A War of Annihilation

Ukraine in Focus

The reality of the existential stakes of this war for Ukraine and Ukrainians is also at the heart of Serhiy Zhadan’s response in Die Zeit (in German) to the latest open letter from a group of German intellectuals calling for a ceasefire, arguing that to do so is to “deny Ukraine the right to exist.” As he puts it, “We cannot give up our resistance, because otherwise we will be annihilated. We must demand weapons from the West, because otherwise we will be annihilated. We must call the world to fight against Putin’s regime, because otherwise we will be annihilated. Physically annihilated, in the truest sense of the word, plain and simple.”

Kateryna Mishchenko’s essay for Klassik Stiftung Weimar (in German) likewise takes up the notion of Russia’s war of annihilation, as she reflects on the felt value of each Ukrainian’s life. “For [Putin’s] war against time, Ukrainian lives are like the thin second hands of a clock, bringing his end closer. All it takes is to imagine that they don’t exist as people. And then shove this fantasy into reality. No matter where I am, war forces me to think of my life as something unimportant, something small and superfluous. Sometimes I forget to resist this feeling and it overcomes me.”

Because this war is documented so thoroughly by those experiencing it, in real time, on social media, its nature is laid bare, as Shore and Rafeyenko discuss: “Evil and cruelty are not new. But the kind of extreme visibility that the internet enables is new – it’s the first time in history that this kind of transparency is possible.” “Yes, what is exceptional in what is happening now consists in this transparency. It’s no longer possible to bury your head in the sand and not see. If you do not see the Russian atrocities, if you do not see Russia as an anthropological catastrophe, you are consciously not seeing it. In this way, you are also making a choice between good and evil.”

Kateryna Iakovlenko explores what exactly that transparency looks like and the impact it has in an article on the role of social media in this war in an essay for the Institute of Network Cultures. Heroes and enemies alike are personalized, stories spread rapidly and come to stand in for broader phenomena, the notion of an “unknown soldier” disappears. What will the impact be on those who have experienced trauma and war crimes – will they be able to have privacy?

These thorny issues of voice and privacy, and what stories should be told, when, and how, are being tackled by Ukrainian journalists on a daily basis. Angelina Kariakina discusses the vital work of Ukrainian journalists in an interview for Deutsche Welle: first and foremost, given the media’s role in informing the public of air raids, humanitarian corridors, and other life-saving measures, she argues, “journalism is a means of survival.”

The practical service rendered by Ukrainian journalists today exists alongside their storytelling role: perhaps less urgent, but no less essential, given the role of myth and narrative in sustaining people. Jurko Prochasko explores the entanglement of war and myth – in the case of this war, the pernicious historical myths motivating the Russian side and myths such as that of unqualified freedom and the Eros of emancipation on the Ukrainian side ­– and the inescapable necessity of myth also for peace, in an interview for Die Zeit (in German).

Myth and narrative are also essential components of identity consolidation. Vasyl Cherepanyn points to the centrality of the Orange Revolution and the Revolution of Dignity in shaping contemporary Ukrainian identity, a process that has crystallized through Ukrainian resistance to Russian aggression. As he argues in an interview for Krytyka Polityczna (in Polish), "Whereas European identity is perpetually in crisis, and Russian identity remains totally incoherent, [...] Ukrainians know perfectly who they are, regardless of whether they live in Lviv, Kyiv, Kharkiv or Kherson. [...] They are fighters for their own subjectivity - expressed here not so much in the sense of mythology, symbolism, or ethnicity as in the sense of defending their civic and political rights. They are revolutionaries. The biggest in Europe."

This self-understanding comes with a deep-seated sense of the necessity to assert it. In a wide-ranging interview for Tygodnik Powszechny (in Polish), Yaroslav Hrytsak speaks with Paweł Pieniążek about the roots of Russia's attack on Ukraine and how Ukrainian society has changed since 24 February. "During the first and second Maidans [in 2004 and 2013-2014] many Ukrainians were not ready for change. Now things are different. Moreover, Ukraine does not have much choice in the matter, because if it does not change, it will remain a weak country, susceptible to constant threat. This is not a matter of choice but of necessity."