What a viral video says about Ukrainians’ defiance of Russian occupation
In a determined but also slightly nervous voice, he tries to close the conversation with “OK, I listened to you”. But she persisted. “Who are you? What are you doing here?” He had a menacing Kalashnikov in his hands. She only had a packet of sunflower seeds. She was wearing her usual black coat, the one you wear when you go to the farmers’ market in the winter. He was in army fatigues, the modern kind that has pockets everywhere to carry ammunition. He spoke with the certainty of military orders. She with the certainty that comes from moral indignation. The video of their conversation in Kyiv has gone viral.
Her: Who are you? … Are you Russians?
Her: What are you… (expletive deleted) doing here?
Him: This conversation will lead nowhere
She: You are occupiers! You are fascists! You came to our land. Why did you come here with weapons?
Him: We… who said
Her: Take these seeds, so the sunflowers will grow when you die here.
Him: This conversation will lead nowhere. Let’s not make things worse. … Please.
She: How could we make this situation worse?
Him: Please, let’s not make things worse.
Her: Guys, put these seeds in your pockets. Take these seeds. You will die here with them. You came to my land.
Him: Ok I listened to you.
Her: Do you understand? You are occupants
Her: You are enemies
Her: From now on, you’re cursed.
Listening to the conversation, I was immediately reminded of Nobel Laureate Heinrich Böll’s powerful and evocative essay, “The gun was pointed at Kafka.” I had read it four decades ago, but I still remember the scene it describes so vividly. Set in 1968, in the spring when Soviet tanks had entered Prague, Böll describes a fleeting encounter in the town square between a woman and a soldier. The young soldier stood next to his tank whose gun turret was aimed at the statue of Kafka. His colleague sat inside the tank, watching the world from the open hatch. A woman was passing. There was both urgency and hostility in his approach. She had a dog on a leash. She stared straight ahead as if the tank was invisible, as if to make it invisible. The young soldier tried to humanize the situation and bridge the distance between occupier and occupied by leaning down to pet the dog. In most situations, such gestures of friendship always work. This time the dog growled at him, a “stay away or I’ll show you” growl. It was as if the woman’s hostility had crossed the leash to her dog. The soldier was surprised. He was embarrassed because he didn’t know what else to do. They don’t teach you the next steps in military school and he was too young to understand the occupation ideology. He was just following orders. He was a little dog. He was a great man. But he backed off even though he had a tank with him.
The conversation between the soldier and the woman in kyiv reminded me, once again, of the absurdity and tragedy of war. The Truth of Yudhisthira. There was pathos in the exchange. The soldier, finger on the trigger, says “please” twice to the angry woman, begging, even imploring her “not to make matters worse”. She, unaware, or rather unaware of the danger of her trigger finger, offers him a packet of sunflower seeds, telling him that the life within them will surely come out, sprout on his grave. She curses him. Almost stoically, he accepts her curses. Was she just talking out of anger? Was she prophetic about the future of Ukraine? Does she denounce the war everywhere? Does she speak like a soldier’s mother? Do curses work?
But beyond the strangeness of this Kafkaesque situation, where normality has been upended and immense suffering has spread, where terrified children are cowering with their mothers in underground shelters, I have tried to give a meaning to the absurdity of a future historian’s perch. Are we witnessing, in Ukraine, the agony of an autocracy? Is it the cruel lesson of this history that when autocracies die, they do so in madness and with innocent bloodshed? Is the tragedy being played out in the rattle of the Ukrainian autocracy?
The flood of images on the web points to this conclusion. The bloodied face of a woman, injured by a stray bomb, looks at the camera without understanding but with defiance. Queues of people queuing to receive arms from the government as they announce their intention to form a civilian resistance army. The MP standing by the window of her apartment with her self-loading rifle ready to defend the idea of a democratic and European Ukraine. The father, gun in hand, sobbing as he sends his wife and child to a town far from the conflict while he stays to defend not only his country, but his child’s future. The mayor of kyiv, a boxer, announces that he is ready to go all the way, blow for blow, to repel the occupiers. Women preparing Molotov cocktails in an open square to fight off the oncoming army. The man standing in the way of the military convoy, daring them to crush him in what looks like a live-action rehearsal of that iconic 1989 shot from Tiananmen Square. The internet is full of such resistance graphic visuals. This is the new site of democracy’s fundamental principle of “popular control”. No autocrat can manipulate such widespread resistance. Youth blogs, their videos, memes, Twitter posts, documentaries and photo uploads show that people power has overtaken the Russian military who seem bewildered by this unexpected challenge. The soldier who received the sunflower seeds, I’m sure, must be wondering if the curse of the woman, of her death, has any power.
Obviously, the Russian leaders had not read Heinrich Böll. Pointing the gun a second time at Kafka makes no sense. But will selfish leaders ever learn or think they are the most gifted in history who will succeed?
The author is Visiting Professor DD Kosambi at the University of Goa, India. Views are personal