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The Language of War: Exploring the hatred sparked by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine

Oleksandr Mykhed is among the voices that sketch an emotional map of rage against Putin’s attack on his neighbour

Oleksandr Mykhed: 'My hatred flows from the small things to the big ones. Every fibre is filled with it. Hatred towards the smallest particle of Russian collective consciousness and to their greatest symbols.' Photograph: Yurii Stefanyak/Global Images Ukraine via Getty
The Language of War
Author: Oleksandr Mykhed
ISBN-13: 978-0241690840
Publisher: Allen Lane
Guideline Price: £18.99

Oleksandr Mykhed is a writer who left the ranks of literature to serve in the Ukrainian territorial defence forces in the war with Russia.

His is the main voice in The Language of War but there are others: Yevhen Tereshchenko is now a full-time soldier; Lara Yakovenko is an artist now in exile; Yevhen Spirin is a journalist who has taken on the macabre task of exhuming bodies from mass graves; and the author’s mother Tetyana Mykhed is a literary scholar who with her husband survived the terrible events that took place in Bucha and Hostomel. There are also stark statistics supplied by Roxolyana Gera, a lawyer who has devoted her time to chronicle the atrocities, civilian casualties and infrastructural devastation carried out by the Kremlin’s forces.

Of all the voices, Mykhed’s is the most strident. His emotions, with some justification, tell him all Russians are bad.

He hates them all equally: “My hatred flows from the small things to the big ones. Every fibre is filled with it. Hatred towards the smallest particle of Russian collective consciousness and to their greatest symbols.”


But emotion and logic are uncomfortable bedfellows. Russian literature, in Mykhed’s view, is used to promote imperialism and in some cases he has a point. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn was lionised in the West for his opposition to communism but returned to Russia to spout the type of great Russian nationalism that strongly influenced Vladimir Putin’s views and actions. But would the same apply to the poet who took the nom-de-plume Anna Akhmatova? She did after all bear the Ukrainian surname Gorenko and was born in the Ukrainian city of Odesa. Mykhed, as a sign of disdain lists her as “akhmatova” along with “tsvetaeva, bulgakov and bunin” without their initial capital letters.

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He also frequently uses the portmanteau word ruscism which connects Russia with fascism and racism and demands that all Russian culture should be subject to international opprobrium.

Poor Tchaikovsky has already been banned by some western musicians simply because of his nationality but were he alive in today’s Russia he would be persecuted as a gay man.

Dostoevsky is Mykhed’s most frequent target as a symbol of Russian imperial ambitions but during his lifetime, he was imprisoned and subjected to a mock execution by the imperial authorities in St Petersburg.

Mykhed makes no exceptions. All Russians must bear collective guilt. Dmitriy Muratov, the editor of Novaya Gazeta who sold his Nobel Prize medal to raise more than $100 million for Ukrainian refugees, is deemed to be as guilty as Yevgeny Prigozhin, whose murderous Wagner mercenaries massacred Ukrainian civilians.

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The genuine emotional reasons for Mykhed’s hatred are best set out in Roxolyana Gera’s dispassionate chronicles of events which make up a significant part of the book. Her contributions are without embellishment. They are simple statements such as: “17 November, Viliansk, Zaporizhzhia region. Night missile attack on private residential dwellings. Nine dead.”

There are dozens of these short unadorned reports giving details of deaths, rape and infrastructural destruction.

Civilian deaths in Ukraine, at the time of writing, run to more than 30,000.

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Yevhen Spirin, the journalist who exhumes bodies, is from the city of Luhansk, known to its Russian-speaking inhabitants as Lugansk and to the older Soviet generation as Voroshilovgrad after Stalin’s lickspittle field marshal, Kliment Voroshilov, who came from the now battle-scarred town of Bakhmut.

Spirin studied at the Luhansk University. He notes the divisions in loyalty in the city. “My classmates, university mates, a bunch of acquaintances remained there in support of the LDPR (Kremlin-backed Luhansk Democratic Peoples Republic).

“Why is that, guys?” he asks. “You and I used to eat from the same plate.” Spirin no longer thinks of Luhansk as his own home place.

Lara Yakovenko’s story is a familiar one: packing personal belongings, medication and pets for the journey away from the war with her 80-year-old mother. Since I served as an observer for the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe, almost all of the women employed as my local assistants and their friends have left Ukraine with their young families for safety elsewhere. One is now living here in Ireland.

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Yevhen Tereshchenko is a professional soldier who has seen the bloodiest of battles. One of his friends is a retired Russian officer in Crimea. Their exchange of views in the book, in stark comparison with Mykhed’s views, is remarkable for its lack of bitterness.

And Mykhed’s mother, Tetiana, in her contribution reveals, ironically, that her mother Raisa, Oleksandr’s grandmother, was from Russia.

In conclusion, Mykhed tells us: “The stories I need now are simple. They should have rage, love for the homeland and life according to the laws of the Old Testament. This is how I tried to write The Language of War.”

He is torn, he tells us, between wanting to forget what has happened and wanting never to forget it.