Photo: Dmytro Shutaiev, (17 March 2021), with Roman Ratushny.
For several months I have been monitoring social media feeds looking for views from the war-zone. Not coincidentally, many current soldiers are intellectuals, artists, photographers, music promoters, and cultural activists—people who would never take up arms under other circumstances today are lying in a trench, and observing how this trench changes the communication and logistics of toads and worms.
Digital technology makes you perceive war differently. Since February 2022, social networks have provided a variety of perspectives on the war, concurrently shaping the perception of digital experience and bringing war closer even to those who are physically far from it.
Social media made war total; it has become terrible, tragic, and painful. Paradoxically, even those people who directly experienced the war and were in the occupied cities or shelters emphasized their dependence on the screen and social networks: all their attention was drawn to the Telegram chats and media that reported immediate news updates. Social media allows you to watch the death of cities and people almost in real-time through personal stories and big pictures, incorporating the diversity of angles via panoramas, such as those made by MAXAR. Such a bird-eye perception helped to show the Bucha massacre by Russians. “One video filmed by a local council member on April 1 shows multiple bodies scattered along Yablonska Street in Bucha. Satellite images provided to The Times by Maxar Technologies show that at least 11 of those had been on the street since March 11, when Russia, by its own account, occupied the town,” New York Times wrote. In another article, they use recorded footage from surveillance cameras to show other humiliations and persecutions committed by Russians. The same happened when the Russian military entered the Ukrainian city of Kherson in early March 2022, when one soldier tried to “attack” a household store. However, even firing at the door, he was unable to open it. As a result, the unsuccessful robbery attempt “on the sly” was recorded by a surveillance camera, and that personal failure became available to the general public as evidence of yet another crime.
Following the war in real-time and online, where personal and official statements are mixed in the online feeds, allows one to have “a war in your pocket.” Naturally, the issue of not only privacy but also ethics becomes immediate.
There are No Unknown Heroes
Due to significant consolidation and solidarity among ordinary people, especially at the beginning of the Russian army’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, people started to spread information about the methods of resistance, as well as about the movements of the Russian troops. Moreover, thanks to the Belarusian IT guerrillas, information about the activity of the Russian military in the territory of Belarus was being disseminated. However, perhaps the most acute function of social media was it being a medium of death, of death as a show. Instead of a ‘spectacle’, that is theoretically rooted in ideas of Guy Debord and his book The Society of the Spectacle, “show” is used in the context of an action where someone looks at something continuously with an open or partially completed final plot and possible prolongation for the next season (depends on audience interest). Seeing people’s tragedies and terroristic acts as a part of TV or online aesthetics is not the first manifestation of this phenomenon. Viewers similarly watched death for the first time on live television during the terrorist attack on 09/11 in New York. The live broadcast has changed the attitude towards the image of violence and in many ways influenced the understanding of contemporary tragedy and life after it. But, if “September 11 was the symbol of the end of… utopia, a return to real history”, as Slavoj Žižek mentioned , how can we recognize and name our new reality that happened after Bucha and Mariupol? How much evidence of a crime must be done to remember that this ‘real history’ is real?
Speaking in terms of film production, the central part of this “show” is the episode about the Azovstal soldiers, who were constantly fired upon by the Russian military, while the entire world spectated it through social media platforms. Of course, the dissemination of information was crucial because these soldiers turned from abstract defenders, avengers, and nationalists, into people with biographies, flaws, weaknesses, and talents. For example, in the case of the Azovstal soldiers, the soldier and photographer Orestes became the eyes of many while capturing his comrades and later posting them on his Instagram account, before being taken prisoner. He specifically noted that he allowed everyone to use his images. Another example is a 21-year-old soldier and paramedic Kateryna “Ptashka” (Little Bird).  The appeal of the paramedic lies in the fact that she shows the wounds of civilians and soldiers. However, similar to the viewers of a show, the reaction of the people who watched remained rather limited, mainly in the form of likes and reposts. Of course, living in the digital age means acting digitally, but these reactions remain passive actions that do not require getting up from the couch.
On May 7, 2022, Serhiy Volyna, Acting Commander of the 36th Separate Marine Brigade, wrote the following:
“The entire world is simply watching an interesting story! Such scripts are used in movies and TV episodes. The only difference is that this is not a movie, and we are not fictional characters! This is real life! Pain, suffering, hunger, torment, tears, fear, death— these are all real! […] What do I hope for? Miracle! That higher powers (in the broadest sense) will find a solution for our salvation! And this hellish reality show will end… Higher powers, we are waiting for the result of your actions… Time is running out, and Time is our lives!” 
On May 19, due to the activities of Russian digital intelligence services, social media platforms began to ban the pages of the Ukrainian military. In particular, the Instagram page of one of the Azovstal defenders, Oleksandr Hryanik, who had died on May 8, was deleted after numerous ethical complaints by Russians. Despite these odds, Oleksandr Hryanik’s friend continued running the page, believing that such digital memory should be preserved because it creates a different image of the war. Memory itself became another critical front.
“Many years of a collected archive of experiences, thoughts, hopes, sentiments, and memories of people he loved, as well as the story of this terrible war and the desperate struggle with it— all of this has disappeared at once. We all know Russia is waging war against us on all possible fronts, including the information one. And the @gryanster account being deleted due to mass complaints of bots is another of the occupier’s tactics aimed at destroying our people, history, and truth. Such a precedent is not the first and not the last. We cannot allow the voices and memory of our Heroes to be erased from the pages of our history without fighting for them.”
In fact, this Instagram account has now been assigned the status of a memorial. The page has been restored and contains all the previously deleted information.
The concept of a digital memorial is, thus, becoming paramount. While war occurs in real life and in people’s imaginations, false and propagandistic information creates an “alternative world” that is important for further myth-making and ideology. This is true not just for politicians, journalists, or ordinary people, but also for academics who, when researching and following digital sources, come across information that is “difficult to verify.”
The NewYorker, The Guardian, The Atlantic, and many other international media are already discussing if this war is the first TikTok war. Of course, every war is the first of its kind. But these “entertainment” platforms undoubtedly provide new strategies for information, survival, resistance, and reflection. These subjective war testimonies are superimposed between these video reflections on the structure and features of social media platforms and their algorithms. At the same time, they represent a diary and testimonies of war, but also material that creates capital and entertains with reviews, likes, and shares.
The paradox remains that social networks provide a field for both identity change and concealment. A person can choose their identity and be a person, activist, politician, blogger, cat, frog, “lullaby for the enemy,” or someone else. At the same time, social networks help people express themselves and develop a personalized approach to this self-expression. Thus, the war is also personalized. This is an ambivalent phenomenon for me. From now on, the concept of an unknown hero becomes impossible; it is impossible to glorify the masses who passionately go to war, knowing neither pain nor pity. Behind the hero hides a person, not a demigod or the owner of some omnipotent forces, a person who lived ordinarily before the war. Therefore, today’s personal history is opposed to the heroic narratives of war and ideology and prevents memory manipulation in the future. The central manipulation is the desire of a person to build their identity online.
A striking example is the story of Roman Ratushny, a 25-year-old Kyivan activist who died in the battle of Izium city. He was well-known for his activist position, protecting Kyiv’s Protasiv Yar historical site from developers. During an election to rename street names, most of the Kyiv residents voted for him: 29,923 votes were cast for the renaming of Volgogradska Street to be named after him. The digital democracy tool allowed people who were temporarily displaced from Ukraine to vote as well.
Perhaps the main question should be why did this vote happen so quickly during the unfolding war? Living in the digital era and witnessing the real-time war, the issue of the memory of this war becomes immediate. Documentation, fixation, analysis, and even commemoration become significant. Such actions allow societies and communities to secure their relationship with the war, which quickly becomes the past, forgotten, and lost. Therefore, the desire to commemorate is a desire to preserve the past to allow society to write its own history.
There are No Unknown Enemies
Not only heroes but also enemies are personalized. For example, thanks to the published and intercepted personal conversations of Russian soldiers with their relatives, one can learn about specific cases of the deliberate rape and torture of Ukrainians, women, and children.
The day after the announcement of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, the hacker group Anonymous hacked the Russian Ministry of Defense website and posted a database of telephone numbers and emails of employees of the Ministry. On April 3, the personal data of 120,000 Russian servicemen who took part in the war with Ukraine, including a list of names, service numbers, and places of service, were released.
At the beginning of the invasion, the National Security and Defense Council of Ukraine created the website The Occupier, which provides information about the prisoners of war of the Russian armed forces who invaded the country. This also helps relatives of these soldiers to find them, confirm their loss, and form a memory of this person without the false hopes of a possible return home.
An instructive case of the personalization of the enemy is the documentary film “The Occupant. War and Peace in the Telephone of a Russian Soldier,” made by journalists of Ukrayinska Pravda and based on personal phone records of 23-year-old Russian lieutenant Yuri Shalayev, a graduate of the Moscow Higher Command School, commander of the 71718th Motorized Rifle Platoon. The documentary shows two realities— his personal life (such as buying gifts for his daughter) and the war. An aggressor is a young man who also lives his life, makes a choice, and goes to fulfill the High Command’s orders by occupying another country. In the occupied Ukrainian territory, he films civilians there, his military, their deployment and movement, their wounded soldiers, and the Ukrainian military. When the Ukrainian army entered his infantry fighting vehicle on April 1, he was able to survive. But this episode of “near-death” was also filmed on his camera. I assume that he documented “death” not because he wanted to look death in its eyes, but because he wanted to document such a “historical moment” to be able to share it with friends/colleagues, maybe even a daughter.
For Shilayev, war is his work. But does this means that murder and destruction are also jobs for him? In the case of an illegal war characterized by multiple war crimes, is the occupier entitled to privacy, even intimacy?
On other hand, an article by the Russian media outlet in exile, Meduza, describes the story of a Russian soldier who went to war to earn money for an operation to correct his facial disfigurement. The publication creates the image of a person who has been constantly harassed, and suggests there is a need to feel sorry for him and “understand his motivation”. More interestingly, in describing such an intimate personal story, the media does not use his name in the article’s title: “A soldier from a village in the Leningrad region became a contract soldier to earn money for the operation. He was embarrassed about his appearance due to a birth injury. In May, he died in the war in Ukraine.” However, the fact that a person went to kill other people in order to get money for an operation does not humanize him and does not make him a victim. It does not absolve him of responsibility for crossing the border, shelling and participating in war crimes. Why should a flaw in appearance justify moral compromise? So how did his privacy change the narration of war?
Disclosure of personal information about the military and keeping military diaries is at odds with the concept of the unknown soldier (hero), which in Soviet times became incredibly widespread. Monuments to collective heroes were common practice. This cult of the unknown soldier, including Remembrance Day for the Unknown Hero, rapidly gained momentum in the late 1950-60s, when the first generation grew up with no direct relationship or direct memory of the war. For Soviet ideology, the idea of collectivity is central: it forms an understanding of collective labor; it also, however, implies a loss of the sense of personal struggle, contribution, motivation, tragedy, deeds, choice, or “errors.”
Speaking of the difference between the contexts of the XX and XXI centuries, Ukrainian historian Serhiy Yekelchyk correctly observes the following: “There can be no unknown soldiers in this war in the XXI century. So it’s not just a war, a tragedy, a heroic feat, a defense against the aggressor; it’s also a war that needs to be remembered in a new way.” 
If the conversation about the Second World war was about a heroic collective feat, then today, the discussion should be about choices. Waging war is a conscious choice. When invading another state’s territory, there is the choice of whether to kill (civilians) or not. And the moment a person crosses the border with a weapon in their hands, they automatically make that choice in favor of violence and become the bearer of that violence. Consequently, violence is no longer abstract; it is backed by a specific person and specific communities which commit particular crimes. That is why it is essential to discuss war not as an abstract “horror” or “total evil” but as specific crimes and criminals.
The cult of “the unknown” breeds myths and leaves room for manipulation. War, like social media, creates space for changing one’s identity; for example, to avoid punishment, a person can impersonate another. Today’s memory of the war has a specific basis. This is not about the numbers of the dead; it is about the desire to give them names. After all, it is not only heroes and killers that have names and biographies: those who are killed have to be identified too.
Giving a name to an enemy and giving a name to war become an essential process of further commemoration of events. However, privacy shaped by a war, reinforced by the post-truth, also shapes the intimacy of victims. Can people who experienced trauma and war crimes be able to remain anonymous if they want and need? Does giving names to everyone mean giving names to the victims as well? What, then, would protect their already vulnerable position? Are we ready to believe in a horror story without names and biographical details without requiring this information? Such cases of disclosure of communication have traumatized society even more but, to a greater extent, influenced the stigma of the victims. In this essay, I wrote about the concept of unknown soldiers and explored the topic of choice; however, the victim does not have the privilege of choice. In such a case, they must be sure that they have a law that protects their privacy and intimacy, even under conditions when the crowd demands it.
I want to thank researchers Miglė Bareikytė and Yarden Skop from the University of Siegen for the invitation to be a part of the series of events titled “Memory under Fire,” where I first developed this idea for a conversation “Archiving and data practices during the war,” and also to Uilleam Blecker for his kind advice and remarks to this text.
Kateryna Iakovlenko is a Luhansk-born Ukrainian visual art researcher and writer. She is ADB in New Media and Communication (focused on the heroic narrative of the Donbas in Soviet and post-Soviet media and art). She worked as a reporter and a deputy web editor of “The Day Newspaper” (2012-14), as a curator and a program manager of the Donbas Studies Research Project at Izolyatsia (2014-15), and as a researcher and a curator of public programs at PinchukArtCentre (2016-21). Among her publications are the books Gender Research (2015), Why There Are Great Women Artists in Ukrainian Art (2019), special issue Euphoria and Fatigue: Ukrainian Art and Society after 2014 (co-authored with Tatiana Kochubinska, 2019). Her current research touches upon the role of art and culture during political transformation and war. Currently, she is a Visiting Fellow at the Institute for Human Sciences (IWM) in Vienna.
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