I read somewhere that, nearly a century after the Russian civil war, the ascendancy of Vladimir Putin ought to be seen as representing the final victory of the Whites over the Reds. It’s an interesting notion — there’s something to it — and reading this passage from a fascinating New Republic piece by Oleg Kashin on Igor Strelkov/Igor Girkin (the mysterious Russian who supposedly commands the separatists in eastern Ukraine) brought it back to mind:
Before he became a military star in Ukraine, Strelkov was already a star among war reenactors. These men arm themselves with old weapons, dress in military uniforms, and gather in deserted places to act out long-ago battles. Strelkov “the cat” particularly loves the 1918-1920 battles of the Russian civil war, where he usually plays the role of a White Guard officer. Essentially, he is now playing the same role in Ukraine: his haircut, his mustache, his manners, and even his military tactics are almost all copied from images of White Guard officers in Soviet films.
One of Strelkov’s idols is the White Guard general Mikhail Drozdovsky, killed in a battle with the Bolshevik army in the south of Russia in 1919. While Strelkov’s soldiers held on to Slavyansk, the entrance to the city was decorated with an enormous banner blending allusions to the “Drozdovites” with images from the film “300.” Another fun fact: When Strelkov rewarded his fighters with St. George’s Crosses (the main award given to soldiers in czarist Russia), he thanked on the antique forum a friend who runs a Moscow antique shop for providing him with authentic crosses for free. It is unclear if Strelkov has any real military experience: He is said to have fought in Chechnya, though that is unconfirmed.
They say that real actors dream of playing the greatest roles in real life beyond the confines of the stage. This may also the dream of war reenactors who play at battle while fantasizing about the real thing. What had once been a game for Strelkov has now become a real war, with real deaths, real shootouts, and real assaults. If Putin does not want to become a sponsor of international terrorism in front of the whole world, he will have to do all he can to stop Strelkov. The Ukrainians think this is very simple: Putin orders Strelkov to return to Moscow, and the Donbass is at peace. To me, this does not seem very realistic: I doubt Strelkov would take orders from Putin….
Who knows? The layers of disinformation are very deep indeed. Read the whole thing.
And it’s not just re-enactors of the past who are active in this corner of Ukraine. As Cathy Young reveals in this piece in Slate, re-enactors of (so to speak) the future are on the scene there too:
A pro-Western, NATO-backed Ukrainian government faces a stubborn insurgency in the pro-Russian East. Fighting rages around Donetsk, with civilians dying in artillery fire and airstrikes, while Russian troops mass on the Ukrainian border. The latest headlines? No, a two-novel series by Russian-Ukrainian science-fiction writer Fedor Berezin: War 2010: The Ukrainian Front and War 2011: Against NATO.
In a startling plot twist, Berezin, a 54-year-old former Soviet Army officer and Donetsk native, is now living inside a real-life version of his own story: He is deputy defense minister of the embattled “Donetsk People’s Republic.” And this is just one of many bizarre overlaps between fantasy and reality in the current conflict in Eastern Ukraine—a convergence that prompted one Russian commentator, novelist Dmitry Bykov, to dub this conflict “the writers’ war.”
As Cathy Young explains, Berezin was not alone in writing novels “in which Ukraine becomes a battleground in a larger East-West confrontation”.
There’s this, for example:
The Age of the Stillborn by Gleb Bobrov, who like Berezin is an ethnic Russian from Eastern Ukraine (Luhansk) and an Afghanistan war veteran. The apocalyptic novel, set in a near future in which a brutal Kiev regime seeks to quash rebellion in the East with NATO help, was first published online in 2006 and became a hit on the Russian Internet before going to print in 2007.
The stream of Russo-Ukrainian war literature published in Russia at the end of the 2000s—both speculative fiction and conspiracy-theory nonfiction—alarmed Ukrainian politician Arsen Avakov, then governor of the Kharkiv region and now Ukraine’s minister of internal affairs. In an emotional March 2009 post on the Ukrainska Pravda website titled, “Do the Russians want war?” Avakov suggested that the books were part of a deliberate Kremlin strategy to build up popular support for war against Ukraine by playing to Soviet nostalgia among older readers and ignorance among younger ones.
If I’d read that theory a year or two back I would thought that I’d wandered into tinfoil shapka territory. And probably I would have been right. But the Kremlin’s manipulation of Russian media — so evident in recent months — has been such that Avakov’s thesis now seems a little less incredible than once might have been the case. That said, it’s probably better to see books of the type that Young describes as a spontaneous response to the psychological, political and emotional gap that the collapse of the USSR left behind in Russia and at least part of Ukraine, the gap that men like Strelkov are now just the latest to try to fill.