In 2014, Kiev banned the Russian-made mini-series The White Guard (2012) based on Mikhail Bulgakov’s 1925 novel for “demonstrating disregard for the Ukrainian language, people, and statehood.” This ban turned out to be one of many after the Maidan that year in an attempt to root out the Russian language and culture in the region long before the 2022 military escalation. Yet what do Mikhail Bulgakov and The White Guard, specifically, have to do with the present conflict in Ukraine?
Mikhail Bulgakov, the Russian author best known for The Master and Margarita, was born in Kiev in 1891. His literary genius makes him one of the most famous historical figures from that city. Yet in 2022, there were even calls to close the Kiev Bulgakov museum.
This interview initially appeared in Komsomolskaya Pravda on December 7, 2022. It was entitled, “A Pilot of the Russian Aerospace Forces: ‘We decided not to give up. The navigator took the grenade, and I pulled the ring out of it.'”
The Story of a Real Man by Boris Polevoy (1946) referenced below is about Soviet fighter ace Alexey Maresyev (1916-2001). During World War II, Maresyev’s plane was shot down but he managed to return to the Soviet side. He was injured so severely that both of his legs had to be amputated above the knee due to gangrene. Not only was Maresyev able to recover but he returned to flying a year later, in 1943, despite his disability. In total, he is credited with 80 combat sorties. Maresyev earned Hero of the Soviet Union. In 1947-48, renowned composer Sergei Prokofiev turned Marasyev’s experience into an opera.
In the original Russian title, “man” refers to a “person” (chelovek), but the standard English translation is “man.”
Pilot Pyotr Kashtanov, awarded Hero of Russia, defeated the enemy and escaped being captured. Kashtanov successfully carried out his combat mission and destroyed enemy equipment. However, the crew was hit and catapulted into enemy territory. The “nationalists” were close by, while his comrade was unconscious…
On the eve of Heroes of the Fatherland Day [December 9], Komsomolskaya Pravda journalists met with an officer whose airplane was shot down over enemy territory. Yet he completed his combat mission and, despite being wounded, led the crew to rejoin the Russian troops.
Not very tall, humble, and seemingly very young, the senior lieutenant tries to be sociable and relaxed.
– Pyotr, he extends his right hand.
Based on his weak handshake, as if it were unnaturally constrained, we understand that the pilot has not yet fully recovered. In September, his Su-34 fighter bomber was shot down over enemy territory, while on a combat mission in the Special Operation zone [during the international conflict taking place in Ukraine]. The situation was hopeless. He had a broken arm, while the navigator had a compression fracture of the spine. There were enemies all around. Yet by some miracle, both managed to get out and reached their own comrades.
And now, sitting in front of us, as if descended from the pages of Boris Polevoy’s The Story of a Real Man, is Pyotr Kashtanov, a Russian officer. The star of the Hero of Russia sparkles on the chest of this 31-year-old…
Instead of the triumph of democracy and progress, we got violence, poverty and social disaster — and nobody cares a bit about human rights, including the right to life. I cannot help asking those who have forced that situation: Do you realize what you have done?
-Vladimir Putin addressing the United Nations in September 2015.
March 22, 2016 entered contemporary history as another day made dark by a new terrorist act in Europe. This time it took place in Brussels, Belgium roughly following the general pattern of its Parisian predecessor in late 2015 by targeting multiple heavily populated areas: a major metro station and the city’s airport. These violent acts resulted in dozens of deaths and hundreds of injuries and were later attributed to the so-called Islamic State terrorist group, although at the time of writing the criminal evidence is just making its way into the media.
SYMBOLS OF EUROPEAN POSTMODERITY
Whereas some described the Paris attacks as targeting the very heart of European culture and civilization, the 2016 bombing of Brussels symbolizes the war against the capital of the European Union and all it represents, as well as the NATO headquarters, the most powerful military alliance in the world. Indeed, border closures alone in the wake of such crises undermine the very idea of this Union and thus send a strong message. Terrorism’s raison d’être is to cause maximum disorientation and fear among the civilian population, which is why, it seems, the perpetrators chose public spaces rather than government buildings.
Bear-hounding is a hunting technique, in which a pack of dogs pursues a bear until exhaustion—at that point the hunter can make his kill. And that is to what Karen Shakhnazarov, a well-known Russian filmmaker of Armenian origin, compared Russia’s predicament in the current geopolitical situation.
As the Tariff-War Must End, Udo Keppler, Puck, U.S., 1901. Source: LOC.
The bear analogy in Russia’s case is a contrived and, often, derogatory image describing the barbaric Other outside the West. It has deep historic roots, as literary and artistic examples indicate. But it is also one that works metaphorically. As a large continental power spanning Eurasia including some of the coldest places on earth—one with nuclear capabilities—Russia is not unlike the bear. In fact, many Russians themselves have reappropriated this comparison.
Even President Vladimir Putin has used it on a number of occasions.
“We never tried to wake our children up on weekends: the more they sleep, the less they eat.”
Recently, the Russian-speaking segment of the Internet got flooded with personal photographs from the 1990s. I first took note of them on my own Facebook feed. Some appeared expectedly funny—imagine the hairstyles!—others were nostalgic. Yet what seemed like a spontaneous flashmob turned out to be a planned event. In fact, this social-networking experiment was organized by the Yeltsin Foundation in conjunction with one opposition publication. It targeted the under-40 demographic, but especially those born in the late 1980s-early 1990s, who were too young to remember some of the horrors of that decade. Thus, the purpose of this pseudo-spontaneous photo-sharing was to reshape the memory of a nation about the early years following Soviet collapse. This memory has been overwhelmingly negative: looting the country’s natural resources by the select few, mob violence in the streets, daily hunger, institutional collapse, and national humiliation, just to name a few aspects.
“There are no separate Russia or Ukraine, but one Holy Rus” – Elder Iona of Odessa
The year 2014 saw an unprecedented surge of patriotism in contemporary Russia, which resulted in popularizing the notion of the Russian World. One reason for the increased patriotic sentiment was Crimea’s return to the home port after the overwhelmingly positive vote by its majority-Russian residents in a referendum one year ago. The onset of the liberation war in Donbass from the West-backed Kiev regime was the other. This war truly delineated the stakes for the existence of the Russian World. The latter is not an ethnic, but a civilizational concept that encompasses shared culture, history, and language in the Eurasian space within a traditionalist framework. To a certain extent and despite the obvious ideological differences, the Russian Empire and the USSR embodied the same geopolitical entity. A particularly noteworthy aspect of the ongoing crisis in Donbass is the symbolism—religious and historic—that surpasses the commonly used, but outdated Left-Right political spectrum. In the Russian context, this also means overcoming the Red-White divide of the Communist Revolution. That this war pushed Russians to examine their country’s raison d’être is somewhat remarkable: for two decades its citizens did not have an official ideology, prohibited by the Constitution that is based on Western models. The emergence of a new way of thinking in Russia will become clearer once we refer to the meaning of religious insignia, wars—Russian Civil and Great Patriotic, as well as the question of ideology in the Postmodern world.