Dispatches from the Place of Imminence, part 11

May 30 – June 20, 2022

Salt disappeared. At the end of May, the shelf at the Silpo supermarket, where it is usually sitting – local or imported – is empty. Tired of answering the same questions, sellers at the market put their hand-made signs upfront: there is no saltcолі немає. Online, the salt price went up three times. At the beginning of May, Artemsil – which accounted for over 95% of salt production in Ukraine and was one of the largest salt production and sales companies in Central and Eastern Europe supplying salt to fifteen countries – shut down due to its proximity to the frontline. The railway station “Sil” in Soledar, from where Artemsil’s carriages were regularly sent in all directions, was hit by missiles, and after several direct rocket strikes on the mines, salt production became impossible. By the end of April, Artemsil evacuated the workers and warehouses and postponed salt production indefinitely.

@mhmck on June 3, 2022.

Salt deposits in the current area of Donbas formed about 200-270 million years ago through the crystallization and precipitation of salt in the Permian Sea that was part of the ancient Tethys Ocean, having separated from which, the sea dried out in a hot climate. The remains of the former sea, the Torsky salt lakes near the present-day Slovyansk, is one of the oldest salt production areas since the end of the 16th century. Back then salt was produced by “cooking,” as they called the method of digesting it from the salty lake water. This is where Ukrainian chumaks – the men engaged in the commodity carriage and trade in the 16th-19th centuries – made their long journeys to buy salt. In the late 17th century, after the third partition of Poland, the Russian Empire obtained the Ukrainian lands west of the Dnipro River and the process of resourcification of these territories for the benefit of the empire was launched. In 1818, a Ukraine-born graduate of St. Petersburg Mining Institute, the geologist Yevgraf Kovalevsky, was sent to the Donetsk region with a special task to inspect the Bakhmut and Slovyansk salt deposits in order to transfer them to the administration of the Russian state. Having investigated the geological composition of the area, Kovalevsky concluded that the local salt deposit was most likely one of the largest known, which, however, could not be reached without a complex drilling technology that was non-existent at the time.

The industrialization of salt production had to wait until the end of the century, when in 1876, the drilling finally began near the village of Bryantsevka, on the right bank of the Mokra Plotva River, with a well reaching a depth of 292 meters. In 1881, the Bryantsevo mine, now the 1-3 mine of Artemsil in Soledar, was put into operation. In terms of its chemical purity, the salt produced here is characterized by a high content – up to 98-99% – of sodium chloride, which has been considered the best in the world and is always in high demand in Ukraine, the former Soviet countries, and Western Europe.

A month ago, I knew nothing of this history. So, I spent the first two weeks of June digging through the endless archives – that I still cannot believe exists in the deep pockets of the internet – books, essays, photos, and videos about the history of the salt industry in Ukraine, while watching the demolition of Artemsil’s infrastructure in real-time on YouTube. As my research followed the moving frontline, I learned about the death of Roman Ratushny killed within only a hundred kilometres of Soledar, near Izyum, on June 9th with his death was officially confirmed on June 14th, and his body was brought to Kyiv on June 16th.

There are people whose life is tangibly inscribed in the very matter of history, stitching the fragmented edges of reality into something like a story. Roman’s adolescence coincided with the Maidan, where he came to protest the reversal of Ukraine’s European course in November 2013, when President Yanukovych rejected a deal with the European Union. Several days into the protests, he happened to be among the group of students brutally beaten up by riot police, which changed the course of the protest, turning a local pro-European demonstration into a massive uprising against governmental corruption, growing exponentially in its scope and power. Having graduated from law school, Roman became a leader of “Save Protasiv Yar,” a three-year-long campaign to protect a historical forest area, running through central Kyiv, from the “Dayton Group,” a developer firm belonging to Ukrainian businessman and politician Hennadiy Korban, who planned to erect three luxury apartment buildings there on the basis of illegitimate contracts.

It was a typical story for Kyiv: a take-over of public space by a developer backed up by ties between the government, business and criminal powers. In Summer 2019, Roman was approached by Korban’s representative and lawyer Andriy Smirnov, now Deputy Head of the Office of the President of Ukraine, who threatened him. As Roman’s recording of the meeting revealed, Smirnov told him to kill the campaign or, instead, face a possibility of being kidnapped and tortured in the forest to death. President Zelensky, whose party and office associates had been engaged in the developers’ wars for best areas and lucrative state budgets, was informed about this incident on several occasions, and did nothing about it.

The threats Roman received from various government officials forced him go in hiding in 2019, until his case was mentioned on Twitter by Peter Wagner, the Head of the Support Group for Ukraine at the European Commission, who wrote: “Impressed by courage of R. Ratushnyi, Y. Kononenko & many other activists who are dedicated to protecting #ProtasivYar, the historical green place in #Kyiv. Worried to learn about threats and attacks on them.” On January 19th, 2022, one month before the invasion, the Supreme Court of Ukraine finalized the decision to forbid the construction of the apartment complex as illegal. Kyiv mayor Vitaliy Klytchko, with his ties to the group of developers opposite to Korban’s, was very visible at Roman’s funeral and pledged to build a park in Roman’s name.

The death of a 24-year-old Ukrainian civic and environmental activist, this time fighting as part of the 93rd Mechanised Brigade, triggered mourning throughout the entire country: a vortex of shared pain. His death, indeed, was at the intersection of all too many struggles. For me, his life became a measure of my disconnection with this country that now feels like an indefinitely missed encounter with this country’s lands as a result of the war. Burned, mined, bombed, poisoned, occupied – I don’t know if I will ever see these territories to sense their material history, its sense, smell, and touch… I met Roman’s mother, Svitlana, a Ukrainian writer and journalist, through the writers’ gatherings in Kyiv in the early 2000s, just when Roman was born and right before I left Ukraine, so that the distance between me and this country, I guess, equals the length of a human life. An entire generation was born and raised while I was away; and it grew up just enough to join the county’s defence forces, and to stand against the invasion.

In mid-June, my childhood friend Dana visited me in town, she came with Tim, an American firefighter and business owner, whom she met in Poland at one of the centres for Ukrainian refugees, where they separately delivered loads of humanitarian help from the US. Having learned that they both were from Minnesota, they merged their networks and efforts. In June, they went to Ukraine again, to Lviv and Ivano-Frankivsk, with an even bigger load of meds and necessary goods for displaced people. They adapted an orphanage for kids who lost their parents in the war. It took Dana to register an NGO that would search for life-long sponsors, caring for a range of kids’ needs, from medical issues to, later, their education. Before April, I had not heard from Dana for almost a decade, after my brief visit with her in Baltimore, when she was studying and working in the medical research lab of John Hopkins University. One day this spring, a very confusing text from her popped up in my email very late at night, but I was so exhausted that I could not respond and immediately forgot about it. She, fortunately, persisted and we made plans to meet in June.

Dana immigrated to the States with her mother and little brother in the 1990s, when we were both still at school. Dana’s grandfather was a prominent scholar and a Member of the Soviet Academy of Sciences teaching medicine at the Pedagogical Institute in our town. Her family was Jewish. Because Soviet antisemitism was a norm that penetrated all human relations including those between children, Dana was often bullied by practically every kid in our apartment building. Although it was not that easy to get to her, sometimes, she was running home in tears. It happened that I was the only one not participating in the communal aggression towards her and when I was about to finish school after Dana was long gone to the US, her grandfather approached me and said he would help me to get accepted to the Pedagogical Institute because our friendship meant a lot to Dana. He mobilized his connections, and I was accepted without bribes, which at that time was practically impossible: bribes were an obstacle to high education for someone like me.

When we were planning her visit to our hometown, I asked Dana if she wanted to visit the grave of her grandfather at the local cemetery, where my relatives are also buried. She wanted to go. But when I sent her a photo of the Kamyanets-Podilsky cemetery that I took the previous year, documenting a devastating scene with the city garbage dump literally moving towards the cemetery like a tsunami, she changed her mind. I totally get it. When my mother was still in the hospital, she often wanted to discuss the nuances of her burial. She insisted on simplicity of the setting, and I was teasing her, in a morbid way, that I would rather put her in a human-size basket on a bed of beautiful flowers, but she begged me, quite seriously: “Please, don’t do it… What would people say?” Since cremation is not an option for us here, it hurts me immensely that one day I will have to deposit her delicate breathless body in the soil that will soon unavoidably merge with a gigantic landfill.

Dana and Tim were to arrive after the curfew time on June 16th. To meet them, I came to the train station at around 10:30 pm, which is the latest time you can get a cab in our town. On the way to the station, I asked the driver if there was anyone in their company who had a pass to work after the curfew. “It’s forbidden now.” And then he said he was already detained twice by the police when he was walking home, having left the electric car at the charging station after the shift, just several minutes after 11pm. While I was waiting for the train from Kyiv at the station, the air raid siren went off, so loud. There were about eight people dispersed around the waiting hall, nobody left the station. I did not either.

The train from Kyiv arrived, and I saw Dana with her huge backpack, coming off carriage number eight. Tim, with a similarly huge backpack, stretched out his arm to shake my hand. Dana squeezed me hard in a hug, and I started crying. Tim pulled out a camera with the intention to capture a touching moment, but I stopped him roughly, “No, don’t!” Photography is easily interpreted now as an act of sabotage, especially near any critical infrastructure. He froze for a moment, and then – “I keep forgetting it, sorry,” he said. I took some of their luggage on my shoulders, and we moved slowly towards my home. It was way after the curfew time, and within just a couple of minutes, a police car started tailing us. It persisted for about two blocks, while we were mentally preparing for the identity check and interrogation. Fortunately, Dana and Tim had their tickets on them, but you never know these days. The siren was silent when their train arrived, but the alert was not canceled yet, so the siren went off again, loudly, somewhere half-way on our journey home. There was nobody around, and the apartment windows were mostly dark: after 11pm, the town really looks like a movie set after working hours. It was just us, at midnight, carrying huge backpacks. Admittedly, we looked a bit eccentric for the circumstances, and I could tell my guests were either concerned or surprised by my calmness.

A day after Dana and Tim left, Oleksiy and Lyuba came from Kyiv to produce an inaugural “Runaway Noosphere” as a Radiogram #1 for Nomadic Cosmologies and Fugitive Power at the German Pavilion of the 23rd Triennale Milano International Exhibition, convened by Red Forest Collective, of which Oleksiy is part. Completed after a day of intense work, I organized a tour for us to immerse into the ancient landscape of Podilsky Tovtry. “Tovtry” is the local name of the rocky arc-shaped ridge, a barrier reef from the Miocene Sea that stretches parallel to the ancient coastal line, since this land is at the bottom of that ancient sea. If you travel one hour south-east from my town towards Kytaihorod and the abandoned villages nearby, there is a place known to all geologists and paleontologist of the world: you encounter an unprecedented number of visible layers from geological periods – nine, if I remember correctly – with their typical fossils all open for you to observe and touch as you walk along the 541-million-year naturally formed “road” down the valley, where in the 1940s, my father used to walk their cow to graze, when he, not even a 10-year-old boy, had to work nights and days like other Soviet peasant children after WWII, to survive, which eventually prevented him from finishing elementary school. I discovered this magnificent road together with Asia last October. Captivated by the narrative of our knowledgeable guide and stimulated by the sips of medovukha that he thoughtfully offered to us on that chilly and foggy autumn morning, we sat there for quite some time amidst those dusty stones in squatting poses, motionless, searching for the remains of life forms crowing on that very spot millions of years ago.

Of course, it is not just me who now seeks connection with the land. Even before the invasion, I noted the rising attention and curiosity among various communities in Ukraine to explore the pockets and folds of our steppe, forests, mountains, and the exclusion zones. The work by Thickets, and their YouTube channel, was one of those that helped me learn a lot about our region. But now they travel to collect the accounts of war crimes, as we all do, and that work is endless. When Dana was still in town, we ran into Maxym, one of the Thickets team, who shared a story from their last trip to the Kharkiv region. It was there that they met, he said, an elderly grieving man who told them his wife was recently killed by the Russian soldiers. But then, to their complete shock, he uttered, slowly wrapping his pain in words, probably the most unimaginable justification of the killing: “But what could they do,” he said referring to the murders of civilians, “if Russia is all surrounded by that NATO!”

On May 31st, Russian propagandist Marina Ovsyannikova showed up in Kyiv for a conference, which was cancelled almost immediately due to the public outrage, where she was supposed to explain to us how Russian propaganda works. Known for her spectacular demarch behind the back of Yekaterina Andreeva, the anchor of the Russian state TV broadcaster Channel One, when she had jumped out suddenly from the out-of-frame with a hand-made poster “NO WAR. They lie to you here.” The world loved it. And this is how propaganda works: it secures the spotlight and attention of global audiences – and attention, we know, is certainly a scarce resource. It gave her a safe way-out and the means to amplify the confession of her “sins” – “I sincerely regret my role in zombifying Russians with this propaganda” – essentially rebranding herself as a “rebellious defector” and “important insider” within the Russian propaganda machine, who now travels the world, legalized by her new status as a reporter for the German daily newspaper Die Welt, telling us about how propaganda works.

Am I surprised by how fast and easily she integrated into the German media sphere? I am not. Let’s admit, however, that Ovsyannikova’s work is not a “sin” to forgive it. Whatever secret she may reveal now is never a good-enough indulgentia that could release her from the responsibility of contributing to such an information environment where the members of one family can start shooting at another, so that Channel One could call it a civil war, omitting the fact of the Russian candid military presence on the Ukrainian territories from – and probably before – 2014 and until February 2022.

The impact of propaganda is not easily reversible, and sometimes, it is not reversible at all. You may not realize it, of course, but this is, too, how propaganda works. When propaganda engages your unconscious, you may need years to decipher why this particular idea resonated so well with you. What is it about the ease with which you accept a claim that someone is a Nazi without a good knowledge of the country, which name, you thought until recently, is used with the definite article in front of it, indicating the country’s colonial status? This is the thing: you cannot undo the work Ovsyannikova did neither by fact-checking nor by listening to her confessions.

This reminds me of that Ukrainian man who now explains the murder of his wife as an inevitable price he had to pay for the worrisome proximity of NATO to the Russian border, as incepted in his mind by the Russian State TV. Speaking of which, after some time, all Russian State TV channels are again available in Kamyanets-Podilsky, and my parents are watching them as I type these words, so I will hear some interesting updates about how Ukrainians are bombing themselves – very soon. They are sitting now in their tiny place in front of the 35-year-old TV box, open and ready to be told that “there was no other way.” I’d like Marina Ovsyannikova to come here and try explaining to them how propaganda works.

It might be worth abandoning the word ‘propaganda.’ Let us use the term ‘psyops’ and ‘social engineering’ instead, which more accurately describe the complexity of the manipulation work with the goal of nudging, exploiting and tricking the subject as a resource. The case of a political scientist and historian Eugene Finkel at Johns Hopkins University is rather worrisome in this regard. When Russian forces withdrew from the Kyiv region, a debate was launched regarding whether the discovered atrocities qualified as ‘genocide.’ On April 5th, Finkel, a genocide researcher, published an op-ed for The Washington Post, which I cited in my earlier dispatches, expressing his strong opinion on this matter: “What’s Happening in Ukraine Is Genocide. Period.” On June 16th, Dutch intelligence agencies published a report saying they identified a Russian GRU agent who tried to intern at the International Criminal Court under a false Brazilian identity and to travel from Brazil to the Netherlands: “Viktor Muller Ferreira (born on 4 April 1989), when in fact his real name is Sergey Vladimirovich Cherkasov (born 11 September 1985). Cherkasov used a well-constructed cover identity by which he concealed all his ties with Russia in general, and the GRU in particular.”

The report also says, that “an officer of this kind is better known as an ‘illegal’: an intelligence officer who received a long and extensive training.” “Illegals are difficult to discover. For that reason they often remain undetected, allowing them to carry out intelligence activities. Because they present themselves as foreigners, they have access to information that would be inaccessible to a Russian national. In addition to the GRU, the Russian intelligence service SVR also makes use of illegals.” “If the intelligence officer had succeeded in gaining access as an intern to the ICC, he would have been able to gather intelligence there and to look for (or recruit) sources, and arrange to have access to the ICC’s digital systems.” And there is also the cover identity narrated by the agent himself. His story and identity seemed credible party because of all provided personal details. What made it even more believable was a rather touching four-page cover letter. It was written by Eugene Finkel. As Finkel commented next day on Twitter, “RU used me because of genocide, because of Ukraine.”

He reflected on how it could happen, by noting that “He had a weird accent I couldn’t identify, not a Russian one. Nothing Russian I could notice and I am a native speaker. Presented himself as Brazilian, with Irish roots so his weird accent made sense. … he was very smart and competent in class. … After the graduation, he asked for a reference letter for the ICC. Given my research focus, it made sense. I wrote him a letter. A strong one, in fact. Yes, me. I wrote a reference letter for a GRU officer. I will never get over this fact. I hate everything about GRU, him, this story. I am so glad he was exposed.” So this is it, a lesson on war pedagogy: teach what you do, but be aware of the potential GRU spy networks in class. Wherever you are, this war will reach you. It exploits and often weaponizes literally anything  – your desire, fear, knowledge, health, your profession, your digital tools, your family relations and friendships, your work relations, your past and future – in a big way.

I am finishing this dispatch, to be honest, with a little delay on July 7th. And that’s how I know, and I cannot keep it from you either, that in early July, Marina Ovsyannikova left Die Welt and is back in Russia after her fascinating adventures in Moldova, Germany, and Ukraine. On July 5th, she gave a curious interview to Khodorkovsky LIVE (1:09:30 and on), in which we can see she is strangled by her divorce and custody battle, which is certainly used as a pressure point in whatever is going on behind the scenes. Not to fall into conspiracy thinking, but the fact that Ovsyannikova is not arrested like many, who came to the streets even with the posters with eight asterisks – *** ***** – which stands for “no war,” or “нет войне” in Russian, is curious. More than that, she has big plans in Russia, including making a film, launching a YouTube channel, and writing a book where she will reflect on the “waves of hate and hysteria” she experienced in Ukraine, which she tells us were orchestrated by the Russian security services, because otherwise, she claims, people in Ukraine usually find her brave and inspiring.

So, we will tune in and wait for Marina Ovsyannikova’s memoir, her movie, and her YouTube channel to learn more about how propaganda works. The journalists interviewing her could not help raising their eyebrows throughout the entire conversation, especially when Ovsyannikova said that the Russian State TV Channel One is “rather professional,” and so they asked about Channel One’s most legendary fake story about a three-year-old boy crucified by the Ukrainian soldiers in the city square of Slovyansk in 2014 and what Ovsyannikova’s role was in making it. “Oh, it was just a general oversight,” she responded by denying her responsibility, since, according to her, when this episode was produced, Ovsyannikova was – quite predictably – on vacation.

In mid-June, salt is back at stores. The price is like before, thirteen hryvnias. I have been obsessively buying these precious bricks, as I know they will be gone when that last secured produce is sold out. There will be no salt like this for a long while, but meanwhile, it is here, and I cook with it. The white boxes of salt were made for export: they have “salt” written in Georgian and Russian. The grey paper bags filled with salt are made for the Ukrainian market. My favourite simple unbleached paper. They all came from where everything is burning now, from the frontline, from that part of the country that I may never see. The salt of the earth. It’s sitting on my dinner table together with the bottles of wine from a warehouse near Kyiv that survived a rocket strike, and they are burnt and dirty as a result – these objects… the traces of war and peace. And the roses from my father’s garden complete the installation of joy, a marvellous presence in the space where I write my dispatches.