The saying goes that truth is a casualty of war. That is so. Thus when Russia attacked the railway station in Kramatorsk, killing fifty civilians, Moscow first boasted about and then denied the strike. But sometimes it is the lies that bring about the war in the first place.
So it is with the city of Sloviansk, Kramatorsk’s neighbor in the Donbas. Eight years ago, Russian forces tried and failed to hold Sloviansk. If the current war proceeds as expected, Sloviansk will soon be a Russian goal again. As a regional transportation hub, Sloviansk is of some strategic significance. But its real meaning in Russia’s war is as the backdrop for an enduring and powerful fiction.
When Russian forces retreated from Sloviansk last time, in July 2014, Russian media spread a notorious lie about Ukrainian atrocities there. That specific piece of propaganda can help us to understand the ideology behind the war now (and anticipate Russian propaganda to come).
By 5 July 2014 the Russians had withdrawn from Sloviansk. Six days later, on 11 July, the Russian army began to shell the Ukrainian army in the Donbas -- from the territory of the Russian Federation. The next day Russian media distracted from both of these events with an outrageous lie. The most important channel on Russian television told an entirely invented story about a non-existent three-year-old Russian boy crucified by Ukrainian soldiers on Lenin Square in Sloviansk.
This tale seems to have been the creation of the Russian fascist intellectual Alexander Dugin, who had published it on social media a few days earlier. Dugin is a believer in what he calls "archetypes," foundational cultural constructs, can be deployed to allocate guilt and innocence. Thus the calculated choice of a defenseless small child as the victim and the crucifixion as the method of killing.
Nothing about the story was true, and it was refuted by independent Russian journalists. There is no Lenin Square in Sloviansk. The image nevertheless quickly became established. Years later I was still asked about it in Europe and the United States.
With the vivid fiction about Sloviansk, Russian television had staged, for a domestic audience, a classic reversal of perpetrator and victim. A horribly lethal series of artillery barrages from Russian territory were obscured. Not long after, the regular Russian army would enter Ukraine in force, establishing the Russian domination of parts of the Donbas that it controls to this day. Its soldiers referred specifically to the Sloviansk lie as their motivation. They said they were in Ukraine “for the children.”
Inside Russia, the artillery attacks and the invasion of July 2014 were not reported. Instead, the imaginary figure of the non-existent crucified boy was used to define Ukrainians as Satanists, Nazis, and so on. The axiom that Russia is always innocent (a small crucified boy) and the associated pathos is present now in Putin's speeches about this war.
Indeed, this notion of permanent innocence became one of the bases for the official Russian hate speech, deployed consistently against Ukrainians for the last eight years. These images associating Ukrainians with depravity have been pervasive for much of the lifetime of the Russian soldiers at war in Ukraine today. This is presumably one of the reasons Russian soldiers have killed so many Ukrainians civilians in the zones that they have occupied.
The Russian missiles that struck Kramatorsk a few days ago, killing children, were labeled "for the children." This is where the inversion of perpetrator and victim leads. Actual children have to die because of a myth of Russian innocence, which seems to remain unbroken regardless of what Russian leaders or Russian soldiers actually do.
Sloviansk was drawn into unreality, into a larger Russian story, one in which Ukrainians were the aggressors and Russians the defenders. In order to prove that story true, Russia must now try to take Sloviansk again, must pursue an insane war of destruction. That can only kill more people in Sloviansk, more Ukrainians generally, more Russian soldiers.
If the Russians take Mariupol, or when Russian forces start an offensive in the Donbas, we will likely hear more fictions. This time around, Europeans and Americans are less naive about Russian media than we were in 2014. It is in Russia that the older fictions have had the most enduring and profound effect.
The lies of 2014, far from helping Russia to win an easy war, have ended up drawing Russians themselves into a harder war, and one that they could lose. The big lies told back then have become bigger with time. Ukrainian soldiers and civilians were and are the first victims, but in the end Russia itself has fallen into the mendacity trap it set for itself.
When we ask about the causes of today's war, we should not forget yesterday's lies. Yesterday's clever invention is today's article of faith. And today's article of faith is tomorrow's storming of Sloviansk.
PS: a bit of bibliography:
For a collection of wise first-person reportage from 2014 from the Donbas, including Sloviansk, see Paweł Pieniażek's Greetings from Novorossiya.
Stanislav Aseyev's In Isolation, about to published in English, is a study of the workings of Russian propaganda in occupied Donbas from 2015-2017, which ends with the author's incarceration in the eponymous concentration camp, run by the Russan secret police.
For literary treatments of the last war in the Donbas, start with Serhyi Zhadan’s The Orphanage, just released in English last year.
The background for the emergence of unreality politics in Russia can be found in Peter Pomerantsev's Nothing is True and Everything is Possible, the title of which is a reference to Hannah Arendt's Origins of Totalitarianism. The subject of unreality in 2014 is picked up by Marci Shore in her Ukrainian Night, which has just been released as an audiobook.
I describe these events at greater length (and with the primary sources) in Road to Unfreedom.
On the deeper history of the region, see Hiroaki Kuromiya's Freedom and Terror in the Donbas. If you happen to read German and have access to a good library, Tanja Penter's Kohle für Stalin und Hitler is worth tracking down.