Double agents in Kyiv

Early last May, at a Moscow exhibition of art related to the Second World War, I lingered in front of a 1942 painting called Tania (The Feat of Zoia Kosmodemianskaia), by the Kukryniksy group. The style was standard-issue socialist realism, but the subject caught my attention. A boyish young woman stood on a scaffold in a snowy village, looking defiantly at the soldiers who were about to hang her. Russian women in kerchiefs stood with their heads bowed. In front of the scaffold were three Germans snapping pictures: fascist paparazzi.

Zoia Kosmodemianskaia was a real person, more or less: the Soviet Union’s most famous World War II martyr. According to her official biography, she was recruited by the Komsomol and in 1941, at age 18, worked as a scout behind enemy lines in the Moscow region under the code name Tania. She was captured while burning down a stable in a village, supposedly in an effort to undermine the German war effort. Though she was tortured and forced to march barefoot in the snow for hours, she did not betray her comrades, and made a heroic speech to the villagers who gathered to watch her execution. Her body was left dangling for a month; on New Year’s Eve, drunk Nazis stabbed her corpse with bayonets and cut off her left breast. A photographer snapped her picture just after she was cut down. In it, the noose is still around her neck and her short black hair snakes out onto the snow. Although her open shirt shows her mutilated breast, her eyes are closed and there is a serene smile on her perfect young face. A Soviet saint was born.

Zoia was the first woman named Hero of the Soviet Union during the war. She became everybody’s sister, in need of avenging. After the war, her mother’s ghostwritten biography about her and her brother, who died fighting in the war, became a model for good Soviet children. In principle, the atheist Soviet Union did not have any saints. But, as Adrienne M. Harris argues in an excellent recent article on the Zoia cult in Canadian Slavonic Papers, here, as in many other cases, Soviet culture reappropriated Orthodox language and iconography for its own purposes. The word feat, which was used to describe Zoia’s achievement in Soviet accounts of her life, was the same used to describe the acts of the saints in the medieval hagiographies that had once been the most popular reading for Slavic common people. Like medieval hagiographies, Soviet hagiographies were idealized and unreliable. During debates about the Zoia story after glasnost, historians pointed out that local populations had often been hostile to Soviet partisans like Zoia, that Russians might have been implicated in Zoia’s death, and that Zoia had burned down homes belonging to locals. For many Russians, though, such accusations were blasphemy against the holy Zoia — who, incidentally, had become more beautiful and feminine with each year of her afterlife. (In a 1991 article, one of Zoia’s former comrades described her “tender” feminine face and said that she excused herself before throwing grenades.) The Zoia cult survived the end of the Soviet Union and was reinforced during Putin’s establishment of the Second World War as the greatest event in modern Russian history. In 2008, a group from Zoia’s hometown requested that she be canonized, this time by the Russian Orthodox Church.

Had all those bombs meant nothing?


While I was in Moscow, a handful of activists held an unauthorized demonstration commemorating the anti-Putin protests of 2011–12, demanding freedom for the political prisoners who had been arrested in their aftermath. One woman held a handmade poster showing a portrait of Zoia beside a picture of Nadiya Savchenko, the most famous political prisoner of the current conflict between Ukraine and Russia. The women looked remarkably alike: androgynous and defiant, with pale skin and cropped black hair. An old heroine had been resurrected, reincarnated.

Born in 1981, Nadiya Savchenko has spent her life defying Ukrainian gender norms. She was the only woman to serve in Ukraine’s UN peacekeeping mission in Iraq, and then one of the first women in Ukraine’s Kharkiv Air Force University, admitted by special petition. With her shaved head, army uniform, and no makeup, adamant that she had no interest in marrying or having children, Savchenko flew in the face of Ukraine’s culture of ultrafemininity. She got famous all the same. Like Zoia, she was everybody’s sister and nobody’s wife.

When fighting broke out in eastern Ukraine in 2014, Savchenko took leave from the army and volunteered for the Aidar Battalion, a military detachment at the forefront of Ukrainian efforts to quash the rebellion. Shortly after joining Aidar, in June 2014, Savchenko was captured and ended up in a Russian prison. Russian prosecutors accused her of directing an artillery strike that had killed two Russian television journalists, and claimed they’d captured her after she tried to cross into Russia disguised as a refugee. She said she’d had nothing to do with the artillery strike, and had already been kidnapped by separatist fighters when the journalists were killed. The separatists had taken the unusual step of bringing Savchenko to Russia — she was a valuable trophy. While in prison, she was elected as a member of the Ukrainian parliament (her sister Vira served in her place) and named a Hero of Ukraine. She mortified her flesh, going on an eighty-day hunger strike. She said she wouldn’t eat until she was in Ukraine or dead — whichever came first. She did eat again in Russia, though she’d lost forty-four pounds and was gaunt and pale before she decided to change her tactics.

Like Pussy Riot, Savchenko captured the international imagination, becoming a rallying cry for Ukrainians, foreign governments, human rights organizations, and international petitions and campaigns. The public counted the pounds she lost, speculated about whether she would die before release, and seized on reports that although her body was growing weaker every day, her spiritual strength never wavered. As with Zoia, fame has made Savchenko more feminine: some of the photos of her used in online protest campaigns appear to be photoshopped, eliminating every shadow and crease on her face, giving her blue eyes an unnatural brightness. Like Zoia, Nadiya was described as strong, but also “tender.”

Savchenko now faces twenty-five years in prison. Her trial, which began in September, was held far from Moscow, in Donetsk. This wasn’t the Ukrainian Donetsk, one of the centers of the Ukrainian separatist movement. This Donetsk was a small town in Russia: an impostor.

In the Russian writer Andrei Bely’s brilliant modernist novel Petersburg, set on the eve of the 1905 revolution, St. Petersburg is a millenarian masquerade in which nearly everyone is a double or triple agent. A ticking bomb is set to explode the geometry of Peter the Great’s ultrarational European capital, which was built, against all reason, on a freezing swamp. Though Bely’s delightfully confusing novel seems like a classic example of difficult modernism, it was in many ways an accurate portrait of the times. Russia’s late-imperial security forces planted police informants throughout worker and revolutionary organizations. The secret police were focused on surveillance, not intervention. Informants didn’t just spy on the revolutionaries and labor unions; they participated actively, rising through the ranks and taking part in assassinations and bombings. Soon the revolutionaries planted their own informants in the police service, and these informants, too, rose through the ranks. Informants were embedded for so long that they often seemed to forget which side they were on. Each camp regularly flipped some informants and exposed others. A security officer angry about his small pension might offer the revolutionaries a list of police informants, for example, and beg for admission into a revolutionary cell.

The revolutionaries couldn’t admit the extent to which they’d been infiltrated — it would have been too damaging for morale — but they hunted down informants from time to time. Some true revolutionaries were wrongly accused of informing, and many committed suicide as a result. On other occasions, revolutionaries might be astonished to learn that a comrade of many years had always, secretly, been a devout monarchist. Had all those bombs meant nothing? In Petersburg, the city is plunged in morok, a hypnotic darkness that clouds human reason.

This war against the past is a familiar one.


In the midst of this pervasive double-crossing, the term provocateur became one of the worst of all slurs, though in many cases informants were not urging revolutionaries to throw bombs so that they could be arrested — they were throwing the bombs themselves. Public fury about double agents peaked in 1908 with the exposure of Yevno Azef, a high-ranking Social Revolutionary terrorist who had been on the secret police payroll for some fifteen years, during which time he had helped plan the successful assassination of, among others, the minister of the interior.

The era of double agents did not end with the cleansing fire of revolution. Mikhail Bulgakov’s 1925 novel White Guard is set in Kyiv in 1918, as the German-backed Hetman Pavlo Skoropadsky (who was elected in a circus, literally) abandons the city and Petliura’s Ukrainian peasant army moves in, Cossacks lopping off the heads of Jews and monarchists. Petliura’s reign was short-lived; he was defeated by the Bolsheviks after only a few weeks. The novel centers on the Turbin family, which is trying to defend its cozy, Tolstoy-reading 19th-century home from the apocalyptic snowstorm raging outdoors. But the doors fly open and the windows break. The educated, Russian-speaking City (it’s never explicitly identified as Kyiv) is invaded by furious Ukrainian-speaking peasants and Cossacks from the wild steppe, descendants of the Mongol hordes. Everyone is in costume, and everyone is playing a part: agents from Moscow dress up as Cossacks, White officers and cadets tear off their epaulets as they flee Petliura’s troops, and a Bolshevik double agent looks just like Eugene Onegin. Betrayal is the only law. When Aleksei Turbin sees his brother-in-law, Talberg, studying a Ukrainian grammar book, he knows for certain that Talberg is a man without principles. Sure enough, Talberg soon abandons Turbin’s sister and flees with the Germans. Talberg is not a sympathetic character, but his view of politics as a “vulgar operetta” permeates the novel.

Bulgakov was born and raised in Kyiv, and he sang the city’s praises at every opportunity. The museum in his family’s house, which was the model for the Turbin family home in White Guard, is one of Kyiv’s main tourist attractions. Bulgakov took a dim view of the Ukrainian language and Ukrainian nationalism, as he makes clear in White Guard and elsewhere, but he hated and despised the Bolsheviks. He was suppressed in the Soviet Union, although Stalin had a special fondness for Days of the Turbins, the hit play based on White Guard. Bulgakov was admitted into the post-Soviet Ukrainian pantheon. Next to his house in Kyiv, there is a statue of him sitting on a bench with his arms crossed. His name is written in Ukrainian letters, which probably would have annoyed him.

White Guard was often quoted during the Maidan protests, and it has an eerie new resonance now that Ukraine’s eastern steppe is once again at war. Bulgakov’s statue is not one of those slated for removal as part of Ukraine’s post-Maidan “decommunization,” a massive campaign of iconoclasm that is meant to banish the Soviet past and Russian influence and usher in a new era for Ukraine — an era of freedom, democracy, and large IMF loans. This spring, the parliament passed a set of laws that were intended to erase the memory of the Communist past, stifle contemporary Communism, and further vilify the Nazis while also glorifying the memory of Ukrainian nationalists who fought for Ukrainian independence. This last goal required the aggressive suppression of the memory of Ukrainian nationalists’ collaboration with the Nazis and their massacres of Poles and Jews. In a time of undeclared war with eastern Ukraine and Russia, Kyiv found itself in a position rather like that of the Social Revolutionaries before 1917: the cause was too fragile and too sacred to allow them to recognize the double agents in their midst. And yet the Maidan movement was obsessed with the specter of “provocateurs,” blaming these mysterious figures for every act of violence that marred the protests. In this, of course, the Maidan movement was not alone. The Russian government has a habit of blaming everything bad (for example, the assassination of Boris Nemtsov) on mysterious “enemies of Russia,” and some conspiracy theorists suggested that the shootings of protesters on Maidan was the work not of ex-president Yanukovych’s special forces but of far-right provocateurs seeking to overthrow the government. A century after Petersburg, Bely’s morok, hypnotic darkness, is all too familiar to those watching Russian and Ukrainian politics.

These successions and replacements aren’t clean breaks; they are variations on a theme.


This summer, art historians protested the planned removal, as part of the campaign against Communist-era artworks and statues, of two 1980s Kyiv mosaics that celebrated the early stages of civilization in Ukraine. Their only crime was being made in the USSR. One specialist in Soviet mosaics speculated that officials might have gotten the house number wrong, since a few doors down a building decorated with a large hammer and sickle hadn’t made the list. But the list included a detailed description of the mosaics. One of the creators of the mosaics said that this story didn’t surprise him; he’d encountered similar processes in Soviet times. Authorities took mercy on some of the Kyiv metro’s Soviet artworks, such as a huge mosaic of a Red Army soldier. Instead of being removed, the artworks were simply covered up, usually with a blank board or piece of metal.

This war against the past is a familiar one. When the Bolsheviks took power, they moved quickly to rewrite history ;  to rename cities, streets, and institutions; to topple Imperial heroes and put Bolshevik versions in their place. They razed churches and cathedrals, and humiliated religious spaces by turning them into museums of atheism. In 10th-century Kyivan Rus, when a pagan temple was torn down, a Christian equivalent had to be built on the same site in order to squeeze out the pagan gods who had once occupied the space. Newly adopted Christianity renamed and reappropriated pagan festivals, myths, and rituals, just as the Soviets would later place many of their “new” holidays on the dates that had previously been occupied by religious ones. In Kyiv a few years ago, I lived on Bohdan Khmelnytsky Street. Once called Lenin Street, after Ukrainian independence the street was renamed in honor of the Cossack Hetman who signed a treaty with the Russian Tsar in 1654. Never mind that Khmelnytsky had been celebrated by the Soviets as an agent of Russian-Ukrainian friendship and condemned by Taras Shevchenko, Ukraine’s 19th-century national poet, who saw Khmelnytsky as having sold out Ukraine. Shevchenko grumbled one block down, where he had had his own boulevard since 1919. This too was rather illogical: Shevchenko was the prophet of the Ukrainian nation, and his work expresses virulent hatred for the Russian slave masters. Nonetheless, Shevchenko had been taken into the Soviet fold. His violently anti-Russian feelings were suppressed, his revolutionary tendencies brought to the fore. The cross over his grave above the Dnieper River was replaced with an obelisk, and a Soviet hero was born. Here was at least one street that didn’t have to be renamed after the end of the Soviet Union.

These successions and replacements aren’t clean breaks; they are variations on a theme. When Kyiv protesters (many of them far-right nationalists) smashed Lenin into pieces in December 2013, in the early days of the Maidan protests, they were reenacting the moment in 1917 when a Moscow crowd knocked Tsar Alexander III from his pedestal, decapitating him and crushing him to bits. The fall of Ukraine’s Lenins — since late 2013, nearly eight hundred have been felled across Ukraine, much to the dismay of some Ukrainians, especially in the east — is called Leninopad, which sounds like listopad, which means “the fall of leaves” and is the word for “November” in Ukrainian. Leninopad isn’t the beginning of a new world; it’s only a season. Many observers have celebrated Ukraine’s choice to knock the old gods from their pedestals. But as the Maidan protesters once cried, “Heroes don’t die.”

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