What's going on in Ukraine?

Silencing and backtalk: Scenes from the Crimean Occupation

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

There’s a phrase in Russian, tikhiy uzhas, “quiet horror”. For some in Crimea, that would summarize the week between March 4 and March 11 .

Ukrainian and Crimean Tatar television channels broadcasting in Crimea had their broadcasts jammed and their channels eerily replaced by Russian state television.
Embed from Getty Images

After Putin declared in a press conference that Russia officially had no troops in Crimea (as mentioned in my last post), it seemed no mistake that the invading and occupying forces wore battle fatigues without identifying insignia as to country of origin, rank, or personal identity. Rumors accelerated as to why; most centered on reasons why Putin and his advisers were laying the grounds for plausible deniability. These uniformed-but-uninsignia’d troops are the ones locals have nicknamed “little green men.”

Ihor Kirushchenko

Ihor Kirushchenko of the Republican Party of Ukraine, phoned, uttered the words, “Farewell. They’ve come for me,” after which he disappeared and his phone gives a recording saying it doesn’t answer any more.

In Crimea, nine pro-Ukraine activists from a variety of political parties have been disappeared by some of those uniformed, unidentifed men. [The gentlemen pictured here, Ihor Kirushchenko of the Republican Party of Ukraine, phoned, uttered the words, “Farewell. They’ve come for me,” after which he disappeared and his phone gives a recording saying it doesn’t answer any more.] Five of the disappeared persons were later released and appeared on the southern Ukrainian mainland city of Kherson, according to the news agency Ukrainska Pravda.

Crimean residents woke up one morning last week to find the doorways of homes and apartments occupied by Crimean Tatars marked. Crimean Tatars are an ethnic minority, deported en masse from Ukraine by Stalin after World War II to Central Asia, welcomed back by the post-Soviet Ukrainian government. Polls taken February 18-28, the eve of the invasion, asking who on Crimea preferred union with Russia found among Crimean Tatars the statistically improbable figure of 0.0%. Again, the doorway marking was reportedly done by armed, unidentified men.

Un-insignia’d and thus officially unidentified men are knocking on doors across Crimea, starting with Crimean Tatars. The armed men knock, ask to see all residents’ passports, and then pocket the passports. When explanation has been given, residents are told that passports will be returned sometime after March 16, i.e, after the referendum on seceding and joining Russia. The implication, in a place where a passport is voter id, is that mass, methodical falsification of this Sunday’s secession referendum is already underway.

Arsonists destroyed a Crimean Tatar hotel and two cars yesterday.

Ukrainian journalists in Crimea have been attacked.

Russian attempts to seizures of grounds and outbuildings of Ukrainian military bases in Crimea escalated. Ukrainian forces, so far, resisted provocations to start a shooting war.

Tikhiy uzhas.

And, on the other hand, the occupying troops have been the object of questions, comments, harangues, supportive demonstrators, and in some cases (as posted in my previous entry re Ukrainian troops) gifts of food from local Crimean residents taking pity on their self-reportedly un-provisioned posting.

The clip below opens with a guy in camo approaching a person holding a camera.  His orange-striped ribbon identifies him as pro-Russia.  “Lady, do you want your camera broken?” “No.” “Then get it out of here.” She moves on. The footage then shows bored occupiers on playground equipment.  “Greetings!  Are you having a good time hanging out here?”  The voice behind the camera at one point quietly asks, “Are you from Russia?” “Yes.” “How long will you be here?” “I don’t know.” It then shows two sets of demonstrators at the gates of an occupied base. One is mostly men; towards the beginning of the clip, they adopt and modify the recent Ukrainian protest call and response (“Slava Ukraine – Heroyam Slava” = Glory to Ukraine – Glory to the Heroes): one says “Slava Rossiyei” (Glory to Russia) and another answers “Putinu Slava” (Glory to Putin). The other group of demonstrators, mostly women, talk back. “We can yell too,” says one woman. The second group features a man carrying a church-processional cross and a woman chanting liturgy. One person pointedly yells, as if in retort to all of the above, “Slava Isusu Khritosu” (Glory to Christ Jesus); someone else chimes in “Slava vsim” (Glory to everybody).

Two women stand together, one rolling her eyes and having a chuckle (around minute 3:20). “This is about our own land [or their own land – Russian is ambiguous],” says her companion soberly. “This is not a laughing matter.” Our land? Really? “This is already Russia,” says the first quietly.  (This footage is from March 11, days before the secession referendum). The second is not having it. “Not Russia. In Ukraine, we could do something, we could make something of ourselves. In Russia, no such thing. If in Belarus they can’t even clap without censorship, soon we won’t be able to laugh or [referencing the small group of protesters] even to stand where we want.” “They need to settle it quickly,” says the first with a smiling head-shake, perhaps explaining her opening laugh. “They won’t let us get through to a ladies room,” the other explains, finally allowing a hint of a smile.  [This clip, from youtube and circulated on facebook, is shot by a group identifying itself as realnost.com (“Reality.com” in Russian), calling itself a “documentary net.”]

Even sparsely attended pro-Russia demonstrations have been photographed from angles so that television footage makes hundreds out of dozens. However, after a week of demonstrators and journalists roughed up and the roads in major towns planted with row upon row of Russian flags, over the week pro-Ukraine sentiment had largely gone to ground.

In yet another clip, from March 15, the day before the referendum, shows one elderly woman forcefully explaining to Russian troops, “We don’t need any of your protection from anyone.” [The justification given for the invasion was to protect citizens of Crimea from riotous fascists who, it is claimed, have taken over Kyiv.] “I’m not afraid of anybody.” A guy in a red jacket interposes himself. “Take yourself away from here, lady.” She resists, telling the soldiers, “Fear is psychological slavery. We are Ukrainian. Your presence here is a provocation, meant to scare us.” A guy in a black jacket says, “You are a provocateur, grandmother,” edging her away until she is pushed to the ground. When one of her female opposing interlocutors helps her to her feet, she pushes the help away.  [This video is from the website of liga.net, a Ukrainian news source.]

This is the form that the bloodless war has taken in Crimea. Troops on both sides seem under strict orders not to take the first shot. That doesn’t mean that orders would have withstood nerves and fears. The mutually intelligible linguistic facilities of occupier and occupied have been instrumental in keeping tense stand-offs from devolving into bloodbath. Ukrainian troops, officers, and especially locals query, harangue, or encourage the little green men and each other. Techniques aimed at official silencing and unofficial self-silencing are one part of the story. All the while, though, the Ukrainian version of occupation is a series of intensely dialogic moments.


8 thoughts on “Silencing and backtalk: Scenes from the Crimean Occupation

  1. Pingback: Recap of Ukraine Coverage | Anthropoliteia

  2. Angie says:

    this is such an insightful gift of a posting. I am struck by the shifts from the protest call-and-response space to the church ritual space. what does the final call ‘glory to everyone’ suggest? on another note, I wonder what kind of reception these stirring clips have gotten (on reality.com and liga.net)…is there any sense of how viral these clips have gone and is there a ‘comments’ section for bloggers or activists which gives us some idea of how the videos are hitting the public and mobilizing viewers?

    Liked by 2 people

    • Monica Eppinger says:

      Angie – Brillers. Your zeroing-in on the call-and-response gets right at the heart of the dictions and contradictions in the clip. A little more background, in case it’s of interest: The call-and-response heard in this video is an improvisation on the mantra of the protests in Kyiv this winter (the protests that ended up toppling the Ukrainian government). A speaker from the soundstage of the Kyiv protest Square would say, “Slava Ukraini!” [Glory to Ukraine!] and the crowd would reply “Heroyam Slava!” [Glory to the heroes!]. This was initially frightening to some looking on or watching protests on t.v. at home, because that call-and-response had been the slogan of an anti-Red Army Ukrainian partisan group during WWII. (“Anti-Red Army” in Western Ukraine could, at that time, also have meant pro-German Army group, at least before Ukrainian nationalists realized that Naziism meant to exterminate or enslave them too.) The slogan was appropriated in occasional use during the 2004 Orange Revolution, but altered: if the crowd called “Slava Ukraini!” [Glory to Ukraine!], the speaker on the dias more often than not would answer “Slava kozhnomu z vas!” [Glory to each one of you!] Starting in the December 2013 protests, the crowds were using the original, circa WWII, wording but with very different meanings in mind. So despite earlier associations with exclusive nationalism, by 2014, the call-and-response Slava Ukraini! – Heroyam Slava! had lost its ethnicity. It became so commonplace that even for those in Ukraine not participating in the protests, the phrasing no longer rang with the jarring association with WWII fascism that Soviet history books had so effectively drilled in.

      That background is what makes the call-and response in this clip kind of hilarious. Instead of Glory to Ukraine-Glory to the Heroes, a pro-Russia protester hollers, Glory to Russia! and another hollers in response, Glory to Putin! One of the pro-Ukraine protesters, among the persons reciting liturgy and holding the cross, then interjects Glory to Jesus Christ! and then comes a small voice in Ukrainian, Glory to everyone.

      Reciting liturgy and holding the cross reads, at least to me, as scared people hoping that reference to church will keep violent reactions at bay. This clip was taken in a small town in Crimea, Perekopnoe, just a few days after the invasion. The local Ukrainian military was besieged in its base, surrounded by armed men wearing uniforms with no insignia. The pro-Ukraine demonstrators must have known that no one was riding in from Kyiv or anywhere else to oust the invaders. They also must have known that in a town this size, there would be no anonymity safeguarding them into a future in which the invasion would become normalized.

      Your comment points to the creation of a liturgical performance space in an unsanctified space and among, or as part of, the demonstration. I had also been thinking lately of the resemblance between the call-and-response Slava Ukraini – Heroyam Slava! and some Orthodox liturgical calls-and-responses. If the protest movement in Ukraine this winter marks the emergence of a civil religion (which is one way the cult of the constitution is referred to in the American legal academy), it is a passionate one.


      • Monica Eppinger says:

        And, Angie, one quick reply to your query about what kind of response the clips are getting in cyberspace … Your question inspired me to look up realnost.com. Based in Saint Petersburg, Russia, it is a web/t.v. documentary series of people filming their everyday life. Participants are auditioned by a casting director and then, apparently, set loose. I couldn’t find any information about personnel or financial backing on the group’s website. (http://realnost.com/realnostproject)

        The posting of this Crimea realnost clip on youtube attracted 30,593 youtube views in the 13 days since its March 11 upload, and 192 comments, many so vile that a shoulder injury in my mousing arm started to throb as I clicked through them. They tended towards generalized anti-Ukrainian or anti-Russian taunts; most were written in Russian language; with some — despite their vehemence — I could not tell whom they were against or the country of origin of the author. Some were directed against the woman who made the video, and those tended to assume she and/or the realnost.com project were a project against the Russian government. Honestly, I couldn’t read them for long because my arm just started killing me.

        You raise a great question, though, and have inspired me to build up the stamina so that eventually I can read through and attempt analysis.


  3. Dianabuja, Hakka ne! (as they would say in Abjua). Here, too, the circulation of discourse if fascinating. The Russian government kept really tight operational security before the Crimean invasion; the NYT and WSJ both reported today on U.S. signals intelligence failing to detect pre-invasion chatter, for example. One wonders how much advance notice the Russian MFA had, or was able to provide its diplomats in the field. And one wonders what those diplomats, far out of the circles of discourse circulating in media at home (where public opinion polls report 94% support for invasion of Ukraine), make from afar of the close-to-home maneuvers conducted by the government they represent.


  4. Pingback: Crimea: Skirmishes and Signals in a (mostly) Bloodless War | Anthropoliteia

  5. Pingback: Little green men: Russia, Ukraine and post-Soviet sovereignty | Anthropoliteia

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