War and memes

How to over­come Rus­sian cul­tural dom­i­na­tion

The Ukrainian Week - - CONTENTS - Denys Kazan­skiy

Even school­child­ren know that wars to­day are not only fought on the front lines. Wars can be eco­nomic or in­for­ma­tional and the bat­tle­field has long been not only the real world, but also cy­berspace, where the weapons of choice are not tanks or ar­tillery, but words, images or memes.

The ac­tive phase of the Rus­sian-Ukrainian war, as is well known, be­gan in 2014, af­ter Rus­sian troops in­vaded the Crimea. It is much less of­ten re­mem­bered that the in­vis­i­ble in­for­ma­tional and cul­tural war for hearts and minds be­tween Rus­sia and Ukraine be­gan much ear­lier. While on the front lines Ukraine man­aged to with­stand and con­tain the en­emy’ son slaught and even re­gain part of the seized ter­ri­tory, its suc­cesses in the cul­ture war have been much more mod­est. In this as­pect, as be­fore, the Rus­sian Fed­er­a­tion feels that it is fully in charge and reigns over most Ukrainian ter­ri­tory.

Since 2014, it has been com­mon in Ukraine to stig­ma­tise and rep­ri­mand sep­a­ratists and col­lab­o­ra­tors in every pos­si­ble way. It goes with­out say­ing that peo­ple who hate their own coun­try rouse lit­tle sym­pa­thy from any­one. But at the same time, we al­most avoid ask­ing our­selves the main ques­tion, which should be a pri­or­ity: how did it hap­pen that a large num­ber of our cit­i­zens be­came traitors? Why do mil­lions of our com­pa­tri­ots openly or im­plic­itly sym­pa­thise with the ag­gres­sor in the cur­rent war? Why do peo­ple with Ukrainian names and sur­names of­ten think and speak like in­vet­er­ate Rus­sian na­tion­al­ists and Black Hun­dredists.

With­out un­der­stand­ing such key things, the war against Rus­sia can only be put on hold, but never won. More or less the same way as it is now. The front line in the Don­bas has barely moved for a cou­ple of years and is ba­si­cally on pause, but few doubt that Moscow will not stop there. The fer­tile ground on which the 2014 con­flict blos­somed has not gone any­where. Mil­lions of cit­i­zens sym­pa­thetic to Rus­sia still live in Ukraine, which Moscow can use at any time to jus­tify fur­ther invasion, which was al­ready ob­served af­ter Yanukovych fled to Ros­tov. Rus­sian Pres­i­dent Vladimir Putin said long be­fore the war that Rus­sia ends where the Rus­sian lan­guage ends. There is a grain of truth in this, be­cause while Rus­sian troops can be stopped by a line of for­ti­fi­ca­tions, it is not so sim­ple to block Rus­sian cul­tural and in­for­ma­tional ex­pan­sion in the Rus­sian-speak­ing com­mu­nity.

To with­stand a hos­tile army, you need to have your own with a com­pa­ra­ble amount of weapons and level of train­ing. In or­der to re­sist the en­emy in a war of con­tent, you must be able to cre­ate your own con­tent that is com­pa­ra­ble in terms of vol­ume and qual­ity. In this field, Ukraine's suc­cesses are even more mod­est than its mil­i­tary ad­vances. The coun­try's cul­tural space, as be­fore, is largely con­trolled by Rus­sia. This end­lessly gen­er­ates "pro-Rus­sian Ukraini­ans" – cit­i­zens of Ukrainian ori­gin who live en­tirely within the Rus­sian cul­tural and me­dia space and think more like Rus­sians than Ukraini­ans.

The con­cept of memet­ics – the the­ory of self-copy­ing units of cul­tural in­for­ma­tion (memes) – has been part of in­ter­na­tional science since 1976, when the term was coined by British re­searcher Richard Dawkins. In terms of the num­ber of memes cre­ated, Rus­sia has been far ahead of Ukraine for a long time. This ap­plies to al­most any memes: in the nar­row sense of the word (images on­line) and the broad one (mu­sic, pop­u­lar quo­ta­tions, iconic films). For some peo­ple, this is­sue may not seem so se­ri­ous. But memes ul­ti­mately form our con­scious­ness. They shape a per­son's at­ti­tude to­wards re­al­ity – in par­tic­u­lar, they prompt peo­ple to take up arms and support one side or an­other in a mil­i­tary con­fronta­tion.

In­stead of curs­ing a Ukrainian from Slovyansk or Luhansk who de­cided to join the pro-Rus­sian armed forces in the Don­bas, we should ask our­selves what prompted him to do this. Only by un­der­stand­ing the causes can we deal with their con­se­quences. As soon as we be­gin to study this is­sue, we will im­me­di­ately see that the chances for in­hab­i­tants of in­dus­trial cities in the East of the coun­try to be­come pa­tri­otic cit­i­zens were slim.

Imag­ine a res­i­dent of the Don­bas who was born in the sec­ond half of the 1980s and is about 30 years old. From birth on­wards, he ex­isted in the Rus­sian me­dia space, sur­rounded by Rus­sian memes. At first, he watched Soviet car­toons and chil­dren's se­ries like Guest from the Fu­ture. Then with the pro­lif­er­a­tion of pi­rate video cas­settes, he moved on to Hol­ly­wood pro­duc­tions, dubbed by Rus­sian translators: their voices en­graved them­selves into the mem­ory of any­one who lived through the 1990s and have also be­come a meme. In his teenage years, he be­gan to lis­ten to Rus­sian rock groups that were pop­u­lar among the youth of the time, like Kino, Ariya, Alisa and Grazh­dan­skaya Oborona, and learned to strum court­yard clas­sics on the gui­tar. Ev­ery­where – at school dis­cos, on the bus, at the mar­ket – he was sur­rounded by Rus­sian mu­sic, pop or chan­son. At the turn of the cen­tury, Rus­sian films like Streets of Bro­ken Lights, Brother, Bri­gada and Bim­mer started to come into fashion. Pop­u­lar quotes from th­ese films – "What is power, brother?", "Who­ever is right is strong", etc. – en­tered the ver­nac­u­lar. Th­ese Rus­sian su­per­heroes were of du­bi­ous qual­ity – crazy vet­er­ans of the Chechen war, cops and ban­dits – but they had to do, be­cause we had none of our own.

If our Don­bas na­tive wanted to read, he went to the lo­cal book mar­ket, where a wide range of Rus­sian ti­tles were sold: the de­tec­tive sto­ries of Dontsova and Marin­ina, pulp fic­tion ad­ven­ture sto­ries, his­tor­i­cal works on the Great Pa­tri­otic War, "mur­der­ous Ban­derites", "Mazepa the traitor" and the "fail­ure of the project called in­de­pen­dent Ukraine". "High-brow lit­er­a­ture" was pub­lished for in­tel­lec­tu­als – the nov­els of Vic­tor Pe­lyevin and Vladimir Sorokin.

What was on the other side all this time? Which Ukrainian prod­ucts did a res­i­dent of the Don­bas have ac­cess to? The mu­sic in­dus­try did the best work. There were at least some well-known Ukrainian-lan­guage bands: Okean Elzy, Skri­abin, Vo­pli Vi­do­pliassova, Iryna Bi­lyk (yes, she still sang in Ukrainian back then). Of course, it was much less likely to hear them on ra­dio sta­tions than Rus­sians, but it was at least some­thing. Af­ter all, the film in­dus­try was in a much worse po­si­tion and over the first 25 years of in­de­pen­dence was un­able to pro­duce a sin­gle Ukrainian film that could claim cult sta­tus or at least be­come a no­table mass cul­ture phe­nom­e­non. Ukraine never had its own Danila Ba­grov from Brother, so Rus­sian char­ac­ters were printed on posters and young peo­ple spoke in lines from Rus­sian films.

No bet­ter was the sit­u­a­tion with Ukrainian books, which were, of course, pub­lished, but barely reached the East of the coun­try. Prior to the emer­gence of book­shop chains, in the era of book­stalls and in­for­mal trade on the streets, the cities of the East were to­tally dom­i­nated by Rus­sian prod­ucts. Ukrainian books could be found much less of­ten and Ukrainian writ­ers got lost against amid the diver­sity of the of­fer in Rus­sian.

Did a Don­bas res­i­dent have many chances to be­come a con­scious cit­i­zen of Ukraine and a Ukrainian in gen­eral? Of course not. Peo­ple grew up and their per­son­al­i­ties formed com­pletely im­mersed in the Rus­sian me­dia space. This au­thor knows what he is talking about, since he grew up and was ed­u­cated in such con­di­tions him­self. To be a Ukrainian in the Don­bas, you al­ways had to make an ef­fort.

The po­lit­i­cal cri­sis and 2014 war were largely the re­sult of this to­tal dom­i­na­tion of the Ukrainian cul­tural and me­dia space by Rus­sia. Un­til the sit­u­a­tion bal­ances out and Ukraine re­gains its lost po­si­tions, we will never claim a com­plete vic­tory. Our cul­ture must be able to win back the ter­ri­tory pre­vi­ously sur­ren­dered to the Rus­sians, just like the Ukrainian army re­cap­tured Slovyansk and Mar­i­upol from the en­emy. But for this pur­pose, it is nec­es­sary to in­vest money in cul­ture, as well as in the Armed Forces.

Cul­tural ex­pan­sion on its own ter­ri­tory should be­come a fun­da­men­tal task and a national project for Ukraine. This is no ex­ag­ger­a­tion. We gave up the ini­tia­tive on our own land long ago to a neigh­bour who, as we know, does not wish us joy and pros­per­ity. The de­fen­sive force of weapons is not enough. True in­de­pen­dence from Rus­sia will come when Ukrainian cit­i­zens stop quot­ing Rus­sian film char­ac­ters and send Ukrainian memes to one an­other on so­cial me­dia. Th­ese national prod­ucts do not nec­es­sar­ily have to be in the Ukrainian lan­guage, but they must be Ukrainian.

From a tech­ni­cal point of view, this prob­lem can be solved. Many coun­tries have fi­nan­cial support pro­grams for book pub­lish­ing and cin­e­matog­ra­phy, as well as a grant sys­tem for writ­ers. In re­cent years, the ball has started rolling again in Ukraine, but th­ese ef­forts are still not enough. It is im­por­tant to un­der­stand that huge amounts are not re­quired. To­day, the tens of mil­lions of hryv­nias al­lo­cated to the Min­istry of In­for­ma­tion and the Min­istry of Cul­ture are spent in­ef­fi­ciently and could be given to more de­serv­ing re­cip­i­ents. In­stead of sup­port­ing the "pro­pa­ganda min­istry", it would bet­ter to launch a com­pe­ti­tion with a large prize fund for Ukrainian-lan­guage rap­pers. Maybe then, our artists will pop up in the YouTube trends next to their Rus­sian coun­ter­parts. It is worth in­vest­ing in Ukrainian cul­ture to­day to save on in­vest­ments in de­fence tomorrow.


A blow on so­cial me­dia. Face­book blocked the ac­count of artist An­driy Yer­molenko af­ter he posted his works on the World Cup in the Rus­sian Fed­er­a­tion. How­ever, they still man­aged to be­come a meme

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