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21 June, 2018  ▪  Denys Kazanskyi

War and Memes

How to overcome Russian cultural domination

Even schoolchildren know that wars today are not only fought on the front lines. Wars can be economic or informational and the battlefield has long been not only the real world, but also cyberspace, where the weapons of choice are not tanks or artillery, but words, images or memes.


The active phase of the Russian-Ukrainian war, as is well known, began in 2014, after Russian troops invaded the Crimea. It is much less often remembered that the invisible informational and cultural war for hearts and minds between Russia and Ukraine began much earlier. While on the front lines Ukraine managed to withstand and contain the enemy’s onslaught and even regain part of the seized territory, its successes in the culture war have been much more modest. In this aspect, as before, the Russian Federation feels that it is fully in charge and reigns over most Ukrainian territory.


Since 2014, it has been common in Ukraine to stigmatise and reprimand separatists and collaborators in every possible way. It goes without saying that people who hate their own country rouse little sympathy from anyone. But at the same time, we almost avoid asking ourselves the main question, which should be a priority: how did it happen that a large number of our citizens became traitors? Why do millions of our compatriots openly or implicitly sympathise with the aggressor in the current war? Why do people with Ukrainian names and surnames often think and speak like inveterate Russian nationalists and Black Hundredists.


Without understanding such key things, the war against Russia can only be put on hold, but never won. More or less the same way as it is now. The front line in the Donbas has barely moved for a couple of years and is basically on pause, but few doubt that Moscow will not stop there. The fertile ground on which the 2014 conflict blossomed has not gone anywhere. Millions of citizens sympathetic to Russia still live in Ukraine, which Moscow can use at any time to justify further invasion, which was already observed after Yanukovych fled to Rostov. Russian President Vladimir Putin said long before the war that Russia ends where the Russian language ends. There is a grain of truth in this, because while Russian troops can be stopped by a line of fortifications, it is not so simple to block Russian cultural and informational expansion in the Russian-speaking community.

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To withstand a hostile army, you need to have your own with a comparable amount of weapons and level of training. In order to resist the enemy in a war of content, you must be able to create your own content that is comparable in terms of volume and quality. In this field, Ukraine's successes are even more modest than its military advances. The country's cultural space, as before, is largely controlled by Russia. This endlessly generates "pro-Russian Ukrainians" – citizens of Ukrainian origin who live entirely within the Russian cultural and media space and think more like Russians than Ukrainians.


The concept of memetics – the theory of self-copying units of cultural information (memes) – has been part of international science since 1976, when the term was coined by British researcher Richard Dawkins. In terms of the number of memes created, Russia has been far ahead of Ukraine for a long time. This applies to almost any memes: in the narrow sense of the word (images online) and the broad one (music, popular quotations, iconic films). For some people, this issue may not seem so serious. But memes ultimately form our consciousness. They shape a person's attitude towards reality – in particular, they prompt people to take up arms and support one side or another in a military confrontation.


Instead of cursing a Ukrainian from Slovyansk or Luhansk who decided to join the pro-Russian armed forces in the Donbas, we should ask ourselves what prompted him to do this. Only by understanding the causes can we deal with their consequences. As soon as we begin to study this issue, we will immediately see that the chances for inhabitants of industrial cities in the East of the country to become patriotic citizens were slim.


Imagine a resident of the Donbas who was born in the second half of the 1980s and is about 30 years old. From birth onwards, he existed in the Russian media space, surrounded by Russian memes. At first, he watched Soviet cartoons and children's series like Guest from the Future. Then with the proliferation of pirate video cassettes, he moved on to Hollywood productions, dubbed by Russian translators: their voices engraved themselves into the memory of anyone who lived through the 1990s and have also become a meme. In his teenage years, he began to listen to Russian rock groups that were popular among the youth of the time, like Kino, Ariya, Alisa and Grazhdanskaya Oborona, and learned to strum courtyard classics on the guitar. Everywhere – at school discos, on the bus, at the market – he was surrounded by Russian music, pop or chanson. At the turn of the century, Russian films like Streets of Broken LightsBrother,Brigada and Bimmer started to come into fashion. Popular quotes from these films – "What is power, brother?", "Whoever is right is strong", etc. – entered the vernacular. These Russian superheroes were of dubious quality – crazy veterans of the Chechen war, cops and bandits – but they had to do, because we had none of our own.


If our Donbas native wanted to read, he went to the local book market, where a wide range of Russian titles were sold: the detective stories of Dontsova and Marinina, pulp fiction adventure stories, historical works on the Great Patriotic War, "murderous Banderites", "Mazepa the traitor" and the "failure of the project called independent Ukraine". "High-brow literature" was published for intellectuals – the novels of Victor Pelyevin and Vladimir Sorokin.

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What was on the other side all this time? Which Ukrainian products did a resident of the Donbas have access to? The music industry did the best work. There were at least some well-known Ukrainian-language bands: Okean Elzy, Skriabin, Vopli Vidopliassova, Iryna Bilyk (yes, she still sang in Ukrainian back then). Of course, it was much less likely to hear them on radio stations than Russians, but it was at least something. After all, the film industry was in a much worse position and over the first 25 years of independence was unable to produce a single Ukrainian film that could claim cult status or at least become a notable mass culture phenomenon. Ukraine never had its own Danila Bagrov from Brother, so Russian characters were printed on posters and young people spoke in lines from Russian films.


No better was the situation with Ukrainian books, which were, of course, published, but barely reached the East of the country. Prior to the emergence of bookshop chains, in the era of bookstalls and informal trade on the streets, the cities of the East were totally dominated by Russian products. Ukrainian books could be found much less often and Ukrainian writers got lost against amid the diversity of the offer in Russian.


Did a Donbas resident have many chances to become a conscious citizen of Ukraine and a Ukrainian in general? Of course not. People grew up and their personalities formed completely immersed in the Russian media space. This author knows what he is talking about, since he grew up and was educated in such conditions himself. To be a Ukrainian in the Donbas, you always had to make an effort.


The political crisis and 2014 war were largely the result of this total domination of the Ukrainian cultural and media space by Russia. Until the situation balances out and Ukraine regains its lost positions, we will never claim a complete victory. Our culture must be able to win back the territory previously surrendered to the Russians, just like the Ukrainian army recaptured Slovyansk and Mariupol from the enemy. But for this purpose, it is necessary to invest money in culture, as well as in the Armed Forces.

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Cultural expansion on its own territory should become a fundamental task and a national project for Ukraine. This is no exaggeration. We gave up the initiative on our own land long ago to a neighbour who, as we know, does not wish us joy and prosperity. The defensive force of weapons is not enough. True independence from Russia will come when Ukrainian citizens stop quoting Russian film characters and send Ukrainian memes to one another on social media. These national products do not necessarily have to be in the Ukrainian language, but they must be Ukrainian.


From a technical point of view, this problem can be solved. Many countries have financial support programs for book publishing and cinematography, as well as a grant system for writers. In recent years, the ball has started rolling again in Ukraine, but these efforts are still not enough. It is important to understand that huge amounts are not required. Today, the tens of millions of hryvnias allocated to the Ministry of Information and the Ministry of Culture are spent inefficiently and could be given to more deserving recipients. Instead of supporting the "propaganda ministry", it would better to launch a competition with a large prize fund for Ukrainian-language rappers. Maybe then, our artists will pop up in the YouTube trends next to their Russian counterparts. It is worth investing in Ukrainian culture today to save on investments in defence tomorrow.

Translated by Jonathan Reilly

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