house not far from Kyiv. The connection is terrible; I can barely make out what he’s saying. He says that there is shooting all around, that he can’t get out, but that he is alive. I’m calling so that you don’t worry about me, he says.
I don’t know if I’ll write again after the war. What I need words for now is to tell Volodya about all the novels he will write when all this is over. I watch my phone, waiting for him to read my messages.
A chain of half-recognised statelets lies around the Black Sea. If Putin wins this war, a puppet Ukraine might be added as the pendant on this necklace. But if he loses, and above all if a democratic Russia emerges to make peace with its neighbours, some of the statelets will explode in blood and there will be an exodus of yet more refugees. They are – from south-east to north-west – Artsakh, South Ossetia, Abkhazia, the two Donbas ‘republics’ of Donetsk and Luhansk, and Transnistria. Crimea, now formally annexed into the Russian Federation, is a borderline case. None of them is recognised as a sovereign state except by one another, Russia and a few outliers (Nauru, a microstate in Oceania, recognised Abkhazia, for instance). Almost all of them (except for Artsakh, an Armenian breakaway from contested Nagorno-Karabakh) have their origins in ethnic rebellions that took place as the Soviet Union broke up. Almost all of them survive only because of Russian military protection against their vengeful neighbours.
All have tiny populations, and some have less convincing claims to statehood than others. Abkhazia refused to become a province of an independent Georgia when the Soviet Union broke up; a Georgian punitive invasion in 1993 provoked a savage war that ended in Abkhaz victory and the flight or expulsion of the Georgian population. Transnistria, with just under half a million people, is a strip of land between Moldova and Ukraine: its people are mostly Russian or Ukrainian speakers, who fought a five-month war of independence in 1992 to avoid being swallowed up in Romanian-speaking Moldova. (They were helped, to put it mildly, by the Russian 14th Guards Army stationed in the region). The fate of the twin Donbas republics is still uncertain: Moscow recognises their ‘independence’ but has not yet accepted their request to be annexed by Russia.
We have to imagine a post-Putin Russia. Most of Europe – and many Russians – would rejoice. But what would happen to the statelets if a new Russia were to withdraw its military protection and seek reconciliation with Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine? There can be little doubt that Georgian forces would enter Abkhazia and South Ossetia, which it regards as Georgian territories under Russian occupation. This would provoke fierce resistance – especially in Abkhazia – and years of bloodshed. Moldova and perhaps Ukraine would wipe Transnistria and its Russophone independence off the map. As for the Donbas republics, their position is so inflammable that Ukraine and Russia might agree to leave them as undefined zombies. And Crimea? Only a fresh war could detach it from Russia again. The West, in its containment of Russia, has guaranteed not only the independence but the self-defined territorial integrity of Russia’s western neighbours. This could well mean supporting their revenge and reconquest in places lost to them thirty years ago – sometimes with good reason.
Thousands of people have taken to the streets in almost every big Russian city to oppose the war Putin has launched against Ukraine. They have done so despite the fact that the risks of participating in a protest in our country today are higher than ever before: beatings and torture at police stations, the possibility of losing your job or being expelled from university, even the threat of imprisonment. Anti-war protesters are surrounded by the silent supporters of the government and a minority of aggressive chauvinists, ready to write denunciations and make lists of disloyal compatriots. The war has dramatically and irrevocably changed the atmosphere in Russian society: until recently people seemed tired of patriotic TV propaganda and had retreated into their private lives, but now many confidently repeat clichés from Putin’s speeches about ‘Ukrainian Nazis’.
This new atmosphere doesn’t signify a genuine nationalist revival: there are no mass pro-war rallies, much less a flood of volunteers willing to die for the return of ‘historic Russian lands’. Confidence that your country is right about everything is the flipside of admitting your own powerlessness. Russian society is crossing the thin line between passive indifference and passive complicity as a result of the development of Putin’s regime over the past two decades. It is a regime whose main features have been depoliticisation and cynicism. The Russian political system, from the president’s inner circle to the lowest bureaucrat, has never cared about shared values. On the contrary, the private has taken priority over the collective. Corruption in Putin’s Russia is not an individual vice, but a system in which almost every civil servant has to participate. All talk of universal rights, it was argued, merely masked special interests, and all social movements – from the Kyiv Maidan to the American BLM – were faked, drummed up for effect. Like it or not, you will always remain a pawn in someone else’s game, so isn’t it better to be used by your own country than someone else’s?
Today, this logic has led Russia to a war against its closest neighbour and the establishment of a violent dictatorship that sees any questioning of the official position as a crime. Hannah Arendt argued that totalitarianism grows not out of a passion for big ideas, but out of indifference, the atomisation of society and contempt for any form of political participation. The attempts by parts of the Western media to portray Putin as a tyrant espousing a messianic Russian nationalism are highly unconvincing. For years, Western politicians have treated him as a rational autocrat with whom they could do business. The distinctive features of his regime – the systematic suppression of civil liberties and the elimination of public institutions, from independent trade unions to an independent court system – were perceived merely as national quirks.
One wouldn’t expect this reasonable man to threaten the world with nuclear weapons. But now the tragedy of Ukraine has become a terrible reality, it must be understood that Putin is not an anomaly, but part of a global market society dominated by naked interests. It should also finally be understood that nuclear parity and a stable architecture of international relations cannot prevent war. Only mass political participation and personal responsibility can truly put an end to this war. This is what those who, against all odds, take part in anti-war protests in Russia are trying to convey to the world.
At an emergency session of the Bundestag on Sunday, 27 February, Olaf Scholz, the new German Chancellor, referred to Putin’s invasion of Ukraine as a Zeitenwende, a ‘turning point’ in global affairs. He was thinking of Germany’s new military position, and of the looming energy crisis, but the war should also prompt a new intellectual dispensation. It is clear now that integration into the global economy cannot be considered a failsafe check on military ambition; that Nato’s continued existence, however provocative, is a pretext for Russian aggression, not its final cause; and that Western countries will not risk conventional war to preserve Ukraine’s sovereignty. Realist critics warned long before the annexation of Crimea that Ukraine was the most probable site for conflict with Russia – and that little would be done to prevent it. This has been borne out. But such analysis, with its cool implication that states such as Ukraine have no choice but to submit to the nearest great power, has run its course.
John Mearsheimer’s argument of recent weeks that what we are seeing played out is ‘not imperialism [but] great-power politics’ will strike many as a distinction without a difference. Imperial history has far more to teach us than our decaying Atlantic hegemony or the nuclear duopoly that preceded it. The exemplar here is the period of fractious interimperial rivalry that led to the First World War, with its authorising fantasies concocted by powerful nations, and their manifold techniques of coercion and domination. There are differences, of course: globalisation is now near total; hugely more power resides with non-state actors; nations are armed with catastrophically more dangerous weapons. The left that emerged during and after the First World War not only dissented from political pushes for war but had the power to influence, even to end them. Dissent without power better characterises our current state.
Even those who foresaw Putin’s war have struggled to make sense of his strategic choices. His failure to anticipate Ukrainian resistance suggests a leader who has fallen for his own propaganda. This in itself is grounds to fear tutelary annihilation: a second Grozny, or worse. The worldview governing the Kremlin isn’t nostalgic for the USSR but is more fantastical, blending Baptism of the Rus’ with Samuel Huntington’s Clash of Civilisations. Similar worldviews extend well beyond Moscow.
In a secret memorandum dated 6 April 1960, a US State Department official called Lestor Mallory spelled out the ultimate purpose of American sanctions on Cuba: to ‘bring about hunger, desperation and overthrow of government’. Twenty years later, the CIA Intelligence Directorate produced a report on the effectiveness of the sanctions. ‘In our judgment,’ the analysts concluded, ‘economic sanctions, by themselves or in conjunction with other measures, have not met any of their objectives.’ They had even strengthened the Cuban regime, since they ‘provided Castro with a scapegoat for all kinds of domestic problems’.
More than sixty years after Mallory’s hopeful prognosis, as the US and its allies step up their economic war on Russia, the basic effects of sanctions are unchanged. They do cause hunger and desperation; they don’t lead to the overthrow of the enemy regime; they do strengthen its grip on power. In Iraq, Iran and Syria, populations were at least immiserated and often starved. There is little reason to expect that the blockade of almost everything Russian, from banks to cats (now banned from international competition), will alter the political fortunes of Vladimir Putin.
Over the years, however, the weapon itself has been refined. In the late 1980s, officials at what had been a sleepy bureaucratic backwater at the US Treasury, the Office of Foreign Assets Control, developed the tool of targeting businesses and their owners by isolating them from any connection with the dollar economy. Stuart Levey, Treasury undersecretary for terrorism and financial intelligence between 2004 and 2011, pioneered a way of inflicting destruction far beyond any designated target. His innovation was to target banks that dealt in any way with one of the tens of thousands of people and entities on OFAC’s Specially Designated Nationals and Blocked Persons list, and punish infractions with multibillion dollar fines. Almost no bank will now go anywhere near someone who might be on the list. This means, for instance, that although OFAC has issued ‘special licences’ permitting aid organisations to transfer money into Afghanistan to help feed the millions on the brink of starvation there, in practice it’s next to impossible to do so, because the US and European banks necessary to the transaction are terrified that they might inadvertently be connected to a targeted individual such as a Taliban official.
The novel feature of the current economic offensive against Russia is of course that Russia has weapons of its own – notably energy, food and other commodities vital to the global economy – which its officials have explicitly threatened to deploy. They may induce hunger – much of the Middle East relies on Russian and Ukrainian wheat, for example – and desperation in regions far and wide. Who will the regimes under threat choose to blame? Russia? Or the US?
The war in Ukraine has served, among other things, as a reminder of the attitudes of many in the West to the suffering of black and brown people. Implicitly and explicitly, politicians and commentators have made clear their disparagement, their ignorance, their casual cultural supremacy. ‘This isn’t a place, with all due respect, like Iraq or Afghanistan that has seen conflict raging for decades,’ CBS’s Charlie D’Agata said on air. ‘This is a relatively civilised, relatively European – I have to choose those words carefully, too – city, where you wouldn’t expect that, or hope that it’s going to happen.’ Putting to one side the millennia of civilisations in Iraq and Afghanistan, what’s striking here is the attribution of the chaos and destruction of war to the inhabitants of those countries and not to the ‘civilised’ foreign aggressors who have used them as theatres for their proxy wars. Baldly racist statements of this sort (and there have been many) don’t try to disguise their underlying assumption: that ‘civilisation’ is something white people do, and that conflict beyond ‘European’ borders is the natural state of things. ‘War is no longer something visited upon impoverished and remote populations,’ Daniel Hannan wrote in the Daily Telegraph. ‘They seem so like us. That is what makes it so shocking.’ On BFM TV in France: ‘We’re not talking about Syrians fleeing the bombing of the Syrian regime … We’re talking about Europeans leaving in cars that look like ours to save their lives.’ On ITV: ‘This is not a developing, Third World nation. This is Europe!’ It needs saying, again and again, that this rhetoric is racist, imperialist and extremely dangerous.
Just days after the invasion, the UN released its latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report, which the secretary general, António Guterres, characterised as ‘an atlas of human suffering and a damning indictment of failed climate leadership’. Black and brown populations are disproportionately more likely to face the ecological devastation of their environments; their lives and livelihoods are at greater risk from deadly heatwaves, drought, crop failure, rising tides. The lesser status of their suffering only makes this more acute. As Mary Heglar has written, such suffering ‘barely registers as newsworthy. It’s just “a thing that happens” … It’s the reason Nigerians and Indians fleeing Ukraine are finding closed doors instead of open arms … everyone is used to Black and brown people in distress.’ The authors of the report predict that up to 143 million people will be displaced over the next thirty years. Most will come from Africa, South Asia and Latin America. The Canadian activist Harsha Walia argues that in mapping vulnerability to displacement, we expose the line dividing ‘rich and poor … the global North and South … whiteness and its Black, Indigenous and racialised others’. Mapping the Western media’s grossly different reactions to war gives those millions of yet to be displaced people a taste of what’s to come.
And there is something else to fear. One of the worst possible outcomes of the war in Ukraine would be an increasingly militarised response to climate breakdown, in which Western armies, their budgets ballooning in the name of ‘natural security’, seek to control not only the outcome of conflicts but the flow of energy, water, food, key minerals and other natural resources. One does not have to work particularly hard to imagine how barbarous that future would be.
In Australia, the terrible events in Ukraine coincided with catastrophic floods in New South Wales and Queensland. On the news, images of refugees crossing the Ukrainian border into Poland were interspersed with pictures of Australian flood victims heading to shelters, their homes destroyed. It looked like the inevitable next chapter in the apocalyptic story that began in Australia with the bushfires in the summer of 2019-20 before moving straight on to the Covid pandemic.
From the standpoint of the prime minister, Scott Morrison, perhaps looking for a national security scare to lift his approval ratings in the run-up to the elections in May, Russia was unquestionably part of an ‘arc of autocracy’ (an alliterative echo of the ‘evil empire’) of which Morrison’s bugbear, China, though unnamed, was the central piece.
The vehemence of support for Ukraine and the denunciation of Russia in the media has shocked Russian-Australians, even many of those who have publicly condemned Russia’s actions. But there were a few dissenters. One was Sasha, a Russian student at the University of Melbourne, who submitted a question to the popular ABC show Q+A, asking why nobody cared about Ukraine’s violation of the Minsk Agreement and the killing of Russians in Donbas. He was upset by ‘the narrative created by our media, depicting Ukraine as the good guy and Russia as the bad guy … Believe it or not, there are a lot of Russians here and around the world that support what Putin is doing in Ukraine, myself included.’
This provoked heckling from the studio audience, and the moderator, Stan Grant, corrected the claim that the UN’s figure of 13,000 people killed in Donbas since 2014 applied to Russians alone, and that the perpetrators of the killings included ‘Nazi groups’ – corrections Sasha accepted. Grant then paraphrased the question in general terms as one of moral equivalence and directed it briefly to the panel before moving on to other topics. But twenty minutes later, without any apparent provocation but evidently sensing that the question had upset some in the audience, he suddenly told Sasha to leave immediately, because ‘we can’t have people advocating violence.’
A decade or so ago, someone was ejected from Q+A for throwing a shoe at the ex-PM John Howard, but Sasha showed no signs of resorting to physical violence. The next day there was some pushback by commentators criticising hypocrisy and defending free speech. But many people praised Grant’s action and called for larger measures to prohibit such obnoxious views reaching the Australian public. The minister of communications, Paul Fletcher, obliged by instructing major social media platforms to block all content from Russian state media. This attempted act of censorship – a mirror image of the Russian government’s recent shutting down of Facebook and Twitter – was without precedent in Australia, at least since the Second World War. In Australia the platforms have not complied, so far. But Australians’ heartfelt support for democracy in Ukraine seems to have had the unintended effect of eroding democratic freedoms at home.
On 7 March, the Economic Crime Bill was rushed through Parliament in a single day with cross-party support. The legislation, drafted in 2018, had been hastily updated to include new sanctions in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Boris Johnson said the bill would ‘tighten the noose around Putin’s regime’. Anti-corruption experts are more circumspect: the measures are piecemeal and there is little sign of meaningfully increased investment in enforcement. A veteran financial transparency campaigner told me the reforms were ‘bollocks’.
The scale of Britain’s dirty money problem is well documented. For more than two decades the ‘London laundromat’ has cleaned kleptocratic cash without fear or favour. Since 2008, when Gordon Brown introduced the Tier 1 ‘golden visa’ scheme, 905 Russian millionaires and their families have come to the UK. The scheme was scrapped on 17 February. According to Transparency International, since 2016 ‘Russians accused of corruption or links to the Kremlin’ have spent £1.5 billion on British property.
Since Johnson became leader in 2019, the Conservatives have received £1.9 million from donors linked to Russia. The weekend before the invasion of Ukraine, a Sunday Times investigation revealed that top Tory donors had secretly lobbied Johnson during the pandemic. They included Lubov Chernukhin, whose husband was a minister under Putin. She has given the Conservatives more than £2.1 million since she became a British citizen. In 2014, she paid £160,000 to play a tennis match with Johnson when he was mayor of London.
A report by Parliament’s Intelligence and Security Committee in 2020 found that ‘a lot of Russians with very close links to Putin’ were ‘well integrated into the UK business and social scene’. Johnson refused to act on its conclusion that the government must ‘take the necessary measures to … challenge the impunity of Putin-linked elites’. He is now denying allegations that he intervened to secure a peerage for Evgeny Lebedev although the security services warned against it. Lebedev, a Moscow-born newspaper proprietor whose father is a former KGB officer, was said to have wanted the title ‘Lord Lebedev of Moscow’ but had to settle on ‘Baron of Hampton and Siberia’.
The wilfully anachronistic architecture of the British state has served to obscure the extent of its political capture by oligarch money. The former Conservative energy minister Greg Barker and the onetime Labour attorney general Peter Goldsmith have both taken leaves of absence from the House of Lords, which means their work for Russian interests does not have to be declared on the public record.
London has an enabling industry of lawyers, lobbyists and PR firms, who are paid exorbitant fees to manicure dubious reputations. Registering companies in British Overseas Territories obscures corporate ownership. Investigative journalists are routinely targeted in so-called ‘SLAPP’ cases (‘strategic lawsuit against public participation’): on 2 March, a High Court judge threw out a long-running libel claim against the Financial Times brought by a Kazakh mining conglomerate. The verdict could be read as a sign that the establishment’s tolerance for dirty money is waning. But it is also a stark illustration that Britain’s dirty money problem extends far beyond Putin’s cronies.
The total number of Ukrainians on the move has passed the two million mark. The figure is rising. Before the Russians invaded, the UNHCR put the Ukrainian diaspora worldwide at roughly six million, the great majority in Europe. Just under twenty thousand of those were in France, where figures for new arrivals are also on the increase. The current estimate on 10 March is five thousand, and there is provision – according to the interior minister, Gérald Darmanin – for a further 15,000, ‘or even more’. So far, a rapid Ukrainian immigration has been greeted with mild-mannered assent from all sides, including the parties of the far right. Marine Le Pen (Rassemblement National) opposed an influx of Afghan refugees last year but now favours Ukrainians. After a last minute reset, so does the garrulous xenophobe Éric Zemmour (Reconquête!), polling in third place behind Macron and Le Pen for round one of next month’s presidential elections. Both Le Pen and Zemmour are admirers of Putin. In 2014 Le Pen secured a loan worth 9.4 million euros from Russian creditors to cover the party’s losses, roll over a debt to her father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, and fund her 2017 electoral campaign.
For asylum seekers and refugees hoping to enter Europe, race is the critical hurdle to cross. Ukrainians, a spokesperson for Reconquête! explained, ‘share our civilisational space’. The Kremlin is experimenting with an anti-Leninist ‘Eurasian’ reconquista of its own, but in the eyes of its friends on the Western far right, Ukrainian refugees are more ‘European’ than ‘Asian’ – or Muslim, or black. Majority opinion in France, while opposed to Putin’s war, is roughly in agreement with the far right on a limited intake of white non-Muslim refugees.
Hundreds of non-nationals studying in Ukraine – Pakistanis, Indians, Nigerians and Moroccans – are being triaged on Ukraine’s borders with Poland, Hungary and Romania and sent to the back of the queue. In February, Jean-Louis Bourlanges, a mediocre politician who heads the foreign affairs committee of the French Assembly, announced that native Ukrainian refugees arriving in France would be a user-friendly, high-calibre intake (‘une immigration de qualité’).
In early March the European Commission activated the ‘temporary protection directive’, an instrument drawn up in the wake of the wars in Yugoslavia to deal with large numbers of refugees. This is the first time it has been triggered, even though it might have been invoked to ease the path of Syrians fleeing Bashar al-Assad’s regime. The directive, to which the interior ministers of EU member states (except Denmark) have grudgingly agreed, offers Ukrainians basic hospitality: provisional residence permits; unfettered access to labour markets, housing, health systems; free education for children; social benefits and a pathway through the asylum application nightmare. Britain opted in to the directive before Brexit, but how many British voters or their elected leaders would now accept a down-the-line instruction of this kind from Brussels? Ukrainian refugees are stranded in Calais waiting for passage to the UK, beset by obfuscations and delays on the part of the home secretary, Priti Patel. Despite the chaos and economic pain, Brexit has come good with its fundamental promise on seclusion: minimal freedom of movement into the UK for non-nationals, whoever they are, however desperate they seem, observed from a safe distance.
At this point, I am mainly keeping tabs, via Instagram, on the people I met, or whose work I encountered, on regular visits to Ukraine between 2010 and 2019. My friends in Kharkiv, the architectural historians Ievgeniia Gubkina and Dmytro Sysoiev, have got out, to Lviv, after a four-day drive; nearly everyone I know in Kyiv is still there or nearby. Aside from replies to my occasional neurotic messages, what I have to go on is what they post online. The brilliant Kyiv photographer and architect Oleksandr Burlaka (@maidan_nezalezhnosti) is using his surreal, oblique eye to document a city under siege. Others vent their frustration with the way they’ve been left to fight alone, share in-jokes, link to places to donate. It’s on the account run by the artist Nikita Kadan (@nikita.kadan) that I learned the ‘Slovo’ building, a block of flats in Kharkiv, was one of dozens of buildings in Ukraine’s second city to have been shelled by the Russian army over the last fortnight.
The Slovo (‘Word’) building, the shape of a Cyrillic ‘S’ – C – is one of many artefacts in Kharkiv attesting to the years, between 1919 and 1934, when the city was the capital of Soviet Ukraine. It became a centre for avant-garde art and design, with Constructivist journals like New Generation; for architecture, with extraordinary achievements like the Derzhprom building; and for literature, with Ukrainian-language futurist and ‘proletarian’ poets thriving in the city. Many of them lived in the Slovo building, which was the project of an independent writers’ union. In the early 1930s Ukraine’s modern movement was crushed, and many of the Slovo’s residents were killed by the NKVD. That generation of cultural workers in Kharkiv is widely known as the ‘Executed Renaissance’, the title of an anthology issued in 1959 by the émigré Polish journal Kultura.
I wonder if anyone in Kharkiv in the 1920s felt like they were part of a ‘Renaissance’, a designation that could only be awarded in retrospect, once the brief moment of freedom had been replaced by famine, mass repression, total war. I hadn’t imagined that anyone regarded Ukrainian culture before the current war as such a moment. But the last time I was in touch with Ievgeniia Gubkina before the invasion, she was working on a piece for Tribune promoting an unusual project on Ukrainian Constructivism. She was busy enlisting pop stars and fashion designers, after giving up on trying to persuade the city council or Unesco to protect Kharkiv’s unparalleled built legacy from that period. At the start of the war, her Instagram account (@gubkinamodernistka) showed the remains of a Russian missile embedded in the gardens of New Kharkiv, a now very dilapidated Constructivist housing scheme for workers at the Kharkiv Tractor Factory; she wrote her thesis on it. The article may be finished soon, but will now have a different emphasis. She is on her way to Latvia. In her most recent email to me, she wrote: ‘All my life stayed in Kharkiv.’
Looking back over the 23 years of Putin’s regime, it’s clear how devoid of developmental idealism it has been, and how dependent this has made it on the projections of a zombie Greater Russian state nationalism. It says something about the resilience of Soviet pride that claims of denazification still have some traction, though the Kremlin has been the chief sponsor of far-right populism in Europe for a decade, and Putin is a hero to white supremacists from Athens to Arkansas.
Iterations of greater Russian chauvinism were deployed at critical moments in the history of the USSR. As the sociologist Veljko Vujačić observed of the last years of the Soviet and Yugoslav regimes:
When communist regimes enter a period of terminal systemic crisis, leading ‘conservatives’ in the communist party apparat activate the heroic and charismatic components of their ideological worldview. Since appeals to class struggle are no longer viable, and the existing ideological corpus does not provide answers to new challenges, ideologically defensive postures are gradually replaced with a growing commitment to alternative but potentially equally charismatic notions more typical of the ‘nationalist right’ … the political circle captured by the phrase les extrêmes se touchent is closed and a new form of national socialism is born.
According to Leninist historiography, the Bolshevik revolution transformed Russia from a colonising, imperialist power into the vanguard proletarian nation. Putin has created a history of ‘primordial’ Russia that collapses the actual, pre-Soviet history of Ukraine and renders its independence a ‘mistaken invention’ of Bolshevik policy. He projects this myth onto the memory of the Great Patriotic War against Hitler and the Stalinist view of Russia as the herald of world communism to create a new, synthetic jingoism. It’s not surprising, then, that a democratic, thriving Ukraine would pose a grave threat to the Putin story. His regime might share aspects of Stalinist and tsarist regimes, but it hasn’t built a Hermitage, modernised an economy, liberated anyone from fascism or carried Russia towards a technological frontier. It leads nowhere. Zelensky’s election in 2019 demonstrated that there are alternatives to stagnant Russian kleptocracy.
Russia has suffered the catastrophe of two materialist utopias: Soviet socialism and the Washington Consensus. It is worth reflecting on the recourse of late-stage materialist utopian regimes to nationalist politics and the abiding power exerted by such promises of resurrection to capture the imagination of a people hungry for dignity, while at the same time deflecting attention from ever deepening developmental failures. As Vujačić concluded: ‘The newly manipulated consensus that is thus created can serve to substitute, in Jowitt’s excellent phrase, the national unity of elite and citizens for the real political equality between them.’ But there is no consensus on this war in Russia itself. Most feel kinship with Ukraine. The slaughter of Ukrainian men, women and children by bewildered, conscripted Russian boys creates not unity but despair. The weight of international sanctions will make Russian citizens feel their political inequality very keenly indeed.
Do people in the UK know that Boris Johnson is a regular on Weibo? Shortly before the Russian invasion of Ukraine, he wrote, in Chinese: ‘We are on the edge of a cliff, but President Putin still has time to step back and think.’ Chinese netizens responded by posting comments like ‘If he’s on the edge of a cliff, push him over!’, tagging the Russian Embassy’s Weibo account. After Russia invaded, some of the comments read: ‘Falkland Islands belong to Argentina!’; ‘We support Scottish independence!’; ‘Give back the loot from your museums! Bandit!’; ‘Sort your hair first, Blondie!’ There’s no particular logic, except that netizens know every country has its sore points – and how to press them.
The official line in China is neutrality (both Russia and Ukraine are good trading partners, though there’s no love lost between Xi and Zelensky) plus denunciation of American meddling. The words ‘war’ and ‘invasion’ are never used in official statements. It’s hard to ignore the fact that Putin sent in the troops after the closing ceremony of the Winter Olympics (during which Xi said China’s partnership with Russia has ‘no limit’), in contrast to the attack on Georgia in 2008, which coincided with the opening of the Summer Olympics in Beijing. That Olympics was referred to as ‘China’s coming out party’ and the Russian ‘firework’ was seen as a killjoy. Most ordinary people sympathise with those Ukrainians who have lost their homes and have been forced to flee their country (after all, our grandparents fled Japanese occupation), but government-backed online media and patriotic influencers are pushing the line that Russia is right to be aggrieved at Nato expansion. Talking points from Kissinger, John Mearsheimer, David Harvey, Bernie Sanders, Jack F. Matlock Jr et al are cited everywhere, along with Russian disinformation (the Russian TV station RT has a huge following on Weibo). Ukraine is often described as a failed state, its only hope of survival to accept its role as a buffer zone (‘the bridge’, as Kissinger called it) between Nato and Russia. After the West announced sanctions, Chinese Putin fans rushed to Jingdong’s flagship Russian store and bought up everything. (They showed the same enthusiasm for Xinjiang cotton after the Western boycott was announced last year.)
Of course, Chinese hawks are watching the military action and its aftermath as a possible scenario for Taiwan. ‘If Russia can’t survive sanctions this time, the next stroke will be on us.’ The end of Swiss banking neutrality has really shocked our elites. Rumour has it that rich Chinese are discussing how best to move their assets back home in case Western governments decide to confiscate them over some military clash. They have spent years moving huge fortunes bit by bit like ants (due to strict financial regulations): they didn’t expect the free world to behave so much like China. Meanwhile small sellers are making money from Ukrainian flags and T-shirts. The last time business boomed like this was during Trump’s first election campaign.
This year is the fiftieth anniversary of Nixon’s visit to China. The world is still a jungle. India has almost overtaken China as the most populous country: its netizens have flooded Twitter with pro-Russia hashtags. Imran Khan, the prime minister of Pakistan, flew to Moscow to show support and boost economic co-operation – not quite the ‘pariah’ status Biden has in mind for Putin. Anything that resists Western hegemony has a natural appeal here, but is war the best answer? As a Japanese diplomat said on WeChat: ‘We’ve been there. We know how it ends.’
An argument between two septuagenarians in a Shanghai park made the news. The one who supported Ukraine attacked the one who supported Russia with a glass bottle. An ambulance was called and then cancelled because neither had the money to pay for it. The police gave them a free ride to hospital. Their disagreement was resolved through negotiation: the Ukraine supporter paid 1000 RMB to the Russian supporter, who had a bleeding ear. It made the news because Shanghainese are famous for never resorting to violence. These days, things change.
According to my energy bills, 42.28 per cent of Italy’s electricity supply in 2020 came from burning fossil gas. The number has hovered around 40 per cent for at least a decade. The increase in renewable sources over that time has replaced coal, not gas. Electricity production accounts for barely more than a quarter of the gas burned in Italy. Nearly a third goes on such ‘civil uses’ as heating homes and boiling water for pasta. Of the more than 66 billion cubic metres of gas that Italy imported in 2020, 28.5 billion – over 40 per cent – came from Russia. (I burned just under 600m3 of it heating my flat and boiling water for pasta.) Among European nations, only Germany imports more.
At the end of February, the foreign minister and one-time leader of the Movimento 5 Stelle, Luigi di Maio, went to Algeria with the CEO of Eni, the national hydrocarbon company that was privatised in the 1990s (though the state still holds a controlling share), seeking an agreement to increase gas supplies. On 1 March, the prime minister, Mario Draghi, said that Italy could get through the rest of this winter ‘even if Russia cut supplies next week’, as Putin is now threatening to do. Longer term, the country would need to make other arrangements. On 8 March the EU presented a plan for reducing its dependency on Russian hydrocarbons. For now, however, the gas continues to flow, much of it through pipelines that cross Ukraine, and the price is going through the roof.
Eni is intricately entwined with Rosneft and Gazprom, though it says it’s trying to extricate itself, and that it wasn’t really that involved with them in the first place. The page on its website that last month boasted of ‘partnership’ and ‘strategic co-operation agreements’ with the Russian companies now claims only a ‘marginal presence in Russia’. The joint ventures to explore the bed of the Barents Sea ‘have already been frozen for years’. Eni ‘intends selling’ its 50 per cent share in Blue Stream, the pipeline that carries Russian gas across the Black Sea to Turkey. No word yet about plans for the Eni service station on the road into Moscow from Sheremetyevo airport, the first ‘foreign-branded operator’ to open in the Soviet Union, hot on the heels of McDonald’s, in 1991.
Draghi, like other Western leaders, has expressed not only revulsion but shock at the invasion of Ukraine, as if Putin, who came to power at the turn of the millennium during the Second Chechen War, hadn’t immediately shown the world the horrors he was capable of. Yet the year after the razing of Grozny, Putin was in Genova, smiling for the cameras alongside Tony Blair, Romano Prodi, Silvio Berlusconi, Jacques Chirac and Gerhard Schröder (now the chairman of Rosneft), while beyond the wire of the heavily fortified G8 compound, the carabinieri shot dead Carlo Giuliani, a 23-year-old protester, and ran over his body, twice, with a Land Rover.
One of the reasons my gas bill is relatively low is that we have a solar water heater on the roof. It violates local planning laws – unlike TV aerials or satellite dishes, it’s said to spoil the character of the centro storico – though you can’t really see it and no one has complained yet. It should be too obvious to need saying that Italy’s – and Europe’s – only viable long-term alternative to Russian gas is no gas at all.
Sanctions have unintended consequences. As the US and EU step up the pressure on Russia, and as the price of oil and gas spirals, there are signs that this economic war may redraw geopolitical and geoeconomic maps. A search for alternative sources and fuels to replace the diminishing supply of Russian hydrocarbons has already begun. The sanctions on Russia may result in a softening of sanctions on Iran and Venezuela. Worries about oil have given a new urgency to the effort to resolve outstanding issues in the nuclear deal with Iran. The US has also ‘cordially’ approached Venezuela’s President Maduro. In the UK, grumbling over record prices at the pumps has led the former Brexit secretary David Frost to call for fracking to be revived. Boris Johnson has coyly hinted at jettisoning COP26 targets and increasing North Sea hydrocarbon production. In the US, while proponents of green energy are calling for an acceleration of investment in renewables, the electric car mogul Elon Musk and oil and gas lobbyists are all demanding swift and dramatic deregulation of drilling offshore and on federal lands. Meanwhile, South African and Australian coal is being rerouted to Europe to keep the cost of energy down.
Hydrocarbons are not the only commodities affected by the Russian invasion of Ukraine. After the price of nickel – used to manufacture stainless steel and electric car batteries – soared to $100,000 a tonne, the London Metal Exchange suspended trading in it. More significantly, Russia and Ukraine together account for 30 per cent of all wheat traded on world markets. Since the invasion, the price of wheat has gone up by between 50 and 65 per cent in commodities exchanges. The countries most dependent on Russian and Ukrainian wheat are in the Middle East, Africa and South-East Asia, with Egypt as the biggest importer. A week after the invasion, bakeries producing non-subsidised bread in Egypt had raised their prices by 50 per cent. Maize, used extensively as animal feed in much of Africa as well as China and South Korea, is another agricultural commodity derailed by the war. Dramatic rises in the prices of such essentials will have knock-on effects on global agriculture as a whole, especially since Russia is the leading exporter of the inorganic minerals that are the primary ingredients of fertilisers. With the cost of agricultural commodities skyrocketing, food price shocks, financial pressures on small producers and popular discontent over the price of bread seem inevitable. And this is only two weeks in.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is a catastrophic violation of international law. The US and its Nato allies must do everything possible to bring it to a peaceful end as soon as possible by promoting a ceasefire and a neutral Ukraine. But the obstacles to peace are complex and not simply traceable to Russia. Putin’s war did not begin on 24 February 2022. It was foreshadowed as early as 1996, when the US announced its determination to expand Nato eastwards, despite warnings by seasoned observers from George Kennan to William Burns (now Biden’s director of the CIA) that to do so would aggravate Russian security concerns. The situation escalated in February 2014 with the Washington-backed coup against Viktor Yanukovych, the gradual takeover of the Maidan movement by hard-right nationalists, and the installation of a new government led by Arseniy Yatsenyuk – which included right-wing ideologues in four cabinet posts.
Within weeks, the coup had provoked a separatist rebellion among ethnically Russian Ukrainians in Donbas, who had reason to fear the new government’s anti-Russian cultural agenda. For nearly eight years, the Ukrainian army – with the hard-right Azov brigade in the vanguard – has been trying to suppress the uprising. Fourteen thousand people have died, including more than forty peaceful protesters who were locked into a trade union building and burned alive or jumped out of the windows. Instead of denouncing the atrocities, US politicians swung into full Cold War mode, evoking the period’s weariest cliché. ‘The United States aids Ukraine and her people,’ Congressman Adam Schiff said in January 2020, ‘so that we can fight Russia over there and don’t have to fight them here.’
US military support for the Ukrainian war on the separatists, combined with Nato manoeuvres on Russia’s borders and dogged insistence on Ukraine’s de facto (if not de jure) membership of the alliance, can only be described as sustained and deliberate provocation of a powerful rival. It was no surprise when Putin finally responded by recognising and protecting the breakaway republics in Donbas. Unfortunately, he pressed on, inducing rage in the US, EU and beyond. The atmosphere is now poisoned by militarist rants, including the ignorant and irresponsible demand for a no-fly zone – which would require US/Nato forces to shoot down Russian planes and risk World War Three.
Under what Denis Johnson called the ‘tree of smoke’ created by the national security stare and its media stenographers, it’s impossible to know what’s going on in Ukraine. Few journalists are able to report from the east of the country, where most of the fighting is, and there is no acknowledgment of the extensive role of far-right extremists in Ukrainian politics and the military. The irony is that for years American liberals have been obsessed with anything that can be loosely labelled as fascism. Only Ukraine is absolved from scrutiny, perhaps because in current American mythology the world’s leading neofascist is Vladimir Putin. Thanks to this madman, Robert Reich announced, ‘the world is currently and frighteningly locked in a battle to the death between democracy and authoritarianism.’ Rather than face up to the major global realignment that is underway, with the convergence of Russia, China and India, Americans remain attached to visions of Armageddon – the death wish at the heart of imperial hubris.
I am a child of the Cold War (born in 1950) and spent much of the 1980s researching the history of the guidance systems of its most terrible weapons, strategic nuclear missiles. I never for a moment imagined feeling nostalgic for it. I do now.
Both sides in the Cold War did terrible things. I can’t be the only person of my age who is reminded of the war in Vietnam. But the Cold War had its implicit rules, shared by the leaderships of both the Soviet Union and the West. Chief among these rules was that direct military conflict between the two sides must be avoided under almost all circumstances: the risk of escalation to the use of nuclear weapons was too great.
The outrage over what is happening in Ukraine will grow. The pressure for escalatory steps, such as a no-fly zone, will intensify. It will be hard to keep the Cold War rule, and the reasons for it, in mind. But keep them in mind we must. Decisions are needed about sanctions, humanitarian aid, how to provide a genuine welcome for refugees, and how best to make China’s leadership aware that de facto support for Putin is damaging China’s reputation. But decisions that might imply the involvement of Nato in military action (and even decisions about the supply of new categories of military equipment) must be taken with the utmost caution, and not in the glare of publicity. What is going on in Ukraine is awful; a Europe-wide war would be hugely worse; and nuclear war remains unthinkable.
At first Putin’s invasion of Ukraine had at least the morally instructive quality of showing what a humanitarian intervention looks like from the other side. The phoney pressure behind the troop build-up – the entreaties Putin was receiving from Russians in Donetsk and Luhansk to reassure them that Russian Lives Matter – was like a knock-off of an American original. More remarkable was how recondite Putin’s pep talk was. Not a whipped-up battle cry (Remember the Odessa Massacre!) but a pseudo-forensic inspection of Lenin’s handling of the national question. The bad faith of Putin’s invasion now almost seems to be the point. In the earliest days of the invasion, it was still conceivable that Putin was trying to secure gains and bargaining chips, and would then issue demands for peace: Ukraine remains neutral, Crimean annexation is formally agreed (with the Black Sea littoral thrown in), Luhansk and Donetsk gain upgraded autonomous status, the Nato-aspiration clause is removed from the Ukrainian constitution – accept this, and then, as in Georgia in 2008, Putin would pull out. Mission accomplished. But that’s not what has happened. While it made tactical sense to pin down Ukrainian troops in particular locations, in order to secure gains in the south and the east, it now seems like Putin simply wants to trash the country. Thermobaric munition has a double ignition feature: the first releases a combustible metallic cloud that the second ignites into a fireball. Not something you release in what you consider the living museum of your cultural heritage.
A generation of babies in Chicago will be named Zelensky. But he is operating as any savvy nationalist would under the circumstances. We are at a point in the history of feel-good democratic simulation where you are allowed to be Garibaldi and fight for national liberation, but no one is allowed to be Bismarck and whisper the dread word ‘Partition’. To supply Ukraine with Polish MiGs seems an odd way to shorten the conflict, and suffering will not be lessened if Kyiv insists on hosting an International Snipers’ Convention. It is a mechanical form of Western narcissism to say Ukrainians are fighting for ‘our’ freedom: they are fighting for their country. Fresh false promises and aspirations of EU membership are becoming irrelevant. Of the more than two million Ukrainians who have made their way to safety inside the European Union, most will never go back. Another two million may be on their way. Ukraine in the EU? A good portion of its urban population is already there. What is left behind could be a state in ruins, which – if it were ever to limp into Brussels’s half-hearted embrace with a rural diehard nationalist population in tow – would become an Über-Hungary. As for the sanctions, it would be difficult to think of a less effective form of retribution for Putin’s aggression, but apparently drying up remittances to Kazakhs and denying grain to Egyptians is what heroism looks like on the Western side.
Given that direct Western military intervention is off the table, what might stop Vladimir Putin pursuing the subjugation of Ukraine to the bloody end? Not the evidence that his notion of Ukraine as a fragile, fascist-run, EU/US puppet state, requiring only a few bullets and some handcuffs to topple it, was absurdly, catastrophically wrong. Not shame; not the prospect of killing thousands of the people he said he was invading Ukraine to protect, or the reduction of Russian-speaking cities like Mariupol and Kharkiv to rubble, in the manner of Grozny or the Syria campaign. Not the weak performance of his army against the brave, motivated and relatively well-organised Ukrainians, armed as they are with Western anti-tank missiles. Some Russian soldiers don’t seem up for a fight, but there’s no sign yet of a full-on mutiny, or a putsch. Forcing the Russian army to a halt before it conquers, or destroys, Kyiv, would be a startling victory for Ukraine, and a humiliation for Putin. We should hope it will happen. But for Russia to abandon the conquest of Ukraine, it would have not only to stop, but to withdraw. Ukraine has indicated that it might set aside its bid for Nato membership in exchange for alternative multinational security guarantees – but the lack of response from Russia suggests Putin’s plans for Ukraine weren’t really about Nato.
What about sanctions? Putin’s circle will still be wealthy, and more powerful than ever, with the extra hold over the population that control of scarce resources brings. The president can always make sure that members of Rosgvardia, his 350,000-strong praetorian force – not much diminished yet by its losses in Ukraine – get extra rations. He won’t shed tears over the oligarchs’ yachts and their football club agonies, or over the tens, perhaps hundreds of thousands of Russians who are fleeing a country that suddenly terrifies them. But sanctions will hurt. Prices are going up; available foreign exchange reserves are slashed; there are shortages in the shops; countless imported pieces of Western machinery and essential components that Russian manufacturers rely on will no longer be available, with China lacking the advance warning that would enable it to pick up the slack. Layoffs are inevitable. And among those hundreds of thousands of migrants are bound to be many with irreplaceable IT skills.
Will any of this actually stop Putin, let alone lead to his overthrow? If what you expect from sanctions is a spontaneous mass uprising of enraged working people, probably not. According to the Moscow-based analyst Alexander Gabuev, Kremlin officials have a phrase to describe the analysis of the effects of a policy on social stability – the ‘Slepakov test’, a reference to ‘Oil Song’ by the Russian TV producer (and one-time Zelensky comedy rival) Semyon Slepakov. It’s about a tractor factory worker called Volodya who accepts his lowly lot and meagre pay until one day prices suddenly double. He learns from the TV that this is because the treacherous Americans have conspired to lower the price of oil, and he shouldn’t worry, because the price is bound to go up again, and everything will be the same as before. But Volodya is uneasy:
It’s really great, of course it is, that oil prices are going up
But if they don’t, fuck? What’ll happen if they don’t?
I get it, it’ll sort itself, when oil prices are going up
But, fuck, what if they don’t? If one time they don’t?
Gabuev argues that Putin’s rushed and naive planning for the Ukraine attack left Russian ministries with too little time to perform the Slepakov test on probable Western sanctions. The danger to the Kremlin that the song gestures towards isn’t so much the worker’s reaction to sudden inflation but his new political consciousness: a dangerous questioning of the status quo. And yet, politically, ‘Oil Song’ fizzles out. The rich parasites, the villains of the piece, get their punishment not in this world, but the next.
Kamil Galeev, another Russian analyst, distinguishes between ‘goal-oriented’ sanctions and ‘moral crusade’ sanctions, although the distinction seems to lie not in the sanctions themselves but in our expectations of how they will work, and how quickly. The ‘moral’ idea that the mass impoverishment brought about by sanctions will quickly bring down a regime by popular revolt is absurd, but that doesn’t mean sanctions aren’t effective, particularly when the sanctioned country is failing to win a war against a supposedly weaker opponent. Sanctions are already undermining Russia’s ability to support its military; the failures of the military discredit the regime: a virtuous circle of weakening and discrediting Russia’s apparatus of aggression sets in. The cohesion of the elite begins to fray, as it did after the Russo-Japanese War and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. But it is a long haul: can Ukraine endure until it succeeds?
In 1996, as Russia reeled from the shock therapy that was the price of US support, Bill Clinton light-heartedly remarked to his chief adviser on the country: ‘We keep telling Ol’ Boris [Yeltsin], “OK, now here’s what you’ve got to do next – here’s some more shit for your face.”’ Clinton’s cocky coarseness was of a piece with the heady 1990s, the decade of unimpeded American hegemony, when – as Russia, China and India opened their protected markets to American capital and goods, to a supporting chorus from much of the Anglo-American media – history seemed about to end with a triumphant fulfilment of Thomas Friedman’s personal wish: ‘I want everyone to become an American.’
Fond hopes for that consummation have blossomed again now that Putin has inflicted on Ukraine his bitter post-Soviet fantasy of revanchism. ‘The spirit of 1989 remains alive,’ Francis Fukuyama declared in the Financial Times, but we must ‘constantly struggle’ for the ‘existing liberal order’. As it happens, emulation of the American way of being in the world is largely complete with Putin’s shock and awe assault, which closely follows Modi’s destruction of Kashmir’s autonomy, as well as Xi’s crackdown on Xinjiang and Hong Kong and ultimatums to Taiwan.
As the US ignited a bonfire of international laws and norms during its global war on terror, Russia, China and India freely indulged in legal and moral arson at home. But 21st-century autocrats need more than regimes of assassination, torture and arbitrary detention to legitimise their close collaboration with plutocrats. Their model is, yet again, the global hegemon. Foreigners have long envied the way the American system, built by and for slave-owners and programmed to boost oligarchies and dynasties, secures mass consent: while an infotainment media works up citizens into a state of paranoid patriotism, a service class of intellectuals talks up the American Revolution and the international liberal order.
Hyper-patriotic media have emerged in India, China and Russia over the last decade, together with pseudo-thinkers who have upgraded national self-images by hailing the glories of Hindu civilisation, Russian empire and Confucian harmony. As the hacks, trolls and conspiracy theorists of digital media cemented these ideological ecosystems in place, dissent was condemned to impotence. Today, the news and analysis received by the vast majority of people in India and China as well as Russia is – in the words of the head of the Levada Centre, Russia’s independent public opinion research organisation – a compendium of ‘lies and hatred on a fantastical scale’. And so Modi’s brutalising of Kashmir, Putin’s annexation of Crimea and Xi’s herding of Uighur Muslims into concentration camps faced as little domestic challenge as America’s endless wars and killings in Asia and Africa.
Humiliation in Iraq and Afghanistan, and at home by Trump, demoralised the exporters of democracy and capitalism. But Putin’s atrocities in Ukraine have now given them an opportunity to make America seem great again. The Russian bear has long guaranteed, more reliably than ‘Islamofascism’ or China, income and identity to many in the military-industrial and intellectual-industrial complex. An ageing centrist establishment – battered by the far right, harangued by post-Occupy and post-BLM young leftists, frustrated by legislative stalemate in Washington – seems suddenly galvanised by the prospect of defining themselves through a new cold war.
As Russian troops attacked a nuclear reactor, George Packer wrote in the Atlantic that ‘for the first time in decades, an American president is showing that he, and only he, can lead the free world.’ The New York Times exulted over the new-found resolve of the free world: ‘Nato has been revitalised, the United States has reclaimed a mantle of leadership that some feared had vanished in Iraq and Afghanistan.’ Boris Johnson claimed that he had never seen such a stark ‘dividing line between right and wrong’. More remarkably, Hillary Clinton called on MSNBC for a rerun in Ukraine of the ‘very motivated’ and ‘armed insurgency’ that ‘basically drove the Russians out of Afghanistan’. More along these revisionist lines can be expected: the very motivated jihadists of 9/11 may yet re-emerge as this cold war’s ‘freedom fighters’ (Reagan’s term for mass-murdering Russophobes). Certainly, the publicists of the end of history never predicted this global mimicry of the American way of war, or warned us that the Clintonites would be joined by other ruling classes, amid uncontrolled mass suffering, in heaping shit on our faces.
Two days before Putin declared the Ukrainian separatist regions of Donetsk and Luhansk independent states, and five days before Russian forces invaded the rest of the country, the mobile phones of men across the two provinces began to ping with messages from the pro-Russian leadership. Their ‘sacred duty as men’ required them to report to a mobilisation unit and ‘join the ranks of the defenders’. In other words, the Donbas had implemented a universal conscription policy for men between the ages of 18 and 55; any man, in the words of the Donetsk People’s Republic leader, Denis Pushilin, ‘capable of holding a weapon’ was obliged to join Putin’s ‘special military operation’. Men who don’t want to fight are forced to hide at home. If they step outside, they risk being spotted and rounded up by soldiers. The markets of Luhansk are wartime markets now: the only adults in sight are women and old men.
Ukraine has barred most of its male citizens between the ages of 18 and 60 from leaving the country, slowing down the exodus to the west as soldiers check cars and trains. The great majority of the two million or so people who have so far fled the country are women, children and the elderly. Russia, which mandates military service for men under the age of 27, hasn’t announced mobilisation, but many men fear being drafted into a war of which they have no desire to be part.
Forced military service for men remains common across the world and its effects are harmful for everyone in society. It feeds nationalism and sexist machismo. It teaches young men how to kill and celebrates them for doing so. When war breaks out, women – responsible for evacuating children, parents and the infirm – look like targets, and thus become targets, open to the predation of traffickers, border guards and those able to offer them (temporary) shelter. In Belgium, a volunteer working to match Ukrainian refugees with host families reported being contacted by men interested in hosting a ‘nice, beautiful, intelligent and well-groomed Ukrainian woman, younger than 45 and preferably childless’. Men who do not wish to fight suffer more than a loss of agency. Tyrhan, a 23-year-old gay man from Crimea trying to cross into Poland from the border town of Shehyni, faced chants of ‘shame, shame, shame’ and ‘Why are you here?’ from a crowd of women. He told the New York Times that he didn’t want to hold a gun, but was prepared to volunteer in other ways. ‘I’m an illustrator. I’m trying to draw some motivational posters. And just because – I’m sorry – I have a penis, I can’t leave.’
It is extremely difficult to engage public sentiment over the utility or ethics of conscription once fighting begins. Whatever the outcome of this war, the question of what it means to be a man – a Russian man, a Ukrainian man – will become more central, more scripted and more violent. And barging into the scene are the freelance conflict bros, ordinary civilians and veterans from countries such as the UK and Israel, who announced, even before Zelensky called for the creation of an international foreign legion, that they felt moved to defend Ukraine’s women and children, gearing up from their bodybuilding gyms to join someone else’s war. While former veterans may be trained in international humanitarian law, many have served in militaries that flouted it, and still more of these ‘foreign fighters’ are untrained in anything of use to combat. They pose a threat to the populations they are heading towards and those they will eventually return to. One Ukrainian official affiliated with the territorial defence forces reported being contacted by an unknown and unverified American, who assured her that he had combat experience and demanded she issue him a weapon. What was she supposed to say? Welcome to Ukraine, Rambo?
Nietzsche is one of the last people one would think of as a guide to international relations. Yet the vision of ‘great politics’ he developed during his final lucid years comes to mind today. It was the menace of Russia, he believed, that would finally bring about European unification (minus the philistines in Britain, whom he despised). Predictions that the moment of European integration has arrived tend to be disproven even more quickly than diagnoses that ‘This changes everything.’ But there are reasons to think things might be different this time.
It is partly that the horror of an Angriffskrieg is so close, and that it could easily come closer – something no EU country has feared since the end of the Cold War. After all, Tuđman or Milošević were never going to attack Italy. But it’s not just a question of self-preservation, for those inside the club or for those desperate to join. Around the time of the Iraq War, cheerleaders for the EU as a ‘global normative power’ advertised its unique approach to regime change, especially when compared to the US. The Americans invaded countries; the EU got into people’s heads (a political version of Invasion of the Body Snatchers: everyone looks the same as they did before joining, but on the inside they’ve become proper Union-Europeans). It was raw military power versus the power to offer or refuse membership talks.
All this sounded naive during the years when anti-EU parties seemed to be on the march; when the Union expended energy on futile PR exercises (remember the European constitution); and when European leaders tolerated the consolidation of an autocratic kleptocracy in Orbán’s Hungary (why join a ‘normative global power’ if it can’t even protect norms at home?). Putin has now done wonders for the EU. Clearly, a Ukraine inside the EU is just as unacceptable to him as one in Nato, because it would demonstrate that a different future is possible even for large and deeply corrupt ex-Soviet republics. He has also managed to discredit his European fan club. One reason Macron can expect to coast to re-election next month is that most of the candidates trailing him have said nice things about Putin – Éric Zemmour even wished for a Putin à la France.
The EU’s problems will not just disappear in the face of one grand menace. Orbán and his allies in Poland are still busy undermining the bloc from within. It’s heartening to see Russians scrambling to save their yachts, but Malta and Luxembourg remain paradises for non-Russians interested in tax avoidance. The fact that Ukrainian refugees are welcome does not mean that Europe has a coherent asylum – let alone immigration – policy. French and German views on defence differ profoundly. But from now on, the mention of Ukraine will give a push to proper integration.
Three weeks ago, I took my three-year-old son to visit his grandparents in Murmansk for the first time. I went off to visit Helsinki – and then the invasion began. Scrambling, I caught a nearly empty train to St Petersburg, where my dad had flown down with my son to meet me. The journey back to Europe was a different story. International flights were grounded and train tickets sold out; the border with Finland was jammed with columns of buses.
There are no bombing raids on Russian cities, no refugees fleeing a humanitarian crisis. But many Russians with the means to leave the country have begun to do so. Sitting across from me on the bus from Vyborg to Helsinki were a middle-aged woman with family in Berlin and a twenty-something man with a still valid student visa for the Netherlands. He spent much of the ride doomscrolling social media.
In Moscow, a friend who has worked with Western consulting companies since the mid-1990s can no longer receive payments for projects in pounds thanks to the sanctions on Russian banks. Worried that he will soon no longer be able to service other international clients, he has decided to move to Almaty.
When I called my parents on WhatsApp, they were at the supermarket. Their trolley was piled high with industrial-size bottles of washing-up liquid, sacks of buckwheat and flour. The war still seems remote and shelves are well stocked, but, having lived through the 1998 rouble crash, my parents were taking no chances. Of course, these aren’t the 1990s: for one thing, there’s no McDonald’s or Coca-Cola, let alone a free press. Yet despite an almost total media blackout and the threat of fifteen years’ imprisonment for speaking out against the war, there is palpably less enthusiasm for Russia’s ‘special operation’ than there was for the largely bloodless annexation of Crimea in 2014.
Still, the crowds that gathered in Murmansk’s main square on 6 March to protest the war were thin, and the majority were quickly detained. A photo was making the rounds on opposition Telegram channels of a girl being hauled off for holding a sign that said only ‘peace’. Some were carrying the city’s coat of arms, with its suddenly subversive colour scheme of a yellow fishing boat against a blue sky. It brought to mind an old Soviet joke: a KGB agent comes to arrest a man handing out flyers on Red Square, then sees that the flyers are blank. ‘Why are you handing out empty sheets?’ he asks. ‘What’s the point of writing anything,’ the man replies, ‘when it’s all so obvious?’
Violetta Grudina, the head of Aleksei Navalny’s network in Murmansk until it was banned last June, spent the day messaging her two thousand followers on Telegram. But it’s hard to co-ordinate a rally from abroad: facing charges of extremism and the possibility of losing custody of her son, Grudina was forced to leave for Lithuania in December. Today, almost no senior Navalny organisers remain in Russia. Navalny himself faces a ten to fifteen-year extension of his sentence on new fraud charges.
There is something disquieting about the ease with which the label ‘fascist’ is being used with reference to Putin’s Russia: ‘Putin’s monstrous new fascism’, ‘Our fight against Putin’s fascism’. It is not that his autocracy, suppression of dissent and conquering violence do not merit the epithet, but rather the looseness of the term and the way it lets other nations boasting their democratic freedoms off the hook. Boris Johnson’s advice to the queen to call for the proroguing of Parliament in August 2019 was later ruled unlawful (but not before the damage had been done). The Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill, currently on its way through Parliament, will drastically curtail the right to peaceful public protest. These examples suggest how easy it is for a democratically elected government to start pulling down the building blocks on which its own legitimacy depends. We are ruled by a party that has made flouting legality and curtailing political freedom a key part of its repertoire.
Meanwhile, the UK border is once again the site of vicious cruelty. The number of Ukrainian migrants being let into this country is derisory, by far the lowest in Europe (three hundred compared with more than a million in Poland and fifty thousand in Germany, as of 10 March). This is in line with official policy, which over these past years has left many migrants trying to cross into the UK no option other than to strap themselves to trucks entering the Channel Tunnel, or to risk drowning. ‘They treated us worse than water in the toilet,’ one of the hundreds of Ukrainians turned away at the border this week observed. Hungary’s right-wing government has uncharacteristically opened its borders, but Britain is by no means the only democracy where hatred of migrants has become the norm.
In his 1940 essay, ‘Discussion of War Aims’, the psychoanalyst D.W. Winnicott pleaded for a military but not a moral victory. ‘If we fight to exist,’ he wrote, ‘we do not thereby claim to be better than our enemies.’ He worried that a people who claim their own innocence risk provoking the next round of nationalist crime. I am sure I am not alone in feeling that when the members of the House of Commons rose to their feet and, against all normal protocol, applauded the unquestionable hero Zelensky as he channelled Winston Churchill in his speech, they were also applauding themselves. A war like this one, with the ethical lines of battle so clearly drawn, allows us to blind ourselves. The difficult path for the individual, Winnicott writes, is ‘to see that all the greed, aggression and deceit in the world might have been his own responsibility, even if in point of fact it is not’. Putin must be defeated. Meanwhile, we must not relax for one moment our self-scrutiny or our vigilance on home ground.
In February Emmanuel Macron was quoted as suggesting that Finlandisation – a small country adapting its foreign and domestic policies to the interests of a more powerful neighbour – could serve as a model for the future of Ukraine. After the Second World War, Finland retained independence in return for its neutrality in the Cold War and allowing the Soviets a degree of veto power. The veto mainly affected foreign policy, but on occasion reached further: in 1958, the new Finnish government was forced to resign when it did not meet with Soviet approval. After Macron’s comments, the former Finnish prime minister Alexander Stubb pointed to the limitations the policy had placed on the country’s sovereignty, and the self-censorship that Finns had to impose throughout the Cold War. This was not the only possible model of neutrality: Sweden also maintained a neutral position without accepting the restrictions Finland did.
Finlandisation was made possible by military stalemate. In November 1939, the Soviet Army invaded the country, launching the Winter War and, with huge loss of life, Finnish forces fought back and prevented the quick capture of Helsinki. This heavily affected Moscow’s decision after the war to allow the country its independence. Some researchers have insisted that Finlandisation was peculiar to Finland. Certainly, it rested on relationships founded on trust. From Finland’s long-serving president, Urho Kekkonen (1956-81), downwards, Finnish and Soviet officials met regularly and convivially: tales of deals struck in saunas and over glasses of vodka are part of the legend of Finlandisation. These connections were underpinned by a trade partnership. The Soviet Union was able to obtain some high technology equipment that was not available to it elsewhere, while Finland benefited from imports of raw materials and energy. This economic entanglement left Finland vulnerable to the shocks of the Soviet collapse, setting in train the process which led it to join the EU in 1995. This ended its formal neutrality, but some of the elements of Finlandisation, including military non-alignment, persisted.
Finland never relied entirely on the supposed goodwill of the Soviet Union. Throughout the Cold War and up to the present day, it has enforced compulsory male and (since 1995) voluntary female military service. With a population of under six million, it has one of the biggest reserve armies in the world. It wouldn’t be able to match or indefinitely resist a full-scale Soviet or Russian invasion but, so the thinking goes, this reserve of trained manpower combined with the forested geography of Finland and, most important of all, the memory of the Winter War, would make the Soviets or Russians think twice about military action. An independent, non-nuclear deterrent, if you like. The Soviets didn’t have full control over Finland’s foreign policy. It also engaged in trade and diplomacy with the West, and was a core member of the group of Nordic countries, which included Iceland, Norway and Denmark, all founding members of Nato. The Soviets themselves benefited from this by using Finland as a back channel for quasi-diplomatic relations with the West.
Finlandisation contributed to Finland’s security and its ability to prosper after the devastation of the war, while still allowing it to shift relatively seamlessly to the EU camp in the 1990s. Finns who lived through the period have mixed views: some appreciate the certainty it brought, but others rue the hold it gave the Soviet Union over their country. Kekkonen has been accused of using it to outmanoeuvre political opponents and secure his own power.
It is hard to see Ukraine following a similar path. What trust remains between Ukrainians and Russians is only at a personal level. Ukraine would need either to retain an independent military capability or to depend on Nato – which leaves us back where we started. While the Soviet Union and the West found it to their mutual advantage to sustain Finland’s inbetween position after it gained independence from the Russian empire in the wake of the 1917 Revolution, over the past twenty years Ukraine has increasingly been seen as a zero-sum game by both Russia and the EU.
A forty-mile convoy of tanks stuck in the cold and mud, broken down and out of fuel, easy pickings for shoulder-fired weapons: the main Russian advance seemed stalled not only on the road to Kyiv but in another, forgotten era of war. As a proportion of GDP Russia’s military spending is the third highest in the world: you expect smart bombs and fifth-generation fighters, drone operators and surgical strikes. Instead Ukrainian forces broadcast images of ageing Soviet-era attack helicopters – the Mi-24 entered service in 1972 – crashing in farmers’ fields, brought down by a single soldier with a Stinger missile. This is an old-fashioned war, and people will die the old-fashioned way.
Much fuss has been made about the flashy new Bayraktar drones Ukraine has procured from Turkey, armed with laser-guided bombs. But twenty drones don’t stack up too well against the second largest air force in the world, even if seeing them in action is excellent publicity for the man who designed and sold them to Ukraine, Erdoğan’s son-in-law, Selçuk Bayraktar: in the year of their most successful display, for the Azerbaijanis in Nagorno-Karabakh, his company made $360 million in export sales. Unlike the drones, the thousands of anti-aircraft and anti-tank weapons being shipped to Ukraine by the US and countries across Europe come free of charge. With Germany now supplying weapons to a conflict zone for the first time since the Second World War, this is a festival of arms.
It is festival time, too, for a particular kind of outfit: the private military company, or PMC. On the website silentprofessionals.org, an unnamed ‘US-based corporation’ is offering ex-military types between $1000 and $2000 a day for ‘part-time, covert, extraction/evacuation operations’ in Ukraine. The clients are wealthy citizens who will pay well to be got out of the country safely. As in any war, there are profiteers on all sides. The biggest – or at least the best-known, attracting attention from war nerds and internet sleuths everywhere – is the Wagner Group, a Russian PMC which first saw action in 2014 before making a name for itself in Syria, Libya and Sudan. It’s widely referred to as ‘Putin’s private army’, mostly because it appears to be funded by Evgeny Prigozhin – a former hot dog stand owner, restaurateur and friend of Putin’s who made his billions after winning the contract to feed the Russian army.
Wagner’s two thousand or so highly trained mercenaries can be relied on to carry out any operation of your choice, so long as it’s off the books. Rumour has it that they’re in Ukraine with a single mission: to take out Zelensky. For a clandestine organisation, Wagner is surprisingly un-clandestine when it comes to promoting itself: its members share snaps on a Telegram channel called Reverse Side of the Medal, and pop up on Facebook and its Russian equivalent, VK. It does business no harm when rumours get about. The name Wagner is said to come from the call sign of its founder and commander, an ex-GRU officer called Dmitry Utkin who has Waffen-SS insignia tattooed on his collarbones.
Some mysteries must be preserved, however, including the big one: are these Putin’s private shock troops, as many people want to believe? (Consider the chutzpah: entrusting your campaign of ‘denazification’ to actual Nazis.) Or are they just profit-seeking opportunists? Such questions are hard to disentangle, just as they were in 2003 when the US handed over its dirty work in Iraq to another private outfit with a genius for publicity: Erik Prince’s Blackwater, which reinvented itself as Xe, which reinvented itself as Academi. In 2020, it was reported that Prince had approached Wagner to offer them his services. Wagner wasn’t interested: it’s their war now.
translated by Uilleam Blacker
Notes from 28 February 2022, Kyiv. They say: ‘I don’t know what day of the week it is, but I know this is the fifth day.’ And: ‘Ukraine is the first and only country to have won its membership of the EU by military means.’
What the Finns called a Molotov cocktail we call a Bandera smoothie. At first, I wanted to send my European friends the recipe, but now I think we’ll manage by ourselves. 25 February was my birthday and I asked for two presents – turning off Swift and closing the sky over Ukraine. I got the first one. I’m happy.
These Russians are not people. Now that they’ve had a kick in the teeth from our army, they’re killing civilians with indiscriminate rocket strikes. Children’s hospitals and high-rise buildings, buses and ambulances. During the night, Iskander rocket systems fired on the city of Zhytomyr. They destroyed the Mariia Prymachenko Museum and burned her pictures.
This morning, in Berdiansk, one of these monsters from Moscow shot an old man for refusing to hand over his mobile phone.
In Kyiv, there are air-raid sirens every half-hour. There are anti-tank obstacles in the streets.
I promise: my great-grandchildren will hate theirs and teach their children the same. The children hate them already. Sorry if this sounds inhumane or politically incorrect.
A generational divide: the kids are saying this is Harry Potter against Voldemort. The adults that it’s David against Goliath.
People are joking: ‘Learning about this period in Ukrainian history is going to be a lot of fun.’ For instance:
- The Roma stole a tank while the occupiers were looking for petrol.
- Homeless people in Dnipro are offering to collect bottles for Bandera smoothies.
- The thugs in Obolon hijacked an armoured personal carrier with their bare hands and gave the ‘liberators’ a good kicking.
- Villagers are capturing tanks but not reporting them to the armed forces, because ‘they might come in handy on the farm.’
- Village women whom the occupiers ask for food are feeding them sleeping pills, then locking them in their basements. And then they wonder what to do next – make them dig the garden or send them to The Hague. Or maybe both.
‘All this gives new meaning to the words of the Ukrainian writer Mykola Hohol (Nikolai Gogol): “Rare is the bird that can reach the middle of the Dnipro.”’ They’re calling Gogol the founder of the Ukrainian Air Defence Forces.
‘Russian warship, fuck off’ isn’t obscene language, but a military-political message. Linguists, please make the appropriate amendments to Ukrainian dictionaries.
The singer Maria Burmaka lives in Podil. She has good sound equipment at home. Each morning she sets up her amplifier in the window and sings the Ukrainian national anthem. The residents of temporarily occupied Berdiansk sing the Ukrainian national anthem on the city square right in front of a column of Russian soldiers.
Children are being born in bomb shelters, in the basements of hospitals and in the metro. Archbishop Yevstratiy wrote that if there is no priest to hand, anyone who has been baptised in the Orthodox Church can baptise children. All you need is water, a person to carry out the baptism and the clearly enunciated phrase: ‘Servant of the Lord [insert name] is baptised in the name of the Father, Amen, the Son, Amen, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.’
And it’s not only children who are being baptised in the shelters and basements. And not only because of the fear of death, but for the sake of life after victory.
Right now, God is in Ukraine. And, as they say in the Ministry of Defence, he looks like a soldier in our armed forces.
As Russia’s war against Ukraine began I received a message from a friend, an academic from St Petersburg in her seventies: ‘This is hell. This is the worst I have lived through in my life.’ Like three million other Russian citizens she is originally from Ukraine. Since 24 February, staff in the department she used to lead have been getting messages from relatives, colleagues and friends in Ukraine who are being bombed by the Russian army. There is no longer any communication with some families after heavy bombardment of the residential areas in their cities.
Russia-watchers in the West, including me, have been trying to make sense of Putin’s policies in the context of global trends. Even though Putin is the product of a specific political tradition, we underestimated the power of the individual to shape history. At the same time, we continued to place too much emphasis on Putin’s rationality and pragmatism. But some conclusions I had drawn before the war started, still appear to be relevant. One is my scepticism about the common claim that the Kremlin runs an exceptional propaganda machine. What we have seen since the start of the invasion is a startling reminder of what happens when a fabricated story collides with reality.
Since 2014, Russian state media have been telling audiences at home and abroad that Ukraine is an artificial country and not a nation, that the majority of Ukrainians think they are part of the pan-Russian world. This majority, the story goes, is being kept hostage by US-backed neo-Nazis in Kyiv. Putin’s strategy of war against Ukraine has been designed on the basis of this fantasy. Rather than use his propaganda machine effectively in order to achieve a victory, he has himself become a hostage of this fabrication. The Russian military operation has already been derailed by the resistance of Ukrainians, which the fantasy version did not anticipate. Within Russia itself, all pretence of ‘freedom’ is g0ne. Every independent media outlet has been silenced; access to most foreign media, as well as global social media, blocked; new laws threaten Russians with three years in prison for using the slogan ‘No to War!’ and as many as fifteen for saying that Russian planes are bombing civilian areas. Yet, for now, posts on Russia’s remaining social media channel, Telegram, continue to tell those who want to know what is really going on. Even the most notorious propagandists have begun to express concern about the Kremlin losing the information war against its own population. On state TV, they call on Russian citizens, irrespective of their views on ‘the conflict’, to support official policies at a time when ‘the country is in a difficult situation.’
Even when he tries to evoke a feeling among the populace that Russia is ‘my country, right or wrong’, Putin’s strategy is a failure. In concert with state media he has consistently been resurrecting an image of Ukraine that goes back to 19th-century imperial Russia. I have noted for some time the bewildering speed with which official narratives about key events in Russian history have been changing, without any concern about the lack of coherence. Each new twist has reflected the Kremlin’s need to justify a particular policy. This approach can hardly lead to national consolidation. And so, while in the face of Russia’s aggression Ukraine acts as a nation, today’s Russia is less a nation than before Putin came to power. Whereas thousands of Ukrainians are returning from abroad to defend their country, in Russia members of the elite, as well as many ordinary people, are abandoning a country they believe has no future. Putin’s fantasy has been realised in reverse. This moment is the apotheosis of the Kremlin’s propensity to achieve the precise opposite of the outcomes its policies are designed to bring about.
On 1 March , a Russian missile hit the Kyiv TV tower, reportedly killing five people. The tower is located next to Babyn Yar, a ravine on the edge of the city and the site of one of the worst massacres of the Holocaust, when more than 33,000 Jews were killed over two days. A second missile apparently hit and destroyed a building that was being converted into a museum. ‘What is the point of saying “never again” for eighty years,’ Zelensky tweeted, ‘if the world stays silent when a bomb drops on the same site of Babyn Yar?’
The Second World War looms over this conflict. The lie, propagated by the Russian government, that Ukraine is in need of ‘denazification’ comes with no small irony, since Putin has made it his business to forge alliances with far-right parties in Western Europe, and Russia is repressing anti-war protesters with all the force of a police state. Far-right nationalists are a minor but corrosive presence in Ukraine, empowered by the militarisation that followed the Russia-provoked war in Donbas, but they do not run the country. Putin believes Ukrainians are ‘Nazis’ because he refuses to see any expression of Ukrainian autonomy as legitimate – and because it is effective propaganda.
The incident at Babyn Yar is largely symbolic (though who knows what will happen to Kyiv’s memorials if Russian forces decide to pulverise the city), but it is worth considering all the same. The Soviet author Anatoly Kuznetsov, who was a teenager in Kyiv during the war, described in his ‘documentary novel’ Babi Yar the way a massacre that began with the city’s Jews soon spread to other racial and political ‘enemies’ of the occupiers. By the end of the war, more than 100,000 people had been killed at the site: Jews, Roma, communists, prisoners of war, Ukrainians, Russians.
The story of Babyn Yar since 1945 is instructive, too. The Soviet authorities tried to bury the history of the site, because the idea that people were killed on the basis of their identity went against the official narrative of a single, unified Soviet struggle against Nazism. They also quite literally buried it, covering the ravine in mud. In 1961, it burst open, and a landslide hit the streets of Kyiv, killing yet more people. Since independence, Babyn Yar has become symbolic of modern Ukraine’s account of its own past, and its aspirations for the future. Plans for a memorial complex have come and gone – and, recently, returned again. Would a Holocaust museum prove that Ukraine was becoming a ‘normal’ European country? Was the project being manipulated by Russian funders to amplify the fact that some Ukrainians collaborated with the Nazis during the war and to portray modern Ukraine as a country of fascists?
The debates over the future of Babyn Yar remind me of conversations I’ve had on trips to Ukraine since 2014: tense, fractious disagreements about the national project and who is included in it, which the majority of people were trying to work through democratically. War radically curtails that possibility – this is why Putin is waging it. Babi Yar was heavily censored when it came out in the USSR in 1966; it was smuggled out to the West and published in full in 1970. The edition I own gives the censored parts in bold, as well as Kuznetsov’s later reflections in square brackets. ‘I am writing this book without bothering about any literary rules [or any political systems, frontiers, censors, or national prejudices],’ he writes in the opening chapter. ‘This book records only the truth – AS IT REALLY HAPPENED.’
At the moment, I am trying to hold onto two truths that don’t fit together easily. The first is that if this war escalates into outright conflict between nuclear-armed powers it could become a global cataclysm. For once, my own government is not on the side of the aggressor, but it is nonetheless capable of making dreadful mistakes, and we must prevail on it not to do so.
The second is that Ukrainians should be supported in their efforts to preserve life, and repel their occupiers, as must Russians opposing their government. Over the past few weeks, I have seen the lives of people I know in Ukraine completely upended. ‘I am now a refugee,’ one friend wrote to me, after fleeing Kyiv; a few days earlier we had been chatting about the shared experiences of our grandparents, displaced from Ukraine in the early 20th century. A photographer I met at a journalism workshop in 2018 is now documenting dead bodies left uncollected in the streets of Mariupol. On social media, I see writers and activists trying to organise the evacuation of children, elderly relatives, even family pets, by sharing train timetables and car shares, which routes are safe and which border crossings to take. Near where I live in South London, a Ukrainian-run artists’ space is doubling up as a collection point for aid donations: recent requests have included haemostatic wound dressings, burn kits, tourniquets and chest tubes.
I would like to believe that a focus on humanitarian aid, and support for refugees fleeing Ukraine, is enough. But I’m not sure. Last week, I received a message from a Ukrainian friend who works as a refugee rights campaigner: he’s suspending his work because he’s been called up by the army. ‘I hope to get back to helping people seeking protection as soon as possible,’ he wrote. ‘But just now we have to create some most basic conditions for this.’