Last week, oDR began a new series devoted to cultural cooperation between Russia and Ukraine. These articles aimed to broaden perceptions — to try and move people to seeing culture as another form of action, one in which they can act independently and freely.
Preliminary conclusions were mixed: for Andrei Arkhangelsky, the post-independence decades haven’t brought much in the way of intercultural understanding between Russia and Ukraine — at least not in Russia. Despite the volumes of literature, hours of pop music and reels of TV specials, the line on “cultural fraternity” and “little brotherhood”, still popular in Russia, has stymied understanding Ukraine as an independent state.
As Kseniya Turkova shows from Kyiv, though, co-operation continues, and we still believe that while cultural dialogue is unlikely to solve the conflict, it can change attitudes.
But yesterday, Nadiya Savchenko, a Ukrainian pilot and volunteer fighter who was captured by a separatist militia in June 2014, was sentenced to 22 years in a regional court in southern Russia. To continue publishing this series without pause would be incorrect.
Two years after the annexation of Crimea and the breakout of conflict in the Donbas, there seems to be no end to the war between Russia and Ukraine. The ceasefire is punctuated by daily reports of shelling and casualties — both military and civilian — and the antagonism between the two countries has long reached fever pitch.
The conflict, which has claimed a reported 9,160 lives, and destroyed many others, has had profound consequences for both countries: while the repressive regime is only amping up in Russia, Ukraine is now entering its third year of political and economic crisis.
The end of this show trial crowns a campaign by the Russian state to persecute Ukrainian citizens
The Savchenko sentence will only deepen this divide. And not least because the case against her is patently absurd. The prosecution’s evidence contradicts its own argument that Savchenko, apparently serving as an artillery spotter, guided the mortar attack that killed Igor Kornelyuk and Anton Voloshin, the two VGTRK journalists working in Metallist, near Luhansk, in June 2014. Savchenko’s telephone geolocation shows her to be already in rebel hands when the mortar rounds were fired, and this has been confirmed by one of the separatist fighters involved.
The end of this show trial crowns a campaign by the Russian state to persecute Ukrainian citizens, sealing the regime’s reputation as a protector against the “fascism” of Maidan, which allegedly unleashed the violence of the volunteer battalions against the residents of the Donbas.
22 March: Nadiya Savchenko is sentenced to 22 years in prison. (c) Evgeny Biyatov / VisualRIAN. All rights reserved.Thus, two Ukrainian citizens, Nikolai Karpyuk and Stanislav Klykh, stand accused of fighting Russian forces in Chechnya. Meanwhile, two Ukrainian citizens, anarchist activist Aleksandr Kolchenko and filmmaker Oleg Sentsov have gone behind bars on spurious accusations. Neither recognised the court’s jurisdiction following Russia’s annexation of their native Crimea.
More worryingly, a series of secret courts in Russia have sentenced three Ukrainian citizens, Yury Soloshenko, Valentin Vyhivsky and Viktor Shur, to lengthy prison sentences for “espionage”. Russian citizens Natalya Sharina and Ildar Dadin have also been hounded by the authorities. Sharina, director of Moscow’s Ukrainian library, is under house arrest for her “extremist” activities, while Dadin received a three-year sentence for protesting in solidarity with Ukraine and Savchenko.
For the Kremlin, Ukraine has come to represent an aggressive challenge to “Russian values”, its very existence. Hence the judge’s final statement that Savchenko was motivated by “hatred for the social group of residents of the Luhansk region, and Russian-speaking people as a whole”. The verdict against Savchenko will thus further legitimise the Russian regime, which uses its own brand of “anti-fascism” to stigmatise everything Ukrainian.
While we cannot predict the long-term effect of this process, the short term is clear. This stigmatisation, of which the Savchenko trial is a core part, will shut down open debate, ramp up postcolonial paranoia and narrow the field of action in Russia. Ukraine will remain a “hostile state” in the eyes of a significant proportion of Russian citizens, and Russia’s reputation as a colonial aggressor will only be confirmed in Ukraine.
The Ukraine imagined by the Russian state has never existed
Such a reputation is deserved. But it is also destructive. As Igor Burdyga points out, in the post-Crimea period, Ukraine’s fourth estate has helped to promote simplistic divisions, channelling readers into two camps, patriots and separatists, with consequences for freedom of expression. There is some room for hope, however slim — including for Savchenko, who could be exchanged for two Russian soldiers.
Savchenko’s status as a military officer made her easy to caricature for Russian propaganda, which prizes traditional femininity. Ukraine, however, is also a country that prizes traditional femininity. The fact that Savchenko is one of Ukraine’s own means that instead of reinforcing the same set of gender norms, her status as a folk hero has subverted them.
Modern Ukrainian literature had to deal with the trauma of a totalitarian past, as opposed to modern Russian culture, which has sought to reconcile this past with the present. The Savchenko situation presents yet another opportunity for Ukrainian society to evolve — while the same cannot be said for Russia.
The Ukraine imagined by the Russian state has never existed. And in light of recent events, Savchenko has become a symbol both of a new chapter in Ukrainian history — and the ensuing stand-off between Russia and Ukraine.