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Nothing lies beneath

Hypochondria and the victory of doubt

I didn’t lose my body in a single moment. There was no violent explosion or horrific accident that reduced it to nothing. The loss occurred gradually over time: pieces stolen without me knowing, gently pulled away while I wasn’t looking. It never occurred to me that it needed protecting, that I should have been guarding layers of skin, cartilage, bone. When I finally realised, almost all of it had already been taken, was somewhere too distant to reclaim. I still have the memory of a body — enough to keep walking, talking, breathing — but this layer feels flimsy, uncertain. Without a body, the real problem is doubt, the impossibility of ever really knowing. A body is not a home but a root connecting you to something tangible, and when that root is taken away, truths and untruths start to look the same, swirl together into the same feeling. Without a body you begin to accept total distance, the existence of space in everything, and in this space a new world emerges where even the things that make you, you become vague simplifications.

I’m choking on air that’s too thick. Unseen fingers are compressing my throat. She tells me to breathe and not to worry but I’m incapable of either of those things. I look at my hands and feel anger at how they move without me, how they ignore instruction. The choking makes it impossible to drink, to swallow, to talk without pain, and when she sees me turn a darker colour, she gets my shoes and says we’re leaving. Outside it’s cold and the rain feels good on my skin. There’s more air away from enclosed walls and this easing makes me want to turn back, to return home and not bother anyone. I realise we’re performing for each other: enacting some weird game that’s not about the symptoms but my ability to give them a name: to put them in a box assigned either mind or body. Standing outside the hospital I feel the same relief as always, not fear or apprehension but the freedom of a coming answer. Hours later, when the doctor finally sees me, the pain is gone, the hands have left without leaving a shape. Light floods my mouth and in this illumination is the truth that I can go home, that I must stop worrying. We are tired when it’s over. She takes off her make-up and goes straight to sleep. I lay beneath the dark, moving ceiling, and though I know I won’t wake her, I want desperately to tell someone the force of that grip is back, I can’t swallow, the fighting has begun again.

I read about the death of Arkady Babchenko online. The story said he was shot three times in the back as he left his apartment to buy bread. The head of Ukraine’s police force said the killing was targeted and two motives were being considered: his “professional work and civil position”. The story described Babchenko as a war correspondent and critic of the Russian government, opposing Vladimir Putin’s annexation of Crimea and Russian activities in Syria. The killing was the latest murder of a dissident in Kiev, with the capital becoming a refuge for critics of Putin’s regime and a scene of assassinations. Police had yet to name a suspect, but the article included a sketch of a bearded man in a baseball hat. Babchenko, 41, died in the ambulance to the hospital, a government official said. He was found bleeding by his wife. The story ended with a message he posted to Facebook the day he died. It was about an incident during the Crimean war when a general denied him permission to travel on a helicopter which was later shot down. “Fourteen people were killed,” he wrote. “I was lucky. Today turns out to be the day of my second birth.”

Babchenko wrote a memoir about his experiences in the Chechen wars. The book was reviewed as “exceptional and important… transcending reportage… succeeding in turning terrible war into art”. Babchenko writes about the everyday realities of war: the dismembered bodies, the hunger and boredom, the nightly beatings by older soldiers. In the book’s introduction, he says the writing was done compulsively, without conscious intent — in the metro, late at night, on assignment for one of Moscow’s dailies. He was not writing a book but squeezing the war out of him, and this process meant everything expressed on the pages was true, the truth almost writing itself. However, his truth comes with a caveat. A few stories are compiled from several episodes compressed into a single period and shifted in time. All the characters are real people with real names, but sometimes they contain two or three people, two or three wars blended into one. This is still real, he insists, still an accurate reflection of what happened, these combined memories somehow converging into a truth that’s closer to the war than any individual telling.

I was eight or nine when the red marks started appearing on my skin. I remember sitting on the floor during assembly and seeing them on my hands, the helplessness of trying and failing to rub them away. They were unusual because they were insignificant. You had to look carefully or they faded into the general terrain of skin. My sisters had a mirror in their room — an outlined sun that produced reflections instead of heat — and after school I used it to inspect my neck and face to see if they were spreading. I had no way of understanding what the marks meant, whether they were sinister or harmless, but I had a childish intuition they would destroy me, somehow joining together to trap me in their feeling. Around this time a boy in my year stopped coming to school. He played football at lunchtimes and gave me chocolate to be on his team. The teachers said he needed our prayers. Before class they recited incarnations of healing, and we held our hands together, uncomfortable in that silence, in our brief stillness. They never told us what we were praying for, what exactly was wrong, but I knew it was the marks: he had been marked and I was next, the prayers were for me too. Years later this obsession seems like a dream, like it happened to another person, and yet the marks remain on my hands, arms, chest, in the corner of my eyes, and the same feeling survives too, only separated from the marks, burrowed so deep it doesn’t remember the surface.

The simulations began appearing on reddit in September last year. A single user — deepfakes — developed them using a machine-learning algorithm, his home computer and public videos. They drew attention for their unnerving accuracy, for how closely they resembled the actions they attempted to recreate. The women assumed other women’s expressions, their faces forced to mirror the unseen faces guiding them beneath. The videos became so popular an entire sub-reddit was dedicated to them, attracting tens of thousands of subscribers. One of the first features a famous actress emerging from a swimming pool. The audio is obscured by the sound of wind whipping across a microphone, the disturbance becoming more intense as her breath shortens. All of her body is open as she spreads for the camera, but her face is still fighting the code, the outline blurring, her eyes filled with static. She touches around it first, slowly tracing the shape with her fingers, but quickly slips them inside as the mapping gets too intense. When it’s very close, her eyes are looking right at the screen. She is crying out, bringing it closer and chasing it away. When it finally breaks, her legs and hips buckle, the convulsions stretch out her stomach, and she holds this expression that’s difficult to read, either pleasure or panic at being submerged in someone else’s feeling.

In Kiev, when the chestnut trees bloom, you can walk from one side of the city to the other without leaving their shadow. For certain residents these shadows go further than the scope of the trees, extend into every area of their lives, even in winter when the leaves are gone, when the trees are stripped back to bone. Most of them acted with the knowledge that this was their future: that by speaking out they would be chased by others, and eventually their delusions and nightmares of others if they lived long enough. In Kiev gunshots and explosions have the freedom to reach into every moment, on the busiest streets in broad daylight. They are taken in cocktail bars and art galleries, a few shots in the back and the whole ordeal over. Sometimes the morning traffic has to inch past cars turned into kilns, the fire producing entirely new objects, erasing windows and doors, merging cells with metal. And so Arkady Babchenko’s murder was greeted with sadness but not surprise. It began a process that was familiar: the candlelight vigils, the memorials adorned with flowers, the government accusations and finger-pointing on social media. People gathered in the courtyard of his apartment to pay their respects, began fundraising to support his adopted children. Just outside the city, on a hill above the Dnipro River, a cluster of gold-domed churches and cathedrals hide a labyrinth of caves and passages. Amid the low ceilings and candle light are the preserved bodies of monks, some more than 900 years old. Their bones are still attached to flesh, their faces have survived becoming skulls. The old belief was that God was protecting them, allowing them to avoid the humiliation of decomposition. Over time this belief has become more nuanced. Archaeologists now believe there’s something about the city’s climate which slows decay, which, in certain places, allows the dead to maintain a fragile connection to life.

The fighting was worst in Grozny in the summer of 1996. The Chechens entered the capital in August and captured it in a few hours, cutting off entire companies from support, surrounding them in isolated pockets. The bright days were the worst: snipers prefer cloudless skies, the sun makes everything sharp and silvery, puts every object in focus. Ammunition and food were low and the losses were so high that each regiment formed a burial detachment. At the beginning they came to Arkady in pretty silver bags, an impenetrable layer between him and the chaos inside. But as the fighting continued, as bullet and shells hollowed out the cover of buildings, bodies started arriving without bags, and even worse without the structure that made them bodies. He handled them in heaps, in every state of matter: torn, charred, swollen, in his arms, scooped in shovels. They stuck to his uniform and skin and there was never enough water to wash them away. It didn’t take long for his initial horror and pity to disappear, for the bodies to exist without emotion. He wrote later that he stopped noticing living people, he hardly saw them. Even the recruits freshly flown in from training had a terminal pallor, appeared to him as younger versions of the pieces scattered on the backs of trucks. Intense exposure had induced in him a growing disillusionment with the restrictive categories of life and death, and from this point on the dead were terribly alive to him, and the alive were just as dead.

It went away for a long time but returned when I was twenty-two. I was working for a content agency in a crumbling office block that was half-destroyed by the IRA. My desk was on the seventh floor and the city was just across the water. The first time it happened I knew I was dying: there were so many heartbeats I tried to hold on to the walls. It was the beginning of an understanding that there were parts of me I couldn’t control, areas that would never be legible. And this illegibility expanded as my early twenties became my mid-twenties, as my mid-twenties ticked towards the end of that decade. The mystery moved from my heart to my stomach, from my lungs to my brain. It was a metastasis of doubt, the emergence of powerful strains of doubt away from the initial site of doubting. I needed every scan and test available to show the workings of my body, to fill the widening gaps in my knowledge. When I turned thirty there was almost nothing left of my life but this desire to make myself invisible, to perceive the absolute whole of myself instantaneously. I worked alone in the house every day, and when I wasn’t working I worried constantly about the meaning of sensations essential to being alive.

The hardest battle is how it moves, how it changes shape once you’ve grabbed hold of it. Most suffering is like this: when it becomes too familiar it lose its power. But this loss is not a signal for recovery: that receding concept which once promised to return my old life intact. Instead the suffering flows into a different part of the body, moves from a choking feeling to a stabbing pain in the chest. And it’s this movement which turns the body into a memory, which removes the idea of completeness forever, leaving behind an approximation, a phantom with an outline that doesn’t survive observation.

A few days before I turn thirty, driven by nostalgia and a desire for closure, I take the train back to my old office. I imagine feeling pain when I see it: like the building itself can harm me: the glass, the sharp architecture. But when I emerge from the station and cross the curved bridge across the quay, the building has disappeared, there’s only sky where it used to stand. I wasn’t expecting this loss, the past no longer there. My memories immediately feel less substantial, the colour draining away. Confused, I follow the footpath by the water until I reach a dead end. There used to be a bench here where I smoked roll-ups and tried to work out how to live with my symptoms. The bench is gone too, everything has been taken, and none of it feels like a realisation, neither a beginning nor an end. It is impersonal, anonymous. I don’t feel like crying or laughing or screaming my name into the water. On the horizon is a building site with men reduced by the distance. As I linger not quite ready to leave, I try and decipher whether they are tearing the structure down or building it up, eventually walking away when I decide it doesn’t make a difference.

Deepfakes are created using neural networks, computational models designed to replicate how brains process information. The networks are made out of thousands of nodes, arranged in specific layers, with each layer transforming the knowledge of the previous layer. They learn through a feedback process that compares desired output with actual output, adjusting connections based on these differences. While face-swapping technology has been available for years, this theft was always done programmatically, using video editing software. Neural networks are different because they don’t just cut out an image, retouch it, and insert it into another image; they recreate the image from scratch. The network requires thousands of images of both faces — the original face and the face you want to replace — and through a process of trial and error learns how to compress them into small representations. Finally, in an act of creation that’s difficult to comprehend, the network reconstructs the original input from these representations. The faces become so familiar the network can imagine them in any profile, can merge them in varied ways, can even hold the details of one face while giving it the expressions and movements of another. This is what gives the simulations an eerie realism: they’re not copies, they’re new attempts at life, approximations of our own approximations, and in this incompleteness more accurately reflecting the world of our perceptions.

At first the focus was on the women subjected to the simulations: the actresses forced to remove clothes they’d never worn, to show themselves to men they’d never met. The recreations have no time for consent, have no interest in the agency of those recreated. The women are reduced to sexual objects, held and taken in hotel rooms, the backseat of cars, against shower doors. The results are invasive, requiring them to fulfil someone else’s fantasy, to inhabit bodies they have no control over. But the implications of the simulations go beyond the individual, complicate the nature of evidence itself. The networks can falsify reality, can make people do and say things that are impossible to distinguish from ‘the real’. Writing in the Atlantic, Franklin Foer said that governments and institutions have, over generations, established a fragile consensus that there’s one way to describe the world, a common reality accessible to everyone through reason and empiricism. However, we exist in a world where our eyes routinely deceive us, where objects take on different shapes for different people, so Foer questions whether deepfakes will end this innocence, will be the final weight that collapses reality.

Arkady didn’t witness the crucifications himself: the stories reached him via friends in other battalions. The commander ordered his men to sweep a village which seemed wholly intact despite relentless shelling. When they reached the main square the men realised the structures they saw as houses from a distance were actually crosses holding up dead comrades. They had been nailed to the beams by their hands and each had a bullet in his chest. The commander had orders from headquarters to move out immediately so the battalion left the village as they found it, the men still crucified, none of the soldiers willing to look back. The story may be allegorical, the type told in war that gets exaggerated with each telling, but it affected Arkady deeply. He must have remembered it during the hours he was dead: when the paramedics lifted his body onto the stretcher, when the attempts at resuscitation failed, when he couldn’t stop shaking in the cold of the morgue. What was most disturbing about the story was not the manner of the deaths but the way the bodies endured the pain of crucifixion without the hope of the tomb. In those first few hours at the morgue, covered in harsh striplight and the news already reporting his death, a flicker of doubt must have taken hold in Arkady’s mind that he’d done the wrong thing, that like those bodies in the village he would be denied his chance at resurrection.

At the end of last year I was sick for months with flu-like symptoms. Most of December and November were spent alternating between fever and chills, my skin strangely sensitive, this charged current flowing beneath. The symptoms would peak after a few days and then gently recede, raising hopes of recovery, only to reappear, keeping me in their cycle. The doctor referred me to the hospital because it was unusual for someone my age to submit to illness for so long. At the hospital I got off at the wrong floor and found myself in the oncology ward, where the patients’ skin looked like tissue paper and my misdirection seemed meaningful, a premonition of a not too distant future. The nurse took my blood with a butterfly needle and I watched it fill two or three bottles, curious to see what had betrayed me. In my mind the results were decided, I was a character in a clichéd story nearing its end. When the doctor said my blood was clear I remember feeling like I’d been shaken awake, that I’d been asleep the whole time and was in a different morning. I went for a walk outside and everything seemed closer, the light the birds the movement of the trees, and though this feeling soon faded and the fever and chills returned, for that brief moment I revelled in certainty, the notion that the parts of the world which are surely mine — which grow as I grow, degrade as I degrade — were close and knowable.

The defining feature of these episodes is waiting, of being subjected to forces so overwhelming the only response is to wish for time itself to end. There’s no action that can lift me out of my symptoms because I cannot understand them, my body only exists as representation, as something to be read. And so I read endlessly, spend every waking hour reading and imagining what the story means. But this reading is also an act of creation: by reading I become the writer: I speak the thing into existence. This creates an impossible situation where the thought of a symptom becomes the symptom itself, where worrying about a heart attack transfigures into the pain of a heart attack. Some traditional cultures rely on songs to navigate the world, pass these songs on to their ancestors as maps of the environments around them. They believe the lyrics create the landscapes as they sing them — the landmarks, waterholes, depressions and peaks emerging from the words. These songlines help them travel vast distances, sing the world into existence, a world that has no fixed position or stable ground, the same world I endure as it’s continually remade around me.

They showed him how to fall as if he had been shot, put bullet holes in his sweatshirt, covered him in pig’s blood. The security service had planned the performance for a month, meticulously preparing the details since discovering the contract out on his life. Arkady initially wanted to run, felt this unbearable urge to pack up his belongings and take his family as far away as possible, to the North Pole if that represented freedom. But he also knew no distance would ever be enough, that even there he might one day wake up to snow falling in large, soft flakes and their bodies gone, lost under the permafrost. On the day of his assassination they made him fall again and again, wanting to get the crime scene exactly right. A make-up artist splashed blood over his body and took photos of his prone figure leaking colour over the floor. After his wife rang the police, they finally made him drink the blood, the bitter, iron taste swirling around his mouth, and this was the moment he died, both there and not there, inside the stained concrete and somewhere much further away, in the recesses of his apartment, in the windowsills and the light that makes them visible, in those wavelengths and the desperate silence of the room.

The cameras were rolling when Arkady made his way through the crowd of journalists to the lectern at the front of the press conference, pale death still covering his face. The briefing had been organised under the pretence of providing more information about the murder investigation, so there was an inhale of breath when he entered the room, a collective astonishment that eventually turned into applause. The head of the security service outlined the details of the sting operation — the links to Russia’s spy agency, the two suspects now in custody, the large quantity of weapons and explosives recovered — while Arkady stood behind him visibly tired, propping up his resuscitated body against a wall. When it was his turn to speak Arkady apologised to his friends and family but said he had no regrets. I did my job, he said. I’m still alive. A video went viral of the moment his colleagues at the TV station watched him come back to life, some of them climbing the tables in joy, others gently crying. In the offices of another newspaper a memorial bouquet was dismantled and each woman sat at her desk with a rose. Yet dissenting voices were already beginning to question what the elaborate hoax had achieved, whether it was really necessary, how the deception would further murk the smoke-and-mirrors conflict between Russia and the Ukraine. In Moscow, the press conference was covered on the evening news, and as the anchor introduced the footage, he revelled in its confirmation of the impossible, telling viewers with a grin: let’s hear from the dead man now.

Most of the anxiety around deepfakes has focused on their potential to disrupt our understanding of events occurring, or not occurring, in the moment. As the technology is refined and automated, making it available to everyone, editorials are warning of a future where malicious agents can destabilise society by constructing skewed versions of reality: releasing videos of presidents declaring nuclear war, soldiers murdering civilians, health officials announcing pandemics, and these videos being indistinguishable from the real thing. This foreshadows a world where all information is unreliable, where nothing escapes untarnished, and though this forecast seems dire, deepfakes have the potential to corrode our senses even further, dissolving certainties all the way back to memory. Speaking to Vox, cognitive psychologist Elizabeth Loftus said deepfakes have the power to manipulate the past by seeding the population with false memories that are more powerful than the images already stored. Imagine not being able to protect anything inside, not her voice, his face — all of it vulnerable to being replaced. It seems outlandish but memory is open to corruption. Every act of recollection is an act of recreation: we relieve the event that caused the memory, emotionally relate to it, and then store a new version. This means that at the very moment of recollection our memories become unstable, are completely exposed, leaving them at risk of annihilation from images that promise to tell the past with more clarity.

When I try and describe the history of my body there’s already this void waiting, this panicked feeling of grasping for words. I’m ready to put into language whatever comes to the surface, but the page remains blank, I can’t picture what happened. At first I thought this was an unconscious attempt at protection, a defence against trauma, leaving only landscapes, all the actions disappeared. I can see my Mum’s garden and the canal just beyond the fence where plastic bottles collected, forming dirty sheets of ice that looked strong enough to support my weight. I can hear the cars parked outside at night with their doors open and mix-tapes bringing out the police. These parts of my memories are so vivid I can recall them to the smallest detail. The laughing gas canisters in the gutters, the woozy motion of cranes in the wind, the way the narrow-boats shined like ships on long journeys when the sunsets were red. But when I try and remember my body during those years a blurred shape emerges that I can’t get behind. I know the basic outline of events, this reverberates, but when I try to get to who I was, what it felt like, everything disintegrates.

In his autobiography, Arkady tells the story of a morning on guard duty and seeing a ghostly figure walk through a minefield. He is huddled against the wall of a trench, shoulders numb from the cold and the weight of his flak jacket, when he sees a man striding through the mist, the figure so out-of-place he closes and opens his eyes to check he’s not dreaming. The man moves soundlessly, almost floating above the haze, and Arkady is so transfixed by the image that his voice doesn’t work: there’s not enough strength in his body to shout a warning. Instead he watches, both afraid and unwilling to miss the striding figure’s moment of suffering. But nothing happens, the man reaches the end of the minefield and disappears, leaving the tripwires untouched. The man’s singularity was an essential part of the memory because the soldiers never went anywhere alone, only in groups and with armoured vehicles if possible. Arkady writes of dreaming of this lone figure for years after the war, silently walking above the mist, the frozen feeling coming back even on summer nights. However, in his later journalism, the story changes through multiplication, a single body becomes two, a nurse and a young doctor from the medical battalion. Arkady describes them as moving soundlessly again, disappearing from the same view, the mist still creeping across the depression, but this time the man whispering something to his lover as she listens attentively, two bodies holding hands when before there was only one.

Ukraine has become a country of resurrections, Arkady’s body the latest to rise after a short death. Terrible events occur and are then rewound, the light somehow pushed back to its starting place. Lawyers collapse under gunshots in front of hulking Soviet apartment blocks but return to court the next day still breathing. Politicians are mangled in car bombs — their bodies still seated, covered in sheets — but emerge for reporters flashing their best smiles. Women are murdered in front of cameras for jealous husbands but go on existing outside those pictures, living without the weight of older images. Officials defend these dramatizations by pointing to their effectiveness, to the evidence they produce. After Arkady’s murder, the organiser of the plot was arrested and a list of 30 targets was seized, preventing further deaths. Responding to criticism of the operation, a Ukrainian minister said a small measure of pain is sometimes necessary to prevent a much larger suffering. He cited Sherlock Holmes as someone who understood that grief can be twisted into a tool to uncover the truth, a type of grief that creates something in its loss. In The Final Problem, Holmes travels to Switzerland with Watson following an attempt on his life. One day they decide to walk to the Reichenbach Falls, a beauty spot with sheer rock on one side and disappearing water on the other. As the sound of water intensifies, a boy appears and tells Watson a woman at the hotel needs a doctor. Watson makes the long walk back to the hotel but finds no sick woman. Realising he’s been tricked, he rushes back to the falls, where Holmes has disappeared and two sets of footprints walk to the ledge without returning.

The problem with recreation is what it does to the thing being simulated: by inviting doubt into the object of recreation you make both the original and the reproduction artificial. As details of Arkady’s resurrection spread around the world, the news triggered widespread criticism, with Arkady accused of discrediting journalism and handing Russia a propaganda victory. One man left with his life intact, but the plausibility of death was weaker through his flirtation with that silence. Arkady was unrepentant, telling reporters the Ukraine was in a state of war and unorthodox approaches were required. However, the Kremlin is nihilistic, interested only in raising questions about the subjectivity and unreliability of information, not so much wanting to convince people of its worldview, but making them realise all worldviews are hopelessly distorted. Lying is Russia’s message because if nothing is true then anything is possible. After annexing Crimea from the Ukraine in 2014, Putin spoke about reuniting the rest of Novorossiya with the motherland. Russian media began printing maps of its geography, school textbooks taught children its history, and news agencies covered local stories. The only thing missing was Novorossiya itself. The term was borrowed from tsarist history when it represented a different geographic space. Nobody in south-east Ukraine had realised they were living in Novorossiya because the map had been redrawn.

The potential for deepfakes to fundamentally alter our conception of the real and unreal has been described as the end of civilization, but this end remains at a distance, a terrible future on hold while the technology is still limited. At first glance the videos appear seamless, perfect representations of events that never occurred, but if you look carefully there are still ways to separate the authentic from the inauthentic, hidden clues to be detected. Researchers have discovered that the ciphers don’t blink enough, stare at us for a note too long. Machine-generated faces contain this flaw because training datasets lack images of faces with their eyes closed, generating expressions that desire to stay open. People blink on average 17 times a minute, or 0.28 times a second, so any variation in this figure can be used as evidence of manipulation, of a neural network in the act of creation. However, knowledge of this flaw represents the beginning of a future where the flaw no longer exists — the weight of connections always adjusting to account for their limitations. Blinking still secures us to the idea of proof, to the belief that evidence can establish truth, but even this bridge will soon be erased in a future where all definitions will have to merge, where everything must be considered either original or duplicate.

Near the end of the second Chechen war, when there are no more rebel groups left to fight, when the horror of Grozny is mapped over with neat concrete pavements and manicured lawns, Arkady takes a fishing trip around Chernorechye, a suburb of the city where the rivers are packed with metre-long trout. He brings along a nurse named Olga whose smile is a reminder that somewhere far away people are still capable of love. They drive around the lakes and streams for hours carrying with them this giddy feeling of being on holiday, of being free from the things they’ve seen. Back towards the city there’s a dam that divides the landscape between flowing water on one side and a dry riverbed on the other. They both want to walk across it — to see Grozny’s division from the centre — but at the edge they stumble into the bodies of two women. Arkady recognises them as Russian defectors who became snipers for the rebels. The women lay next to each other, their long hair spread over the tarmac, and Arkady remembers one is called Olga. They stand over the woman for what seems like a long time, and Olga’s attention is focused entirely on her namesake, she pays no attention to the other body. Arkady sees these two women, these two Olgas, the living and the dead, and can barely tell them apart. Both are around the same age, both have cheeks hollowed out by hunger, both are holding the same expression. It was as if Olga was standing above herself — like in those dreams when you see yourself from outside, when you rise to the ceiling without your body — and this mirror becomes so unbearable she begs him to take her home.

Vladislav Surkov is often described as the author of modern Russia. He’s been deputy head of the presidential administration, deputy prime minister, and assistant to the president on foreign affairs. In a recent lecture at the London School of Economics, he listed his interests as ideology, media, religion, foreign relations and modern art, but really his life has been dedicated to the construction and deconstruction of narrative. He trained as a theatre director in Moscow before working in PR: giving up one type of storytelling for another. As the USSR disintegrated, Surkov ran a major TV network, where his ability to repackage experience into the master narrative of the time drew the attention of Boris Yeltsin, then Vladimir Putin. He is famous for implementing Russia’s sovereign democracy — a stage-managed society maintained through multiplicity, through shape-shifting so the state becomes every reality. Surkov realised that truth had been made irrelevant by individuality — by the importance we give to our perspective — and to thrive in this new world you needed to become everything, to hold every view regardless of consistency. Surkov funded human rights NGOs and the nationalist movements that opposed them, provocative art exhibitions and the Orthodox fundamentalists who saw them as a threat to traditional values. In Surkov’s Russia, the state is all powerful because it is indefinable: the power comes from being outside of description.

Most postmodern texts have only been translated into Russian over the last decade. These texts deny the redemption of man through rationality, weaken the solidity of knowledge, dispel the idea that any story can be true for everyone (even science, even technology). Words can’t be used to express anything but the collection of experiences that makeup our inner lives, which are constantly changing, which are never stable enough to form an identity. Surkov likes to reference these texts in interviews, positioning his actions as a real-world application of their ideas. He speaks most often about Jean Baudrillad’s Simulacra and Simulation, published in 1981, later inspiring The Matrix. Baudrillad says that modern life is defined by simulations — by copies, by representations, by signs. In the society he describes, everything is duplicated, built on flawed perceptions of flawed perceptions, this all-consuming, organic deepfake we treat as real. Everything is constructed, our delusion encoded all the way to DNA. The Matrix imagines us plugged into machines while the real world goes on somewhere else — cities of lives sleeping, bodies suspended in amniotic fluid — but Baudrillad disliked the film, claimed it misrepresented his ideas. What is essential to understand about Simulacra and Simulation is that there is no real thing, the simulations that make up our world are not hiding something real underneath, this idea is merely part of the simulated reality we’ve created for ourselves. The whole system is weightless — the simulation doesn’t conceal the truth but is the truth — and this weightlessness consigns us to being copies, empty bodies roaming the ghost of places that never existed.

If behavioural illnesses are expressions of inner pain and turmoil the shape of that suffering is irrelevant — what matters is communicating the pain, not the route it takes to be released. It’s easy to look at our symptoms of mental health, the way our society processes trauma, and see them as natural, physical realities rather than cultural phenomena. But language sets the limits of expression, not the other way around. This means that the structure of my pain says as much about you as it does about me. Eating disorders and post-traumatic stress are unheard of in some cultures because they are not reinforced by others, there is no way for the behaviour to take hold. In the same way, the memory of my body can only exist in a postmodern world where truth has become metaphor, where perspective has no centre, where our hearts have learned to beat without us. Sometimes I search online for what’s next, where we go from this world without answers. The question seems like a paradox but I know I’ll keep looking. Not for the world’s sake but for my body, because I can’t bear the idea that my ashes will be scattered in two places.

In the short time between Arkady’s death and resurrection the hallways of his apartment block were filled with colleagues going door to door asking neighbours what they heard. The morning was cold and the frost on the windows blocked enough of the light to give everything a funeral quality, transferring his death into life. At first the doors only opened a fraction, revealing partial faces fearing a returning killer, but as more police and journalists arrived the residents unlatched their locks and joined the mourners outside. Most wanted to have something to remember, details that could fill the notepads and tape recorders waiting for their memories. They lit candles and recited prayers — rewound their minds to investigate every moment of the previous day with new care — but there was nothing they could do about the absences that appeared, the ordinariness of their recollections. It wasn’t until the day was almost over, when they had almost given up, that Yulia answered her door. She invited them into her apartment, offered to make tea but couldn’t hold her hands steady enough to pour the water. Her husband had died years before, and she lived there alone among the faded photographs and old films on TV. When they described Arkady’s death, Yulia listened without shock, like she was relieving it again. They were resigned to another blank, another silence that would render Arkady’s death inexplicable, but Yulia remembered hearing three shots, three separate bullets that had been stuck in her mind since the previous night. The sound was powerful and unmistakable and reverberates in the loneliness of her apartment even now, as these words are written, the violence clear and present long after Arkady walked back into the world and turned it into a symbol.