The Expired Time: View from a Frontline City
By Andrei Krasniashchikh
Translated by Tanya Zaharchenko
DNR, LNR, KhNR… But KhNR didn’t work out: not enough people, money, weapons; not enough hate. “Kernes saved Kharkov. Avakov saved Kharkov.” — Kharkov wants to think that it really is saved, but the subconscious knows: it isn’t. Sometimes things work this way: you are so eager to prevent the catastrophe, to stop the-worst-that-could-happen, that you create a way out, an alternative reality. And when the-worst-that-could-happen does happen, you stay in that other reality: “I’m hidden. I’m safe. Everyone is alive, everything is whole. No one will kill you.”
So there is this overall feeling that we’re all hidden, while the same thing that happened to Donetsk and Luhansk has also happened to Kharkov. We just don’t see it; we refuse to accept it. Your inner voice talks to you, its whisper growing louder — constant, insistent — that soon reality will reveal itself, and you will have to face it. You chase these thoughts away. You live as usual: working, doing something, going somewhere. But you don’t really do anything or go anywhere. You just can’t tear yourself away from your computer, newsfeed, television; you wait in fear for everything to be confirmed. And if only it did get confirmed! But it doesn’t.
You don’t live in the past, you don’t live in the future, and obviously, you are long gone from the present. You live in a different, expired time. A time that is pre-post-apocalyptic.
(KhNR didn’t simply vanish, either. It resurfaces, not just from time to time to send out a reminder of itself, but regularly, methodically. Gunfire at the regional military recruitment station and at the armor repair facility; Molotov cocktails flying into a cinema screening “Maidan”; telephone miners hitting the military hospital and the metro station — six times now — where the Malyshev factory is located. Diversions are constantly prevented: on the railway, in airports, and so on. So protests and demonstrations are just routine, everyday stuff.)
Anxiety disorder, neurosis of fear — yes, this is Kharkov’s diagnosis — is a “mental disorder caused by prolonged mental strain. It is characterized, first of all, by increased anxiety, sleep disorders, as well as by various physiological symptoms associated with the autonomic nervous system: headaches, dizziness, tachycardia, intermittent rises (or, sometimes, drops) in blood pressure and heart rate; cardialgia; dysfunction of the peripheral cardiovascular system; respiratory disorders”. In their lighter forms, anxiety disorders are treated with “physical therapy, relaxing massages, water therapy”. And, most importantly, with psychotherapy, “to help the patient comprehend, process the inherent connection and importance of something he does not want to grasp”. That pathogenic something. Acute stages, however, call for tranquilizers and antidepressants. An acute stage means panic attacks, severe irritability, hypochondria.
Things have probably gone too far now, and a relaxing massage will not help. Fear hangs over the city. The eyes of anyone you meet, anyone you talk to, are filled with apprehension that speaks louder than words. And even words, even conversations, are reduced to one topic: will it or will it not happen? And — how soon. Among the different scenarios, there are two main ones (fear feeds on facts and rumors) — invasion or internal coup d’état. Invasion: Kharkov is only a few steps from the border, and on that border Russian troops are standing, maneuvering and waiting for orders. Internal coup d’état: it’s KhNR, after all. Or maybe — more often — both of these together. And maybe simultaneously.
In expired time, rumors are no different from facts. A fact is that which falsifies; a rumor is that which distorts, swelling to outrageous proportions. Whether anything stands behind these facts or rumors, anything at all, is the main question that troubles everyone. Normally, things work like this: you combine differing opinions and opposing viewpoints, and then, as you seek the truth, you find a small grain of it, that tiny common denominator, which you grab and hold on to tightly. But in expired time — and this is, perhaps, its feature — opposing views do not reveal a common denominator, no matter how hard you look. If everything is white there, all is black here, and vice versa. So if one wants to be objective, he sinks into this desire like into an abyss, and he falls, he falls, until finally he understands: he will never reach the bottom.
Another feature: rumors not proven to be true do not affect or reduce the trust of new rumors. If an explanation is needed, then the time has not yet come, the deadline is postponed. This is how we waited for KhNR to overtake the city on May 1, on May 9, on June 28 — Constitution Day — but also between the holidays; in fact, on any weekend at all. And the Russian Federation’s intervention could start (but did not start) on May 1; then symbolically on May 9; then anti-symbolically on June 22, and then on and on, beyond holidays, up until the nearly-declared invasion on the night of August 9. It was the International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples, and the Day of Military Glory in Russia.
And the third feature: the shelf life of rumors is longer than their expiration date. The date passes, but no one sighs with relief. Predicted events do not take place, but in expired time, where there is no past, things cannot become the past: they do not depart and die. They get stored inside the mind as if they did happen, as facts. The number of times attacks and takeovers were heralded is the number of times they occurred. Like in a cyber-game: the expired time is virtual. «Game Over» — and everything starts all over again: same anguish, emotions, fears. «Game Over» — and again. Each subsequent round does not cancel the previous one; instead, they accumulate.
Fear hath a hundred eyes — so you see that which is invisible, and examine endlessly that which is visible. Every small thing is increased exponentially, and as it gets closer, it grows details and gets covered in them, until they finally break off and start growing their own details. Everything — even that which is not, an empty space — requires interpretation and receives it: pauses between words, pauses between gestures, pauses. All this can be a sign of that which is being prepared, is about to happen.
They call it the Sword of Damocles, but it is not the most accurate description. Every so often this sword slips down, and then it freezes again. But in essence, yes, the description is right: hanging by a thread, chimeric wellbeing, a constant threat.
“If it wasn’t for Kernes…”. Kernes — the city mayor — is one of those little things that grow and increase in size many times, thousands of times. The mayor of benches and playgrounds, of fountains and parks; the mayor of empty, useless raised crossings and, of course, the mayor of flowers. These are planted in Kharkov by the millions, to please his eye and perish forever. A waste of money, but — he’s the owner, it is up to him to decide how much to throw away and how much to put in his pocket, or why there are no roads, or why the new metro station is still unfinished.
The word “Kernes” in Kharkov brings up an incredible rush of emotion, love or hatred, publicly. He is Kharkov’s savior and its killer, the ultimate thief and the ultimate benefactor; a lukewarm Kernes does not exist here. In such circumstances, understandably, his figure gets highly folklorized. Not in the sense of becoming a hero of anecdotes (which can, in fact, humanize), but as a folktale hero. This phenomenon has long been explored: in “Bruder Hitler” (1939) Thomas Mann wrote:
There are traits of the legendary about it all — distorted, of course; but then, how much degeneration and distortion are there not in Europe today? The motif of the poor, woolgathering simpleton, who wins the princess and the kingdom; the ugly duckling who becomes a swan; the Sleeping Beauty surrounded by a rose-hedge instead of Brunnhilde’s circling flames, and smiling as her Siegfried hero awakes her with a kiss. “Deutschland erwache!” It is ghastly, but it all fits in, as well as many another folk tradition, mingled with debased and pathological elements. The whole thing is a distorted phase of Wagnerism […]
Hans the dreamer, Ivan the Fool, the Ugly Duckling and the rest — but through the specifics of local soil the figure of Kernes acquires other images and features. Among them, emerging from grassroots folklore, has long prevailed a “dwarf-like animated phallus” that rules the city. And now, after the odds-defying assassination attempt and his miraculous recovery, he is also Koschei the Deathless. Perhaps Koschei-golem, perhaps Koschei-Frankenstein, but in its pure form — an infernal creature of the underworld, a dark sorcerer of supernatural power, drooping over his gold (recall Pushkin), kidnapper of beauties who live in castle-like palaces (the City Council or any room in his Hotel National). Today this figure is quite visible, quite convex.
The image of Koschei successfully combines love and hate, so it suits supporters and opponents of Kernes alike. Gold is the subject of particular attention, and the fabulously rich Kernes (who gets Fifty Percent of all income to the city treasury and of any withdrawals from it) reportedly supplements out of his own pocket, according to the benefactor rumors, the peace and tranquility of Kharkov. He paid half a billion! To whom? DNR, LNR, KhNR, Russia. There are exact amounts, exact dates — because this is so important — until July 25 (although now until September). And then…
And then: DNR, LNR, KhNR. But not like in Donetsk or in Luhansk. Kharkov will not be demolished. Russia needs it. There are three hundred important strategic facilities in the Kharkov region (note, again, the exact figures). Kharkov will be taken gently, carefully. Meanwhile, according to rumors from the other side (leaflets, actually), “Kernes, the Russian accomplice, is preparing war in Ukraine”, and he will, after all, declare KhNR in Kharkov. So everyone can believe whatever he or she wants; everyone can ask or not ask rhetorical questions of oneself. And of all the rhetorical questions, the most rhetorical is also the most frequent one: “How come whenever Kernes leaves town (say, for health reasons), the city recovers, tensions decrease, all grows quiet and calm, no demonstrations, nothing, KhNR sits in its burrows — and when he comes back, everything starts all over again?” Kernes, too, officially asks this question of himself on the website of the City Council, and offers no answer. It’s a rhetorical question, after all. “What do you mean that my return intensifies separatist activity in the city. First of all, law enforcement agencies should be dealing with this.”
But the real-life Kernes does not really try to conceal his sympathies (business interests, rather than political principles). He was the organizer of the separatist congress in Kharkov on February 22, where it all started. On March 1 he gathered Oplot fighters, and transported people from Belgorod into Kharkov, for a “military-patriotic” rally, after which they stormed the Regional Administration building and raised a Russian flag over it. He promised support and legal protection to KhNR supporters, and indeed the court kept releasing them. Most recently, in the midst of war, as if in mocking, he gave an interview in which he called Putin “a quite effective, energetic, productive person” who deserves respect. (“I will not consider him an aggressor, as you suggest, and I say this openly.”) He also awarded the title of honorary citizens of Kharkov to Moscow oligarchs — Chairman of the Board of Directors of «Mos City Group» Pavel Fuchs and member of the Federation Council’s committee on defense and security Alexander Shishkin — his partners, apparently. Kernes-owned regional “Channel 7” is the only channel in Ukraine that still continues to broadcast a Russian television station, “REN TV”.
Kernes’s fan club on VKontakte calls him the president of Novorossiya. And if you think about it, who else? Not Yanukovych, obviously, right? Whether this president is the future one, the past one, the secret, the explicit — it’s all the same in expired time.
For now, till the time comes, the official website of the City Council says: “I hereby declare: while I run Kharkov, there will be no referendums and no KhNR in our hometown.” As well as: “Kharkov was, is, and will be part of a whole and indivisible Ukraine.” Was, is, and will be — the formula of expired time: everything is lumped together, and means nothing.
The twentieth century saw the Strange war, the Cold war, many unannounced wars. Putin’s war on Ukraine — a new kind of war — is still in the process of acquiring definitions: invisible, chimeric, hybrid, dis-informational, psychological. Expired time, as a part of this war, will also receive an accurate name one day. When Kharkov will emerge from its throes.
Andrei Krasniashchikh is a Kharkiv-based writer, essayist, and co-editor of literary almanac Soiuz Pisatelei («©оюз Писателей»). He lectures at the Karazin Kharkiv National University. A highly shortened version of this text in Russian has appeared in Kyiv’s Focus magazine.
Featured image adapted from Interfax: Беспорядки в Харькове: фотохроника.
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