Dispatches from the Place of Imminence, part 10

May 9 – 29, 2022

The war did not end on May 9th. That day Russia celebrated the 77th anniversary of the defeat of Nazi Germany with a large-scale military parade in Moscow’s Red Square. To the huge disappointment of the public, there was no promised flying display of the supersonic Tu-160 strategic bombers, nor a so-called “Doomsday” IL-80 command and control aircraft, which Russia’s top leadership, they say, is supposed to board in the event of a nuclear attack, which it allegedly can withstand. But then, bad weather conditions were listed as an official reason for the mysterious cancellation of the show, although Moscow meteorologists were ready to disperse clouds. Journalists speculated about the Kremlin’s fear of sabotage. Given a growing disappointment of the “quite pro-war [and] aggressively pro-war” Russian military with how the Russia-Ukraine war has been conducted, a rumour has it that the Kremlin could not risk a possibility of one of the pilots to re-enact a suicide attack by Soviet WWII hero Nikolai Gastello by directing the plane towards the commander-in-chief overlooking the Victory Day parade. But then, it is only a rumour.

Since 2015, Ukraine celebrates the Day of Remembrance and Reconciliation – that replaced the Soviet Victory Day – on May 8th, commemorating the day when the Allies of WWII accepted Germany’s unconditional surrender of its armed forces and paying tribute to the WWII victims. While Victory Day over Nazism in World War II on May 9th is a still national holiday, it is a quiet day off. When the final surrender terms were signed on the 8th May 1945 in Berlin at 21:20, with then the order by the German High Command to cease active operations following at 23:01 Central European time, it was already 00:01 in Moscow. This one second was used by the Soviet government to shift the victory to a different day, signaling its special role in the war and opening the space for its subsequent monopolization of the victory over Nazism, which it has now fully appropriated as a “Russian” – instead of a “Soviet” – victory, denying participation of other ethnicities. The decision to join the European tradition recognizes the effort of all Allies and shifts the focus from the demonstration of military force, like during the Victory Day parade in Moscow, to the much-needed work of remembrance and reconciliation.

On May 8th, Zelensky releases a black-and-white video that I started watching but then paused indefinitely. I can no longer stomach all these more-and-more beautiful Presidential videos. Something important is lost precisely where he struggles to grasp your attention with that upgraded camerawork and his significantly improved speeches. The video tries to achieve the impossible – speaking to so many different audiences that it feels a little bit schizophrenic. We are burn-out here, quite literally so. But the rest of the world is bored. Two months. This is how long it can pay attention to a war. When you get on the cover of Time, it’s about closing the conversation, not otherwise. In what I’ve managed to see in this post-Time video, Zelensky stands near a bombed civilian apartment building in Borodianka, a small town in the Bucha region, completely destroyed in Spring 2022, and he goes: “During two years of WWII the Nazis killed 10,000 people in Mariupol… During two months of occupation the Russian army killed there 20,000 civilians.” A slow camera movement, crawling along the building’s ruined wall, is focused on tiny details and textures of torn objects; their assaulted materiality makes me imagine a forced decomposition of life at the high speed of an explosion so that today even the moving image cannot breathe in life in this nature morte.

The parallels between WWII and this Russian war in Ukraine that Zelensky highlights in the video are, admittedly, beyond uncanny. This resemblance of the Nazis’ and the Russians’ actions, however, elucidates nothing about Russian troops, instead, it is meant to confuse by exploiting and assaulting the logic of common sense. “They cannot be fascists and, at the same time, fetishize their victory over fascism in WWII, and also claim they conduct a ‘de-nazifying operation’ Ukraine.” I am still trying to wrap my mind around that, but it’s either that the designer of this campaign thought the more the Russian army resemble the Nazi army in their conduct the less its fascist acts would be perceived as such or, instead, that the resemblance is simply a blunt and straightforward message aiming to shock and intimidate. Or both. Or, maybe, it’s just multiple uncorrelated decision-making fuckups that desperately need to look like a complex coordinated mission. Whatever it is, this resemblance subverts your abductive reasoning, just like Marx Brothers’ joke that Žižek favors, rephrased as: “They may look like fascists and talk like fascists, but don’t let that fool you. They really are fascists.” This fascism, with all the practices it has pulled out of the archives, is also data-fascism: it puts the subjects through “filtration” by searching for the signs of impurity through citizens’ bodies and data on digital devices. It searches for anything that it can use for expanding its power and control – through the land and living tissue. Everything we know about biopolitical regimes of information capitalism has materialized – in its most uncompromisingly forthright form – in the brutality of filtration camps.

There was no general mobilization announced during the Parade in Moscow, instead, a crawling mobilization has been happening for quite some time it seems – in disguise. Journalists report that men in the regions of the Russian Federation have been invited to military enlistment offices under different rationale – for example, to check or correct their service record – where they are asked – sometimes, under pressure – to sign military contracts. Not all do, and refusals among the civilians, it seems, are many, since a special stamp has been manufactured and distributed among enlistment offices that is, indeed, used for “correcting” a military service record of those who do not want to go to war by marking it with a shaming note, which reads: “Capable of betrayal, lie, and deception. Refused to participate in the special military operation in LNR, DNR, and Ukraine.”

During the first trial of war criminals that began in Ukraine in May, the details were released of how Vadim Shishimarin, a 21-year-old Russian tank-unit sergeant, following the order of a senior officer, killed a civilian only because that man on a bike had a cell phone on him and, thus, was assumed to posit a threat to several lost Russian soldiers in the Ukrainian village of Chupakhivka. As Victoria Ievleva, a Russian photographer and journalist who was present during this trial, revealed (10:40) after checking the soldier’s record in his city of Ust-Ilimsk in the Irkutsk region, Shishimarin, quite unusually, she says, had 211,000 rubles of utilities debt, which might be among the reasons for him signing a military contract in 2020, after which, according to the words of his mother, he was happy to live in a barn for free. According to numerous investigations, including reports from Mediazona and Proekt, the Russian forces mostly consist of young people (the age of most killed is 21-23 years old) from the poorest regions of the Russian Federation – Dagestan, Buryatia, as well as the Krasnodar, Orenburg, Stavropol, and Volgograd regions where the Russian Federation mobilized the representatives of the poorest minority ethnic communities, who have been targeted by normalized official discrimination and “Russification” processes over several long decades – the subjects of imperialism themselves, who proudly identify themselves as “Russian.” In the end, these subjects of imperialism can only partake in such identification processes as part of the RF army, the discriminatory Other, with who they are temporarily united to re-enact such violence, the victims of which they and many generations of their families have been for decades. Journalist and human rights activist from Ulan-Ude Yevgenia Baltatarova commented on the existing gap between the center and the periphery of the Russian Federation, Buryatia, that exists partly for economic and partly for reasons of racism. The imperialist mentality is clear even in the discourse of the Russian liberal media and public, she says. Imperialist epistemology is always deep and often subtle, as decades of colonial and postcolonial studies have shown. Yet in the case of the Russian Federation, problematizing the nuances of imperialist patronization of imperial subjects would have allowed one to address what Baltatarova describes as the mindset where “many people live in their small Buryat world. This is the logic of the colony: it is better not to interfere in all these great upheavals. ‘White great people’ will decide for us. This is their war.” My hope is that decolonization of the Russian Federation, as researchers Botakoz Kassymbekova and Erica Marat wrote, indeed has already begun with the Russian war in Ukraine. My terror is that there won’t be enough time even to launch this complex and monumental project as the realm of such opportunity is closing while the boredom and tiredness with this war clearly seen in the mood of the global public and political establishment and, along with the growing fear of a nuclear threat or famine, have been played well by the Russian state’s lobbyists and propaganda, and may well indicate that the world is ready to sacrifice Ukraine.

Some of the military brigades sent to Ukraine have been known for internal violence, often of a racial character, between Slavic and non-Slavic groups, such as the infamous 64th Separate Motor Rifle Brigade from Khabarovsk, who are now known to the whole world for their war crimes in Bucha. On the online forum for the soldiers’ and relatives of soldiers from this brigade, a user reported back in 2014 that to escape service and violent treatment there soldiers “ate bleach and swallow needles.” Others, however, proudly recalled that this military unit in the Kniaze-Volkonskoe village of Khabarovsk region, known by its nickname “Mlechnik,” is “not for the weak” since “real men” are made there, and yet others, still back in 2015, were desperately looking for their missing sons. In April 2022, when the 64th Separate Motor Rifle Brigade, accompanied by the also identified 104th and 234th battalions of Pskov’s paratroopers, withdrew from the Kyiv region and the atrocities in Bucha, Irpin, Motyzhyn, Borodianka, Makariv were discovered, the last page of this forum is filled in by the posts of Ukrainians – their rage, pain, shock, and death wishes to the invaders. One Ukrainian user posted a link to a Google drive folder with videos and photographs for these so-called “real men” and their relatives to see. As I read these posts, I know that Ukrainians come to this forum not only to discharge their feelings or inform Russian citizens-in-denial about the events in Ukraine; most of us come here drawn by that same question – “Who are you, what are you, the invader?”

This is naïve, certainly, to hope one can comprehend or, at least, identify a mechanism that turns a mother’s 20-year-old boy into a murderous rapist; it is even harder, perhaps, to notice how one turns into a shooter, like Stg. Shishimarin who, without questioning the order, fired at a man just because he “wanted to be left alone.” But then, if your propaganda tells you that anyone on a particular territory is a “Nazi” and subject to being purged, it is much easier to do, I suppose. It means there are no accidental civilian killings in this war. Despite how strange it may look to some, it is only logical that the first sentenced – and sentenced for life – war criminal in this brutal war, is not a torturer or rapist or mass-murder, like those already identified by the Ukrainian Security Services and the international teams of investigative journalists, but a young Siberian man with an enormous utility bill – an imperial subject, a non-accidental shooter.

To accelerate the production of troops, the covert mobilization unfolds in the grey zones. Such are the self-proclaimed “Donetsk and Luhansk Peoples’ Republics,” where a refusal to sign contracts is pretty much impossible. Besides, the age limit to serve has been recently increased there from 55 to 65 years. The general understanding is that those mobilized, often armed with Mosin rifles that were in service during the First World War, are typically used as cannon fodder. Even pro-Russian military bloggers criticized the Kremlin “for appalling treatment of forcefully mobilized DNR and LNR servicemen – contradicting Russian information campaigns about progress of the Russian special military operation.” Forced mobilization has been also reported in blockaded Mariupol and, for more than two months now, in other occupied territories, including the workers of strategic and critical infrastructure, as well as people with disabilities. Unsurprisingly, the Russian Federation also mobilizes through prisons. Olga Romanova, Russian journalist and a founding director of Russia Behind Bars, an NGO Charitable Foundation for Assistance to Convicts and Their Families, reported the mounting cases of contracting convicts with military experience (23:20), who have served in the military or police forces, at least in several Russian prison zones, particularly near the city Nizhniy Tagil in Ural and in the region of Nizhniy Novgorod, where convicts are offered a release from prison if they sign contracts to go to war in Ukraine. Does it look like a “special military operation” when 21-conscripts and 64-year-old seniors could be mobilized and sent to combat? To me, it looks like war.

They recently said on Russia’s state TV that the victory over fascism in WWII was apparently incomplete and the Nazis have been living in Ukraine ever since, which makes the “special military operation” an extension of WWII that has resurfaced all-unannounced via a twisted temporal fold. Putin has been repeatedly claiming that the invasion was something they “couldn’t not commit.” “We had no choice,” he has been repeating for the cameras, by alluding to the Russian state’s urge to supress anyone who attempts installing a border, which threatens its sense of the borderless empire. “If we had at least one chance to solve this problem by peaceful means, we would have used this chance, but they did not leave us this chance, did not give it to us, there was simply no other choice,” he says again at the meeting with the father of separatist Zhoga, broadcasted on May 9th, as Putin hands him his son’s posthumous award. This meeting, where, caught by a shortness of breath, Putin articulates the words with a noticeable effort, is staged to reiterate the sense of destiny, which – despite that it screams paranoia – seems to become the only official “explanation” of the war.

In a Facebook post with the catchy title, “Motorola” Entered the Kremlin, Russian human rights activist Marina Litvinovich is worried that with such broadcasted meetings the Kremlin has started demonstrating a disturbing closeness with the Donbas separatists. In the post title, she refers to the nickname of one of the earlier Russian invaders, Arseniy Pavlov, who came to Ukraine in 2014, running from a prison sentence in the RF for stealing a car from a carwash where he worked in Rostov-on-Don, then he joined separatists by organizing his own group “Sparta,” and eventually became popular for his GoPro videos of the battle for the Donetsk airport shot by the camera stuck on his combat helmet. Later, Pavlov also drew attention by a confession about his personal execution of fifteen prisoners, in a phone interview to a journalist, signaling his utter indifference about the lives taken, some of them after severe torture. And yet, the perception of such people like “Motorola” is actively changing in Russia. As Litvinovich wrote on May 10th, several regional officials in the RF announced that they started naming streets after the DNR and LNR separatists in eleven cities across the Russian Federation. After the years of denying any association with the separatist forces in Donbas, the Federation now inscribes them in the state history: “The Kremlin is no longer ashamed about the downed Boeing and everything that has happened on the territory of the DPR and LPR for all these ‘8 years’,” Litvinovich observes, “and now, after ‘this is not us’, comes ‘this is us.’”

On May 13th, I got my fifth dose of the Covid vaccine: by now, it’s two CoronaVac dozes + three Pfizer dozes. It may seem overprotective; but actually not. Two months ago, my friend’s husband died of a chronic disease, which became fatal for him after he caught Covid at the hospital. I came to visit her after the funeral, when she, a doctor, got upset about me wearing a mask at her home and asked me to take it off, so I did. There are still signs everywhere warning to not enter stores and offices without a mask, but if you suddenly see one person in a mask in my town, it would be me. My friend Yevgen, a cytologist, cell biologist, and employee of the Institute of Gerontology in Kyiv, tells me that Covid has certainly disappeared from the news, but the war remains a friendly environment for the virus. There are some unclear dynamics, however, yet to be studied. On the one hand, for instance, big gatherings of people – such as in the bomb shelters, refugee camps, and military training bases – facilitate virus transmission. On the other hand, the imposed curfew that limits communication along with the alcohol ban for an extended time in February and March prevented it. But then, people do not call or go see doctors when they are in danger. Half of the state hospitals are bombed. Many people treat their illness themselves. Many quietly die at home. The scientific lab in Kyiv where Yevgen works, which was partly turned into a diagnostic center during the pandemic, stopped processing tests, he says, since February 24th they have received none. And there was not a single person at the vaccination center, apart from me, either, when I came to get the booster – just a bored young doctor and a nurse, sitting there with their noses in their phones, reading the war news in silence.

Despite the projected escalation, the regions away from the frontlines experienced relatively quiet days after May 9th, which still felt disturbing and was interpreted by many as regrouping and strengthening the invader’s army. On May 15th, I woke up at 3:35am due to the air raid siren, the first one since May 8th in our region. This time the Russian rockets hit Lviv military infrastructure. The Telegram gossip, again, tells us this one is due to Ukraine’s victory in the European pop song contest. When several days later, I speak with my friend Susanna, feminist media scholar from Finland, unsurprisingly, perhaps, our conversation slides from NATO to Eurovision. “Ah, Eurovision,” she notes with that dark humor I appreciate about her way of thinking, “that’s how Europe helps.” Two weeks later, the winner of Eurovision-2022 Kalush Orchestra sells the Chrystal Mic, a symbol of their victory, at the charity auction for 900,000 USD to purchase the PD-2 drone complex for the Ukrainian army, and the crypto community WhiteBIT becomes the new owner of the cup.

On May 18th, when the entire air raid alert map turns read, the Telegram channel of the Russian Ministry of Defence publishes the Statement of the Interdepartmental Coordination Headquarters of the Russian Federation for Humanitarian Response, where my town is mentioned among two others – Kramatorsk in Donbas and Podolsk in the Odesa region – and where, it says, that Ukrainian Neo-Nazis hide their reactive volley fire systems “using hospitals, civilian buildings, schools, kindergartens, and sanatoriums.” It reads: “In Kamenets-Podolsk, Khmelnytsky region, in the buildings of the regional children’s tuberculosis sanatorium on Sitsinsky Street and the boarding school No. 2 on Lesya Ukrainka Street, Ukrainian Military Force units equipped firing positions, and artillery and the Reactive volley fire systems were located in the adjacent territory. At the same time, the staff of institutions and residents of nearby houses are kept as a ‘living shield’.” Curiously, the tuberculosis sanatorium and the boarding school No. 2 are no longer in those buildings for at least ten years. One of these historic buildings, with an utterly beautiful pink façade that was built as one of the first school for girls in the region a hundred years ago, is a private lyceum “Slavutynka,” and is now hosting schoolchildren refugees from Odesa, Chernihiv, and Kyiv. My close friend Nelya works there as a school doctor. Trust me, there are no reactive volley fire systems – it is my jogging route, I would have seen them.

Since that Russian statement was posted, I am scared my town may lose these historical buildings one day due to an air strike. We know through these months of invasion that the Russian state manufactures and publicizes such fakes to justify their forthcoming attacks on civilian infrastructure. I do not know if any measures are applied by the lyceum administration these days to secure kids – Nelya has been on health leave, so she does not know either – but they seem to be open and working, despite the news. Nelya thought this fake was meant to disorient and scare. And yet, I had an urge to walk by the buildings. On May 20th, I asked Nelya to join me. She has chronic pain in her legs, so we walked rather slowly, and I managed, by stretching my arm towards the building, to leave a long but somewhat interrupted finger trail through the entire building’s wall – an invisible trail so that only I knew it was there. The wall felt rough, but warmed-up by late-afternoon sunrays. Nelya kept telling me about her boys, one of whom, who had served near Kyiv, was leaving to the Eastern Front that evening. I was only half-listening to her – even though her words were important – consumed by this awkward and almost erotic sensation of stroking the hundred-year-old stone façade.

For almost a week then, a plane keeps circling above the town. This time I am sure it is our air defence reacting to the same piece of news. Everything in me is alert again, every new noise around is felt by the skin. This acute sensitivity to a soundscape is common. My temporary indifference to alerts is pure tiredness that has now caught many of us in the nets of depression. On May 25th, when I woke up at 4:30am, I saw an audio message from Milena, my colleague and soundscape theorist, who was passing by my house in Vancouver and recorded the loud street crows “having a baby shower or just arguing.” Playing it gave me a sudden sense of closeness with that other realm where I belonged, but suddenly an air raid alarm went off on my phone, bringing me back to my reality. This app always starts 3-4 minutes before the city alarms, so I approached the bedroom window and set the recorder to grab my soundscape – for Milena. I admit, and she later agreed, this is one of the most terrifyingly beautiful traces of war, which, as a sound producer I recently met explained to me, is unique in Kamyanets-Podilsky, where its layered sonic composition is engaged with the entire complexity of the city landscape and the valley with the river canyon as a gigantic musical instrument.

The map of a country at war is the cartographic uncanny. The ground moves under our feet and so does our map. It is different every day. One day the map shows more of the free Ukraine, next day it shows less. One day it leads you out of a blockaded city, next day it betrays you and gives you up. All advances and withdrawals of the armed forces cause disorienting folds and twists, so that the subject of the map can find oneself on the opposite side of the border, even while standing still. I keep thinking this as I am listening to a young woman telling me about her dream. We are meeting weekly on Zoom to reconstruct the details of her experience of being removed from the village near Mariupol on March 16th, passed through the filtration process, and subsequently deported to Russia. From a safe location in Europe, where the lucky escape route led her, she tells me, on May 20th, she dreamt about being caught, again, inside the Russian territory with no exit. Just like in the 1930s, for many Ukrainians, the map of the Russian Federation will certainly mean nothing but entrapment, the suffocating memory of which will keep returning as nightmares.

The deportation of Ukrainian citizens to Russia that began before the invasion on February 24th has now drawn over a million people across the border, and the process of removing Ukrainian civilians still continues. There is not much room for resistance when civil and human rights of the subject are suspended. We keep receiving the updates, like this one on May 18th, daily: “Yesterday, 539 Ukrainians, including 55 kids were taken from Mariupol to a village Bezymiane of the Novoazovsky region to Russia where they are placed in the camp while Russian military are preparing them for deportation.” In some cases, people are simply kidnapped. Some of them are kept in camps, others in pre-trial detention centers; their destiny, including those who passed the filtration, is equally unclear.

On May 18th, the advisor to Mariupol mayor Petro Andriyshchenko reports that the city is facing an epidemiological catastrophe due to a potential cholera outbreak. The reasons are multiple: from the destruction of the city’s critical infrastructure causing a lack of heat and water to the immense number of unburied bodies, or those buried everywhere in the city often very close to the surface, when people did not have a possibility to dig proper graves between airstrikes and bombing. After the withdrawal of the Ukrainian soldiers from Azovstal, he says, a limited quantity of food and meds was distributed in several parts of the city, but the instalment of a heavy military regime in Mariupol with many checkpoints creates a serious threat for civilians. To move around the city, one needs a document about passing the filtration process and a general pass issued on the basis of the former. When people do to not pass the filtration process, they are sent to the Yelenovka prison camp, where the Russian forces now keep from 3,000 to 4,000 people from Mariupol. “It is a real concentration camp,” Andriyshchenko says. What’s left of the city is turning into a commune of survivors, cut off from any communication means, uninformed about the developments of the war. On May 16th, Andriyshchenko reported that the occupants announced a compensation of 500,000 RUB / 6,000 USD for a destroyed home or 3,000,000 RUB / 33,000 for a lost family member, but citizens can only register such a claim, if they indicate that the home was destroyed or relative was killed by Ukrainian soldiers.

The procedure of filtration varies in different places; if successful, people receive a note of passing. If the subjects are found to be in opposition to the war – for instance, on social media or in private text messages, they could be forced to record “public apologies.” The videos of such apologies, like this one, are shared online. In this video from occupied Kherson, a Ukrainian woman with a trembling voice is telling on camera that she underwent “a denazification course,” then she apologizes to the citizens of the Russian Federation and Russian soldiers for calling them “orks.” In mid-May, there are already over 500 Ukrainian citizens detained in Kherson, who are currently kept in so-called “torture cellars.” The number of places of captivity in the city is growing. The instances of local collaboration with the occupants multiply, when some citizens help the invaders make lists of activists, politicians, journalists, bloggers, who could be used, under torture, as material for propaganda videos. The number of rape cases, including the rape of children, in the Kherson region also grows. But there is also an active partisan movement, and the ongoing peaceful demonstrations against occupation, when people march to city squares with Ukrainian flags, are truly heroic.

On May 24th, I took my mother home after a month at the hospital. Due to the surgery stress, she is showing more visible signs of dementia. I patiently answer same questions over and over again, day after day. We drew a detailed and clear table of her pill schedule. Every couple of days I explain to her how to use Viber, so she could write to me or call me when she needs. Since at home, her pain has significantly increased and her ability to walk, regardless the doctor’s projection, started slowly decreasing. Despite all her overwhelming fragility – I am often afraid to even hug her, a bird-looking creature, who lost half of her size over last decade – she really knows how to hide her pain, and I hope I still have the time to learn this essential skill from her during our months together. Earlier, when I enter my parents’ place, she would smile, as her joy of seeing me always overruns the pains she’s been living with all this year. But now she does not, and I know it’s from a different pain that she cannot repress, mixed with despair and fear. It took her a while, but now she understands how terrible our situation is and often apologises to me that I have to be here “because of her.” Yesterday, when her dementia suddenly shielded her for a moment from our nightmarish reality, she told me, smiling again, that she has been craving a watermelon from Kherson – “not too long to wait till midsummer!” There will be no Kherson watermelons this year, mama.