In Ukraine people talk nonstop about the army and soldiers. What else is there to talk about? Hope lies with the soldiers and there is strong support for the soldiers. And of course they are part of all political debates – from culture to fighting corruption. You hear comments like: "When our soldiers return from the front, they will brush away all the corrupt officials." Or: "You are playing concerts while our soldiers crouch in the trenches?" No one stops to consider what the soldiers think about all this. To get their opinion would mean travelling to the war zone. And their thoughts could be uncomfortable. It is much easier to project your own opinion onto the army and to create a picture that reflects your own position. A picture in which the army embodies every possible virtue, but in which nuances are superfluous. The problem is not that reality doesn't reflect our ideas, but rather that our ideas reveal more about our anxiety and complexes than they do about how we perceive reality.
Ukrainian society does not allow soldiers to contradict these widespread ideas, the beautiful and simplified image so successfully built up by state propaganda. In the fourth year of the war, the fourth year of death and permanent threat, many of us ignore the fact that the army creates a simple but fairly accurate image of society. It is a mirror image of us and our ideals, our dreams and our weaknesses. We are the army too. When we talk about the heroes of this war, we just need to go onto the street and see what we encounter.
We met him at his battalion's base camp. We wanted to drive back from a small place near the front in the evening, back to the quiet town of Kharkiv in the hinterland. He asked if we could take him with us. He wanted to go from Kharkiv to Poltava, where he now lives. On the way, we got talking. He hailed from Donetsk, where he ran a company. In the spring of 2014, he joined the pro-Ukrainian rallies that began in the east of the country. The separatists became aware of him as he was a well-known figure in the city. Somebody warned him just in time, and he got away. Of course he had to leave everything behind. He moved to an area which was under Ukrainian control and volunteered for the front. This was not easy, because the administrative apparatus reacts at a snail’s pace to both moods and needs. Eventually he joined a volunteer battalion. For the third year in a row he has fought a few dozen kilometres from his apartment, where someone else now lives. He still speaks Russian and is nothing like a TV star. Probably he is not prepared for this role at all - like most of the Ukrainians who took to their streets in their cities in the winter of 2013/14 to protest against the old regime, or who de facto built up the Ukrainian army in spring and summer 2014. The creation of the new heroes began the moment the first victims were mourned on the Maidan, the central square in Kiev. Back then I believe that many of us understood that we were not just witnessing another political crisis, but rather witnessing and participating in decisive and bloody events. Historic events, as the useful phrase goes - events that change a country's history, and which change its image of a hero. Heroes later serve as reminders and as symbols for the events which they contributed to.
The Ukrainian revolution ended with the shooting of demonstrators on the streets of Kiev. Soon after the phrase "the heavenly hundred" was coined, referring to fighters who spilled their blood to show there would be no going backwards. Soon the phrase found its way into the official language. Portraits of the heavenly hundred are not just hung in public areas, but they adorn school walls. In the movement for civil society, people were declared heroes, but in no time at all this definition was adopted by the new leadership. The dialogue around the events of four years ago has been moved closer to the state. The discourse is distorted because the civil society's need to create new heroes unexpectedly coincides with the official ideological line.
The first deaths in the Ukrainian army in the spring of 2014 shocked us. From the beginning onwards the names of the fallen soldiers were honoured. Many internet videos show how the Ukrainians responded: Dozens of people falling to their knees when the funeral procession passes. At the same time, the behaviour of the "other side", the separatists and Russian leaders, is emphasized. It is said they kept their casualties secret and buried their fallen in nameless graves. The propaganda materials from Moscow and the occupied territories show that portraits of fallen separatists are hanging in the streets of Donetsk. Probably both sides are working on creating a new hero.
Despite all the propagandistic rhetoric and ideological asides, the creation of a new heroic image is very important for Ukrainian society. This can be explained by its history, which previously was based on the nation's defeats and failures. The new hero must be a winner; he must serve as a substitute for a new ideology: Ukrainians no longer want their identity to hinge on defeats and compromises. This difficult and painful way of transforming many things that are essential for society began on the Maidan and continues to this day. And it will continue, at least until the war is over.
One example of this is the stylization of the Ukrainian "cyborgs" into heroes, the soldiers who defended Donetsk Airport in 2014 and 2015. The term "Cyborg", which the separatists had circulated, has firmly established itself in the Ukrainian media.
The slogan "heroes don't die" has often been heard repeatedly over the last four years. During wartime, many statements ring true, which during peace would put people off with their pathos. It is a society which is recognising heroism in the actions of its fellow human beings and wants to forge a new collective memory, one with space for personal or collective heroism and which reflects the new reality.
The new hero is pushing aside its predecessor. This is painful. One symptom is the removal of the communist heritage, which also includes a collective renunciation of the old heroes. I remember a discussion I had with Maidan opponents in Kharkiv in February or March 2014. It was about the demolition of the Lenin Monument. It was important to my interlocutors that the monument remained in place as a sacral symbol, although they could not explain its sacral content and reduced the whole discussion to the familiar phrase "this is our history". Actually, they should have said: "This is our version of history, this is history as it was taught to us and we accepted it with all its heroes and antiheroes". This conflict and the incompatibility between old and new heroes are dramatic. This difficult process will not only change the topography of the city, the names of streets and squares, it will also change the inner topography: one's own perception, one's understanding of the world. Not everyone is ready for this. Nobody is prepared for new heroes, nor for the fact that the old ones are dying.
It's hard to draw any conclusions from all this. The war continues, killing and destroying hundreds. And as long as no one can say when it will end, it is difficult to predict how it will affect society and what role heroes will play. How will they feel in a country that is emaciated from the prolonged war? How certain will they feel in a state that is not prepared to engage in dialogue with its citizens? How naturally will they fit into a cultural and media dialogue that repeatedly succumbs to the temptations of simplification and ideological conjuncture? We, the Ukrainians, should be clear about one thing: Every hero is first and foremost a living human being, who is less in need of worship than the basic support and solidarity from those who are not heroes.
Translated from Ukrainian by Claudia Dathe