The State of Culture in the Occupied Donbas, or How I Became an Occupier

by Lyuba Yakimchuk

Translated from the Ukrainian by Dmytro Kyyan

I sometimes do things that my friends never do.  As a matter of fact, I watch the local news of the occupied Ukrainian territories that these occupiers call "republics," and this looks like some kind of masochism, apparently.

According to legal norms, they are not republics with regard to the criteria of post-truth – they may be called post-republics, with a post-parliament and post-president. Just as the post-truth is based not on facts but emotions, so the news produced by these entities is irrational. It is like the testimony of a man in a state of temporary insanity –  it changes every minute and doesn’t coincide with what has been said before. This news is full of propaganda, and my interest in it is not only professional – I am always interested in the ways emotions are made, including the forbidden way, because I am a producer of emotions myself, albeit legal ones - in the literary sphere. In addition to the professional I have a special interest, a private sentiment, so to speak. I have a house and graves there, in occupation. Should I not call it home anymore?

I was born in the city of Pervomaisk, the Luhansk region, which in the spring of 2014 was first occupied by the Russian regular troops with the help of local residents, that is to say, of Ukrainian collaborators. Among the traitors were the impoverished and downcast locals, former felons and at that time, all kinds of thugs or homeless people, those who had nothing, and therefore nothing to lose. I saw that myself in April and May of 2014. All that was just like in every war – the occupiers and those few locals who help them.

Because of the war, my entire family escaped from their house to territory under the control of the Ukrainian authorities. My sister almost left Luhansk through a “humanitarian corridor" guaranteed safe passage by both Ukrainian authorities and occupiers - but the bus was shot at on the day that she was supposed to leave. I advised her to go that way, and she was going to, but changed her mind and left the next day. That’s why she got out. My parents and grandmother got out of there in a taxi for all the money in the world, that is, their newly-occupied world - on a highway that was being shot at. A month later, my grandmother’s house was hit by a shell, and the house is no longer there but my grandmother is. Two months later, a militant, a deserter from the army of the fictitious "Luhansk People's Republic" moved into my parents’ house and he probably sleeps on my parents’ bed now. Two years later, a neighbor with whom my parents left our dog, so as to return for him later, went on a drinking binge. Being in such a state, he beat his wife to death. The dog had died a little earlier. I doubt it was a natural death. No one got arrested for the murdered wife, although it is very obvious, and there is no one to reproach for the dead dog, either. However, I didn’t want to talk about my relatives, nor about the deceased red-haired dog, but about how the humanitarian situation affects the state of culture. And above all else, how it causes people to become more brutal. I think it happens during any war, or at least, recent history convinces me of it. And the culture itself, or rather its function, is used for a different purpose.

There is the New Year, for example. In the "LNR", the celebration is prepared very carefully so as to show "The Republican New Year's Fairy Tale" in open air over a period of several days during the holidays. For the third consecutive year, the show is organized by the Night Wolves-Donbas motorcycle club.

I don’t know how this motorcycle club relates to culture, but the organization of the New Year's show is carried out under the authority and with the support of Leonid Pasichnyk, the acting head of the "LNR".

This biker organization is known for its one-year cooperation with the Ministry of Internal Affairs of the "LNR" after which its members joined the LNR police and received the title of "People's Volunteer Squad". The decision was made at the level of Kornet, the Minister of Internal Affairs of the "LNR" who participated in the overthrow of the previous regime of "LNR", Plotnitsky’s regime. The club is based in Luhansk. The president of the club, Vitaly “Prokuror” (The Prosecutor) Kyshkynov gathered under the roof of the organization various retro cars which had been illegally seized from private collections in Luhansk. It is this semi-militia, semi-criminal organization supported by local "authorities" which prepares the Luhansk New Year's Show.

On the local TV channel, Prokuror describes the show: "The Forces of Light are represented by our Motherland, which is Russia. And all other countries, in both Europe and America, try to scatter us in every possible way. As our president The Surgeon, the president of the Night Wolves motorcycle club says, 'One Vladimir baptized Russia, and the other gathers the scattered Russian plains.'” Obviously, he is talking about Volodymyr the Great and Vladimir Putin. This rhetoric of unifying lands is imposed by both the "LNR" authorities, TV channels and also organizations like the Night Wolves-Donbas. Whereas earlier this rhetoric was about Slavic unity, this definition is not even mentioned now, since it is supposed to be about one people by default. The first Night Wolf-Donbas New Year's Show was about unity, and the other two were about confrontation. The characters which represent the countries are symbolic, with Kashchey and even a bear riding a quad motorcycle with the flag of the Russian Federation in his hands, accompanied by the song "Forward, Russia!" All this together is one of the modern types of propaganda that I would call show-propaganda.

I watch the news from the LNR broadcasted by the so-called LNR State Television and Radio Company and I hear that Ukrainian troops have opened fire on towns that are not controlled by the Ukrainian authorities. The fact that the internal groups of these post-republics indeed fire on themselves was already reported by journalistic investigations. And this story is similar. I hear that among the casualties of aerial shelling, they also name my Pervomaisk. And then, they call the Ukrainian military the occupiers. Earlier, they called them "punishers" following the Russian media that breathed life into this word stemming from previous wars.

And I listen to this while in Kyiv and think: if I recognize the current Ukrainian authorities, pay taxes (including military fees), then perhaps, I, too am also an occupier. It turns out to be quite interesting. I sit in Kyiv and support the occupation of the city of Pervomaisk, where I was born. This is what post-truth really is, and this is what the world really is when distorted by war, by easy money that can be obtained through the seizure of state institutions, by the denunciation of neighbors and also, by the distortion of the poor economic situation, I would say, in some towns – by the humanitarian catastrophe due to which the general cultural level decreases and propaganda develops. Who needs a book if there is no food? Who needs theater if the water supply does not work, and electricity is turned off haphazardly? Who needs culture if there is war all around them? No, it is not just the culture that is needed but propaganda that disguises itself as culture. And it is there, and it means that all those people who couldn’t leave the occupied territories will not be able to escape from the other side for a long time.

Translator's Note

  1. The Night Wolves-Donbas is a Luhansk chapter of the Night Wolves (Moscow). Vitaly “Prokuror”  (The Prosecutor) Kyshkynov is the leader of the Night Wolves-Donbas. The Night Wolves (Moscow) is a Russia’s largest and most infamous motorcycle club known under this name beginning 1989. The members of the club admire Joseph Stalin. They are known for their bigoted views and involvement with the Russian Orthodox Church. They supported the annexation of Crimea by Russia. In an interview with The Telegraph, London (17 March 2015), the leader of the club Alexander Zaldostanov said, “For the first time we showed resistance to the global Satanism, the growing savagery of Western Europe, the rush to consumerism that denies all spirituality, the destruction of traditional values, all this homosexual talk, this American democracy." The club has close ties with Vladimir Putin and is funded by the Kremlin. Mark Galeotti, writing in The Moscow Times (19 May 2015), described the Night Wolves as "a case study in the Kremlin's strategy of adopting and taming potentially hostile groups and using them precisely as tools of control—counter-counterculture, as it were.”
  2. “Kashchey” is an archetypal male antagonist in Slavic folklore described mainly as abducting the hero's wife. 

  3. The two words “occupiers” and “punishers” in both Ukrainian (окупанти, карателi / okupanty, karateli) and Russian (оккупанты, каратели / okkupanty, karateli) are historically used solely in relation to the Nazi Germany Wehrmacht and Waffen-SS units. The deliberate usage of them in Russia’s mass media when describing the Ukrainian troops has become the signature characteristic of Russia’s propaganda machine since the annexation of Crimea in 2014 and the war in Luhansk and Donetsk regions of Ukraine.  

Caitlyn Garcia