Thursday, 28 August 2014


I'm going to experiment with Twitter.

My account is @JCassian1  (I hope).

Longer posts will still be here.

Monday, 18 August 2014

Strelkov and Berezin: modern Don Quixotes? Fantasy in East Ukraine

We had fed the heart on fantasies,
The heart's grown brutal from the fare...

(W.B. Yeats: Meditations in Time of Civil War)

For all their professed contempt for the West, Strelkov and Co. seem to get a lot of their ideas from Hollywood. Strelkov’s conspiracy theory about the MH17 being full of corpses was straight from the TV series Lost. Now Strelkov’s deputy, Fyodor Berezin, has been taking his Matrix DVDs a bit too seriously, judging by a bizarre interview in Novaya Gazeta. He claims we are all just computer programmes and Strelkov may never have even existed.

There is a strange overlap between the war in eastern Ukraine and fantasy literature. Before he became a rebel bigwig, Berezin was a hack writer, who published dozens of pulp novels. Back in 2009, Arsen Avakov, now the Ukrainian interior minister, chaired the ''Star Bridge'' International Science Fiction Festival in Kharkiv. He noticed that a lot of the new Russian fiction in the military fantasy genre was about future conflict in Ukraine, including Berezin's Ukrainian Front, which imagines a confrontation between Russia and NATO in the Donetsk and Luhansk area. Other examples included Battlefield: Ukraine by Giorgi Savitsky and Russian-Ukrainian Wars by Alexander Sever. This led Avakov to ask: did the Russians want a war?

Last December, Strelkov himself published a children's fantasy novel, which could easily be seen as an allegory of the coming showdown between true Russian patriots and their treacherous Slav brethren, i.e. the Ukrainians. The title translates literally as The Detective of Castle Heldiborn (or maybe The Detective Story of Castle Heldiborn). It tells the tale of the inhabitants of Castle Heldiborn and their incessant wars with just about everybody else. Strelkov writes:

The masters of the castle – the knights of Heldiborn – were then, as now, terribly warlike. And this is no surprise. In those days there was not a trace of any fascinating sciences or arts. Ships did not cross the sea… What was left for the noble people to do? If foreign wars arose, they would journey to the border with the army of the Imperator; if there were none, they would fight their neighbours – knights like them. Or they would start all kinds of rebellions. It goes without saying that we, the keepers of the castle, the Ist-Limesy, helped our masters in everything they did and followed their example.

The Ist-Limesy are fantastic creatures based on the domovoi, a household spirit in Russian folklore (traditionally more famous for mischief-making than patriotic violence). The deadly enemies of the Ist-Limesy are their fellow domovie, the Piff-Paffs - nasty, treacherous creatures who help the knights of the evil Castle Buffenzig. Renata Lis sees a clear analogy between the Piff-Paffs and the Ukrainians. Castle Heldiborn is the sacred land which must be defended: Rus', Russia or the Soviet Union.

I predict that one day some Russian satirist - a Pelevin or a Sorokin - will produce an updated, blackly comic version of Don Quixote based on the current events in Ukraine. The hero, the Knight of the Sad Countenance Igor Strelkov, and his loyal Sancho Panza Fyodor Berezin will have their heads crammed full of cheap sci-fi and jingoistic Russian military history. Only this time, they won't be tilting at windmills, but shooting down civilian airliners. And this time it will be for real.

(Much of the information in this post came from Renata Lis in Rzeczpospolita and Oleg Khlebnikov  in Novaya Gazeta).

Sunday, 17 August 2014

Strelkov dead?

I was going to post about Strelkov's children's novel, but it can wait.

According to the Moscow journalist Yulia Latynina , the Russian warlord and author of The Mystery of Castle Heldiborn is no more.

She claims the Ukrainian army learned Strelkov's daily routine, including the location of his favourite Donetsk restaurant and the motel in Snezhne where he slept, and heavily shelled the area. Strelkov was fatally wounded.

I don't know how accurate this report is, but Strelkov has not been seen in public recently. On Friday it was announced that he was taking a month's holiday, a peculiar thing to do for the commander of a city under siege. He was also said to have left for Russia so he could train the army of "Novorossiya". None of this makes much sense, although Strelkov's deputy Fyodor Berezin has an even weirder explanation: Igor Strelkov may never have existed at all. But I'll save that for a later post.

Monday, 11 August 2014

Strelkov: more biographical details

Renata Lis has published a long article in the Polish daily Rzeczpospolita, which pieces together some more biographical details about the mysterious Igor Strelkov. Here are a few of her findings:

Strelkov models his distinctive look on the Russian General Alexander Arkadyevich Suvorov (as painted by the Prussian artist Franz Krueger). This is not the famous Suvorov of the Napoleonic Wars, but his grandson who took part in the crushing of the Polish uprising of 1830-31.

Strelkov fought in Transnistria, Bosnia and the two Chechen wars.

His friend Mikhail Polikarpov wrote a book about their adventures in Bosnia, Russian Wolves. Strelkov appears as the character Monarchist, obsessed with the Russian Civil War and happily shelling the houses of "Turks" (i.e. Muslims) with a mortar. (Recently, the Bosnian media has alleged that Strelkov was a comrade of the Serbian paramilitary Boban Indic and took part in rapes and killings in Visegrad).

In the late 1990s, Strelkov published The Bosnian Diary of Igor G. (i.e. Igor Girkin = Igor Strelkov).  Both Visegrad and Boban Indic are mentioned. The author tells of his delight at seeing Orthodox churches from the time of the White Russian emigration in Belgrade and his contempt for Serbs who fail to live up to his Pan-Slavic ideals.

In Moscow Strelkov belonged to the Markov Club, a military re-enactment society named after the White general Sergei Markov. Strelkov was even more fascinated by another White general, Drozdovsky, who famously marched across Ukraine, from the Romanian town of Iasi to the Don. [NB: Lis doesn't mention it, but Drozdovsky's men later allegedly buried him in a secret grave near Sevastopol].  Strelkov spent such a fortune on his hobby that Lis suggests this may have been the reason his wife left him. One of the biggest expenses was a heavy machine-gun, which Strelkov used in re-enactments of the Russian Civil War and both World Wars. He preferred to play the role of junior officers.

By most accounts, Strelkov is a teetotaller. In Polikarpov's novel, the Strelkov character uses the radio handle "Vodka", but this is probably ironic. Although the Russian military re-enactment clubs are notorious for their heavy drinking, Strelkov abstained and chose non-drinkers as part of his machine-gun crew.
Next post: Strelkov's fantasy novel for children