One year of war, one year of words

Territorial defense fighters. Photo Marienko Andrii UNIAN

One year of the war. Or, more precisely: one year since Russia unilaterally attacked Ukraine. One year of violence, crimes against humanity, and indiscriminate destruction of military and civilian targets, but also one year of communication, miscommunication, declaration, demonstrations, and discussions… words. Words spent, sometimes wasted, in defense of Ukraine, or in defense of Russia, or in defense of a not-better-defined idea of “peace”, writes Prof. Dario Martinelli, of the Kaunas University of Technology

As a semiotician, this is my natural element, and as a semiotician – but also as a citizen – I experienced a full range of emotions while reading and hearing those words: passion, conviction, but also disappointment, sadness, horror.  

First, of course, we were exposed to tons of institutional rhetoric and propaganda. The slogans, the arguments on the table, the claims of military success or failure from either sides. Examples here are endless, but two were particularly significant for me, and on those I would like to offer some reflections: the supposed “denazification” of Ukraine and the supposed “liberation” of the Russian-speaking areas.

We have also read and heard the reactions from the western countries, from the statements of the various leaders, to the more or less evident forms of so-called “westsplaining”, that is, those situations when a western commentator tries, in a subtly patronizing manner, to explain to someone from this side of Europe something that the latter knows first hand, and in principle better. As it turns out, it is something that many of my fellow Italians specialized, maybe because “blaming the victim” is a national sport that they already apply to women victims of sexual assault. You know: “she asked for it”, “she dressed too provocatively”… And so, more than a few Italians were pretty adamant in noticing that “Putin must be understood”, “Ukraine has been provoking Russia”, “Zelensky has his faults” … maybe someone somewhere said also that Ukraine had a miniskirt. 

Obviously, we heard, read and also actively contributed to the reactions from those countries which, on the contrary, felt a concrete threat from this attack, including Lithuania. I think we all remember the sheer anguish we felt when the attack began – the fear that we could easily be the next, and the awareness that Ukrainians were not only defending themselves, but us as well.

There was also an amusing side to those reactions, which I enjoyed thoroughly: street signs that indicated the direction to Minsk with the added inscription “occupied by Kremlin”, or the renaming of the street where the Russian embassy in Vilnius is into “Ukrainian heroes street”. I mean, honestly: that stuff was brilliant, and, as an Italian, it made me really feel like I was in the right place at the right time.  

There were also the specifically cultural aspects of the conflict. We spoke about the possibility of boycotting Russian culture and symbols of soft power. There was the so-called “Wikipedia war”: Russian and Ukrainian users constantly editing sensitive Wikipedia pages, correcting each other over the nationality of some public figure, the configuration of some territories in the maps, the spelling of some names (Kiev vs. Kyiv), and so forth.

And how about the media exposure of the key-figures, particularly President Zelensky? Since the war started, a multitude of media have offered portrayals of the Ukrainian president, his wife, his past as a comedian and else, ranging from the accurate report to the gossip. A few of such displays, particularly the infamous Vogue cover, have stirred controversy. To some (again: mostly westsplainers), this was the ultimate proof that Zelensky is a shady character with shady motives. Now, honestly, this last step I failed entirely to understand. If one Vogue cover is enough to blacklist Zelensky as a bad guy, how bad must Nicole Kidman be, since she collected no less than 38 Vogue covers in her career?

By consequence, and perhaps predominantly, we witnessed a sheer “personification” of the war. The media, partly for communicative simplification, and partly because they actually see the war in these terms, tend to address the conflict as, shall we say, a boxing match between Putin and Zelensky. We read titles like “Putin’s war”, “Putin occupies the Donbass”, “Zelensky frees Kherson”. There is nothing new here, as historiography, especially through the mass media, has always had a soft spot for identifiable, single characters – whether heroes or villains. “Hitler invaded Poland”, “Stalin sent opponents to Siberia”, etc.

Now, I think this last topic is particularly intriguing, because it allows us a more geopolitical, rather than historiographical, approach to the issue, but mostly because it encourages not to take shortcuts, when talking about this attack. A classic shortcut, exactly, is when we read “Putin’s attack” in place of “Russian attack”. As if Putin, in his evident madness (and he probably is a madman), one day woke up and decided to attack a whole country. As if Russia and Ukraine are what they are now, because of Putin and Zelensky alone.

What the evidence suggests, however, is that the process goes in exactly the opposite direction: it’s not Putin who created Russia, but it’s Russia that created Putin – where Russia is indeed a “semiosphere” (sorry for engaging in semiotic parlance), a comparticipation of social, cultural, anthropological factors. A semiosphere that is composed of 140 million people inhabiting the biggest country of the planet.       

This kind of shortcut leads also to a narrative like this: 1) a given community is essentially “good” and “peaceful”; 2) a bad guy takes the power; 3) he or she (usually, it’s a “he”) brainwashes the community and/or forcefully imposes his will on them; 4) the community, innocent and unaware, is led to catastrophe by this guy; and 5) when the salvation occurs, the community, relieved of the bad guy, resumes their normal, good and peaceful life.

This is a classic template of Hollywood movies, where usually the villain is an identifiable individual, while the people are always innocent and a bit naive. I am extremely familiar with this, as an Italian. The way we told ourselves our history is that, during Fascism, it wasn’t us. It was that fat, bald guy and his crazy associates. Us? Nooo: we were unaware, we were forced, we were oppressed… anything, except responsible. This approach is not only deresponsibilizing: it is actually patronizing too, because it assumes that “people” have no role in history. People have no brains, but rather they are a big piece of playdough that the evil leader can shape at his own convenience.

This is not “Putin’s war”. A community has their own customs, beliefs, their own view of the world, their own way to tell their history… sometimes there is awareness of these things, sometimes not, but the result is the same: this is the soil that creates the people who eventually become leaders of such community. It is not the other way round. Some communities are more aggregated, some others may be more fragmented. Unifying factors are, for instance, speaking the same language, having one dominating religion, one dominating ethnic group, having a unified narration of their history, etcetera. Russia, evidently, displays many features of a ”unified community”, despite its size.

Today’s consensus on Putin is calculated statistically as 3 Russians out of 4. Whether these data are propaganda or not, there are some undeniable points: a) Putin’s leadership, as I said, stems from the interaction of those unifying factors; and b) there was and there must still be consensus around Putin. Every leader, even the most criminal one, without consensus has very few chances of surviving. Louis XVI was an “absolute monarch”, that is, he had much more power than Putin, and yet he ended up beheaded. Mussolini ended up hanging upside down, Hitler had to poison himself. Even in those cases when the leader manages to survive despite the loss of consensus, there are at least attempts to overthrow the power. There was no such attempt in Russia: just a few street demonstrations. Putin has the consensus: let’s not fool ourselves here. And he has the consensus because he very well reflects that fairly-unified identity of Russia.

Of course, I am not saying that every single Russian has the same mentality, or supports Putin. Of course not. But if we reason in the semiotic and geopolitical terms of “interacting semiospheres”, we have to discuss “collective minds” and “collective actions”. As a semiosphere, Russia leans unmistakeably-and-I-repeat-unmistakeably towards a consensus on Putin and on the war.

So, the next step is to understand why the Russian semiosphere thinks that this attack is morally justified. I’m not affirming that this is the only explanation of the war, however I am convinced that it is a part of the story that is not often told, exactly because, as we said, both traditional historiography and common media narration is leaderistic and subject-focused.

We must bear in mind that Russia is a big country, its history involved in important developments at global level, with an often-displayed imperialist attitude. Plus, more importantly, Russia has not had yet the opportunity to experience a modern democracy. There was a long totalitarian/feudal regime that lasted centuries, the tsars; then a failed attempt to apply the Marxist ideology; then the uncertain few post-Soviet years which were the only, vague situation of a quasi-democracy, but with all the political and economic problems of that scenario; and then… straight to Putin, for more than 20 years, (except a fake break as prime minister to Medvedev), which progressively brought Russia backwards at pretty much all levels. All this, I repeat, with consensus: it wouldn’t have been possible without it.

With these characteristics, the Russian semiosphere oscillates between two pulsions that are often typical of imperialist countries that, for their very historical positioning, experienced many conflicts. These two pulsions emerge very clearly in the historiographical narration that Russians make of themselves, for instance in history books for schools (a very important component, because this is how children are educated, and therefore Putin too was educated). First, we have a complex of anthropological superiority, a sense of grandeur and national pride. What Lenin himself had called “Great Russian chauvinism”, and had hoped to resolve with Communism (spoiler alert: it didn’t work out). Second, we have a complex of inferiority, or rather a paranoia: the feeling of constantly being misunderstood, constantly being hated, constantly being surrounded by threatening, jealous people. The co-existence of these two opposite poles is less paradoxical than one may think. They actually feed off each other. A famous Fascist motto that Mussolini loved to repeat was “Molti nemici, molto onore”: lots of enemies, lots of honor.

Now. The relationship that Russia establishes with Ukraine is a prototypical example of this collective psychology. On the one hand, there is a strong sense of superiority towards Ukrainians: they are the people that have been subdued to Russia for centuries, they are the peasants, the people who cannot speak properly (we know that Russians see Ukrainian language as badly-spoken Russian). On the other hand, there is this perpetrator-victim pathological situation by which the perpetrator has a strong attachment to the victim, and feels betrayed if the victim wants to escape. Ukrainians, legitimately, want to build their own trajectory – a trajectory that leads them towards the west: a western type of democracy, a western economy, western allies…

Russians are genuinely disappointed by this – sentimentally disappointed. “You were always with us, why do you want to leave us?” Of course, that means “you were always under us”, but that’s normal for Russians, as they feel unmistakably superior: that’s the only relationship they can have with Ukrainians, and somehow they think that Ukrainians are fine with that. Exactly because there is a sort of romantic Downton Abbey vision, where the servants of the aristocratic family are happy to be servants, and are grateful to their masters who give them a job and don’t mistreat them too often.

What else do servants do for their master? They work. They work the land, they create the profit for the master. And we all know: the areas that Russia has targeted in Ukraine are economically crucial: the Donbass region, for instance, is rich in coal and steel, which was amply traded with Russia.

Third thing servants do for their masters: they protect them. If the master is attacked, the servant is the first who defends them. Now: in a vastly plain land like the whole territory that goes from western Europe to Russia (look at the map: no mountain protection whatsoever, from the west), Ukraine serves as a marvelous shield to protect Russia. That shield was the absolute key for fighting back the Nazis in the notorious Operation Barbarossa. It costed the lives of hundreds of thousands of Soviet soldiers, many more than Germany, but it ensured the necessary postponement of the attack to Moscow, allowing USSR to regroup and to exploit the weather conditions. Only one less month of resistance in Ukraine, and the history of WWII would have changed.  

In other words, a Ukraine that is no longer a “servant” is for Russia a sentimental damage, a financial damage and a strategic damage.

Now. To convince yourself that you can both love and hate another community, that they belonged to you but they betrayed you, you need the type of rhetoric that has both elements in it. A kind of patronizing attitude that says: “hey, you are a naughty boy, and I’m going to spank you now, but we are still family, as long as you don’t misbehave anymore”. This rhetoric has been built upon several points, of which I shall mention the two most relevant ones: 1) the “naughty boy” part: Ukrainians are Nazi. This is an image that Russians have been holding since WWII, when, indeed, it’s true that many Ukrainians have been eager collaborators of Nazis in perpetrating the Holocaust. Russia has never forgiven this to Ukraine, as well as Ukraine has never forgiven Russia for the Great Ukrainian Famine in 1932, when Ukrainians were starved to death in order to be subdued to the central Soviet government.

Here, the most obvious counter-argument is that Zelensky is Jewish: it would be the irony of the year that a Nazi country is led by a Jew. But that’s just the surface. At a deeper level there is the fact that, currently, Russia has most, if not all, the features of a Fascist regime: the oppression of basic freedoms, the physical elimination of opponents, the persecution of discriminated minorities, and the above-mentioned imperialism. The other irony, thus, is that such a regime, which is also happily supported by far-right and neofascist groups around Europe, claims to wage a war of “denazification”. Which is a little bit like Sabonis campaigning against basketball.

I also shall add that while it’s true that Ukraine has a neonazi and antisemitic problem, it doesn’t seem to be a special case in Europe, as these sentiments are unfortunately spread around the continent in a rather consistent way.

2) The “you’re still family” part: Russians say that Ukraine, at least part of it, is in fact Russian. Lots of people speak Russian, they feel Russian. “We go there to liberate them and actualize the historical destiny of this place!”. Let’s not forget that in both the Russian and the Ukrainian narrative, Ukraine is the cradle of their own cultural identities: in the 9th century the Kievan Rus was formed when various populations, including the Rus from Scandinavia and some Slavic groups, settled along the river Dnieper, and in the 11th century, under Vladimir I it was Christianized. That both Ukraine and Russia treasure this is testified, trivially, by the fact that both Zelensky and Putin are called “Vladimir”, exactly after this Vladimir I. Of course, in their own view, Russians want that land back. It’s their own Jerusalem. One of the proofs that Russians employ is that many regions in Ukraine, particularly the Eastern ones, speak Russian. In their view, that means that they are Russian.

Once again, at surface level it would have been enough to look at Zelensky himself: he is primarily Russian-speaking: in the past he was also mocked by Ukrainians for his Russian accent. And yet, he’s not filo-Russian, evidently. If Russians paid attention to this, they might have already concluded that speaking Russian doesn’t necessarily mean to be filo-Russian.

The miscalculation became more evident when an army of 150,000 people was sent to Ukraine. In their mind, because speaking Russian means being filo-Russian, they would have not met any resistance in most places: in fact, they would have been welcome as liberators. The plan of reaching Kyiv in just few days was mostly based on this assumption: “Ukrainians will let us parade all the way to the capital”. That, as we know, has been the gross fiasco of this so-called “special operation”. Most Ukrainians (whether or not Russian-speaking) were not eager at all to welcome the Russian army, and only a minority were ok with it. And even many of the latter changed their mind when they saw their houses and cities bombed – which, of course, is not exactly what you expect from a “liberator”.

Result: Russia wanted to conquer Ukraine in a couple of weeks, and instead, after one year, it has only conquered a fraction of it, with costs that dramatically exceed the prevision. It doesn’t yet mean that Russia has lost the war, but it definitely means a failure of the original plan.

Concluding: how do I feel after one year from this shameful attack? Both my heart and my brain believe in peace, freedom and justice: I recognize and appreciate the causal relation among these three values, as well as the fact that their achievement occasionally needs a temporary sacrifice of one of the three. I know this very well, because the foundation of the Italian Republic is the Partisan resistance against the Nazis. More trivially, in the conflict between democracy and dictatorship, I stand with democracy, and in the conflict between a perpetrator and a victim, I stand for the victim. In the light of all this, to take position in the Russian attack to Ukraine is an easy task for me. The democratic Ukraine has been attacked by the non-democratic Russia. Ukrainian people are fighting for their freedom, and understand that a peace without justice would be a mutilated freedom, a concession to an authoritarian regime to rule over a big portion of their territory, to weaken their economy, and most likely to extend their dominion in the short or mid term. They have a right to defend themselves, as well as we have a duty to support their cause. Also because their cause may have easily been our cause, had they not resisted for so long.

Indeed, the ultimate irony of this situation is that the country that was designated to be a shield by Russia is actually acting as a shield for all the democratic European countries that may be the next victims of Russian imperialism. Including the country where I live, work and where my son was born – Lithuania.

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