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The war in Donetsk - end of a post-Soviet taboo?

The devastation of eastern Ukraine has woken Russians up to the reality of war for the first time since 1945. на русском языке

Sergei Loiko is an Russian-American journalist who has spent the last year covering the war in Ukraine. He's also a friend, and has now written Airport, a novel about the battle for Donetsk Airport. It’s about to be published in Kyiv, and Sergei sent me a few chapters to read.

To call Airport a novel is perhaps not quite accurate: it’s more like a memoir or a diary. Sergei covered Donetsk Airport throughout the long months of fighting, which ended with its total devastation. But when what we're fighting over is destroyed, can the battle be considered won? Who is the victor? How can you tell?

Who’s the victor?

Airport reads like one of those post-apocalyptic fantasy novels that are so popular here in Russia: members of the opposing armies occupy different floors of the half-razed terminal building. As positions are surrendered and recaptured, more men are killed each day.

There is little communication with the outside world: things happen in Donetsk, in Kyiv, in Moscow, but the people at the airport are unaware of them. Their world has shrunk to the terminal building, and they will stay there until nothing is left. Politicians in Minsk will sign another treaty and the airport ruins will become just another point on a map delineating the boundary between the opposing forces.

Politics, after all, is a virtual phenomenon, and its real-world manifestations reflect that—just like this flattened airport.

A road near Donetsk Airport. (c) Igor Maslov / VisualRIAN.

Donetsk Airport was rebuilt just five years ago in the run up to the 2012 UEFA European Football Championship, co-hosted by Poland and Ukraine. Ukraine’s then president Viktor Yanukovych was born in Donetsk, and he was determined that his local airport would be the best in the country. The grand glass and concrete construction with its escalators, cafes and duty free shops was more suited to a small European capital – Kyiv, perhaps – than a city in an industrial zone with few tourist attractions.

The massive terminal building was completely out of scale with its tiny departure board and its few daily flights. More people probably saw it during the battle, when soldiers of opposing forces occupied the floors of its old and new terminals, than ever before.

The airport bore the name of Sergei Prokofiev, the Russian composer, and a native of the area. A Ukrainian airport, named after a Russian composer could be said to embody the concept of the ‘Russian world’ (Russkiy mir), that space where Russian culture, for many historical and biographical reasons, will always spread beyond Russia’s formal boundaries.

Last spring, the concept turned into an armed conflict, which led to the disappearance of the Prokofiev Airport.

A new experience for Russians

St Petersburg also recently acquired a new airport—the same glass and concrete, the same cafes and duty free shops and the same small departure board. It was built on the assumption that the number of foreign visitors would rise, but western airlines have been cutting flights.

Now, whenever I find myself in the new Petersburg terminal, I’m always reminded of its half-twin in Donetsk.

The only war that people in Russia really know anything about - its history, its nature and how it ended – is the Second World War. In the USSR, that history included the post-war rebuilding of the country, when the survivors laboured day and night to create new buildings and streets atop the ruins of the old, so that this new life would carry no reminders of the battles that took place there.

Other wars – and there have been many - failed to impinge on our consciousness: Afghanistan, Somalia, Cambodia and the many other places where the ruins have not been rebuilt and probably never will be. You look at photos of these places and see that there was life here once, but probably never again.

The average Russian feels much more confident on a battlefield than in a police station, and that’s not going to change.

Today, Donetsk Airport is just a symbol of violent conflict. But in the future it may come to embody an irreversible transformation of concrete reality into devastation – once there was life here, now there is none.

So far, that’s the only outcome of the war in Donetsk, and there may be no other outcomes. Who could imagine a peaceful and prosperous future for the Donbas now? It has no future, just ruins where a forest will grow in 50 years time.

A year ago, many people in Russia wanted to see the events in Donetsk as a blueprint for future national regeneration: the empire would regain its strength and its former lands, which had lost their bearings, would be reunited once more.

But there was no regeneration, just disintegration - and more importantly, a demonstration of just how easy that disintegration can turn out to be. We saw Donetsk Airport all new and shiny. We saw it razed to the ground. Take a look at St Petersburg’s new airport: the outline of Donetsk Airport is just below the surface.

‘The first step was taken in Donbas’

Many Russians wanted to see the events of Donetsk as the future. Perhaps they were right, and the region’s state today is the blueprint for what awaits Russia tomorrow.

This could be triggered by another political crisis, a change of government, a withdrawal into isolation, a potential conflict between regions – by just about anything. The main thing is that we have seen that disintegration can be real, and not just a fantasy. Russia saw Donetsk as an experiment in imperial resurgence, but the result was irreversible breakdown. Who can guarantee that this won’t be repeated in Russia itself?

A year ago, political commentators were writing that sooner or later people who had fought in Donbas would return as hardened combatants and wreak havoc back home – that there would be a rise in crime, aggression and even armed political conflict.

Fortunately, this has not happened. The tabloid Komsolomskaya Pravda runs a story about a Cossack fighter nicknamed ‘Bogeyman’, a popular figure at the start of the war. Now he’s living in poverty in his home village. Mikhail Konstantinov, an irregular from Luhansk known as ‘Bear’, is arrested for the murder of two police officers somewhere outside Moscow. But these are isolated cases. There have been very few news stories about former fighters and it’s unlikely the number will grow.

Instead, in Russia, you can rely on the principle formulated by Joseph Brodsky: ‘They boldly marched into other capitals, but returned to their own in fear.’ The average Russian feels much more confident on a battlefield than in a police station, and that’s not going to change.

So we needn’t expect a crime wave in Russia in the wake of the Donetsk war. The main outcome won’t be criminal, or even political, but metaphysical.

The war has broken some decade-long taboos. With eastern Ukraine looking all-too familiar to Russian eyes, Russian citizens have now seen their native landscape devastated for the first time since the 1940s. Now they know what a flattened airport or low rise block looks like. This picture of destruction is no longer unthinkable.

It is always easier to repeat something than to take a first step. Here, the first step was taken in Donbas, and the war there has made the risk of war in Russia itself much more likely than it was a year and a half ago.

About the author

Oleg Kashin is a prominent Russian journalist. His work has appeared in Kommersant, Lenta, Colta and numerous other publications. He tweets @KSHN. 

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