What's going on in Ukraine?

Bakhtin at the front

The editors of Anthropoliteia would like to welcome a special guest post from Monica Eppinger as part of our developing Forum What’s Going on in Ukraine?

I’m an anthropologist of law and other serious speech acts, with fieldwork concentrated in Ukraine. Meg and Kevin asked me, “What’s going on over there?” I’ll try to give a range of possible answers in a series of posts.

Over the weekend, after reports of foreign troops taking over Crimea circulated in Kyiv, one prominent Ukrainian took to the internet urging several resistance tactics. Some were predictable: national unity, “information warfare.” But one was not: laughter. His reasoning was, it’s the best way to counter those whose tactics are meant to inspire fear and hatred. Plus, it has the advantage of surprise.

Troops taking over (or besieging) Ukrainian military installations and neighboring residential neighborhoods across Crimea have faced a sea of cell phone-cameras. In the initial footage that’s reached me, I’ve noticed a second “secret weapon” at Ukrainians’ disposal, discourse. Ukrainians have not lost the intense passion for or engagement in discourse that Alexei Yurchak describes marking the late Soviet period.  The readiness to engage in it seems to take the interlocutors by surprise.

And so, this footage: On the front, armed with discourse and laughter.  In this encounter, a Ukrainian journalist interviews men who have taken over a Ukrainian installation in Balaklava, Sevastopl (a part of Crimea, Ukraine). The journalist is, himself, questioned by women standing nearby (who seem to be local employees of the installation, or family members of employees). (Even if you don’t understand Russian, you can get the flavor of the interaction.)

The men are in unmarked uniforms but one wears a baseball cap with the name of a Russian city, Ryazan (where a famous paratrooper school is located). The journalist asks the men why their uniforms have no insignia. His line of questions is as much inquiry as it is an invitation to self-reflection along a certain logical argument.

— He says, “What do you call it when the armed forces of a foreign country occupy the territory and government installations of another country? That’s called war, isn’t it?”
— He points out, “Sooner or later, war means death.”
— He reminds them that their president (Putin) is insisting that there are no Russian Federation troops in Crimea, only local “self-defense forces.”
— He asks them, “So why don’t your uniforms have any insignia? Your beautiful country, your beautiful president, has sent you here in uniforms without any identifying marks.” His camera investigates: No country indicators, no rank indicators, no flags, no nothing. [He zooms in on the only identifying mark on the battle-ready newcomer, which is a Batman pin.] “Don’t you realize, when the shooting starts, your country is not going to acknowledge you as its soldier? How do you want to be remembered after your death?”

Heavy questions, light touch. And such bravery.

Monica Eppinger is an Assistant Professor at the Saint Louis University College of Law. She has extensive experience in diplomacy, serving nine years as a diplomat in the U.S. Foreign Service with tours of duty at the U.S. Consulate General in Kaduna, Nigeria; U.S. Embassy, Kiev, Ukraine; and at the State Department in Washington, D.C. where her responsibilities included policy in the former Soviet Union, Caspian basin energy development, and West African security. Her research concentrates on sovereignty and selfhood. Her main areas of expertise include property, national security, and international law.

5 thoughts on “Bakhtin at the front

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  5. Monica, a few more questions about discourse … In your view, has this “secret weapon” been present throughout the period that you’ve been studying Ukraine? If so, does that, in your view, change or complicate your understanding of the late Soviet period? You mentioned aphasia in another post, and Yurchak’s work here, I’m just wondering whether the Ukrainian case challenges how you/we should look at late Soviet stagnation… in this case in the realm of discourse.


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