A pro-Western, NATO-backed Ukrainian government faces a stubborn insurgency in the pro-Russian East. Fighting rages around Donetsk, with civilians dying in artillery fire and airstrikes, while Russian troops mass on the Ukrainian border. The latest headlines? No, a two-novel series by Russian-Ukrainian science-fiction writer Fedor Berezin: War 2010: The Ukrainian Front and War 2011: Against NATO.
In a startling plot twist, Berezin, a 54-year-old former Soviet Army officer and Donetsk native, is now living inside a real-life version of his own story: He is deputy defense minister of the embattled “Donetsk People’s Republic.” And this is just one of many bizarre overlaps between fantasy and reality in the current conflict in Eastern Ukraine—a convergence that prompted one Russian commentator, novelist Dmitry Bykov, to dub this conflict “the writers’ war.”
Berezin’s War 2010/War 2011 books, published in 2009 and 2010, respectively, were no uniquely prophetic vision; actually, they were the last in a string of novels depicting a near future in which Ukraine becomes a battleground in a larger East-West confrontation. A forerunner of the genre, Omega, by veteran sci-fi/fantasy writer Andrei Valentinov, came out in 2005, shortly after Ukraine’s pro-Western Orange Revolution. It depicted three alternate-history versions of 2004, one of them a dystopia in which Crimea had been invaded and occupied by NATO forces in 1995; while the main characters were resistance fighters, they were both anti-Moscow and anti-NATO. (Valentinov, a Russian-speaking Ukrainian whose real name is Andrei Shmalko and who lives in Kharkiv, one of Eastern Ukraine’s major cities, has professed equal distaste for “Russian chauvinists,” “Ukrainian nationalists,” and “American globalists”; more recently, he has strongly affirmed his loyalty to Ukraine.)
A far more straightforward vision of Russian good vs. Western evil is offered in The Age of the Stillborn by Gleb Bobrov, who like Berezin is an ethnic Russian from Eastern Ukraine (Luhansk) and an Afghanistan war veteran. The apocalyptic novel, set in a near future in which a brutal Kiev regime seeks to quash rebellion in the East with NATO help, was first published online in 2006 and became a hit on the Russian Internet before going to print in 2007. Donetsk citizen Grigory Savitsky made his literary debut in 2009 with Battlefield Ukraine: The Broken Trident, which depicts a scenario uncannily similar to Berezin’s saga, right down to 2010 as the start of the war. The back cover summary refers to “ ‘Orange’ Nazis” who provoke a civil war in Ukraine and unleash genocide against the Russian-speaking population, “wiping entire cities off the face of the earth”—aided by NATO “peacekeeping” troops and American air power.
The stream of Russo-Ukrainian war literature published in Russia at the end of the 2000s—both speculative fiction and conspiracy-theory nonfiction—alarmed Ukrainian politician Arsen Avakov, then governor of the Kharkiv region and now Ukraine’s minister of internal affairs. In an emotional March 2009 post on the Ukrainska Pravda website titled, “Do the Russians want war?” Avakov suggested that the books were part of a deliberate Kremlin strategy to build up popular support for war against Ukraine by playing to Soviet nostalgia among older readers and ignorance among younger ones.
Avakov was particularly scandalized by Berezin’s involvement in the orgy of anti-Ukraine saber-rattling—because, in yet another quirk of fate, the two men knew each other fairly well from their Ukrainian science-fiction fandom. In his spare time away from politics, Avakov happens to be a sci-fi enthusiast; he founded and co-chaired the annual sci-fi/fantasy convention in Kharkiv, Star Bridge. (Launched in 1999, the convention was indefinitely suspended in 2012 due to squabbling between Avakov and Kharkiv’s new pro-Russian mayor, Gennady Kernes.) Berezin was a Star Bridge regular for years and won numerous fiction awards at the convention, starting with first prize in the “debut novel” category for his 2001 novel Ash. “I know Fedor personally!” Avakov lamented in his post, sparing no punctuation marks in his dismay. “How could he let himself be pulled into such things???”
Five years later, Berezin and Avakov are literally on the opposite sides of the barricades. Avakov, who stepped down as governor in 2010 after the Orange leadership in Kiev fell to the pro-Moscow Viktor Yanukovych and then joined the new government after Yanukovych’s ouster in February 2014, urges tough action against the rebels in the East and bluntly refers to them as “terrorists.” Berezin is one of those rallying the rebel troops—and waging war in the social media, directing his zingers at the “Ukros,” “Maidowns,” “little Nazis,” and lovers of “gaymocracy.”
After joining the “people’s army” in Slavyansk on May 29, Berezin was promoted to deputy defense minister of the self-proclaimed Donetsk Republic just a few days later. Announcing Berezin’s appointment on VKontakte, the Russian equivalent of Facebook, “defense minister” Igor Strelkov openly gushed about his deputy’s sci-fi connections (and his own odd mix of military experience): “Considering that [Strelkov] is a historian and battle reenactor, it boggles the mind to think what we can do with a science fiction writer who is an anti-aircraft defense officer to boot!”
(Strelkov, a Russian citizen and former security services officer whose real name is Igor Girkin, is himself a newly minted fantasy writer; his recently published book of children’s fairy tales, The Detective of Haldyborne Castle, has no direct connection to Ukraine but does extol militaristic virtues, in this case exemplified by a tribe of house gnomes who help the warlike lords of their castle fight against a villainous rival clan.)
Meanwhile, Berezin’s own LiveJournal update about his new appointment began with the words, “I have found myself in an alternate reality.” A grainy video he recorded a few days later, which opens with the strains of the World War II–era Soviet battle hymn, “Arise, great country!” certainly has an air of alternate reality about it as the surprisingly soft-spoken, bespectacled man—who really does look the part of middle-aged sci-fi nerd more than military commander—urges the men of Donetsk to take up arms and defend their homeland against the enemy at the gates.
At a rally in Donetsk in late June, Berezin told the crowd that the obvious goal of the Kiev government was to drive all the Russians out of Eastern Ukraine—“to blatantly steal our land and give it to the Americans and the Europeans.” It sounds like a page from Berezin’s own novels. Yet in early July, after Strelkov and his men had fled from Slavyansk to Donetsk to make their last stand, Berezin told a correspondent from Rossiyskaya Gazeta, the official newspaper of the Russian government, that the truth of the civil war had turned out to be more terrifying than his fiction. For one, most of the Eastern regions’ population had woefully failed to follow his script and join the insurgency. And besides, Berezin claimed, the actual Ukrainian army had turned out to be worse than the fictional Turkish occupation troops in his series: “In the books, the Turks were actually more humane.”
In fact, Berezin’s novels are arguably not very high on humane attitudes toward enemy Ukrainians. The first volume in his saga, War 2010: The Ukrainian Front, ends with a scene in which a Ukrainian officer captured by the insurgents is summarily hanged for collaboration with the occupiers. “It would be good to hang him in front of a big crowd, right in the middle of Lenin Square … and leave him up for a week or so—let the crows have some fun and peck out his peepers,” says one of the good guys, while another adds that “various supporters of Atlantic blocs ought to be marched to the spot every day so they can get a whiff of what treason smells like.” The leader of the rebel group, Dmitry Gavrilovich, warns the younger men against “cynicism” and tells them that disposing of traitors should be viewed as “dirty, unpleasant work” rather than fun. But the author himself treats the final moments of the bound-and-gagged condemned man as a source of gleeful amusement: “Of course, Danilo wanted very badly to scream—so badly that he actually peed his pants. Dmitry Gavrilovich turned out to be right: It really was the dirtiest work you could imagine.”
As you can see, this is not exactly brilliant prose. But did it help instigate a war? In his essay on “the writers’ war” in the independent Novaya Gazeta, Bykov goes so far as to say that the conflict in Ukraine was “predicted, meticulously planned, and finally executed” by sci-fi and fantasy writers. This is an exaggeration, and Bykov, who is known as something of a provocateur, concedes near the end of the essay that he did not mean it literally. (Interestingly, Bykov is the author of his own speculative epic, Living Souls, in which Russia is plagued by civil war and chaos after the discovery of a new wonder energy source robs it of both revenue and relevance.) Yet the exaggeration has an element of truth: The quasi-futuristic thrillers in which pro-Western Ukrainian “Nazis” seek to slaughter or enslave Eastern Ukraine’s Russian population certainly helped prepare a fertile ground for the most paranoid charges against the current government in Kiev. And many of the people involved in the armed conflict probably do see it, on some level, as a chance to act out their fiction-driven war fantasies.
Real life, unlike Berezin’s and his comrades’ fiction, currently seems very unlikely to end in the victory of the East’s pro-Russian rebels. No one knows as yet if the leaders of the “Donetsk Republic” will flee to Russia, fight to the death, or face Ukrainian courts. In any case, Berezin has told Rossiyskaya Gazeta that if he gets out of his predicament in one piece, he will churn out fiction “at machine-gun speed.” Perhaps he can write a novel in which a battle re-enactor and a military sci-fi writer team up to stage war games played with real bullets and rockets and real blood. It won’t be too far-fetched.