Dispatches from the Place of Imminence, part 8

March 29 – April 12, 2022

Today is the 48th day of war. For last two weeks our region has been hit several times: Khmelnytsky, Slavuta, Shepetivka, and Starokostantyniv. In all these cases, as far as we know, the Russians attacked oil refineries and gas stations to interrupt seasonal agricultural works and destroyed a small military airport in Starokostantyniv that was targeted from February. The war, they say, may last for two years… or until May 9th, which is WWII Victory Day. Historic dates like this are fetishized in the RF: an old Soviet tradition that has become even stronger during last thirty years when the country has been transitioning from authoritarianism to totalitarianism. As the gap between Moscow / Saint Petersburg and the other parts of the federation has become unbridgeable after the decades of internal colonization and kleptocracy sustained by continuous underdevelopment and the exploitation of the population in the remote regions, these areas have become a reservoir of human resources for producing a lumpenproletariat of war, thrown to the invasion of Ukraine, so cheap and disposable in the eyes of Russian generals that they do not even care to collect corpses.

Dagestan was reported to have the highest number of people killed in the Russia-Ukraine War. The attitude to death is special in the region and traditionally a significant burial ceremony usually gathers the whole village, so it is harder to hide the deaths by not sending a notice, as is done in other regions of the Russian Federation. Before the war, Meduza reports, serving in the army, especially by recruitment, was a social lift in the region where “the unemployment rate was over 15% in 2021 (against an average for Russia of just over 4% at the end of the year).” But now, despite the strong belief in “Nazis in Ukraine,” some finally raise questions: “Why are there so many young guys in the army? Because there is no other job. Who left us without work, the Nazis or the government?” To the question why they must defend Russia in Ukraine, people in Dagestan usually say, “No comment.”

In a totalitarian state, life is defined, structured by and circles around the dates of former glory, even if painted in a particular way by the Soviet propaganda. Now deceased leader of the populist Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR) Vladimir Zhirinovsky – known for advocating to forcibly retake Alaska from the United States, which would be “a great place to put the Ukrainians,” and for turning Kazakhstan into “Russia’s back yard” – announced, in December 2021, that the invasion of Ukraine would happen at 4am in the morning of February 22nd (a reference to 4am of June 22nd, 1941, when German forces launched Operation Barbarossa, the invasion of the Soviet Union). Whatever prevents Russia from sticking to plans, its military plans are made with all sorts of embedded symbolism and imaginary historical recursions. Now the victory, they say, should be repeated to reinstate the former Soviet glory associated with the WWII Victory Day, even if it will have to be painted over the current reality of complete collapse, the upcoming economic default, shocking war crimes, and huge losses, but again, Russian propaganda has unlimited recourses of paint.

The Russian troops’ trenches in the Red Forest shot by a drone after the withdrawal, on the 42nd day of the war.

In search for a version of victory, Russian war strategists are refocusing on the east and south by retreating troops from the area north-west of Kyiv, including the Chernobyl Zone. When we first heard about the Russian soldiers leaving the premises of the Nuclear Power Plant and the surrounding areas on March 30th and 31st, we learned that they dug entrenchments right in the Red Forest, one of highest contaminated spots in the world. After the absorption of high levels of ionizing radiation on April 26th 1986, the beautiful tall pine trees died by turning into ginger-brown ghastly things that were later bulldozed and buried in so-called “waste graveyards” in the form of approximately five hundred trenches in seven different arears around the plant, unmapped and not studied until today. For those of us who research the Chernobyl Zone, we know why you should carefully follow the guide leading you along a thin trail known to be safe as the rest of the surrounding area, even several meters off, is a potential waste graveyard. And the contaminating spots emanating radiation that streams up like the rays of poisoned light are many. So the news about Russian troops digging themselves into contaminated soil for the last thirty days sounded, lightly speaking, untrue. “It’s crazy, really,” Ukrainian Energy Minister German Galushchenko told CNN, “I really have no idea why they did it.” But I do.

Because the take-over of the Chernobyl NPP by Russian troops was an act of terrorism, as I argued, tracing the legacy of Soviet imperialism revealed in such act of terror, the occupation of the nuclear power plant was to a great extent symbolic. The intent could have been just to scare, to evoke panic and trauma associated with the Chernobyl catastrophe and to “communicate,” in the way terrorists do, the possibility of its recursion. After the troops’ withdrawal on April 2nd, some channels reported the alleged death of at least one of the Russian soldiers regularly brought to the Republican Scientific and Practical Centre for Radiation Medicine and Human Ecology in Gomel, Belarus. It has been debated by specialists whether Acute Radiation Syndrome (ARS) usually caused by a high dose of penetrating radiation in a very short period could indeed develop during the troops’ activities in the Zone. Some specialists, including my collaborator radiologist Olena Pareniuk with her colleague Kateryna Shavanova, argued that an average dose in the mentioned areas was unlikely to cause the disease unless the trenches were dug directly where radioactive waste is buried and were deep enough.

When on April 8th, Petro Kotin with the team of radiologists and journalists visited the Nuclear Power Plant, they also visited the site where the trenches were dug. Their measurements showed an external gamma background radiation at the level of 3.2 – 4 μSv / h (microsieverts per hour), which is 10-15 times higher than normal. The internal radiation that could be received from the soil surface due to beta contamination was 90 Sr, which was 160 times more than normal (Strontium is a unit used to measure the amount of radioactivity from strontium-90, one of the radioactive fission materials created within a nuclear reactor during its operation). In addition, there are also fragments of radioactive pieces of graphite scattered underground in this part of the Red Forest from the 1986 explosion. These fragments can be located as close as a depth of 40-80cm, while some trenches the troops dug were much deeper. Besides, if Russian troops indeed destroyed one of the waste graveyards or encountered a random piece of graphite still burred in the soil, then, indeed, it would be correct to say that they simply dug the waste out of a grave and placed themselves in it.

Last week, I taught my final online graduate seminar of the spring term. Before the beginning of class, I had an anxiety attack and needed to take medication to start talking. The same happened before my online talk in Berlin several days earlier and before my talk in Oslo a week ago. This symptom is gone now, but it began after Bucha. The name of this small town in the outskirts of Kyiv now stands for the mind-blowing war atrocities and uncountable bodies discovered after the departure of Russian forces. The images, and if you have the internet, you saw them – the one with the dark deteriorating female body near the bicycle, two male bodies on the village road, several burned naked bodies of raped women on the curb, men and women with their hands tied behind their backs shot in the head, some with plastic bags on their heads, the bodies of raped and assaulted women run over by a Russian tank, and all those mass graves with bodies barely covered with soil in a hasty departure… these images make your life, including all you do, especially words, words, words, written and said through all channels, feel so insignificant that the only satisfying thought that could bring me to life these past several days is to join the army. I even mentioned it to my mother, which made her cry, and I really wanted to kill myself for this weakness after that, for being caught by the phantasmatic responses of my confused psyche having encountered the unbearable.

A week after the photographs, we have many recorded accounts of those who survived, I listened to dozens of them already. The knowledge of how little a life means is excruciating. My hands are shaking as I am typing this… and my heart is racing, which interrupts my stream of thoughts, erasing what I intended to write here… Tremendous work has been done by Ukrainian organizations and activists to collect the accounts of witnesses and survivors. But there is another important job, the job for us who have not been there – to listen to these people. This job demands a lot from you, it will take away your sleep, it will give you nightmares, it will make you cry, you will feel sick, and nauseous, and disgusted, and furious, and extremely, extremely helpless. If you open yourself up to these voices, you may even feel like them, these people with plastic bags on their heads and their hands tied behind the back, from which your survival instinct will pull you the moment you start suffocating. You must do it. You owe it to them.

This is Anna from the suburbs of Kyiv. This is Olga from Borodianka. This is Volodymyr from Gostomel. This is Vira from Chernihiv. This is Valeria from Mariupol. This is a family from Mariupol. Olga from Malaya Rohan. Dmytro, Vanya and Mykola from Bucha. This is a man from Zabuchchya. This is Alexei from Severodonetsk. The geography of cases is broad. This is not one random regiment of slaughterers and rapists on drugs who went nuts, this is systematized violence against civilians conducted in close encounters with them. All over Ukraine, including the regions which Russian troops came to save. Mounting evidence of raped children and teenagers between ten- and eighteen-years-old. Many of whom are killed. Multiple summary executions. Multiple signs of extreme torture. “If anyone has the exact coordinates of any mass graves,” Bellingcat’s Eliot Higgins wrote on Twitter on April 3rd, “I can check Planet hi-res imagery to see if there’s any visible signs of ground disturbance to establish when they were dug.”

The legitimization of these war crimes was bluntly articulated within just days after Russian troops withdrew from the area north-west of Kyiv via the Russian state news agency Ria Novosti in a deeply ideological piece “What Russia should do with Ukraine” published on April 3, 2022. The translation in English renders the article title with a question mark, although there is no question mark in the original text and it reads as a program. There are no publications on these channels that are not authorized. Each writer is on a mission. “Today,” its author Timofey Sergeytsev states, “the denazification issue has taken a practical turn.” And he calls for the full destruction of Ukraine as a state and the Ukrainian national identity beginning with “the Armed Forces of Ukraine and the so-called ‘nationalist battalions,’ as well as the Territorial Defense.” “A total lustration must be conducted,” he goes. “All organizations involved in Nazi actions must be eliminated and prohibited. However, besides the highest ranks, a significant number of common people are also guilty of being passive Nazis and Nazi accomplices. They supported the Nazi authorities and pandered to them. A just punishment for this part of the population can only be possible through bearing the inevitable hardships of a just war against the Nazi system, waged as carefully and sparingly as possible relates civilians. The further denazification of this bulk of the population will take the form of re-education through ideological repressions (suppression) of Nazi paradigms and a harsh censorship not only in the political sphere but also in the spheres of culture and education.” “What’s happening in Ukraine,” political scientist and historian at Johns Hopkins University, Eugene Finkel writes, “is genocide. Period.”

A mass grave in Motyzhyn. Source: 24 Канал. Photo by Andrey Yermak.

The massive displacement of populations, a traditional Soviet practice of biopolitical management, is revived. The migration corridors are attacked, like several days ago in Kramatorsk, when at least 52 people were killed by two Russian missiles. The Kramatorsk station was the last surviving train connection to the safer regions. People who want to escape are blocked in the occupied areas and areas of combat or shelling. At this moment, only one large Ukrainian city is fully occupied, and it has been forced, continuously, to accept its “new status” as the center of the Kherson Peoples Republic. People resisted, which led to the forced displacement of the remaining population to different Russian regions. Similar forced displacements have been conducted in other areas controlled by Russian forces. Mariupol mayor’s office reported on March 24th about a massive deportation of citizens, up to fifteen thousand people, to Russia after blocking the evacuation corridor for twenty days. People, who are already extremely exhausted by the war, are forced to get on the deportation buses without the possibility to refuse.

At the checkpoints as well as during the forced deportation at the “filtration camps” as “necessary for their passage to safety” people are stripped naked and searched for “Nazi tattoos” or other signs on their bodies that would reveal nationalists in them, literally, on the level of the bare skin. Anna, who went through this process, mentions that she was photographed from all angles: “I felt we were treated like criminals, or being held as the property of the Russian Federation.” Russian sociologist Grigory Yudin, still in Russia, warns that such practices of policing bodies, along with the practices of using bodies to shape a “Z” sign as a pro-war statement that is now often performed for the purposes of propaganda, is an extremely troubling sign of the country’s transition to fascism. The same applies, he argues, to these “filtration camps” where people are supposed to be re-educated, in the best-case scenario, if they are suspected “nationalists,” or exterminated. Ombudswoman of Ukraine Lyudmila Denisova told The Insider (3:12) that such camps are created in different parts of Russia, and they were contacted by a Russian woman who has an access to one of them, in the Pensa region, and who is willing to help Ukrainian citizens inside by delivering them meds, clothing and food, as they are in a desperate situation there. The first forced deportation happened on February 18th, still before the war, when nineteen thousand people were deported from the Donbass region. People are sent, according to Denisova, to thirty-five regions of Russia, many are still without documents and, until today, without money, and are not allowed to travel. Overall, Denisova says, they know of 700,000 people forcedly deported from Ukraine between the end of February and mid-April.

Last night and this morning, we heard sirens. Part of the civilian infrastructure is hit in our region, but they do not say now what and where. It seems that now my instinctual response at night is to curl under the blanket and pull it over my head. When the alert is cancelled I, instinctually, stretch my legs and arms. Such automatism is new. We are war animals now.

Asia says Kyiv is намолений. I do not know how to translate the word to express what she is trying to say exactly, but I think I know what she means. Listening to her, I imagine how the city is caught in an extremely slow process of transfiguration, almost invisible to the human eye, on its way ascending to heaven. Whether it is due to the lack of people, cars, street illumination, or indeed, the power of prayers, although I know she does not mean it in a religious sense, we are witnessing a scene of religious sacrament, in which our beautiful cities – that have already been heroes – are now becoming saints.

Asia left Kremenchuk and is planning to travel here, to Kamyanets-Podilsky, after Kyiv. The logistics are not easy. There are two trains she can take. One departs too late, after the curfew, so she cannot get to the train station in Kyiv. Another arrives too late to Kamyanets-Podilsky, again, after the curfew time. The curfew time will change from 10pm to 11pm on April 15th, but even then, she will be here some minutes after that, which still implies that she cannot get to my place. A friend of a friend promised to get a special permit for driving at night just to pick her up from the station, we are not sure though how long the process of obtaining such permits will take. And with all the talk about a next attempt to conquer Kyiv by May 9th “to make their grandfathers proud,” the longer she stays there, the more uncomfortable I am. Along with the continuous aggregation of Russian troops on the east border in preparation for Russia’s major battle in the Donbas region within the next several weeks or days, the talk about the end of war seems nearly surreal. We are trapped between several futures – of the war ending by May 9th and the war lasting for several years; each of them is utterly terrifying for different reasons.

My friend who taught me how to disassemble and assemble a Kalashnikov on February 17th and another friend who took his first shooting lesson along with me in the fields near my hometown – are both in the army now. I am still here though, waiting – like in Samuel Beckett’s play – for the imminent end of this war.