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).

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