Watching The World Wrecking
“We're in that moment of a story when kids usually ask you to stop reading.”
The last month has been truly terrible and tragic for many people, including people I know in person; hence it was a tough month for me. Physically, I’m safe as much as I can be, but psychologically, there’s something to reflect upon…
Early morning. Sun has just risen and sneaks through the blinds. I wake up, lethargic and dizzy, and go to the kitchen to empty a glass. The plan is to write – a morning routine, a short route into a state of mourning over unedited drafts. I sit at the table with a cup of coffee or tea or more water, open my laptop and immediately see my friends sharing news. My homeland country has invaded its neighbour. Thus my reality coagulates into a triplet of emotions and feelings, the power of which in a comparable volume I have never and never encountered. Shock. Terror. Shame.
See, I have trained myself to ignore the news, or rather I have trained myself to think I can ignore the news, or rather I thought news can ignore me and we both can mutually agree on ignoring without even temporarily igniting the interest or a glimpse of it towards each another. I'm not speaking about ignoring in a sense of not watching or not reading it – I rarely do that – but in a sense of living a normal life, not paying attention, not thinking when you stumble upon breaking news about yet another important and unprecedented distant event. I left my country a few years ago and it took a big effort to abstract my mind from a countless flow of grim and depressive garbage still following me, and transfix to the idea I should care less about what is happening there on a low level. Important news will find me. I don’t have to check them myself. It’s not cheerful anyway. Nothing positive, nothing good – these things either don't get enough attention or perhaps don't have enough chance to occur. Perhaps, both. No politics either – there is no politics in Russia; such nebulous substance struggles to exist in authoritarian regimes. No politics in its democratic sense, only the normal Russian course of events (exceptions only prove the rule): people are being oppressed and repressed, nuts being tightened up, economy languishing; corruption, censorship, propaganda, proxy-wars. But now, a real war... A war, aggression, a direct invasion is something my consciousness cannot ignore. It devours all my attention, all my thoughts, all my emotions and feelings – everything. I start shaking. I can't do anything. I can only message my friends, family, read the news and run myself to dismay on a continuous treadmill of doom and dread.
Now, people are dying and suffering, cities are being destroyed, the present and the future are collapsing, the world wrecking; all because of a criminal organisation called “government” ruled by the old bald bunker rat with imperial ambitions who decided he can do whatever he wants with no consequences.
We can’t believe it’s happening. We, both me and my wife, have breakfast and go outside. Fresh air. The weather is contrastingly sunny. A fine day to hang oneself, as my famous fictional namesake would say.
The following days are a melange of scrolling, pain, and more shame stirred with anger.
Scrolling because the course of actions is as unpredictable as the war was considered by the vast majority of competent analysts and experts (yes).
I unfollow all the news media, follow them back, delete Twitter, install it back.
News websites appear in the "Frequently used" panel.
I subscribe to a couple of newsletters, journalists, Telegram channels; check events live, refreshing the page. A doooomscroller Jedi I am now. Or a Sith.
Likes under tweets about dead people.
Patreon page gathering donations to buy tanks.
Elon Musk challenges Putin to a duel.
TikTok dances to stop the war.
Many people think it's their duty to make a prediction of what's going to happen next. Their main concern is what will happen to the world's economy, of course, yes, yes, yes, everything else is just grains of sand. The others try to guesstimate a chance of a nuclear war, a way more amusing experience than making a pretentious, naive, speculative, overconfident, to-the-point, undoubtedly important prediction about the course of actions.
The whole situation feels almost surreal.
Pain because of all countless stories, photos, videos, and live TikToks of destroyed cities and injured people, shootings, shoutings, explosions. Pain because I have friends from and in Ukraine. They tell me stories about their families and other people hiding in the undergrounds and basements, or desperately trying to leave their country, without food, shelter, or medicine.
I hear a story of my friend's father, an old man, who decided not to leave his flat on the 10th floor despite all bombing and artillery strikes. "I cannot go back and forth every other time the air-raid warning screams. I am an old man," said he.
Old people are starving in their apartments. Children are being born in the underground. Thousands are dead or injured. Millions lost their homes. Millions run away from the war.
My friends who have families there can't sleep. They are afraid to close their eyes for the night because, they say, you don't know what's going to happen in the next morning. Will the relatives be still alive? Will the world still exist? Every day increases the bar of madness and deepens the tragedy. What seems the worst thing that could’ve happened on Friday, reveals itself as just a beginning on Saturday, Sunday, Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, and so on. The actions done are irreversible. One more scar on the body of Europe that won't heal at least for a few decades or generations.
Shame because you feel responsible for what happens. You feel it's your fault. You can't help to stop it. You did nothing to prevent it. You kept silent. You ignored. Now, you're far away. For the last few years you've been trying to be proud of your national identity and now it's impossible. You feel shame for being a Russian. Are we the bad guys now? Collective responsibility, they say. This was is a crime and you can't stop yourself from feeling like an accomplice, or at least a passive beholder, a painful role. The Ukrainian friends tell you it's not your fault and you shouldn't be ashamed; it's one man's decision, the country didn't vote for it, nobody did, you didn't. It's true, of course, and you try to banish this feeling, vainly. You see that some people support the war. Who are they? The quantity of such people is terrifying, depressing, budding more shame and anger. Do they really believe it? How could we miss that? Is this how propaganda works? Slowly but surely, it penetrates the population's brains. The government literally uses Hitler's rhetoric saying "we had no choice", "we've been threatened". They use Z as a symbol to support the army. Cringe. They make kids draw Z or even collectively form the shape of Z. Cringecringecringe. You feel betrayed and ashamed at the same time. Weird uncomprehensible dichotomy.
Trafalgar Square is full of people from all around the world: Ukrainians, Russians, British, other Europeans – everyone. Similar events are in many other countries and major cities, including in Russia, despite the risks of being arrested. The world pleads and demands to stop the war. Hard to tell how effective it is but at least it makes the problem more visible, at least it makes people see that the world cares no matter how genuine it is in each individual case.
We sign petitions, repost, resend and retweet what we think everyone should see, the truth; send humanitarian help to the refugees, donate money – do the same as many of our friends do. Every small action helps. It might not save all lives or stop the war directly but it increases the attention to the problem and lets the Ukrainian people know they are not alone. The whole world is on their side (apart from only four countries).
I tell my mom I went on one of the anti-war rallies together with my Ukrainian friends, side by side. I try to convince her it isn’t dangerous and nobody would arrest or hurt me.
She calls me a traitor of the motherland brainwashed by Anglo-Saxons and ignores my messages for a couple of days.
In that, I'm not alone. A mental civil war is happening in Russia. Everyone knows at least one person poisoned by a demonic prayer oozing from TV screens. We try to convey the truth to our parents – the least we can do being far away, but their beliefs are impenetrable. Even famous journalists and interviewers, who are good at talking to people, cannot break the propaganda wall. People don't listen, at most they start doubting until their doubts are being washed away again by TV. For every argument, they have a methodically memorised counterargument, a line from the official propaganda version of history and the current course of events, a map with no territory, or even a simulacrum of the map itself.
We live in a world where parents trust the TV more than their own children.
This questions the whole notion of patriotism and treason. Who is who? It's hard to remain a patriot when your country is an aggressor (not for the first time) who is invading and bombing another country for the invented reason of denazification and self-protection, a famous rapist's excuse "she provoked me with her short skirt". There are no nazis or fascists in Ukraine apart from those who just invaded the country and now bringing woe to the land we have deep historical and cultural bonds, families, friends, memories.
One Russian comedian joked a few years ago that claiming you're apolitical is equivalent to saying "Oh, I see nothing, nothing bad's happening" while being raped in an unlit room. The room has been getting darker, too many have been seeing nothing and now the country successfully checks thirteen of fourteen points in Umberto Eco’s list of the common features of fascist regimes.
Perhaps, the real patriotism is speaking out when your country behaving dishonourably and viciously.
LAVELLE : You think you can become a more authentic person by fighting in a war? By killing people?
HERLIHY : You’re against me joining the Army, is what I’m sensing.
LAVELLE : Let’s put it this way, I’ve always felt there was something inherently psychopathic about someone who joins the Army in peacetime. As far as I’m concerned, people join the Army because they want to find out what it’s like to kill someone. I don’t think that is an inclination that should be encouraged in modern society, do you?
HERLIHY shrugs, non-committal.
LAVELLE : Jesus Christ didn’t think so either. And the commandment “Thou Shalt Not Kill” does not have an asterisk beside it, referring you to the bottom of the page, where there’s a list of instances where it is okay to kill people.
– Calvary (2014), dir. John Michael McDonagh
Close your eyes. Oh shit, you can't read with closed eyes, can you? Okay, instead, take a deep breath.
In and out. In and out.
Now, imagine the world with no war.
A serene and tranquil place where happiness buds and blooms.
A realm of stability where everyone is safe and sound.
In Russia, it's possible. The ongoing crime against humanity is not a war. No. Apparently, it's "a special military operation", just like an explosion is only “a clap”, a decrease is simply “a negative increase”, all dead are “missing”, and so on and so forth, deep to the bottom of the Russian government's mendacious lingo. For the last 20 years, especially the last 8 years, their propaganda has been building a parallel reality, a proto-metaverse for telly-brained people where their minds dwell connected to the matrix that sucks taxes from them so the government can buy more yachts and villas. In this -verse, ignorance is strength, freedom is slavery and war is peace. Oh, pardon me, "special operation" is peace. Or wait, Russian police can arrest you if you go out with a piece of paper and the word "peace" on it. What is what then? I can keep being ironic but the sad truth is that Putinverse, in which, tragically, big portions of Russians live, is more truthful and real to them than what their relatives and their own children tell them, no matter how hard they try. People've been robbed of truth first, now they are robbed of the future, at least of any certainty about it. They've been promised stability (stability is better than freedom, right?) for the price of not ever having a war, but now they both have a war and have neither stability nor freedom. They live in a dystopian novel and it's not Brave New World.
From early childhood, we've been taught that any war is horrible per se. Parents, teachers, books, films, the WWII veterans in person told us that, even presidents told us that. Now it's all flipped.
An elderly woman, who's probably in her eighties or nineties and survived the second world war, was detained during a protest against the war with Ukraine.
A priest was fined ~$300 for preaching "Thou Shalt Not Kill".
A woman standing with a blank piece of paper in a city square was detained by police.
"I was sitting on a bed and thinking what's going to happen," said Kirill, a 12-year boy who expressed his position regarding the special operation in his school. After that, the police came to his home. He didn't open the door and they turned off the electricity. "I wasn't afraid. I was curious what they were doing there. So they think: here we have a 12-year old boy who expressed his opinions, let's visit him at home. He's not opening the door, let's cut off the light."
You can't say "no to war", "fuck war", "peace", etcetera. You can't write it online. You can't write it on paper and go on a rally, protesting. You can’t even write nothing. That nothing encapsulates everything. What if that nothing includes your negative opinion of the government, the army, the country, the president? The media is banned from calling the war “a war”. Almost all independent media have been terminated. There are a bunch of new "laws" that declare any help to "the enemy", or protest against the "special military operation", or discrediting actions of the Russian army, as a crime. You can get a big fine; or three, five, or even fifteen years in prison for treason. So, I'm a traitor officially. Now, if I go back to my country I have a high risk of being imprisoned, or at least fined, theoretically, though (considering someone snitches on me). Does it make me at least a little bit closer to great Russians who were exiled from their country? I don’t think so. However, it's reckless to say the government doesn't care about a little man like me – anyone can be fined or jailed for nothing – we can see that already – but there are real heroes who, pardon my Clichésque, have skin in the game: journalists, activists, public people who still tell the truth staying in the country, left the country or already in jail. They deserve the status of great Russians.
I still say "my country" often because I'm still a Russian citizen (which is changeable), and I'm still Russian (which is not changeable). I have friends and family there, but the emotional attachment and any sense of empathy for the country are dissolving and transforming into anger; the remnants of patriotic feelings don't become weaker, they shape themselves into something else, something else I don't know what. I don't know if Russia will still exist in a year of time or fall apart when I open my eyes tomorrow. I don't know how long the dictatorship regime will last. I don't know how my friends and family who are still there will go through it all. I don't know when it possibly can return to normal if that "normal" exists at all. Unlikely it can. I just want the war to stop, so people, my friends and their families on the other side of this pointless conflict can live peacefully and build their new future. It will take generations to heal the wounds inflicted on other countries, on the country itself, on Russians as a nation living all around the world. Shock, terror, pain will soothe and fade but shame and grief will stay for ages.
Early morning. Sun had just risen and sneaks through the blinds. I open them and see a fluffy pink cloud of a blooming cherry. The wind blows and the petals fly, spin and powder over everything: cars, pavements, other trees, a lazy cat. Spring. The time of rebirth. It's the 19th of March, and as I write my thoughts down, the war is still going on1, the lives and the future of millions are still being devoured by one man's sick ambition. The end is somewhere far, it seems, blurry and invisible, regardless of how much we all wish and plead for it. As one smart Russian woman recently said, we're in that moment of a story when kids usually ask you to stop reading.
Until next time,
Still going on on the 24th of March when this text was published for the first time.