In 2023, the Kiev-Pechersk Lavra, an important historic site for Orthodox Christianity, is under siege by the Ukrainian government. Its Metropolitan Pavel has been charged with “inciting religious hatred” and placed under house arrest. Yet the state’s persecution of the canonical Orthodox Church is the culmination of the brewing clash involving politics and identity since the establishment of independent Ukraine following the collapse of the Soviet Union. Its causes are far more complex and go back centuries when the Ukrainian territory was part of multiple states (Russia, the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and the Ottoman Empire).
Indeed, when the new Ukrainian state emerged in 1991, it was based on two conflicting identities of the western minority and the eastern and southern majority, respectively. These identities were part of different geopolitical entities for centuries, in which culture, language, and religion played a key role. This is not to say that new states cannot be successfully formed, or that different identities within them cannot coexist. But the latter requires state mechanisms to facilitate such coexistence such as federalization and recognizing more than one state language.
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.
The trope of ‘Russian state propaganda’ in mainstream Western media is a persistent one, especially as of late. This continued focus expresses one’s own loss of control as older cable-news models are in decline, the media landscape becomes more diverse, and various web platforms allow younger savvy users to locate alternative information sources. This kind of repetitive finger-pointing is also simultaneously meant to delegitimize Russia’s foreign-language broadcasting and to explain the support for Putin domestically.
The notion in question relies on a number of related assumptions:
that Western countries do not have state media;
that corporate media is impartial;
that state media cannot feature opposing points of view and is thus inferior to its corporate counterpart;
that media consumers, the general and even the educated public, are incapable of critically analyzing the information they receive.
“You are but millions. We are hordes and hordes and hordes.” (“Scythians,” Alexander Blok, 1918)
On May 9, 2015, Ban Ki-moon, the United Nations Secretary-General, was on an official visit to Moscow in order to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the end of the Second World War in Europe. Upon seeing countless people marching in the streets, he assumed that what he was witnessing was an anti-Putin protest. This kind of ‘misunderstanding’ was not a surprise. After all, European and North American mainstream media is fond of exaggerating anti-government protests—by a handful of affluent pro-Western ideological Liberals—that are limited to large urban centers. Yet that day, foreign journalists were forced to cover something unprecedented, though underestimating the numbers: half a million Muscovites marched through the city carrying mounted photographs of their family members, who participated in the Great Patriotic War (1941-1945).
But then I saw that, on the contrary, the marchers hailed your government. I saw that they did it with pride, I saw it in their faces. They waved to us as the UN delegation passed by, which was very pleasant. And so I really think you deserve all this love of the people.
With the onset of the Ukrainian crisis, I realized that I often looked forward to the work of certain journalists, who were both eloquent and informative. Oles Buzina was one of them. In addition to reading his columns, I, like millions of other Russians, watched his frequent appearances on political talk shows. I often found myself in disagreement, but had to admit that his points were well-argued and factually justified—a true sign of a charismatic erudite.
Thus, the news of his brazen murder on April 16 of this year, in broad daylight and outside his home, was particularly distressing. Later, I found out that Oles—a well-known author and historian, in addition to his journalistic career—had been receiving threats for quite some time. Yet he consistently turned down offers to relocate to Russia. Like a true patriot of a country in peril, he continued to love Ukraine. But Ukraine—today’s Ukraine—did not return that sentiment.
Alexander Solzhenitsyn is one of the best-known Soviet dissidents, so much so that he earned the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1970. His Gulag Archipelago, written in the 1950s-60s, and One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich from 1962—both about the Stalin-era labor-camp system—are his most famous works outside of Russia. Yet after the collapse of the USSR, it became increasingly clear that much of his foreign support was not inspired by the Western ideal of ‘human rights’ or concern for average Russians, but served as a tool of geopolitics instead.
His statements about resurgent Russia, particularly in the last years before his death in 2008–well into the era of Putin’s leadership–did not suit those that would rather have the country in the permanently weak state of ‘freedom’ and ‘democracy’ of the 1990s, so that its resources could continue being plundered by domestic oligarchs and foreigners alike, while its culture–transformed into the soft authoritarianism of neo-Liberal Postmodernity. In contrast, one of the most attractive aspects of Putin’s Russia for Solzhenitsyn was the revival that Orthodox Christianity continues to experience.