The Empire Strikes Back
This — Crimea and all that has followed, and may still follow — was never just about contemporary politics. It was Vladimir Putin beginning to articulate his answer to the vexed eternal question: ‘What does it mean to be Russian?’
Prince Vladimir cut a tortured path to power. It all began when militant nomads murdered his father, Svyatoslav, on the banks of a river south of Kiev. Legend has it that those warriors made a gold-plated goblet of Svyatoslav’s skull and then drank from it. Vladimir, in turn, consolidated control over the kingdom by battling his brother. Their war ended when Vladimir called a meeting and had his goons greet his guest with two swords to the chest. The prince regretted it, but, he said, “It was not I who began to fight with my brother, but he, and I was for that reason overcome by fear, and therefore have come out against him.”
He proceeded to impregnate his brother’s wife, and took to ruling Kiev alone. He was “insatiable in vice,” with five brides and 800 concubines. Outside his castle, he erected an idol to Perun, God of Thunder. The idol’s body was wood, its head silver, and its mustache gold. Vladimir’s subjects sacrificed their sons and daughters at its feet. Thus emerged the ancient kingdom of Kievan Rus, progenitor of the eastern Slavic world, origin of Russia and Ukraine, and wellspring of present-day strife.
I want to tell you a story about Ukraine, but it’s not really about what’s happening in Ukraine now, not really about soldiers and seizures and referendums. The cold calculus of geopolitics is secondary here. This — the precipice that the world is teetering on — is about identity and memory and deep, deep history. This is a story about the Russian Empire.
In late February, I set out for Ukraine from my home in Moscow. I rode a nearly empty night train, a string of blue carriages with yellow stripes. Frost tinted the windows and the picture outside seemed an endless repeating loop of birches and barren fields. The former Ukrainian president, Viktor Yanukovych, had just fled his gaudy palace following months of protests.
In the Kiev city center, thousands had been gathering since last November. They built a tent camp and lived on the barricades, bearing winter frost and feeding each other borscht in plastic bowls. The movement came to be known as “Maidan,” or “Euromaidan,” for the square it grew on and the ambitions it harbored. The nominal cause of the unrest was Yanukovych’s decision not to sign a trade agreement to move Ukraine closer to the European Union, but to turn, instead, to Mother Russia. Fierce clashes between student protestors and Ukraine’s special police, the Berkut, soon galvanized a wider population, and Maidan become one of those misguided synonyms — like Tahrir and Gezi — for freedom, democracy, and the better life. It all culminated in late February, when Yanukovych unleashed snipers onto the streets, hoping to retain his tenuous grip. More than a hundred protestors died, and Yanukovych disappeared.
While the demonstrations achieved their goal of deposing the reviled ruler (he took refuge in Russia), the upheaval that followed has imperiled Ukraine’s very existence and deeply shaken the international order. Russia annexed Crimea and has been sowing chaos throughout eastern Ukraine ever since. This sudden aggression stunned the West, calling wider European security into doubt. Meanwhile, Ukraine itself descended into a bloody war. Perhaps most frightening of all, the story continues: Russia and the West are no closer to compromise, let alone understanding, and violence still rages in eastern Ukraine, where more than 3,700 people have died since late April, including 298 innocent passengers on Malaysia Airlines Flight 17.
Yet as I witnessed these events unfold while reporting on the crisis, I found myself slipping backwards in time, seeking explanations for the current chaos in the shady recesses of history.
I arrived first in Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-largest city, near the eastern border with Russia. Two groups stood guard there on the city’s main square, a teardrop-shaped stretch of forced grandeur. One had a makeshift tent camp around the central statue of Lenin, where they stood guard at his stone feet. On the fences they hung signs: “Fascists: Don’t test Kharkiv’s patience,” “We don’t need NATO,” and “Don’t tear down monuments!” Under the influence of a noxious Russian propaganda campaign, this group saw the revolution in Kiev as a fascist-led coup bent on oppressing Ukraine’s mostly Russian-speaking eastern population, delivering Russian holy sites into NATO’s hands, and destroying virtually everything they held dear, even if they themselves could not identify what, exactly, was so dear.
Though this picture bears little resemblance to reality, it contains just enough streaks of truth to have great power, like a nightmare full of familiar faces. Far-right nationalist groups did play a crucial role on the Maidan (though they do not, as Russian television loves to claim, control Ukraine). American and European officials, such as Victoria Nuland, John McCain, and Catherine Ashton, did make stunningly tactless appearances at the protests (though the West did not finance the entire enterprise, contrary to popular Russian opinion). The new post-revolutionary government did, in a moment of extraordinary idiocy, pass a law stripping Russian of its status as an official language (though the move was ultimately vetoed). And tearing down Soviet statues did become a symbolic act in Ukraine (including, much later, this very one in Kharkiv).
Across the square, another crew — this one representing the Maidan movement — occupied the regional administration building, hoping to keep the city from slipping into pro-Russian hands while the state reassembled itself in Kiev. They donned blue and yellow ski masks and built barricades of their own. “They need to study history,” Pytor, a retired factory worker, said of the Lenin-statue defenders across the way. “And not just the propaganda.” Vlad, sitting nearby and eating ramen from a clear plastic cup, went further: “Ukraine lived under occupation until 1991. The monument means nothing to us.” Many inside the building saw themselves as part of a historic transformation: from a Russian vassal into a truly independent nation.
Caught between the two sides were the many Ukrainians with no interest in another political squabble. “All our politicians are thieves,” one young mother told me as she cooed at the baby in her stroller and shuffled across the square. And then, more tragically, were those who could not possibly choose sides, those with mixed blood and dual allegiances, those who thought they lived in a happy family.
As Dmitry Furman, a noted scholar, wrote back in 1997, “Russian-Ukrainian problems are not concrete and rational problems… What kind of fights can there be between brothers?… What is it that divides Ukrainian and Russian brothers when they ‘recall’ that they are separate peoples? It is the same stuff that normally divides brothers — the struggle over parents, primogeniture, legacy.”
Fights between brothers can be the most brutal fights of all, especially when those brothers share a deep and disputed history.
A Region Changes Hands. Again.
From Kharkiv, a night train carried me down across the darkened steppe to Crimea, where late winter fog filled the skies. When I arrived, I was still in Ukraine. By the time I was ready to leave, some three weeks later, I was (de facto) in Russia.
Crimea is a peninsula that juts south into the Black Sea. Ancient vineyards line its rolling hills and jagged juniper trees hang off its coasts. Traces of the Soviet — dilapidated homes, boxy buildings, monuments to labor — punctuate an otherwise beautiful landscape, one comparable in stretches to the better-known rivieras of Italy or France. Further inland, though, bleak grasslands and swampy isthmuses link Crimea to Ukraine. Sitting on a civilizational fault line, the region has attracted a murderer’s row of empires, belonging at various times to the Greeks, Romans, Byzantines, Ottomans, and Russians.
For Russia the Crimean question is one of origins. In the twenty-three years since the Soviet Union collapsed, Russia has been struggling to identify a new national idea: What does it mean to be Russian? To be Russian now, absent tsarism or communism? What recent events make clear is that for Russia, empire is an existential yearning. Russia cannot be merely a country; it must control others in order to validate its sense of grandeur. And at the heart of this Russian imperial project lies Ukraine.
Russia’s existence traces back to the Dark Ages when pagan princes roamed these lands. The memory is far from dead. When President Vladimir Putin announced his decision to annex Crimea, altering Europe’s borders and imperiling the idea of state sovereignty, he gave one of the most important speeches of his political life — a “Putin Doctrine” for Eurasia — and laid out an ideology based on protecting ethnic Russians wherever they may be. His justification for taking Crimea began with a reference to 1,100 year-old history: “Everything in Crimea speaks of our shared history and pride. This is the location of ancient Khersones, where Prince Vladimir was baptized. His spiritual feat of adopting Orthodoxy predetermined the overall basis of the culture, civilization, and human values that unite the peoples of Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus.”
Prince Vladimir’s “spiritual feat” began in 986, when a procession of guests came to Kiev to proselytize the world’s major religions. First came the Muslim Bulgars. The Muslims demanded circumcision and abstinence from pork and wine in this life in exchange for “complete fulfillment of carnal desires” in the next. Vladimir rebuffed their offer: “Drinking is the joy of the Russes. We cannot exist without that pleasure.” The Germans arrived next, preaching the teachings of the pope, but to no avail. Then the Jews. They too were turned down. Vladimir saw the loss of Jerusalem as evidence of God’s abandonment: “If God loved you and your faith, you would not be thus dispersed in foreign lands. Do you expect us to accept that fate also?”
Finally a Greek scholar arrived and enraptured Vladimir, telling the history of the world from creation to its present day. When the Prince’s scouts later returned from Greece, they told tales of Orthodox glory: “On earth there is no such splendor or such beauty, and we are at a loss how to describe it. We only know that God dwells there among men, and their service is fairer than the ceremonies of other nations. For we cannot forget that beauty. Every man, after tasting something sweet, is afterward unwilling to accept that which is bitter, and therefore we cannot dwell longer here.” In 988, Vladimir was baptized and married the Byzantine Emperor Basil’s sister, Anna, in a church in a Greek town called Khersones on the southwest coast of what we call Crimea.
South of Sevastopol, not far from what’s left of Khersones, Russian and Ukrainian military bases dotted the hills this spring. Sometimes their walls nearly intersected; sometimes you could see old Russian license plates behind Ukrainian gates. Before, it did not matter — they were all of one strain.
Until they were not. I met this Colonel named Laptev at one of the Ukrainian spots in early March. His post had been surrounded by Russian forces for days. A green KAMAZ transport truck idled outside the entrance and several guys in fatigues and masks meandered, looking bored, with AKs slung across their shoulders. They did not answer questions but did let us through their checkpoint to see Laptev. He, in turn, led us through the halls, pointing to overturned cabinets as signs of “full blockade position.” He sat us down in his office — a narrow room with a single bed and a dilapidated desk — and began briefing as if it was real, as if all of this was really happening. Well, he said, we’ve got some dynamite ready. He fished out a backpack — it could’ve been the faded Jansport I wore to the first grade — and revealed a stack of explosives. We’re ready, he said. See? Look — and here his voice dropped into a near whisper: “Why?” No one ever thought it could come to this, no one ever thought Ukraine would be poised to fight Russia. “Why would our brothers do this?”
It’s worth remembering that these brothers have been fighting since before they were born. These are twins who played hangman with their umbilical cords in the womb. Just as Prince Vladimir rose amidst fratricidal struggle, so too did his son, Yaroslav, the second sovereign of Rus. He came down from his base of power in Novgorod (some 300 miles north of what is now Moscow) to take control over the kingdom from his half-brother Sviatopolk, who had himself already murdered three other brothers. With the help of Viking mercenaries, Yaroslav first entered Kiev in 1016 during a dawn battle on the shores of a frozen lake. Sviatopolk fled to Poland, steam rising, I imagine, from the splintering ice.
Under Yaroslav’s rule, Kievan Rus reached its zenith, stretching from the White Sea to the Black. He brought things like books and churches to Kiev, built the famed St. Sophia Cathedral, and established the early trappings of a modern civilization. The people called him Yaroslav the Wise. He strengthened ties with European powers in every direction, marrying relatives off to royalty from Poland, Hungary, Norway, France, and the Roman and Byzantine Empires. Some historians call him “the Father-in-Law of Europe.” He founded cities in four different modern-day countries: Poland, Estonia, Russia, and Ukraine. His image now graces both Ukraine’s 2-Hrivnya note and Russia’s 1,000-Ruble bill.
On his deathbed, Yaroslav exhorted his sons to behave: “Love one another, since ye are brothers by one father and mother. If ye abide in amity with one another, God will dwell among you, and will subject your enemies to you, and ye will live at peace. But if ye dwell in envy and dissension, quarreling with one another, then ye will perish yourselves and bring to ruin the land of your ancestors, which they won at the price of great effort.”
He died in 1054, his body laid to rest in a sarcophagus of white stone.
Nearly 1,000 years later, I came to the Livadia Palace, perched on a cliffside in Yalta, on the southern coast of Crimea, where the big three powers divided the world after World War II. It too is wrought of white stone, and it too could be called a royal sarcophagus, for in the palace’s cavernous foyer we found three great leaders: Roosevelt sitting on the left in a charcoal grey suit, one hand open, reaching for something; Churchill on the right in an officer’s outfit, one fist clenched; and Stalin in the center holding a tobacco pipe, his thick cockroach mustache covering his upper lip. They were just wax figures, but they gave the sensation that the building somehow housed great secrets, that the floors, by virtue of proximity to history, somehow knew.
Our young tour guide wore black leggings and a fur vest over a sweater with a reindeer motif. She called herself Ekaterina, and her smile never drooped. She told us about how the palace had been the last tsar’s summer home, and about how the “Big Three” had carved up Europe in these halls. She told us about how they gave limp Roosevelt the Tsar’s old first-floor study to sleep in, and about how Stalin himself came to Yalta by train through Ukraine.
When she mentioned that Roosevelt died two months after the fateful conference, one older Russian tourist interrupted: “Died? I think you mean he was killed.”
“No, he died,” Ekaterina said, smile still in place. “He was in poor health, he spent twenty years paralyzed in a wheelchair.”
“No. He was killed.”
“Well, I haven’t heard that version.”
“It’s not a version, it’s been proven. It is pravda.”
This was not the last argument we’d hear in Ukraine about history and truth. It wasn’t even the last such argument we’d hear that day.
Later in the afternoon we ducked into a courtyard off the city’s palm-tree lined promenade and paid a visit to the history faculty at the Crimean University of the Humanities. We sat in a circle on cold chairs.
“If the current Russian president’s plans include reviving the Russian empire,” one particularly ominous monologue began, “if they include reviving the greatness of the state, and creating some sort of conglomerate by using the Soviet and imperial heritage, then in this game Crimea, firstly, plays a crucial role. And secondly, Ukraine plays a crucial role. For the question about Ukraine is a question about the roots, the historical roots, of the Russian empire.”
They explained how the Soviet empire had been built on the ashes of the imperial empire, and the imperial empire in turn on the ashes of Kievan Rus. They explained how Russian thinkers put forth the idea that all the eastern Slavic peoples — Russians, Ukrainians, and Belorussians — descend from the same common Kievan core. And they explained how that idea has been used to prop up Russia’s imperial claims for centuries.
“I’m almost certain that for the current Russian leadership, Ukraine remains a ‘geographic novelty,’” said a dark-haired docent, Marina Budzar. “For them, Ukraine is a state that exists only nominally: Either it shouldn’t exist at all, or it should exist only as a satellite…”
Russia sees Kievan Rus as the direct predecessor of a wider “Russian world.” In this version of history, White Russia (Belarus), Little Russia (Ukraine), and Great Russia (Russia itself) are all derivatives of the same Russian narod (people). In this version, the collapse of the Soviet Union is a tragedy, President Vladimir is the true heir to Prince Vladimir, and Ukrainian independence is a historical accident.
Like a brother with a far different slant on the family story, modern Ukraine also claims the Kievan legacy as its own. Its coat of arms — a trident — comes from Vladimir’s old seal. And Vladimir himself (or Volodymyr, as he is known in Ukraine), with flowing hair and wavy beard, decorates Ukraine’s 1-Hrivnya bill. In Ukraine’s new historiography, 1991 is the summit of a millennia-long climb toward an independent state.
These clashing interpretations of history, and the disparate worldviews they engender, underpin today’s bloodshed. Which version is factually true is less important than how they have been used by the countries’ elites. While nations may be imagined communities, they are palpably real to the people whose lives they govern, and to those who govern lives.
As Putin himself famously told George W. Bush back in 2008, “You have to understand, George, that Ukraine is not even a country.” In his Crimea annexation speech this year, he went further, declaring that Ukraine and Russia “are one people. Kiev is the mother of Russian cities. Ancient Rus is our common source and we cannot live without each other.”
If I had been at home while Crimea unraveled, I might have watched Jon Stewart. He did a bit, which I saw later, called “Crimean War 2: Ukrainian Boogaloo.” His guest was Kimberly Marten, a professor of Russian politics from Barnard. Their discussion encapsulated, albeit in simplistic terms, the typical American reaction to Russia’s seizure of Crimea:
Marten: “No one can figure out why he [Putin] has taken such big risks for such little gain.”
Stewart: “What I don’t understand about this on a purely economic level is, Russia has benefited so greatly from this trade relationship with Europe. And Europe now uses their natural resources and is in some way dependent on it, maybe in a way that we were with the Middle East. Why would they jeopardize this for what appears to be… I just don’t understand what it is that they’re looking for from Crimea.”
Marten: “I don’t understand it either. They’re acting as if it’s still the 19th century and grabbing land matters.”
The thing is, it’s not just any land. And human nature hasn’t changed that much since the 19th century.
I do not mean to suggest that history explains everything that’s happening now, or that it holds the key to stopping the current violence. Certainly the average citizens of Simferopol, Donetsk, Kiev, or Moscow don’t ponder the Primary Chronicle, the Rus’ foundational text, while sipping tea.
But tapping into historical currents can give political movements great, and, at times, explosive, power. Just as the Sunni-Shiite split some 1,500 years ago still has profound implications for the modern world, so too does eastern Europe’s past shape its contemporary contours. Today’s crisis is not new. It is but one point on a long line, and we ignore this history at our peril.
Ukraine’s is a fundamentally fractured past. It is a nation forged of two halves, two cultures, two identities. These currents run all the way back to the fall of Kievan Rus. After Yaroslav’s sons sealed him in his white sarcophagus in the 11th century, the brothers began fighting again. The consequences were visible in the sky, where night after night, legend has it, one could see a massive star with “bloody rays.”
“Thus portents in the sky, or in the stars, or in the sun, or such as are made known by birds or from some other source, are not favorable import,” reads the Primary Chronicle. “Such signs are, on the contrary, of evil significance, presaging the appearance of war, famine, or death.”
As the brothers battled, the kingdom crumbled. Local power centers arose across the lands, including the Galicia-Volhynia Principality to the west of Kiev, and, to the east, the Vladimir-Suzdal Principality, which happened to include a backwater trading post called Muscovy. The eastern principalities in modern-day Russia came under Mongol control — the so-called “Tatar Yoke.”
In early September of 1380, Prince Dmitry of Moscow made the first attempt to “throw off” the Tatar Yoke, leading his forces across a foggy field known as Kulikovo.
The battle unified the Slavs of the region, and solidified Moscow’s place as the new center of the so-called “Russian Lands.” As an ancient Russian epic, Zadonschina, tells, “All over the Russian land there spread joy and merriment: the Russian glory was borne through the land….” Just over one hundred years later, Prince Ivan III defeated the Mongols once and for all. He married Sophia, niece of the last Byzantine emperor, and they began conceiving of Moscow as the Third Rome. He began to call himself Tsar.
When Putin came to power in 2000, he returned to the theme, writing a manifesto in which he named “belief in the greatness of Russia” one of the core Russian values. This sense of pride drove events in Crimea ahead of the annexation too. I encountered it on the streets and in homes, on billboards and on faces, young and old.
Once, colleagues and I traveled to Crimea’s far western coast, where we’d heard that the Russians had seized a military base and a border control point. Our first attempt at finding these sites led us up a godforsaken dirt road, which ended at an abandoned Soviet-era lighthouse perched on spectacular cliffs. We paused, we admired the beauty, we threw stones into the sea. Below, we could see frothy tide pools, filling and emptying, emptying and filling, like memory.
Eventually we found an officer who led us to his base, or, more accurately, his former base. Soldiers roamed just inside the gates, but they were not Ukrainian. Instead we saw men in unmarked green camouflage, with black boots and new black rifles. These were Russian soldiers, though at the time, Russia vehemently denied their existence. They became known as “little green men.” In the weeks leading up to the Crimean referendum, these troops surrounded and captured Ukrainian military bases across the peninsula, often without firing a shot.
At this particular base, some 200 or so heavy armed little green men scaled the walls as dawn broke, overwhelming the forty to fifty lightly armed Ukrainian sailors inside. As we tried to talk to the little green men that day, one Ukrainian sailor stumbled, visibly drunk, up the gates, which still bore the Ukrainian coat of arms, Volodymyr’s blue and yellow trident. “I serve here,” he slurred. The little green men laughed.
A crew of pro-Russian civilians shoved the drunken soldier away from the base, and we took our cue to leave. We wanted to interview the Ukrainian officer somewhere quieter, so he brought us to a café, which, we would discover too late, was called the ‘Officers’ Club’ and served as a hangout for local law enforcement. That was where we met a man we came to call Thumbcuffs, who said, loudly, “ARE YOU FOR RUSSIA?!?”
We said we were journalists; we weren’t for anyone. He did not look pleased. He spun the thumbcuffs he carried slowly around each of his fingers as he talked. The man we were interviewing stared at the ground, eyes empty. Thumbcuffs asked again: “ARE YOU FOR RUSSIA?!?”
Thumbcuffs told us to get up. In the doorway to the café, roughly twenty guys had gathered — a mixture of policemen, camouflaged civilians, and masked mysteries. A handful had pistols holstered at their sides, and they shouted over one another, each expressing his own idiosyncratic strain of outrage. It took fifteen minutes for the anger to subside. They left us with a warning: “This is not your problem, Americans. Get out and never come back.”
I am reminded here of a Pushkin poem, one he wrote in response to Western criticism of Russia for invading Poland in 1831. He invoked the long history of inter-Slavic conflict:
“What are you sounding off about, you foreign tub-thumpers?
Why do you threaten Russia with anathema?
Desist: This is a battle of Slavs amongst themselves,
a domestic, ancient quarrel, already weighed by fate.
An issue you will not resolve…
Leave us alone, you haven’t read
These bloody scrolls.
To you it’s unintelligible, to you it’s alien,
This family feud.”
He asked, “Will the Slavonic streams converge in the Russian sea?”
The “Slavonic streams” had in fact cleaved and converged and cleaved again over the course of many centuries. After Yaroslav, the western principalities, containing much of modern-day Ukraine, ended up in the hands of Lithuanian and Polish royalty. Coming under their rule opened a corridor for Renaissance-era European thought to enter the eastern Slavic lands. Yet some Orthodox descendants of Prince Vladimir chafed under Catholic rule and Polish serfdom. These men called themselves Cossacks. One of them, Bohdan Khmelnytsky harnessed his restless clansmen in 1648 and led a revolt. He founded the short-lived state known as the Hetmanate, a proto-Ukraine (Khmelnytsky now graces Ukraine’s 5 Hrivnya bill). He declared himself “the sole autocrat of Rus.”
Then, like the trunks of two trees growing side by side in the same soil the fates of the two split Rus nations fused. Khmelnytsky’s budding Hetmanate needed a new ally to fend off the vengeful Poles. And the leaders of the new Russian dynasty, the Romanovs, saw in an alliance a chance to expand further, to regain lands they considered historically theirs.
So in 1654, the Cossacks gathered in a city just outside Kiev, and a council of mustachioed warriors listened as Bohdan extolled the virtues of Russian protection. They reached the Treaty of Pereyaslav, an agreement that fundamentally altered the contours of Europe for centuries to come. Khmelnytsky may have intended to form a simple military alliance. Instead, he signed the nascent Ukrainian nation away to Russia, and inaugurated a period of westward imperial expansion that began with the Russian conquest of Poland in the 18th century, brought the Tsar’s troops all the way to Paris in the 19th, and ended with Red Army soldiers in Berlin in the 20th.
For Russian rulers, the Treaty of Pereyaslav is seen as a grand moment, the healing of broken earth. The Soviets celebrated 1954 as the “300th Anniversary of the Reunification of Ukraine and Russia.” Folk ensembles danced through the streets of Moscow, and Premier Nikita Khrushchev made the fateful decision to give Ukraine a “gift”: Crimea.
Some Ukrainians, however, consider the treaty a grave tragedy, the source of centuries-long subordination. It was not long before a new Hetmanate leader, Ivan Mazepa, the Polish-educated son of a Cossack chieftain, attempted to change course. When King Charles of Sweden attacked Russia in 1708, sending cavalry down from the north, Mazepa seized what he saw as chance at independence, and turned on the Tsar to join the invaders.
The two armies met in the hills of central Ukraine, in a town called Poltava. On a late June morning, some 80,000 Russian forces overwhelmed the 20,000 outmatched Swedes, sending Charles and Mazepa fleeing. The battle left the Swedish Kingdom in tatters and marked the debut of a new superpower on the European stage: the Russian Empire.
Mazepa, in turn, became one of the Slavic world’s most controversial characters. He was a darling of later Ukrainian nationalists, Russian Decembrists, and European Romantics, inspiring even Lord Byron.
For the Tsar, though, Mazepa was the ultimate blood traitor. The Russian Orthodox Church excommunicated him, and for years at services commemorating the battle of Poltava, Mazepa was cursed. Pushkin, Russia’s preeminent poet, wrote his own imperialist-tinged response to Byron, turning the tragic hero into a historic turncoat. To this day, politicians in Russia and Ukraine invoke his name as a proxy for nationalist intrigues.
In 2009, for example, Ukrainian President Viktor Yuschenko (the hero of Ukraine’s previous pro-Western revolution) spoke out in favor of rehabilitating Mazepa’s name, laying flowers at a monument to the fallen Cossack hero during festivities marking the 300-year anniversary of events at Poltava. Yuschenko announced plans for a Mazepa military medal, and said of Mazepa’s rein, “Ukraine was reviving as the country of European cultural traditions.”
In response, a leading Russian diplomat called the celebration “absurd.” Russia’s foreign ministry saw fit to get involved, releasing a statement admonishing Ukrainian leaders for tampering with a carefully calibrated narrative:
“We would like to remind the Ukrainian leadership that games with history, especially with nationalist undertones, has never led to anything good. By attempting to rewrite the joint Russian-Ukrainian history, the Ukrainian authorities are not so much uniting Ukrainian society as they are dividing it.”
Russian demonstrators burned Mazepa’s effigy. In downtown Simferopol, protestors showed up with Russian flags, portraits of Putin and posters reading: “Eternal shame on the sickly Judas — Ivashka Mazepa and his followers!” and “Ukraine’s future is in alliance with Russia.” They also had a big printout of Ukraine’s 10 hrivyna bill, which features Mazepa’s face. The protestors pelted it with eggs and smeared it with manure.
Later that year, Ukraine’s former ambassador to the United States, Yuriy Scherbak, penned a column analyzing Russia’s new neo-imperial discourse, calling it “ideological-propagandistic support for a future operation to capture the territory of a sovereign state.” Few in the West listened.
Roughly five years after these events, I stood in downtown Simferopol, in the shadow of a gold-domed church and a WWII memorial, where I found people holding Russian flags and hanging a homemade poster on the base of a retired tank: “Hands off our history! Our memory! Our pride!” In the center of the crowd, they were spray-painting silver hammers-and-sickles onto red flags. A diminutive older woman, Lyudmila, led the operation, laying out the backdrops and admonishing the younger men around her: “Spray! Spray faster! Don’t dawdle!” She had on white gloves, a red headband over her white hair, and a red and white “RUSSIA” tracksuit made by Bosco (official clothing provider of Sochi 2014). She looked like a mascot for the Babushka All-Stars. “Today is a historic day, a historic day,” she told me, before yelling at a Cossack for missing a spot.
The money behind it all (as I heard often during those weeks, “there is always money behind it all”) turned out to be a slick local politician from the city of Kursk in Crimea’s neighboring Russian region of Krasnodar. He stood out in a neatly pressed suit, and handed out glossy fliers with a letter to the people. It read, in part, like this:
“Residents of multiethnic Crimea!
Ukrainians, Tatars, Crimean Tatars, Armenians, Jews, Russians, and many others!
In the distant Soviet times, there were not divisions based on nationality, we were all brothers!
Time passed and divided us into different governments, but we, Russians, still believe and will believe that no matter what, we are one whole, we are one big family!… And if you ask for our help, we will fulfill our brotherly duty and help you!
Russians do not abandon their own!”
The next day, March 15th, one day before Crimea’s secession referendum, a collection of mostly middle-aged men gathered outside the local chapter of the Afghan Veteran’s Union. They wanted to become citizen election monitors. They wore dark jackets and red armbands, and took orders from a graying man with a clipboard. They did not care what exactly post-Ukraine life would bring, as long as they became Russia (again). “It’s not important that you have light if you’re going home to your mother,” said a portly man named Igor Trushko. “If you’ve been out in Africa in the desert for ten years and you’re going home, you don’t care whether there will be light. You’re going home.”
And so, Trushko and many of his comrades reveled the following night, when the “vote” came in at 97%. A crowd gathered around Lenin in the center of Simferopol, where they danced and drank and yelled: RO-SI-YA! A green laser show flashed a message onto the surrounding buildings: THE RUSSIAN SPRING.
The Rise of Vladimir the Uniter
“If you compress a spring all the way to its limit, it will snap back hard.”
– Vladimir Putin
The Moscow I returned to after a month in Ukraine had also changed. It was still Russia, of course, only more bellicose and more triumphant. The “great victory” in Crimea had activated in Russians a dormant but still potent patriotism. Conversations, even with the Putin-hating liberal intelligentsia, suddenly took on a bellicose tone, blending pique at the West’s treatment of Russia with a newfound national confidence. Russia was no longer “on its knees.” The idea of the Soviet Union ending with a whimper had always been wishful thinking. This — Crimea and all that has followed (and may still follow) — is the bang.
“Russia is a great power and the West has forgotten this fact,” my friend Tanya told me. We were having lunch in the corner of a second-floor cafe near the Moscow conservatory where she teaches piano. It was late March, not long after the annexation, still sweater weather there. Tanya is a decorated artist, and her eyes dance when she speaks of the Russian soul. That day, she wore gold wireframe glasses, a thin gold wristwatch, and bangles of deep maroon. That day, she was defiant, uncharacteristically so: “There’s a line you cannot cross. There’s only so much disrespect any person, any country can tolerate. Ukraine is ours. They are our people. Our family. You cannot come into someone else’s home, put down your suitcase, and start telling them how to handle their family. Russia, Belarus, Ukraine — it’s all one place. It’s thousands of years of collective history. It’s religion; it’s culture; it’s tradition. Thousands of years back to Kievan Rus. Thousands.”
The notion that Russia had risen, a trope promoted widely in the Russian media, spoke especially to those who had lived through the “humiliation” of the 1990s. I first moved to Moscow during that time. I was the infant son of two foreign correspondents, and we lived for four years in a drab seven-story apartment complex dubbed “SadSam” by its residents. There, my parents fed me spoonfuls of black caviar bought at deflated prices, and wrote about the Soviet Union, that second reincarnation of the Russian empire, crumbling under the weight of its own facade.
At the time, my parents also wrote about Ukraine, about Crimea, about what Russia might become. Rereading their articles now is a bit uncanny:
“But among the many fault lines emerging from the collapse of the Soviet Empire, none is as fraught with the potential to start the next Yugoslavia as the Crimea and its fleet. The dispute is deeply rooted in history, symbolizing all of Ukraine’s thwarted aspirations for national identity.” — Crimea, 1993
“The Russians, for the first time in several hundred years, have to define themselves as a nation distinct from empire. Picking up the threads of an intellectual debate begun in the 18th century and buried in the 20th under the heavy blanket of Stalinist state ideology, they ask: What does it mean to be Russian?” — Moscow, 1994
I passed my time at SadSam beside Nina and Lora, a pair of Russian babushki, lifelong friends replete with the sort of wisdom that only a wartime childhood in central Siberia could impart. (Nina taught me to chew my meat at least ten times before swallowing. Lora lulled me to sleep by chanting that police come for the children still awake at night.) They called me “Nojchik.”
When I got back from Crimea, I went to visit Nina, who I’d reconnected with years later, when I returned to Moscow as a student in 2008. Nina and her family live well outside Moscow’s center, in an old apartment made up of rooms jutting off a long hallway lined, floor to ceiling, with dusty books. A gilded Orthodox icon rests in the corner of every room. I sat across from one in the living room as Nina fed me thick fruitcake with white frosting.
“Nojchik,” she said, “I’ve wanted to ask this to an American: Why is it OK for America to bomb Iraq, to kill all of those civilians, but it’s not OK for Russia to protect ancient Russian land in Crimea?”
She spun a version of a tale I heard many times this spring: The West had refused to acknowledge Russia’s interests for decades; America insisted on dictating to the world, especially on matters it did not understand; Russia had endured this indignity because she had been weak, but now she could not allow it any longer. Now, she was strong again.
As Putin said in his Crimea annexation speech, “If you compress a spring all the way to its limit, it will snap back hard.”
Putin himself reaped the domestic benefits of this resurgence — his approval ratings swelled to their highest levels ever, exceeding 80 percent.
But taking Crimea was never just about contemporary politics. It was Putin beginning to articulate his answer to the vexed eternal question: ‘What does it mean to be Russian?’ Grasping Putin’s thinking requires looking backward. As the scholars Clifford Gaddy and Fiona Hill, biographers of Putin, wrote, “Any effort to understand Vladimir Putin must begin with the man of history. For Putin, the interpretation and reinterpretation of history is a crucial matter.” (This is an image he promotes amongst his followers too. “He’s in a different league; he is in a dialogue with history,” one parliament member from Putin’s ruling party told The New Yorker not long after the Crimea speech.)
Putin has begun to see himself as a historical figure, as the man who restored Russia to its rightful place in the world order, as the man who brought together a divided people — as Vladimir the Uniter.
In this narrative, the only way forward is to build a Russian world — a world Putin’s compatriot, the Russian Orthodox Patriarch, Kirill, defined as “the great Russian civilization that came from the Kievan baptismal font and spread across the huge expanse of Eurasia.” This world is based on “conservative values” and opposition to American hegemony, with Russia acting as a civilizational pole, a bulwark against the decadent overreach of the West.
The idea of Russia as a necessary counterpoint to the West is not new. For Russians, the split between Slavophiles and Westernizers is a fundamental cultural fault line. They have been arguing about their relationship to the West for centuries: Is Russia part of Europe, or is it a distinct civilization with its own “special path”?
The debate reached a nexus in the first half of the nineteenth century, when Tsar Nicholas I, in the wake of the Decembrist Revolt, rejected the empire’s drift toward the West. Instead, he posited an ideology of “Orthodoxy, Autocracy, and Nationality” (an ideology, it’s worth noting, strikingly similar to Putin’s current model).
Around the same time, as the Russians were debating their standing vis-à-vis the West, a group of Ukrainian intellectuals began having an identity crisis of their own: Are we Russian, or are we other? Taras Shevchenko, the poet, stood at the forefront of this movement, writing explosive folklore-inspired works, codifying at once a modern Ukrainian language and a common cultural base. He viciously attacked the tsar, treating Russian rulers as conquerors of Ukraine. He articulated a truly Ukrainian identity, planting the seeds of national consciousness. His first collection, Kobzar, published in 1840, featured a poem called Kateryna, which opened with the following lines about “Moskali,” a Ukrainian slur for Russians:
“Fall in love, you dark-browed girls,
But not with Moskali.
For Moskali are strangers,
They will do you wrong.”
Shevchenko later joined the historian Kostomarov and formed a secret society, the Brotherhood of Saints Cyril and Methodius. They met in Kiev — in smoky basements, I’d like to think — and plotted the rebirth of Ukraine proper. Perhaps predictably, the tsar soon stamped them out, sending their leaders, Shevchenko and Kostomarov included, into exile, and eventually banning the use of Ukrainian language in print.
Shevchenko’s face, it should be pointed out, is now emblazed on Ukraine’s 100-hrivnya bill, and his statue nearly as ubiquitous in Ukraine as Lenin’s. Kostomarov, meanwhile, managed to publish an essay called “The Two Russian Nationalities,” which laid out how “Great Russia” and “Little Russia” were not, as Russian historiography claimed at the time, the same, but rather two distinct peoples with their own national dispositions. “The Ukrainians are characterized by individualism, the Great Russians by collectivism,” he wrote at the time.
For Nina, though, Shevchenko was irrelevant. I suggested to her that, perhaps, Ukraine actually did want to be its own country, that those people on Maidan actually didn’t want to be part of Putin’s Russian world.
She sighed, and the wrinkles that ring her eyes rippled. “And even if that is so, what does America have to do with it?” she retorted, and cut me another slice of cake.
The week after visiting Nina, the day before I was set to return to Ukraine, I went to the banya, the Russian sauna. Banya talk is usually about women, sports, women, work, women. That day though, the men in the entryway lounging in towels and smoking cigarettes talked Crimea. The naked men in the red-walled locker room sipping tea talked Crimea. Even the men inside the steam room beating each other with birch branches talked Crimea.
My locker room neighbor was a brawny young boxer named Anton. He had a giant lion tattoo on one shoulder and Christ on the other. He shaved his head with a straight razor. He brewed homemade mint tea, which he brought along in a blue thermos and offered with a smile. He asked me to add him on Instagram, but said sheepishly, “Don’t look at the first picture, it’s not for you.” Of course, I looked: a cartoon caricature of Putin KO-ing Obama with a left hook to the jaw.
“You shouldn’t have messed with Ukraine,” he said.
It happened to be Easter weekend, so when we all entered the banya itself, the banshik called for a prayer. “I assume there’s no one here who’s not celebrating,” he said to collective laughs. I kept my Jewish-American head down. We huddled eight to a row, shoulders hunched in the heat, sweat dripping onto wooden benches. In this particular banya a giant metal propeller attached to a rotating rod circulates the steam. The banshik, a wizened older man, set the blades in motion and hollered ‘Christ has risen!’
The stone floor shook and the coals hissed.
III. THE DONBASS
I returned in mid-April to Ukraine for more reporting, and found myself in Slovyansk, a small backwater city in the country’s east. Slovyansk’s central square had the eerie air of swampland when I arrived. The sky, grey with clouds, seemed still. Flags hung limp on their poles. A light fog left the pavement a bit damp, and red tulips lay at the base of a makeshift memorial. Suspicious men, some in camouflage, patrolled. Older women dried teary eyes.
Two days earlier, on Easter Sunday, the Ukrainian War’s first blood had been spilt: three local men gunned down at a checkpoint outside of town, the circumstances murky. Russian media (watched religiously by most eastern Ukrainians) claimed that a Ukrainian neo-nationalist group, Right Sektor, bore responsibility. They broadcast a segment showing goods that the attackers allegedly left behind in a burnt out car: reams of ammunition, stacks of crisp U.S. dollars, and the Right Sektor leader’s business card. No one knows who is actually guilty, but the story quickly gained mythic status with the population.
Locals had gathered around a gold-domed church that day, mourning not only the victims, but also the loss of a world they held dear, a quaint world of factories and farms and post-Soviet stasis. Maidan had shaken its foundations, televised propaganda told of its dismemberment, and Crimea’s annexation raised the prospect of refuge with mother Russia. On the steps of the church, they chanted:
“Glory, glory, glory!”
“Russia, Russia, Russia!”
I met sixty-five-year-old Raisa Rybalka there on the square. She had a blue scarf wrapped around her neck against the chill. Like many in the early days of the conflict, her core grievance was simple: She wanted to be heard. “I’m not marginal, I’m not a terrorist,” she said. “I’m concerned and I have a right to a voice.” Two Lyudmilas joined the conversation. “We lived normally in the Soviet Union, everything was OK, everything was peaceful,” said one, with deep brown eyes. “Why are they bothering us now?” They all believed that Ukraine’s government had fallen to a fascist coup. “I’m old, but if they gave me a gun, I’d go fight the fascists,” brown-eyed Lyudmila added. The second Lyudmila chimed in, “We don’t want Europe. Everything here is connected with Russia.”
It is this integrated identity that has the strongest pull for eastern Ukrainians like Raisa and the Lyudmilas. They live in the Soviet shadow. There on the square in Slovyansk, a statue of Lenin still towers over everything, including a large replica of a rooster, perched in a glass box just steps away. No one could explain why, exactly.
The tricolor flag of the Donetsk People’s Republic — black, blue, red — hung from the porch of the city administration building behind Lenin’s statue. In forgotten bastions of bureaucracy like this, the now infamous eastern Ukrainian rebels got their start. They popped up in early April and began seizing city halls, police stations, and security services buildings across the Donetsk and Luhansk regions, an area known collectively as the Donbass. The gaggle of women standing with Raisa supported these masked vigilantes. Raisa clasped her hands when she spoke, interlacing her pink-painted fingers, as if in prayer. “Our roots are intertwined,” she said of Russia and Ukraine, “You can’t split them.”
Yet some Ukrainians have been struggling to split them for hundreds of years, hoping to grow into a distinct national identity of their own. The form of this identity began to coalesce at the turn of 20th century, when the historian Mykhailo Hrushevsky set out writing his History of Ukraine-Rus, codifying the case for a Ukrainian nation distinct from Russia. Nationalist political groups began forming, like the Revolutionary Ukrainian Party, led by students from Kharkiv. In their 1900 manifesto, they called for “a single, unitary, indivisible, free, independent Ukraine.” Around the same time, the Russian imperial historian Vasily Klyuchevsky assembled his canonical work, The Course of Russian History, reasserting the theory of one original Rus’ nationality. (While Putin readily quotes Klyuchevsky, I would be stunned to find Hrushevsky on his shelf.)
This budding Ukrainian national movement fused with another strain of social discontent in the empire — communism. During the Russian revolution of 1905, peasant revolts shook the Ukrainian countryside. And when the crew of the famed Battleship Potemkin rose up in Odessa, two of the mutiny’s leaders were Ukrainians, one of whom had helped found the Revolutionary Ukrainian Party. A brief loosening of the imperial noose followed, leading to a flourishing of the Ukrainian cause. Restrictions on publishing in Ukrainian language were lifted, and cultural organizations spread. That is until Pyotr Stolypin, the tsar’s prime and interior minister (and one of Putin’s heroes), tightened the screws on national movements again. Throughout its history, periods of Ukrainian national rebirth have spawned Russophile backlash.
In today’s eastern Ukraine, that backlash came swiftly — and with a push from Putin. (The irony is that few have done more to consolidate Ukrainian national identity than Putin himself.) Those who took up arms in those early days were not little green men; they were largely locals — veterans and factory workers, downtrodden and distraught. There may have been a layer of clandestine Russian agents directing the entire operation, but the men on the streets, at the checkpoints, and in the buildings bore little resemblance to the stoics in Crimea. This was not special ops, it was the people. Like the protestors around Lenin in Kharkiv, they felt themselves under assault. They sensed that their identity was in peril.
You can disagree. You can belittle the reasoning. But the fact remains: These men feel threatened enough to leave their wives and children and head to the front lines. Nobody takes such a decision lightly. The stakes are not abstract. Russian propaganda is noxious and powerful, no doubt, but like it any drug, it needs receptors. In the Donbass, they proved simple to find.
As the funeral service got underway, I stood beside the church with a pocket of these fighters, men in motley uniforms, with mismatched weapons. They answered to a middle-aged man, Yuri, who commanded respect because he served four years in Afghanistan during the Soviet war there. Yuri and his crew led the seizure of Slavyansk’s police station on April 12, an act that helped make this otherwise sleepy town the epicenter of the separatist movement for a time. The Donbass, Yuri told me, is “special.”
It’s true — the Donbass has long played a special role in Ukraine’s ill-fated attempts at independence. When the 1917 revolution brought the Tsarist empire crashing down into civil war, Ukraine underwent its own tumultuous metamorphosis. Nationalists seized the moment to declare a Ukrainian People’s Republic. Hrushevsky became a founding father (his image is on the current 50-Hrivnya bill). Ukraine attempted to determine its borders, detaching itself at once from both Russia and Poland, fighting Europe’s Central Powers and the rising Soviet Union. Then, like now, the masters in Moscow had their own plans. Eastern Ukraine, with its Russified urban and industrial centers, became a front for the Bolsheviks to destabilize and eventually subsume Ukraine’s national aspirations.
Unable to take Kiev initially, Bolshevik supporters set up their own republics in country’s east. The Kremlin, at one point, sent in troops under the guise of the so-called Ukrainian Soviet Republic, headquartered in Kharkiv.
And then denied that it had done so. The Soviet Commissar of Foreign Affairs, Georgy Chicherin, in a letter to the Kiev government, used language eerily similar to that coming from today’s Russian officials:
“We must advise you that your information concerning the advance of our troops into the territory of the Ukraine does not correspond with the facts. The military units which you have perceived are not ours. There is no army of the Russian Soviet Republic on Ukrainian territory. The military operations taking place on Ukrainian territory involve the army of the Directory and the army of Piatakov. Between the Ukraine and Soviet Russia there are at present no armed conflicts.”
A few days after the funeral for the men killed on Easter, I went to see Yuri near his base in Slovyansk. He had a crew of locals filling sandbags and building a new checkpoint on the outskirts of town, working all day. “Look at these ‘separatists’ yourself — it’s simple people,” Yuri said. Ukrainian authorities had been dropping fliers on the city, instructing locals on how to behave in areas where “separatists” and “terrorists” were active. They read, in part, “All separatists and terrorists are not peaceful citizens, they are marginals, criminals, and drug addicts.” This did little to endear the new authorities in Kiev to their countrymen in the Donbass. In fact, many of the “separatists and terrorists” were fairly ordinary people with families and neighbors and friends. At the outset, their goals were amorphous. Even amongst themselves, the rebels bickered over what future they wanted — a Ukrainian one, a Russian one, or some undefined independence?
Yuri, for his part, grew up in a town some twenty minutes down the road from Slavyansk. “I’m for Ukraine. I’m a Ukrainian, and I have a Ukrainian name,” he said. “But I don’t want to be in the Ukraine that has come to power — the junta.” For Yuri and his comrades, the word “junta” became a snappy stand-in for “people I don’t agree with.” His military service decades behind him, Yuri now has weight around his gut, and wrinkles on his forehead. “We’re Slavs. For centuries we’ve lived peacefully together with Russia, Belarus, and Ukraine in one family. Why tear apart these relationships? We are one people.”
Yuri came to run a small construction company in his hometown, where he stayed active in a local veterans’ organization. He watched with horror as the Soviet Union collapsed. He raised a daughter amidst the chaos of the 1990s. And he clung dearly to his beliefs. “We’re different people, western Ukraine and eastern Ukraine. They’re raised on the traditions of their forefathers, on the traditions of Sukhevich, Mazepa, Bandera. They believe those men to be gods, and we believe them to be killers. Western Ukraine was freed from Poland only in 1939. They have a completely different history, a different worldview.” Yuri gives orders with an officer’s bearing. He can be ruthless, in rhetoric and in deed. “If they kill one of us, ten will rise,” he says. He wears a small Turkish nazar bracelet, a gift from his niece, which he sometimes runs through his coarse fingers. “It helps me when I’m nervous.”
The divisions Yuri brings up do exist, though they’re not as simple as east and west. The contest, rather, is between emerging Ukrainian identities and ossified Russophile and Soviet ones. Between those who see themselves as essentially extensions of Russia, and those who, in the tradition of Shevchenko and Hrushevsky, believe themselves to be something fundamentally different.
Even after Ukraine became part of the Soviet Union in 1922, Ukrainian patriots pushed on. In fact, a policy of ‘Ukrainianization’ took hold during the relatively free 1920s, as Soviet nationality policy then followed Lenin’s internationalist instincts, seeing the growth of national identities as part of throwing off the imperial yoke. Schools began teaching widely in Ukrainian. Homegrown literary movements emerged. In these cultural spaces, the dream of independence lived on. Many of Ukraine’s leading writers advocated for communism, but with a distinct Ukrainian culture, one oriented toward the West. The group Vaplite, for example, used the slogan “Away from Moscow.”
This was a stretch for Stalin, who, once in power, hit Ukraine particularly hard. He moved first to crush the Ukrainian national movement, instituting Russification policies and repopulating Ukrainian cities with native Russians. Then the Holodomor famine killed millions of Ukrainians in the early 30s. And finally Stalin’s brutal purges sent any last shreds of a Ukrainian national consciousness underground.
They reemerged with Khrushchev’s thaw, and again Ukrainian writers began advocating for a national identity. Ivan Dzyuba wrote a scathing treatise called “Internationalism or Russification?” and criticized the Soviet regime for not-so-secretly harboring “Great Russian nationalism” and “Great-Power ideas.” He lamented the suppression of Ukrainian history and culture, and called for a rally around the “national cause.” But Brezhnev soon put an end to all that talk.
These kinds of scars still haunt modern Ukraine. In 2007, Ukraine’s pro-Western president, Viktor Yushchenko, wrote an op-ed in The Wall Street Journal, appealing to Western governments to recognize the Holodomor famine as genocide: “Other parts of the Soviet Union suffered terribly as well. But in the minds of the Soviet leadership there was a dual purpose in persecuting and starving the Ukrainian peasantry. It was part of a campaign to crush Ukraine’s national identity and its desire for self-determination.” Russian officials and scholars vehemently opposed this stance, as did the leader of Ukraine’s pro-Russian Party of Regions, Viktor Yanukovych.
In the history of today’s war, May 2 will become a scar of its own.
That was the day when more than fifty pro-Russian protestors died in a fire in Odessa, trapped inside a burning building. (That event marked a point of no return for many rebels.) That was the day when the Ukrainian army began its siege of Slavyansk. (The interim Ukrainian government had been dabbling with a so-called “anti-terrorist operation” for weeks, but had yet to make any series advances.) That was the day when a column of tanks and troops arrived, and moved swiftly onto a hill where the town’s TV tower stood.
From this high point, the Ukrainians could shell nearly anywhere in the city. It became the source of their strength, and of much sorrow. That was the day when the killing started. It hasn’t really stopped since.
It is important to speak the names of the dead. Numbers scrub the human from the act, providing something sterile to measure against. (Yesterday: twelve killed, twenty-two wounded. Today: two killed, twelve wounded. Not so bad.) But names spoken aloud have pitch, cadence, timbre. I will never forget the first time I heard the name Irina Boevets.
We stood in a stairwell.
A whisper: I-ri-na.
A hoarse breath.
A slackening: Bo-e-vetsss.
His eyes were still red. He still wore sea green hospital scrubs. His wife was dead.
“Her name was Irina. Irina Boevets,” Sergey said. “She was on the balcony. Our next-door neighbor was there on her balcony close by. They can see each other there, and were probably just chatting. I closed the car and went up the stairs… A neighbor… said she heard a crack. A little clap. Probably more like a smack. Like the sound of someone falling.”
On May 5th, 2014, a single bullet struck the left side of Irina Boevets’s head. She was not a fighter. She was a schoolteacher, thirty years old. She was at home, more than a mile away from the battle that was taking place on the outskirts of Slovyansk. If she had taken one step to the side — a difference of half a foot — she might still be alive.
This is the math of war. It has exponential power, for every fallen one affects tens, even hundreds, and ripples through time. One generation passes its tales and its prejudices on to the next. This was clear during the Victory Day parade in Slovyansk, when World War II veterans received a heroes’ welcome. Their legacy carries unprecedented weight in the Russian world. I met Romazan Mukhamad-Galiev there. At ninety, he still donned his navy uniform. Children gathered to take photos and hand him fists full of roses.
This year’s celebration meant more than ever he said. This year, “an enemy appeared outside again: the Banderas.”
No one figure is as fraught in Ukraine these days as Stepan Bandera. His portrait hung for months on the Maidan. Putin, meanwhile, has invoked the “ideological heirs of Bandera” to build his alternate reality, in which Kiev has been taken by neo-Nazis.
Born before the revolution in Ukraine’s west, Bandera became a fierce nationalist. He ran a group called the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists, which declared war against all countries that controlled ethnic Ukrainian lands, putting him at odds with Poland, the USSR, and Germany. But he ultimately allied with the Nazis — most scholars say because it seemed the most expedient way to attain Ukrainian independence. The Nazis, though, eventually took Ukraine, and tossed Bandera into a concentration camp once he had ceased being useful to them. He died later, in Munich, poisoned at the hands of the KGB. Like Mazepa before him, he became a hero to Ukraine’s nationalist crowd, and a pariah to Russians.
At the Slavyansk Victory Day parade, Romazan repeated, with no hint of irony, “We have to fight the Banderas.” The children looked on, wide-eyed, like someone was telling a ghost story.
Of course, not everyone believed that the fascists were on the march again. At one point I came upon a group of men cutting down a tree. The ringleader wore a red work suit, and looked like a figure torn from the pages of Soviet propaganda. I thought they wanted to build a barricade, but they explained otherwise: This tree, said one, has been ill for years, but the old city government was too incompetent to deal with it. Now, with the old authorities gone and the new ones preoccupied, they were taking the chance to handle it themselves. “Regular people don’t care who comes to power, we just want this all to end,” red-suited Denis said. His friend Aleksei chimed in: “I’ve seen Europe. I don’t want to go back to Russia.” The men gathered there spoke with disdain of their peers in the militia. “I see my classmates at the barricades sometimes,” said Denis. “To be honest, they’re the ones who haven’t achieved anything in life.”
The divisions did largely break down along socioeconomic (and educational) lines. Those with more to lose had less interest in playing war. For many in eastern Ukraine, the movement offered something they had long been missing: meaning. The Donbass is a place where people toil to no end. Being a rebel gave an underemployed factory worker a sense of purpose, all the more so when the cause was infused with history.
But behind the mask of patriotism and glory, the rebel regime operated with brutal impunity. A shadowy Muscovite named Igor Girkin took control of the movement’s military wing throughout eastern Ukraine. Girkin, who goes by the alias Strelkov, or ‘the shooter,’ served in Russia’s security services, and fought in nearly every post-Soviet conflict from Transnistria to Serbia to Chechnya. His revanchist views align with a certain strain of Russian nationalism that has become increasingly powerful throughout the Ukrainian crisis.
Under Strelkov and his successors, kidnappings, murder, and torture have become commonplace in the breakaway Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics. The basement of the security services building in Slovyansk became a notorious dungeon, housing dozens of prisoners in squalid conditions. While the rebels demonstrated a formidable capacity for destruction, they did little to build the new life they so desired.
They held a sham referendum in the Donbass, a vote at gunpoint, and declared their independence on May 11th. Together they called themselves Novorossiya, a revived name for lands conquered by Catherine the Great centuries ago.
The Ukrainians held an election too, though not in Novorossiya. They picked a chocolate baron, Petro Poroshenko, as president on May 25th. They cheered their independence. Little did they know, the struggle had just begun. Within days, a bloody battle for the Donetsk airport broke out.
The Russians began arriving in droves. How exactly they got there, no one really knows. Were they explicitly sent across the border? Or were they merely waved through? Were they volunteers or mercenaries? Chechens or “real” Russians? Most would call themselves “volunteers,” there to help their brothers. At the time, this rung true — it was a few months still before regular Russian troops began operating brazenly inside eastern Ukraine. Crimea wasn’t enough; Russia would do whatever it took to keep Ukraine from breaking off of the Slavic family tree.
One of the rebel leaders, a lanky dude with untrimmed stubble named Sergey, approached a few of us journalists on the terrace of our hotel a few days after the airport battle. “A convoy is leaving for the border tomorrow.” He looked harried. “With what?” His camouflage hung loose. “Bodies. Russian bodies.”
The next day, as they stacked coffins outside the morgue, I felt a hand on my shoulder. I turned to see “Medved,” the Bear, a rebel who must weigh more than 300 pounds. Tattoos spill out of his sleeves and down his arms. He wears dark circular sunglasses a la John Lennon. He keeps his shirt unbuttoned at the top. From a necklace hangs a giant bear tooth, still sharp at the edges. His eyes, though, are kind. “Once this is over, we’ll go for a beer,” he liked to say.
Look to your right, he told me. I saw Yuri, incognito in a black leather jacket and black aviators. We recognized each other with knowing nods, and walked away from the coffins, around a wall, into a clearing. He had disappeared for weeks, I was sure he had been killed. Where the hell have you been, what happened? He said something about being taken prisoner, four broken ribs, and not feeling pain. (I wanted to say it was only a matter of time, but there are things one does not say to a rebel commander on his territory.) Then, a smile. Something about trust. A scowl. Something about fascists and juntas, loyalty and Russianness. Something in the language of war. It is a reductive language, making phantoms of foes, and foes of phantoms.
On the other wide of the wall, two rows of empty coffins rested in a shady grove. A truck idled, and morticians loaded bodies, some of them draped in blue and yellow cloth. The side of the truck said, in French, “Fresh Products.” From the morgue, the convoy left for an ice cream factory on the outskirts of town — the public facilities couldn’t handle that many corpses, so the rest were stashed in a commercial refrigerator. Cookie dough, chocolate swirl, headless rebel.
A chubby woman in camouflage controlled the factory gates. She had peroxide blonde hair and a beady stare. When she finally let us through, we found nine coffins in the loading bay. They all bore gold crosses and the Donetsk People’s Republic flag. The bodies had been packed in black plastic trash bags. Shrapnel wounds laced legs and faces with deep gashes. A fighter from Russia’s North Ossetia region watched over the process. He carried an AK-74 and two pistols, just in case. “Our grandfathers and grandmothers fought fascism, and I wanted to fight fascists too,” he said by way of an explanation for how he found himself overseeing a covert repatriation mission in an eastern Ukrainian ice cream factory.
Next door, a family mourned in the “Penguin Café.” The wake was for Mark Zverev, a local who died alongside the Russians. Another big woman, Svetlana, with short dark hair, held court on the patio. Her voice was deep and gravely and as she spoke, her earrings of blue amethyst fluttered: “He died fighting for our bright future, for our faith.” Mark’s daughter was there too, staring at the ground: “He told us, ‘What, will I just sit and watch while they kill our people, our children? I will defend you’.” A family friend shook his head in disbelief: “We are brotherly peoples. My family came to Ukraine from Russia.”
In these comments lies the essence of entire war, a war that’s already taken some 3,700 lives. Future and faith, they and us, brothers fighting, Russia and Ukraine. A millennia-long struggle for identity has come to a head. Two nations riding fundamentally incompatible historical narratives have crashed. The stakes could not be higher, and not simply because Russia fears NATO expansion, but because Russia fears losing its brother, losing its family, and thus losing itself.
In the loading bay, a man painted the side of the truck: two red crosses and “200” in big black brush strokes — Russian code for casualties. We set out for the border as dusk fell. The truck stopped near Lenin Square to pick up one last coffin, and with that, we were off.
Just outside the city, lush fields and dense woods obscured the black soil of the bloodlands. Our driver, a local doctor, Dima, remarked: “It’s so green, fresh, alive, and then… a truck full of dead bodies.” Flowers — small yellow buds — lined the road. We came upon a Ukrainian army checkpoint, the 25th Airborne Brigade. They had no protocol for a coffin rig. “I’ve never seen anything like this,” one soldier said, AK at the ready.
When we hit the border at Uspenka, the guards asked the truck driver — a Donetsk local — for his passport. In Russia and Ukraine, everyone has two passports, a domestic and an international. The driver hadn’t taken his international passport with him. In the past, he said, the crossing there had been treated as domestic.
So they checked more documents and made hurried phone calls, and eventually the border guards lit up the cargo bed with flashlights. They waved the bodies through as night fell. In the sky above, Ursa Major rose.
History is at once linear and cyclical. The universe is expanding outwards into the stars, but at the same time the earth spins on its axis. So too does humankind move forward while remaining subject to the same old rhythms.
This summer, Russia and Ukraine slipped into a dark cycle. The means have been modern, but the shape primordial, harkening back to the earliest Slavic chronicles.
“If ye abide in amity with one another, God will dwell among you, and will subject your enemies to you, and ye will live at peace. But if ye dwell in envy and dissension, quarreling with one another, then ye will perish yourselves and bring to ruin the land of your ancestors, which they won at the price of great effort.”
After the election in May, President Poroshenko went to Normandy, where he met Putin and paid tribute to the D-Day dead. They shook hands in crisp suits and spoke of peace. Some 270 had died in Ukraine already. Then three tanks slipped across the Russian border. Unwrapped, unsigned gifts.
The city of Mariupol, to the south, soon fell to Kiev’s guard. The miners had emerged from their shafts and demanded order there, and no one messes with the miners. The separatists fled, bleeding.
Then the separatists brought down a Ukrainian plane, killing forty-nine. Russia cut off gas supplies. A ceasefire followed, though the fighting never stopped. “Bakh–bakh–bakh,” they said to each other, speaking in shells. Russian troops amassed at the border. Putin again spoke of peace and smiled his sly smile. Ukraine signed a treaty with the EU. “Bakh–bakh–bakh,” said the separatists. “We will attack and liberate our land,” Poroshenko said to all who would listen.
Slavyansk fell, and the rebels retreated. Donetsk became the new center. More Bakh–bakh–bakh, bigger Bakh–bakh–bakh. Thirty dead one day, twenty-three the next. Eleven here, sixteen there. Civilian and soldiers, rebels and the government — it all became indiscriminate.
Then Malaysia Airlines Flight 17. Two hundred ninety eight at once. A field, sunflowers, bodies. “Hell”, some called it, and they were right.
But this did not stop the fighting. Instead it only accelerated. One thousand and then two thousand total. Now they say three thousand maybe even four.
Strelkov left, the Tsar arrived. The Ukrainians advanced, the rebels panicked. Putin growled, Poroshenko shrunk. Lenin finally fell in Kharkiv. A new ceasefire was called, and a new ceasefire crumbled. Bakh–bakh-BAKH.
These are the narratives of bygone years regarding the origin of the land of Rus’, the first princes of Kiev, and from what source the land of Rus’ had its beginning.
Let us accordingly begin…
Noah Sneider is a writer and artist. He works as a journalist based in Ukraine, contributing to The Economist, the New York Times, The New Republic, and others.
Author’s note: This piece would not have been possible without the boundless patience and support of The Big Roundtable and Medium. I owe a special thanks to Mike, Michael and Anna, without whom this project simply would not exist. I am also deeply grateful to several contemporary scholars whose work influenced the conception and content of this essay, especially Igor Torbakov, Serhii Plokhy, and Dmitri Furman.