“The Front Runs Through Us”

The public event ‘Decolonising Russia’s War in Ukraine’ (26 March) gave first-hand insights into the experiences of Ukrainians and others under Russian militarism – much closer than some might imagine to those of the Global South under western imperialism. Co-organisers Vlad Vazheyevskyy, Sasha Shestakova, Anna Engelhardt and Michał Murawski report. Read on for a guide to the day’s highlights, and to learn how the war kept interrupting the proceedings. 

Against the Empire of the Kremlin

The war on Ukraine should be seen as a colonial war, and the Russian Federation as a colonial construction. This was our contention in this day of talks, film screenings and conversations dissecting Russia’s brutal war against Ukraine as a colonial enterprise. The first half of the programme was taken up by a symposium bringing together in conversation artists, journalists, filmmakers, academics and activists from Ukraine and beyond, speaking in person or via video link from Ukraine and across the world. The second half centred on two Ukrainian films,  Letter to a Turtledove (2020, by Dana Kavelina) and  No, No, No! (2017, by Mykola Ridnyi). The full programme and video recordings are available on this link.

The symposium began with a minute of silence called by Vlad Vazheyevsky, a Kyiv-raised artist and Goldsmiths Politics and Performance undergraduate.  The Ukrainian filmmaker and journalist Maskym Eristavi and interviewer Anna Engelhardt explored the potential of decolonial perspectives as a weapon against Russian propaganda; and the relentlessly sequential, trans-epochal nature of Russia’s methods of colonial erasure, subjugation and resource-pillaging. Researcher Sasha Shestakhova read fragments of Chechen anticolonial historian Abdurahman’s Avtorhanov’s prophetic text “Empire of the Kremlin”, translated by Maksym Longvinov for the purpose of the symposium. Documentary filmmaker and writer Oleksiy Radynski explained that among the outcomes of the war would be the dissolution of the Russian state as we know it, and even of Russia as a coherent political entity. The artist and anthropologist Darya Tsymbalyuk highlighted the extent to which a resource-extractive colonial logic pervades Donbas, the Donets Coal Basin, an industrial-economic region encompassing Ukraine’s Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts, founded in part by British industrialists and consolidated in the late 19th century heyday of Russian resource imperialism. Historian Victoria Donovan spoke about the private, public and institutional decolonial archives coalescing in the course of Ukraine’s resistance against Russian imperialism.

Trauma on repeat

Ievgeniia Gubkina is an architect and Kharkiv-based historian of Ukrainian Soviet modernist architecture. She delivered, via video link, a deeply affecting analysis of the colonial logics written into Ukraine’s built heritage. Her native city of Kharkiv – which contains some of the most important, monumental modernist 1920s/1930s buildings in the world – has been partially razed to rubble by Russian shelling and bombardment. Entire residential districts, administrative facilities and public buildings, including schools and universities, have been razed to the ground. Gubkina had watched footage of Kharkiv’s destruction on repeat since the beginning of the war in an effort to, as she put it, “reappropriate the trauma”. It worked, she said, offering a hopeful assessment of the way in which Ukraine’s wounds can be sublimated into the process of reconstruction; and of how post-war reconstruction can itself take on decolonial forms.

The war tangibly irrupted the conference proceedings time and again. During the break between the discussions of the symposium and the film programme, we chatted to a Ukrainian architect friend, Anna Kamyshan, who had travelled to London to deliver a lecture about her work as Programme Director of the Babyn Yar Holocaust Memorial Centre in Kyiv – which was bombed by Russia on March 1 – and was now displaced from her family and from her home in Kyiv. Anna showed us a photograph of the mutilated menorah monument in Drobitsky Yar, erected in 2002 by the Kharkiv architect Oleksandr Leibfried, a ravine outside Kharkiv in which 15,000 Jews were shot and buried by German Nazis in 1941. The Jewish side of her family had been shot in Drobitsky Yar and lay buried in its mass graves. Now, one Shabbat morning 81 years later – the morning of the day on which the symposium took place – Russian Nazis destroyed a monument to their memory erected in independent Ukraine. That same morning, her mother, brother and grandmother in Lviv were also forced into bomb shelters as this city, in the far west of Ukraine near the Polish border, came under Russian bombardment.

As the film programme began, two of the Lviv-based online participants – curator Olexii Kuchanskyy and filmmaker Mykola Ridnyi – relocated into their bathrooms to gain protection from shards of glass which would be sent flying in the event of a Russian bombardment.

Epistemic resistance

Odesa-born, Kansas-based cultural theorist Vasily Chernetsky opened the film programme, speaking of how and why Ukrainians are subjected to epistemic violence – not only by Russian colonisers but also by certain practitioners of westsplaining – but are also powerful actors of epistemic resistance.

Film programme curator Olexii Kuchanskyy – speaking from a Lviv under attack from Russian bombs – demonstrated – through their own words and through the moving images of filmmakers Dana Kavelina and Mikola Ridnyi – the extent to which Russia’s denial of Ukraine’s political, cultural and ideological legitimacy constitutes a form of double sexual-economic “gaslighting”. Russia’s war gaslights Ukraine not only through its enactment of masculinised sexual violence, but also through its literal, ritualised setting ablaze of Ukrainian gas and oil depots – including the Lviv depot bombed that same day – and by its integration with Russia’s hyper-masculinised project of blackmailing the global economy through coercive control over gas and oil valves.

Dana Kavelina’s hypnotic Letter to a Turtledove (2020) combined archival footage from the 1930s Stalinist industrialisation of Donbas and grainy smartphone and dashcam footage from Russia’s 2014 war on Ukraine. Mykola Ridnyi’s No, No, No! (2017) is an ode to young Kharkivites living in fragile proximity to war and to the borders of an irredentist empire. Both films evidenced the durational as well as the experiential intensity of the war.

Kuchanskyy’s interviews with Kavelina and Ridnyi, interrupted as they were by poor internet connections and by the necessity for the participants to physically adjust to the threat of Russian bombardment, played out in continuity with the broken collage rhythms of the films themselves, which did their best to reflect the sensory, emotional and physical ruptures which words and ideas could not adequately capture.

As Kavelina said, speaking of the images she saw of this “cheap war for cheap gas” from her site of displacement in Germany, there were just so many images of dead children, of mobile crematoria, that any kind of philosophy or critical theory loses any sense of meaning or utility. How can a war so cheap, so shitty, reap a human cost so high?

The film programme closed with Kuchanskyy’s interview with Yulia Serdyukova and Sashko Protyakh of Freefilmers, a Mariupol-based film collective now focusing on fundraising and humanitarian work. There is a continuity, they showed, between established infrastructures of filmmaking and newly-consolidating support networks. The whole country, they explained, is holding on through the “small gestures of connection” between close people linked to each other – without which the surface-level support provided by institutions would have nowhere to anchor.

From Mexico’s La Frontera to Ukraine’s Front

As the day came to a close, we continued our conversation wth with Ievgeniia Gubkina about Drobitsky Yar via WhatsApp. The designer of the menorah memorial, she said, was an architectural historian, her mother’s teacher. Drobitsky Yar, situated in the south-east of Kharkiv in the vicinity of the (architecturally distinguished) tractor plant, one of the main subjects of Gubkina’s research, is right on the front line. A phrase she has heard uttered by several people since the beginning of the war, Gubkina said, is “the front runs through us – we have to run” (in Russian, front prohodit cherez nas – nado bezhat’). One of the people who spoke these words, Gubkina said, was her mother. “We’re KhTZ [Kharkiv tractor plant] locals. So it [the front] is there.” The front runs through them. I remembered a quote from the Chicana feminist theorist Gloria Anzaldúa, “the border runs through me”. Anzaldúa continues, “It may have scabs, it may have created scars, but it’s my identity. And I am proud of it.”

The vernacular war speech of the Ukrainian-Russian borderlands, then, echoes – but intensifies, and collectivizes a poetic phrase spoken by a radical feminist of the Mexican-American borderlands. Anzaldúa’s words refer to the decolonial sublimation of pain into pride, while Gubkina speaks of the decolonial sublimation of trauma into architectural, cultural and social construction and reconstruction. This echoing of colonial experience and decolonial discourse and desire between the Mexican-American and the Ukrainian-Russian frontier speaks to one of the ways in which continuities, distinctions and kinships between the experiences of people in the Global South and the post-Soviet space can arise. This mirroring makes clear the extent to which Ukrainians, Central Asians, people from the Caucasus and other subalterns of the post-Soviet world must be understood and accepted as victims of colonial violence; and – as the heroic resistance of Ukrainians to Russia’s war resoundingly demonstrates – as powerful, transformational agents of decolonial resistance.

The Event page, with full programme, speaker bios and video recordings is available via this link.

Anna Engelhardt is a artist, who in her research-based practice investigates infrastructural politics of post-Soviet cyberspace, with her PhD focused on Russian cyber warfare as a colonial enterprise. Her investigations take on multiple forms of media as they develop over time, including publications, videos, websites, and physical objects. Her works were shown at Transmediale 2022, Venice Biennale Architettura 2021, Ars Electronica 2020, Strelka Magazine, 67th International Short Film Festival Oberhausen, and Kyiv Biennial, among others.

Michal Murawski is Lecturer in Critical Area Studies School of Slavonic and East European Studies, University College London, the Director of FRINGE Centre for the Study of Social and Cultural Complexity and Convenor at PPV *Perverting the Power Vertical* Politics+ Aesthetics in the Global East. He published The Palace Complex: A Stalinist Skyscraper, Capitalist Warsaw and a City Transfixed (Indiana University Press, 2019) and is co-editor (with Jonathan Bach) of Re-Centring the City: Global Mutations of Socialist Modernity (UCL Press, 2020).

Sasha Shestakova is a researcher from Russia, looking at art and infrastructures from a decolonial perspective. In their Phd project they address the temporal dimensions of Russian and Soviet colonialism, looking at its art histories. Their texts have been published by Parse Journal, Journal of Visual Cultures and Kajet Journal among others. They have also delivered talks at Transmediale 2022, Venice Biennale Architettura 2021 among others.

Viad Vazheyevskyy (Svet) is a Ukrainian performance artist and writer currently studying at Goldsmiths. In their work they focus on decolonisation and queer liberation, most recently putting on a performance on the Chechen LGBTQ+ Purges.

Featured Image: The Menorah Monument in Drobytsky Yar Holocaust Memorial, outside Kharkiv (Kharkov), before it was damaged. Adam Jones, CC BY-SA 2.0 , via Wikimedia Commons.

Note: The views expressed in this post are those of the author, and not of the UCL European Institute, nor of UCL.

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