„Is it possible to do something in a situation of shock, paralysis, fear, coming in waves, rendering all exertion meaningless?“, the artist collective Chto Delat asked itself when their longtime project on the theme of archives was suddenly overshed by the horrors of the war in Ukraine. Chto Delat was founded in early 2003 in Petersburg by a workgroup of artists, critics, philosophers, and writers from St. Petersburg, Moscow, and Nizhny Novgorod with the goal of merging political theory, art, and activism. Their publication on archives, memory and the future went to press on the 22nd day of the war. It contains a collection of views from the anti-war position of Russian artists and critics, as a gesture of unconditional support for the anti-colonial struggle of the Ukrainian people for their independence and dignity. Here a text by the philosopher Oxana Timofeeva, trying to digest the „nightmare“ that turned into reality.
Oxana Timofeeva on Denial
On February 24, I woke up earlier than usual, and somehow didn’t wake up completely. I had an early train from Petersburg to Moscow. In a taxi on the way to the station I read the news: Russia had attacked Ukraine. There was a lump in my throat. On the train, video screens broadcast patriotic Soviet films about World War II, about brave young soldiers and their loving girls. We know these films from childhood, we remember from Soviet history lessons how Hitler attacked the USSR, and these soldiers and their girls, our grandparents, defended our homeland from the Nazis. Some sort of ominous repetition, only with everything turned upside down; now it is our army, and not some foreign army, that is invading the territory of another state, just as Hitler once did - in the early morning, without declaring war.
I wanted to pinch myself, rub my eyes. Maybe I still hadn’t completely woken up, and this new reality was just the continuation of a dream? This happens with lucid dreams, when in a dream you suddenly realize that you are asleep - as if waking up, but not in reality, rather in some kind of a gap, a limbo between reality and a dream. This limbo has the structure of a labyrinth that stretches out into the depths. The more I wake up in my dream, the deeper I actually fall into sleep; the dreamworld sucks you in like a swamp. A dream within a dream, like an endless dizzying fall, reveals the bottomless depth of the unconscious. I descend into the depths of myself as into a coal mine, where memories of what has not yet been and a premonition of what has already been, are compressed, becoming one substance.
On the morning of the 24th, many of us woke up inside a nightmare, as if we all had one shared unconscious. Everyone fell into one terrible dream, any attempt to get out of which leads even deeper into the labyrinth. I live in Petersburg. There is a large screen on the building where I live, on which advertisements are usually broadcast. Now the screen shows a huge semi-swastika - the letter Z, used as a sign of support for the war. Already many buildings are displaying half-swastikas, as are many cars, and the helmets of the National Guard, who grab those who came out with posters "For Peace".
On the morning of the 24th, many of us woke up inside a nightmare, as if we all had one shared unconscious. Everyone fell into one terrible dream, any attempt to get out of which leads even deeper into the labyrinth.
The word "peace" can no longer be spoken, just like the word "war". It is forbidden to call things by their names. Language is subject to the logic of negation, as described by Freud in analyzing his patient’s statement that the woman he saw in a dream was not his mother. Negation is the way in which truth makes its way to consciousness through the sanitary cordons of censorship. Not just any truth, but one that we would prefer not to know, because knowing it is unbearable or simply incompatible with a calm, peaceful life. Such is the truth of the war, which has been denied since 2014, when Russian soldiers were supposed to have stumbled accidentally onto the territory of Ukraine.
The war was already going on then, but secret, undeclared. What happened on February 24 was the moment of its revelation, the apocalypse in the biblical sense - the moment when that which is hidden becomes visible, when murderous power can no longer solve its main problem - how to hide the corpses, these material traces of the war they are denying. What was developing latently suddenly exploded in such a blast that cities are turned to ruins. The city of Kharkov, which I once had a chance to see in all its glory, is in ruins. Burnt-black eye sockets of windows. And all the while, they repeat like an incantation: this is not a war, this is not a war. A mass grave is being dug in Mariupol - dead bodies are being stored in the archives of the earth that will preserve our memory.
In a nightmare we descend into the archives of the earth, where civilians and soldiers are buried, becoming matter, becoming part of nature. The earth also archives the living: those hiding from the war in bomb shelters, but also the murderers, who entomb themselves in bunkers. Underground serves as a hiding place in times of war, just as retreating into the depths of a dream serves as a hiding place, protecting us from a more traumatic reality. Since the war began, I have been descending into the bomb shelter of my dreams every night, while my neighbors in Ukraine descend into real bomb shelters, hiding from what it is forbidden to call war in Russia. And each morning I awaken within a nightmare, in an irreversible situation: the home that haunts the dreams of the refugee from Mariupol is no more, but the earth remains, and remembers everything.
Written on 15.03.2022 (19 days after the beginning of the war) and originally published in the emergency newspaper issue of Chto Delat - a collective of artists, critics, philosophers and writers, based in Saint Petersburg, Russia.
Oxana Timofeeva is a philosopher from Saint Petersburg, member of the artistic collective Chto Delat, and the author of books Solar Politics (2022), How to Love a Homeland (2020), History of Animals (2018), Introduction to the Erotic Philosophy of Georges Bataille (2009), and other writings.