Dispatches from the Place of Imminence, part 7

March 21-29, 2022

On the 33rd day of the Russia-Ukraine war, I continued receiving media and speaking requests to address a so-called “crisis in Ukraine.” It is almost surprising, or maybe not at all, that Russian propaganda is so pervasive that it imposes a false caution on someone who’d think that despite the ongoing full-scale destruction and erasure of a culture, the word “war” might be a little too extreme to use. For eight years now, I’ve been arguing that when Google Maps shows Crimea as a Russian territory to clients with Russian IPs, it is not an example of good service but an act of communicative militarism, or the convergence of capitalist and military methods and goals, that exposes a company’s complicity with Russian disinformation campaigns and the normalization of an act of aggression towards Ukraine – the annexation of the Peninsula. And now, The Intercept reports, that the contractors who work for Google to translate company text for the Russian market all received an update from their client requiring them to refer to an ongoing Russian war in Ukraine as “extraordinary circumstances.”

Here, censorship takes the form of a euphemism policy, and goes levels deeper to impact language itself. After putting up a short fight, Apple also complied with Russian demands in 2019 and now shows annexed Crimea as part of the Russian territory on its apps. With apps, Russian propaganda gets “under your fingertips” and is part of your epistemological landscape. And then the vicious circuitry of communicative militarism – from the territorial and cartographic to linguistic suppression – is reproduced by cultural and research institutions, regulatory organizations and agencies, banks and news channels, who all become defensive of their language: “the phrase ‘military conflict’ is good enough.”  But no, it is not: when communicative militarism goes full circle to normalize cartographic and linguistic violence, it pushes remote publics to accept or become indifferent to a full-scale war.

News websites keep the evacuation train schedules constantly updated – whenever they can, people keep moving from the east and center to the west and south-west leaving their homes behind, or what’s left of them. The UNO reminds us that 10 million people in Ukraine have left their homes by now. There are no humanitarian corridors on March 28th due to intelligence reports about potential provocations by the invaders. After Ukrainian defenders have broken the supply lines of the Russian invaders northwest of Kyiv, Russian occupation troops are begging for food in Ivankiv and Orane, where I probably know all the elderly villagers… According to reports from the General Staff of the Armed Forces of Ukraine, Russians are not acting aggressively and are not looting, but according to the accounts of local witnesses, they are stealing everything they can from the local schools and offices.

In an interview published on March 23rd, Valentina Melnikova, a Russian human rights activist and politician, a responsible secretary of the Union of Committees of Soldiers’ Mothers of Russia, discussed how she and her organization have been trying to persuade and pressure the Russian government, from the first days of the war, to organize and maintain fast exchanges of killed, wounded and captured soldiers, but all in vain. She explained that Russia does not claim the bodies of dead soldiers as that would radically contradict the government’s official version of the war losses: 1,351, according to the Russian Ministry of Defence, versus over 15,000 announced on the Ukrainian side. Melnikova confirms the information that special camps for captured Russian soldiers have been opened in Ukraine, where, according to General Persecutor Iryna Venediktova (for BBC), captured Russian soldiers are held as required by the Geneva Convention and are also being provided the same level of medical care as the Ukrainian military. To exchange all for all is impossible, according to Melnikova, because there is no information about where Russia keeps Ukrainian captives and there is no information about their condition (13:07). “How can we do the exchanges if there are no Ukrainian captives? And if there are no captives, you killed them, and if you killed them, where are the bodies?” (27:10) “If the captives are in Russia, it is better as there is a possibility to negotiate the exchange, but if they are kept in the basements of Lugansk, it is very bad.”

The so-called republics of LNR and DNR are a grey zone where the law has been lifted since 2014 which opened a possibility, among other atrocities, for a functioning modern-day concentration camp on the territory of IZOLYATSIA, formerly an art center (and during the Soviet time, a site of industrial infrastructure) that was seized by forces of the self-proclaimed DNR on June 9th, 2014. The accounts of released and exchanged prisoners about their time in IZOLYATSIA and the torture they survived are more than terrifying. On March 24th, the first exchange of servicemen in the format 10 for 10 took place; and the next exchange of 19 Ukrainian sailors and 10 servicemen is currently underway. There is hope, it seems, that the captured defenders of Snake Island, who became the first legend of this war, will also return home.

The interview reveals details of a grim reality inside the RF that demonstrates how a regime of fear and, often, indifference has made many complicit in state war crimes. Melnikova says that she consulted with the Chief Military Prosecutor’s Office of the RF and learned that the status of Russian troops on the territory of Ukraine is unknown or unclear: some soldiers are recruits, but others are conscripts, with some having been turned into recruits at the last minute when they were asked to sign contracts, or even when they did not, they were still sent to Ukraine, which is against the law, she says. If it is true, Melnikova explains, that Russian soldiers “did not know where they are going,” it means there was no order, and then they are literally “nobody.” Or, if is not true and there was an order, they knew where they were going very well. Even if there was an order, she says, they could have run away; their parents could have rescued them too – but nobody did. Melnikova says she received calls before the war from concerned parents and she told everyone – “Go, now, steal your children by any means and we will provide all legal help, we can.” But no, nobody did.

It is shocking, she also says, that many families only started calling the Union of Committees of Soldiers’ Mothers of Russia to acquire information about their children after a month of non-communication or when in the videos of captured soldiers, published by Ukrainians, they recognized their sons. The Union, she explains, can only start an official inquiry about a soldier on behalf of the relatives if there is a request from them, even in the form of a SMS (15:45), but when Melnikova has asked relatives for such an SMS, they are afraid to send them. Nobody makes a formal claim. The Russian state, Melnikova explains, may once again benefit from this situation, as it did during the wars in Chechnya and Syria: instead of exchanging the captives and claiming the bodies of the dead, she thinks, the state will announce soldiers as “missing” because “it is cheaper” (18:50) than paying the promised compensations to the families.

On March 27th, the mayor of Mariupol said that Russians forcibly deported between 20 to 30 thousand citizens. On March 28th, Ukraine’s Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk already mentioned 40,000 people who had been moved from Ukraine to Russian-held territory without any coordination with Kyiv. Some of the detorted have already managed to escape and make their way back to Ukrainian territory. They, whose names I will omit for security reasons, have written the Manual of Escape for those who are still in Russia, providing legal advice, and the possibility to ask for help via @helpingtoleave_bot, along with a detailed description of the available routes out.

Many cities, especially regional centers, have been hit by rockets. The photograph of Mykolaiv regional state administration building as it looks this morning, on March 29th, is another unforgettable image of destruction during this war. The resistance of Ukrainian civilians in the occupied cities is heroic. Kherson is isolated, but is protesting with Ukrainian flags. From the morning of March 26th, Slavutych, where the workers of the Chernobyl NPP live, is occupied.  People came out to protest with Ukrainian flags too. The Russians took over the city hospital, abducted the mayor, as they do, but then released him. He said they needed to get rid of the Ukrainian police, for them to give up all weapons in their possession, and then, they said, they would leave the city, but set up their military posts.

Most refugees have left our town – it is emptier, but not empty. On the surface, town life is almost like it was before the war, with just some streets still blocked with Czech hedgehogs, still many men and occasionally women in military uniform wearing kalashnikovs across their bodies, more cars from different regions, and you’d often see “Shelter” signs with a pointing arrow. We took a walk with Ira to the Old Town on March 23rd and the restaurants were full. It looked like a normal sunny spring day. All my emails still begin with “I am safe here” after the greeting. Now that there is no need for Czech hedgehogs, Serhiy wants to produce bulletproof vests. I talk him out of it. “But what if the bullet goes through just because you made a wrong stitch or something, how would you live with it or even with the possibility of it happening?” His next project is making knives. I contribute half of the equipment cost thinking it might be also useful after the war.

On March 25th between 7:30am and 8am, I heard the intense sound of several jets, I think, since the sound continued for about 20 minutes – disappearing and then getting louder and louder again. I went to the balcony, but there were no traces in the sky, only the noise coming though the heavy low clouds above and all the people on the ground with their heads up, motionless. This mise en scène was so revealing about our being in and, at the same time, on the outskirts of the war – in this place of imminence, Kamyanets-Podilsky.

We still have several air raid sirens daily. On March 22nd, two sirens were heard during my graduate seminar, which I returned to teach on Zoom after Lanet, our internet provider, hooked up a reserve line. There was another siren later that evening too. I did not feel I had to, but went down to the basement, as I did in the first weeks of the war. Alone, I sat there on a pile of styrofoam that has now been torn off the floor and walls, opened my computer, wrote several sentences then closed it and went outside. I wanted to take a walk, but it was after the curfew time set at 9pm, so I could not. I stood near my building for some time listening to the siren and watching the stars – under the regime of wartime blackout, all the constellations are clear and readable, and before my neighbours called the police on me, which now may happen if they see a figure in the dark, I took the elevator up to my apartment.