The Ghosts of Mariupol

“Is this darkness in you too?

Have you passed through this night?”

My aunt has switched into Ukrainian. When she found out that her cousins made it out of Mariupol into Crimea, she declared that they were no longer her relatives. I asked if it was possible that they were deported but received no answer.

105 days into the invasion, around 20 million Ukrainians been displaced: around 7.3 million have left the territory while the rest moved internally away from the conflict zones. When I visited in 2018, my uncle lamented that by then, around 4 million had departed, mostly as economic migrants like his own daughter, to Poland, Czech Republic, Germany, and otherwise westward. If we agree with Zizek that violence is a rupture that embodies something we cannot put into words, then war is an annihilating break in the very fabric of living. Reporters correctly note that this invasion has launched one of the largest migrations around the world, but what strikes me also is the gendered experience of war. Men die, women are displaced and trafficked, children are orphaned and stolen by the occupying force, soon to be indoctrinated into a new set of beliefs to be made into subjects of imperialist state power. The scale of this migration (half the population disrupted) and the leveling of the east by the Russian army is terrifying. Those who survived, will they ever return? How long will it take to clear Donbas, let alone to rebuild it?

When I asked my dad to explain what some of the weapons I saw in videos and Telegram pictures, we lamented at the range of weaponry deployed in this war. I am blessed to have been naive to this knowledge until now. “All the different ways to kill people — so much innovation in human history; it’s the most profitable business,” he said, and since then, I have been thinking about the connection between technological development and capitalism’s death drive. This force beyond itself that consumes life to keep going. This is the true terror: one would think that technology would be developed to improve human life, to extend and ameliorate, but the drive for profit, that need for capital to circulate, requires that human life be fed into the great vortex, that sacrifices be made for some alien force, a truly awe-inspiring inhuman power that feeds on life. To what end and for what purpose? It costs to destroy a life, but who creates life? Who brings one forth, raises her, feeds her, cares and tends for the body, consoles and entertains, instructs and guides? The labour of women, the labour of communities re-creating more life to feed into the dehumanizing void of this amazing totality.

This is the ghost that hangs over Mariupol. This is the imprint of the new kind of authoritarian power that flattens in its wake. 700 millions dollars flows into the coffers of this state every single day, millions of families are asked to sacrifice their children for destruction, for an idea. It’s the interconnectedness of it that escapes easy understanding, the interplay of systems that depend on each other. While one arm chops down, the other hands forward a solution to reduce the harm.

It is about these ghosts that I find myself dreaming, when I am not having night terrors. In these dreams, I suddenly discover connections to Mariupol about which I forgot, about a secret history and friends forgotten, who now appear only to die shortly. The facts overwhelm, but the meaning is hard to integrate: the news of 50–100 bodies being found per apartment tower, the bulldozing of the destroyed buildings along with the corpses inside them, the million animals dead through artillery, mines, and fires. Can one go back to the day before being marked by the sorrow of this knowledge? I was happy once, I think, but now I am transformed by this devastation and by the inability to do much about it. I feel my face deaden. How strange, to have the innocence of not knowing. The trauma of the media-rich environment: of seeing too much but knowing very little.

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Lydia Zvyagintseva

Speculative librarianship, labour, power, technology. I am interested in land education.