Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Building up Igor Strelkov’s Myth: A Call to Arms for Russian Nationalists

By Sofia Yasen

The Russian publishing house Knizhnyy Mir recently released a book about Igor Girkin (a.k.a. Strelkov), the military leader of the pro-Russia separatist forces in the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic (kmbook.ru, accessed August 4). The title of the book is Igor Strelkov—The Horror of the Banderovite Junta. Defense of Donbas (Igor Strelkov—uzhas banderovskoy khunty. Oborona Donbasa). Even though part of the book is advertised as including direct excerpts from Strelkov’s dairy, which he allegedly kept during the fighting in Slovyansk, the veracity of this text is unclear. Mikhail Polikarpov, who claims to have known Igor Strelkov for a long time, wrote the rest of the book.

Polikarpov provides no clear confirmation that he is, indeed, using Strelkov’s own words. In one place he claims to quote posts by a blogger with the online pseudonym of Kotych, who is said to be an alter ego of Strelkov. In places where Kotych’s cited text appears to deviate from Strelkov’s normal style, Polikarpov emphasizes the possibility that Strelkov’s account may have been hacked. Interestingly, one of the interviews with Strelkov that is found in the book asserts that he visited Kyiv during the Euromaidan street protests against the Viktor Yanukovych government.

Any questions as to whether the author tried to verify the information he presents in his book lose all meaning the deeper the reader progresses in the text. It quickly becomes apparent that Polikarpov’s book is not meant to provide unbiased information but, rather, is clear propaganda. Within the first few pages, it praises the Russian “volunteer” soldiers who, in the early 1990s, fought for the separatist Moldovan region of Transnistria, which the author identifies as the first independent element of “Novorossiya” (“New Russia”— Moscow’s political project to create a pro-Russia separatist region, mainly out of territories carved out of southeastern Ukraine).

Largely unknown prior to the outbreak of war in eastern Ukraine, Strelkov—an avid war reenactor and former Federal Security Service (FSB) operative—obtained real battle experience in Transnistria, Bosnia, Chechnya and Dagestan (see EDM, July 21). Igor Strelkov portrays him as an exemplar for his methods of warfare in the Ukraine, and in one section even elevates Strelkov to that of a modern day Alexander Suvorov, referring to the famous Russian military commander who served under Catherine the Great. On the other hand, the book describes the leaders of the Kyiv government as “pro-Western agents.” Polikarpov also openly disparages Ukraine’s armed forces. In discussing the Ukrainian soldiers, the author exclusively refers to Strelkov’s purported online posts, which are written in a mocking tone and accuse the Ukrainian troops of drunkenness, unprofessionalism and murders of innocent civilians.

The book heavily reflects extreme Russian nationalist views. For one thing, it claims that the Ukrainian language is artificial. Furthermore, the word “Ukrainians” rarely appears in the text at all, which instead utilizes such ethnic slurs as “Ukry,” “Ukropy” or “Khokhly.” One of the concluding sections in the book dwells on the alleged ideological weakness of the people from eastern Ukraine. The author concludes that Russians have an obligation to help eastern Ukrainians return to a normal life in a big Russian family.

Igor Strelkov finishes by presenting interviews with Strelkov and his close associates, who portray him as a brave officer, idealist, monarchist and a new hero of our time, who is believed to be the only person able to bring about a wave of renewal to Vladimir Putin’s Russia. The book also includes demands for Putin to send Russian armed forces into eastern Ukraine to support the pro-Russia rebels, who, according to the author, are desperately waiting for Russian help.

It is worth noting that Igor Strelkov is only one of several new pro-Kremlin and anti-Ukrainian books that were released this year by the publisher Knizhnyy Mir. Among them are such books as, Novorossiya: Risen From the Ashes (kmbook.ru, accessed August 4), Crimea Is Forever With Russia (kmbook.ru accessed August 4), Neo-Nazis & Euromaidan: From Democracy to Dictatorship (kmbook.ru, accessed August 4), etc. Each book has its own target audience. For example, Neo-Nazis & Euromaidan was translated into English and, according to Voice of Russia, was presented to the public in Belgium one day after President Petro Poroshenko signed Ukraine’s Association Agreement and free trade pact with the European Union (Voice of Russia, June 29).

Polikarpov’s book on Igor Strelkov was initially released in 2,000 copies, suggesting that the author does not expect it to be read by the wider Russian audience. But a large audience was likely not his goal. Rather, the romanticization of the Russian “volunteers” participating in various conflicts across the post-Soviet area, with which Igor Strelkov opens, as well as the descriptions of Strelkov’s struggle to find new volunteers for the ongoing conflict in Ukraine’s Donbas, might conceal a hidden intention.  

The author leaves the reader with no doubts that the new Russian “hero,” Strelkov—a man brave enough to stand up to “American-Ukrainian Fascists”—will find a bigger number of the followers soon. Such a conclusion makes it clear that the main goal of the book is not only to guide the narrative on the Ukraine conflict, but also to become a call to those Russian nationalists and/or veterans, who still have not joined the armed struggle over eastern Ukraine. They are, thus, the main audience for Igor Strelkov, and they are Strelkov’s best hope. Consequently, the book illustrates the critical importance of informational war to the Russian side in the Ukraine conflict.

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