The superfluous people of Eastern Ukraine

Emmanuil Evzerikhin, Stalingrad (1943)

First published at LeftEast on September 10.

Imagine you are a Russian-speaker in some bombed-out Eastern Ukrainian city, waiting to be liberated. Some of the “liberators” will be first checking your closets for young men to mobilize and use as a Z-branded canon fodder. The other liberators make it clear that they see you аs nothing more than a “vatnik,” a Homo Sovieticus. All that remains for you to choose is which knife you would like to be liberated with: the good knife of the victim or the evil knife of the aggressor?

Listening to Olexey Danilov, the Secretary of Ukraine’s National Security and Defense Council, I understand that nobody is particularly interested in the “reintegration of Donbas.” What matters is territory, preferably cleared of the “superfluous”population. People are generally inconvenient. All of them are so different and nuanced, with their own views and identities. They need to be somehow glued together, represented. Nobody wants to trouble with this.

For if you wanted to be in dialogue with the inhabitants of the occupied territories, you don’t tell them “It’s you who need to find a common language with us, not the opposite”; you don’t accuse the granny of treason because she has chewed on humanitarian aid from the Z-truck; you don’t wipe your feet on the Soviet symbols–by now no longer ideological but social and cultural–that are part of someone’s mom and dad’s identities to the point that their destruction means less of a political revenge (decommunization) and more of social exclusions. Even the [Russian] invaders thought of including Ukrainian language in Kherson schools because public relations matters while the Ukrainian side cannot convey some image of tolerance and inclusiveness even at the level of propaganda.

When you want the citizens of the invading country to rise up against their regime, you don’t call for their visas to be taken away and for them to be locked in a cage with Putin because they happened to be born in the wrong place. You don’t say that all of them without exception are “like that,” you don’t burn cultural bridges, you don’t chip off tablets with Bulgakov, castrating yourself to spite the enemy …

Russia is the aggressor here. This is crystal clear. What is not clear is what should attract these “superfluous” Ukrainians to a country that makes no effort to find a space for them. Nothing except for the sheer horror of Russia. It will be worse there; here it’s just bad. What is better – worse or bad? Bad is better, of course! That’s all the choice you are given.

“You don’t like it here? Then fuck off.” Well, thanks for that. At least you are allowed to leave the world where you grew up, once loved, dreamed. They’ll fill up the void with a trustworthy citizen. Unless you’re a man of conscription age, of course. Then you can’t go fuck off anywhere.

I hope Ukraine wins. However, I harbor no blind optimism about a brighter future.

Now the unity of society is ensured by the Russian aggression and the presence of an external enemy. As soon as the war is over, internal contradictions will sharpen.

War will become a universal argument. It will serve to justify any problems in the economy, any repression, arbitrariness. The victim is always right. The victim is allowed everything and not responsible for anything.

Since Russia won’t disappear from the globe, the proximity to it and the memory of the invasion will always make it possible, even necessary, to prepare for war. This is how the war becomes the Great Reason, the question and the answer, the unifying, initiating force, nation’s idea, our very orbit. In the meantime, while the main external enemy remains out of reach, we will deal with the reachable, internal “enemy.”

Everything Soviet will be erased as part of the rejection of this part of yourself; it will become shameful, repressed, leading to the impoverishment of culture, diminished inclusivity, the reduction in the range of acceptable identities. Who is guilty here? Russia. But this does not make it any easier for the “superfluous” citizens.

We will see many grotesque performances of rejecting “the language of the invaders,” as many people follow either the direction of the prevailing winds or the logic “since my grandmother was Russified, I will now rape myself in public.”

Ukrainians who survived the war in Ukraine will naturally feel more entitled than those who survived it in Berlin, but people in Lviv or Kiev won’t apply this logic to the IDPs and residents of the occupied territories, who had the most immediate experience of the war. Because it’s “them” who have to find a common language with “us”.

Any appeals to protect the rights of “superfluous” citizens will be declared something suspicious, fake, Kremlin-backed, and artificial, unrealistic or even dangerous. Something that the Ukrainian state had tolerated far too long, something that led to the current war, so now is the time to deal with it once and forever.

I see nothing good in store for these “superfluous” Ukrainian citizens. Something like double-life in silence and performed consent with “patriotic standards,” at best. Being a stranger in your own country. The new oppressions will be justified by the old ones, making them continuous, endless and, seemingly, just.

The future sounds like the thud of approaching boots. And still, there is some hope. Mainly, that I’m wrong.

Anatoli Ulyanov is an LA-based journalist, visual artist, and documentarian from Ukraine. You can reach him via his blog, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, or Telegram. Photo by Natasha Masharova.